Author's Note: This story answers the July 2002 Challenge to write a story with the following as the first or last line: "The mud was wet, sticky, and cold." I stake no claims to the characters below, and comments and criticisms are always welcome.
The mud was wet, sticky and cold. But it was really the least of Hercules' problems. Actually, it was helping. For a brief moment, the chill of the muddy earth numbed the throbbing pain and dulled the fever consuming him. But as quickly as the slight relief had come, it passed. The pain, more intense than ever, radiated down his right arm and into his chest. He broke out in a sweat as the heat rose within him. And in that moment, the demigod was ready to give up. He was physically and mentally exhausted, and he was prepared to just sink down into the mud and welcome the end.
But he couldn't do that. As much as he wanted to quit, he pushed himself up, struggling to get footing in the slick mud with his unsteady legs as his thoughts drifted to Iolaus. His partner had been through countless situations where he was worse off than Hercules was now, near death sometimes, and had always found the will to go on. When he had died and had been spirited away to the Light, the demigod's own will had flagged, as the best part of life had been taken from him. All of the laughter and the fun and the adventure was gone, and nothing short of Iolaus returning to his side could get it back. But he'd made a promise to himself, and to the memory of his brave, noble friend. That he would carry on like they always had, and fight the good fight. Do what was best for the greater good. Words of advice, and words to live by. At least they were, before the demigod's heart had been broken and his soul shattered. But he had believed in them once, and he vowed to abide by them. Which meant he had to get past his own unending grief, and become the champion of Greece once more.
So when the call for help came from a remote village being terrified by a horrible monster, he obligingly answered it. Come to the aid of strangers, kill the deadly beast, and get his hero's honor, just like he'd done a thousand times. Except this time was different. It had been a lonely journey to the village, with no energetic chatter to break the silence. There was no skilled hunter by his side to effortlessly track the beast. Nobody to share a meal with around the campfire. And there was no partner at his back when he finally managed to catch up with the creature. No one to distract it. No one wielding a sword with deadly accuracy. No one to shout a warning to him when a barbed tail came whizzing in his direction.
The monster was dead, but the price was high.
Hercules absently marveled over how such pain and illness could come
from such a tiny sting. The puncture wound in his shoulder had been
small at first, but it was not long before it became a raw, angry
wound, throbbing with agonizing pain as the fever began to build
within him. Definitely not a good time to be all alone up in the
mountains, so he'd been desperately trying to make his way back to
the village, where he could get help. But as he stumbled, slipped,
and fell once more into the mud, the demigod knew that his journey
was through. The pain and the fever were making everything fuzzy
and sapping all of his strength. He couldn't go on, even if he
wanted to. With his last bit of energy, Hercules crawled over to a
small cave nestled among the rocks and curled up inside. There was
always a chance that his godly blood would fight the poison of the
monster's sting and see him through. And if it wasn't enough, he
could only hope that the fates would take pity on him and send him
to the Light, where he could be with Iolaus.
The Jester glanced over to the corner of the inn, where two men had been shooting him looks and whispering conspiratorially. Immediately, they averted their eyes from his gaze, knowing that they were caught but still trying to pretend they hadn't been gossiping about him. Iolaus didn't know what they'd been saying, but he could guess. The same thing was on everyone's mind, especially his own. A brave warrior had died and been replaced by a lowly jester. The face of a hero, but the heart of a coward. How could Hercules stand to lose his loyal partner, and then substitute an identical image that was a weak, worthless, helpless, pathetic excuse for a man?
Iolaus sighed and pushed his plate away, his meal largely untouched, and walked outside to get some air. But it wasn't the whispers that caused him to lose his appetite. After all, he could hardly blame the people of this world. A beloved hero had been taken from them. One that had been everything the jester was not. And by coming here, his face was a daily reminder of all they had lost, and an emphasis to the injustice of what they'd been left with.
These thoughts had been tormenting him, but now he brushed them aside, hardly noticing them. His mind was occupied with something else. Hercules was late, and Iolaus was worried. He tried to tell himself that it was probably just taking the demigod longer than he expected to track the creature he'd gone to stop. And that with his divine strength, he was more than capable of handling himself. But the jester couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. He felt it, deep in his gut. And the thought that something might have happened to Hercules filled him with crippling fear.
Iolaus was still a stranger in this land, and far from comfortable. It was bad enough being in a new place where he didn't know anyone. But it was terrible to be in a place where he kept bumping into people that looked like those he'd known in his old world, and not knowing if they would be friend or foe here. And it was a great burden to have to explain to everyone that he was not the Iolaus they'd known. Seeing the hope well up in their eyes as they saw him, believing that the awful stories they'd heard about the death of Iolaus had been false. And watching that hope wither and die as they tried to comprehend the bitter truth. He needed Hercules to guide him through this world. To explain his presence to others, and to shield and protect him. The thought of facing this unknown land on his own was just too terrible a prospect to consider.
But there was more to it than that. The jester had really come to care about the demigod in the weeks that they'd been together. He was a good man with a huge, caring heart, and it didn't take Iolaus long at all to get over seeing the Sovereign every time he looked at him. They may have had the same face, but they didn't look alike at all. Hercules was relaxed and calm, exuding a quiet strength that gave those around him a feeling of security. His blue eyes were kind and friendly, and his warm smile never twisted into an evil grin of malice. His deep voice was low and reassuring, and he carried himself with a strange blend of confidence and humbleness that made him completely approachable. Hercules, more than any other, had good reason not to want the jester to come to his world. But he had generously welcomed him, offering him friendship but not pushing for anything in return. He was content to just let whatever relationship they would have develop on its own, in time.
At first, the jester hadn't been too comfortable with it. He was wary, not wanting to get too close and not wanting to develop feelings for someone else. For that would be setting himself up for another betrayal, and another hurt to his scarred psyche. He couldn't understand why such a legendary hero would want him around in the first place. Just another reminder of all that he had lost. So Iolaus had kept himself guarded, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for Hercules to tell him to get lost. But it never came, and eventually he began to open up. The demigod was patient with him, and they finally reached a point where they were comfortable with each other. And Iolaus had to admit to himself, it was a great feeling to have a friend. The only one he'd ever had.
But, having a friendship meant leaving himself vulnerable. Caring about somebody was setting himself up to be hurt. A terrible thought entered his mind that maybe Hercules hadn't come back because he'd decided that he no longer wanted a cowardly jester with the face of his dead partner tagging at his heels. But Iolaus knew in his heart that the demigod would never be that cruel, so he forced those negative thoughts from his head. Which only left one other possibility. Hercules was in trouble.
After a long talk with himself, the jester made up his mind. He dashed back inside the inn and went up to his room, grabbing his pack. The innkeeper was nice enough to draw him a crude map on a scrap of parchment and give him a small bundle of food, and then Iolaus was on his way. It terrified him to be out on his own, and he knew he was useless in the fight against monsters. But he had to go. He had to at least find Hercules, or find out what happened to him. The jester owed his friend at least that much.
