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?
The healer shuffled around the little room, pulling vials and jars from the shelves and peering blearily at their contents.
"Normally, Mahalos does this for me; my old eyes have gotten very dim. But, he's off visiting with a patient. Good lad. He's coming along nicely; he'll be a fine healer, someday."
Hercules sighed silently. He'd met Mahalos briefly, when he first arrived. The 'lad' was a huge, hearty, middle-aged man with five children, about whom he'd talked constantly.
"Can I help you?" The demigod suggested, hopefully.
"Now, now; you stay put. You're about to fall over as it is! I'll get this potion brewed up for you all nice and tight, you'll see." The healer crowed triumphantly, as he blew the dust off of a small, clay pot and sniffed at the contents, "That does it!" He moved to the little kettle boiling on the hearth, and dropped in a few dried pieces of something from the pot.
Hercules wished that he'd allowed Iolaus to stay with him. But, his friend was so worried that he could hardly sit still; he would have asked so many questions, and hovered so protectively, that the healer would *never* have been able to finish.
He smiled to himself, then dissolved in another fit of coughing, which left him completely wrung out, and sweating.
"It's a nasty humour you've picked up there, young man. Not to worry; this little dram will fix you up. Now, drink this cup; the rest will go with you in a flask. Drink half tomorrow morning, and the rest tomorrow evening. Stay down by the fire for a day or two, and you'll be as good as new."
Hercules choked the vile tea down, trying to keep the disgust off of his face, until he realized that the healer probably wouldn't be able to see his expression, anyway.
As soon as he could manage it, Hercules, flask of tea in hand, made his way out of the healer's house, stopping to exchange pleasantries with the returning Mahalos on the doorstep.
Mahalos watched the demigod greet his golden companion across the lane, then went into the house and began tidying the shelves.
The son of Zeus. Imagine. Mahalos couldn't wait to get home and tell his family that he'd met the famous Hercules. He picked up the little clay pot and frowned at it abstractedly, sniffing at the contents.
Odd. Why had Mahalos gotten this down? Well, it was a rarity; he must have wanted to show it off to Hercules.
Mahalos smiled, and closed the jar, pushing it to the back of the shelf once again, safely out of reach.
Iolaus jumped off of the low wall opposite the healer's house as he saw his friend approaching, and danced around the taller man anxiously, peering up into his eyes as he spoke.
"What did he say? Should you be walking around? Shouldn't you be lying down, or something? What kind of a healer is he, anyway?"
Hercules managed a laugh, though he felt much more like curling up into a small, hurting ball and sleeping for a year.
"He gave me a brew, and told me to rest. Let's hit the road; we can certainly reach that spot by the lake in a few hours."
"Hit the road? No way, Herc; we're staying at the inn."
"There aren't any rooms, remember?"
"I'll talk someone out of their room. Come on, you know that I can." Iolaus twinkled a grin up at Hercules, and the demigod's wry smile acknowledged the hunter's persuasive abilities.
"Yeah, I know, but save your wiles, Iolaus. I can make it to a good campsite. Then, you can coddle me all you want. Agreed?"
"I'll coddle up a lump on your head, before I'll let you walk any further than the inn, Herc. You're sick!"
Hercules placed his hands on Iolaus' shoulders, and met his worried, blue eyes.
"Listen to me Iolaus, please. The inn is too crowded, too noisy, and too hot. Let's just get to a good campsite, where I can really rest. OK? Please?" Hercules dredged up a smile, and Iolaus nodded, reluctantly.
They traveled slowly, stopping frequently as Hercules succumbed to violent coughing fits. Finally, they reached the lake, and the demigod collapsed against the bank as Iolaus hurriedly readied camp, helping Hercules to his bedroll, and covering him with his own. Iolaus would sleep on the good earth, tonight. If he slept at all. Hercules huddled under the thick blanket, shivering with fever, and Iolaus tended to him, cooling his face and throat with a bit of cloth that he had soaked in the lake's sweet water, until the demigod finally drifted into a fevered sleep.
Iolaus settled by his side, inwardly cursing himself for not staying with Hercules to make sure that the doddering healer gave him a proper brew. The more rational part of his mind tried to force him to admit that the healer's concoction really hadn't had time to work, especially with Hercules' harebrained insistence upon traveling after drinking it.
"At the very least, I could have made sure that he stayed at the inn, instead of tromping half the day to reach the lake." Iolaus scolded himself, softly.
Hercules' fever did subside, eventually, and his sleep deepened, giving Iolaus a chance to get a good fire built. He then gathered a few materials that he thought might come in handy, and stretched out within arm's reach of his suffering friend, closing his eyes. He slept only lightly, waking himself up frequently to keep the fire roaring, and to check on Hercules.
The sound of moaning woke him from one of his fitful naps, and he opened his eyes to find Hercules shaking, and retching. Iolaus quickly pulled the bedding aside, and grabbed one of the huge, curved pieces of bark that he had scrounged up earlier. He held Hercules' forehead in cool, soothing hands as the demigod vomited into the makeshift bowl, heaving until his stomach was quite empty, and continuing to twist with violent retching until exhaustion won over his body's desperate attempts to cleanse itself, and he fell back into Iolaus' arms.
Iolaus managed to get him settled, and took the fouled bark to the lake, leaving it far from Hercules and planning to clean it in the morning. He filled another piece of bark with water, and bathed Hercules' mouth and face. The invalid's fever rose to a frightening degree, and he continued to pass into violent fits of dry heaves. Then, the purging began.
Iolaus forced a bit of the healer's brew down Hercules' throat, and the demigod quieted for a bit. The frantic hunter used the respite to soak Hercules' soiled pants in one of the little freshets leading away from the lake, dumping and rinsing the bark bowl as well. He returned to Hercules' side just as the vomiting and purging began again, relentless and simultaneous.
By the time Hercules finally lapsed into unconsciousness, the soft dawn had brightened into mid-morning, and Iolaus was desperately searching his mind for every fragment of medical knowledge that he had garnered over the years. His stores were woefully inadequate; Hercules had more than enough such skills for both of them. Between him, and Diomedes .
He felt a stirring of hope, which quickly died. Diomedes' dwelling was within a day's travel, but Iolaus couldn't leave Hercules. He sent a frantic, soundless plea to the seer, and continued to sponge Hercules' face.
When next the demigod regained consciousness, his eyes fluttered open, and he cried out weakly, squeezing them shut immediately.
"Herc? Can you hear me?"
"Iolaus? It's so bright. Why is it so bright?"
Iolaus looked at the overcast sky, and swallowed nervously.
"What do you mean, Herc? It seems really bright to you?"
Hercules opened his eyes a slit; he saw a violent, clashing mixture of gold, purple, and green.
"Herc, I'm going to look at your eyes. It .. it might hurt. I'm sorry."
Iolaus peeled one of Hercules' eyelids back, then the other. The demigod's eyes were all pupil. The hunter steeled himself, and looked again; this time he spied a thin ring of blue surrounding the yawning black depths.
"OK, Herc, there's something wrong with your eyes. I'm going to tie a strip of bandaging cloth around them, so you won't open them and hurt yourself." Iolaus bandaged quickly, even as he spoke, "Are you feeling better, otherwise? Your fever seems to be gone."
Hercules thought for a moment.
"I am feeling a bit better. Not nauseated. My lungs don't hurt as much, either."
"Herc, we've got to try to move. We've got a choice; we can go back to the healer in the village, or we can travel to Diomedes. We can reach the village in several hours; it will take a day to reach Diomedes. It's your choice."
"I'll take Diomedes, thank you."
"Over my dead body. Oh, you mean, you want him to heal you. That's different." Iolaus smiled when Hercules answered his weak jest with a chuckle, "Do you think that you can walk?"
