Chapter Six: Imagine A Man

This story is not intended to violate any copyrights held by MCA, Universal Studios, or Renaissance Pictures concerning Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story is for fun and no money was made from it.

Imagine a past where you wish you had lived.
Full of heroes and villians and fools.
Imagine a soul, So old it is broken
And you will know your invention is you
Imagine a man, not a child of any remote
But a plain man tied up in life.
And you will see the end
"Imagine a Man" - The Who

"Come in, Elissa," Jason called, in answer to the soft knock at his door.

"How did you know it was me?" the healer asked, entering the room with a smile.

"Well, I highly doubt those two bohemians you arrived with would have such a delicate knock."

"You'd be surprised," Elissa grinned, handing the former king a mug of tea. "How are you feeling?"

"Old," Jason replied with a wistful grin.

"I wouldn't put you out to pasture quite yet," the girl told him, gently examining his propped up leg. "Not for a mere sprain."

"It's not the injury," he told her. "It's the fact that I got it while dismounting from my horse. That's not something that happens regularly to young, strong men."

"Maybe you're not as young as you used to be," she said. "But you're not all washed up yet. Just ask that pretty woman who was flirting with you in the tavern the other night." Her words made the former king blush with embarrassment.

"She must have been half my age," he stammered.

"My point exactly," Elissa told him, giving him a wink. "Dinner will be ready soon. Do you want me to bring you something?"

"Oh, I think I can manage to drag these old bones out to the table."

"I'll come and get you when it's ready," the healer told the king, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. "But I'd better go see what the two bohemians have gotten themselves into."

Jason watched the girl slip out of his room and couldn't help but smile. She reminded him of his beloved Alcmene in a lot of ways. Sweet and gentle, and a lively spirit. He leaned back in his chair and thought of their arrival the other day. Elissa had curtseyed before him, lowering her eyes with respect.

"You don't have to do that," he had said, helping her up. "I'm not the king anymore."

"Royalty cannot be taken away. You'll always be the king," she had told him, giving him a shy smile that melted his heart. Jason had never regretted giving up his crown for a simple life with Alcmene, but he had to admit that sometimes he missed the honor that went with the title. He knew that he still garnered respect, but only as a former king and argonaut. Elissa's words had made him feel like royalty again, if only for a moment. Jason had loved the healer immediately. Yes, Iolaus had done quite well for himself.

Iolaus was just thinking the same thing as he watched Elissa skip lightly down the path toward him. Unfortunately, this distraction was the opportunity that Hercules was looking for. In one fluid movement the demigod hooked him behind the knees with his staff and deposited the hunter heavily on the ground.

"If you two are through playing, it's time to eat," the healer told them, trying to look stern but failing to hold back a smile.

"We are not 'playing'," Iolaus informed her, summoning up as much dignity as he could while on the ground. "We are training." Elissa surveyed the heap at her feet.

"In that case, you'd better keep at it. It looks like you could use the practice." The hunter made a face at her and reached for Hercules' outstretched hand. As the demigod was helping him to his feet, Iolaus grabbed his forearm with both hands and rolled backwards, flipping his partner over his head. He took advantage of Hercules' momentary surprise to attack.

"Boys," Elissa said, shaking her head in mock exasperation. "I'm going to set the table."

"You never give up, do you?" Hercules asked, struggling with his friend.

"Nope," Iolaus gasped. He was all but beat, but he refused to admit it.

"Well I'm hungry, so why don't we call it a draw?" When the hunter wouldn't agree, Hercules subdued him quickly.

"Someday I'll get you, you'll see," Iolaus panted, accepting the hand up with no tricks this time.

"I don't doubt it, my friend," Hercules said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Now let's eat."

Jason was quiet through the meal and did not eat much, but inside he was happy. The loneliness he'd felt in the house with Alcmene gone was almost unbearable at times, but now there was life and laughter around the table. He was content to sit and watch the others talking and joking, feeling like he had a family again. After the meal was through, Iolaus helped Jason out to the barn to look after his horse and Hercules helped Elissa clean up the kitchen.

"I'm worried about Jason," Hercules began, trying to sound casual.

"It's just a sprain," Elissa told him. "He'll be fine in a few days."

"It's not that. He just doesn't seem like himself. I don't think he's drinking again, he just seems depressed."

"Well, he probably is. I think he's lonely without your mother and afraid of growing old alone. And I also think that after leading the argonauts and reigning over Corinth, he feels useless here, not doing anything. I think he needs a hobby, something to occupy his time." She added the last part quickly when she saw the frown of concern creep across the demigod's brow. "He's just going through a blue period now, but he'll snap out of it. He'll be fine, trust me." Hercules sighed and stacked the last bowl away. He was still concerned, but Elissa usually had a very good sense of people, so he decided to trust her.

Iolaus had returned to the house and invited the healer out for a walk in the evening air. Darkness was falling as they strolled hand in hand through Alcmene's garden.

"I spent a lot of time here," Iolaus said softly. "When I never had a family of my own, Alcmene always welcomed me. I really miss her." Elissa didn't speak, but squeezed the hunter's hand to let him know she was listening. They sat together on a bench and Iolaus told her stories of adventures he and Hercules had when they were young, and how Alcmene always seemed to know when they were up to something. After a period of silence, Iolaus reiterated the fears that Hercules had voiced about Jason.

"I think he'll be fine," Elissa told him, leaning into his warm embrace. "He just needs something to distract his mind."

"It's not easy growing older," Iolaus murmured, stroking her auburn hair gently. "It has me thinking though. I'm not young anymore, either." Elissa turned her emerald eyes onto his brilliant blue ones.

"You'll never be old," she whispered. "You'll always be handsome and agile and ready to battle evil." The hunter gazed at his soul reflected in the healer's eyes and his breath caught in his throat.

"And when I do die, it will be because my heart is so full of love and desire for you that it will finally burst."

The healer couldn't hold back a giggle, but Iolaus stopped it with a soft kiss. She responded eagerly, and soon they had given in to passion and were running for the privacy of their room in the house.

Elissa couldn't hide the blush that colored her cheeks as she and her love came to the table a bit late the next morning as Hercules and Jason exchanged knowing looks. The demigod had started breakfast and she took over, pretending not to have any idea why they were grinning like idiots. After they had eaten, Elissa went outside and busied herself with tending to Alcmene's garden. Jason eventually hobbled out to watch her.

"I hope I'm not overstepping my bounds," she said as he eased himself down on the stone bench.

"No," he told her, smiling. "Alcmene loved this garden. I try to keep it tamed, but I'm not much of a gardener. She would have liked you, Elissa, and I know she'd be thrilled that you're taking care of her flowers now. She loved Iolaus like a son. I only wish she could see how happy you've made him."

"You must miss her terribly," the healer said softly.

