Author’s Note: This is chapter twenty-five in a continuing arc. No copyright infringement intended on characters owned by Universal Studios/RenPics. Comments always welcome.
To read a summary of previous chapters, click here
Oh, the feeling’s gone, so what went wrong
Don't search for reasons why
'Cause that's that
That's just where it's at
Like it or not, it's what is what and there ain’t no turning back
Get this, that's just the way it is
It's the way it is, not the way it could be,
The way it is was, or the way it should be
The things you miss, your lover's kiss, a voice you never could resist
Punching air with your clenched fist will not change this
'Cause that's the way it is
The Way It Is - Simon Townshend
Elissa sat quietly, her work forgotten as she stared blindly across the yard, deep in thought. There was a defeated slump to her shoulders and a sadness to her green eyes. Feelings and emotions she’d been trying so hard to mask as she put on a brave face for those around her. But when she was alone, she couldn’t keep up the masquerade, and all her fears and frustrations came boiling to the surface, demanding to be dealt with. However, she found that dealing with them was no easy matter. And for the first time in her life, the healer was at a loss over how to make things better.
She sighed heavily, pushing her hair behind her ears as she pulled her mind back to the task at hand. There was work to be done, and she couldn’t waste any more time giving into tears. She’d long since learned that it accomplished nothing. Picking up her pestle, she went back to grinding the aromatic herbs, crushing them into a thick poultice which she scraped into a small clay jar. Gathering up her tools when she was done, she rose from her seat in the grass where she’d been enjoying the warm sunshine and started heading for the door, but she was halted by someone calling her name. Turning, she spied Hercules coming down the path toward the stone house. The healer greeted him warmly, if with some reservation.
“How’s Polymede?” Elissa inquired.
“Better,” Hercules replied. “She’s up and around a little bit, but she could use some more vervain.”
“Come inside and I’ll get it for you.”
The demigod followed her into the house and had a seat at the table while the healer began preparing a small bundle of the dried herb. As she worked, Hercules stole a small glance down the hallway that led back to the bedrooms.
“How is he today?”
“Ok,” Elissa replied evasively, her back toward him as she tied up the herbs. “He’s sleeping right now. He had a bit of a rough night, and I’d hate to wake him.”
It was a lie. Hercules knew it, and Elissa knew that he knew. But the demigod merely nodded as she turned and handed him the parcel, his expression as neutral as hers, although neither one could hide the despair in their eyes.
“Three times a day, same as before,” the healer told him, hating the game they were playing and almost wishing the demigod would call her on it.
“Thanks.” Impulsively, Hercules reached down and pulled her into a tight hug. “Tell him I was here, ok?”
“I will,” Elissa promised, her throat tight as she hugged him back.
The demigod let her go and headed for the door, turning back to wave as he let himself out. His steps were heavy as he trudged up the path to the road, although not as heavy as his heart. He’d volunteered to stay with the widow Polymede after she’d fallen and hurt herself, as she could barely walk and needed assistance with simple chores. Hercules was glad to help, bringing in water and wood and taking care of the house. The old woman was crotchety, but good hearted, and she had no family to call on. And staying with her gave him the opportunity to remain in Acheron, yet at a distance from the great stone house. At first, Hercules thought it was the perfect solution, until they could work through some things. But now he was beginning to wonder if they ever would.
Elissa’s heart was just as heavy as the demigod’s. Maybe more so, as she didn’t have the luxury of distance. She was completely immersed, with no one to turn to. And even though she tried to stay strong, with each day that passed she lost a little more hope. While she vowed that she would never give up on her golden hunter, defeat was starting to weigh her down. Something was going to have to give soon, and she could only pray that it wouldn’t be her. With a heavy sigh, she pulled a small pot of water from the fire, pouring the steaming liquid into a mug to make tea as Aurora entered the kitchen.
“Thank you,” the healer murmured, adding a spoonful of honey to the mug.
“Elissa,” the girl began hesitantly. “Can I talk to you about something?”
“I was thinking that... Well, with Iolaus hurt and all, I know you have your hands full and the last thing you need is me hanging around, getting in the way...”
“You’re joking, right?” the healer interrupted in disbelief.
“I just thought it would be easier on you if you had one less person to worry about,” Aurora whispered, ducking her head.
“How can you think that?” Elissa asked gently, cupping her chin and tilting her head up to meet her gaze. “Aurora, you’ve been like a blessing for me. You’ve been a huge help, and I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
The girl quickly turned her eyes back on the floor before the healer could see the tears welling in them. She desperately wanted to believe that Elissa had been sincere, and that she was actually wanted there. Aurora liked the great stone house and loved the people that had taken her in. More than anything, she wished that she could call it home, feel that she belonged there with the people that she wanted as her family. But she couldn’t let herself. In her short life she had learned the hard way that nobody could be trusted. She couldn’t depend on anyone but herself, and she knew that sooner or later she would have to leave. Aurora preferred that it be on her own terms, of her own volition, so at least she could look back on her time there as a happy memory. But for the time being, she decided that she could afford to stay a little longer. Being needed was at least something.
“I know I’ve pushed Cale off on you more than I should,” Elissa said, reaching out to stroke the girl’s hair.
“I don’t mind,” Aurora protested quickly. And it was true. The baby looked up at her with those clear eyes that never held any judgement or distaste or condemnation. Her sweet little face wrinkled up in a smile and she cooed happily when Aurora held her. An innocent little soul, loving and trusting implicitly. When she had Cale in her arms, it was the closest feeling to peace that Aurora had known in a long time.
“I know that, too,” the healer continued. “But you’re young, and you don’t need to be tied down to a baby. Why don’t you get out of here for the day? Take some time to yourself, have a little fun?”
“Where am I supposed to go?”
“Here.” Elissa reached up for a small box on the shelf and took out a few coins which she pressed into the girl’s hand. “Why don’t you go into town? Go wander around the marketplace for awhile.”
“I can’t take this.”
“Consider it payment for babysitting,” the healer told her with a tired smile. “Now get going before Cale starts screaming and I beg you to stay.”
As Aurora left, somewhat hesitantly, Elissa took the mug of tea and went down the hall to her bedroom. She let herself in, going first to the window to open the shutters and let the warm sunlight dispel the gloom. The healer set the mug of tea down on the table next to the bed, beside the untouched breakfast plate she’d left earlier.
“Iolaus,” she chided wearily, no real conviction in her tone as it was an old argument. “You have to eat.”
The hunter didn’t answer, his blue eyes staring at the window, refusing to look at her.
“Hercules was here again this morning,” she informed him, not expecting a reaction. Elissa put her hands on her hips, a firm note creeping into her voice. “I’m not doing this anymore, Iolaus. I’m not going to keep lying to him. I’m out of excuses, and he knows better anyway. If you don’t want to see him, you’re going to have to tell him that yourself.”
“Fine,” the hunter replied dully.
Biting back a sigh of exasperation, the healer pulled the blanket off of her husband and gently took his left leg in her hands. Carefully, she began moving the limb, stretching it out and bending it back repeatedly as she worked the muscles.
“Why do you keep doing that?” he demanded.
“I’ve told you why,” she answered stubbornly. It was another argument that had grown old. The healer had seen too many men, paralyzed by war injuries or accidents, whose legs had become shriveled with time as the unused muscles wasted away. And she refused to let that happen to Iolaus.
“What does it matter?” he muttered bitterly.
“It should matter to you,” she accused.
“Of course not,” Elissa said quietly. “Nothing matters anymore. Not even me.”
“It matters that you’re wasting your time on something pointless,” he insisted.
“Are you talking about the exercise or yourself in general?”
“Both,” Iolaus whispered, the smallest hint of emotion creeping into his voice. “I’m no good to anyone like this, Lis. You should just forget about me and move on with your life.”
The healer rolled her eyes as she switched to his right leg.
“That fall must have knocked something loose in your brain if you actually think I’d listen to that.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my brain, damn it!” He finally turned his head to look at her, his eyes glowing hotly. “But I’m starting to wonder about yours. That fall crippled me, Elissa! This...” He waved vaguely to indicate the room around him. “Is all that’s left for me now. And the sooner you get that through your head, the better for everyone.”
“I understand that just fine,” she told him through clenched teeth, her patience starting to wear thin. “But let me just set you straight on something, my brave warrior. I am never giving up on you. So you might as well just get that into YOUR head and deal with it.”
“That’s what you say now,” he muttered darkly.
“Oh no,” she insisted vehemently, abandoning her ministrations to move to the front of the bed so she could look him straight in the eye. The healer knew he was baiting her, but she couldn’t stop herself from rising to it. “It is NEVER going to be over between us, you got that?”
“You’re wasting your life,” Iolaus said tonelessly, his gaze drifting back toward the window.
“I think you have me confused with yourself,” she argued, crossing her arms over her chest.
“I don’t have a life anymore.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way, Iolaus,” the healer shouted, thoroughly exasperated.
“It IS that way,” he growled back.
Awakened by the loud voices, Cale began to wail from the next room. Elissa ignored the child, staring at her husband, helpless to come up with any words to break through his wall of self-isolation and beside herself with frustration.
“The baby needs you,” he finally pointed out.
“The baby?” Elissa echoed. “You can’t even call her by her name anymore, can you? You can’t alienate her, like you’re doing to the rest of us, so you’re distancing yourself from your own daughter.”
Iolaus turned his head to look at her once more, his normally expressive blue eyes closed behind an unreadable mask.
“Cale’s crying,” he said, with distinct emphasis on her name.
The healer gazed back at him for a moment, then turned and stalked out of the room, determined not to let him see her cry. She went across the hall to the other bedroom and scooped the baby from her basket, rocking her gently to soothe her as the tears streamed down her cheeks. She would never give up on her golden hunter, but what did that matter if he had given up on himself?
“Hello?” Jason called out as he stuck his head through the door. He caught sight of Elissa at the kitchen table and entered the house, followed closely by Amyntas. The Argonaut scooped Cale up from where she was lying on a blanket on the floor and had a seat on the bench at the table across from the healer after dropping a quick kiss on her cheek.
“What brings you two out this way?” Elissa inquired, getting up to put water on for tea for her visitors.
“One of the farmers to the north of town lost several sheep last night,” Jason explained, bouncing the baby on his lap, grinning as she gurgled in delight.
“A wolf?” the healer speculated.
“We’re not sure,” he continued. “But we just wanted to let you girls know to be careful after dark.”
Elissa nodded, not overly concerned. “I’ll let Aurora know.”
“I could do that for you,” Amyntas piped up, trying hard to appear casual. “Is she around?”
“I sent her into town to the market,” the healer told him, hiding a smile at his crestfallen expression.
“Oh,” he sighed, kicking gently at the table leg with the toe of his boot. “Well, I guess I’ll just go out and see to the horses for you.”