"I'll have to."
They were both shaking with exhaustion by the time he had Hercules' clothing and boots in place, but Iolaus forced both of them to overcome it; he was desperate to get Hercules to Diomedes. He filled his waterbag from the lake, and had Hercules drink deeply, knowing that he had been sorely depleted by his illness. He quickly gathered their belongings, loading himself down and helping Hercules to his feet. They headed slowly down the trail, with Hercules behind Iolaus, holding onto his vest.
Hercules found, as they traveled, that he really was feeling somewhat improved. He was horribly weak, but the wrenching nausea was gone, though his head still pounded. He suffered a few coughing attacks, but they seemed mild after what he had endured during the previous night. After a few hours, though, his breathing became rough, and he began to sweat freely. He felt the sick chill that presaged another attack of nausea, and stopped dead, causing Iolaus to turn.
"Herc, we're turning off of the track now, heading into the forest. If you can make it just a bit further, we'll ."
A deafening crack sounded, and Iolaus' words were bitten off sharply as the hunter cried out in alarm. A strong hand struck Hercules on the chest, pushing him backward. He stumbled, and fell to the ground, which shook with a massive impact. Then, silence.
Hercules lurched to his hands and knees, feeling around him. He immediately bumped into a massive shape, and his groping hands told him that he'd encountered a tree, which had fallen across the track.
He crawled up and down the length of the tree, then made his way over it, feeling for Iolaus, terrified at the thought of what he might find.
What he found, on the other side, was leathered warmth, unmoving. His searching hands slid upward, over smooth, still flesh, and encountered a tangle of hair, slick with sticky wetness. Scarlet screamed behind his blind eyes.
He ran trembling hands over Iolaus' limbs and torso, checking for other wounds, or broken bones, furious at his own incapacitation. He found several bloody spots, and explored them gingerly. They appeared to be shallow scrapes, and he found no broken bones. Finished with his blind, fumbling examination, he clasped the limp body close to his chest, and struggled to his feet.
Which way had they been walking?
He fought his shrieking fear, numbly trying to collect his thoughts. They'd been walking into a light wind. Praying that the wind hadn't shifted, he began stumbling forward, testing each step carefully, fearful of falling and causing Iolaus further harm. A few times he encountered bushes, and long grasses, and realized that he had strayed from the path altogether, and agonizingly retraced his steps.
Finally, his great heart could no longer force his suffering body onward. His knees buckling, he cradled Iolaus close, measuring his length on the track, half-draped over the unconscious hunter.
Silently, he called for Diomedes. Beyond pride, his inner voice begged the seer to heed him.
Diomedes was darting through the trees, crashing through the undergrowth with no regard for silence, making no attempt to conceal his path. That in itself was odd. Added to the fact that the last thing he remembered was going to sleep .
The seer redoubled his speed, fully conscious now, and searching his thoughts for any memory of the vision that had sent him from his bed into the forest. He glanced down at his body; he was clothed. Well, that was good. Armed with his hunting blade; good again. A bag thumped against his back with every step; he'd brought supplies.
Hercules. Hercules was hurt.
No. No, it was Iolaus.
Yet, he felt Iolaus' fear for Hercules. There was sickness. The air writhed with a hideous stench. Hercules was sick.
He forced his conscious mind to cease its frantic inquiries, and allowed the power to carry him forward. It was easier thus, and his feet flew over the needle-carpeted forest floor. He turned, and headed toward the sea for a long distance, then turned again sharply, crashing to an abrupt halt as he was roughly hailed.
"Back! Stand away!"
Hercules was untangling himself from Iolaus' sprawled figure, rising to stand over his friend's body, trembling wildly. Diomedes took in the sight of the demigod's pallor, the bandage encircling his eyes, the sweat that plastered his hair to his grey face and neck. And, Iolaus .
"Hercules. It's Diomedes. Let me help you."
"Diomedes?" Hercules swayed alarmingly, "You heard me?"
"Yes. I heard you."
Diomedes nearly staggered under the crushing weight of his fear as he stepped toward the stricken warriors. Blood covered Iolaus' entire face, and his silken hair was thick with red gore. The seer reached them just in time to catch Hercules as his knees gave, once again. He wrapped his arms around the demigod's waist, and eased him carefully to the ground. He could smell the sickness in Hercules' sweat, and on his labored breath, so he was not surprised when the larger man began to retch. He supported Hercules' head until the shuddering convulsions had passed, then eased him back down.
He turned to ascertain the extent of Iolaus' injuries, plundering his dropped bag for bandaging cloth, and ripping a bit off. He searched Iolaus' blood-soaked hair with gentle fingers until he found the wound, a long, deep gash angling from nearly the crown of Iolaus' head to just below the hairline above his right temple. Diomedes made a pad of the bandage and pressed it against the wound until the sluggish bleeding stopped, then rummaged through his bag. As he'd expected, he found horsetail, and he bound some to the wound. Iolaus' breathing was light and steady, his pulse was strong, and his pupils properly reactive. Diomedes impatiently pushed a glory of fiery curls away from his own sweat-streaked face with bloody fingers, then wiped his hands abstractedly across his leathered thighs before checking Iolaus carefully, from his neck to his feet, probing for broken bones or signs of swelling.
There were none, and Diomedes allowed himself a sigh of relief.
"You are truly a man to be reckoned with, my wild friend."
Diomedes started at the weak whisper, and rose to kneel beside Hercules, taking his hand in a reassuring clasp.
"I was just congratulating Iolaus on having the hardest head in all of Greece. He took quite a blow, but I think he should be fine."
Hercules pulled away from Diomedes' hand, fumbling with the bandaging around his eyes and struggling to rise. Diomedes pushed him back.
"Hercules. Don't. Save your strength. When did you become ill?"
"A week or so ago; just a sore throat, then I started with the coughing. Iolaus pestered me into visiting a healer. He gave me a potion, and the cough did get a little better. But, I started vomiting last night, and ." Hercules succumbed to a coughing fit, and Diomedes cast his eyes over the companions' scattered possessions.
"The potion. Did the healer give you some to take away with you?"
"Yes. It's in a little clay flask. Iolaus gave me some more of it last night but it didn't stop the vomiting, not for long."
Diomedes found the flask, and opened it, sniffing the contents, and recoiling in distress. He raised wide, brown eyes to Hercules' sweat-sheened face.
"Your eyes. Describe what happened to your sight."
"Diomedes, I'll be fine. What about Iolaus?"
"Iolaus will kill me if anything happens to you, that's what about Iolaus. He's stopped bleeding, and has only minor injuries, other than the head wound. Answer my last question, and we'll be on our way out of here."
Hercules seemed to be on the verge of arguing, then his shoulders slumped and he sighed.
"This morning, when I opened my eyes, all that I could see was bright light, and color. Iolaus looked at my eyes, then bound them."
Diomedes briefly rested a gentle hand on Hercules' shoulder.
"Now, we need to get off of the track to a place where both of you can rest. We'll take the journey to my house in stages; I'll have to carry Iolaus."
"Should you move him?" Hercules' voice made his disapproval evident.
"Yes. He needs shelter, and medicine, and so do you. I wish that I could carry both of you."
"I'll carry Iolaus." Hercules' jaw was set, his expression stubborn. Diomedes swallowed an exasperated retort, and forced his voice to a neutral tone.
"You'll have to trust me. You might fall, and injure him, as well as yourself." Hercules was too weak to lift a leaf, but Diomedes wisely decided to leave that particular argument unspoken.