"Yes," he whispered sadly. "I really loved her. Everything I had ever accomplished ceased to matter. All that was important to me was her and her happiness. When she died, I felt like I had nothing left."

"You're not alone, Jason," Elissa comforted, kneeling on the ground before him. "You have us, and Iphicles. We all love you. You have a home and a family with us anytime you want. And even when you don't." Jason smiled down at the girl through moist eyes. He started to thank her, but was interrupted by Hercules.

"A messenger just brought this for you, Elissa," he said, holding out a scroll. "He said it was urgent."

"Do you mind reading it for me?" she asked, displaying hands that were coated with garden soil. Hercules unrolled the parchment and read it silently, but there was no mistaking the tone of the message from the expression on his face.

"What is it?" Elissa asked, fear gripping her heart.

"I'm so sorry," Hercules began. She took the scroll from him and read it herself. The healer read and reread the message, as if willing the words to change, until Hercules stepped up to her and tried to embrace her. She pulled away from him and took a step back.

"Where's Iolaus?" she asked in a tight voice.

"He's fixing some of the posts in the fence by the barn."

"Can you find him? Please, can you get him, Hercules?"

"Sure, I'll be right back." He turned and sprinted toward the barn. Elissa gazed at the dirt on her hands for a moment before slowly going to the rain barrel to wash them. Jason leaned over and picked up the parchment from the ground where she'd dropped it and read the message. Instantly his heart went out to the girl. Her brother was dead.

Hercules rejoined the former king and they watched as Iolaus took the healer in his arms. He held her tightly for several moments before leading her into the house. Jason put a restraining hand on the demigod's arm as he tried to follow them.

"Maybe we should give them a few minutes," he suggested.

"You're right," Hercules said, and sat down beside his friend. It wasn't very long, however, before his unease got the better of him. "I'm just going to see if they need anything, make sure she's all right." He started toward the house and met Iolaus coming out the door.

"Is she ok?" Hercules asked.

"She wants to go home but she's worried about leaving Jason."

"I'll stay here with him until his leg is better," the demigod volunteered. Iolaus nodded his thanks.

"I'll go tell her." He went inside to convey the arrangement, and Hercules returned to Jason to do the same. Iolaus rejoined them in the garden soon.

"She's gathering her things together, and then she'll be out."

"How's she taking it?" Jason asked.

"All right, I guess," Iolaus said slowly. "I don't know if it's really sunk in yet. She was very close to him, so this is going to be hard for her." Elissa emerged from the house and approached the three men. She sat next to Jason and took a deep breath.

"I'm sorry to run out on you like this," she told him in a shaky voice.

"Don't apologize, I understand," he said gently. Jason opened his arms and she leaned in to hug him tightly. "Don't worry about me," he whispered in her ear.

"We'll come back soon, I promise," she said, sitting up and trying not to let the tears fall. Then she stood for a hug from Hercules.

"It'll be all right," he whispered, kissing her cheek. He released her and Iolaus stepped up to take her hand. "Be safe," Hercules told them as they headed to the road to begin their journey. He and Jason watched them until they were out of sight.

"It breaks my heart to see her hurting," Jason said quietly.

"She's such a sweet, loving girl," Hercules told him. "I don't think she's ever had a mean thought in her life. She's so innocent, Iolaus and I try to protect her from anything bad happening, and now I can't help feeling that I failed her."

"There's nothing you could have done," Jason rationalized.

"I know," the demigod said, but didn't sound convinced. He loved Elissa as much as he did Iolaus, and it tore him up to see her in pain. "Anyway, you're stuck with my cooking from now on."

Elissa was silent through most of the journey, though she took great comfort in the hunter's presence. They walked quickly, and arrived in Acheron in less than two days. The great stone house was empty, but the healer found another parchment on the table.

"It's from Argeon," she told Iolaus, skimming the message. "He was on shore leave and came home. The day after he arrived, two men came with Cimon's body. Apparently, he had just won a large purse at a bard competition, and someone stabbed him in the back and robbed him of it." Elissa stopped and tried to choke back the sobs that were threatening to spill forth, so Iolaus took the note from her and quickly read the rest himself.

"Do you want to go to the grave?" he asked her. She had forced back the tears, but still did not trust herself to speak, so she gave an answering nod. They left the house and began walking to the forest glen where the cheerful bard was now forever silenced.

"Wait a minute," Elissa told the hunter. She turned and ran back to the house. Iolaus followed her, and was surprised when she ran past the house instead of going in. He watched as she climbed the big boulder in front of the house and broke a twig off the large tree that sprouted out of it. Then she rejoined him, and they made their way to Cimon's grave.

"Do you think he went to the Ilesian Fields?" she asked Iolaus as they stood over the freshly turned earth.

"Yes," he said sincerely. "He was a good man and he belongs there."

"Is it a nice place?" she asked, with a tremor in her voice.

"It's a beautiful place," Iolaus told her. He lightly caressed her back in comfort as he spoke. "It's always warm and sunny and there are flowers everywhere. He's with your parents again, and he's at peace."

She moved away from him to place the twig against the grave marker.

"I guess he didn't have one of those on him when it happened," Iolaus said softly.

"He never really believed they were symbols of luck," Elissa replied, running her hand over the marker. "He only took them to indulge me." Iolaus stepped forward to place the handful of flowers he had hastily gathered at the marker.

"It's a little plain, isn't it? I mean, Cimon was so animated in life, he should have a more elaborate marker."

"I can carve one, if you don't think it would insult Argeon."

"I wish he was here now," the healer whispered.

"I'm sure he wanted to be," Iolaus consoled. "But when the ship sailed, he had to be on board." The woman who shared his soul turned to him, eyes full of tears that would not be denied again.

"Iolaus, I love you and I need you with me. You don't know what it means to me to have you here. But could I have a few minutes alone? Please."

"I'll wait for you back at the house," he said, kissing her gently. He stood up and walked to the path. Iolaus hated leaving her to cry alone. If he couldn't shield her from this pain, then he wanted to hold her and love her and share it with her until it subsided. It hurt him a little that she didn't want him to, but he would respect her wishes and he returned home.

He chopped some wood and started a fire, and took inventory of the supplies. There were some interesting parcels that he assumed came from Argeon's voyages across the sea. Iolaus was a little miffed at the sailor he had never met. Although he defended his absence to Elissa, the hunter felt that Argeon should have been there for his little sister. After all, they were all that were left of the family. Iolaus knew that he personally would go to Hades and back every day if it would make her happy, so if she needed her brother than the hunter thought she should have him, no matter what the circumstance.

Iolaus realized he'd been staring into the fire for awhile and that darkness was starting to descend upon the land. He started to worry about Elissa and was preparing to go after her, but she came home on her own. Her eyes were red but her tears were dry, and she welcomed the hunter's warm embrace.

"Do you want to talk?" he asked her.