“I can do that,” Jason told the boy with a warm grin. “You should probably go into town and find Aurora and walk her back here. Make sure she gets home safely.”
“You think so?” Amyntas asked hopefully.
With a quick smile of appreciation, the boy turned and dashed out of the house.
“I think our young Amyntas has it bad for the fair Aurora,” the Argonaut chuckled.
“It would seem that way,” Elissa replied, not sharing her friend’s enthusiasm. With all Aurora had been through, the healer wasn’t sure if the girl was ready for, or even wanted, any sort of relationship with the opposite sex. She couldn’t help feeling that Amyntas’ crush would lead to nothing but hurt feelings and broken hearts.
“I spoke with Aricia last night about sending him to the Academy,” Jason revealed.
“To say she didn’t take it well would be a grave understatement.”
“I tried to tell you,” the healer reminded him, setting a steaming mug down on the table across from him as she resumed her seat.
“I know, but I think there’s more to it than just not wanting her son to go so far away,” the Argonaut mused. “I think she’s worried about what will happen to her if Amyntas leaves.”
“What do you mean?”
“All of his spare time is spent out in the woods hunting and fishing,” Jason explained. Like Hercules, he’d also felt the need to remain in Acheron, but wanted to keep the margin of distance that his injured friend seemed to require. So he’d opted to stay with Aricia and Amyntas, where he’d had plenty of opportunity to observe their humble lifestyle. “What they don’t use themselves, Aricia takes to market and sells or trades for what they need. Without that, she wouldn’t have any source of income.”
“She’s had a hard life,” Elissa sighed, sipping her own mug. “But she’s fiercely proud and independent. I’ve known her since as far back as I can remember, and she’s never asked anybody for anything.”
“I know you don’t need anything else to worry about,” the Argonaut cajoled her. “But do you think you could just talk to her? Try to get her to see how much good it would do for Amyntas? She might listen to you.”
“You’re really determined to send him, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am,” Jason declared. It had been something that he had been thinking about for some time, and he’d finally decided to act on it. And being a former king, he was used to getting what he wanted.
“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try.”
“Thank you.” The Argonaut shifted the baby into the crook of his arm and picked up his mug, taking a sip of the sweet tea. “How’s Iolaus today?”
“The same,” the healer told him despondently. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she gave up fighting them. She was tired, and simply didn’t have the energy to keep up the optimistic front she’d been displaying for her friends. “I just don’t know what to do, Jason.”
“You have to give him time,” the Argonaut counseled her gently. He rose, setting Cale back down on the floor as he moved around the table to sit next to Elissa, drawing her into his warm embrace. The gesture obliterated her tenuous control and she began to sob as he cradled her to his chest. “Iolaus is strong,” Jason comforted her. “He’ll find his way through this.”
“I tried to tell myself that, but I don’t believe it anymore,” she cried softly. “He survived the fall, but it killed his spirit. I’ve never seen him like this before. So cold and empty. There’s no life left in him. And I can’t help thinking that time is just going to make it worse.”
“He’s come through worse than this,” Jason reasoned, stroking her hair. “Nothing can keep him down for long.”
“I don’t know,” she protested. “You and I are the only two he’ll even let near him. And he completely ignores you and does his best to run me off. He’s severing his ties, Jason, and that terrifies me.”
The Argonaut didn’t reply, for he had no words of solace. Despite his cheerful confidence, he secretly was unnerved and disheartened by his old friend’s uncharacteristic bleakness and depression. But like the healer, he didn’t know what to do to help Iolaus. So, he did the next best thing. He held the hunter’s wife and let her release all her pent up emotions, providing a safe outlet for Elissa to grieve and rage until she finally succumbed to exhaustion.
Iolaus ignored the soft knock on the door, but even though he hadn’t granted admittance, after a moment the door opened and someone entered. He was facing the wall and didn’t bother turning to identify his visitor, but he didn’t have to. Instinctively, he knew who it was.
“I’m leaving in the morning,” Hercules finally spoke. “For Corinth. But I wanted to come and say goodbye first.”
The demigod received no reply, so he moved forward with a heavy sigh to sit on the edge of the bed, facing away from his friend, toward the door.
“Iolaus, I know that you hate me...”
“I don’t hate you.”
But the quiet voice did little to reassure him.
“You don’t know how sor...”
“And don’t apologize,” the hunter interrupted. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”
“Then tell me what I CAN do,” Hercules implored helplessly, glancing over his shoulder.
“Nothing,” Iolaus replied. “There’s nothing you can do. Not now.” He paused, and when he spoke again, the cold matter of fact tone in his voice chilled the demigod to his soul. “You should have let me die, Herc.”
“You know I could never do that,” Hercules whispered past the lump in his throat.
“If this is what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life, I’d rather be dead.”
“You don’t mean that,” the demigod insisted, turning and tucking a leg up under him to face his friend.
“Don’t tell me what I mean,” Iolaus exploded, rolling over to look at his partner, his blue eyes blazing angrily. “It’s fine for you to come in here and tell me what I should think and feel. But it isn’t you that’s lying here, Hercules. You can lecture me all you want, but in the end, your legs work. You can walk out of here and go back to your life. But I don’t have that option. This is my life now, stuck here useless and helpless. This is the way it is. So why don’t you just save me all your apologies and pep talks, huh? Just go and be the hero that you still are and find somebody that you CAN help. Forget about me, pretend that I did die.”
“I’m not going to pretend that you’re dead,” Hercules told him fiercely, reeling as if he’d been physically struck.
“I might as well be.”
“Get out of here, Hercules. Leave me alone.”
The fire had gone out of the hunter, leaving behind only weary resignation as he turned to the wall once more, his actions reinforcing his words. After several long moments, Hercules rose slowly and started toward the door, but turned back, his voice thick with emotion.
“Iolaus, I am truly sorry about what happened to you. What you lost is great, and I’d trade places with you in a heartbeat if I could.” The demigod paused, drawing in a long breath and closing his eyes briefly. When he continued, a hard note of bitterness crept into his tone. “But the fact is, you are alive. Maybe you can’t walk, but you can still live. You can still experience. Things you used to love are still here for you to enjoy. The warm sun, the scent of spring flowers, rabbit stew and honey cakes. But most of all, you are still here to watch your daughter grow up. You can teach her and guide her in the ways it matters the most. You can still hold your wife in your arms and tell her you love her. And you can laugh with your friends over a bottle of wine. You can still be here for the people that love and need you. And maybe when you stop feeling sorry for yourself, you’ll realize that.”
Hercules let himself out of the room, shutting the door a bit forcefully behind him. Entering the kitchen, he slumped down at the table and buried his face in his hands.
“That didn’t go the way I planned.”
“Surely you haven’t forgotten how obstinate he can be?” Elissa asked him, sliding down on the bench beside him.
“No,” the demigod sighed, looking up at her. “I just forgot how infuriating it is.”
They exchanged smiles tinged with sadness, then the healer leaned in for a hug. Hercules obliged, wrapping his strong arms around her and holding her tightly. He knew that all the times she had lied to keep him from his partner weren’t to shield Iolaus, but rather to protect him. To spare him the hurt of having his best friend reject him. Oh, the demigod knew that Iolaus had told her he didn’t want to see him, but dancing around the issue was less painful than having it thrown in his face.
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right if I go?” he asked.
“Yes,” Elissa replied. “I hate that you’re leaving, but I understand why you need to go. Do what you have to do, Hercules, and don’t worry about us. We’ll be all right.”
“You’ll still have Jason here.”
The healer winced against the hurt she heard in his voice. Neither she nor Jason had mentioned to him that the Argonaut had been helping care for Iolaus. But the demigod was no fool, and she realized that he must have figured out that the hunter, while compact, was solid, especially when he was being uncooperative, and her small stature wasn’t always adequate. Elissa knew that the fact that Iolaus permitted Jason to help, while refusing to even see Hercules, was the equivalent to a dagger in the heart for the demigod.
“He doesn’t mean it,” she whispered, hugging him harder.
“I know,” Hercules whispered back. But that did little to comfort the ache in his chest or ease the sorrow in his soul.
“It’s a beautiful day outside,” Elissa commented, gazing through the window out at the bright blue sky. “Too nice to spend in here.” She glanced over at Aurora who was filling a tub with steaming water from the kettle hanging over the fire. “How about a picnic?”
“A picnic?” the girl demanded, knowing that the healer was up to something.
“Sure.” Elissa shrugged, attempting nonchalance. “And maybe we could ask Amyntas to go with us.”
“And then you back out at the last minute and leave me stuck with him,” Aurora concluded sagely. “No thanks.”
“Well, I thought you two were maybe starting to become friends. He did walk you home the other night.”
“Only because he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” the girl explained, sliding the breakfast dishes into the hot water. “Gods, Elissa, you’re worse than Jason.”
“I’m sorry,” the healer grinned. “But I’m an old married woman now, and I can’t help wanting to vicariously relive a little youthful romance.”
“Well, you’re going to have to do it through someone else,” Aurora stated firmly. “Look, Amyntas is a nice boy, but I don’t want to be ‘friends’. Not with him, or anyone else.”
“All right,” Elissa said quietly, picking up on the sudden tenseness that had come over the girl “I won’t bring it up again. But you know, if you ever want to talk about it, you can talk to me.”
Aurora hesitated, and for a moment Elissa thought she was actually going to unburden her troubled soul. But the untimely arrival of Jason ruined the moment, and the girl began attacking the dishes furiously as the healer invited him in.
“I can’t stay,” the Argonaut relayed a bit breathlessly. “That beast that’s been plaguing Acheron struck again last night. Only this time, it wasn’t satisfied with livestock.”
The healer paled and Aurora’s fierce scrubbing subsided as his meaning sunk in.
“Who?” Elissa asked fearfully.
“Nobody from town. A traveler, on the road at the wrong place, wrong time.”
“Surely that’s not the work of a wolf?” the healer speculated.
“It left some prints behind this time,” Jason told them. “Big ones. Maybe a lion.”
“A rogue lion.” Elissa shuddered slightly at the thought. “If it has a taste for human flesh, nobody will be safe.”
“That’s why we’re going after it,” the Argonaut reassured her, putting a comforting hand on her arm. “A few men from town are forming a hunting party and I volunteered to go with them. We’re leaving soon, but I just wanted to come and warn you girls first.”
“Jason, promise me you’ll be careful.”
“Don’t worry.” He smiled fondly at the healer. “I’ve been on enough adventures with a certain pair of heroes to know my way around a killer beast.” The Argonaut leaned in to kiss her cheek. “You just stay inside until we get back, ok?”