He found Iolaus' waterbag, and gave Hercules a drink, then wiped the demigod's ashen face with a dampened cloth, noting that his fever had dropped slightly. Hooking the waterbag and the two carrysacks over his shoulder, he draped the blankets over Hercules like a cloak, and got the demigod to his feet.
He knelt to check Iolaus' heartbeat again, and was relieved to find it still steady. Carefully, he pulled the hunter into his arms and rose, adjusting Iolaus' weight to ensure that the bright, bloodied head was cradled against Diomedes' shoulder.
"Hercules. I'm right in front of you. Hook your fingers in my belt, and follow me. If you start feeling sick again, or when you become too exhausted, let me know. All right?"
"Fine. I'll be fine."
Diomedes made no reply, heading off at a steady, cautious pace. His arms began to ache after a while, and he slanted a glance down at the golden head against his shoulder.
"You know, Iolaus; we've got to stop meeting like this. I've told you before; you are certainly no lightweight. Hauling your carcass over hill and dale is not my idea of a festival. If you'd try looking where you're walking, or not taking on unbeatable odds, it'd be easier on both of us."
He stopped speaking at the sound of a weak, muffled chuckle.
"Well, Hercules; I try to scold Iolaus as often as possible while he's unconscious. It's harder to do when he can answer back."
"You would certainly know better than anyone. How long had he been down when I found you?"
"I can't tell. It felt like an eternity. He pushed me away, when the tree fell. I crawled over it, and found him. I felt the ... I felt the blood on his head. I thought he was ... I found his heartbeat, though."
Diomedes shifted Iolaus' weight, and plowed forward. His arms were numb, and Hercules' breath was a pained rasp behind him, by the time they reached the little hollow he sought.
"Hercules; we're here."
Hercules stopped, releasing Diomedes' belt, and the seer knelt, tenderly placing Iolaus on the ground. He retrieved the blankets from Hercules' sweating shoulders, and laid them out quickly side by side, guiding the demigod to one side of the makeshift bed, then arranging Iolaus on the other. The thick carpet of pine needles made for a relatively soft nest, and Hercules fell into an immediate, exhausted slumber.
Diomedes cleared a fire pit, and quickly got a fire going. Some rooting in his pack yielded a blackened, earthenware pot - 'So, that's what was banging on my back' - which he filled with water and set at the edge of the flames. As soon as the water began boiling, he pulled it gingerly away from the blaze, and added some dried mint leaves, then awakened Hercules and fed him some of the tea from a small cup.
Hercules fell asleep again immediately, after drinking the brew, and Diomedes checked Iolaus' pulse carefully, before settling himself between his patients and allowing his body to relax. He began mentally reviewing his treatment plans for both of the stricken men, but his mind slowly drifted into memories of the times he had spent with these heroic companions. Memories of his first meeting with Iolaus. The first time he looked, through the red haze of battle, and found those direct, blue eyes meeting his own, blood-maddened stare.
He started as Iolaus began to toss, restlessly. The hunter's skin burned under Diomedes' cool fingers, and his wound was bleeding again.
"Hercules ..." Iolaus' struggles increased, and Diomedes pulled him into his arms, cradling him and murmuring soothing words until Iolaus subsided. Diomedes pushed his own, tumbled curtain of hair back, before raining soft, desperate kisses across Iolaus' face, lips, and throat.
"Open your eyes, Iolaus. Let me see into your soul. Don't drift away from me; I will die without you," bracing himself, Diomedes began to call Iolaus' name in loud, imperative tones, demanding that he awaken. He accompanied his commands with strokes of a damp cloth along Iolaus' face and throat, washing the dried blood away, and cleansing the dark clumps from the hunter's golden hair.
"Diomedes. What's wrong?"
Hercules had awakened. Diomedes spared a glance for the demigod's pale face.
"Iolaus is becoming delirious. It's too dangerous to allow him to remain unconscious; we have to awaken him. Call to him, Hercules. Perhaps, for your voice, he will rouse," Diomedes' beautiful face was suffused with sorrow as he spoke those words, but there was no one to mark it, "Call to him. Tell him that you need him."
Hercules complied, as Diomedes continued to bathe Iolaus' face with the wet cloth. Iolaus' eyelids fluttered, and the seer bent to kiss him, whispering his name.
"Iolaus. It's Hercules. Open your eyes," Hercules' voice was weary, but insistent, and Iolaus obeyed. His eyes opened, and he looked dazedly up into Diomedes' face.
"Diomedes?" Iolaus looked around, confused, wincing at the pain caused by the movement. He spotted Hercules, who lay propped on one elbow behind the seer, "Hercules. Diomedes, he's sick. You've got to help him."
Diomedes smiled, breathing a sigh of relief.
"I will. If you'll stop dozing, and get moving, I'll help both of you. Come on, we've got to travel," the sight of Iolaus struggling to rise knifed through Diomedes' heart, but he pushed his feelings aside, and got the hunter situated on a log, before hurriedly dousing the fire and smothering it with earth. He pulled their things together and helped Hercules to his feet, wrapping the cloak of blankets around the demigod once again.
"We've got to move as quickly as possible, Hercules. You need to rest, but you need treatment first. A couple more legs of the journey will get us home," Diomedes kept his voice low, and neutral.
"But, Iolaus ..." Hercules' voice rang with frustration.
"You know that I wouldn't let either of you move it if wasn't necessary, Hercules. Please, just cooperate."
Diomedes turned away without waiting for a reply, and pulled Iolaus unceremoniously up, and into his arms.
"I can walk!" Iolaus protested, though just sitting upright was causing his head to swim dizzily.
"No, you can't. Be still. Hercules, I'm right in front of you. Hook your hand in my belt, again," the seer waited until he felt Hercules' fingers curled against the small of his back, then set off.
He maintained a quicker pace this time, his worry increasing with each step. Iolaus' skin was as hot as a stone pulled from the fire. The seer pushed his own strength, and that of the ailing demigod, to the very limit before calling a halt. He knew that Hercules must have felt as though he'd just closed his eyes when Diomedes shook him awake, and bullied him to his feet again. It was becoming increasingly difficult to awaken Iolaus from the swoons to which he would periodically succumb, and Diomedes made their next stop even shorter, and increased the pace of the last leg of the journey. He could have wept with relief when he led the stumbling demigod into his tiny cottage. He almost did weep, at the sight of the bed. Instead, he placed Iolaus on that tempting couch, and quickly rigged a pallet for Hercules next to the bed.
The fire built, and two large pots of water hung on hooks over it, he turned his attention to stripping Iolaus, covering him with a soft blanket before turning to do the same to a half-sleeping, protesting demigod. He was too drained to spare the energy for cajoling, so he simply forced Hercules to submit, pulling his soiled clothing off and tucking a blanket around him. He readied three pots with different herbs for tea, and blearily gathered the necessary supplies to treat his patient's ills. His sipped his own tea, to stave off his advanced exhaustion, while helping Hercules to drink his, then roused Iolaus and ensured that he swallowed his brew.
Once Hercules finished his tea, Diomedes gently took the cup from his hand, and pushed him down into the cozy pallet. The demigod was asleep before he'd even reclined fully, and Diomedes turned his attention to hauling a basin of warm water to Iolaus' bedside. He soaked the crusts of blood from the golden hair, stitched and bound the gash on the hunter's head, then cleansed his face and body with gentle hands. Grimacing at the sight of the gory patches of abraded skin on Iolaus' torso and right hip, he soothed a cool balm over them. Iolaus remained awake for most of the process, but finally drifted to sleep under the seer's tender ministrations.
Diomedes kissed him lightly, then drained his cup of tea before peeling the blanket away from Hercules, and bathing the demigod's filthy, muscular body.
"Gods," he grumbled to himself as he finally dried Hercules' feet, "it's like washing a horse. I'm way too tired for this."