"Not now," she replied, sighing heavily. "Maybe later, but I can't right now." She told him that she was not hungry, but he coaxed her into drinking a mug of tea. He followed her to bed and held her through the night, cradling her as she cried.

They spent several days in Acheron, and Elissa steadily grew stronger. There was an expected sadness to her, and she still was moved to tears periodically, but Iolaus knew only time could heal that. He stayed very close to her and offered his support when she needed it, and in the meantime he carved a beautiful marker from stone for Cimon's grave. The hunter was himself devastated over the loss of the young man. He had liked the easygoing bard immediately and found him great fun. And he had to admit that Cimon was a master of his craft. Iolaus had found himself hanging on to every word of a tale that he'd heard a hundred times, just because of the way Cimon told it. No wonder he'd won about every bard competition he'd entered. The hunter shook his head sadly as he put the last touches on the marker. It was just such a waste.

He showed the marker to Elissa when it was finished and was rewarded with a smile.

"It's beautiful, Iolaus," she told him, touching it lightly with her fingertips. "Cimon would love it."

"We can take it to his grave today," the hunter said quietly. They had not been back to the grave since the first night they arrived in Acheron, and Iolaus was concerned. Elissa still refused to talk about it, and he got the feeling that she was coping by pretending he wasn't dead.

"All right," she agreed, the smile rapidly fading from her face. "Polymede is coming by this afternoon, but we can go after that." She turned to go back into the house and Iolaus watched her with sad eyes. It was killing him to see her upset. He also thought that she needed some time and shouldn't be open for business, so to speak. But he knew that she could no more turn away someone seeking her help than he could. And he realized that it probably took her mind off of things for awhile. Iolaus followed her inside and helped himself to a piece of bread.

"You just ate lunch," the healer reminded him, with a look that was more loving than firm.

"I know, but it takes a lot of energy to be this charming," Iolaus said, flashing her his most irresistible grin. His words were met with a burst of laughter and a wave of relief washed over him. "It is so good to hear you laugh again," he told her. It was apparently the wrong thing to say, as she sobered immediately.

"I'm sorry I've been so down the last few days," she whispered, sliding down onto the bench at the table.

"Elissa," Iolaus said incredulously, sitting beside her. "You've just lost someone you love. Don't apologize for grieving."

"But I've been bringing you down with me. I know you're worried about me. I see how you keep looking at me, and I didn't want to do that to you."

"We've had this conversation before," the hunter told her, taking her in his arms. "If you aren't happy, then I can't possibly be happy. You can't hide it from me. I just wish there were something I could do. You don't know what it does to me to see you in pain and there's nothing I can do to help you."

"You're helping me by being here," she said, laying her head against his strong chest. "Just having you here to hold me and knowing that you love me is all I need. I don't think I could get through this if I didn't have you."

"Sure you could," Iolaus told her, gently stroking her hair. "You have faith and you are strong. You can make it through anything."

"I don't feel very strong."

"You are. Hercules and I talked about it once. We couldn't figure out why we keep trying to protect you from things all the time, because you would probably come out of it better than both of us put together."

"I love you," she whispered, and her eyes echoed the sentiment tenfold. Before the hunter could answer, a soft knock at the door interrupted them. A little reluctantly, Elissa rose to admit Polymede. Iolaus also rose to start preparing the poultice that the healer was using to treat the woman's burned arm. As he looked at the girl that had become his whole world from across the kitchen, his eyes on hers told her of the love he had for her that couldn't be put into words.

After Polymede had left, Iolaus loaded the heavy marker into a cart, and the pair walked silently to Cimon's grave. The hunter wished he could lodge the marker into the ground with one blow as Hercules would, but had to be content with placing the stone in the conventional, mortal methods. When the stone was in place, Elissa bent down and set a small cloth bundle beside it.

"What's in there?" Iolaus inquired. The healer smiled and sat on the grass, next to the grave. He sat beside her and took her hand.

"Honeycomb. When we were little, Cimon buried a piece of honeycomb here in the glen. He talked me into helping him tend to it, saying that it would grow into a great tree and honey would flow from it instead of sap and the leaves would be the sweeter than sugar. So for months, we watered, and weeded, and fertilized the spot where it was buried. Everyone told us that there was no way a tree was going to grow from a piece of honeycomb, but Cimon said it would happen if we believed hard enough. Eventually, he had to give up. Of course, he blamed it on me, saying that I didn't truly believe."

"Which wasn't true, I'm sure." Iolaus couldn't help but smile.

"No, it wasn't." she said adamantly. " I believed with my whole heart and soul. So much so that I kept on taking care of the honeycomb plot. I thought that the tree would grow and I could prove him wrong. What are you laughing at?"

"Nothing," the hunter chuckled. "I can just picture you tending the ground and wishing for it to grow."

"Well, I was very young," she said in defense of herself, but was grinning along with him.

"I'll tell you what I believe," he said with a soft look. "If all it took was an act of faith, you would have enough to populate the world with honey trees."

"Cimon was always getting me into crazy things like that," she reminisced "He always had such an imagination. And he would always think up these schemes, and talk me into carrying them out. Which also meant that I bore the brunt of the weight when we were caught. It always seemed that no one could ever stay mad at him, not even me when he got me in trouble. He was so enthusiastic and earnest; you couldn't help but go along with him. I idolized both my brothers, but Argeon was older and never seemed to have any time for me. He didn't really think I was much use for anything he did. Cimon was different. When he wasn't trying to talk me into grabbing a wild boar by the head, he would let me tag along with him and he always let me play with him and his friends. They didn't like it, but he beat them into submission."

"Cimon?" Iolaus couldn't hold back his surprise.

"He didn't look it, but he was a decent fighter. And he could wrestle anyone to the ground. Once a kid over twice his size called me a rather disrespectful name, and Cimon had him pinned down before he even knew what had hit him. He teased me relentlessly, but if anyone else so much as looked at me wrong, Cimon would put him in his place. He always looked out for me."

"And you for him."

"And me for him. I'm really going to miss him, Iolaus." The healer buried her face in her hands. He put his arm around her and hugged her to him tightly. But when she finally looked up, her eyes were dry and she was trying to smile.

"It's all right to cry," he told her, but she shook her head.

"I've done enough of that the past week. Besides, Cimon was perpetually happy and did his best to make sure those around him were as well. He would hate to be the cause of my grief. It's time to put that behind me and just remember the good times. And it's time to say goodbye." Elissa moved forward to kneel in front of the grave. She placed her hand on the marker and said her silent farewells to her brother, as Iolaus also said goodbye to the bard in his mind. Then she stood and took the hunter's hand.

"I'm hungry. Let's go home."

"I just have to ask," he said, as they started on the path back to the stone house. "Why did he want you to grab a wild boar by the head?"