Elissa watched as he strode up the path and swung up on his stallion. Jason looked every inch the brave hero that he was, and it was hard to believe he had once lost his confidence. Those were dark days, even darker than the ones she now faced. Although, for one selfish moment, the healer would have traded the safety of the known world just to get her golden hunter back. Sighing, she shut the door, offering up a prayer that Jason would be safe, for her little family had known too much tragedy already. She glanced at Aurora, who had gone back to the dishes, and the girl gave her a wry grin.
“I guess the picnic’s postponed.”
Hercules stood on the crest of the hill, looking down over the magnificent city of Corinth. The setting sun cast its rosy rays over the bustling seaport, illuminating the castle that stood tall and proud as a figurehead and a protector of its people. His journey was at an end, but the demigod was loathe to complete it, for reasons he didn’t even understand. So instead of starting down over the hill, he turned and left the road, venturing deeper into the woods until he came to a familiar clearing by a crystal lake. Hercules set up camp and pulled a few fish from the water, more out of habit than hunger. And by the time he had cooked his catch and eaten his fill, darkness had descended over the land and he was left to the peace of the night and the torment of his thoughts.
A twig snapping was a welcome distraction, and the demigod bolted up at the sound. He scanned the woods to the east where he’d heard the noise, but failed to see any movement in the shadows. All was quiet once more, but he knew someone was nearby.
“Who’s there?” he called out, cautiously but not threateningly.
“It’s only me, Hercules.”
“Hebe,” the demigod sighed as the beautiful goddess stepped into the glow of his firelight.
“Did I startle you?” she asked, moving forward tentatively, as if waiting for an invitation.
“No,” he replied, sitting back down in front of the fire. “But what are you doing wandering in the woods when you can just pop in here if you want?”
“I wanted to give you a little advance warning,” she explained, realizing that an invitation probably wasn’t coming. But since he hadn’t told her to get lost, either, she approached and eased herself gracefully to the ground beside him. “And sometimes it’s good to walk. Helps clear the mind.”
Hercules chuckled slightly at the thought of a god actually wanting to travel like a mortal, and more ludicrously, needing time to think. But then, Hebe hadn’t always been a god and still retained her mortal compassion.
“So, what are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” she said, evading his question. “What are you doing out here when you’re so close to your brother’s castle?”
“Oh,” he shrugged, poking at the fire and giving her a small grin. “Sometimes it’s good to have a little time to yourself out in the woods. It helps clear the mind.”
She smiled back at him, and he quickly looked away from her radiant beauty.
“We used to come up here a lot,” Hercules confessed, staring off into the dark woods as his memories overtook him. “Iolaus and Jason and I. Jason hated being cooped up in the castle all the time. So whenever we’d visit, he’d always want to take a couple of days and come up here. Forget about all his kingly responsibilities and just hang out with us. I never realized it then, but those were some of the happiest times of my whole life.”
“I know how sad you are, Hercules,” the goddess told him quietly.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have left,” the demigod murmured, hanging his head. “I feel like I abandoned him.”
“There’s nothing more you can do.”
“There has to be,” he insisted. “Maybe if I keep pushing him...”
“No,” Hebe disagreed, shaking her head slightly. “If you do that, he’ll only end up resenting you. Iolaus survived his ordeal, but now he has to decide if he wants to go back to embracing life or not. You can’t make that decision for him, and if you keep hounding him when he doesn’t want you there, you’ll only distract him and delay the outcome. You let him know that you love him and need him, and he knows you’ll be there if he decides he’s not ready to turn his back on the world. And that’s all you can do. This is one battle you can’t fight for him, Hercules. Iolaus has to do it on his own.”
“I still shouldn’t have left,” the demigod muttered. “I could be there for Elissa...”
“Then why did you go?”
“Because.” His voice wavered and he had to stop and clear his throat. “It hurt too much to stay.”
“You can’t help him if he won’t let you,” Hebe consoled him, resting a warm hand on his arm. “Maybe some distance for now is best. You have to take care of yourself, Hercules. Take a breather, and renew your strength. For Iolaus is going to need it when he comes around.”
“Do you think he will?” The demigod looked up, tears glistening in his eyes.
“I do,” the goddess said confidently, slipping an arm around him. “Iolaus is never one to give up. Right now, he’s feeling dependent and helpless. But he’s only concerned with himself. Once someone that he cares about needs him, he won’t fail to rise to the challenge. And the fact that he can’t walk won’t stop him from helping someone he loves.”
Hercules let out a long breath, feeling strangely comforted by Hebe’s words.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she offered.
“No,” he answered with a slight shake of the head. “I don’t.”
“Do you want me to go?”
The demigod looked at the goddess next to him, feeling his breath catch in his throat. Her raven hair was darker than the blackness of the night, and the dancing flames of the fire were reflected in her violet eyes. He reached a hand up, tracing a finger over her cheek and shivered at the feel of her satiny ivory skin. And the wall that he’d built up around the feelings he’d once had for her came crashing down in an instant.
“No,” he whispered as his lips inched toward hers. “No, I definitely don’t want you to go.”
The healer’s heart leapt into her throat as she heard the terror in the girl’s cry, her first thought being that the beast that had been prowling around Acheron had found it’s way to her home. She flew out of the door and a wave of relief washed over her to see that Aurora was intact and unharmed. But then panic seized her again as she realized the girl was holding on to the reigns of Jason’s horse, and the Argonaut was slumped forward in the saddle across the horse’s neck. As she got closer, she saw that his left leg was swathed in a blanket that was soaked with blood.
“Jason,” she called out, reaching up to shake his arm slightly. “Can you hear me?”
The Argonaut moaned slightly, but did not respond. Elissa assessed that he was barely conscious, but was clinging to the horse’s mane with all of his might. Grabbing the reigns from the girl, she led the horse closer to the door of the house, then ran inside and dragged one of the kitchen benches out, positioning it alongside the animal. She hopped up on the bench and felt for a pulse, finding it weak and sluggish.
“Jason,” she tried again, rubbing a hand over his shoulder. “Jason, wake up.”
Aurora held up a rag that she had dunked in water and the healer took it gratefully. Gently, she turned the Argonaut’s head slightly and wiped the cool cloth over his face before holding it against the back of his neck. After a moment, his eyelids began to flutter.
“That’s it,” Elissa encouraged. “Come on back to us, Jason.”
Finally, the brown eyes focused on her, and the light of understanding began to dawn in them. The healer nodded her head, and Aurora climbed up on the bench beside her. But the Argonaut refused to release his white knuckled grip on the horse’s mane.
“It’s ok, Jason,” the healer reassured him. “You made it. You’re home. But we have to get you inside so I can look at your leg. Come on, now. That’s it. We’ve got you.”
Slowly the Argonaut slid down from his saddle to the bench, but his knees buckled under his weight. He almost toppled to the ground, but the two small women were determined and struggled with all their might not to let him fall. It took longer than Elissa liked, and with more stress on his injured leg than she wanted, but together she and Aurora managed to get him down and into the house, laying him gently before the fire.
“I need lots of hot water and a stack of clean bandages,” Elissa commanded briskly, getting down to business after quickly stretching out the cramped muscles in her back. Aurora paused to slip a small pillow under Jason’s head, then grabbed up the water bucket and dashed outside to the spring. The healer took a few moments to build up the fire and then laid out a few instruments she thought she’d need on a clean towel on the hearth. A quick perusal of the pantry secured a few herbs and medicines, and then she was ready to begin.
She did a quick check of the Argonaut, but couldn’t find any other immediate injuries. He had seemingly slipped back into unconsciousness, for which she was grateful. Elissa didn’t know what awaited her under the blanket, but she knew it wasn’t going to be good. Aurora set the stack of bandages beside her, and the healer wasted no time diving in, unrolling the blanket with a calm efficiency. With a small knife, she cut away the bloody shreds of his trouser leg and tossed the material away, finally getting a look at the gaping slashes in his flesh. Aurora gasped in horror at the wounds and turned a shade of white, but she knelt down beside the healer nonetheless and handed her a stack of bandages. Elissa used them to put pressure on the wounds, although she knew it wasn’t going to stop the bleeding.
“Are you all right?” she asked softly.
The girl nodded, her eyes huge and scared, but resolved.
“If you want to go, you can,” Elissa told her. “But if you want to stay, I can use your help.”
“What can I do?”
“I need to stitch these wounds,” the healer explained. “I’m going to start with the one closest to me, and I want you to keep pressure on the others until I get to them.”
Aurora nodded and slid closer, pressing her small hands down on the bandages that were already wet with blood, holding them firmly as Elissa uncovered the first long gash. The healer knew she had to work fast, and there was no time to be as thorough as she wanted, so she washed the wound quickly and dumped some powdered herbs into the injury before grabbing her needle and starting to place the stitches. Her fingers moved so quickly it was like a blur to the young girl as she watched Elissa close up the ugly wound. Within minutes she was done and ready to move on to the next. Cale began to cry as she started on the third gash, but the healer just shook her head absently at Aurora’s questioning look.
“She’s going to have to wait,” Elissa murmured.
Finally, all of the wounds were closed, sewn tightly together with rows of even, perfect stitches. The healer bathed them all very carefully, able to take her time now that the bleeding had been halted. She liberally applied a salve to prevent infection over the gashes, then quickly bandaged the Argonaut’s entire leg. With a tired sigh, she saw that Jason was still out. Deciding he could wait a few minutes, she washed her hands with what was left of the warm water and went down the hall to get her daughter, whose cries had become increasingly insistent.
Once Cale was changed and fed, Elissa returned to find that Aurora had already done much of the cleanup and had disposed of all the bloody rags. A new kettle of water was heating over the fire, and a bucket of cold water sat on the table.
“Do you want me to go into town?” the girl asked. “I could see if Amyntas could come and help out for a couple days.”
“Not with that beast still out there,” the healer said firmly.
“Well, I should at least put Jason’s horse in the barn,” Aurora maintained. “We left him tied up out there.” She started for the door, but then turned back to glance at the man lying in front of the fire. “Will he be ok?”
“He lost a lot of blood,” Elissa told her. “But with time and rest he should be all right.”
The girl nodded and slipped out the door, leaving the healer to shake her head, amazed that Aurora could ever think she was in the way. Between caring for her injured husband, the house, a baby, and now Jason, Elissa was exhausted and she knew that she never would have been able to cope without the girl’s constant help. She felt a small stab of guilt, realizing that the safe haven they’d wanted to offer to the child had turned into a never-ending stream of chores. Aurora had pitched in willingly without complaint, but Elissa still vowed that she was going to try to stop piling so much responsibility on the young woman. Even if that meant forcing others to stop shirking theirs. Elissa went back down the hall and pushed the door to her room open.
“Iolaus, you have to watch Cale for a bit,” she ordered in a no-nonsense tone, laying the baby down on the bed next to her husband.
“What are you doing?” he asked, not disguising his annoyance.
