(The following fiction is an "in between the lines piece", perhaps
answering a few questions we’ve asked ourselves about Season Five of H:TLJ and Season Four of X:WP. Characters included Iolaus2 (aka - "Jester"), Hercules, Gabrielle, Xena, Ares and ... yeah, *he’s* here too! :-)
"That was the best dinner you’ve made so far." Hercules smiled, tossing his time-battered plate next to their campfire. He sat across from his companion, relaxing and breathing in the fresh night air. "When you said you were going to make us something different but didn’t plan on killing it or even warming the thing up I thought you’d lost your mind but ...."
"I surprised you." Iolaus half smiled, not looking at Hercules. He washed his plate and fork with a pan of clean water he’d just brought from a rushing river then men were camped near, "You say that every time I cook." Suddenly, appearing a little too thoughtful, Iolaus splashed a little of the cool water against the material of his brown trousers. Irritated, he pointlessly brushed away a stray whisp of blond hair from his forehead.
The son of Zeus drew his long legs up and leaned back against a tree trunk. He stopped himself from replying or making any mention of his friend’s current disposition. Ever since he had to say goodbye to Nautica, the beautiful mermaid he’d fallen in love with, Iolaus had been pensive. This reminded Hercules that the former jester was hardly the free wheeling ‘love em and leave em’ chum Hercules had grown up with. There were similarities, of course. Both men had some of the same quarks and both had huge hearts -- but this one, the fellow who conscientiously scrubbed their eating utensils spotless, his heart broke just a little easier than the other. The living Iolaus loved quickly, deeply and permanently.
Hercules could relate and, earlier in the week, felt the need to do something positive for his friend. Using himself as a monitor, Hercules thought:.‘Where do I go when I feel down and needed the company of people I love?’
The demigod wanted so much to have Iolaus see where he and his best friend had grown up, not thinking for a minute - until it was too late - that this sort of association might make him feel inferior. But it seemed like such a good idea at the time. The man sitting across from him, wiping distractedly at the plate in his hands, was curious about Hercules and his family; the people he’d grown up around. It appeared the perfect opportunity to get Iolaus mind off of his lost love. Unfortunately, Thebes *hadn’t* been such a good idea. ‘You suffer from an incredible lack of forethought.’ Hercules berated himself.
Everyone who saw Iolaus, Hercules *new* friend, thought him the "The Golden Hunter", the hero native to their city. The greetings Iolaus received, the slaps on the back and even the pretty women - who greeted him with hugs and well wishes - didn’t really know who it was they were addressing. Iolaus enjoyed it at first, not entirely understanding what all the fuss was about, just thinking everyone especially nice. This city was much more beautiful than the over-built Thebes of his world. No wonder Hercules enjoyed it here so much. Friendly people and gorgeous scenery. Then, as comprehension slowly dawned, Iolaus grew more and more distant. He came to realize the friendly adulation wasn’t for him. It was for Hercules and another man everyone admired. A brave man. A confident man. A hero. Hercules told him not to feel as if he was living in that other Iolaus’ shadow but how could he not when everyone seemed to love and admire Hercules and the Iolaus of this world so much?
With a pity his friend would absolutely loath if he knew the reasoning, Hercules stared at the blond man, observing the sadness on his face and the defeat in his manner. The last thing Hercules wanted was to give the guy an inferiority complex yet that’s exactly what he did by marching them home. The halfgod wasn’t a psychologist but common sense should have made him aware that Iolaus needed more time. He was still unsure and, in some respects, fragile.
Hercules tactfully changed the unspoken subject, "What did you call it again?" He indicated the empty bowl Iolaus now picked up to clean.
"The sauce was great."
"Thanks. An old recipe. Chinese branch of the family." Iolaus said, partly as a joke. The Sovereign would have laughed. Maybe.
"Family ..." Hercules murmured, "You’ve never really told me about your family."
Iolaus shrugged, rummaging through his back pack, "Not much to tell. I barely new my mother - she ran off with a soldier when I was only a few years old. My baby sister died a year after she left. My father, Skorous ..." Iolaus paused, recalling a too painful memory. "He was killed while rifling through the King’s refuse bins. I was with him. We were hungry." Iolaus shook his head, pulling a clean, dry cloth out of his sack. He could talk about his past life with a fair amount of detachment these days. Iolaus had come to terms with it long ago. "Skorous was useless but good father. At least he didn’t turn me out. If he had I might have become a thief or joined up with a gang ..."