"Our parents took us to Athens and there we saw an exhibition of animals from all over the world. Cimon and I loved it. He decided he wanted to build his own and I could be his partner. Which, in Cimon language, meant that he would be the boss and I'd do all the work. We got some geese and some goats, but he wanted more exciting animals. So we went into the woods and stalked this boar, but since he needed it alive he wanted me to grab it by the head while he got the tail and then we would carry it home."

"Judging from the fact that you are not visibly mutilated," the hunter said, running an appraising eye over the girl. "I'd say you didn't fall for that one."

"You could say that," she said with a gleam in her eyes. "Or you could say that I just wasn't fast enough to catch it."

"He really could talk you into anything, couldn't he?" Iolaus laughed.

"I told you, I was young and gullible and had a case of hero worship." Elissa laughed along with him, and Iolaus knew for sure that she would be all right. As they arrived back at the house, they found Hercules and Jason waiting for them.

"I was tired of being cooped up and we wanted to come and see if you were ok," Jason told them, kissing Elissa hello.

"I'm fine," she told the former king and the demigod. "I was just going to start dinner. Are you two hungry?" They were after traveling, and looking forward to her culinary skills. A nod from Iolaus assured them that the girl was doing fine, so they followed her into the house with lighter hearts.

Hercules assisted the healer with the dinner preparations as Iolaus showed Jason around the magnificent stone house and the garden, and found a suitable place to picket the argonaut's horse for the night.

"I hope you didn't help too much, Hercules," Jason said as they all sat down at the table. "I've been stuck with your cooking for too long now."

"Fine, next time I'll leave you with Iolaus and I'll take the girl."

"I may have been injured, but that doesn't mean I had a death wish."

"Hey," Iolaus protested good-naturedly. "My cooking isn't THAT bad. Is it Elissa?"

"More fish, anyone?" she asked, displaying the platter and pretending that she didn't hear the question.

As the table dissolved into laughter, Hercules looked at his three companions with mixed emotions. The depression that was plaguing Jason seemed to have alleviated, and Elissa appeared to be doing fine in light of her sorrow. Iolaus was radiating happiness, and the demigod was content that his family was together and well. But a part of him couldn't help but feel uneasy. Even in the best of times, he always had a nagging worry about what the gods were up to. Things had been quiet lately, and they had not heard anything from Sinis in a long time, but that just made him more anxious. He had a distinct feeling that something was brewing and that his friends were in danger. A tiny frown wrinkled his brow as he stared down at his plate. He had lost too many people to evil, and he vowed he would not lose any more.

Hercules did not stay long in Acheron. The feelings of dread that had gripped him were unshakeable, and he felt the need to go. Unconsciously, he thought that he could lure whatever was coming away from those he loved. He was vague about his reasons for leaving, and even though Iolaus shot him a puzzled look, the hunter did not try to stop him. Jason also departed quickly. Iphicles was hosting a state function in Corinth and the former king promised he would attend. Some officials still weren't entirely sure about the new king's capabilities, and having Jason there as support was often all the persuasion that was needed. Secretly, he really felt at home in Acheron and would've liked to stay longer, but he kissed Elissa goodbye and shook the hunter's hand and rode off toward Corinth. Hercules had already departed, leaving the couple alone once more.

"Did you get the feeling something was bothering Hercules?" Elissa asked as they entered the house.

"He did seem sort of restless," Iolaus conceded. "I don't think he really wanted to talk about it. But I'm sure he's all right. He would have said something if it was important."

"You could have gone with him," the healer said quietly.

"And leave you? Never." Iolaus grabbed her around the waist and swung her in a circle. "I know you needed to stay, and I understand."

"I love you," she whispered, running her hands along his smooth chest. The hunter's breath caught in his throat and he quivered beneath her touch.

"Let's make the most of our privacy while we have it," he said, taking her hand. They started for the bedroom, but were halted by a knock at the door. Elissa sighed and squeezed his hand before going to see whom it was. Iolaus sighed as well and hoped that it wasn't anything that would keep his love from him for too long. Elissa opened the door and admitted a young boy.

"I'm sorry for bothering you, Elissa," he said timidly.

"That's ok, Amyntas. What's wrong?"

"It's Meliae. Mother sent me to ask if you'd come."

"Of course, just give me a moment." Elissa quickly gathered her satchel and flashed the hunter an apologetic smile. He returned the smile and shrugged slightly. There was always later, and the anticipation would make it all the more worthwhile. Iolaus went with the healer and the boy, partly to help and partly out of boredom. They walked into the heart of Acheron, and the boy led them into a small house.

"Hello, Aricia," the healer greeted the woman that met them at the door.

"Elissa, I hated to disturb you after what happened to your brother, but I don't know what else to do. I've been so worried."

"Don't give it another thought," Elissa told her, laying a reassuring hand on the woman's arm. "Where is she?" Aricia led them to her daughter's bedside.

"Hi, Meliae," Elissa smiled at the little girl, sitting next to her on the bed. "I haven't seen you in a long time. You're getting so big. How old are you now?"

"I'm four and a half," the girl whispered proudly. The healer kept talking to the child as she quickly examined her, introducing the family to Iolaus as she worked. Both children were overjoyed to meet the man that traveled with Hercules, and he entertained them with stories while Elissa took their mother aside.

"It's serious, I'm afraid," she told Aricia.

"Is it hopeless?" the woman whispered, holding onto the wall for support.

"No, I can treat her. But even if she recovers, it's going to be a long battle. I'm not saying this to upset you, Aricia, but you deserve to know the truth."

"What caused it? Is Amyntas in danger?"

"I've only seen this a few times, but I believe it's an illness that comes from a worm in the soil. She probably got it by playing outside. It's not contagious, so you don't have to worry about Amyntas."

"Hylas said it was nothing. He said she'd be fine in a few days. He said…" Aricia was overcome with sobs and Elissa hugged her tightly, angered that the self-proclaimed healer had again caused grief to people she cared about. She didn't even want to think about how much he had charged the woman.

"The good thing is that the delay in treatment isn't going to effect the outcome, but she needs to start on the medicine right away. I have to go back home and get some things that I need, but I promise that I'll be back as soon as I can." Aricia nodded and wiped the tears from her eyes, not wanting to let her children see her fear. Elissa went back to the girl and told her she would return soon, and asked Iolaus to come with her.

"I don't have everything I need at home," she told the hunter as they started back to the stone house.

"Tell me what you need and I'll get it," he offered.

"I was hoping you'd say that." She smiled at him, but her eyes were troubled.

"Is she going to be all right?" he asked.

"I hope so." The girl he loved sighed heavily. "I just hate to see this happen to Aricia. We were friends growing up. She had a hard life at home, and it didn't get any better when she married. Her husband was a soldier. He abused her for a few years, then finally ran off, leaving her to try to raise the children on her own. They are all she has." The healer's features darkened. "And now Hylas tells her nothing is wrong with Meliae and probably takes her last dinar in the process."