“Don’t you even think about arguing with me,” the healer said quietly, but forcefully. “Jason’s been hurt. He needs my attention right now, so you’re just going to have to suck it up and act like a father to your daughter for awhile.”
Some of the cold emptiness vanished from the hunter’s eyes as her words sunk in. Elissa was relieved that he was still able to show some concern for those he was trying so hard to shut out of his life, but she didn’t have time for further discussion. Somewhat deliberately leaving him uninformed, she turned and left the room to go check on her patient.
As the Argonaut struggled toward wakefulness, he began to become more aware of the searing pain shooting up his leg. He was tempted to sink back down into oblivion until it was gone, but something was nagging in the back of his mind, so he latched onto the pain and let it lead him back to consciousness. When he finally convinced his heavy lids to crack open, the first thing he saw was Elissa’s face blurring into focus next to him. Immediately, he realized that he was safe, and nothing else was important. Giving her a tiny smile, he closed his eyes, ready to drift off again.
“No, you don’t,” she said fondly, smoothing back his hair. “Come on, Jason. It’s time to wake up now.”
Reluctantly, he forced his eyes open again.
“That’s better,” the healer murmured, slipping a hand behind his head and raising him up slightly as she put a mug to his lips. The Argonaut drank the cold water gratefully, feeling it soothe his parched throat. When he had swallowed the whole mug, Elissa set it aside and gently rested his head back against the pillow.
“Thanks,” he told her, his voice a weak croak that sounded pitiful to his ears.
“I’ll give you some more in a minute,” she promised. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“It was a lion,” Jason explained, trying to piece together his fuzzy memories. “But none like I’ve ever seen. We couldn’t pierce it’s hide with sword or bow. It was so fast, and the claws...” He trailed off, remembering them slicing him open like razors.
“The other men?” Elissa asked quietly.
“Dead,” the Argonaut sighed. “They never stood a chance against that thing. It ripped them apart in seconds. I managed to lasso it around the neck with a rope that was tied off to a tree. It didn’t hold it for long, but it was long enough for me to get away. Although I didn’t think I was ever going to make it back here.”
“I’m glad you did. We wouldn’t know what to do without you,” the healer said warmly, squeezing his hand. “Just rest for a minute. I’ll be right back.”
She returned in a few moments with a mug of tea, steeped with herbs to help dull the pain and sweetened with honey. Jason obediently drank it, then looked up at her solemnly.
“How bad is it?”
“The wounds were deep, but clean,” the healer told him. “You might end up with some permanent stiffness in that leg, but I think you’ll have full mobility once it heals. The important thing now is just to rest and start building your strength back up.”
“Thank you, Elissa,” the Argonaut murmured. “I’m sorry to add to your problems...”
“Don’t give it another thought,” she shushed him. “That’s what friends are for.”
When Elissa went back to check on the baby, she found Cale asleep on her father’s chest.
“How is he?” Iolaus asked as the healer picked up her daughter and laid her gently down in her basket.
“He’s doing ok for now,” she told him. “I’m more worried about that beast that did this to him. It’s still out there.”
But if the hunter shared her fears, he didn’t comment.
“Iolaus?” Elissa stepped into the dark room and opened the shutters, letting in the morning sun. “Amyntas is here. I really think you need to talk with him.”
Before the hunter could protest, she ducked out of the room and shooed the boy inside. He came hesitantly forward and hovered next to the bed. Iolaus had his back to him, but he decided not to let that deter him.
“Iolaus, I’m going after the lion,” he declared.
“What?” The hunter rolled over, blinking disbelievingly at the boy. “Are you crazy?”
“Someone has to,” Amyntas insisted, jutting out his chin defiantly. “It’s hurting people, and someone has to stop it.”
“And you think you can do that?”
“I’m going to try.” The boy took another step forward and knelt down beside the bed, his eyes on the man he had long since idolized. “You taught me everything I know about hunting, Iolaus, and everyone knows you’re the best hunter in all of Greece.” He ducked his head slightly, just a tinge of uncertainty creeping through his bravado. “I was just wondering if you had any advice to give me before I go.”
Iolaus turned, burying his face in the pillow. ‘What do you want from me?’ he raged silently at the gods. But no answer came, not that he expected one, and he realized that the Fates were conspiring against him, ensuring that he wasn’t even going to get his last wish: just to be left alone. Looking up, he met the boy’s beseeching gaze and he knew he could not let this child go off to the slaughter.
“There is one thing,” he said quietly. “The most important thing a hunter should know.”
“What?” Amyntas demanded eagerly.
“Every hunter needs to accept when he’s outmatched.”
The boy’s hopeful expression crumbled, replaced by one of sullen hurt.
“Fine,” he sulked as he turned to leave. “You want to make fun of me, go ahead. I’ll do it without your help.”
“Amyntas,” Iolaus called out, halting him. “Wait a minute.” As the boy turned back, the hunter closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Everyone has limitations. But the way around that is to find help from those having those strengths.”
“What are you saying?”
‘Something I don’t want to be saying,’ Iolaus thought grimly. ‘But it doesn’t look like I have a choice, if I don’t want to live with this boy’s death on my conscience.’ Out loud he said, “I need you to do something for me. Something important. And then, I’ll show you how to kill the lion.”
“Come on, Jason,” Elissa coaxed, holding the mug to the Argonaut’s cracked lips. “Just a few sips.” When it appeared that he had taken all of the liquid he was going to, she eased him back down to the pillow and began bathing his face with cool water.
“Will he be all right?”
The healer jumped slightly, not having heard Amyntas’ soft footsteps behind her.
“I hope so,” she replied, getting up to face him. She hadn’t been surprised that the wounds had become infected, but she did worry about the Argonaut’s capacity to withstand a climbing fever when he was already so weakened.
“What did Iolaus say?”
“He wants me to go to Corinth,” Amyntas told her, proud to have been given such an important task, yet apprehensive about traveling to such a large, foreign city. “I have to bring back Hercules.”
“Well, if anyone can deal with this lion, Hercules can,” Elissa murmured, nodding her approval.
“He’s not going to do it by himself,” the boy protested. “Iolaus and I are going with him.”
The healer entered the bedroom to find Iolaus on the floor. She rushed forward to help him, but he held up a hand, holding her off. He had gotten down there as an exercise to test his strength and agility, and he was determined he would get back up on his own.
“I’ll do it myself.”
Elissa watched helplessly as the hunter fought to pull himself back up into the bed, finally making it after two failed attempts.
“Iolaus, are you sure about this?” she asked worriedly, her heart breaking as she watched him struggle with so basic a task.
“This is something I just have to do, Lis,” he replied, settling himself down with a grunt.
“I fixed your bedroll and packed the saddlebags,” the healer informed him. “Hercules sharpened your sword for you. Is there anything else you want?”
“Just my bow.”
She watched him for a minute, glad that he had taken interest in something and was committed to it, but he still didn’t seem to have any of his old spark left. And she couldn’t ignore the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach that Iolaus was intending this trip to be his last. That he was determined to go out as a hero in a blaze of glory, like he felt he should have done all along.
“Cale’s been pulling herself up on her hands and knees,” Elissa told him. “I expect she’ll be crawling by the time you get back.” The healer turned a cool green eyed gaze on her husband. “You are coming back, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he replied quietly. “I’m coming back.”
Nothing wavered in Elissa’s expression, and he didn’t know if she believed him or not. But he didn’t bother trying to convince her.
"I wish I could tell you more," Jason lamented. "But it all happened so fast."
"It's great, Jason," Hercules replied with a grin. "We're going to be much more informed than we usually are. 'Big monster' is about as much description as we're used to."
The Argonaut chuckled, then sobered.
"I wish I were going with you."
"I wish you were, too," the demigod told him fondly. He reached out and clapped his old friend on the shoulder. "Don't worry. We'll get it for you."
Jason nodded and both men looked up as Elissa entered the room.
The Argonaut held out his hand and Hercules clasped it in a warrior's shake before rising from his seat next to Jason's pallet beside the fire. He started following Elissa down the hallway, but halted her with a gentle hand to the arm outside the bedroom.
"Are you sure you'll be all right here?"
"We'll manage," she replied with a tired smile that didn't make it to her eyes, turning away from his concerned gaze before he could see. She pushed the door open and entered the room and Hercules followed her inside.
Without word or preamble, the demigod lifted his partner off the bed and carried him out of the room. He felt Iolaus stiffen in his arms and he sympathized, knowing how hard it was for his fiercely independent friend to have to submit to the humiliation of being carried. But Iolaus bore it nobly, gritting his teeth and lifting his head high as they moved down the hallway and out to the main room.
"Good luck, my friends," Jason called out from his place by the fire, wishing that he could at least see them off properly. But the healer shot him a stern glare as she read his mind, and the Argonaut obediently remained where he was, his shredded leg safely immobilized on a pile of pillows.
"Take care, Jason," Hercules said warmly, pausing on his way through.
Iolaus remained silent, but his blue eyes softened briefly as a silent communication passed between him and his old friend. Then they were moving once more, outside to where Amyntas was waiting patiently with Chestnut. The hunter sighed in relief as Hercules set him up in the saddle, glad to be free and back in control of himself, but that relief was short lived. Refusing to be dragged along behind the horse on a litter like a complete invalid, he had insisted on riding, sure that even with his injury he would be able to manage sitting in the saddle. But only when he was mounted on the horse did Iolaus truly realize how much leg power it took to ride. He was going to have to work hard and hold tight just to keep himself upright and balanced, but he wasn't about to let anyone know he was feeling the discomfort before they had even begun the journey.
"I'm fine," he declared as he saw Hercules opening his mouth to ask. "And time's wasting. Let's go."
Elissa handed a pack to Hercules, who shouldered the heavy burden as if it were nothing. He leaned in and kissed her cheek.
"Be safe," he whispered to her. "Stay inside until we catch this beast, all right?"
The healer nodded, but her thoughts were not on her own safety. Her green eyes bored into the demigod's, pleading with him to watch over her golden hunter, to take care of him, and to return him safely back to her. Hercules understood and nodded slightly, his own eyes making her that solemn promise that she sought. Satisfied, Elissa turned to look up at her husband. Iolaus glanced down and caught her gaze. For a moment, she thought he was just going to look through her and ride off. But he reached a hand down to her, and she took it in her own.
"Be careful, my brave warrior," she murmured, the words catching in her throat.
"I love you, Elissa," he whispered, squeezing her hand.
She let him go and stepped back, refusing to give into tears as they started off, Iolaus tall and proud on the back of the steady Chestnut with Amyntas leading the horse by the reigns. Hercules walked beside the animal, close enough to lunge forward and catch his partner if he were to fall. But Elissa doubted that would happen. Iolaus would never relinquish his hold on that horse. Not unless he wanted to fall. And if that happened, he would make sure he wouldn’t be getting up again. Trying not to think about it, reassuring herself that Hercules would die himself before he let his friend fall, she sighed and turned to go back into the house as the three lion hunters hit the main road and vanished from sight.
