By RudyThe author does not own the characters from the series. They belong to MCA/Universal. We all know that. We're not making any money from this. We're just having fun. Okay?
"Well, well; look at this!"
Iolaus frowned in annoyance as the jeering voice behind him pulled him out of his reverie. He stared out at the ocean, trying to close his ears to the racket.
"Hey, youíd better be careful with that blade youíre wearing, pretty one. You might cut yourself," this time the voice was applauded by rough laughter from several others.
Iolaus sighed and reflected that he really should stand up and help whoever was being picked on. Yeah, a fight sounded like it would be fun, right about now. Itíd sure beat staring into space.
"Ooh, whatís the matter? Did I make you mad? Oh, stop; youíre scaring me!"
The bullyís laughter was bitten off abruptly. Before Iolaus could turn, a body came whizzing past him, crashing into the sand almost at his feet. Iolaus looked around, and promptly dissolved in the first true laughing fit he had enjoyed in months when he spotted the man whom the hapless ruffian had been taunting.
"This is gonna be good," he said to the dazed man in the sand, "Watch this."
They both watched, as the four men whoíd been cheering their buddy on closed in on their prey.
"Theyíll tear that pretty boy apart," the bully muttered through split lips.
"I donít think so. But, you are right about one thing; he is pretty. Kinda makes you want to break his nose, doesnít it?" Iolaus turned back to enjoy the show.
Barely ten feet away, a lone figure faced the little group of toughs. His hair was a blazing mass of red-gold curls which were pulled back in a careless knot, the longest of the disorderly ringlets just brushing his slender waist. He was tall, and his muscular physique was framed by well-worn black leather pants and a loosely-laced vest. A great deal of creamy skin was visible through the lacing, and a sheathed hunting blade was thrust through the belt which slung low on his slim hips. His cool, perfect face was calm as he studied his opponents.
One of the jeering men lumbered forward, swinging a meaty fist. He found himself becoming better acquainted with the ground in the space of a heartbeat, and one of his cronies landed atop him, unconscious, before he even had a chance to draw a breath. The redhead ducked a sword blow and planted his foot in the attackerís stomach, sending him sprawling backward, winded, to land in the middle of the street. The remaining bully lowered his head with a growl, and launched himself directly at his intended victim, who grabbed him and coiled around him as they tumbled in a twin somersault. He landed on top, straddling his attackerís stomach. One good punch to the bullyís throat, and the man in black leapt lightly to his feet. None of his erstwhile assailants appeared interested in pressing the point further, so he stepped away from them.
Iolaus surprised himself by laughing again, as the victor grinned in his direction. He dusted himself off elaborately, then ran over and gathered Iolaus into a rib-cracking hug.
"Iolaus! Thanks for teaching me that move; it really comes in handy, sometimes."
"Well, Diomedes, if youíd put some clothes on, or at least let someone get a few good cuts in on that ridiculous face of yours, you wouldnít need to use it so often," Iolaus smiled into his friendís brown eyes, feeling something dangerously close to happiness warm his heart for a moment.
"Hey, I give them lots of chances. No one can bring themselves to destroy a work of art like me, though," Diomedes pretended to preen, "Anyway, youíre a fine one to talk about clothing! Tell me, do you even *own* a shirt?" Diomedes looked down at the man in the sand, speculatively.
"Hey, you! Yes, you," as the former ringleader of the ruffians pointed toward his own chest, "How come you didnít try to beat Iolaus here up? Scared of blondes?"
Iolaus planted his fist lightly in his friendís stomach.
"Come on, Diomedes. Letís get an ale. If youíre going to get me into a fight, as usual, at least let me have one last drink."
"I *am* a bit dry. Must have been the walk," Diomedes smiled winningly at the groaning men who were picking themselves up slowly, and followed Iolausí lead to the nearest inn.
The happiness had faded from Iolausí face by the time they ordered ale.
"Well, my friend, I know you too well to imagine that this is a happy coincidence. Been having visions again?" Iolausí voice was dry, and his eyes were curiously blank under his friendís penetrating gaze.
"Of your death," Diomedes said, bluntly.
"I see you still have a tendency to dance around the truth," Iolaus downed half of his ale in one draught, "But, no need to worry about me. Iíve got everything under control."
"And Ďeverythingí would be ...?"
Iolaus stared at him for a few moments, then finished his ale.
"I betrayed Hercules. Then I died. Itís just took a little while to sink in, thatís all."
Diomedes studied him with growing alarm; nothing showed in Iolausí normally expressive eyes. Even his voice revealed nothing.
"Iolaus. Please, tell me what happened."
"Travel with me for a while, Diomedes. Iím practicing. Maybe, one day, once Iíve got it down, Iíll tell you all about it."
Iolaus grabbed a pitcher from a passing barmaid and refilled their mugs. He handed the pitcher to her wordlessly, and turned back to Diomedes.
"Iíll tell you that, too, maybe. Or, maybe the answer will come to you in a dream."
Hercules grinned with anticipation as he entered the forge, but, the smile faded as he looked around the cold, dusty room.
"Iolaus?" He called again, pushing past the curtain into the little living area beyond.
Another empty, dusty room. Hercules ran a finger across the table, and frowned down at the burden of dust it had gathered. Iolaus must have been gone for weeks; heíd probably left when Hercules had undertaken his journey to Ithaca. But, where had he gone?
Hercules plopped down on the bed dejectedly, sneezing as a cloud of dust rose around him. Heíd really been looking forward to seeing his friend; theyíd been apart far too much during the last months. One battle after another, when theyíd been together, but too busy guarding each otherís backs to enjoy one anotherís company. Then ... Xena. Theyíd parted ways almost immediately after leaving her stronghold. Then had come the battles against Darphis, and Xenaís change of heart. And then ...
"You fell in love with her. And he watched it happen."
Hercules brow knotted as he remembered the expression on Iolausí face when heíd returned to camp and found Hercules and Xena together. Heíd only just gotten past his anger and mistrust, only just begun accepting the possibility that Xena might have truly become an ally rather than an enemy. Then, theyíd added another stone to the load he was carrying, by becoming lovers. Hercules looked down at the bed he was sitting on, and jumped to his feet as though heíd been bitten.
Gods, it had been on this very bed that Xena had seduced Iolaus. A small, ugly voice whispered in the back of Herculesí mind, but he pushed it away, refusing to hear. His foot kicked something out from under the bed as he headed for the door, and he bent automatically to retrieve it.
A glittering arm bracelet. Xenaís?
With his hand closed around the bracelet as though it were a talisman, Hercules headed for the inn across the lane.
"Iolaus? Yeah, he left, oh, must be close to a month ago. No, he didnít say where he was headed. No, no message for you. Actually, I just assumed that he was heading out to meet up with you somewhere, Hercules."
The innkeeper grinned sympathetically at the rather pained look which washed across Herculesí features as a harried-looking stranger grasped the demigodís-godís arm urgently.
"Yes. And you are ...?"
"My name is Helphis. Please, youíve got to come, to help us."
The tale which Helphis related was all too familiar to Hercules, and he cursed the timing which had brought the complaint to his door at this particular moment. The manís village, and the neighboring villages, were being harassed and looted by a band of thieving mercenaries.
"Just when we think theyíve gone for good, they come back. Soon, weíll have nothing left for them to steal; weíll starve to death!" Helphisí eyes were red-rimmed and weary in his haggard face. His patched clothing and wasted form attested to the truth of his story.
Hercules reflected for a moment. As worried as he was about Iolaus, he really couldnít refuse Helphis. After all, he had no idea where to start looking for his missing friend. There was one favorite fishing spot he could check (although, he reminded himself, even Iolaus wouldnít spend an entire month fishing), but, it was on the way to the village. Heíd go by his motherís, and have her keep a watch for Iolaus, and send word on to Ithaca, as well. Someone had to have seen him. He sighed and turned to the anxious villager.
"Fine, Helphis. Iíll head out now. You follow after youíve had some time to rest," He turned to the innkeeper, "If Iolaus returns, tell him Iíve gone to Raslin, and that I could really use his help. If you get any word of him, send someone on to me; itís very important that I reach him."
He was out of the door before the man could even stammer out his thanks. Helphis turned bemusedly to the innkeeper.
"Does he always make his mind up so quickly?"
Xena took a deep breath of the sweet, fresh air, and caught herself actually *giggling*?
"I do *not* giggle!" Her stern words to herself were belied almost at once by another silly little laugh. Gods. This was embarrassing.