He barely managed to pull a blanket around himself, before he collapsed to the floor between his two patients, and surrendered to sleep.
Iolaus smelled sage, and lavender. A whiff of geranium, and eucalyptus. He smiled, and inhaled deeply. Ah. Woodsmoke, and warmth. He opened his eyes.
Hercules lay on a pallet within arms reach. He was sleeping, peacefully it seemed. A fresh, clean bandage was wound about his eyes, and his chest rose and fell evenly. Beyond him ...
Alabaster skin, and cascades of fiery curls. Firelight catching in the water which clung to the sculpted curves of chest, buttocks, and thighs, bathing the graceful, muscular form with prisms of shimmering color. Head flung back, exposing a length of throat too tempting to be of nature, lips parted slightly to release a sigh of simple pleasure.
Iolaus groaned theatrically.
"Gods. I'm dead again?"
The bathing man turned, startled, his hair a flying cloud of flame around him. A smile of loving joy transformed his features from icy perfection into glowing beauty. Iolaus grinned, and sent him a wink.
"Oh, it's you, Diomedes. What a relief; I thought I must be in the Elysian Fields for a second. Dry off, and get over here," Iolaus' voice shook slightly, as he became aware of the pain still throbbing in his scalp. He pushed the pain aside, and Diomedes complied with his lover's orders, hurriedly drying before kneeling beside the bed and taking Iolaus' hand, to press kisses into the cupped palm.
"Obviously, you're feeling better."
"Much. Except, my head feels like there's an axe blade lodged in it. How's Hercules?"
"I haven't been able to do anything about his eyes, but he's improving, otherwise."
Diomedes placed a gentle hand on the nape of Iolaus' neck to check his temperature as he spoke, and the hunter turned his head, to nip lightly at the tender skin of the seer's inner wrist. He was rewarded with a soft gasp, and he pulled Diomedes down into his arms, devouring his succulent mouth. It had been so long. So long.
The seer pulled away reluctantly, pushing his hair back impatiently.
"I'm gonna chop it off," he muttered.
Iolaus placed protective hands over his groin.
"Funny," Diomedes smiled at him, and Iolaus' heart skipped wildly. It's the fever, he told himself, as he greedily watched Diomedes tying his wild curls back with a thin, woven strap.
"Come back here," Iolaus whispered, sweetly.
"Iolaus. You need food, more than ..." Iolaus sat up and pulled Diomedes close again, swallowing the seer's protests. By the time he abandoned Diomedes' lips for his pale throat, the redheaded warrior was on the bed with him, in a lusty tangle of limbs.
"What were you saying?" Iolaus murmured teasingly, dipping his tongue into the hollow at the base of Diomedes' throat, "I need food more than what? More than I need you? I don't think so."
Diomedes pulled away again, and Iolaus relaxed his embrace.
"You're as pale as a wraith, Iolaus. Let me feed you, all right?" Iolaus began to protest, but subsided when Diomedes favored him with a wicked smile, "I think you're going to be needing your strength."
The hunter lay back and watched as Diomedes hurriedly put soup ingredients together, and hung the pot over the fire.
"Iolaus. Try to be still, for a while; I'm going to look for some roots to treat Hercules, while the soup cooks. Call if you need me; I'll hear you."
The seer dressed hurriedly, then thrust his knife through his belt and grabbed an empty sack. He bent to kiss Iolaus, then slipped out of the cottage. Iolaus watched the door for a moment after Diomedes left, feeling strangely bereft. Definitely the fever, he told himself.
He eased himself out of bed, and knelt beside Hercules' pallet, closing his eyes against the sick dizziness that assailed him.
"Gods. One little crack on the head, and I'm useless."
When the world stopped spinning, he opened his eyes and looked Hercules over, critically. The demigod's color was much improved, and his sleeping face looked tranquil. There was still a slightly poisonous odor to his skin, though, and he burned to Iolaus' touch. Iolaus wondered whether Hercules would ever regain his eyesight, and what they would do if he did not. It was a sobering line of thought, and Iolaus was much subdued when Diomedes returned, to find the hunter perched on the edge of Hercules' pallet, staring at his friend as though willing him back to health.
Iolaus' heavy heart lifted somewhat when he saw the seer. Diomedes was far too beautiful to endure, he decided. What a horrible burden it was, to have such a paragon for a lover. Just have to grin and bear it, he told himself.
He eased back into bed and rested gratefully while the seer ladled out a bowl of soup, bringing it to his bedside, along with a tankard of water and a chunk of bread. Iolaus ate hungrily, at first, but had to force himself to finish. He was so very tired; nothing sounded better to him than sleep. Long, dreamless sleep.
Diomedes took the empty bowl from Iolaus' unresisting hand, and pulled the blankets up over his chest as he lay back. When the seer tried to move away, however, a strong hand caught his own.
"What, no goodnight kiss?" Iolaus sent the best leer he could manage in Diomedes' direction, and received a lingering kiss of such devastating tenderness that he began to review his priorities a bit. Sleep was nice, but ...
Sleep claimed him, nonetheless, and he drifted off with his hand still wrapped around Diomedes' fingers.
Diomedes retrieved his hand, and sat at the table, quickly peeling the roots that he had gathered. He combined them with carefully selected herbs, and put them to steep under boiling water, then carried a basin of cool water and a cloth to Hercules' bedside. He bathed the demigod's face, calling to him softly, and Hercules gradually surfaced from sleep. The demigod's hands immediately sought the bandaging around his eyes.
"Iolaus?" Hercules' voice was husky with sleep, and the remnants of the lung congestion.
"But, you said he shouldn't ..." Hercules sat up abruptly, and Diomedes placed a firm hand against his chest.
"It's a healing sleep, Hercules. He was awake, and eating, just a few minutes ago. He's going to be fine," Diomedes smiled as Hercules relaxed, visibly, "Now, I've got some tea for you to drink."
"More tea? Uh, first, I need to ... the tea that I drank the last time I was awake ... well, ..."
Diomedes understood immediately, and fetched an urn. Hercules blushed, and harrumphed his way through the process, but Diomedes' cool, impersonal composure soothed him somewhat, as the seer helped him relieve himself.
"Diomedes. Is there any hope for my eyesight? You know, you can't follow me around the countryside helping me piss for the rest of my life."
"And, here I was, getting my hopes up," Diomedes' rich laughter rang softly, "There is nothing that I can do to restore your eyesight, Hercules. But, I do know, it was caused by a fungus that the healer put into your potion. Why he did it, I am at a loss to understand. If you were a mortal, you would be dead. Your divine blood carried you through the convulsions, and I'm hoping that the ill effects of the drug will pass through your system, and your eyesight will return. In fact ..."
Diomedes reached out, and unwound the bandaging from around Hercules' eyes.
"Keep your eyes closed until I tell you to open them. Be cautious; if it is painful when you open them, don't force the issue," Cool fingertips rested against Hercules' eyelids, "Now, open them, slowly."
The fingers withdrew slightly, making a living shutter before Hercules' eyes as he fearfully cracked them open. Color assaulted him, and light, but it was bearable. Slowly, Diomedes moved his hands back, until Hercules was facing the room with naked eyes. Water welled up and trickled down the demigod's face from the unaccustomed influx of light, but he was able to focus somewhat after a few moments, seeing vague shapes. Diomedes placed his hands lightly on the sides of Hercules' head, and turned it slightly. Hercules squinted, and made out a golden blur across from him. More moisture escaped his eyes, but these tears were made up of gratitude, rather than pain.
Diomedes examined Hercules' eyes thoroughly, then wrapped them once again, overriding Hercules' protests and pushing a mug of tea into his hands.