The sun was bright and warm on his skin as he set off down the road, a welcome change from the heavy rains that had been falling over the past week. He and Hercules had stopped at the inn to attempt to get out of the weather, but the demigod was almost immediately summoned to deal with the rampaging monster. He'd suggested that Iolaus wait for him at the inn, and he'd return in a few days. Having just finally dried off, the jester took one look out of the window at the sheets of water falling from the black clouds and agreed. He'd passed the time, and earned his keep, by performing his comedy routines for the inn patrons in the evenings. They'd seemed to find him amusing, so he at least garnered their tolerance, if not their respect. But he kept to himself, not feeling at all social, content to just wait until his friend returned. Until the moment when he decided he'd waited long enough. Iolaus was convinced that there was nothing he could do if the demigod had met with trouble, but he followed his path anyway, hoping that the rain was over and the good weather would hold. Not that he'd let a little rain stop him from finding out what had befallen his friend, but dry roads would make his journey that much faster. And he needed resolution as soon as he could get it, before anxiety ate him alive.
Fortunately, Iolaus managed to navigate his way with virtually no trouble. The torrential rains had halted most of the traffic, both travelers and those lowlifes that preyed upon them. Some of the roads were still a bit treacherous, but they were already starting to dry under the warmth of Apollo's bright sun. Following the map he'd been given, he found his way easily, only having to stop and ask for clarifying directions once. He'd walked briskly, and arrived at the small village sooner than he expected. The people there told him that Hercules had indeed arrived and had gone off in search of the monster that had been plaguing them. And the attacks had stopped, but they also reported the chilling news that Hercules had not returned.
It was obvious to the jester that the people had written the demigod off as dead, and that thought garnered a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. They were logical in their assumptions, for what, short of death, would prevent Hercules' return? But there was a seed of doubt in Iolaus' heart. He knew firsthand the strength that the Sovereign possessed. And Hercules had that same strength, although he usually chose not to flaunt it. Which meant that there was a good chance that he could still be alive.
Iolaus looked up at the mountains looming dark and ominous over the
village. He swallowed nervously, his heart pounding at just the
thought of going up there all alone. But he knew he had to. If
Hercules was still alive, he was possibly hurt or trapped somewhere,
and he needed help. After all the demigod had done for him, the
jester couldn't possibly turn his back on him, no matter how scared
or useless he felt. And if it turned out that Hercules hadn't
survived his latest adventure, then Iolaus knew he had to collect
his body and give him the hero's farewell that he so aptly
deserved. So, wanting to set out before his could lose his nerve
and turn tail, the jester bought a warm cloak from one of the
villagers for a few dinars, hefted his pack securely over his
shoulder, and left the safety of the town, marching straight into
"Right here, Herc."
The demigod squinted, seeing his friend move out of the shadows into the light of the crackling fire. A strong hand slid behind his head, lifting it up gently as a mug of water was placed against his lips. Hercules drank gratefully, the cold liquid momentarily dulling the heat of the fever pulsing through him. When he'd had enough, Iolaus eased him back down, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes.
"I thought you'd gone," Hercules frowned, trying to make sense of the thoughts swirling around his muddled brain.
"No, I'm right here with you, buddy. And I'm not going anywhere. So just go back to sleep. You need to rest now."
But the demigod's blue eyes remained fixed on the wavering outline of his friend. He blinked, wishing everything wasn't so damned hazy and out of focus.
"Yeah, Herc. You're sick. And that's why you need to rest and save your strength."
"No, that's not it," the demigod protested, shaking his head weakly. The gesture caused some of the fog to lift, and Hercules realized what was bothering him. "You're dead," he whispered, his voice thick with sudden, remembered grief. "How can you be here now?"
"Hey, haven't I always been there for you when you needed me?"
"Yes," Hercules said softly, but with utmost conviction.
"And that will never change," Iolaus promised him solemnly. "I'll always be there to watch your back, Herc. And I'll stay here with you as long as you need me. So go ahead and let yourself rest now."
The demigod kept staring at his friend. There was so much he wanted to say to him, but most of all he wanted to grab him into a crushing hug and never let go. If he had any use of his arm, and hadn't been succumbed by a crippling weakness. For a moment, Hercules was terrified that the fever was causing him to hallucinate, and these few sweet moments with the brother of his heart were only a figment of his imagination. He certainly couldn't trust his traitorous vision. But the strong fingers that reached out to trace along his cheek, brushing away the lone tear that had managed to escape his eyes were real, of that Hercules was sure. As were the hands lifting him, and the lap that was suddenly cushioning his aching head.
"Close your eyes, Herc," Iolaus urged him warmly, stroking his
hair. "And I'll tell you the story that Gabrielle told me that time
I was wounded when we were trying to free Prometheus. Once, a long,
long time ago, all people had four legs and two heads..."
The fire was beginning to die, so Iolaus took one of the branches he'd gathered and began methodically breaking it into small pieces, feeding them to the blaze one by one. Never in his life, not even when he was being savagely beaten by the Sovereign, had he ever felt so helpless. At first he'd been overjoyed that he'd managed to even find Hercules in the remote mountains, let alone find him alive. But his initial happiness was immediately slaughtered as he realized just how ill his friend was.
It wasn't too hard to figure out that the creature must have gotten in a lucky blow, and a venom-laced one at that. A raw, festering wound pulsed angrily on the demigod's shoulder, seeming to grow wider and deeper before the jester's very eyes. The pain of it was obviously agonizing for Hercules, his low moans punctuating his restless sleep. And no matter what Iolaus tried, he couldn't stop the raging fever from climbing even higher. His friend, the only one he'd ever had, was dying. And there was nothing he could do.
As the fire blazed up in rekindled glory, the jester sat back, wrapping his arms around his knees as tears welled up in his blue eyes. He knew that Hercules was a legendary hero, beloved by all of Greece for his fighting spirit, his brave soul, and the unmeasurable compassion of his huge heart. But he didn't care about any of that. His sadness was of a purely selfish nature. There were other heroes in the world. Maybe none quite like the demigod, but there were brave men and women who would step in and fight for the innocent and battle injustice for the greater good. Greece had other champions. People had other heroes. But all Iolaus had was Hercules.
The one person who had ever shown him any kindness. The one person who made him feel that he didn't deserve to be laughed at. The one person who had been interested in him as a person, and had actually wanted to hear about his thoughts and ideas. The one person who had looked at him and had seen more than a garish fool. The one person who had never tried to hurt him, but had instead protected him and stood up for him. The one person who actually thought his life was worth something. The one person who thought he had talents and skills to offer. The one person out of his whole, miserable life who had wanted to be his friend.
It just wasn't fair, he thought, scrubbing a hand over his face as the hot tears began to stream down his cheeks. How could the fates be so cruel? Only one person out of two worlds had ever cared about him. How could they just take him away? But the jester didn't expect an answer to his questions. After all, he'd never seen anything of "fair" in his life, and the one thing he had learned from his sentence with the Sovereign was that the strong took what they wanted and the weak simply had to find a way to endure. Fair just didn't enter into it.
Until Hercules. The warm hearted demigod had always treated him fairly. More than fairly, much more. It had been a miraculous blessing for Iolaus when he had gotten to escape his nightmare existence. The precious gift of freedom Hercules had bestowed on him was more than he had ever dared hoped for, and one that he never quite felt he deserved. He should have known that it had all been too much to ask for, that he would be denied even a small measure of happiness. The fates had cursed his life, for reasons he didn't understand. And that curse had followed him to this new world, rearing its ugly head just as he had been starting to feel comfortable and safe, targeting his new friend, who he had begun to care about, almost in spite of himself. No, it wasn't fair. But it wasn't unexpected, either.