But, it was such a beautiful day. The sky was such a deep blue, with fleecy clouds scudding in from the direction of the sea. The trees arched over the road ahead, dappling the hard brown surface with molten patterns of lacy sunlight. And, she was in love.
She tried to bring some sternness into her features. After all, she was headed for trouble, trying to stop these cowardly mercenaries who were warring on innocent townsfolk. She certainly couldnít show up with a dandelion in her hand a silly grin on her face. Could she?
The smile disappeared immediately as she heard movement on the road behind her, and she wheeled her horse sharply. When she saw who was approaching, she growled to herself. Great. This could lead to more giggling.
She slipped off of her mount with practiced grace and stepped forward.
Hercules smiled all over his face. All over his beautiful, wonderful face. Xena shook herself mentally. ĎGet a grip, woman.í
"Xena. How have you been?"
"Quite well. And, yourself?"
"Oh, canít complain."
The act ended abruptly; they were in each otherís arms in a heartbeat, their lips meeting in a deep, heart-shaking kiss. When they found time to breathe again, they stood back a little and regarded one another happily.
"Well, I certainly didnít expect to run across you so soon," Xena teased.
"I didnít expect it, either. Let me guess; youíre on the way to Raslin."
"Iím afraid so. Would you like some help?"
"Help? Since when ..." the fire faded from her eyes as she saw the laughter in Herculesí gaze, "Well, I guess you could tag along. Maybe youíll pick up a few new moves."
"What kind of moves? Ow!" He rubbed his arm ruefully; she had a good punch.
They headed down the road companionably, enjoying the day and one anotherís company. Hercules fell into a distracted silence after a while. Xena waited, but he didnít come out of it.
"Hello? Hercules? Is something bothering you?"
"No, Iím fine," He grinned at her disbelieving expression, "OK, Iím a bit worried. Oh, that reminds me."
He fished in his shirt, and handed the bracelet to Xena.
"Oh, you had it!" She slipped it over one strong arm.
"No. I found it under ... Iolaus had it. It was in his room."
Xenaís face darkened.
"Iolaus. So, itís Iolaus that youíre worried about?"
"Yes. Heís been gone for weeks; I was in Ithaca. When I got back, I found out that heíd left without leaving word as to where he was headed. Thatís not like Iolaus. He always lets someone know where heíll be, in case I need him," Herculesí frown deepened for a moment, then he smiled with a bit of an effort, "Thereís a village just around the bend; letís get something to eat."
Xena held her peace, as they found a tavern and ordered their food. She waited until Hercules had finished eating and had settled back, full and contented, then fixed her gaze on him, ready to get at whatever was troubling him. Just as she as about to speak, though, a loud voice from a group at the bar interrupted her.
"And, then, I had that pretty redhead clean my boots for me," The boasting man burst into loud laughter, joined by his cronies. He sported a faded black eye, and a self-congratulatory grin.
"If thatís so, how did you get the shiner?" A skeptical voice asked.
The man looked a bit uncomfortable for a moment, but recovered quickly.
"One lucky punch doesnít make a fighter. As he found out!" Another loud laugh.
"And, all of the hot air in the world doesnít make the truth," A new voice rang out; A strongly-built, formidable-looking man, whoíd been sitting quietly by himself, stood and walked over to face the first speaker.
"I was there, friend. You should pay more attention to the faces you encounter during your travels, if you want to lie about your exploits further down the road."
The boaster flinched as several of the tavern patrons laughed appreciatively.
"Oh, so you were there, eh? And, why should any of us believe you?"
"No more reason to believe me than to believe you. Except, that Iím telling the truth. That Ďpretty redheadí put you and all four of your buddies, here, in the dust without even breaking a sweat. Then, he marched off with his little blonde friend and drank a great deal of ale. End of story."
Hercules had stiffened at the first mention of the redhead. At the reference to a Ďlittle blondeí, he rose from his seat and headed over to the speaker. Just before he reached him, the boasting man aimed a clumsy punch at his accuser, who calmly blocked the blow and landed one of his own in his attackerís well-upholstered midsection. Down he went.
Hercules stepped over him politely, and stood beside the other man as the bullyís friends gathered him up and hauled him over to a table. He turned to the speaker and smiled.
"Excuse me, but, can you describe the two men you were talking about? I think theyíre friends of mine, and Iíve been trying to find them."
The man looked Hercules over carefully, and did a double-take as Xena stepped up beside the demigod-god.
"Describe them? Well, the redhead was tall - about your height," he nodded at Xena with an appreciative smile, "Fair-skinned. His hair was curly, long. He wore black leather. The other man was small, muscular, blonde. Wore a ragged vest and leather pants. Carried a sword. Dangerous looking fellow. They about drank the inn dry of ale, then headed out of Merie.
"Thanks, friend. Did you see which way they were heading?"
"East. Are they your friends?"
"Yes, it sounds like it. Iím grateful for the news; thanks again."
Hercules headed back to the table, Xena close behind. He settled down and stared at the table top, with a puzzled frown.
"Iolaus? ĎDangerous lookingí? This could explain a lot, though; if Diomedes showed up, wanting company, Iolaus would certainly have gone with him. That doesnít necessarily put my mind at rest, though. Iím ... not sure about Diomedes. The thing is; I canít imagine why the innkeeper at home didnít mention him. Heís ... well, heís not the easiest person to overlook," Hercules grinned.
"Well, who exactly is he?" Xena was growing frustrated.
"Actually, Iím not sure I can answer that. Diomedes is hard to get close to, and harder to trust. But, Iolaus, of course, trusts him completely." Hercules cleared his throat uncomfortably, and they both dropped their eyes for a moment.
"So, what is it about him thatís untrustworthy?"
"We met him when he was part of King Thanosí army. He was a seer, and a healer. But, heíd foreseen that his brother was to die in battle, so he trained in arms, and proved to be a formidable warrior. He joined his brother under Thanos, and fought at his back, trying to forestall his fate. His brother was killed, anyway; he died in Diomedesí arms. Diomedes went mad in his grief; he became a demon. No one was safe near him; friend or foe. He was a terrifying sight, in battle, and a great asset, as long as his own men knew to stay away from him. Between battles, though, he held himself apart from the other men, barely eating, rarely sleeping, never speaking. He only came to life to fight. No one could stand against him." Hercules fell silent, remembering.
"And Iolaus befriended him, right?" Xenaís voice was neutral.
"Of course. I felt sorry for Diomedes, but kept my distance, like everyone else. Iolaus kept hounding him, talking to him, fighting by him, walking next to him; never giving him a momentís peace. Then, one day, Diomedes exploded at him. He screamed, he shouted, he raged. Then, he hit Iolaus. Knocked him right to the ground, split his lip open."
"And, you kicked his ass?"
Hercules smiled at her.
"Well, I thought about it. But, I knew that there must be a reason for what Iolaus had been doing, so I just watched and waited. Sure enough, Diomedes sat down in the dirt next to Iolaus and started weeping. I cleared the spectators away; when the last of us left, he was still sitting there. Not making a sound, just weeping. When they rejoined us, later, it seemed that his madness had passed. From that moment on, if Iolaus had asked for a hand, Diomedes would have cut off his own and given it to him. He stayed with the army for a few more battles, for as long as Iolaus and I remained. He was still a daunting warrior, but, no longer a danger to his allies. When we left, he left the army. He just disappeared into the forest. He didnít even tell Iolaus where he was going, just that he would be there if Iolaus needed him."
"He sounds like a good man. Why donít you trust him?"
"Heís too volatile, Xena. What if he cracks again? He might even hurt Iolaus. Or, if something happened to Iolaus; would Diomedes go mad? Who would be there to stop him, this time? He never let anyone else get close, no one. Only Iolaus. I canít imagine what he would be like if Iolaus were harmed."
Xena sighed and looked thoughtfully into her mug of ale.
"I think youíre borrowing trouble, Hercules. Iolaus can take care of himself. Obviously, so can Diomedes. Why are you still so worried?"
Hercules caught and held her eyes.
"Because weíve some unfinished business between us, Iolaus and I. Weíve never discussed ... what happened. On the trip home, after we parted from you at Darphisí fort, he grew steadily quieter. He had a lot to sort out. We both did. Iím not sure now that silence was the best way to handle it. Iím concerned about his state of mind."
"But, he told me he didnít hate me any longer."
"Come on, Xena. We both want to believe that Iolaus can just accept anything, but, heís a passionate man, and the wound you dealt him was a deep one. Then, just as he was getting past it, we fell in love. That hurt him; you saw his face when he found us."
"We should feel guilty now, for loving one another?" Xenaís voice was cold, and she set her chin stubbornly.