"Drink it. You'll be drinking lots of it, and lots of water. Be prepared to endure frequent encounters with the urn; I want to start running liquids through your system at as high a volume as possible."
Hercules grimaced, but obeyed.
"Hercules. I have wanted to see you again, for many months, now. To thank you. I know that Iolaus ... I know that he died. Hera's minion beat him to death, did she not? I know that you brought him back. I owe you my own life, for that."
"You knew?" Speculation was in the question, and the seeds of understanding.
"Yes. I knew," Diomedes' voice was dry, but his brown eyes flared as he rested his gaze upon Iolaus' sleeping face. He had felt Iolaus' death; the searing pain of it had bitten through his heart and driven him from consciousness as quickly as if he had been struck by lightning.
He had no idea how long he remained lost in the blackness; he had regained his senses, only to find himself lying on the forest floor, his face wet with tears, and his tattered clothing spattered with vomit. His body had been covered with bruises and scratches from his blind flight through the woods, and his hair had been matted with filth. The moment consciousness returned to him, he had known that Iolaus had been returned to the living. Why he had survived long enough after his lover's death to feel Iolaus' return to life, Diomedes could not say. A god had smiled upon him, he supposed; a rare occurrence, indeed, in his tumultuous life.
Hercules sensed Diomedes' agony, and reached out to trace his fair features with tentative fingers, which paused as they encountered the moisture trickling over one fine cheekbone. His hand drifted down, to rest briefly against the other man's jaw.
"You love him, that much," A trace of something, perhaps envy, colored Hercules' words.
"Yet, you're caring for me. Healing me. I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd left me where you found us," Hercules' voice was as bitter as his words, "It was my fault that he died in the first place. It's because of me that he's lying there, now. He has another scar, to add to the rest. How bad is it? Is it on his face? Will I see it every time I look at him, like the scar on his forehead?"
Diomedes regarded Hercules steadily.
"Do you think that Iolaus is a puppet, then? Your own little toy, that you order him here, and there? He is his own man, Hercules; I should think that you, of all people, would know that."
"I know he's his own man, Diomedes. But, he's suffered so much, because of me. If he'd never met me, he would have had other adventures, lived another life. Perhaps, he would have his own legend. You know, I try to dismiss it when he grumbles about being overlooked because of me, but it's all too true. All of the risks he takes, they mean nothing to the bards, the poets."
"They mean something to him. They mean something to those whom his life touches," Diomedes took the drained tea mug from the demigod and filled it with water, handing it back, "Drink this water."
Hercules complied, then handed the empty mug back to Diomedes. The seer placed it on the floor, then sat on the edge of the bed, smoothing Iolaus' bright hair away from his bandages with a tender hand, studying Hercules' pinched face.
"Iolaus has chosen his life, Hercules, as surely as you have chosen yours, and I have chosen mine. He loves his life. He loves you," Diomedes almost whispered the last words, and his gaze left Hercules, to linger on Iolaus' sleeping features, "In trying to take the blame for his suffering, you are also trying to take the credit for what he has braved, and survived."
"I just wish that he were safe, unscarred. I once told someone that Iolaus knew how tough life could be. Maybe, if we'd never met, he never would have learned that lesson. Maybe, there would be fewer lines around his mouth. Maybe, there'd be no shadow behind his eyes."
"Maybe, he would never have returned from death," Diomedes countered, still gazing at Iolaus.
"Maybe, he would never have died." Hercules heaved a sigh, and lay back.
Diomedes turned back toward Hercules. He might have been carved from the purest alabaster, so still was his perfect face. But, his eyes burned with some indefinable emotion, outshining even the red blaze of his hair. He rose with an eerie grace, and crossed the room, opening a large, wooden chest, and extracting a brass box. He brought the box, and a black brazier, to Hercules' side, dropping languidly to his knees, his glowing eyes heavy-lidded and intent.
Opened, the box yielded a small herbal smudge, which Diomedes placed carefully in the exact center of the brazier. He began humming beneath his breath, a heady, mesmerizing sound, and rose to carry a small brand from the fire to the brazier, using it to light the smudge.
"Tell me, Hercules. Tell me what Iolaus' life would have been, if he hadn't met you in his youth. Tell me. A small boy, surely, with hair as bright as the sun. That golden hair always in a tangle, his knees always skinned. Did he laugh readily, or was he more cautious? Did he love to sing, and to fish? Tell me ." Diomedes' voice was as smoky as the smudge, drifting past Hercules' face, penetrating his thoughts, his heart, "He always fought, didn't he? But, until he met you, he fought alone. What were they like, those solitary battles? How did he feel, nursing his wounds, alone? You see him, Hercules? You see him, by the fire? Isn't that a cut on his lip? Must have been fighting, again ."
"Fighting. He was fighting ." Hercules chanted, in response.
Diomedes' trance-blackened eyes narrowed, as he led Hercules into the vision.
Iolaus found no true companionship amongst his cohorts on the streets. He stole with them. He ate with them. He curled around them to sleep in a filthy huddle of tangled bodies, like a ball of wolf pups seeking each other's heat.
They didn't really like him, though. They tolerated him, because he was quick, and bold. Because he was a fearless fighter. But, he was too small, and took offense too readily. He asked too many questions, questions for which they had no answers.
That was fine with Iolaus; he didn't like them, either. He searched their eyes, for a spark of fellow feeling, for some sign that just *one* of them questioned the world around them, as he did. Each time, he turned away, feeling emptier, and more alien than before.
He began foraging into the countryside for days on end, leaving the village and his companions far behind. His hunting skills grew prodigiously; he moved through the woods like a silent shadow, following his prey with an unerring instinct. With his skills came a growing sense of independence, which isolated him even further.
He began to trade game for goods, and found that he could support his simple needs amply, thus. Eventually, he stopped returning to the fold of young criminals, altogether.
He saw his mother, every now and then, bringing her game, and goods, but her silent, accusing eyes wounded him. He would make his excuses as soon as possible, barely registering the pain he felt at how readily those excuses were accepted, and head back into the wilderness. He studied the night sky as though it were the face of the friend whom he once sought, lay himself against the earth as though it were the lover he had never known. His hair grew unchecked, a gilded tangle tickling the small of his back. As the years passed, it was joined by a sparse, golden beard. He traded game for rough, woven clothing, but only bothered with it when the weather was too cold, or when he had to deal with humans.
Sometimes, in the deepest part of winter, he would head into a village, and take residence in an inn. He was always a welcome sight during the dark, cold months, as he would forage deeper into the wild than any other hunter, so always carried a good stock of warm furs and meat into whatever village he blessed with his presence. During these winter visits, he would eat strange, rich food, and drink heady mead. He would bathe in hot water, and bind his clean hair back with twine. He'd listen to the stories and songs. He'd press some coins into a willing palm, and lose himself in purchased pleasure, sate himself with sex.
He became a man. He was respected for his talent, and known by sight or reputation throughout Greece as the boldest hunter ever born. His oddities were tolerated, because the goods he brought were valued, and because he was a decent fellow, all in all. The goddess, Artemis, treasured him, and kept her protective hand over him. A sense of this divine interest surrounded him, a nearly visible cloak of power. It served to hold him even further apart from his fellow mortals, but Iolaus didn't mind. As long as humans were willing to share shelter, food, and their bodies with him on the rare occasions when he sought their company, he was content.
One winter's night, as he sat by a village fire, a stranger came into the tavern, and sang a new song, which told of the deaths of Hercules' family. His wife and children had been slain by Hera, and Hercules had gone mad with grief. Now, his only concern was to destroy every temple that had ever been built to honor his father's wife; he would wander the roads, helping the common man, no longer.