The jester hurriedly wiped the traces of moisture from his face, took a deep breath and went to kneel down beside the demigod. Hercules stared up at him, trying to focus his fever glazed eyes on Iolaus' face, his shaking hand weakly reaching out. The jester took the large hand in his smaller ones, squeezing it reassuringly.
"I'm right here, Hercules." He knew that in his delirium, Hercules was thinking that the jester was his dead partner. Far from being upset, Iolaus had gone along with it. The demigod was so ill and in so much pain, Iolaus was even glad to play along if it would bring him any measure of comfort or peace to think that his old friend was with him once more. He tried to force a note of easy confidence into his voice, knowing enough about his counterpart to realize he probably didn't use the shy, timid voice that came out of his own mouth. But he didn't need to force the warmth into his tone. Although he was grateful for the friendship Hercules had offered him and had come to reciprocate it back, only now when he was confronted with losing him did the jester realized just how much the demigod had come to mean to him in just a short time. Gently, he let go of his friend's hand in order to lift his head and place a mug of water to his lips, brushing back the damp honey brown hair from his forehead as he eased him back down. Hercules again reached out to him, and the jester took his hand once more. "Go back to sleep now," he urged.
"I'm so afraid that I'll wake up and you'll be gone," the demigod whispered, his fingers clutching at his friend's hand weakly.
"You don't have to worry," Iolaus comforted him. "I promised you I wouldn't leave you. I'm right here with you, and we're going to be together for a long time."
It wasn't really a lie. For he had no intentions of leaving his friend, and if Hercules didn't make it, then he would be reunited with his Iolaus on the other side. At least the jester hoped so. Surely not even the fates who delighted in their torments could be that cruel.
"Back to back, just like always," the demigod murmured, a trace of a smile on his lips as his eyes closed and he settled back into restless slumber.
The jester felt tears sting his eyes once more, but he refused to let them fall. Crying would admit defeat, and he knew he couldn't give up yet. He owed it to Hercules for everything he'd done to keep trying, or at least to keep hoping.
"I know there must be something," he said to his sleeping friend. "I wonder what your Iolaus would do? Not give up, that's for sure." The jester chuckled humorlessly to himself. "I know I told you before that I didn't want to hear about him. But I sure would love to hear the story of how he'd save the day in this situation."
Iolaus sat quietly for a minute, the word `love' echoing through his mind. After a moment, realization set in and he jumped up excitedly. During his last, brief stint in this world, he remembered the goddess of love was Aphrodite. She had been nursing the dying Zeus, and had seemed to genuinely care about Hercules. Maybe she could help him. It couldn't hurt to try.
The jester stood in the cave for a moment, absently chewing on his lower lip as he tried to figure out how to contact her. He had only gotten a basic impression of her, but it gave him an idea of how to proceed. The pickings were slim up in the mountains, but he was able to find enough to work with. Gathering up a few rocks that were streaked with pink and glittered with sparkles, he carefully arranged them to build a sort of altar. He covered the ground around it with fragrant pine boughs, and placed the handful of purple wildflowers he'd found on top. Sitting back, he surveyed his work with a critical eye. Not the best, but it would have to do. Iolaus bowed his head in reverence and closed his eyes.
"Aphrodite," he began solemnly. "Great goddess of love. If you can hear me, I ask for your audience."
"Well, the men around here could take a few lessons in respect from you, Sugar." The goddess appeared before him in a shower of pink hearts. "How are you doing, Curly? Long time no see."
"Aphrodite, Hercules needs your help," the jester blurted out, scrambling to his feet. On one hand, he couldn't believe that his summons had worked, but on the other, he assumed that the gods of this world had about as much attention span as the gods of his own, and that he needed to get his point across post haste. "I think he was poisoned by the monster he was after. Can you do something?"
The smile faded from the beautiful goddess' face and she shook her head slightly.
"I'm sorry, Curly," she told him, taking his hand and giving it a squeeze. "Ares has his hand in all of this, and I'm forbidden to interfere. I can't heal him, and neither can any of the other gods."
"So he's going to die?" Iolaus asked fearfully. Aphrodite didn't answer, but her averted eyes told him all he needed to know. "Are you sure?"
"His divine half will prolong it for awhile," the goddess replied. "But in the end, I don't think it will be enough to save him."
"No," the jester protested, turning to pace in a tight circle. "There has to be something we can do. Something that can counteract the poison..."
"There is nothing," Aphrodite sighed in frustration. "Maybe one of the golden apples would do it, if there were any left."
"Did you say `golden apples'?" Iolaus whispered, his face going white.
"Yes, from the tree of life," the goddess answered, her brow wrinkling in confusion at his sudden agitation. "The fruit had the power to heal, but the tree was destroyed a few years ago. Why?"
"I know where there's a golden apple," the jester confessed. "Or at least half of one. The Sovereign had it hidden in the palace. He showed it to me once, and said that if anything ever happened to him, I was to get it and give it to him."
"Do you think its still there?" Aphrodite asked.
"I don't know," he admitted, wrapping his arms tightly across his chest. "But even if it is, I don't know if I can go back there to get it."
Aphrodite remained silent, looking at the small man sympathetically. As the goddess of love, she was able to look inside his heart, and she could see the scars he carried there. His life beyond the vortex had been a nightmare that most couldn't even comprehend, and she knew it would be asking a lot for him to return to that world. Maybe too much.
"But he'll die if I don't go," Iolaus whispered, more to himself than to the goddess. A shiver ran through him, and he hugged himself tighter. "This is the only chance he's got."
"I can arrange to have the vortex open," Aphrodite told him. "You'd be on your own once you're through it. But it's up to you. You know Hercules would never ask you to risk your life for him. And no one is going to blame you if you decide not to go. It's your decision, Iolaus, and one you have to make for yourself."
Just the thought of returning to his old world was enough to make the poor jester shake with fear. But as he glanced back to the cave behind him, and thought about the demigod, his friend, who was lying there suffering, dying, he knew he had no choice. He knew that the other Iolaus wouldn't hesitate to go after the cure that would save Hercules' life. And at that moment, the jester finally understood. Iolaus wouldn't have gone because he was a warrior, or because of his duty as a hero, but rather out of love for his friend and the fact that he couldn't stand around and watch him die if there was even a chance of saving his life. And it was this same reasoning that made him bite back his terror and turn to the waiting goddess.
"Open the vortex," he said hoarsely. "I'll go get the apple."
"Let me set it up," Aphrodite told him, favoring him with a blinding, radiant smile. "I'll be back in a flash."
As she vanished, Iolaus made his way back into the cave and quickly packed up his few belongings. It only took him a moment, and then he sat down beside Hercules to quietly wait for Aphrodite, who returned within a matter of minutes.
"Everything's cool, Curly," the goddess announced. "Zeus is standing by, ready to open the portal for you whenever you're ready. He said to thank you for doing this. And that goes for me, too. Now, once you're over there, we won't be able to keep track of you, so Zeus is going to reopen the portal in two hours. Will that be enough time?"
"It's going to have to be," the jester sighed.
"Well, come back through whether you have the apple or not, ok? We'll figure out where to go from there."
Iolaus nodded, looking up at the goddess of love with solemn blue eyes before glancing back down at his stricken friend.
"Aphrodite, will you stay with him?" he asked.
"I can't do anything to help him," she reminded him.