"No. Thatís not what Iím saying. But, we have to be honest with ourselves about this. Iolaus is my best friend. What he feels matters. As much as Iíd like to, I canít just go off chasing butterflies and ignore the fact that what has happened between us affects him, too."
The silence stretched between them, then, Xena placed her palm against Herculesí, measuring.
"Youíre right. We will find him."
She smiled at Hercules, and he returned the smile, but, a shadow lingered in his eyes.
"Thereís something more, isnít there?"
He started a bit, then shook his head.
"No, nothing." But, the shadow remained.
Theyíd been traveling for nearly two weeks, now, at a furious pace, barely pausing at each new village. And, here they were, sitting silently beside yet another fire. Diomedes reached within himself for his gift of sight, and found nothing. He was too close; all he could see was Iolaus. Or, what was left of Iolaus.
He sighed. He would have the dream again tonight; he could feel it.
He looked up to find Iolaus staring at him strangely. Tears burned his eyes as he realized just what was strange about the look; there was actually a spark of feeling in that blue gaze. Something ... what? The slight flash of humanity disappeared before he could even put a name to it. Too tired to try any longer, Diomedes let the tears fall, slipping down his cheeks. Iolaus rose slowly and came to settle beside him, his empty eyes never leaving Diomedesí face.
Unexpectedly, Iolaus pulled him close, unbinding Diomedesí fiery curls and burying his face in them. He kissed the tears from his cheeks, then captured his friendís mouth with his own, sharing the salty taste. That kiss brought another, and another still, awakening memories which shook Diomedes to his core. Then Iolaus began, with maddening slowness, to pull the worn leather clothing from the seerís trembling body. He explored each new bit of snowy flesh thus revealed with teasing caresses and skillful kisses, while Diomedes struggled with Iolausí clothing, pulling the vest aside to taste the muscular throat and suckle at Iolausí dark nipples. He managed to pull the hunterís leather pants aside, and ran his fingernails slowly up the tender, muscular inner thighs, as Iolaus toed his boots off and freed himself of the pants completely.
Iolaus moaned as strong fingers threaded their way into the golden thatch of hair surrounding his aching erection, his only thought to bury himself in the fire and cream that was Diomedes, to lose himself utterly, for a few, precious hours. He curled his agile way around Diomedesí body, straddling his slim hips and sinking his teeth carefully into the hot, white throat. Ah, his redheaded lover still writhed delightfully when Iolaus did that. What else remained the same? Iolaus slithered slowly down, leaving a searing trail of tiny bites from the throat to the flat plane of Diomedesí belly, then grasped his swollen shaft firmly, flicking his tongue quickly across the tender head with maddening repetitiveness. Diomedesí hips rode up convulsively, and Iolaus laughed huskily.
"You are mine," he whispered, and proceeded to lay claim to his shuddering property.
When the glorious ride was over, and Iolaus slept, Diomedes lay staring at the sky, his fingers caressing the blonde head pillowed heavily on his shoulder. He wondered, distantly, whether he would become like Iolaus soon. A shade, walking among the living. The burden of pain weighing on his heart was nearly unbearable. Worse, now, after what had just passed between them.
Even Iolausí lovemaking had changed. Yes, his delicate, searing skill was still present, the incredible feast which his beautiful body provided, his clever hands and nimble tongue. The perfect, tireless rhythm of his thrusting hips. The practiced sensuality which had so enthralled Diomedes in the past remained. The timbre of his voice, as he cried out with pleasure, was as clear as it had ever been. But, the tumbling, bouncing, wild joy that had once been part and parcel of Iolaus the lover was gone. A controlled savagery had taken itís place, mind-numbingly pleasurable, certainly, but, so very different. Diomedesí lips were still swollen from Iolausí kisses, he knew that heíd carry the marks of Iolausí carefully calculated bites on his throat for days, yet, he now knew beyond question that his sweet, blonde hunter was dead. Lost to all who had loved him.
Diomedes bit back a new rush of tears. Tears for the graveside. He closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of Iolausí skin and willing himself to dream. Willing the sight to come, and an answer with it. Finally, sleep did come. With the dawn, came the dream. The same dream.
He was standing in a rocky glade, watching Hercules as he nestled against a beautiful, raven-haired woman. The softness of their eyes, the languor of their limbs, announced that theyíd just made highly satisfactory love. There was a movement across the glade; Iolaus appeared, rounding a tree. His eyes were on Hercules and the woman, and the dream fired his emotions directly into Diomedesí reeling heart. Pain, anger, humiliation, guilt. A blazing memory of sweet touches and searing kisses. Betrayal. His own. The womanís. And now ... ĎI *donít* roll around in bed with her!í. Iolaus was nodding his head to himself as he walked forward. Deliberately, he slammed his sword into itís scabbard; the lovers looked up and jumped apart, guiltily. Hercules rose from his seat against the womanís bare legs, to sit beside her as he greeted the newcomer.
"Did I get back too soon?"
The words, uttered in a voice so hard that Diomedes could barely recognize it as belonging to Iolaus, pulled him out of his friendís thoughts.
The lovers didnít respond verbally, but, Hercules glanced at the woman (Xena, Diomedesí gift whispered). She kept her gaze fixed defiantly on Iolausí face.
"I mean, I didnít think Iíd get back so soon." Iolaus dropped his eyes and squatted by the fire, laughing shortly in that strange, brittle voice.
The scene faded, and Diomedes found himself standing by the sea, looking into the water. Underneath the waves, as though encased in ice, lay Iolaus, his face grey and still, a gaping wound clearly exposing his torn heart.
He awoke with a start, on his feet even before his eyes opened. The same dream. The same images. He looked around for Iolaus, and spotted him swimming in the lake. Diomedes walked slowly down to join him. He knew the dream for a portent. But, a portent of a future calamity, or of what had already come to pass? And what, exactly, *had* come to pass? Who was Xena? He shook the thoughts from his head and slipped into the cold water. Another day of travel ahead.
But, before they set out, Iolaus finally spoke to him. He sat, a silver-gilt figure in the misty morning, and told his tale, giving new form to Diomedesí dreams. His face revealed nothing as he told Diomedes that heíd fallen in love with a strong, beautiful woman. That, heíd believed her when she told him Hercules had attacked her. For her sake, heíd turned on his best friend, to the extent of engaging him in a battle to the death. Then, the truth had been revealed; sheíd been using him to lure Hercules into the clutches of her warriors. Sheíd enraged Iolaus in the hope that he would fight Hercules and die at his hands, leaving the son of Zeus an easy target for destruction, as the weight of his guilt struck him full force.
Letting his dead eyes rest on Diomedesí unbelieving face, Iolaus explained, quietly, that Xena had changed. Sheíd seen the pain that her rage had caused, the destruction sheíd wrought in the madness of her own suffering, and now she was trying to put herself to mending. She was traveling the land, trying to help those in need, in an effort to wipe the stain of her past deeds from her soul. Hercules admired and respected her for her strength in turning herself around; his admiration had become love, and, with love had come desire. Hercules and Xena were lovers.
Diomedes felt fiery fingers of fury wrapping themselves around his heart as Iolaus turned his tousled golden head to stare out at the lake and said, in that soft, toneless voice:
"Xena finally found a warrior who was worthy of her love."
Diomedes closed his eyes, wishing that he could plunge a dagger into Herculesí faithless heart and bleed the treason out of him. Since heíd first met Iolaus, heíd been envious of the close friendship between the blonde hunter and his semi-divine companion; it didnít take a seer to recognize the depth of that friendship. But, heíd always comforted himself with the reflection that, at least Hercules was worthy of the incalculable gift of Iolausí devotion. And, now heíd thrown that away to bed the woman who had ...
"I donít care if she cut out her own eyes and handed them to the first blind man she came across! How could Hercules take her into his bed? She used and betrayed you! She tried to kill both of you! How could he touch her, knowing how that would make you feel?" Diomedesí voice shook with anger.
"It was my fault. I was weak, Diomedes. All Xena did was to exploit my weakness. I was lonely; she became a lover. I was insecure; she fed my vanity. And, I am blind when Iím angry; so, she maddened me. She needed an edge against Hercules; I was there, gullible, ready. Sheís a strong woman, a brave warrior. Hercules loves her. She could never be swayed by a pretty face into betraying him. He would never be weak enough to become someone elseís tool. They belong together."
Diomedesí own blinding fury wouldnít allow him to take that particular topic any further, so he sought for one more answer while Iolaus was still willing to talk.
"And, your Ďpracticeí. What did you mean by that?"