"Someone ought to have a talk with him. Maybe me." Iolaus hadn't forgotten the rude treatment he'd suffered at the hands of Hylas when he was looking for a healer for his Little One.

"Would that talk involve hitting?" Elissa almost sounded hopeful, and the hunter laughed.

"I couldn't hit Hylas. I'm indebted to him. If he hadn't turned me away that day, I never would have met you, my soul." He took the healer in his arms and kissed her gently. She yielded to his embrace, comforted by his touch.

"Don't give Hylas too much credit," she murmured. "Hercules would have caught me eventually."

"I have my doubts about that," the hunter said, looking at her fondly. Very reluctantly, he released her, and very reluctantly, she let go.

After Elissa instructed her love on what plants to collect and where to find them, she stopped at the stone house to get the rest of the supplies she needed and returned to Meliae's bedside. She did her best to make the child comfortable until Iolaus returned with the plants she needed. The hunter talked Aricia into trying to rest and took up the bedside vigil with Elissa. She gave the little girl teas made with the healing plants, but they weren't seeing any results. All through the next day, Iolaus comforted Aricia as best he could, and looked after the spirited Amyntas. Finally, as night fell, Meliae's fever dropped enough to allow Elissa some rest. She wearily lay down by the fire beside Iolaus and immediately fell asleep in his arms.

The next few days were tense as the girl's fever rose and fell, and Elissa bombarded the child with everything she could think of. Iolaus was sent out again for more plants, and when he returned he found the healer looking very disheartened. It was late, and everyone was asleep except the dedicated girl who had stolen his heart.

"How's she doing?" he whispered, kneeling beside Elissa.

"The same," the girl answered, running a hand tiredly over her eyes. "Her fever's down a little more, and I'm just hoping it stays down this time."

"If it does, will she be all right?"

"Yes, unless complications develop."

"What kind of complications?"

"This illness is contained in her blood for now, and she can recover from that. But if it gets into her brain, it's all over. Those kind of complications." Her words tore at the hunter's heart. He looked at the sleeping child sadly. She reminded him a little of his Little One, Aurora, and he hated seeing her so ill. Both she and Amyntas regarded him and Elissa with big, trusting eyes, believing without a doubt that they would make everything all right. He didn't know if it was harder to face that or Aricia, who looked at him with eyes reflecting the miserable life she'd had. She had learned the hard way never to expect the best, and she'd always felt that she wasn't meant to have anything good in her life. Her only saving joy had been her children, and now even that was threatened.

Morning broke to find Meliae a bit better. As the day wore on, her fever stayed down, and Elissa suggested that they returned home. First, she sat down with Aricia and had a long talk with her about how to care for the girl and things to watch for. She promised to come back every day with medicine, and told the woman not to be afraid to send for her if she were needed. Iolaus decided to have a talk with Amyntas. He explained to the boy about his sister and asked him to help his mother as much as he could. The hunter also promised the boy he would come back and take him fishing and show him how to set a snare.

When they got home, Elissa immediately went to bed where she slept for almost a full day. She still looked a bit tired when she finally awoke, but she was refreshed and more hopeful about the situation. As she promised, she returned everyday to care for Meliae and comfort Aricia. The woman was worried that her daughter was not improving any, but Elissa assured her that the recovery period was very long and slow and it was not necessarily a negative sign. Iolaus always accompanied the healer back to the house and spent the time there with Amyntas. The boy was young and eager and desperate for a father. He followed the hunter like a puppy and quickly absorbed all that Iolaus was teaching him. Watching his antics made Iolaus wish for a son of his own. He and Elissa had decided that they did not want to give up their wandering lifestyle just yet and had been taking precautions, but they had definite plans to start a family on down the road. Maybe it was time to start thinking about it.

Or maybe not. As the days passed, Iolaus began to crave adventure. He would never want to leave as long as Elissa was still needed in Acheron, but he was starting to get restless. Elissa sensed this, and did what she could to help him, understanding his need. She even suggested that he go meet up with Hercules, but the hunter refused to leave her. The girl had become his whole world, and he needed to be with her as much as he needed to eat or sleep or breathe. Maybe even more.

Before he could show her just what she meant to him, they were again interrupted by Amyntas' knock at the door. Iolaus cursed the boy's impeccable timing before he realized what the child's arrival meant. Elissa was already out the door, and Iolaus sprinted after her, bringing Amyntas with him. When they reached the house, they found Meliae disoriented, gasping and crying in pain. Elissa acted quickly, pouring a sedative down the child's throat while Iolaus held her down. As the medicine began to work, the girl quieted and slept, but the utter look of defeat on the healer's face told the hunter that they had lost the battle. Meliae finally died, after several days of unconsciousness and seizures.

"You did everything you could," Iolaus told his healer.

"It wasn't enough," she said quietly, slumping dejectedly against him.

They stayed a few more days in Acheron before making plans to leave and rejoin Hercules. Before they left, Iolaus wanted to take Amyntas on one more hunting trip. He spent the day with the boy, comforting him, telling him to take care of his mother, and promising he would return soon. The hunter sighed as he returned to the stone house. He felt unusually tired, and even the promise of adventure did little to lift his spirit. Iolaus tried to tell himself that once they were back with Hercules, everything would be all right with both he and Elissa. He knew it was all the senseless death they'd been seeing lately that put him in this melancholy mood, but he still couldn't seem to shake it.

As he opened the door and entered the house, Iolaus forgot all about being tired and depressed.

"You're late," Elissa murmured, coming to kiss him hello. Iolaus was speechless. She was wearing a gown she'd made from the shimmering blue silk Argeon had left for her. The color seemed to make her eyes leap out from her face, and the design accented all of her feminine curves. Her hair was piled on top of her head in an elegant twist, and a small jeweled pendant hung around her neck. The light of goodness that always shone from her being had not been diminished by her recent losses, and the hunter was completely dazzled by her sheer radiance.

"What's the occasion?" he asked when he could finally talk.

"Nothing, really. I just wanted you to know how much I love you and how glad I am that you are in my life. It hasn't been a happy stay in Acheron this time, and I thought we both could use a little celebration. It's a little silly, but I just wanted to do it for you."

"It isn't silly at all," he whispered, unable to take his eyes off of her. "You look incredible." The blush that colored her cheeks only enhanced her beauty, and it was all the hunter could do to restrain himself.

"I'll be right back," he said. "I just want to clean up."

"Hurry," she told him. "Dinner is ready and I'm very excited about desert."

Iolaus ran out to the stream and bathed quickly. When he returned, she handed him a glass of wine and led him to the table. She had really gone all out with dinner, taking care to offer all of his favorite dishes. They ate leisurely, laughing and talking into the night. As Elissa rose to clear the table, the hunter stopped her.