Hercules opened his mouth to say something but decided not to. Instead: "Is that how you became a ...? I mean ...."
"The King, Resticlese, was in power twenty years before The Sovereign over-threw him." He glanced over at the demigod, "You have to remember, we were still boys at the time. I don’t think Zeus knew what to do with Hercules yet. I know Hera, The Goddess of Music, was fond of him but Hercules had no musical talent." Iolaus cleared his throat, "Anyway, Resticlese was cruel but he liked the way I could take a punch. I was only ten years old when I was brought before him to be punished for my father’s crime -- but the King enjoyed watching me fall down, just to get up again. He sent me away to be a jester. To study and go to clown-college ..." A somewhat proud smile developed on Iolaus face, "It was actually rewarding. I learned a lot. Had some good mentors. If I could have just stayed in the comedy caves and entertained at festivals and didn’t have to return to the palace to be with The Sovereign when he came to power ..." The smile faded and Iolaus again glanced over at the demigod, "Well, you know the rest."
"How did that happen? Were you and The Sovereign ever friends?" Hercules asked.
Iolaus paused, looking in the direction of the river, thinking. "In an odd way. When we were boys our mothers knew each other. Alcmene ... She and my mother worked the same street." Suddenly realizing what he had said, noting how Hercules jaw set, Iolaus looked quickly over at his comrade. For a moment, flashing back to his old life, Iolaus wondered when Hercules was going to hit him.
The Sovereign never seemed to love his mortal mother but no one was allowed to sully Alcmene’s name. No one but him. It was a ‘respect thing’ he had told his jester. He remembered The Sovereign appearing vaguely sentimental at the time. Of course, he was drunk too. That sometimes happened. Alcmene had abandoned The Sovereign in almost the exact manner as Iolaus mother had left he and little Gigus alone.
Except Iolaus wasn’t the son of a god. He was the offspring of a harlot and a besotted beggar. "The Sovereign often picked on me when we were younger, calling me a weakling and a runt ... but even then he trusted me. He liked having me around, even if it was just as a punching bag. I have to admit to feeling a little lonely after he left for the academy ..."
"Even though he treated you like dirt?" Hercules frowned, angered that one boy could treat another with such disregard. It was the way of both their worlds but he didn’t have to like it.
"Hercules," Iolaus took a patient breath, "The Sovereign paid attention to me. He recognized that I was there, even if I was his inferior. Not many people did that. I can’t tell you how many times I was ignored as a child." He cleared his throat, attempting to get back on subject, "Later, when we were in the palace together, I was his confident. Bizarre, but the Sovereign told me things because he knew I wouldn’t tell anyone else. He trusted me."
"Only because, if you revealed anything, he would have killed you."
"Maybe." Iolaus appeared doubtful.
Hercules found himself enthralled, despite himself. "You don’t think so?"
"If he wanted me dead, Hercules, he could have killed me many times over during the past ten years. He wasn’t patient, killed at the drop of a mood swing, but he never raised a hand to execute me," Then a small laugh, "Only to hit, punch and kick me ...." His voice faded.
It suddenly dawned on Hercules. He couldn’t believe it. In some respects Iolaus considered The Sovereign ... his best friend.
"Just back from India, eh?" He rested against a tree trunk, his arms folded confidently against a dark, muscular chest. He smiled at the two ladies as they slowly walked toward him. "Nice hair cut." Ares snorted a laugh in Gabrielle’s direction.
"You’re a peacock." Was the only thing the bard could think of at this moment. She didn’t take into account what a feather from such a bird symbolized to the followers of Hera, but rather the expression on the war god’s good looking face. He had a decidedly puffed-confident manner which indicated he had information to impart but didn’t want to give it away too freely. Gabrielle sighed and looked up at her taller companion, "Some things never change." she whispered.
"It’s been awhile, Ares. I’m surprised you have the nerve to show your face around us." Xena straightened her shoulders and looked directly in The God of War’s eyes as they approached him, to stand only a few feet away from his powerful, black-clad form. "Don’t start anything. I have not forgiven you for Hope and what the two of you did to us or how you betrayed the other gods." She spoke lowly, deeply menacing, her startling eyes never leaving his for a second.
"Water under the bridge." Ares matched her seriousness with a smoldering stare of his own, "I missed you, Xena." he smiled, his tone lighter. Then his words took in both of the women, "Since Hercules has come back from Eyre he’s been nothing but a wet blanket. That whole Dahak fiasco really burned him out."