"I have to hold myself just right. Or, the feelings stir around. Itís like ... itís like carrying a bucket thatís full of water; if you move too fast, it spills over. Well, if Iím not careful, these ugly feelings wash up, and I get lost in them. But, it was my feelings that were my weakness, donít you see? I canít allow them anymore. Not even good ones, because that just opens the door to the rest. But, everybody expects me to act like Iolaus, you know, the guy whoís so full of himself that heís just gushing all over the place. So, Iím practicing. The hardest part is acting like Iím feeling something when Iím not. Well, Iíll figure it out."
"Iolaus," Diomedes rose, to crouch at his friendís side, placing an urgent hand on his arm, "I have traveled this path, myself. It was your bright, loving hand which brought me back from the brink. I never thought to see you taking the same journey. You cannot suppress yourself; your feelings will find a way into the light. We both know this. If you hadnít reached out to me, I would be dead by now, and, how many others would I have taken with me? Perhaps even you, beloved."
Iolaus raised his eyes, and his pain showed there, as bright as a blue flame.
"I wish you had killed me," Diomedes flinched, and Iolaus shook his head, "Listen to me; it has to be this way, Diomedes. I canít think of anything else to do."
"Tell Hercules how you feel. Tell Xena. Cry. Rage. Itís not weak to admit to your feelings, Iolaus."
"I canít. They ... they already know more about me than I can bear. Leave it, my friend."
Then, Iolausí voice ran down, and his face stilled once more into the empty mask heíd been wearing throughout their travels. The conversation was over. Iolaus gently slipped away from Diomedesí hand, and stretched, standing and looking toward the road. Diomedes wondered, blazing with fury, whether all of Iolausí rage and pain had come, through his dreams, to rest in Diomedesí own heart. If that were true, could Iolaus teach him to suppress it, then how to act like Diomedes again?
A thought came to him. He knew, without asking Iolaus, without consulting the stars, that he was the first lover Iolaus had taken since heíd left Xenaís bed. More practice?
A choked laugh escaped him, and Iolaus turned to him, shouldering his sword.
"Nothing. Just wrestling with a ghost."
Iolaus didnít pursue the matter; he really didnít care any longer.
Diomedes smiled to himself grimly.
ĎMust make the bucket slosh, to care.í
He followed Iolausí small, sturdy figure down the road.
Hercules and Xena heard the sounds of battle before they reached Raslin. They exchanged glances, and Xena mounted her horse, wheeling and heading off toward the village. Hercules leapt forward with immortal speed, curving around to approach the village from a different angle.
Xena rounded a bend in the road. To the right of the village lay a green meadow, bordered by trees. There, she found two warriors fighting against a score of men. One she recognized immediately. Iolaus. He fought furiously, throwing himself at his foes heedlessly, but, with a constant, quick grace. He was like a golden bolt of lightning; striking and disappearing, before his enemies could react. The other man was a stranger to her, but, the fiery hair flying about him proclaimed his identity; the mysterious Diomedes. He battled fiercely, armed only with a hunting blade. As she sped forward, he easily disarmed one of his opponents and skewered him with his own sword. Blood stained his beautiful, gleeful face as he swung to face another man, and his eyes flashed as he checked Iolausí position. He looked like a god playing at war; the mere sight of him was enough to cause some of the mercenaries to hesitate.
Wailing her blood-freezing war cry, Xena flung herself into the fray, throwing herself from horseback to take out the first man she came across. As she brought him down and moved to the next, she heard a terrified yelp from her left and grinned; Hercules must have arrived. Her hypothesis was proven as a body flew past her to impact with a tree several manís lengths beyond. Subtle, no; effective, certainly.
In only a few short minutes, the remaining mercenaries fled into the surrounding woods, pulling injured comrades with them. Xena whirled to see Hercules straighten and relax as he realized that the fight was over. Diomedes turned toward her, and she felt an almost physical shock as his dark eyes met hers. Something about his gaze was painfully intimate, pulling at her. His perfect, savage face became stony, although she couldnít actually say that his expression had changed at all.
Iolaus walked past him, lifting a hand to touch his shoulder lightly as he did so. Diomedes glanced down at him, and Xena felt a shameful moment of relief as she was freed from that basilisk stare.
"Iolaus! I didnít expect to find you here!" Hercules practically ran forward, extending his arm toward Iolaus. His smiling face clouded as Iolaus hesitated visibly before taking his forearm in a quick clasp.
"Hercules. We were just ... passing through. We heard that these guys were causing some trouble, and ..."
Diomedes glided forward, and stood just behind and to the left of Iolaus.
"Diomedes," Hercules extended his arm once again, "I hope none of that blood is yours."
Diomedes stepped out from behind Iolaus to take Herculesí arm firmly.
Iolaus looked up at him, then reached out to swipe one finger across his gory face. He held the crimson tip up for Diomedesí inspection.
"Oh. I see. Iím not sure," He sent a glowing smile down at Iolaus, "Maybe someone finally got a good cut in. You think?"
Iolaus laughed shortly, then tilted his gaze to Xena.
"Xena. How have you been?"
What exactly was it that was so changed about Iolaus? Xena struggled with the question as she answered him mechanically.
"Iíve been well."
Hercules cleared his throat.
"Uh, Diomedes, this is Xena. Xena, Diomedes, Iolausí friend."
Diomedes eyes were shuttered as he nodded at Xena.
"Your reputation precedes you, warrior." He did not offer his arm.
"Iíve got to clean up a bit. See you at the inn, later?" Iolausí voice was toneless and he met Herculesí eyes expressionlessly.
"Yeah, the inn."
Iolaus turned and headed off into the village. Diomedes followed, after a brief parting glance at the two remaining warriors.
Xena looked up into Hercules face; his eyes were stricken, as he watched Iolaus walk away.
Xena sighed with relief as they entered the inn. She was in desperate need of a good meal and a good rest.
Her eye was immediately caught by Diomedes, who was sitting alone at a table in the back. She studied him carefully; his posture was relaxed, but he kept his back to the wall and his hand near the knife at his belt. Warriorís habits. His eyes were calm, not fixing on any particular person, quietly roaming over the other denizens of the inn. They met hers, and she braced herself. So much fury, packed into such a cold, concentrated glance.
Hercules followed her gaze, then threaded his way through the tables to Diomedes side, taking a seat across from him.
"Diomedes. What were the two of you thinking, fighting against such odds? You could have both been killed."
"Could we?" Diomedes showed little interest.
"I thought Iolaus was your friend. Donít you care what happens to him?" Herculesí voice was rough with anger.
Diomedes regarded Hercules calmly.
"He is the only person living whom I love. Yes, I care. The question should be; donít you care? Or perhaps, didnít you? After all, these days, Iolaus is conspicuous mainly by his absence."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean what I say. Iolaus is gone, though he left his form behind. I imagine that you know rather more about that, than I."
"Diomedes, why are you speaking in riddles?" Frustration traced a crease between Herculesí concerned blue eyes.
Diomedesí face lit with a wicked smile, and he laughed softly, his eyes dancing coldly.
"Ah, Hercules. Where is your vaunted patience? My words were clear enough. Try these: Iolausí heart is broken. He seems to feel that if he travels far enough, quickly enough, fights recklessly enough, heíll be able to outrun his loss. That heíll leave it behind him, like a rock in the road. So far, he doesnít appear to have met with much success."
Herculesí clear, blue eyes did not waver.
"I guess youíve talked about what happened, then."
The other man laughed again, a sound like ice cracking.
"Iolaus doesnít talk much anymore. He fights. He drinks. He even eats occasionally. Yesterday, though, he did talk to me. He told me, among other things, that heíd betrayed you, Hercules. And, that he had needed to get away for a while, to practice."
"Practice what?" Xena broke in, impatiently.
"I asked him exactly the same question. He told me that he needed to practice acting like Iolaus. Just between us, heís not making much progress. I havenít had the heart to tell him, though," Diomedes flashed a brilliant smile at Xena, and toasted her with his ale, downing a mighty draught, "I know; maybe you could do it. Itíll hurt him, but, that shouldnít bother you."
Both Hercules and Xena stiffened, but, Diomedes continued as though he hadnít noticed.
"Tell him that, if he wants to act like Iolaus, heís got to smile more readily, and he has to pretend that it doesnít hurt when he does. Heís got to crack frequent jokes, sing lustily while he walks, tell outrageous stories. Heís got to begin at least a *few* sentences with ĎYou should have been there when Hercules and I...í. Heís got to flirt shamelessly with every woman he meets. But, most of all, tell him that he has to do something about his eyes."