"I know," the jester said quietly. "But I'll feel better about leaving him if I know he's not alone."
"Sure," Aphrodite agreed, giving him a sweet smile. "I'll stay here with him."
Iolaus nodded his thanks and turned his attentions back to Hercules. He gave the hand in his a little squeeze before letting go and tucking the thin blanket more securely around his friend's shoulders. Then he stood with a sigh of resolution and faced the goddess.
She led him outside, and the moment they exited the cave, a brilliant lightening bolt came streaking down from the sky. It exploded in front of them, causing the jester to turn and shield his eyes. When he turned back around, the portal had appeared, it's whirlwind force already pulling at him.
"Good luck, Curly," Aphrodite shouted to him, over the roar of the wind, before she gave him a kiss on the cheek.
Wanting to go before he could lose his nerve, Iolaus took a deep breath, took two steps back, and then began sprinting toward the swirling portal, leaping straight into it as he approached. Aphrodite watched as he was swallowed up by the vortex, and moments after he vanished the portal vanished, too.
"Good luck, Curly," the goddess repeated in a whisper, wishing she could do something more to help him. She knew how afraid he had been to return to his world, and the fact that he had summoned the courage to do so meant he'd already won the first battle. Aphrodite could only hope the remaining battles would be easier for him. Running her fingers through her windblown curls, she reentered the cave and stood for a moment, looking down on her favorite brother as a small pout creased her lips. True, she could do nothing to help heal him. But certainly she was within her rights to make him more comfortable. With a wave of her perfectly manicured hand, the goddess of love instantly transformed the gloomy cave.
The fire roared back to life, burning bright and hot to cast light and heat throughout the cave. A bed of thick, soft furs separated Hercules from the cold, hard floor and a bright, heavy blanket replaced the threadbare one covering him. A softly scented warmth even permeated the air, driving away the damp chill. Aphrodite knelt down beside her half brother, settling herself on a satin cushion before dipping a soft cloth into a golden bowl of cool water and gently wiping his face. Hercules groaned and struggled to open his eyes, gazing up at her for a moment before recognition sat in.
"Aphrodite," he mumbled. "What are you doing here? Where's Iolaus?"
"He had to leave for a little while..."
"No," the demigod protested, cutting off her explanation. "He wouldn't leave. Where is he?"
"Hercules, look at me," Aphrodite commanded, cupping her hands around his face and trying to halt his weak struggle to rise. He complied with her sharp tone, settling down and looking up at her with unfocused eyes. "The poison in that monster's sting is killing you. Iolaus had to leave to go after something that will counteract it. Do you understand? But he's coming back, I promise."
The demigod closed his eyes briefly, then opened them to look up at his sister once more.
"He's trying to save my life."
"Yes," the goddess confirmed, reaching out for the small pot that was bubbling over fire. She poured its contents into a mug, cooling it to a palatable temperature with a small wave of her hand before lifting her brother's head up and helping him drink a little of the nourishing broth. "So you need to try and save your strength, and hang on until he gets back. I'm going to stay right here with you, and Iolaus will be here soon with something to help you feel better."
Hercules sighed as he settled back down against the soft furs, but again he opened his eyes as a thought struck him.
"Aphrodite? What Iolaus is doing.... It's not dangerous, is it?"
"No, Hercules," she reassured him, stroking his hair. "It's not dangerous. He'll be all right. Now I want you to rest now, ok? Iolaus is fine, and he'll be here before you know it."
The demigod nodded slightly, closing his eyes and falling into a
restless sleep. Aphrodite sat back, absently twirling a blond curl
around her finger, wishing she felt as confident as she had
sounded. And for the first time in her immortal life, feeling a
little shred of regret that the gods had no one to pray to in their
times of need.
"What am I doing back here?" Iolaus whispered to himself. But the birds singing merrily in the trees and the bumblebees droning monotonously around him did not seem to have an answer for him. The large bird wading through the rushes on the other side of the pond looked up at him briefly, but it was apparently just as stumped as the rest of nature and quickly went back to stalking fish. Which left only the jester to try and answer his own question.
The minute he'd landed back in his own world, tumbling out of the vortex to sprawl dazedly next to the road that led into the city, Iolaus had been numbed by a crippling fear. All of the old emotions that he'd managed to lock away deep inside him upon leaving his cursed existence all came flooding back to claim him. Shaking with terror and wanting to weep for all he had suffered, and potentially would suffer once more if he were caught, the jester left the road, crawling down the hill to the pond that was nestled between a field and the woods that bordered the city.
Trying to calm down, he'd splashed some water on his face, working to keep breathing through a throat constricted with fear. "What ifs" began to fill his mind, and he became convinced that it had been a mistake to come back to this world. Somebody was sure to recognize him. And he wasn't sure he'd be able to even gain entry to the Sovereign's palace. How would he get to the hidden apple, if it was even still there? And if by some miracle he did manage to pull off this caper, could he really trust the gods to bring him safely back? Faced with so much doubt, the danger and consequences of his mission pressing down on him, Iolaus could only take one deep breath after another and ask himself why he had come back to this living Tartarus.
"Because your friend is dying," a voice whispered inside his head.
A new stab of fear, sharp and piercing, cut through the paranoia. The thought of losing Hercules was a terror strong enough to momentarily mute the fears for his own safety. That was why he had come back. For his friend. The realization was enough to make the jester renew his vow to try, but he was still plagued with doubts that his efforts would be successful. He was a weak, useless coward, not a warrior. Not a hero. Not... Iolaus.
"Same voice, same face," he whispered, looking at his wavering reflection in the pond. But he realized that wasn't exactly true, no more so than Hercules and the Sovereign had the same voice and face. All the tales he'd heard notwithstanding, just the glimpse he'd gotten of his double all that time ago was more than enough to convince him of that. Hercules' Iolaus spoke his mind with ease, his voice bold and confident. And his face was relaxed and happy, eyes sparkling with fun or flashing with danger. He didn't walk around nervous and tense all the time, speaking in hushed, submissive tones.
"And he didn't sit around whining while his friend needed his help," the jester spoke out loud, cutting his hand through the water's surface and breaking up the image. For when it came right down to it, that was the only consequence that really mattered. Hercules was counting on him, and he didn't have any time to waste dwelling on his insecurities. He had a job to do, and he got to his feet, feeling new determination strengthen his resolve. All he could do was try his best. If he failed, then at least he'd be able to find some measure of pride in his death, for he could say that he'd acted like a man. Instead of living a long life in shameful misery for standing by idly when he could have at least tried to do something to save the life of the only person who'd ever given a damn about his worthless life.
And maybe that was the key, he thought to himself as he climbed the hill and set off down the road into the city. Iolaus had been a great warrior; agile, crafty, fast and strong. But maybe he always succeeded in the face of adversity, not because he was the best, but because failure simply hadn't been an option. Because failure would mean letting Hercules down... letting Hercules die. And Iolaus had just never even accepted that as a possibility, so he'd always ensured that he'd come through somehow, at whatever cost.