"That can wait," he told her. "I can't." She smiled and followed him to their bed where she'd sprinkled rose petals and had lit several candles. As the passion built and they were joined in body and soul, tears filled the hunter's eyes. He couldn't believe that this amazing woman was his to love forever, and he sent a prayer to Aphrodite that he would never know the agony of losing her. A soft glow surrounded the couple as their desire and love meshed to create an electricity that crackled in the air. The goddess of love was not around to hear Iolaus' prayer, but unfortunately, another presence was.

The couple slept late into the morning, and decided to postpone their trip until the following day. While Elissa busied herself with tidying the house and packing up supplies, Iolaus went into the garden to work. Debris had been clogging the pond, and he decided he'd better clean it out now or he would have a real mess to contend with next time they came home. The hunter smiled at the thought. This was his home. It seemed so long ago that he was here with Aurora, wishing the great stone house was his home. He almost felt like that was another life he had lived. Briefly, he wondered if he should get rid of his house in Thebes. It wasn't like he really needed it anymore, or even wanted it for that matter.

Elissa was just about to go and join the hunter in the garden when a soft knock sounded at the door. She answered it and admitted an old friend.

"Hi, Themistocles," she said, giving the man a warm smile.

"How are you, Elissa?" he asked, hugging her tight. "I was so sorry to hear about Cimon. I really hate to bother you with this now, but I don't know what else to do."

"What's wrong?" she asked. "Is it your son again?"

"No, he's fine. We were out cutting trees and we found this man lying in the forest. He's in pretty bad shape. I don't know who he is, but we couldn't just leave him there."

"Let's go take a look," the healer said, opening the door for her friend. He led the way to the wagon where the injured man lay. Elissa greeted Themistocles' son, who helped her up into the wagon. She was at first distracted by the bit of bone that was protruding through the man's fractured leg, and didn't immediately see his face. When she finally realized who it was lying unconscious in the woodcutter's wagon, she couldn't hold back an astonished gasp.

"What is it?" Themistocles asked. "Do you know him?"

"Yes," she whispered. "I know him."

"Who is he?"

"No one. Can you help me get him inside?" Themistocles was confused, but he and his son carefully helped the healer carry the broken man inside the house.

"Is there anything else we can do?"

"Can you just find Iolaus and tell him I need him? I think he's out back in the garden." The man nodded and headed out the door. Elissa began examining her patient, trying to assess the extent of his injuries, until she heard Iolaus approaching. She leapt to the doorway and blocked his view into the room.

"Did Themistocles leave?"

"Yes. What's going on? Who did he bring here?" The healer stepped away from the door and allowed him to see the man lying on the bed.

"Ares!" Iolaus blurted. He moved closer and saw how badly the god of war had been battered. "How is this possible?"

"He's mortal," Elissa said quietly.

"He can't be mortal. He's a god." Iolaus was lost in confusion as a range of emotions washed through him.

"He is mortal, I'm sure of it. And I'll bet Sinis had something to do with it." The hunter had to admit she was probably right, but he hated to consider the possibility that Sinis was alive and had the power to do something like this.

"I'll go get some water," he told her, and went off to the spring with a bucket. It was obvious by the way she was feeling for injuries that she meant to care for the former god. Iolaus didn't like to admit it, but seeing Ares broken and bleeding hadn't aroused any sympathy within him. As the god of war, he had done nothing but cause grief and heartache to Hercules and himself, not to mention hordes of innocent people, and Iolaus couldn't help thinking that this was exactly what he deserved. But he knew Elissa could never stand by and let anyone die, even an evil, murdering ex-god, so he resolved to hold his tongue and help her.

He returned with the water and helped the healer set the fractured leg and replace a dislocated shoulder, then he watched as she carefully cleaned and bandaged the rest of his wounds. When she was finished, she gently bathed the rest of him and removed the ticks that had imbedded themselves in his skin as he'd lain in the forest. Iolaus knew Ares didn't deserve her kind ministrations, but it was against her nature to behave in any other way.

"What do you think?" he asked when she was done.

"It's bad," the healer answered. "I don't even know how much internal damage there is. If he can survive that and infection, he'll probably make it. One thing's for sure, whoever did this to him wanted him dead."

"Well, that's a short list," Iolaus muttered sarcastically. "Pretty much everyone wanted him dead at one time or another."

"Not everyone has the power to make him mortal," Elissa reminded him.

"But Sinis doesn't have that power either."

"I guess we won't know until he wakes up," she said. "If he wakes up."

Iolaus was rather hoping that Ares wouldn't live to regain consciousness, but as the fates would have it, he awoke the following morning and was none too happy to see his saviors.

"You," he scowled when his eyes were able to focus on the people standing above him.

"Nice to see you, too, Ares," Iolaus drawled.

"Just kill me and get it over with," the former god growled hoarsely.

"Believe me," Elissa told him. "If we wanted to kill you we wouldn't have spent the night taking care of your worthless hide." Iolaus couldn't suppress a small grin. He had thought that the healer had forgotten what a monster Ares had been, but now he saw that she remembered all too well.

"Who did this to you?" he asked. Ares stared hatefully at the hunter and refused to answer. He repeated the question, but all he got in reply was an earful of obscenities.

"You should be more respectful of the lady," Iolaus said calmly, though there was anger in his voice. "Because at the moment, she is the only one who cares if you live or die." He took Elissa's hand and they walked out of the room, leaving the furious man alone with his rage.

"Don't let him get to you, Iolaus," she consoled, rubbing his tense shoulders with her hands. He relaxed under her touch.

"He's not getting to me," the hunter told her. "But if he lives through this, I may have to kill him." Elissa laughed and hugged him from behind.

"My money's on you," she whispered in his ear. "But for now, I'm going out to the stream for a bath while he calms down a little. Care to join me?" Iolaus was more than willing, and the couple strolled outside and forgot about Ares for a time.

The former god took the time alone to consider his options. There really weren't many. He was feeling pain that he never could have imagined as a god, and none of his limbs seemed to be working. The only choices he had were to lay there and submit himself to the mortals, or to take his own life. So it really only left one choice, and it was one he was not happy with. The pain grew steadily worse as he lay and sulked, until he was unable to hold back the moans from escaping his lips.

The door to his room opened, and the young girl entered alone. She sat on the bed next to him and very gently raised his head off the pillow, holding a mug to his lips. At first he refused the drink she offered.

"Don't be so stubborn, Ares. It will help with the pain." The pain was overwhelming, even greater than his pride, so in the end he gave in and drank the tea.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked her, curiosity getting the better of him.

"I've been asking myself that same question," she grinned, giving him a small wink. He watched her leave the room and was filled with confusion. After everything he'd ever done or tried to do to Hercules and the runt, why would she help him? He just couldn't understand it.