He took another swallow of ale, and gestured at the barmaid as she walked by. He was silent while she refilled his mug, smiling calmly at Hercules and Xena as he resumed speaking.
"Have you noticed how easy itís always been to read Iolausí eyes? What am I saying; of course you must have noticed, Xena. Well, apparently thatís one of the lessons heís learned about himself in the last few months. Heís learned it rather too well. His eyes are empty, now, didnít you see? Very carefully empty. They no longer reflect the light; they absorb it. Sometimes, though, if I turn very quickly and catch his gaze, or, if heís had that one ale too many, something will show there, for a brief second. Shame. Pain. Just for a second. Tell him heís really got to work on that." His voice broke suddenly, and he took a long, uneven breath, turning his head to stare into the fire.
"Are you finished?" Herculesí voice was as cold as Diomedesí laughter had been.
Diomedes turned back to meet Herculesí angry eyes, seeming almost surprised to see him, as if heíd forgotten that he wasnít alone at the little table.
"Do you really think that, by hurting Xena, you can help Iolaus? Sheís a different person, now. She has suffered enough."
Xena stopped Hercules with a gesture.
"You donít need to speak for me. Diomedes has every right to hate me; itís an emotion Iím very familiar with. Diomedes, I ... I deeply regret what Iíve done to Iolaus. If I could go back, and change it, I would. But, I canít. I have to live with the consequences of my actions. Iolaus ... I donít think Iolaus hates me, anymore."
"No. He doesnít hate you. In fact, heís doing his best not to feel anything at all. But, Iím not Iolaus. And, Iím not Hercules, either; I have no aspirations toward nobility. Or interest in your charms. Youíve managed to destroy my only friend. I despise you. I begrudge you the very air that you breathe. What you did out of pain, would have been enough to earn my enmity. What you did out of lust, was beyond thoughtlessness. It was cruelty. Hercules is a beautiful man, but, heís not the only beautiful man. You had to take him as your lover? Why didnít you spit in Iolausí face, while you were about it? Iíll forgive you on the day that Iolaus returns to life. Until then, youíd best guard yourself, warrior."
Xena steadied herself with an effort.
"And, you, *warrior*; you guard yourself, as well. It might hurt Iolaus if I killed you, but, Ďthat shouldnít bother meí right?"
Their eyes clashed for a moment, as sharp as drawn swords.
"And, me?" Herculesí voice was soft, but his eyes were not.
"And you? Donít you have some reasonable explanation to offer, son of Zeus? You wanted her at any cost? Iolaus earned his pain with his betrayal? Ah," Diomedes smiled grimly as Hercules dropped his eyes, "Close to the truth? Havenít you ever heard of wanting something, without having it? Itís possible, believe me."
Hercules speared Diomedes with cold, blue eyes.
"Oh? And, what have you wanted, lately, that you havenít tasted?"
"Are you jealous, Hercules? Donít be. He lets me enjoy his body. His heart, while he had one, was always yours. And, Iíve always wanted the whole package. All of Iolaus. What you could have taken, with one smile, but scorned. What you chose to shatter, by bedding the woman who broke him. Does her touch thrill you as his might have done? I have admired you, Hercules, and envied you. I donít know how to feel about you, now. But, my feelings are secondary. What are you going to do about Iolaus? I canít reach him. But you ..."
Then, something changed in Diomedesí face, and he looked toward the empty doorway. A moment later, Iolaus appeared, making his way toward them when he spotted their location. Hercules tried to pinpoint the change in his friend as he settled himself next to Diomedes. He walked with his usual strength and economy of motion, but, the bounce which had formerly characterized his step was gone. Heíd lost weight, and, though he gleamed golden in the firelight, an air of darkness clung about him. He garnered glances from the surrounding tables, but, rather than being admiring or amused, they were cautious. He *was* Ďa dangerous looking fellowí. Why?
"Hercules. Xena." His voice was light and sweet, but, when Hercules met his gaze, he saw that he had misjudged Diomedes; he had not overstated the case. In fact, his description of Iolausí eyes paled in the face of reality. They werenít just empty; they were dead. That was the reason for the strange feeling of menace emanating from him. He looked like a man who had nothing to lose, because, he cared about nothing.
Hercules swallowed painfully. The compact figure across from him was a stranger. He felt as though he were viewing a memory of Iolaus, from the distant past. Without sound, without warmth, just a flickering image. A dream. Heíd never felt as lonely in his entire life as he did now, sitting at a table in a crowded room, with his closest friend. He forced himself to focus, to move carefully.
"I have a feeling that we didnít meet the whole band, earlier. Do you get the same feeling?" Hercules felt a dim sense of pride; his voice sounded quite even, very calm.
"Yeah, Diomedes and I have been talking about that. Thanks," this to the barmaid as she handed him a mug of ale. He didnít even seem to see her flirtatious smile, "Are you planning to go Ďhuntingí?" He asked Hercules.
"Yes. They shouldnít be too hard to track."
"Want company?" Iolaus asked, tonelessly.
Diomedes sent an unreadable look in his direction, but, said nothing.
"Uh, sure. Yes, of course; we could use your help."
"Weíll join you, then. When do we leave?"
"Are you so sure of your watchdog, then?" she indicated Diomedes scornfully, "You whistle, and heíll come to heel?"
Hercules started, staring at her in astonishment. Iolaus, however, showed not a flicker of emotion. He glanced briefly at Diomedes and took a swallow of ale as Diomedes laughed. That same cold, delighted laugh which heíd uttered earlier.
An awkward silence fell over the little table. The Iolaus of old would have lifted it easily with a joke or by spinning a long, involved tale. Instead, he let his dull eyes flicker over the inn, sipping at his ale. He didnít seem distracted; he seemed disinterested.
"Well, Diomedes. It looks as though none of the blood was yours," Hercules gestured toward the other manís undamaged face with an unsteady smile.
Iolaus laughed, and Hercules swallowed past the pain in his throat; even his laughter was toneless.
"Yeah. Must be the advantage of having long arms; the gods know he leaves openings big enough to drive a chariot through," There was a glimmer of the old Iolaus in the dry words.
"Enjoy the ale, shorty; it may be your last," Diomedes glowered theatrically.
"Yikes." Iolaus drained his mug and stood.
"Tomorrow, then? Iím sure that the two of you are tired, and wouldnít mind some time alone. Iíll be in here in the morning," Iolaus drifted to the door, the other denizens of the inn stumbling over themselves to stay out of his path.
Herculesí heart twisted within him, and he fought to keep himself from running after Iolaus, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him until something, anything, registered in his eyes. That parody of a smile, the cold manner. No, cold wasnít the right word. There was no feeling at all in Iolausí actions, in his presence. He was like a perfect, wax replica of himself, complete with a wig and battered clothing. But, he knew that he couldnít chase his friend down; the situation was too delicate. He turned his tormented eyes to Diomedes.
Unexpectedly, the cold fire ran out of the redheaded warrior; his face softened, and his eyes filled with tears, which spilled freely down his cheeks. He wept silently, not seeming to be aware of the eyes on him from the nearby tables, of Hercules and Xena sitting across from him. He looked younger, vulnerable; like a gentle twin of the man whoíd been taking their souls apart with such deadly precision.
"Diomedes?" It was Xena who spoke, hesitantly.
"He will be a comfort to all who love you, in days to come, warrior princess. He will give of his own great soul, to bring them healing and peace. Healing for the god who is man, the girl who is woman. He will love you past hatred; forgive you past hope. Iolaus, the lover who was unloved. He will weep over your bier, where another would have rejoiced."
Diomedesí voice was a warm cymbal; it struck to Xenaís heart and laid it bare, but a soft, loving smile lit his darkened eyes as he gazed at her. Then he turned his face to her companion. Hercules couldnít breathe; he felt the walls slowly closing in, suffocating him.
"Son of Zeus; mourn him not. You can reclaim him."
Diomedes ceased speaking suddenly; Xena realized that the black had nearly eclipsed the deep brown of his wide eyes. His face was drained of blood, and his breathing was uneven. He shook his head sharply, and focused on Hercules.
"Diomedes ... " Hercules reached across the table to grasp Diomedesí hand.
"Enough." Diomedes freed his hand gently, then slipped into the crowd and disappeared.
Xena and Hercules stared at one another, the seerís words thickening the air around them.
Iolaus wandered into the forest, barely watching where he placed his feet. Heíd known that the true test would come when he faced Hercules again. How appallingly close heíd come to failing that test.
ĎHold the bucket steady, Iolaus.í He coached himself, silently. Steady.