The jester squared his shoulders as he prepared to enter the gates of the city. He was no fighter, but he was smart and could be sneaky. And although it was a stretch to call what he'd endured "living", he'd lived through many, many torturous years under the brutal hand of a heartless sadist, so technically he felt justified in calling himself a survivor. And he certainly wasn't ready to let Hercules die, so he wasn't going to give up, no matter what fate was to befall him. Iolaus thought it was safe to say that failure in this case was not an option for him, no matter what the cost. He was going in, he was getting the apple, and he was taking it back to save his friend's life. After all, Hercules had managed to pull off a very convincing impersonation of the Sovereign when he'd come to this world to free the Olympian gods. So, just this once, the jester figured he could impersonate his brave and noble counterpart and try to act like a hero.
But as he entered the marketplace, Iolaus frowned as he realized something was wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but definitely different. There were no guards or soldiers anywhere that he could see. Odd, as they always used to be milling everywhere, looking for an excuse to bully the hapless merchants or the innocent shoppers. And that was another thing. He remembered people scurrying quickly by, rushing to do their business and get off the streets before they committed some unknowing "transgression" and were chosen as the next criminal to be subjected for the Sovereign's latest brand of punishment for his sick amusements. But now, the people were actually strolling through the market. Smiling and laughing and talking with one another. Like they did in Hercules' world. These were people without fear. Without oppression. People that were free.
The black banners that had hung over the square, pronouncing the Sovereign as lord and ruler were missing, replaced by a few simple, brightly colored flags that fluttered gently in the breeze. Also missing were the decrees on all the vendor stalls that stated the exorbitant taxes required to be paid on all merchandise, in the Sovereign's name. Iolaus hung back in the shadows, just watching in wonder for awhile, marveling at the changes that had occurred since he'd been gone. Finally he spied a familiar face, that of one of the cooks that had served in the castle while he'd been there. She was one of the very few who had managed to survive for a number of years, for the Sovereign went through help rapidly, gleefully doing away with servants who displeased him or bored him. Iolaus followed her discreetly, his task not a hard one for she walked with a limp that was a souvenir from one night when the Sovereign's stew was cold. When she separated herself from the crowd enough that he felt safe in approaching her, Iolaus came up behind her and quietly called her name.
"By the gods above," she gasped as recognition set in. "If it isn't the Jester! Nobody seemed to know what happened to you. I guess we all just assumed you were dead."
"No, I'm very much alive," he promised with a grin. "As for where I've been... Well, that's a very long story and I don't have time to tell it. But apparently I've been gone too long. What's going on here, Metanera?"
"Life," she replied. But her answer was not flippant, evident by the joyous smile on her lips and the light of happiness radiating from her eyes.
"I can see that," Iolaus murmured, glancing back around at the bustling marketplace. "I guess I just assumed that some other ruthless tyrant would step up and take the Empress' place."
"No," Metanera told him, shaking her head. "She's still cooling that hot little temper of hers behind bars. And once we were rid of her, we decided that we'd been under rule long enough. Ares and Aphrodite agreed and blessed us, keeping our city safe until we could recover and organize ourselves. We have a small council to act as governing board, but we run our own lives now and our own city. We're free, and nobody is ever going to take that away from us again."
"I'm happy for you," he said warmly. And it was the truth.
"I'd forgotten what it was like to live like this," she sighed. "It took awhile to get used to. To learn to live again with dignity and self respect, instead of in fear. But everyone's come around. And we've all agreed, we're going to make people forget about the legacy of evil and bloodshed this kingdom's earned. From now on, it's a city of peace, and prosperity, and hope and freedom and welcome. And every day is a celebration of the beauty of life."
"That's wonderful, Metanera," Iolaus enthused. "You all deserve all the happiness the fates can give you. And it makes me proud to say that I come from a people who can turn a legacy of hate into one of love."
"Well, now that you're back, maybe you can help us with that legacy."
"I can't stay," the jester told her, surprised at the note of wistfulness he could hear in his voice. "I have a friend waiting for me. I just came back to get something I left behind." He turned to look at the ominous walls of the castle that had been his prison for so many years. "Who lives there now?"
Metanera followed his gaze, her unconscious shudder matching his as the unbidden memories rose up briefly.
"No one," she replied. "It's empty. A lot of us wanted to tear it down, brick by brick if we had to. But common sense ruled the day. It's a formidable structure, and could possibly be of use to us someday. But if what you've come back for is in there, I think you've wasted a trip. There isn't much left."
Iolaus' heart sank at her words, but he tried not to let it show.
"Well, I might just pop in and have a look. Maybe I'll get lucky."
After all, he thought bitterly, there's a first time for everything.
The echo of his footsteps as he moved through the silent corridors were drowned out by the thunderous hammering of Iolaus' heart. He tried to tell himself that he was being ridiculous, that the castle was empty and there was nothing there that could hurt him. But the walls seemed to be closing in on him, thick and heavy with too many bad memories. Taunting him, threatening to put an end to the taste of freedom he'd known the past few months and trap him back into a life of nothing but pain and fear and misery. The jester's knees buckled, and for a moment he had to grab the wall to keep himself from turning and running full speed out of his former prison. But after a few deep breaths, he forced himself to keep going.
The castle, which was once a showpiece of wealth and purloined treasures, was in shambles. Those items having the greatest monetary value had been taken, and the rest had been destroyed in what Iolaus could only speculate had been a joyous riot. Shredded drapes and tapestries hung limply from the walls. Smashed pottery and furniture littered the floor. And all of the portraits of the Sovereign had been ripped down, or left up and defiled. Through his terror, the jester had to grin at the creativity of what had been done to some of them.
Finally, he found himself standing outside the Sovereign's bedroom. Wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible so he could get out of there, Iolaus reached out a trembling hand and pushed the door open. Apparently, the mob had taken special delight in the destruction of the Sovereign's personal chambers, for the room was an utter disaster. Which was not necessarily a bad thing for the jester, for if he'd returned to find it looking the same as he'd remembered, he might not have had the courage to go in. Climbing over the ruins, he approached the far wall. For the first time, the fates seemingly were smiling on him. The heavy bed frame had fallen in the destruction, leaving the loose stone in the floor underneath it exposed for easy access. Taking a deep breath and uttering a prayer that the rampaging mob hadn't discovered the hiding place, Iolaus began working on the stone, struggling to pry it up from the floor. When it came loose, he slid it aside and peered into the dark hole, letting out the breath he'd been holding in a huge sigh of relief as he saw a small clay jar nestled in the space. The jester retrieved it and removed a cloth bundle, wanting to shout for joy as he unwrapped it and gazed down at the piece of golden fruit gleaming in his palm.
"You just couldn't stay away, could you?"
Iolaus froze, his heart stopping as he heard that all too familiar voice behind him.
"Look at me, you miserable coward!"
Cringing, the jester turned slowly around to face his tormentor. He went white at the sight of the cruel smile leering at him, at the cold glint in those soulless blue eyes.
"No," he whispered, barely audible. "You can't be here. You're dead."
"So what if I am?" the Sovereign laughed. "Dead or alive, I still own you. You might have escaped, briefly, but don't you ever forget that you belong to me. You are mine, little buddy, for the rest of your short, pathetic life. Am I making myself clear?"
The jester felt his whole body quaking as he stared submissively at the floor, but he tightened his grip on the apple, holding it protectively against his chest and shook his head ever so slightly.
"No?" The Sovereign roared. "You think you're free of me? You think you belong to that bastard me from beyond the gateway now?"
"I don't belong to him. Hercules is my friend," Iolaus murmured.
"Your friend?" The Sovereign laughed harshly. "You must be brainless on top of being spineless. He doesn't care about you. He's just using you to replace his dead partner."