They traveled steadily, if silently, throughout the day. Hercules helped his friend on and off the horse without complaint every time Iolaus wanted to get a closer look at a track or a mark. And if the demigod thought that his partner was overdoing it or needed a break, he kept such comments to himself. For his part, the hunter was determined not to slow things down. The lion had already killed, both strangers and people in his village that he knew and cared about. And he was not going to let his own pain hinder their quest to stop the beast before it killed again. But in the final vestiges of late afternoon, Hercules could no longer ignore the strain that was clearly evident on his friend’s face. He started looking, and when they came upon a suitable place to camp, he took the reigns and pulled the horse to a halt.
Iolaus tried to protest, arguing that there were still several hours of daylight left. But Hercules ignored him, and the hunter was too tired and sore to put up much of a fight. The demigod lifted him down from Chestnut’s broad back and got him settled comfortably before he and Amyntas went about setting up camp. Graciously taking on the chores of building a fire and tending to the horse, Hercules let the boy do the hunting for their evening meal. Amyntas dashed off and returned before long with two plump rabbits. The kid was beaming with pride, especially when the legendary demigod praised his skill. He insisted on cooking his catch, and while he roasted the rabbits, Hercules finished setting up the camp and laid out some of the food Elissa had sent with them to compliment the fresh meat.
The demigod and Amyntas made a lively affair out of dinner, laughing and joking and teasing each other. Iolaus was quiet, but he saw the boy sneaking glances at him. He knew Amyntas had caught the rabbits for him, knowing they were his favorite. So he forced himself to eat a respectable portion, even though he wasn’t hungry. The small gesture put a permanent grin on the boy’s face, and the hunter shook his head slightly, in awe over how little it took to make the kid happy. He realized Amyntas really did look up to him, and idly he pondered how the boy could still have such a strong case of hero worship after seeing him so dependent and helpless. Something clicked, and in the back of his mind he started to wonder if maybe Hercules had been right. If he could still be a positive influence on the people in his life, and could still have something to offer them.
After they had eaten, Hercules and Amyntas cleaned up the camp and repacked their supplies. And as darkness fell over the land, the boy stretched out on his bedroll and quickly drifted off to sleep. Iolaus lay on the other side of the fire, feeling bone tired but doubting sleep would come so easily for him. His arms and chest and back were all burning with the efforts of his exertions that day, making it hard for him to relax. He stared into the dancing flames of the fire, hoping they would lull him into Morpheus’ realm, not paying attention to what Hercules was doing until the demigod sat down beside him and held out a mug.
The hunter hesitated, and then he realized he was being ridiculous. He needed help, there was no getting around it. And it would make things a lot easier on all of them if he could just stop being mad at the world and accept that. With a sigh, he pushed himself up with one hand, grabbing his pack with the other and pulling it a little closer. A bit awkwardly, he got himself into a sitting position, using his pack to support him, thankful that his partner made no attempt to assist him. He reached out and took the mug, a sniff telling him it would help ease the fire in his muscles and let him sleep.
“Thanks,” Iolaus murmured, taking a sip of the hot tea, thinking it was uncanny how his friend always knew just what he needed. “I don’t know why I still try and hide things from you. You always know what I’m thinking.”
“After all these years?” Hercules quirked an eyebrow as leaned back on his elbows. “I probably know what you’re thinking before you do.”
“If that’s true, then you know I didn’t mean those things I said to you that night you left,” the hunter told him quietly, realizing that there was a wrong he needed to make right.
“I know,” the demigod said, a little too quickly for his partner’s liking.
“Hercules,” Iolaus began softly. “The door swings both ways. I know what you’re thinking, too. And you couldn’t be more wrong.”
The demigod sat up, looking away as his jaw tightened.
“I DON’T hate you,” the hunter continued. “I could never hate you, Herc. But certainly not for this. It’s not your fault.”
“It is my fault,” the demigod whispered. “You fell because of me.”
“No, I fell because of an accident,” Iolaus went on. “The cliff crumbled away. End of story. Sometimes things happen, ok? It sucks, but that’s the way it goes and nobody’s to blame. What I did... It wasn’t anything you wouldn’t have done for me. And if I had it to do all over again, I’d do exactly the same thing. You’re worth any risk...”
“I can’t be,” Hercules argued, shaking his head. “I never wanted to be, but especially not now. You have a family to think about, Iolaus.”
“I do,” the hunter agreed. “But that doesn’t mean that my obligation to watch your back has changed. We’re still partners. And I’ve always been willing to give my life for you, Herc. Nothing’s ever going to change that.”
“Then why...?” The demigod paused, his throat tightening painfully and preventing him from asking the question that tore at his heart.
“Why did I refuse to see you?” Iolaus filled in for him. “Herc, did you really think it was because I hated you for what happened?” Hercules glanced at him, his blue eyes giving him all the answer he needed. It was then that the hunter realized just how badly he’d hurt his best friend, and the regret welled up heavily inside him. He reached out, laying a hand on his partner’s arm. “No, that wasn’t it. I love you, you big idiot.”
“What was it then?” The demigod was still choked up, but more from the fond teasing in his friend’s voice than from hurt that was rapidly starting to fade.
“I couldn’t bear for you to see me like this,” the hunter whispered, looking down at his motionless limbs in shame.
“Why not?” Hercules demanded in surprise.
“Because I knew you’d blame yourself,” Iolaus explained quietly. “And I knew that if you had to see me like this every day, you’d never leave me. I didn’t think I worth anything to anyone anymore, and I didn’t want to have to be a daily reminder of that for you. I was hoping that if I kept you away, eventually you’d give up on me and go back to Greece. Back to the people that needed you. And that I could be a good memory for you. I wanted you to remember me as a warrior, not as some pathetic cripple wasting away in bed.”
“Don’t you know you’re so much more than just a warrior?” the demigod asked him, sure that his humble friend didn’t know. “To so many people. But to me, you’re the best friend I’ve ever had. You’re my rock, Iolaus. I know I’d never make it without you, but if I had to, I’d always remember you as a hero. The best, bravest, noblest, strongest hero Greece has ever known. And that comes from your heart, my friend. Not your legs.”
“I’m sorry,” the hunter said sincerely, meeting his partner’s gaze. “I wanted to make things easier for you, Hercules. But I was so far gone in self-pity, I didn’t realize what I was really doing.”
“I suppose I’ll forgive you this time,” Hercules told him, feeling like a huge weight had been lifted from his heart. “After all, I love you, too, you little idiot.”
“Hey,” Iolaus protested, trying to sound hurt but his voice lilted with laughter. “Watch it with the ‘l’ word!”
The two partners grinned at each other, then leaned in for a hug. Hercules held his friend tightly and turned his head to whisper in his ear.
“I meant what I said, Iolaus. I couldn’t get by without your support and your friendship. Promise me you won’t ever take that away from me.”
“I won’t,” the hunter vowed.
They pulled apart, and Iolaus settled back down, picking up the mug he’d placed on the ground and drinking the rest of the rapidly cooling tea. Hercules got up and stirred the fire, tossing another chunk of wood on the embers. His voice was faint, but the hunter heard him.
“And for the record, I’ll never give up on you.”
“I know,” Iolaus murmured, his mug hiding his smile. He set it aside when he finished the tea and did his best to try and arrange himself comfortably on his bedroll. “Wake me up in a few hours, all right? I may not be able to do much else, but I can at least take my turn at watch.”
“You got it, buddy,” Hercules told him as he sat back down next to the fire. He still felt a measure of guilt over what had happened, and sorrow that his friend had suffered such a devastating injury, but those concerns were pushed to the background as a new, almost forgotten, feeling came over him. Hope. There had been a spark of life to the hunter, a hint of his old humor and energy. Enough to let the demigod dare to hope that he still might get his Iolaus back. And if that were to happen, then their trip would be an outstanding success, whether they caught the lion or not.
Hercules glanced over at his friend as he heard him sigh.
“Wrong?” Iolaus turned his head lazily to look at his partner as he thought about the question. “Nothing’s wrong.”
They had stopped to make camp early and the hunter had wanted to contribute something, so Hercules carried him to a large, flat rock overlooking the lake. Iolaus had been relaxing as he waited for a fish to nibble on his line, leaning back against his pack with his eyes closed and enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun on his face. A gentle breeze danced through his golden curls and the sounds of the lake caressing the bank filled him with peace. The demigod grinned as he realized the sigh had been one of contentment.
“It’s going to be a beautiful evening,” he commented.
“Yeah.” Iolaus sighed again, but this time it was troubled. He sat up a little straighter and looked at his friend earnestly. “I’ve really been a fool, haven’t I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you were right,” the hunter told him. “I can still experience life. Simple things like this... fishing. I love it, Herc, and it’s still here for me. And my family and all my friends... I was just blinded by selfishness and couldn’t see it.”
“I’m sorry I lost my temper that night I left,” Hercules apologized. “I shouldn’t have lectured you like I did...”
“No, that’s exactly what you should have done,” Iolaus reassured him. “I needed a good kick up the ass more than anything.”
“Maybe,” the demigod said, clapping a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “But you haven’t listened to anything I’ve said since the day we met, and I have a hard time believing you’ve suddenly started now. You followed your heart, and it led you back to where you belong.”
“Back to your side, Herc,” the hunter murmured, covering the hand on his shoulder with his own. “No matter what happens, what dangers we face, risks we encounter, or hardships we suffer, this is where I keep ending up. It is where I belong.”
“I guess it is,” Hercules whispered, as the full impact of his friend’s words hit home. Iolaus was always a constant presence at his side. And it was where he wanted to be. All the danger, all the hardships, all the pain and suffering... it was all worth it. He didn’t ask for protection or guarantees or promises or perks. No expectations. All he wanted was to fight the good fight at his best friend’s side. And the demigod realized, for perhaps the first time in their long, colorful association, that all he could do was let him. He had to stand back, allow Iolaus to be the hero that he was, and take what the Fates dealt them. For their destinies were intertwined and they had become a part of each other. Neither would ever be happy without the other, and Hercules knew that he’d never be able to stop Iolaus from watching his back. No matter what the cost. And it was time for him to accept that, for anything else would be denying his brave friend his heroism, and that pained the demigod more than his fears and guilt.
“Although right about now,” the hunter drawled, seeing the shadows pass over his partner’s eyes and knowing that it was time to lighten the mood. “I wish my heart would lead me to some fish.”
“Somehow I don’t think luck is with you this evening, my friend,” Hercules chuckled.