But, heíd wanted to upend it completely, let all of the anger, pain and loneliness spill out. Heíd wanted to rage at Hercules, to scream at him "WHY?". Why did you hurt me? Is that why you spared me, in battle? Because a quick death would be too merciful?" Would Hercules have soothed him, with gentle, reasonable words and warm smiles? Would he have offered Iolaus forgiveness and friendship?
ĎAnd, what have you done to earn his friendship? Who are you that he should explain himself to you? He loves Xena. She loves him. They owe you nothing. Get over it, Iolaus. Show some backbone. Did Hercules come crying to you when you betrayed him? Did he demand an explanation of you?í
He remembered what his father had called him when he was a child. Crybaby. Weak, little crybaby; never will be big enough to be a warrior. Well, heíd been half right. Damn him.
"Oh, well; once Iíve got this not caring thing down, heíll be all wrong. Serve him right, too."
He headed back to the village. He had to learn how to look upon Herculesí face again. How to listen to the music of Xenaís voice. He would travel with the lovers. He would fight by Herculesí side. He would do these things without pain, without pleasure. He would hold the bucket steady. One day, perhaps, he would look, and the bucket would finally be blessedly empty.
"Scout? Him? He looks like a torch!" Xenaís voice was roughly contemptuous, "Iíll scout."
Diomedes took one step toward her, his hand on the hilt of his knife. She felt the rage washing toward her, and leaned into it, her own anger firing to meet it. He read her eyes and stopped. Without a word, he passed her and faded into the forest.
"Well, looks like heís going to scout. Come on; letís get the camp set up," Hercules sounded as exhausted as he looked. Xena and Diomedes had been at one anotherís throats all day; from the moment he had entered the inn with Iolaus that morning, it had been clear that the gentle seer had been replaced once again by the cold, angry warrior. And, he had immediately commenced baiting Xena unmercifully. Iolaus had been just as wooden as he had been the night before; somehow, it had been harder to take, after the prophetís words.
ĎYou can reclaim himí.
Hercules snorted to himself. Just how was he supposed to do that?
"Iíll rustle up some dinner," Iolaus didnít wait for acknowledgment before heading off.
"Iíll be back," Xena stalked off down the road, with Herculesí staring at her retreating form with exasperation.
Xenaís blood was boiling in her veins; she wanted nothing more than to discover whether Diomedesí blood would clash with his hair.
She had been traveling for some time before she realized that she wasnít scouting. She was tracking. Tracking Diomedes. Even as she admitted this to herself, he melted from the shelter provided by a clump of rocks just ahead and stood before her.
"Looking for me?" His eyes were hatred distilled. The joyous, inhuman mask heíd worn during battle was in place.
"I want to know why you blame me for all of this. I used Iolaus; itís true. I do regret that. But, whatever game he is playing now, is his own. Donít make me a part of it."
"Game?" Diomedesí voice was a low, anticipatory purr.
"Do you think Iím blind? ĎOh, Iím hurt, Hercules. Look what Xena did to me.í And Hercules comes running. Well, Iolaus is a grown man. He needs to learn to take care of himself. Without Hercules. Without you. How many other warriors does he have waiting, to fight his battles for him? When will he fight for himself?" Xena wasnít sure where the hateful words were coming from; they boiled out of her, seemingly of their own volition. She was vaguely surprised to hear them, but, the release was incredible, like the painful, yet gratifying, relief of a poisoned wound opening under the lance.
"Is that what would salve your conscience? If he attacked you? If he inflicted some pain on you, to counterbalance your memories of the pain you caused him? He wonít. You are a fool. You didnít just bed him, Xena; you had a place in his heart. Yet, you still canít see him. Or, do you refuse to see him? Are you afraid to face what you would have been allowed to share, had you actually loved him as you made him believe that you did? Are you afraid to admit that Hercules Ďcomes runningí to his aid because he is a good man, a worthy friend? You exploited his vulnerability, and broke his spirit. Yet, he would still spare you, if he were here. Well, warrior, the gods are smiling on both of us; heís *not* here. I am. If itís pain that you crave, I can provide it."
Xena paled as Diomedesí words coiled in her brain. All of her guilt and self-doubt gathered in a fiery knot in the pit of her stomach. She would kill those feelings when she killed Diomedes.
She unsheathed her sword and gathered herself, then swung it over her head. A quick feint, then a slash intended to send that red head flying into the forest beyond. Somehow, the blow didnít connect, and a quick, savage kick sent the sword spinning. Fine. She smiled grimly into the burning brown eyes before her.
"Hand to hand, then, *warrior*. I know; perhaps the winner can claim the spoils. I recognize the brand." she gestured at the fading bruises ringing his white throat, "He is good, Iíll give him that."
She felt a savage glee as the seerís fragile control broke. Diomedes roared, and the battle began.
Hercules gathered wood and started a fire, then settled himself painfully on a log before it, wishing that he could just shut himself off, bury his memories, bury the present and the past.
He shook as he realized that this was exactly what Iolaus had done. Was doing. The hurt had been too great, the guilt, the loss. The loneliness. Heíd shut himself off. All Hercules had to do was ...
That light, toneless voice. Hercules looked up into the dead eyes, searching for a glimpse of his beloved friend in the blue depths.
"Scouting, I think."
Iolaus shook his head. He dumped a leaf-wrapped bundle on the nearest rock and settled on the log next to Hercules.
"I hope she doesnít run across Diomedes. Heís very angry with her."
"For your sake."
"Yeah. Heíll be all right, though; it will pass. If sheíd just stay out of his way."
"Have you ever known Xena to run from anything?"
Iolausí answer was a semi-amused grunt. He picked up a stick and began poking the fire with it.
Hercules broke the ensuing silence in a hesitant voice.
"And, what about me?"
Iolaus turned, a puzzled frown between his fair brows, blank nothingness in his cerulean eyes.
"What about you?"
"Isnít Diomedes angry with me? For your sake?"
Iolaus dropped his gaze.
"Yes. I tried to explain it to him, but, heís so ... so ...."
"Emotional? So much in love with you?"
Iolaus looked up again, and Hercules rejoiced as his friendís eyes flickered. But, as quickly as it had come, the flash was gone.
"Yeah. I told him that it was my fault. I guess itís easier for him to be mad at you and Xena than at me," He cleared his throat and stood, "Well, Iíll find them; why donít you start the quail cooking?"
"No. Iolaus, talk to me. What do you mean Ďit was your faultí?" Hercules stood and grabbed Iolausí arm.
"I canít, Hercules. Not yet."
"Why? Why not now?"
"Because, I canít control it well enough, yet. I need more time. Just let me go."
"No. Why did you tell Diomedes that it was your fault?"
"Come on, Hercules. You became Xenaís lover. Donít you think that says enough? You feel that what she did was justified. You must. So, you know that I was to blame. We all know it." Iolaus pulled his arm free with an impatient jerk. His jaw was set, but his eyes were still carefully vacant. "If I hadnít been so ... emotional. So foolish. If I hadnít been so weak ..."
"Whatís wrong with being passionate? Whatís wrong, even, with being weak?"
"What do you mean? It almost got you killed," His effort to control his face, his voice, was palpable.
"But, Iím alive, Iolaus. Iím here. How many times has your reckless heart saved me? Balance that against your love for Xena having placed me in danger. How many times have you been in danger simply because you are my friend? How many times have you died?" Herculesí voice faltered, and he took a deep breath before continuing, "Have I ever had the strength to walk away from you, because I presented a danger to you? Would you have wanted me to?"
"Have you ever betrayed me?" Iolausí throat closed around the words, and the tears heíd been denying since he first struck Hercules at Xenaís stronghold gathered behind his eyes.
Hercules took another unsteady breath.
"You know that I have. When I took Xena into my arms. When you turned on me, you did it out of trust, and love. You were blinded, yes. You were wrong, yes. But, you were still acting out of your love for Xena."
"So were you," Iolausí voice was steady, and he had fought the tears back down. He was trying desperately to hold the bucket steady, even though the ground was shaking beneath him.
"I keep telling myself that, and, mostly itís true. But, thereís something more. Something thatís been eating at me. I knew that you would be hurt when you realized what had happened between us. I told myself that it was right to follow my heart. But, a small part of me wanted something more." Hercules stood and began pacing restlessly, then turned to look down at Iolausí pale, questioning face.