The medicine she'd given him did help ease the pain, and he was able to sleep for a time. When he awoke, darkness had fallen. At least, he thought darkness had fallen. He was having trouble seeing correctly.

"Do you think we should send for Hercules?" It was the girl's voice.

"I don't want him here," Ares said, trying his best to sound forceful and menacing, furious at the weak croak the came from his mouth. "And I don't want you here, either. Get out. Get out!" Elissa tried to calm him, but he would not be placated until Iolaus had left the room. She assured the hunter that she would be fine alone with the injured man, and returned to find him wracked with pain. The healer did not have to coax the tea into him this time. He was begging her for it. When the medicine began working and he had calmed down a little, she sat next to him on the bed.

"Ares, who did this to you?"

"Sinis," he said wearily. "I made him a god." Elissa's heart sank at his words.

"Even so, how was he able to make you mortal?"

"I don't know. He disappeared for a time after I gave him his godhood, and then one day he suddenly came back. I laughed at him, but he stood in front of me and chanted some incantation. I don't know where he found it. The words didn't sound like any language I've ever heard. A whirlwind started blowing, and I was swept up in it. It somehow sucked my godhood out of me, and when it finally stopped, I was left a mortal. I thought that he meant to kill me then, but he left me a few days as a mortal just for the humiliation. Then he came to me again." Ares closed his eyes as if to block out the memory. Elissa rose and left the room. Iolaus needed to know about this.

The healer spent the night by the former god's bed. Pain robbed him of sleep, despite the teas she gave him. His leg had become infected, and he was also suffering through that illness. He couldn't keep up the tough front that he'd tried to display in Iolaus' presence, so refused to let anyone but Elissa in the room with him. The hunter was more than happy to oblige. He was so furious over Ares' decision to make Sinis into a god, he was sure that he would kill him in a heartbeat if he caught sight of him.

Elissa was also upset over what the former god of war had done, but the healer in her wouldn't let her walk away. She stayed by his side constantly one night to the next, caring for him as well as she had for Meliae. Iolaus crept in while Ares was tossing in a fitful sleep to embrace the tired girl.

"You need to rest," he whispered, but she shook her head.

"He's dying, Iolaus." He heard the sadness in her voice, and thought it was more compassion than Ares deserved.

"I'll sit with him," he offered. "Go lie down for awhile. I promise to come and get you if anything happens."

"I want to stay with him. Why don't you go to bed?"

"I can't sleep without you," Iolaus said, tracing a finger along her cheek. He sat beside her to keep her company, but eventually ended up asleep on the floor.

"I'm going to wind up in Tartarus," Ares said softly. Elissa jumped at his voice. She hadn't realized he was awake.

"I'm not going to let you die," she told him, laying a wet cloth on his fevered brow.

"You can't stop it," he said. His voice was so weak, she had to strain to hear his words. "I've been beaten beyond repair. This is my moment of clarity before death. I've killed enough people to know how it works. But I never thought I'd have to face my own death. And now that I am, I'm terrified." He looked at the girl who had given him kindness when even he knew he'd deserved none. "It wasn't supposed to happen this way. I was a god, and now I'm going to meet Hades as a mortal man. The worst part is, when I do end up in Tartarus, I only have myself to blame."

Elissa had no words to comfort him, as he spoke only the truth. Still, her heart went out to Ares. As bad as he'd been in the past, she couldn't help feeling sorry for him having to lie in suffering waiting for the fate he knew he was doomed for. She took his hand in hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. The former god who was now a dying man gave her the one genuine smile he'd ever had in all his years of existence before sinking into oblivion. Elissa doubted that he would awaken again.

Iolaus rose shortly before dawn, and even though he lacked experience as a healer, he could tell that Ares didn't have long. The hunter studied the face of his enemy. There was no hate or evil in his features, and he almost looked at peace as he slept. Iolaus sighed, attributing that thought to fatigue as he left the stone house. He knew Elissa wouldn't leave Ares until it was over, so he wanted to bring her some breakfast. She'd barely eaten the whole time she'd sat with him. But first he decided that a quick bath in the stream was needed to wake him up.

Elissa watched Ares as he slept. More and more she was seeing him as a dying man that she couldn't help and less as a hateful god of war.

"Why don't you help him, Zeus?" she whispered, brushing a damp curl of black hair from his face. "He's your son. What kind of a father leaves his son alone to die?"

The healer started as a bright glow illuminated the dark room, and she found herself face to face with the king of the gods in all his regal splendor.

"Do you question my actions?" he demanded of the girl in a deep voice.

"I just don't understand them," she said quietly, lowering her eyes in respect.

"He is a disgrace," Zeus thundered, looking hard at the prone figure on the bed. Elissa moved protectively to sit next to him.

"He is still your son." The god narrowed his eyes at the girl. He had been observing her as he watched over Hercules, and he knew she had spirit. But she did not seem afraid of him, even going so far as to argue with him, and he was unaccustomed to that from a mortal. He was a little displeased, but he also had to respect her conviction.

"Why are you so concerned with his life? You of all people should have good cause to want him dead."

"All life is precious, even his. I can't stand by and watch a life slip away if there is something I can do to save it." She raised her eyes to meet his and held his steady gaze. Zeus really did not know what to make of this mortal girl. He turned to stare at Ares for long moments, then faced the healer.

"Do you really want him to live?"

"Yes." There was no hesitation in her answer, and the word was said with confidence.

"So be it." In a flash of light, Zeus was gone. After her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the room, Elissa examined Ares. He still slept, but the fever and the pallor had left him. She removed the bandage from his fractured leg and found that the wound was gone. Zeus had healed his son completely, but she instinctively knew that he had left Ares mortal. Suddenly, the full weight of what she had just done hit her and she turned and fled from the room.

"Please don't hate me," she begged Iolaus frantically. He had been trying to kneed a mound of dough to make bread, and he quickly wiped off his hands to comfort the hysterical girl.

"I could never hate you," he said, sitting her down at the table. "How can you even say that?" Her behavior was scaring him. She never panicked, and it was hard to calm her when he was having trouble calming himself. "Tell me what happened."

Elissa got a grip on herself enough to tell him what had just transpired in Ares' room.

"Zeus asked me if I wanted him to live and I said yes. He's alive because of me. If I'd said no, Ares would be gone. But he's alive because I asked Zeus to spare him. He's done so many terrible things to you and Hercules, and now thanks to me he'll be around to do more. If he ends up killing you, it'll be all my fault."

"Honey," Iolaus soothed, taking the girl into his arms. "You did what your heart told you to do. It's against your nature to let anyone die, as a healer and as a human being. You are too full of love and compassion for that. If you would have told Zeus no, then you would have killed him the same as if you'd run him through with a sword. You aren't capable of that. I understand that, and so does Hercules. We don't hate you for that, or begrudge you for doing what you had to do. It only makes me love you all the more."