“Guess we’ll have to make do with what we have.”
“Unless Amyntas wants to go rabbit hunting again.”
The hunter tensed slightly, pausing as he pulled in his line.
“We’re getting close, Herc,” he said quietly. “I don’t want him out of your sight once it starts getting dark.”
“All right,” the demigod promised him, sobered by the deadly serious tone of his friend’s voice. “We’ve got plenty of supplies for now.” He watched Iolaus stuff his line back into his pack. “You ready to head back?”
The hunter nodded, but as Hercules hoisted him up in his arms, he lost his grip on his pack, which hit the rock and tumbled over the edge into the water. Iolaus cursed loudly, but the demigod merely set him back down and retrieved the pack from the lake, which fortunately was rather shallow near the bank.
“It’s all right,” Hercules consoled him as saw that his friend was visibly upset. “Your gear’s probably a little wet, but it’ll dry.”
The hunter scrubbed his hands over his face, and the demigod’s heart sank to see his good mood vanish so quickly, replaced by a defeated slump of his shoulders.
“I’m sorry to be so much trouble,” he whispered sadly.
“You? Trouble?” Hercules grinned as his friend glanced up at him. “After all these years, I’d expect nothing less.”
Almost against his will, the hunter smiled back. The demigod handed him the soggy pack and lifted him up again, carefully making his way off the rock and starting back toward the campsite.
“At least none of the food was in here,” Iolaus reasoned, looking on the bright side.
“Yeah,” Hercules snorted. “Right. You carry the food.”
“Sometimes I do,” he protested.
“Only if I don’t want to eat the entire journey,” the demigod teased.
Iolaus didn’t lower himself to comment, but he did make sure to hold his dripping pack so that the water trickled onto Hercules instead of him.
Iolaus took his sword in hand and used the tip to carefully prod the demigod sleeping next to him. Hercules awoke with a start, propping himself on his elbows and blinking at his partner through the dying firelight.
"What's wrong?" he yawned, thinking his friend needed something. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," the hunter whispered, his voice low and tense. "It's just.... something's out there."
Hercules let his gaze wander around the dark perimeter, not seeing or hearing anything out of the ordinary. But he knew that if Iolaus said it was so, then it was so. The demigod sat up and began stirring the fire, building it up both for more light and as a deterrent to any would-be predator. But as he reached for a piece of wood to add to the blaze, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end at the same time Chestnut began to stamp and snort softly.
"Looks like you're right," Hercules said quietly, glancing back at the agitated horse. He definitely felt what his partner had sensed. A presence out in the night, watching them. Stalking them. The demigod woke Amyntas, grateful that the boy came out of sleep immediately alert and realizing that there was danger, grabbing his knife tightly and waiting for instruction rather than pestering them with questions. Hercules patted him on the back, showing his approval for the kid's courage and instinct. "Stay close to Iolaus," he commanded, meaning for the boy's protection but knowing Amyntas would think he meant to guard the hunter. The kid nodded and scooted over next to Iolaus as Hercules lit a brand for a torch and cautiously began moving forward into the darkness.
The peaceful night had fallen deadly silent, and for long, agonizing moments, nobody dared to breathe. Iolaus had been preoccupied all evening, sure that they had crossed over into the beast's hunting territory and were closing in fast on it's lair. He'd suspected that when the animal went out on it's nightly search for prey, it would find them easily. But neither he nor Hercules thought it would come near their fire. The demigod moved out a few more steps, his heart pounding and a cold sweat breaking out over his body. He was close, and he could almost feel the big cat beside him. Lifting his brand higher, he took one more step, and the light of the torch illuminated a pair of yellow eyes crouched low to the ground in front of him. For a moment he couldn't move, temporarily hypnotized by the unblinking stare of the cat. Then a deep rumble started to sound from the animal's throat, and Hercules recovered his senses and slowly began backing away.
The lion pounced, knocking the demigod backward so he sprawled across the ground. He lost the grip on his torch, but let it go in order to roll with the fall, out of reach of the beast. Hercules scrambled back to the camp, into the ring of light that the fire put out, and the cat followed him, slowly but determinedly. It emerged from the shadows with a snarl, baring long, sharp teeth as it advanced, apparently having no fear of either man or fire. Amyntas started to dash forward, but Iolaus caught his arm.
"Stay here," he hissed, holding the boy back. "You'll only get in his way."
Hercules grabbed a large chunk of wood from the pile they'd gathered for kindling and swung it at the lion, wanting to make sure it kept it's attention on him. The cat growled and moved forward, suddenly rearing up and swiping at him with a heavy paw. They went on like that, in a surreal dance, with the lion advancing and the demigod pushing him back. Until one brutal slash of razor sharp claws reduced his thick wooden club to splinters.
"Nice shot," Hercules muttered with a begrudging admiration as he ducked another swipe.
"Let me go," Amyntas begged. "I can help him."
Iolaus sat in turmoil, watching his friend whirling away from the deadly claws, knowing it was only a matter of time before the beast got in another nice shot. He had never felt more helpless in his life as he released the boy, nodding for him to join the fight.
Hercules had almost found himself backed against a tree when Amyntas burst forward, his knife raised high. He plunged it down hard into the lion's back, but to his shock, his blade bounced off the hide without leaving so much as a scratch. With a loud roar, the cat spun around. The boy tried to run, but he was bowled off his feet. Bracing himself, sure he was about to be ripped apart, Amyntas closed his eyes and prayed that it would be quick. But when nothing happened, he glanced back to see Hercules holding the lion by the tail. Scrambling to his feet, he took off and hid behind the first tree he came to. Once he was out of sight, the beast turned again and charged at the demigod, who had nothing with which to defend himself.
"Herc!" Iolaus called out, tossing his sword to his partner. But because of his awkward position on the ground, he couldn't get enough power behind his throw and his blade clattered away, out of reach of the demigod. The hunter wanted to scream with impotent frustration as he watched the lion slam into his friend, knocking him to the ground. Hercules caught the lethal paws in either hand before he was slashed to ribbons, but he was left in a test of strength. Flat on his back, pushing back against the cat's paws with all he was worth as the deadly canines snapped inches from his face. He was keeping the beast at bay, but just barely, and Iolaus knew he couldn't last like that for long.
With a loud curse, the hunter flipped over on his stomach. Using his hands, he began pulling himself along the ground, inching forward with agonizing slowness as his legs trailed uselessly behind him. Calling to mind his Eastern teachings of patience and focus, he shoved the fear from his mind and concentrated on the task at hand. He felt no pain or weakness or fatigue as he dragged himself forward. Did not allow himself to dwell on his frustration and rage at not being able guard his partner's back. And he blocked out the sounds of the struggle behind him. All that existed for the hunter was his goal, and his progression toward it. Slight as it was, every inch got him that much closer. Until finally, he had reached the spot where they had tethered the horse for the night.
Chestnut was rearing in terror, and Iolaus winced as the breeze from a flying hoof brushed his face. Grimly, he thought that would be on par with the Fate's sense of humor, for him to be struck down now with a kick to the head. But he managed to grab his bow and quiver from where they rested against the saddle lying on the ground and he quickly pulled himself out of range of the horse. Once he was clear and out of danger from being trampled, the hunter used an old stump to pull himself up and brace against. He was shaking as he fitted an arrow to his bow, but fortunately Hercules and the lion were still in their stalemate.
"Amyntas!" he shouted loudly.
The boy had attacked again when he'd seen Hercules in trouble, but for all his effort, he might as well have been trying to stab the beast with a feather. He'd been unable to penetrate the thick hide or the shaggy black mane, and the cat hadn't even acknowledged his presence as it struggled with the demigod. But at Iolaus' call, the boy looked up and saw what the hunter meant to do, so he jumped back out of the way. Hercules had also glanced over at the sound of his friend's voice and had likewise understood his intention. With a loud grunt, he summoned all of his godly strength and pushed against the lion with all of his might, raising it up into the air.
Iolaus sighted carefully, trying to ignore the deafening pounding of his heart in his ears. It was a bad angle, a small target to hit in the dark, and he didn't have time to gauge for outside factors. The odds were most definitely against him, but he didn't have a choice. His best friend's life was at stake, and he couldn't afford to fail. He would not let himself fail. As he steadied himself, the hunter hesitated for just a split second. Hercules was in the exact same position with the lion as he had been with the last monster they had fought. Pinned to the ground, fighting back with all he was worth. Iolaus did what he had to do to help him then, almost sacrificing his own life in the process. And now, here they were again. Only this time, the hunter vowed, the only sacrifice would be the lion.
The cat screamed and fell over, and Hercules scrambled back quickly to avoid the flailing claws as the beast kicked out in the throes of death. It was a horrible sight, but it was over quickly, and within moments the lion was still and silent. Amyntas cautiously approached and examined the fallen lion, turning to give Iolaus a look of unadulterated admiration as he saw the arrow protruding cleanly from the animal's right eye. The demigod sat on the ground for a moment to catch his breath, then got up and went to kneel down next to his partner.
"Now THAT was a nice shot," he grinned. Hercules reached out and pulled the trembling hunter in for a warm hug. "Thanks buddy."
"No problem," Iolaus replied, hoping his voice didn't sound as shaky as it felt. "Only the next time we camp in a lion's backyard, let's keep the weapons within reach, ok?"
Elissa answered the knock at the door and was first surprised, then apprehensive, to find Amyntas standing there alone.
"Everything's all right," he quickly assured her. "We got the lion, and Hercules and Iolaus are fine."
"Where are they?" the healer asked.
"They decided to stay and camp for a few days," the boy explained. "They said they had a few things to work out."
"Yes, I expect they do," Elissa murmured thoughtfully. She couldn't help wondering if it was a mutual decision or if the demigod was holding his partner hostage out in the woods until he could talk some sense into him. But then she decided to think positively, taking her cue from the giant grin on Amyntas' face. "Come on in," she told him, opening the door wider. "Your mother's been worried about you, but before you go you can tell Jason all about the lion."
The boy practically danced inside, almost beside himself with pride and scarcely believing he was about to sit down and talk shop with the legendary leader of the Argonauts, finally telling a heroic story rather than just listening. Elissa watched him with a wistful smile, shaking her head slightly as she closed the door.
"Iolaus," she whispered to herself. "You may have killed one monster, but you’ve created another."
"Are you all right?" Hercules asked, breaking the silence that had gone on too long.
"Yeah," Iolaus replied, glancing at his friend sitting on the other side of the fire. "I was just thinking."
"Well..." the hunter paused, trying to find the right words. "It's just that... By all rights, Herc, I should be dead."
A visible shudder ran through the demigod. It was what he feared most in the world, and he hated thinking about it.
"I guess we can thank Hebe for that," he murmured uncomfortably.