"It's not like that," the jester protested in a small voice.
"Oh, it's not?" The demigod folded his arms over his chest, looming over the quivering man before him. "Why else would he want you around? A worthless little clown, afraid of his own shadow. Look at you! Who would ever want to be friends with a weak, cowering, whimpering, useless little fool like you?"
Iolaus closed his eyes, biting his lip as he desperately tried to hold onto a shred of control and stop the tears welling in his eyes from falling.
"You are nothing," the Sovereign spat. "But you are mine. Now and forever, I own you, body and soul."
"No!" The jester's heart hammered at his own display of audacity, but he looked up to meet the smirking face with a new fire blazing from his own blue eyes. "You kept me prisoner here," he said quietly, but firmly. "I had no control over that. I couldn't stop you from doing what you wanted to me. You took my freedom, my dignity, and my self respect. But you never had my soul!"
The Sovereign's eyes narrowed and he scowled threateningly at the defiant tone.
"Perhaps you need a reminder of just what I can do to put you back into your place."
"I don't have a place, not with you, not anymore," Iolaus declared. "I endured, for too many long years. The beatings, the humiliations, all the pain... But that's over now. I'm free of you. You can't hurt me anymore. So just get out of my way, because I have a friend waiting for me."
"I'm not going to let you leave here," the Sovereign told him ominously.
For a moment, the jester almost let his bravado drop, ready to collapse in a heap on the floor and beg for mercy. But something had snapped inside him. He wasn't useless or worthless. And he was facing down his most feared adversary, so he could hardly be called a coward. Hercules had helped him see that he was so much more than a foolish clown, and he'd be damned if he was going to give up his soul. Setting his chin determinedly, Iolaus took a step forward, and then another one.
"I'm warning you..." the Sovereign screeched, but his words had no effect on the smaller man.
Pausing at the doorway, Iolaus turned back to face the enraged man.
"You never had my soul," he repeated, thinking back through all the abuse he suffered over the years, and remembering how he'd always managed to hang onto a shred of hope, refusing to sacrifice the good he had inside to the forces threatening to rip it out of him. "And you also never had my heart. But Hercules does."
He turned and walked quickly down the corridor, not looking back,
leaving the sounds of the ranting and rampaging behind him. Almost
running, the jester hurried out of the castle, stopping to collapse
on a bench outside before his shaking legs gave out on him. He sat,
breathing deeply as he tried to calm down, not believing what he'd
just done. And after a few minutes, he wasn't sure if it had even
really happened. The Sovereign was dead. There was no way he could
have been there. But in a way, it didn't matter. Even if he had
dreamed the whole incident, Iolaus felt a strange sort of pride that
he had still managed to stick up for himself against the one he
feared above all others. He felt as if he'd won back a little of
the self-esteem that had been robbed of him. It was empowering, for
he'd faced his demon, and had come out victorious. In more ways
than one, he thought, giving the apple he still clutched in his hand
a gentle squeeze before tucking it away safely into the pouch on his
belt. Rising, Iolaus made his way back through the marketplace,
taking one last, lingering look at the happy villagers engaged in
their daily lives before he headed out of the city to wait for the
vortex to reopen.
Aphrodite saw the light begin to dim and heard the roaring of the wind as it began to pick up. Jumping up, she ran outside, squinting against the force of the air blowing into her face. Within moments, a lightening bolt had exploded before her, opening the swirling blue gateway. Anxiously she pranced before it, wringing her hands helplessly and fearing the worst, until a figure popped into view, tumbling out of the sky. Even as he sprawled across the ground, the vortex vanished and the wind died down, returning the quiet peace to the evening.
"Are you all right?" The goddess cried out, rushing toward him to help him up. "Did you get the apple?"
"I got it," Iolaus told her, finding himself knocked back down to the ground by an enthusiastic Aphrodite. What little breath he'd managed to keep in his lungs was immediately sucked out of him as she kissed him full on the lips in her happiness.
"I knew you could do it, Curly," the goddess of love squealed, giggling as the shy man stammered and turned scarlet. "Come on, let's go save my baby bro!"
Aphrodite pulled him to his feet, dragging him behind her as she raced back into the cave. And not a moment too soon, Iolaus realized, taking in the much worsened state of his friend. He wasn't a healer, but he had seen enough people die to know when it was imminent, and Hercules obviously did not have much time left. But the jester took a deep breath, trying not to panic as he fumbled with the drawstrings on the pouch at his belt. The apple would cure him, he tried to tell himself. It just had to.
He sliced a small piece off and tried to slide it between the demigod's lips. Hercules awoke with a moan, and it was a long, tense moment before he was able to focus enough to make out the anxious face hovering over him.
"You came back," he whispered finally as recognition set in, a faint sparkle of happiness temporarily illuminating his glazed eyes.
"Of course I did," Iolaus reassured him, slipping a hand behind his head to prop him up. "I promised I wouldn't leave you, didn't I? Here, Hercules. Try a little of this."
The demigod barely had the strength to chew, but at his friend's encouragement, he managed to swallow the small piece of apple. He had an easier time with the second slice, and after the third he was struggling to sit up, the deadly fever rapidly melting away.
The formerly dark and silent mountains saw a joyous celebration that night. Aphrodite graciously provided them with a bounty of food and jugs of Dionysus' sweetest wine, and even hung around as the night fell swiftly to share in the toasts and the merriment. But she could see that the jester was exhausted, the day's events having taken their emotional toll, and Hercules, although completely cured, looked like he could still benefit from a good night's sleep. So, even though it was still early by her standards, she decided to bid the two men goodnight.
"I'm glad you're alright, bro," she said warmly, giving the demigod a hug. "Don't go scaring me like that again, though, ok?"
"I'll try," he told her wryly, hugging her back, a bit surprised, although touched and grateful for the concern she'd shown. "And thank you, Aphrodite."
"Don't thank me," she insisted. "You can thank our resident hero over there." The goddess rose and moved around the fire to where the smaller man was sitting. "Walk me to the door?"
With a puzzled glance toward Hercules, Iolaus got to his feet and escorted Aphrodite to the entrance of the cave, stepping outside into the dark night, shivering a bit as the cold air assaulted his skin.
"You did great, Sweetie," Aphrodite assured him, giving him a blinding smile that lit up the darkness.
"I didn't do anything," the jester muttered, embarrassed.
"Nonsense," the goddess chided him. "You saved my baby brother's life. And he couldn't have done it any better."
Iolaus blushed, both out of humility and pride, understanding that the `he' Aphrodite was talking about was his slain counterpart.
"You know," she continued softly. "I saw you there that day, at Sweet Cheeks' monument."
"You did?" the jester whispered, remembering the speech he'd made in the attempt to put the ghost to rest, so to speak.
"Yes." Aphrodite reached out, gently cupping his chin and raising his head up to meet her gaze. "And I think there's a lot of him inside you." She leaned forward, giving him a gentle kiss on the cheek. "Later, Curly!"
Iolaus stood in the dark for long moments after the goddess vanished, mulling over all that had happened that day, culminating in the last few minutes. There was a time when he would have resented being compared to his counterpart, although that was mostly because he believed he could never be half the man Hercules' late partner had been. But Aphrodite's words had generated a warm surge of pride within him. This world's Iolaus had been a brave warrior, fighting for those who couldn't fight for themselves, risking his life to battle evil and injustice. Protector of the innocent, champion of mankind, willing to give up everything for his best friend and partner. It had been the jester's wish to maybe someday find a little of that fighting spirit inside himself. So to hear Aphrodite tell him that he measured up brought him a peace and a comfort he hadn't known since coming to this world. Or in his old world, for that matter.