Iolaus felt a pang, knowing that the mighty Hercules had been blighted. The gods were cruel, even to their own. A sudden sadness drove him from the tavern, into the winter woods. He didn't return to the village for several weeks.
A few years later, in another village, he heard that Hercules was dead. Hera's archers had killed him, then Echidna had murdered Hercules' mother, Alcmene. The mighty demigod, and his beautiful, brave mortal mother, snuffed out under the pitiless heel of the goddess.
The roads had become steadily more dangerous, after Hercules' desertion of his quest to aid mankind, and roving gangs of criminals celebrated the news of his death with blistering attacks upon all and sundry. Iolaus ventured into the villages only when driven to it by sheer necessity, and kept his hand on the hilt of his hunting blade at all times. Artemis' protection didn't falter, for nearly another year.
During one of Iolaus' infrequent trading trips, a band of marauding warriors rampaged through the town that he was visiting. The clashing of swords, the cries of wounded men, and the shrill, frightened scream of a woman in pain filled the air. Iolaus ran into the square, and was confronted by a tall, strong woman, with night-black hair, and cold, blue eyes. He squared his shoulders, and crouched, meeting her charge bravely.
Xena enjoyed the battle. Her beautiful opponent was quick, and fierce, and his moves were unconventional in the extreme. She was almost sorry when her sword found his heart. Such a one, with his mane of golden hair, and lissome body, might have provided some amusing sport, under the right circumstances.
She pulled her sword free, and moved to the next battle.
Iolaus saw the face of Artemis, filling his dimming eyesight. She was screaming with fury, and he tried to speak, to calm her, but his tongue was stone. Briefly, he wondered whether he would meet Hercules in the Underworld, wondered what that legendary hero would be like. Darkness enfolded him, silence calling him home. Blessed peace, like the sweet twilight of the winter woods. He smiled, and died.
The visions swam, came faster, with brutal clarity, and Hercules' cried out under the onslaught of horror.
Hercules dying, his hand wrapped around Hephaestus' arrow, bright blood spilling from his lips. No friend to aid him, no grieving hand to weigh his dead lids with the ferryman's fee.
Alcmene's dead eyes, staring up at the ceiling of Echidna's cave.
Gabrielle, sold on the block, eventually dying a slave's unmourned death.
Diomedes, irrevocably mad, brought down in battle by his own commanding officer, too great a danger to be allowed to live.
The gods at war, over the death of Hercules.
Artemis, enraged over the murder of her beloved golden hunter, bringing Xena down in a torrent of blood. The screams of Ares rocking Olympus at the news of Xena's death. Further splintering among the divine factions, as Artemis' and Ares' adherents band together.
Darkness blanketing Greece.
The voice of the seer.
Resonant. Hypnotic. Hurtful.
The voice was calling him back. Strong, gentle hands were easing him into soft warmth.
A murmur, then sleep.
In Iolaus' opinion, there was only one proper response to awakening wrapped in Diomedes' sleep-heavy arms. He turned carefully, and began tasting every bit of pale, smooth skin that was readily available to him. Diomedes began to stir, and Iolaus squirmed a bit lower, worrying a rosy nipple between strong, white teeth.
"Gods. You're just taking advantage of the fact that I've got one dead arm, aren't you?" Diomedes growled, sleepily.
"Did I ask you to leave your arm under me all night?"
"No. Let me up, Iolaus. I've got to get the fire going, and ."
"You're cold? I can take care of that."
"Oh!" Diomedes gasped, and slid his hands up Iolaus' back to his shoulders.
"Mmmm. Did I find a good spot?" Iolaus grinned against Diomedes' nipple.
"No. The feeling just started coming back into my arm," Diomedes lied, shakily. Iolaus made his way back up the seer's chest, taking his mouth tenderly.
"Hercules ." Diomedes murmured into the kiss.
Iolaus pulled away, regarding his lover with a hurt surprise that was only half-feigned.
"Hercules? So, you fallen for Herc, have you? Everybody wants Hercules."
"I don't. I want you. Only you," Diomedes touched Iolaus' face softly, "I'm just afraid that we'll wake Hercules up."
"Well, there is that possibility," Iolaus, completely mollified by the tantalizing proof of Diomedes' desire which burned against him like a blessed brand, and by the rich ring of his words, began working at the tie confining the fiery net of Diomedes' hair, "I guess you'll just have to overcome your tendency to shout 'Good one, Iolaus!' and, 'Oh, yeah, that's the spot!'."
"I'll see what I can do. But, your head ."
"You have a complaint? Well, they say that practice makes perfect; I guess I'll just have to try harder. Ow!" this as Diomedes pinched Iolaus' nipple roughly, "Oh, you meant my *head*. It hurts. I don't care. Kiss me."
Diomedes abandoned his half-hearted attempts to dissuade Iolaus, and gave himself to the next kiss with burning intensity.
Iolaus' stomach tightened as arousal thundered through him. He looked into Diomedes' haunting, brown eyes and saw flame. A flame of need, that he had kindled. He wanted to see that flame grow, to watch the resulting conflagration of lust engulf the remote seer. He was so beautiful .
He headed directly for Diomedes' sensitive neck, aware of not only his desire to madden his senses, but also of a need to mark him. And, he did. He nibbled and suckled beneath his ear, feeling him shudder, and pulled away to see the bruise his mouth had left, a lasting kiss emblazoned on that perfect flesh. Another joined it, and another, until Diomedes was writhing.
The seer pulled away from Iolaus, and pushed him down. His mouth sought Iolaus' neck, and returned the favor so recently granted him. He slipped lower, and lingered over Iolaus' nipples to the point of pain as Iolaus bucked beneath him. Still lower, and he ran his tongue around the tempting navel, before nipping at the insides of Iolaus' hipbones, finally trapping his erection with a firm hand, and surrounding the rosy head with his mouth.
Iolaus ran eager fingers into the glory of red hair, pulling soft strands up over his chest, and cradling the seer's head between his hands, until the pleasure his lover's hands and mouth were giving him became too intense, his need to thrust his aching penis as deeply into Diomedes' throat as possible and release the burning streams .
"Stop," he gasped, pulling desperately at Diomedes' shoulders, "it's too soon. Not yet," Diomedes complied, and Iolaus groaned as the intoxicating heat of his wet mouth left his cock, the sudden rush of cool air nearly sending him over the edge.
He kissed, and pulled, manipulating the seer onto his hands and knees, and giving him a wicked, crooked grin as he slid beneath him, between his spread legs. He jammed a couple of pillows under his head, and took Diomedes' sweet erection into his mouth. He allowed both of them time to adjust to the angle, then wrapped one hand around the base of the seer's cock, while the other fondled his taut sac, teasing behind it to slip along the hot division of his buttocks, running over his anus.
"Oh, yeah, Iolaus. That's the spot." Diomedes gasped, laughing softly. Iolaus chuckled, which caused an intoxicating vibration against the seer's turgid cock.
Diomedes groaned softly, and carefully rocked his shaft between Iolaus' lips, against his hot tongue. Iolaus waited for the seer's trembling to ease, bringing his hand up to Diomedes' mouth, and gasping against his cock as his fingers were suckled, and nipped.
He retrieved his hand, and pushed one moistened finger into Diomedes' anus, simultaneously swallowing against the cock lodged against the back of his throat.
"Oh, no. Now. No," Diomedes was incoherent with lust, and he withdrew from Iolaus' mouth, twining around him and pulling him up into fierce, hot kisses, grabbing Iolaus' hips with bruising strength and thrusting urgently against him, "You have to be in me. Now."
"I need oil, or ."