"I think you and Aurora and Elissa had a little something to do with it, too," Iolaus said warmly, knowing how it upset his friend to have such discussions. "When I first woke up and remembered what had happened, I couldn't believe I was still alive. But then when I realized I was... hurt, I was just so angry. I really wished that I had died rather than be left like that. I thought that it was just a cruel torment to amuse the Fates. But then when Amyntas came to me and told me he was going after the lion, something snapped. I started thinking maybe there was a reason that I had been spared once again. I know you always subscribed to the belief that we make our own destinies, and I do, too. But I also can't help but wonder if we all have a place in the grand scheme of things. And the Fates have a way of intervening, so that everyone is in the right place at the right time to serve their purpose."
"I can't imagine a more right time or place for you to be," Hercules declared. "I don't know if I could have won this one without you."
"You would have thought of something," the hunter told him confidently. "You always do."
"Maybe," the demigod replied. "But things weren't looking too rosy from my point of view. If you hadn't been here... You saved my life, Iolaus. And Amyntas' as well."
"Guess it's a good thing I didn't get my wish," Iolaus said softly.
"You didn't because I got mine," Hercules murmured. “And if you had... died, then I might not be here now.”
The hunter picked up his water skin and took a sip, thinking that there was no more noble purpose than to safeguard the man who safeguarded Greece. He had been willing to sacrifice his life to save his best friend, but now he realized that if he succeeded, there would be no one there watching Hercules’ back the next time he ran into trouble. And he was ashamed that he had almost let it happen while he was wallowing in self-pity.
“Well,” Iolaus said out loud. “Just consider this me paying you back one for the many times you’ve bailed me out.”
“We’ll call it even,” the demigod assured him.
“Herc, this is long overdue,” the hunter began, a bit hesitantly. “But thanks for saving my life. And I don’t just mean in the literal sense.”
Hercules sent his partner a fond grin, his blue eyes shining in the firelight.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he said quietly, but with conviction. “Whatever my purpose is, you’re a part of it, buddy. I wouldn’t know what to do without you.”
“Elissa!” Aurora cried out, flying through the front door. “They’re here!”
The healer dropped what she was doing and rushed out of the house to see Hercules and Iolaus approaching. They both looked relaxed and happy, and the hunter smiled and waved to his wife from the back of the horse as the demigod led Chestnut up the path to the great stone house. Jason had followed the girls outside, a bit more slowly since he needed the aid of a stout wooden crutch, but he was there to greet his friends when they reached the door.
“Welcome back,” he called out grandly. “I’d ask how it went, but Amyntas has already given us all the details. Repeatedly.”
“Well, hopefully he remembered to keep the best one to himself,” Hercules announced cryptically as he moved to the side of the horse to help his partner.
“And what might that be?” the Argonaut inquired, arching an eyebrow.
“This.” Instead of lifting his friend down, the demigod merely caught Iolaus as he slid from the saddle and steadied him on his feet.
“By the gods,” Jason whispered, astonished to see the hunter standing before him.
Elissa’s mouth dropped open and for a moment she was frozen, certain that she was dreaming. But then Iolaus gave her a golden grin and the healer realized that her prayers had been answered. Tears blurred her eyes, but she blinked them back as she ran toward her husband. Hercules caught her arm and stopped her from flinging herself into his arms.
“He’s still a little weak,” the demigod cautioned her.
“I’m fine,” the hunter insisted, shooting his partner an annoyed look. “Although, I wouldn’t mind going inside and getting comfortable while we catch up.” His blue eyes took on an impish gleam as he nodded toward the Argonaut who was leaning heavily on his crutch. “Jason looks like he needs to sit down.”
“I’ll second that,” Jason laughed good-naturedly, willing to play the invalid so that his proud, stubborn friend could pretend to save face.
Elissa wrapped an arm around her husband, giving him support as he slowly walked into the house.
“Welcome home, my brave warrior.”
As afternoon gave way to evening, the great stone house continued to ring out with merriment and laughter. A celebratory feast came and went, as did a few bottles of wine.
“Something I still don’t understand,” Jason declared, opening the fourth and last bottle of the rich, red liquid. He filled his goblet, then passed the bottle to the hunter with a pointed look. “Exactly how is it you came to be cured?”
Iolaus snickered, passing the bottle down the table without refilling his own glass. He adjusted Cale to a more comfortable position in his arms and glanced at his partner.
“You want to take this one, Herc?”
“Well, once the lion was dead, we tried to clean up and put the camp back together,” the demigod stammered, obviously a bit flustered. “But we were all on edge after the battle. And you know how it is when your blood’s up. Especially in the dark, when you can’t see anything and all the shadows look like...” He paused, downing his wine in one large gulp and refilling his goblet.
“What the mighty hero is trying to say,” the hunter explained gleefully. “Is that he smacked his head into a tree branch and dropped me on my ass.”
The table dissolved into laughter, and after a minute the embarrassed demigod joined in.
“I landed on my back,” Iolaus continued. “And I started feeling this tingling sensation where I hit. Then after awhile, it started burning like fire, shooting down into my legs. But when that subsided, I had the feeling back. I wanted to surprise everyone, so we decided to stay out there for a few days. Herc worked with me until I was strong enough to walk on my own.”
“Amazing,” Jason murmured. “But even so, I’m glad I had Elissa looking after me. I’ll stick with the traditional healing methods, thank you very much.”
After the last bottle of wine was emptied, the hour had grown late and the party began to break up. The crises were over, everyone was safe, and they were all looking forward to a long, peaceful night’s sleep. All but Hercules, who was feeling restless and ducked out for a walk and some air under the pretense of getting water. Iolaus found himself alone with the Argonaut, and decided to use the opportunity for a heart to heart with his old friend.
“Jason, I just want to thank you for everything you did for me while I was laid up,” he said sincerely. “And I’m sorry for how I acted. I know I was being a jerk, but I really was grateful for all the help you gave Elissa.”
“Don’t worry about it,” the Argonaut told him. “You were upset, and I know you didn’t really mean anything by it.”
“You know, one of the things that made you a great king was your ability to see beyond the face value of people,” the hunter declared softly. “You looked at everyone the same, from royalty to peasants. You saw the potential in people, no matter what they looked like on the outside.”
“Where is all this coming from?”
“You looked at me that way,” Iolaus whispered. “You looked at me, and saw me, not my injury. I never saw any pity in your eyes, and you never looked at me as if I’d lost something that I’d never get back. Some days that was all that kept me sane, Jase. And I’ll always love you for that.”
The Argonaut’s eyes grew moist as the hunter hugged him. He returned the hug and patted his old friend on the back.
“I’m glad you’re all right.”
“Likewise,” Iolaus told him fondly as they drew apart. “But next time there’s a monster on the loose, let’s all go as a team, ok? We’re getting too old for solo heroics.”
Jason laughed and agreed, and the two warriors bid each other good night. The hunter made his way down the hallway toward his room, which was a short distance but the triumph of walking it under his own power was the equivalent of having run to Marathon and back. Almost giddy at the joy of having his freedom and independence back, Iolaus vowed never to take another step for granted again. He entered the room, finding his wife sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Where’s Cale?” he asked.
“Aurora volunteered to take her,” Elissa explained. “She thought we might want some time to ourselves to talk.”
“Talking isn’t exactly what I had in mind,” Iolaus murmured suggestively, crawling across the bed toward her. The feeling in his legs was not the only sensation that had come back to him, and he was just as eager not to take that for granted as well. But when he reached out, brushing her hair away to kiss the back of her neck, the healer stiffened slightly and pulled away. “Or, we could talk for awhile,” he sighed, realizing that her initial enthusiasm over his recovery had passed and all was not quite forgiven. The hunter sat up, running a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Lis. You were right. I shouldn’t have gone off with Hercules to Imbros.”
“No,” she argued softly. “I was wrong about that.” Elissa turned to face him, taking his hand and running a finger over the ring he wore, which sported the image of his sword. “When I gave this to you, I meant it to be a reminder to you of who you were. But really it should be a reminder to me of who you are.”
“What are you saying?”
“I always knew that you were an adventurer, Iolaus. It’s part of why I fell in love with you. I thought I’d be ok with you going off from time to time to battle evil with Hercules. And for a long time, I was. But after Cale was born, something changed. I don’t have the desire to leave home anymore. It’s out of my system, I guess. All I want is to stay here in Acheron and raise a family with my husband. Everybody safe and happy. The thought of you going off to who knows where to face only the gods know what and not knowing if you’ll ever come back... It makes me sick to think about it.”
“Then I won’t go anymore,” Iolaus vowed, distressed by the painful terror and worry he saw in her eyes.
“You say that now,” the healer said, giving him a sad smile. “And I love you for it. But when the time comes again when Hercules needs your help, you’ll hate yourself if you don’t go with him. Your life at Hercules’ side... that’s part of who you are, Iolaus. A part you can never give up, and you’d be miserable if you tried. I can’t ask that of you. I think on some level I always knew that, but I fooled myself into thinking I could convince you to deny your heart. But I can’t. And no matter how much I hate it, I know I’m going to have to let you go. Hercules needs you, and so does Greece.”
“Elissa,” the hunter murmured, his voice thick with emotion. “I never wanted this to happen. I don’t want to see you upset.”
“I know,” she replied, reaching out to stroke his cheek. “So we’re just going to have to compromise. I have to learn to live with the fact that I married a hero. It’s not a job, it’s who you are, and I just have to find a way to accept that as the way it is.”
“Do you think you can?” he asked.
“I can,” the healer answered. “I have to. For I am hopelessly in love with you, my brave warrior, and I’d never be able to stand seeing you unhappy, knowing I was the cause.”
Iolaus leaned in for a kiss, his heart full of love for his beautiful wife. But he found himself hovering in the air as she turned away from him again and stood up.
“Ok, you’re going to have to help me out here, Lis,” he said, feeling a little exasperated. “If you aren’t mad about me going off with Hercules, then what are you mad about?”
“Because,” she replied, a small catch to her voice as she went to stand before the window. “You gave up, Iolaus. You turned your back on everyone and everything, including me.”
“I know,” the hunter sighed, truly contrite. “But I wasn’t thinking straight, Lis. I never meant to hurt you.”
“It sure seemed like you went out of your way to try.”
She tried to hide it, but Iolaus knew she was crying. He got up and went to her, wrapping his arms around her from behind, grateful that she didn’t pull away.
“I wanted to set you free,” he whispered in her ear. “I couldn’t stand the thought of you being tied down to this burden for the rest of your life. I thought that maybe if I could drive you away, you could start over and make a new life for yourself, and Cale.”
“Iolaus,” she sniffed, squirming around in his arms until she was facing him. “If it were me that was hurt, would you consider it a burden to take care of me?”
“Of course not,” he replied immediately.