"Dahak." Gabrielle’s head snapped up, her tense fingers unconsciously gripping the hem of her colorful sari. She didn’t hide the fear and revulsion in her tone, "How did Hercules become involved with Dahak?" She demanded, her voice quivering ever so slightly. The Warrior Princess placed a hand on her shoulder.
"You haven’t heard, have you?" The delight on his face was inappropriate but, for Ares, not unexpected. "Dahak did a number on his little buddy, Iolaus."
Xena and Gabrielle’s eyes met, instinctively knowing the other’s thoughts - "What? What happened to him?" It was Xena’s turn to demand, gritting her teeth ever so slightly. Ares was being evasive as usual, delighting in the misery of others.
"I’m afraid dependable, brave, loyal and ultimately a pain n-in-my-back-side Iolaus is dead... deader than - oh - Hope at the hands of her mother." And Ares laughed at his wit.
"Dahak killed Iolaus?" There was grief and guilt in Gabrielle’s tone but not for her daughter. It was for another person she greatly admired and loved. "Xena ..." she took a breath, "We should have found them ... We should have told them ...." she choked, lifting a hand to cover her mouth and bite back a cry of despair.
Furious and unbelieving, Xena moved past Gabrielle and charged forward, backing Ares hard against the tree trunk, "So help me, if you’re lying, Ares ... I’ll take that long, dark hair of yours and choke you with it!" She spat.
Her fury seemed to amuse and fascinate the war god. Just what was Iolaus to Xena? "Oh, he’s dead all right, Xena. And Hercules is puttering around Thebes last I saw him. Pathetically helping people as usual." He glanced past her at Gabrielle, who was still attempting to get control of herself. He whispered, "Not a good year for sidekicks, is it? First Gabrielle...then Iolaus. Maybe he should have been the one to find peace in India. He’d still be alive, at least." Ares dissolved away.
Xena turned and looked again at her younger friend, "We have to find him. Hercules. We have to talk with him ... to ..."comfort him. Xena wasn’t often at a loss for words but she could only imagine Hercules torment. When she thought she’d lost Gabrielle ...
That was a place, mental and physical, Xena could not go again. But they needed to know more. Ares had eluded to the death of Dahak. She needed to be sure. Hercules would know ... Poor Hercules .... Dearest gods, what he must be going through!
"Yes." Gabrielle agreed. "We need to go to Thebes."
In the morning Iolaus was in much better spirits. He got up early, as was typical, and began his workout. Stretching, running, sit ups, and a few acrobatics. About the time Hercules awoke, he was stoking their campfire and had cracked open a few goose eggs for he and his companion’s breakfast. He knew he’d been depressing, feeling sorry for himself, and wanted to make the bad humor up to Hercules. He’d been nothing but kind to Iolaus since he’d come to this new world and deserved a special treat. Iolaus brought out a packet of freshly ground spice from his backpack and carefully added a portion to the eggs.
"Smells great." Hercules said, stretching the tiredness from his bones and muscles, taking in a deep breath. He noted that Iolaus had placed a few strips of meat beside the eggs and smiled. What this man could do with food! If he wasn’t careful they’d both end up weighing over three hundred pounds by the end of the month.
Iolaus read his mind and smiled, "Why don’t you take a run and by the time you come back it’ll be done and waiting for you."
"Sounds great. I won’t be long."
"Bring back some fruit if you get a chance. Apples if you can." Iolaus reminded him, as he did nearly every morning, before Hercules ran off to exert himself. Iolaus removed the pan from the middle of the campfire into a slightly less intense flame. He then sat back and watched the breakfast simmer slowly. ‘This is the life.’ he thought. ‘Adventuring with a true hero, seeing the known world and discovering I can do a lot of things I never thought possible .... and people like me for it.’
Then, he began to drift slightly. In minutes Iolaus eyes closed and he dozed, never hearing the footsteps approaching from his right.
"Iolaus?" Her voice was soft and deep.
Slowly, drowsily shaken out of his dreams, he lifted his head. His blinking eyes took in the tempting curve of her long legs, the leather skirt, the body armor which covered her torso to rest groggily on her face. He couldn’t really see any detail. The sun was directly behind the woman’s head and he had to squint, noting only that she had very long, dark hair.