But the night was too cold for a long psychological evaluation under
the stars, so Iolaus turned around and ducked back into the warmth
of the cave. Hercules was already asleep, dozing next to the fire.
Quietly, the jester snuggled up between the warm furs Aphrodite had
so thoughtfully provided, letting them chase away the chill of the
mountains. He focused on the flickering flames of the fire, but
within moments he had succumbed to their hypnotic dance and had been
lulled into the arms of Morpheus.
Hercules awoke in the morning, feeling relief that his ordeal was over and that he felt well and strong once more. He stretched broadly and yawned, sitting up and discovering he was alone in the cave. Untangling himself from his bed of furs, the demigod rose, running his hands through his hair and pulling his boots on. He stepped out of the cave, blinking against the sudden light of the morning sun, shielding his eyes with his hand and spying his friend sitting on a rock a few feet away, wrapped in a blanket to ward off the chill air not yet warmed by Apollo's golden light.
"Morning," the jester called out, not turning around but intuitively sensing the emergence of the demigod.
"Morning." Hercules carefully picked his way over to his friend, studying him carefully. "Are you all right?"
"Me?" Iolaus glanced at him in confusion. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just woke up early and wanted to watch the sunrise. How are you feeling?"
"Good as new, thanks to you." The demigod swung himself up on the rock to sit next to the smaller man. "Iolaus, I don't know how to even begin to thank you for what you did for me..."
"Hercules, you don't have to say anything," Iolaus interrupted, holding up a hand. "All I did was bring back a piece of fruit that I found in an empty castle. That hardly makes me a hero."
"You've always been a hero, Iolaus," Hercules told him softly. "You just don't know it yet, that's all. It took a lot of courage for you to go back to that world, especially not knowing what you'd be facing. But you did it, and you brought back the cure that saved my life. I would have died without you. So that definitely makes you a hero in my book."
"But I'm not," the jester insisted, looking away. "I almost didn't go. And then when I got there, you don't know how close I was to just hiding like a coward until the vortex reopened and I could come back."
"But you didn't," the demigod reminded him. "You faced your fears, and you did what you felt you had to do. Being a hero doesn't mean you're automatically fearless. Everybody gets scared. But you overcame being afraid when it's mattered the most, and that's the true measure of a man. I'm just sorry you had to face going back there yesterday. You know I'd never want you to risk your life on my account."
"I know," Iolaus said, glancing back at him. "But you would have done the same for me, right?"
"No question," Hercules assured him with a smile.
"Besides," the jester continued, looking back out to the horizon. "I think I needed to go back. For closure. I had escaped that world physically, but mentally I was still trapped there. And I was never going to be free until I faced my demons."
"I'd say you won that battle," the demigod observed, having noticed the slight change in his shy friend. He was sitting a little taller, speaking a little bolder, and the abject submissiveness was absent from his demeanor.
"Yeah," Iolaus agreed, a satisfied smile playing about his lips. "I won." It was an amazing feeling of lightness to know that the Sovereign would never have any more power over him ever again. "Actually, we all won. I wish you could have seen the city, Hercules. You just wouldn't believe how things have changed."
The demigod fell silent, having heard the story of the emancipated town the previous evening. He struggled with his feelings and his conscience for a moment, before deciding he had to do the right thing.
"It sounds wonderful," he said finally, trying to sound casual. "A protected city, free from tyranny. People you know and lived with, living their lives, happy... Sounds like a place where a man could make a good life for himself."
"Trying to get rid of me?"
"No!" Hercules protested sharply, looking up to meet his friend's teasing gaze.
"Well, to tell you the truth," the jester began, growing serious. "The thought did cross my mind. When I was there, I could imagine myself living there again, among my people, finding some of the happiness that they've found."
"I can talk to Aphrodite," the demigod announced, unable to keep a note of sadness from his voice. "She'll get Zeus to open the vortex again. It's the least they can do."
"That won't be necessary," Iolaus told him. "I did think about it, but it really didn't take me too long to decide that I can't go back there. I'm happy for the city and for my people, but that world just has too many bad memories for me. That was another place, another time, another man. I meant it when I told you there was nothing there for me. So much of my life was spent playing the fool, literally, and I need to figure out exactly who I am and what my destiny is. I'm not entirely sure that I belong here, on this path with you, but I think it will eventually lead me to where I'm meant to be. Regardless, it's where I want to be right now. We haven't known each other for that long, but you've taught me a lot, Hercules. Especially about the kind of man that I want to be. And more importantly, you've helped me to see that I *can* be that man. For that, I'll always be grateful."
"I didn't do anything. You just had to learn to believe in yourself."
"Which I never would have done if you hadn't believed in me first. You've been a great friend to me, Hercules. The best I've ever had, and I can never thank you enough for that. Especially since I know it couldn't have been easy for you to take me with you. A constant reminder of your Iolaus staring you in the face every day."
"I'm sorry," the demigod murmured, looking quickly away.
"For thinking that you were him while I was... It was the fever," he finished lamely.
"I know that," Iolaus told him. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on his friend's arm. "Hercules, just because you've made your peace with him and have gotten on with your life, that doesn't mean you have to stop missing him and wishing he were here. I know how much you loved him. And I know that you and he had a very special bond. I respect that, and I couldn't replace it if I wanted to. I'm just happy that we've gotten to the place we're at now. I think it's a good one, don't you?"
"Yes," the demigod replied, giving him an earnest glance. "But I know how much you wanted to separate your identity from his..."
"It's all right, Hercules," the jester assured him. "Besides, I think I've made my peace with that, too."
The demigod smiled faintly, but was distracted, fiddling with the bands on his gauntlets. Finally, after long moments of silence, he turned to look at the smaller man beside him.
"Iolaus, I have to tell you something."
"What is it?" The jester couldn't help the slight unease that came over him, prompted by his friend's somber seriousness.
"It's never been easy for me to tell people I care about how I really feel about them. Not while they can hear me, anyway." Hercules glanced away until the wave of bitterness passed, then he fixed his clear blue eyes back on the jester and continued. "But you've been honest with me about why you chose to stay here, so I think I owe it to you to tell you why I want you to stay. First of all, it wasn't hard for me at all to bring you here with me. I did it gladly, *because* you reminded me of Iolaus, not in spite of it. And I don't mean that the way you think."
"How do you mean it?"
"I doubt he ever knew it," the demigod said softly. "But I admired Iolaus from the first day I met him. He was always so brave and so strong, both physically and in spirit. No matter what the fates threw at him, and they gave him more than his share of the bad stuff, believe me, it just never seemed to get him down. In the very worst situations, he could still find a smile. And he never, ever gave up, no matter how great the odds or even how badly he was hurt. Oh, he had his faults. He wasn't perfect, by any means, though he liked to pretend he was. But he embodied everything I always thought a true hero should be, and I went to sleep every night thanking the fates for giving me one more day with him beside me."
The pain of loss in Hercules' eyes knifed through the jester's heart, making him tremble and look away. In that moment, if he could have traded his own life so that the demigod's partner could be returned to his side, he would have done so gladly, without hesitation.