"I was angry, Iolaus. I was hurt. It killed me when you turned against me; when I looked into your eyes and saw anger and mistrust. Killed me when you drew the knife that weíd forged in friendship and pointed it at me in battle. For a moment, it felt as though youíd actually planted the blade in my heart. Sometimes, I feel it there, still. When I realized how I felt about Xena, that ugly part of me didnít care if it hurt you. In truth, my friend; that part of me wanted to hurt you. It wanted proof that you still cared about me. The proof that would come with your pain. Thatís the truth. Which of us is weak, now?" Hercules faced Iolaus, dreading what might come, but, relieved to have spoken the words, at last.
"Proof?" The tears gathered in Iolausí blue eyes, spilling over with a rush. "Proof?"
Hercules watched in silence as Iolaus turned and made his way into the woods, then shook himself and followed. Iolausí skills were being turned against his friend; Hercules had to concentrate his every effort just on finding and following his tracks.
It was Xenaís battle cry which finally led him to Iolaus. It rang through the trees, and was sharply bitten off. Hercules veered in the direction of the sound, pushing furiously through low-hanging branches as he heard Iolausí voice:
Through the last of the trees, Hercules spotted Xena, sprawled on the ground. She was filthy, and streaked with blood. Diomedes, equally bloody and dirt-stained, was standing opposite her, panting with exertion. Iolaus stood between them, white-faced and trembling so violently that Hercules could see it from the edge of the clearing.
Iolaus moved toward Xena, and reached down. Unexpectedly, she lashed out, knocking his feet out from under him and sending him crashing to the ground. He shook his head to clear it, and somersaulted backward to avoid her as she flung herself at him. Diomedes roared and threw himself forward, locking one arm around her neck and imprisoning her right arm with his other. She struggled as her breath was cut off by the iron grip at her throat.
"No! Diomedes, enough!" Iolaus reached for Diomedes as Hercules launched himself toward them.
A wild shouting filled the small clearing, and, for a moment, the two pairs of warriors looked at one another, as though one of them must be the source. A second later, the clearing filled with mercenaries, boiling from the trees like a pestilence.
The four wheeled to greet the unexpected threat, Diomedes releasing Xena, who cast a desperate glance around her for her lost sword. She took the first man, disarmed and dispatched him within the space of a breath, and turned to the next, dimly aware of Hercules flinging one foe toward another. Her throat burned with returning breath, and her face burned as well, with the guilty realization that Iolaus had just tried to save her life for the second time.
Diomedes fought furiously, trying to keep an eye on Iolaus. Iolaus, his face white and suffused with pain, nonetheless moved as quickly as ever, taking on three or four opponents at a time, his fearlessness confusing and frightening them. Diomedes began working his way toward the blonde warrior, concerned at the risks he was taking. He seemed more reckless than ever before, and the seerís heart froze within him as he watched Iolaus being thrown backward, a sword slashing toward his exposed chest.
"Iolaus! Donít!" The cry tore through Diomedesí throat as he flung one mercenary after another aside in his efforts to reach his friend. What he was seeing was more than he could bear; Iolaus, arching his back toward the blow, not raising a hand to defend himself. His eyes were focused on the enemy above him, brilliant with bitter joy. The blade was hurtling toward him, to lay his broken heart open to the world. Like the vision. Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl, to draw the horror out into infinity.
Hercules, fighting mechanically, heard the terror-filled shout and turned in time to see Iolaus offering himself to the blade, with Diomedes roaring toward him. He saw the welcome in his friendís blue eyes, as he reached for his death. A wordless cry of agony left Herculesí lips, and Iolaus turned and caught a glimpse of Herculesí horrified face, then threw himself aside almost in time to avoid the blade. It sliced across his shoulder, glancing off of the bone. Shaking with reaction, he kicked the mercenary as he raised his arms for a second blow, then got to his feet and spun, his next kick taking the other man down, and out.
Diomedes gave himself over to his fury, roaring like a maddened beast and throwing himself against the enemy with a blind lust. Iolaus fought as desperately to reach him, and Hercules to protect Iolaus. Xena, unaware of what had happened, felt the renewed energy of the charge, nonetheless, and flung herself into the fray with every bit of her skill and strength.
The redoubled energy of the four warriors proved to be too much for the few remaining mercenaries, who withdrew haphazardly into the forest. Hercules approached Diomedes cautiously, watching as the maddened eyes cleared, carefully keeping himself between the redhead and Iolaus until the other man recovered his wits. Xena, seeing the blood staining Iolausí chest, moved toward him with her hand outstretched.
"Iolaus. Youíre wounded." She stopped short as he all but jumped to the side to avoid her touch.
"Iím fine. Iíll see you at camp." He turned and made his shaky way out of the clearing. Hercules moved as if to follow, and Diomedes reached out to hold him back.
"Weíll track him. Let him be alone, for a while."
"But, you saw! He ..." Hercules couldnít complete the thought.
"Yes. I saw." Diomedes looked around coolly, taking a sword from one of the nearest bodies, "Letís go."
Both men began to head off in the direction which Iolaus had taken, but, Hercules stopped as he saw that Xena had not moved.
"Xena? Have you been hurt?" Hercules stepped toward her, concerned.
She laughed humorlessly.
"Heís wounded. Would he allow himself to bleed to death, to avoid the feel of my hand on his skin?"
"You find this strange?" Diomedes asked quietly, as Hercules stood, immobile.
"No. I guess not. I thought that it was enough to know that he didnít hate me for what happened. But, Iím beginning to feel as though I donít even *know* what happened. What the damage truly was. I donít know. Why did I attack him? Why did I say what I did to you, Diomedes?" She left the clearing without a backward glance, headed for camp.
Hercules and Diomedes stood for a moment, regarding one another. Hercules felt numb with reaction and exhaustion; looking into Diomedesí drawn face was like looking into a mirror.
"Hercules. You reached him, somehow. You spoke to him?"
"Yes. I spoke the truth to him. I think he hates me, now," Hercules looked away, and began following Iolausí trail, with Diomedes walking beside him.
"Iolaus will never hate you, Hercules. Never. You must know that."
"Diomedes. He was ready let that blade kill him."
"But, he didnít. You called him back."
"Iíve hurt him."
"Heís hurt you. Do you hate him?"
"I hate talking to seers."
"Youíre not the only one."
The rest of the trip was silent.
Diomedes had been gathering herbs as the two made their way back to camp. When they arrived, Iolaus was sitting by the fire; his complexion was off, and a slight sheen of sweat filmed his skin. Diomedes handed the herbs to Hercules with a nod toward Iolaus, then rummaged in his bag for a length of bandaging cloth, which he also handed to the demigod. Hercules stared at him for a moment, realizing what it must have cost the healer to relinquish Iolaus to his care, then turned to his injured friend.
Iolaus said nothing as Hercules removed his bloodied vest to wash and tend his wound. He avoided Herculesí eyes, but his body was relaxed under his friendís sure, gentle touch.
The wound was long, and deep, but the bone was undamaged. Hercules cringed at the exhaustion and pain in Iolausí face as he finished the bandaging. He pulled a blanket over and wrapped a weakly protesting Iolaus in it, propping him against the log, facing the fire.
"Rest. Iíll help with the food," he watched until Iolaus settled back, snuggling his head into the crook of his elbow and closing his eyes.
Diomedes had just finished spitting the quail, and Hercules helped him set them up over the fire.
Diomedes met Herculesí questioning eyes with a slight smile.
"She went to check the perimeter, and to scout. I think sheíll find that the few mercenaries we left standing have scattered, though."
"How did she seem?"
"Alive. Thanks to Iolaus." Diomedes turned away to watch Iolaus sleeping.
"Diomedes. Why do you hate her, and not me?"
"I canít hate you, Hercules. You brought Iolaus back. He may never be the Iolaus we once knew; his innocence is a thing of the past. But, at least he will allow himself to feel again. To live. Thatís more than Iíd hoped for before you showed up," his eyes never left the sleeping hunter as he spoke. Finally, he reached for his bag and rummaged in it.
He handed Hercules a skin of wine.
"Here, this has poppy in it. Heíll be in pain. Care for him," Diomedes turned away.
"Wait. Where are you going?"
"Donít panic, Hercules. Iím just attending to nature. Iíll be back to eat my share of quail," Diomedes headed off into the forest, laughing softly.
Hercules watched over Iolaus for most of the night, finally relinquishing his spot to Diomedes when he realized that his eyes simply couldnít stay open any longer. Iolaus was sleeping deeply; the poppy had overcome the pain. He hadnít spoken to either Hercules or Diomedes, and a thoughtful frown had been haunting his face.