"Yes, Iolaus is my name." he said, getting slowly to his feet but not yet focusing on her face. Then, her arms were around him, crushing him to her in a nearly desperate manner, "Ares lied! I should have known." she laughed over his shoulder, "It ’s so good to see you!" Then, she pulled back, giving him a perfect view at her darkly attractive face. "Gabrielle was so ..."
"Xena!" Frightened, Iolaus stepped back, nearly tripping. He let out a sharp yell. The only Xena he’d ever known was the Sovereign’s mistress. A cruel, ruthless and evil to the core woman who’s only interest was in the advancement of her own agenda -- at any cost.
Confused, Xena took in his expression then, placing a hand on her chakram, quickly twirled about to see if someone was behind her, advancing for an attack. She only saw Gabrielle as the younger woman made her slow way up the path to join her friend. She was pulling on Argo’s reigns.
Iolaus came back to himself and hastily thought: If the Xena in his world was so terrible then the Xena of this world was obviously a - what? - a Hestial virgin? A healer? Neither likely with that outfit. He had little time to contemplate or comment further when another voice was heard.
"Iolaus!" she cried his name and, when Xena stepped aside, Gabrielle dropped Argo’s reigns and launched herself onto him. The bard threw her arms around the man, knocking them both to the ground, Iolaus flat on his back. She then unabashedly pressed her lips to his. Gabrielle felt so relieved and joyful she couldn’t contain herself, "I’ve never been so grateful to hear a fib from Ares!" she sang between light kisses and proceeded to hug him tightly, as she lay atop of him.
Xena laughed, amused by the humorous sight before her. "Let him breathe, Gabrielle!" she advised, noting how Iolaus was struggling to release himself from her insistent arms, hands and lips. Xena also noticed something else. He wasn’t wearing his usual clothes and, like Gabrielle, had shortened his hair.
"Look, I ..." he started, staring up at the face of the lovely girl on top of him. But before Iolaus could say another word, she was laughing and kissing him again. He held her loosely. What was he suppose to do? Obviously she and Xena thought him the other Iolaus but they weren’t giving him a chance to explain. And, to be honest, it was kind of nice being treated with such affection. Her body was warm and soft and... Nautica flashed briefly through his mind, saddening Iolaus a little, but then thoughts of his beloved mermaid dissolved as the girl’s kisses began again in earnest.
"Where’s Hercules?" Xena asked, ignoring the passionate scene and looking about the camp curiously. She crouched in front of the fire and examined their breakfast. She hadn’t eaten this morning and, quite frankly, the eggs looked scrumptious.
"Working out!’ Iolaus shouted when he was able. Then reluctantly, to the young woman - "Can I get up, please?" he asked.
"Oh...sorry." Gabrielle chuckled a bit self-consciously and crawled off of him. They stood and Iolaus sighed as he gazed at the bard. How to explain this...
She was a pretty girl, an inch or two shorter than him, and it wouldn’t surprise him if she had been intimate with the hunter-warrior. Seemed like the guy had left a long trail of broken hearts behind him. Distracted, he looked at her clothes, "Indian?" he asked.
"Huh?" Gabrielle had been gazing at him, drinking in Iolaus' image, happy with Ares deceit. It had been so long since she and Xena saw Iolaus and Hercules. "Oh yes," she touched the material of her skirt, "I’ve gone through a rather interesting change." she said, "A spiritual enlightenment." Gabrielle clarified, lifting a hand to her tattooed collarbone, "I’m not at all the same person I was, Iolaus." and she smiled.
He glanced from Gabrielle to Xena then back again. "You’re not the only one who has been through some changes." he said with a sigh. "We need to talk."
To someone not knowing the situation, the scene might have seemed funny. Hercules and Xena sat together on the large flat stone, both of their bodies leaning forward, their hands clasped together in an identical fashion. Their physical expressions were exactly alike as well. Unsmiling. Downcast. Both sets of eyes apparently finding something fascinating on the dusty-pebbly-grassy floor of the forest.
"So, he’s really gone?" Xena asked in a somber monotone.
Hercules nodded, his chestnut hair bobbing at the movement. "I’m afraid so. But he’s in a better place. I saw him ..." (*... go into the light....) The demigod trailed off, not immediately feeling the candor of his words. Then: "When we battled and won against Dahak I thought maybe - just maybe - I could save Iolaus soul and bring him back to life. I hoped ..." Again, the thought was left hanging. He had wanted a miracle. Why was that such a hard thing to say? He wanted understanding from "the light", or whatever it was. He wanted it to see that Iolaus was better off with Hercules than as a servant to a divine power. But Iolaus had accepted his fate and only because of this acceptance did Hercules let him go. He was in a better place.