"I needed Iolaus," Hercules continued, his voice thick with emotion. "Much more than he ever needed me. And I know he never understood just how important his role was in my life. But it was a vital one, whether he knew it or not. Because I'm not as resilient as he was. I get beaten down, and I can't always bounce back for more. The gods took my family from me, and then Serena, too. And they've tried to take everything else. I've spent years just trying to endure their torments, trying to protect innocent people from their petty spitefulness, and watching the suffering they inflict, wondering sometimes just why I bother. I'd get mired down in doubt, and grief, and hopelessness, and then that's when I'd look to Iolaus. When I saw him, fighting so fiercely by my side without any divine strength or protection, I felt ashamed. He took the same risks, suffered the same hardships, even more so with his mortal blood, and kept fighting the good fight, because it's what he believed in. He never wanted to surrender, so how could I even think of giving up?"
"What does this have to do with me?" the jester whispered.
"I feel the same thing when I look at you," Hercules said quietly, but with conviction. "I don't pretend to even know half of what you suffered at the hands of the Sovereign. The fact that you survived it, and were able to come to this new world and try for a new life for yourself... That took a lot of courage, Iolaus, even if you can't see that for yourself. You inspire me every bit as much as my Iolaus did. I'm in awe of how you can still have it inside of you to love and forgive and forget after everything he did to you. And when I get tired and discouraged and I'm feeling alone, I just look over to you, and I'm reminded just why I do what I do, and that I'm not alone, and I find the strength to go on. Not just the strength. But the will and the desire. Iolaus, I'm proud to call you my friend, and I appreciate you for the man that you are. I enjoy traveling with you, because I enjoy your company. But I need you with me, because of how you ground me and anchor me when nothing else in the world is making sense. That's why I'm glad you decided to stay."
The jester turned to face his friend, his blue eyes wet and his heart too full for words. Mutually, they leaned in and shared a tight, warm hug, each man finally fully appreciating the roles they played in each other's lives, forever dissipating the fears that they were only identical substitutes to an unreachable past. The pair sat in silence for a long time, watching the sun climb higher in the sky, spreading warmth over the cool morning and driving away the lingering mist. Neither one wanted to speak and ruin the harmonious peace of the dawn, but Hercules finally slid off the rock and stretched.
"What do you say we get off this mountain and get out of here?"
"Where are we going?" the jester inquired, leaping lightly down to the ground.
"Wherever you want," the demigod told him.
"Like I know where I'm going," Iolaus scoffed. "You just lead the way, and I'll follow."
Hercules looped a companionable arm around his friend.
"How about we go together, side by side?"
"Yeah," the jester grinned. "I think I can handle that."
They returned to the cave, engaging in a brief discussion over what to do with Aphrodite's generous store of supplies. Deciding it was all too cumbersome to carry, they selected two of the warm blankets and the leftover food to take, leaving the rest of the furs and the cooking supplies behind for a weary, down on his luck traveler who might happen by seeking shelter.
"There is one more thing I have to ask you," Hercules said as they began their trek down the mountain path. "How did you know about that story that Gabrielle told Iolaus when we were trying to free Prometheus?"
"What are you talking about?" Iolaus asked him, his brow wrinkling in confusion.
"When I was sick, you told me the story that Gabrielle had told Iolaus. You know, about all people having two heads and four arms and legs... You really don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"
The jester shook his head, looking at his friend blankly.
"Never mind," the demigod sighed. "I must have been delirious and dreaming."
"Maybe not," Iolaus began slowly. "You thought it was your Iolaus telling you this story, am I right?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"Hercules, I didn't really want to say anything, because it sounded too weird. But I didn't have any trouble at all finding you. When I started up here, I just automatically knew which way to go. It was like something was calling me, telling me which direction to take and where to turn. But it was almost as if I didn't notice it. It wasn't until I got to about here, and I saw the light from your fire shining out of the cave, when I realized that I had just..."
"Wait a minute," Hercules interrupted. "The fire was burning when you found me?"
"Yes. What's so strange about that?"
"Because I didn't light it," the demigod murmured, his heart hammering as a chill ran through him. "I thought you did."
"It couldn't have been," Hercules whispered, trying desperately to remember past the haze of the fever. He so wanted to believe that he hadn't been hallucinating, and that the brother of his heart had come to him when he had needed him. "No, it's not possible. Is it?"
"I don't know," Iolaus replied. He didn't know what to make of these strange circumstances, feeling a little uneasy in the realm of the unexplained, especially after his own recent encounter with the spectral Sovereign, be it real or imagined. "But I think we can safely say that someone was looking out for you."
For a moment, the demigod closed his eyes as a wave of sadness washed over him, missing his friend with a deep, searing loss that could not be defined in words. But then he forced himself to take a few deep breaths, hearing again his partner's voice echo in his head.
"I'll always be there to watch your back, Herc. And I'll stay here with you as long as you need me."
And with that, all doubt was erased from his mind. Somehow, Iolaus had found a way back to him, if only briefly. Even after death, he was still fulfilling his role, encouraging and inspiring the demigod to give his all, no matter how much he wanted to quit. Bringing help to him, and ensuring that he'd hold on until it got there. Some of the pain eased, and Hercules even managed a chuckle as he realized that his stubborn friend apparently didn't even recognize the finality of death as a barrier, but merely as just another obstacle to overcome.
"Are you all right?"
The demigod glanced at the jester, who was looking at him with concern.
"Yeah," Hercules told him with a smile. "I'm fine." And it was the
truth, for the demigod, after so many long, dark months, had finally
found a shred of hope. Iolaus had come back to him for a few,
precious, fleeting moments. And if he did it once, there was hope
he could do it again. And maybe, there was even hope that he could
find his way back permanently. It sounded crazy, but if anyone
could do it, it would be the irrepressible, reckless, scrappy hunter
who never gave up.
"Take care of each other," Iolaus said fondly, watching the pair as they resumed their journey. Far from being jealous or upset when Hercules had brought his counterpart back through the vortex with him, the hunter had felt a weight had been lifted, happy to know that his partner had somebody to keep him centered, and glad that the shy jester had managed to escape his nightmare existence.
"Those were some nice things your friend said about you."
Iolaus looked over at his fellow guardian.
"Yeah, they were, but Herc has no right to talk about me not getting it, when he doesn't, either."
"I don't understand."
"All that stuff he said about me not giving up and fighting the good fight... It's true, but he's missed the point entirely. I did all that, but I did it because of him. Because he inspired me to be a hero, and to be the best man I could be. And I did it all gladly, out of love."
"Is that why you embarked on this little escapade?"
"What can I say? Somebody has to keep the big guy out of trouble." Iolaus paused for a moment, reflecting on the events and how they'd played out, leading both Hercules and the jester to make their peace with a lot of things, laying a lot of negativity and pain to rest. Not to mention, sticking it to Ares one more time. "All things considered, I think it all worked out rather well, for everyone."
"Except for you. Michael wants to see you."
"I expected that."
"You know you'll have to atone for this stunt, don't you?"
"I know," Iolaus sighed. But there was a contented gleam in his blue eyes and he grinned happily. "It's all right. This one was worth it."
Disclaimer: No guardians who snuck out of the Light to meddle in the affairs of mortals and demigods on earth were made to atone for their transgressions during the writing of this story.