The demigod lay down within armís reach of the wounded man, and slept for a few, fitful hours, haunted by a series of nightmares, all featuring the look on Iolausí face as he watched the sword that promised to release him from life. He awoke with his friendís name on his lips, barely reassured by the sight of Iolaus, curled into Diomedesí arms, asleep. A strange pain passed through him as Diomedes pressed his lips to the sleeping brow, then raised his face to smile reassuringly at Hercules.
ĎWhat you could have taken, with one smile.í The seerís words came back to Hercules like a blow. He shook the unaccustomed feelings off, and headed for the lake, finding Xena already there.
"Hercules. Howís Iolaus?"
He kissed her lingeringly.
"Sleeping. I think heíll be fine. Itís a bad wound, but, you know Iolaus."
"No, I donít think that I do. Hercules, Iíll stay until heís out of danger, in case you need me, but, then Iíve got to leave. Iíve got a lot of work to do."
Hercules studied her impassive face.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked gently.
She shot him a look.
"What do you think? Iíll go find something for us to eat."
She headed off down the shore.
Iolaus slept for most of that day and night. Hercules would persuade him to eat a bit each time he awoke, and drink more of the poppy wine. The next morning he ate more willingly, and began to refuse the wine.
"Hercules, Iíve slept enough. My head feels like bowl of day-old gruel. The painís not so bad, anymore."
Hercules, watching Iolaus suppress a wince as he struggled to a sitting position, declined to comment.
"Well, you might change your mind in a minute. Iíve got to change the dressings on your shoulder."
Iolaus grimaced, but bore the pain stoically as Hercules unwrapped and cleaned the wound, refreshing the herbal pack and re-binding his shoulder. Hercules sighed with relief as he saw that the injury was healing cleanly. He finished the bandaging almost reluctantly; this quiet contact with Iolaus was like a soothing balm to his own spirit. He shifted to rise from his knees, but, a small, strong hand on his arm restrained him.
"Herc. Wait. Iím ... Iím sorry. For everything. Iím so sorry that I hurt you. Please, forgive me," Iolausí voice was very gentle, "If it means anything, it was the hardest thing Iíve ever done, turning on you. Even though I thought you doubted me, that you were lying to me, I ... I just couldnít believe that we werenít together any more. That we were enemies. It was like a stone on my heart, that got heavier each time I thought about it. I never wanted to hurt you. Believe me."
Hercules felt an impulse to reach out and warm his hands at the light in Iolausí blue eyes, his heart contracting at Iolausí use of his nickname. At last. Of course Iolaus hadnít wanted to hurt him. He was stubborn, passionate, foolhardy. But, never cruel. Reaching out, Hercules laid his hand on the unbandaged shoulder.
"Iolaus. Of course I forgive you. Can you possibly forgive me?"
A brilliant smile and a slight, measuring cock of his head from Iolaus.
"Well ... all right. I guess I can."
"Iolaus. What happened, during the battle? Are you really back?"
Iolaus sighed, but his eyes remained fixed on Hercules.
"I was tired. I couldnít handle the pain any more. I just wanted it to be over. But, I saw your face, and I couldnít do it. I can see now that I was being selfish, cowardly. Weíre friends. We have to live with the ugly things that happen between us. After all, weíre only human. Weíll, Iím only human. Youíre half a god, which is even worse," he grinned shakily.
"Well, maybe weíll both think before we act in the future," Hercules laughed at the skeptical gleam in Iolausí eyes, "Hey, it could happen!"
"Iolaus. I need to talk to you," Xena approached Iolaus warily.
Iolausí eyes were equally wary as he watched her. They had avoided one another quite successfully for the past few days, as Iolaus healed. Xena had scouted the area thoroughly, as much as an excuse to avoid camp as out of any real danger; it was obvious that the mercenaries had fled, singly and in pairs. The danger had passed, and Iolaus was fit to travel. It was time for her to leave.
"I just wanted you to know that, Iím ..." her voice faltered.
"Listen, Xena, itís OK. You donít need to say anything. Just leave it."
"I canít just leave it. We canít meet one anotherís eyes, you shy from my touch. We will see one another again, you know; itís unavoidable. I need your forgiveness."
"Iím trying, Xena. In a way, Iím grateful for what you did."
"Grateful?" Xena asked incredulously.
"You showed me some things about myself that I needed to face. I was eaten up inside because I wasnít as good as Hercules. Well, I donít *need* to be Hercules. Weíve already got one. I just need to be Iolaus. Someday, Iíll meet someone who can love me for being what I am. Just Iolaus. Perhaps I already have," his smile was wistful. "Also, I needed to realize that I was too gullible; there are other people who will want to get to Hercules through me. I need to be more suspicious."
Xena dropped her eyes for a moment, then met his once again.
"Iolaus. You are a good man. You donít need to change, just because there are evil people in the world. In fact, thatís why you need to be who you are; kind, gentle, trusting. Donít let what happened take that away from you. Away from us. The world needs you, Iolaus," she almost extended her hand, then caught herself.
As though he had read her mind, Iolaus moved away slightly.
"It may be too late, Xena; I think Iíve already changed. But, thank you, for the words."
They both turned as Hercules and Diomedes approached.
"Iolaus. How are you feeling?"
Iolaus sighed to himself. This was getting ridiculous. He tried not to be gratified at Herculesí obvious concern.
"Bored. Iím ready to head for home."
"And, Iíve got to move on, as well," Xenaís voice was controlled.
Hercules studied her face silently as he took her hand.
"Weíll accompany you to the road."
It was a silent journey from the little camp to the village. Diomedes and Iolaus walked slowly, at a good distance from Xena and Hercules. They settled side by side on a rock as the other two warriors entered Raslin to retrieve Xenaís horse.
"Well, Iolaus. Itís been fun, as usual."
"Liar," he sobered quickly, "Diomedes, thank you. If you hadnít come for me ..."
Diomedes regarded him silently for a long moment, then smiled sadly.
"Iolaus. The debt I owe you can never be repaid. But, Iím not here out of obligation, or gratitude. I love you. Iím here out of selfishness; I want you alive and well."
Iolaus laughed again, and grasped Diomedesí forearm warmly, before standing to greet Hercules and Xena, as they returned.
"Iolaus. Good-bye," Xena smiled at Iolaus, careful not to extend her arm.
"Good-bye, Xena. Be careful."
Diomedes watched from half-lidded eyes as Xena turned from Iolaus and walked a few paces away, to exchange a kiss with Hercules before mounting her horse and beginning her lonely journey. He started at a hand on his shoulder.
"Good-bye, Diomedes. Next time, donít wait for a prompting from the gods to look me up, all right?"
Iolaus traced Diomedesí face with a gentle hand, then took the taller man into his arms, and gifted him with a kiss of such passion, such bittersweet tenderness, that Diomedesí eyes were brimming with unshed tears by the time Iolaus released him. He pulled Iolaus close again and stole another kiss; when he looked up, he met Herculesí eyes over the bright head. The demigodís expression was a puzzle; was that a hint of a challenge? He pushed the thought to the back of his mind, and smiled down at Iolaus.
"Donít worry, beloved, I wonít. Take care of Hercules."
"Thatís a promise."
Hercules joined them, and took Diomedesí arm. They studied one another silently, as Iolaus moved several steps away and fussed unnecessarily over his sword belt.
"Thank you, Diomedes."
The seer smiled.
"Thereís no need to thank me."
"Yes, there is. Not only for watching over Iolaus, but ... Diomedes, youíre a healer. You love Iolaus. I know that you would rather have cared for him, but, you left that to me. I ... Iím grateful for that. It was important."
For once, Diomedes dropped his gaze, his brown eyes slipping away from Herculesí pale blue regard. With his face still averted, he said:
"There is more to healing than using the proper herbs in the proper proportion. Besides, didnít you both have wounds to be dealt with? I think Iolaus needed to tend to yours, just as you needed to tend to his."
He faced Hercules once again and released his arm.
Iolaus rejoined them, and took silent leave of Diomedes, then set off with Hercules, Iolaus glancing back once to grin over his shoulder at his fierce lover.
Xena wheeled her horse, to catch a last glimpse of Hercules. He was walking down the road with an easy stride, one hand resting on Iolausí good shoulder. The smaller manís golden head was flung back, and she could hear his laughter ringing through the air. In the middle of the road, between her and the two friends, stood Diomedes. He, too, was watching as they walked away. As they disappeared around the bend, he turned toward Xena. Once again, she felt the shock of his gaze, even at a distance. He stood silently for a moment, unmoving, then left the road and was lost from view in the forest.
From a distance, she heard Herculesí joyous laughter, joined with that of Iolaus. Theyíd won another battle. An unbeatable team.
She headed down the road, in the opposite direction.
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