“Then why would you think that I would consider it a burden to care for you?” Elissa wiped the tears from her cheeks and gazed up into her husband’s brilliant blue eyes. “I love you. And not because you have legs. I vowed to give my life to you, and I meant every word. Until I draw my last breath, I’ll be devoted to you. So if you think a little hurdle like that would run me off, then you obviously don’t think much of me.”
“I think the world of you,” Iolaus assured her. “You know that I do. And with hindsight, I can see how ridiculous I was being. But at the time... I was just so angry, Lis. And depressed and hurt. I let it blind me to all the blessings I still had in my life. I’m sorry, and I promise I’ll never lose sight of that again.”
“I know what that cost you, not being able to walk,” the healer whispered. “And I probably should have tried to help you through that more.”
“I wasn’t letting anyone help me,” the hunter countered, shaking his head. “You did everything you could. Including working my legs, so when the feeling did come back, my muscles were still strong and healthy. I owe it to you, Lis, that I was able to get back on my feet so quickly.”
Elissa met her husband’s soft gaze, reading all of the emotions contained within. He was sorry for the pain he’d caused those he loved, and regretted giving up on life when he still had much to give. But he had never been one to dwell on the past, and his blue eyes shone with happiness and joy that he was whole once more. Iolaus was basking in his victory, and the love of life sparkled from deep within his cerulean eyes. But most of all, she read the love and desire in the look he gave her, and her own heart melted and swelled with equal passion. She had gotten her golden hunter back, and likewise decided it was no time for living in the past when a glorious future awaited.
“So, all of your feeling has returned?” she asked, running her hands along his smooth chest.
“With a vengeance,” he grinned, knowing he wasn’t misreading the signals she was sending.
“Well, maybe we should work some of those muscles,” the healer suggested huskily. “You know, to keep them strong and healthy.”
Needing no more encouragement, Iolaus scooped his wife up in his arms. She squealed playfully before remembering that it was late and they had a houseful of guests who were trying to sleep. Stifling her giggles as he laid her gently on the bed, the healer reached for her husband and pulled him down to her. He caught her mouth in a hungry kiss, feeling a desperation for what had long since been denied. Elissa finally stopped him, pushing away at his arms, needing to make one last thing crystal clear.
“Just promise me that you’ll never give up on us again,” she begged.
“I promise,” he declared solemnly. As he gazed at his beautiful healer, Iolaus couldn’t believe he had ever tried to alienate her, and sent a quick prayer to the Fates and a thank you to Aphrodite that he was given the chance to unite with her once more.
“Good,” Elissa whispered, her eyes drinking in the sight of him, her desperation matching his. “Now, what are you waiting for?”
With a wolfish grin, Iolaus paused just long enough to lean over and blow out the candle next to their bed.
Hercules sat next to the pond, trailing his fingers through the cold water. It was a lovely night, with the half moon and the stars bright in the clear sky. Quiet and peaceful, with a gentle breeze chasing away the heat of the day. He couldn’t understand why he was so keyed up inside. At least not until the luminous goddess materialized before him.
“Hello, Hebe,” he greeted her with reservation.
“Hercules.” She nodded, sitting down tentatively next to him. “Have I done something to upset you?”
“No,” he replied, startled by her abrupt start to the conversation. “Why would you think that?”
“Well,” she explained, a bit shyly. “Ever since our night together, you seem to be avoiding me.”
“I’m not,” the demigod denied. “It’s just... I’ve been busy. You know, with Iolaus and the lion.”
“I heard about that.” Hebe smiled at him radiantly. “I’m so happy for him, Hercules. And for you, too. I know what it did to you to see him like that.”
“Yeah,” he shrugged, looking off into the distance. “Everything worked out. Better than I could have hoped for, actually.”
“I wish I could say the same,” the goddess hinted quietly.
“Hebe, I’m sorry,” Hercules sighed, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “That night... I was hurting so much. I needed someone to hold and to love. I wasn’t thinking and I lost control. I’m so sorry.”
“So, it was just a one time thing?” she asked.
The voice had been soft, but determined. But as the goddess studied his profile, she wasn’t convinced that he had meant it.
“Why can’t you look at me?”
The demigod didn’t answer, and he kept his face averted from her. Hebe reached out and took his hand, squeezing it between her own.
“Hercules, please,” she begged. “You’ve never lied to me before. So just tell me the truth. Why are you so afraid to let me love you?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked tightly.
The goddess considered it, but she couldn’t come up with anything that would explain his actions. He cared about her, she was sure of it. And there was no denying that he desired her. But she couldn’t think of any reason strong enough to make him keep her at arm’s length.
“No, it isn’t,” she finally answered.
“I can’t protect the people in my life,” Hercules began, his voice wavering. “The Fates have proven that time after time. I’d be better off alone, but I realized on this trip that I’m never going to get rid of Iolaus. Nothing is ever going to make him leave me, and I’m not sure that I could go on without him anyway. But I live in fear that I’m going to lose him, Hebe. He’s mortal, and mortals get sick and they get hurt and they die. Especially when they’re at my back, helping me wage a war with the gods. And that’s the way it really is. People I love are targets. And I can’t stand to see that happen to you.”
“Hercules, look at me,” the goddess commanded softly. He hesitated, but finally obeyed, turning tormented eyes to meet her reassuring gaze. “I’m not mortal,” she reminded him firmly. “I’m not vulnerable. I’m safe from the gods. I’m safe from warlords and evil men seeking vengeance. I won’t be a target by being with you.”
“Yes, you will,” the demigod insisted. “You’re not safe, Hebe. The gods... their rules don’t mean anything. Hera or Ares won’t hesitate to bend them to get to me through you. You were given your immortality, and Hera can take it away again.”
“So, what if she does?” Hebe reached out, brushing a lock of hair out of his eyes and caressing his cheek. “You’d be worth the risk.”
“I’m not,” Hercules muttered, pulling away from her and getting to his feet. “You and Iolaus...”
“It’s our decision to make, not yours,” the goddess told him, rising and moving behind him. She slipped her hands up over his broad shoulders, massaging them gently. “Hercules, you can’t be afraid all the time. You have to live life, and enjoy it while you have it. Bad things happen in life. You lose people you love. But enjoying life and sharing it with those people is what it’s all about. What is the purpose of living if you keep yourself closed off from everyone?”
“I know you’re right,” he sighed. “But it’s hard to convince my conscience of that.”
“Your conscience is clean,” she continued. “You’ve dedicated your life to protecting the innocent. The gods try to interfere, but that is NOT your fault. They are the ones that hurt people, not you. The hows and whys don’t matter. You have nothing to regret. And no reason to deny yourself love from your family and friends.” Hebe felt a small shudder run through him, and she moved around to face him, taking his hands. “You can’t live that way, Hercules. Don’t worry about what might happen tomorrow. Enjoy what you have today, and thank the Fates for blessing you with it.”
“That lecture sounds familiar,” the demigod whispered.
“It should,” the goddess grinned. “It’s the same one you gave to Iolaus.” He chuckled and she moved closer, pressing up against him, pleased when he accommodated her by wrapping his arms around her. “I’m here now, Hercules,” she murmured huskily. “And even if it ended tomorrow, I’d accept it willingly, grateful that we had tonight.” Hebe tilted her head up, her violet eyes boring into his. “But nothing is going to happen to me. I’m not going to get sick. I’m not going to get hurt. And I’m not going to die. So if you love me, don’t be afraid. We’ve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain.”
The demigod gazed down at the radiant goddess in his arms, feeling the breath catch in his throat. He had such strong feelings for her, the intensity of it scared him. And he finally understood what had come over Iolaus when he’d fallen for his beloved healer.
“I do love you, Hebe,” Hercules whispered. “I’ve always loved you.”
“Prove it,” she challenged.
Knowing there could be no turning back, but realizing he didn’t want to, Hercules bent down to kiss her, needing no further encouragement.
Ares kept himself cloaked as he materialized, but upon surveying the scene, he doubted if the two mortals would have noticed his arrival if he’d burst forth in a blaze of glory. He watched them clinically for a few moments, then vanished from the room and reappeared in the one across the hall. After carefully checking to make sure the girl was sound asleep, the god of war allowed himself to become visible to the mortal eye and bent to pick up the baby from her basket.
“I guess mom and dad are making up for lost time,” he said softly, cradling the child gently in his arms. “Well, you’ll understand when you’re older.” Ares looked down at the little face, at the innocent eyes gazing up at him, and he smiled. “There’s nothing better than when a plan comes together. You know, Hercules says that I lack subtlety. And I admit, I can be rather rash sometimes. That’s one side of war, the heat of battle. But there’s also the strategic side. The calculating, patient, planning side. And I do know how to play that hand. You’re my witness to that.”
The god of war tickled the baby under the chin, chuckling as she gurgled and grinned at him.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he continued. “And you’re right. Your father has caused me a lot of trouble in the past. Normally I’d enjoy seeing him out of action. But as it turns out, I need him now.”
Ares hefted the child up against his chest so that her head was against his shoulder, and he turned slightly to whisper into her ear.
“Your dad is one of the greatest mortal warriors that has ever lived. I’d give a lot to count him among my soldiers, but that’s tragically not to be. But he is going to teach you. You already have his fighting heart and his warrior spirit, Cale. But I need him to give you his skills. How to fight and how to win, but I also need him to teach you that blind determination and that drive to succeed no matter what the odds. When you’ve learned all that he can show you, you’ll come to me. And then I’ll make you into a legend.”
The god of war smiled slightly to himself as he untangled the baby’s fist from his dark curls and placed her back into the basket. He had sent the lion to Acheron, knowing that mere mortals would be no match for it, and that his half-brother’s pesky sidekick would have to answer to his overdeveloped sense of duty. Which he did, killing the lion and regaining his love of life and his confidence, just as Ares had predicted. And, as the god of war had also predicted, Artemis, who had been pissed over his manipulation of the rogue lion, had wanted to reward the hunters and had petitioned Apollo to exercise his healing powers on the injured runt. Which Apollo did, and just as Ares had anticipated, anonymously, since he didn’t want his former nemeses to know he was a patsy to his twin sister. Leaving everything working out perfectly, everybody happy, and nobody suspecting Ares of anything whatsoever. Lack of subtlety, indeed! It was pure genius.
“Go to sleep now,” he murmured to the baby, stroking a finger softly along her cheek. “And be a good little warrior and listen to your father. He has a lot to teach you.” The god of war stood up, a bright shimmer of light enveloping him as he faded away, leaving only his ominous words behind, hanging heavily in the air. “But don’t forget who you really belong to. You are mine, and that’s the way it is.”
Disclaimer: No rogue lions were harmed during the writing of this story. Just ignore that skin hanging on the wall over there.
The Story So Far Chapter Listing
The Iolausian Library