Elissa almost didn't believe him until she looked into his eyes. The brilliant blue orbs that always spilled his secrets to her let her know that he was telling the truth. They also let her know how much he really did love her, and she was comforted and calmed.

"Feel better now?" he asked. She nodded and he gave her a wry grin. "Then do you think you could help me out with this bread?" Elissa got up to inspect his work.

"Iolaus, what did you do to this?" she exclaimed as she poked the dough.

"I tried my best," he said quietly. He looked so crestfallen she couldn't help but laugh.

"It's ok. I'll take over from here," she told him, wrapping her arms around him. "But you deserve a kiss for your efforts." He took his reward eagerly, then went out to the garden to collect some berries for their meal.

Ares came out of his room while they were eating. Elissa invited him to join them, but he merely glared at them and stormed out of the house. They exchanged looks and Iolaus shrugged, and then went back to their meal.

Ares stomped around the house and entered the forest, but did not go far. His initial happiness at finding himself alive and cured when he woke had given away to resentment that he was still mortal. As much as he didn't want to stay where he was, he was afraid to leave. If Sinis knew he was still alive, he would be back to finish the job. And Iolaus had been right. The girl was the only one who gave a damn about him. But someone had healed him, and it hadn't been her.

"Zeus!" he called to the sky. "Zeus! Don't ignore me! Zeus!" Ares screamed until he was hoarse, until finally his father appeared before him.

"Is this your doing?" he demanded, indicating his healed wounds. The king of the gods granted him a small nod.

"Gee, thanks Dad. I didn't know you cared," Ares sneered.

"Make no mistake, son. You are here for one reason and one reason only. I was prepared to let you die, but then that mortal girl begged me to spare your life." The words deflated the former god.

"Why would she do that?" He whispered the question to himself, but his father heard.

"She apparently saw something in you worth saving. I fail to see it myself." This statement made Ares flinch inwardly, but he refused to acknowledge that to Zeus.

"And since when does the king of the gods obey the whims of a mortal girl?" he goaded.

"You should just be glad you're alive and don't question why," Zeus advised sternly, turning to go.

"Wait! You're just going to leave me like this? As one of them?"

"If you want your godhood back, you'll have to earn it," he told his son. "Then maybe next time you won't be so quick to abuse your powers." With a withering look, the god vanished. Ares screamed in frustration and punched the nearest tree trunk. As a god, he would have split it in half, but as a mortal, he merely succeeded in hurting his hand.

Elissa and Iolaus were cleaning up the kitchen when Ares burst into the house.

"Why did you do it?" he demanded of the healer, striding up to her angrily. "I didn't ask you to. Why did you do it?" Iolaus scowled at Ares' back. He didn't like Elissa being spoken to in that manner.

"Ares," she began calmly, but he didn't let her speak.

"I don't owe you anything," he spat, grabbing her by the arm and giving her a quick shake. "Don't think this changes anything." He felt hands on him from behind and spun around to meet the hunter's icy eyes.

"Don't touch her," he said quietly, but the words were menacing.

"Maybe I should touch you instead," Ares growled, giving the hunter a hard shove to the chest. Elissa took hold of the former god's arm to try to prevent the eminent fight. Without thinking, Ares' other hand shot out and slammed into her face. He stared in horror as she fell backwards. It had been a completely instinctual reaction. He hadn't meant to hit her, but he didn't have time to apologize. Iolaus had rammed an iron fist into his stomach and knocked the wind out of him.

"Does that make you feel tough? To hit a woman? Come on, Ares, you bastard," he yelled. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."

Ares struggled to his feet and took up a defensive stance. Iolaus feigned a left punch, and as he moved to block it the hunter got him with a right. Before he could recover, the smaller man was all over him, lashing out with lightening speed. Finally, the raining blows ceased. The battle was over, and the man who was once the god of war hadn't even connected with Iolaus once. He looked up in a daze at the man standing over him, just barely in control of himself.

"Get out of here, Ares, or not even Zeus will be able to save you." The hunter's voice was quivering with fury. Ares painfully pulled himself to a sitting position. He wiped the blood streaming from his nose with his hand and looked at the girl. She was still crouched on the floor, looking stunned. Her eye was beginning to swell up where he had struck her. Ares wanted so much to tell her he was sorry, but he couldn't make the words come out of his throat. So he stood up a little shakily, and left the house with the tiny shred of dignity he still had left.

"Are you ok?" Iolaus asked the healer, helping her up to the bench. The anger in his voice had been replaced by infinite tenderness.

"I thought you were going to kill him," she whispered.

"I wanted to," he confessed, carefully probing her injury with gentle fingers. "I probably would have, but then I would have had to deal with you, and that's a fight I'd like to avoid."

"You'd never win," she said, wincing a little as he held a cloth soaked in cold water to the bruise.

"My point exactly."

Iolaus' pleas to his love to take it easy for the rest of the day went unheeded. She assured him she was fine and went about packing up their supplies yet again.

"Are you sure you're up to leaving tomorrow?" he asked her, concerned.

"Yes," Elissa declared vehemently. "I just want to get out of here." Usually she loved being at home, but this trip had been anything but pleasant.

As night fell, they shared a simple dinner and cleaned up the kitchen quickly. A soft breeze was blowing in the air, and the couple took a walk in the garden. Iolaus returned to the house for a flask of wine, and when he returned, he found Elissa crying on the bench.

"What is it?" he murmured as she sobbed against his chest.

"I can't stop thinking about everything," she cried. "About Cimon. He was a good man. He never hurt anyone. Everyone loved him. And poor little Meliae. She wasn't even five years old yet. She had her whole life ahead of her. They're both gone and I couldn't do anything to save them. But Ares…" Huge sobs shook her frame and Iolaus hugged her tightly.

"You would have saved Cimon and Meliae if you could have. It just wasn't in your power. You had a chance to save Ares and you took it. Honor the memories of those that were fated to go, and don't second guess the life that you were able to preserve."

"I'm sorry," she gasped, trying to choke back the sobs. "I don't know what made me go off like that."

"Those qualities that make you such a wonderful healer are also the ones that leave you open to be hurt," Iolaus told her, brushing her tears away. "I know you take a death of someone you're trying to help very hard, and although it pains me to see you upset, I wouldn't have to any other way." He cuddled her to him and stroked her auburn hair. "You're also exhausted. Why don't we go in and go to bed?" He felt her nod against his chest and he stood, pulling her up with him.

"We are leaving tomorrow, aren't we?" she yawned as they entered the house.

"Yes. We have a very important mission to complete." The hunter was only half joking.

"I know," Elissa said tiredly as she crawled into bed. "Find Hercules before Sinis does."

Disclaimer: All wild boars remained free and happy during the writing of this story, although the honeycomb tree is in failing health.

Chapter Seven: Another Tricky Day
The Iolausian Library