Diomedes stared at Iolaus for a moment, his eyes blank with lust, then he stumbled from the bed, rummaging through the wooden chest and returning to his lover's embrace, all heated eyes, tangled hair, and needy flesh. He pushed a ceramic jar into Iolaus' hand.
"Castor salve. Gods, Iolaus, now. Now."
Iolaus tried to bank the fires of Diomedes' lust with sweet kisses, and slow caresses, but it was too late, Diomedes was lost. He began to turn onto his knees, again, but Iolaus stopped him.
"Let's try this," he purred against Diomedes' throat, turning him onto his side and curling up behind him, gasping along with him as his cock throbbed against the seer's ass. "Lift your leg. Yeah."
He braced the seer's trembling leg with his own, strong thigh, spreading him, fumbling the jar open and running a slick finger into him. He groaned with delight as he watched the firm globes of Diomedes' ass tighten, as he saw his finger being swallowed by the dark portal between. Diomedes' body opened to him immediately, welcoming the penetration. Iolaus removed his finger, coating his long-neglected cock with the salve and positioning the head against his lover's puckered anus. He pushed carefully, pulling Diomedes' hips toward him, and the head of his cock was suddenly engulfed.
They both moaned softly, and Iolaus pushed the sage-scented curtain of Diomedes' hair aside; it trailed over their shoulders and propped arms, to tumble across the pillows. Iolaus set his teeth in the beautiful, white flesh of Diomedes' neck, and pushed further inside.
"Diomedes. Sweet Diomedes. It's been so long. Gods, you feel so right. So right. Diomedes," Iolaus sang his delight into his lover's ear, grasping his alabaster hip and thrusting deliberately, making each withdrawal a slow symphony of sensation, each deep drive forward a heated journey of ecstasy, "This is so right."
Hercules heard Iolaus cry out. He was in pain, gasping.
The demigod swam into consciousness, opening his eyes against the restrictive bandages. Still half-asleep, he pulled the cloth away from his eyes with impatient hands, squinting in the dim, morning light. Slowly, the vague shapes around him gained substance, and he squinted toward the sound of Iolaus' voice.
He was on the verge of calling his friend's name, and stumbling to his aid, when his vision cleared enough to bring the hunter into soft focus. Splintered light radiated out from the blurred center of Hercules' sight, weaving a shimmering halo around the two writhing figures on the bed across from him.
Iolaus was panting, whispering something against Diomedes' smooth shoulder, which hunched rythmically with the pumping of the seer's hand on his own cock. Diomedes' riotous hair flew about both of them, as his head rocked back with each of Iolaus' long thrusts. The muscles of Iolaus' rounded buttocks clenched and relaxed rhythmically, as he rocked inside his lover, and Hercules stifled a curse. He was conscious of a suffocating sense of loss, bitter regret, sharp jealousy. And, a heated rut of desire. Iolaus' hand was clenched around Diomedes' hip, and Hercules could almost feel those slender, callused fingers sliding over his cock, which was erect, and aching with frustrated need.
"Now. Now, Iolaus. Yes," Diomedes half-sobbed the words, then he froze. Iolaus muffled a shout against his shoulder, and his buttocks quivered with a few more spasmodic thrusts before he, too, froze, pumping his seed into his lover.
"Diomedes. So right," Iolaus' light whisper was resonant with barely sated lust. His braced thigh trembled, and he slowly withdrew it, allowing the seer's leg to fall, bonelessly. They remained spooned together for a few moments, Iolaus' hands slipping along Diomedes' body, then his beautiful ass clenched once again, as he withdrew.
Hercules could feel the poignant pain washing toward him from the lovers as Iolaus' slick cock slipped from Diomedes' body. The seer turned immediately, and kissed Iolaus, their bodies settling together. They were silent, except for the wet sounds of their kissing, the soft slide of hands over skin. Hercules shifted slowly, silently, until he lay on his stomach, concealing the hard, burning result of his voyeurism beneath his body. He closed his eyes, and tried not to replay the images. Tried not to carry the vision of Iolaus' quivering body with him.
'What you could have taken with one smile, but scorned.'
Diomedes had spoken those words to him long ago. Why hadn't he taken the hint, and smiled upon Iolaus? Why hadn't he reached out, while he stood a chance? It was too late, now. Wasn't it?
He surprised himself by falling asleep once again, his erection burning against his abdomen like an accusation.
Diomedes rose, eventually, and started the fire, readying pots of water for heating. Iolaus rose with him, over his whispered protests, gliding around him like a spectre of sex. As soon as the water was warm, Iolaus poured some into the basin, and knelt before Diomedes to wash him from his long, narrow feet to his love-marked throat. Each pass of the soapy cloth was an anthem of admiration and desire, each trickle of clean water a caress. He took equal pains with drying his dazzling lover, then stood back, closing his brilliant blue eyes, savoring the sweet care with which Diomedes echoed his actions.
Iolaus pulled on his pants and boots, and headed out for a too-long delayed call of nature, while Diomedes dressed, then readied more tea, and another basin of wash water, and approached Hercules' pallet.
Diomedes noted the abandoned bandaging, and his eyes narrowed, but he said nothing, waking Hercules gently. The demigod was brusque, almost rude, accepting the wash water, but saying that he could see well enough to attend to his body's needs, alone. Diomedes nodded silently, and Hercules made his clumsy way outdoors, a blanket wrapped around his waist. Diomedes pulled the demigod's clothing out and laid it across the pallet, and was sitting at the table, absorbed in a scroll, when Iolaus and Hercules returned, together.
Hercules bathed himself, and dressed, studiously ignoring the fact that Iolaus immediately perched on the edge of the table, playing absentmindedly with Diomedes' hair, braiding a lover's lock into the glowing mass.
Diomedes headed outside after settling the two friends on the bed with cups of tea - 'Gods, Diomedes, don't you have any mead?' Iolaus grumbled - to make his own call upon nature.
"So, Herc. You're looking so much better. How good is your sight? How do you feel? If I ever get my hands on that healer ... You've been sleeping around the clock, practically. When did Diomedes find us? I don't remember getting here, at all. Did you ."
"Iolaus, slow down. You're going to hurt yourself. How are you?"
"Great!" Iolaus' voice was bright, but a slight shadow lurked behind his eyes, "My head hurts a bit, but that's nothing to worry about. What about your eyes? Are you still nauseated? Do you need me to get you anything? Shouldn't you be ly ..."
"Iolaus. I've slept enough in the last several days to carry me over for a year or so," Hercules squinted at Iolaus, and smiled. He remembered his visions, and shuddered inwardly. Even without the horrors he'd dreamt, he couldn't imagine his life without this bright soul at his side, "My vision is clearing. I can see a slightly fuzzy image of whatever I focus directly on, but everything around it is just light and color. Diomedes thinks that if he runs enough fluid through me, it should clear up. All I've been doing is sleeping and pissing. And, dreaming."
The demigod fell silent, and Iolaus, sensitive to his mood, leaned back against the pillows, waiting.
"Iolaus. Do you think we were fated to be friends?"
Iolaus sat up, staring at Hercules with a decidedly aggravated expression.
"What?" Hercules was a bit defensive.
"What has Diomedes been putting into your tea?"
"Wha ... what do you mean? What has Diomedes got to do with it?"
Iolaus smiled shrewdly, and lay back again. He was silent for so long that Hercules thought he'd drifted into sleep, and was startled when he spoke.
Hercules looked down; Iolaus' face was averted, and his voice was so soft as to be nearly inaudible. It echoed in Hercules' heart, nonetheless.
"Iolaus. Are you ...," Hercules' courage failed him, as Iolaus turned his head, pinning the demigod with his clear, blue eyes, "uh, how are you? Are you feeling all right? Your head?"
Iolaus might have sighed; it was hard to tell. He tumbled off of the bed, standing uncertainly before Hercules, then turned away.
"Let's find some food; I'm starving," he began rummaging around the room, greeting Diomedes with a theatrically drawn face when the seer returned, "Aren't you going to feed us?"
"I guess that answers that question," Hercules grinned, avoiding Diomedes' eyes, "Sounds like you're back to normal."
A few more days passed, and Hercules' vision continued to improve. If there were any more trysts on the narrow bed, the lovers were circumspect enough not to wake him. He suspected that they were carefully abstaining, though they curled up together each night to sleep.
He tried a few times to talk to Diomedes about the visions that had visited him, but the seer adroitly sidestepped him each time. Apparently, Diomedes felt that this was something for Hercules to absorb on his own, and the demigod stopped trying to approach him.
He was in the clearing outside of the house, with his back propped against a tree, thinking about the visions, when a voice hailed him. He jumped to his feet, and turned, to find himself wrapped in a bear hug. He pulled free, and looked at his assailant with confusion.
"Hercules! Oh, thank the gods! When I found out that he'd . thank the gods! I'd wondered whether," Mahalos' voice dropped to a fearful whisper, "whether *the seer* could tell me where to find you. Thank the gods that he found you, first. He has healed you, then? Where is he? Is he angry?"
"Because my master poisoned you. Truly, it was an accident. His eyesight, it's failing. He didn't realize. We were both positive that you must have died, but I tracked you, anyway. Then, I found the tree ... there was blood. Where is the seer? I saw him once, you know. Only from a distance, but; those eyes," Mahalos shivered, eloquently.
"Diomedes is out gathering herbs; Iolaus is with him."
"Iolaus?" Mahalos asked, blankly, "Oh, right. The little, blond guy? You let him go off with the seer, all by himself? The seer is dangerous!"
"Yeah. Well, he's not a danger to Iolaus. They should be back, soon; they've been gone for hours. Would you like to ..." Hercules' voice trailed off as a strange mixture of fear and disbelief crossed Mahalos' face, and he turned to follow the healer's line of sight.
Iolaus and Diomedes were entering the clearing. Their arms were wrapped around each other's waists, and Diomedes' hair was loose, curling about his naked chest like a living cloak. The seer's beautiful face was lit with an adoring smile, and Iolaus was laughing up into his brimming, brown eyes. The lovers gradually became aware that they weren't alone in the clearing, and made a half-hearted attempt to look a bit less like two men who had been happily rolling together on the forest floor when they should have been harvesting herbs. If Iolaus' swollen lips and glowing smile hadn't been obvious enough, the fresh love bites ringing Diomedes' throat, and the myriad twigs snarled in the fiery tangle of his hair would have given the game away.
"So, did you guys actually find any herbs while you were out?" Hercules couldn't stop the laughter bubbling past his lips; Mahalos' mouth was hanging open, as he watched the dreaded seer blushing, while his golden lover pulled twigs out of his red hair.
"Herbs?" Iolaus' heavy-lidded blue eyes were blank for a moment, then blazed with mirth, "Oh, yeah; herbs! I *knew* we forgot something."
Diomedes' rich laughter blended with Iolaus' tipsy giggle, and Hercules considered holding Mahalos up, as the man looked likely to fall over in an astonished faint at any moment. Iolaus looked at the healer's assistant, and his face darkened as recognition dawned.
"Mahalos. Was it your master, who poisoned Hercules?" Diomedes' voice was as cold as though his laughter had never been, and his face was equally icy.
"How did you know my name?" Mahalos whispered.
"Does it matter? I know this; it is time for you to take over your master's craft. If Hercules had been a mortal, he would have died. As it is, he nearly lost his eyesight, and Iolaus was badly injured while trying to bring him to me."
"Gods. Yes; I've already agreed to take the craft. He's so sorry; he has spent his life trying to cure people, when he realized what had happened ... well, I'm afraid that he's just going to lie down and give up his ghost. He won't speak a word to anyone, won't take a bite of food. I'm afraid for him, seer. Can you ..." Mahalos cleared his throat, and forced himself to meet the seer's penetrating eyes, "Can you help him?"
Diomedes looked at Hercules.
"It was Hercules that your master injured. It is Hercules who can offer him healing."
He disengaged himself gently from Iolaus, and went into the house.
"We'll go back with you, and see your master. I'll do what I can to reassure him, don't worry," Hercules accepted Mahalos' effusive thanks with a bashful smile.
Iolaus stepped away a few paces, staring out into the woods that he had so recently vacated. Hercules felt a sudden pang; he hadn't even thought to ask Iolaus whether he would accompany him. He had simply assumed that this would be the case.
"Iolaus?" He walked over, and placed a tentative hand on Iolaus' shoulder.
Iolaus turned away from the path into the woods, and smiled up at Hercules.
"Let's get going."
"You know, Iolaus? Once we've visited with Mahalos' master, I think we'd best find some ale. I'm sick of tea."
Iolaus' laughter was genuine, if a bit shaky.
"Yeah. That stuff will kill you!"
He headed into the house, with Hercules on his heels.
Diomedes closed the door gently, and leaned against it, leaving Iolaus with Hercules and Mahalos. Iolaus would be leaving him, now. Leaving with Hercules. He knew it as surely as though it had come in a fire-ringed vision. He closed his eyes, and tried to clear his mind, tried to push the pain far away, into a dark, forgotten corner where it wouldn't be noticed by anyone, least of all himself.
He knew before he started that he wouldn't be successful. That corner was already full. He'd been using it since he first touched Iolaus.
Iolaus. He'd never been closer to Iolaus' bright heart, than he had for the last, precious days. The hunter had never offered so much of himself, so freely. He'd never looked so deeply into Diomedes' soul, never shown such sweet urgency. It had been so good. He had been so close.
His legs threatened to collapse beneath him, and he wondered for a few, frantic moments whether he would simply dissolve. No will left, no strength. I have no pride, Iolaus. Don't walk away from me. Don't make me watch you walk away.
He caught himself. He pulled his cloak of reserve around him, and it served him, as it always had done. He straightened, and moved away from the door, finding Iolaus' carrysack and adding some small, cloth bags of dried herbs and roots to it, and some of the bread they had baked the previous day. A few handfuls of dried fruit. That wasn't a teardrop, splashing on the back of his hand as he placed the sack on the table.
The door opened behind him, and that horrifying feeling returned. He wanted to fall to the ground, to push himself beneath the earth, and rest in silent darkness. Not really an option, so he turned, and met his lover's blue gaze.
"Diomedes," There were tears in Iolaus' eyes.
"I've put a few things in your sack. Drink the teas I've packed, both of you. Don't accept brews from strange healers," his voice was clear and steady.
Hercules gathered their things, handing Iolaus' vest to him.
"Diomedes," Hercules held out his arm to the seer, "Thank you."
"Remember your visions, Hercules," Diomedes grasped Hercules' forearm, briefly, "There is a pattern to our fates that is rarely easily discerned, but the design has a beauty all its own, in the end. Trust the weaver."
Iolaus shrugged into his vest, and stepped forward to pull Diomedes into his arms. There was a certain desperation to the strength of his embrace, a pain-filled intensity to his kiss.
"Take care of yourself, Diomedes," his voice was gruff, and he pulled a few twigs from Diomedes' hair, absently. The seer took his hand, moving it away from the tangled, red mane.
"Leave them," he whispered, "Something to remember you by."
One more kiss.
Diomedes gasped as they parted; his hand hovered briefly over his heart, before he caught himself and moved it away.
He stared blindly at the door long after Iolaus had closed it behind them.
Stiffly, he began moving about the cottage, lighting the candles.
The room was so dark.
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