Earlier, after his run, Hercules arrived back at camp during the very moment the former jester started to explain to Xena and Gabrielle who he was and how he came to be in their world. The half-god, happy and overwhelmed by two women’s presence, wasn’t really surprised by their skepticism. He almost chuckled when they asked Iolaus if he had fallen and hit his head. Gabrielle even raised a hand to touch him, to see if he was feverish. Then Hercules came forward, acknowledging Xena’s charming smile, and confirmed Iolaus story as the truth.
There was an embarrassed and emotionally charged silence. The men and women stared at one another for a count of fifteen. Then Gabrielle, apparently forgetting how to inhale for a moment, took in a deep breath and turned on her heel. She quickly walked away. Hercules was about to call out to her when Xena touched his arm.
"She needs to be a lone for a bit. She’ll be okay." The Warrior Princess assured.
Iolaus eyes followed the young woman, sympathizing, then returned to Xena. "I tried to tell you." he said, "But ..."
"We didn’t give you much of a chance." Xena smiled mildly and, uneasy, looked away from him. She moved to sit on the stone near their fire. This was hard for her too. Gabrielle had been right. They should have searched for Hercules and Iolaus when the entire Dahak conflict started for them. If the men had known, had helped Xena and Gabrielle beat that unspeakable evil early on, Iolaus would probably still be alive. Her beloved Solan, too. Xena recalled asking Hercules about the hind’s blood dagger when she and Gabrielle were ready to do battle with Hope and Callisto. He never questioned her, never asked Xena what she planned on using it for. As far as he was concerned The Warrior Princess was a heroine and he trusted her. He didn’t need to ask. Xena tensed with regret. He should have asked.
Feeling the need to do something, anything really, Iolaus returned to the campfire and fussed with breakfast, leaving Hercules and Xena to talk quietly amongst themselves. He glanced in their direction as his friend sat by the warrior woman, placing a comforting arm around her shoulders. She was disturbed by developments but smiled graciously up at the demigod and leaned into him a little. How different these two were from the Sovereign and Xena of his world. There was an unspoken affection there, he saw. Maybe a passion of sorts. But not the raw physical lust of the couple he knew. Iolaus smiled. He loved this world.
Concerned, he turned from the fire and pan when he heard a gentle sob. Iolaus could see the girl, Gabrielle, away from them in the distance, pacing the forest floor. She was weeping, trying hard to get herself under control but having little success. He wished there was something he could do, something he could say to make her feel better. Unfortunately, women were completely beyond his understanding. He didn’t know how to talk with them, nor did he ever do anything but bumble miserably in their presence. Not until Nautica .... Iolaus sighed with regret and lifted the pan. "Breakfast is ready." he told Xena and Hercules and reached for clean plates.
He glanced in the direction where he saw Gabrielle, wondering if he should ask her to join them, and saw that the young woman was no longer there. ‘Must have walked further into the woods.’ For a brief moment the thought filled him with dread.
As morning faded into afternoon they grew worried.
"Gabrielle!" Xena called, her eyes examining the perimeter. Argo whinnied and birds chirped but that was all that greeted her call.
"She wouldn’t have done anything desperate, would she?" Hercules asked, attempting to look past the trees and lush foliage about them.
"No, of course not." Xena replied, "But she was agitated. She might have wandered off and got lost." Both men looked at her as she confessed, "Gabrielle doesn’t have the greatest sense of direction. If you give her a map she’s fine or if she’s been to a place a couple of times she can probably get there again. But if you sit her in the middle of a unfamiliar forest and she hasn’t a clue where she is ...." Xena bit her lower lip then straightened her shoulders. "I better go look for her -- just in case."
"She could be hurt." Iolaus offered, the worry in his voice countering the less than subtle outburst. "I think we should all go." he said, feeling slightly to blame. No, it wasn’t his fault she was missing but he couldn’t help feeling responsible.
"Iolaus," Hercules raised a hand and placed it on his shoulder. "stay here. Xena and I will search."
"But I really think I should ..."
"Stay!" Xena exclaimed much louder and with more vehemence than she intended. Then her expression softened, "I’m sorry, Iolaus, but Gabrielle is... I just don’t think you ... "
Enlightenment over-came him. She wouldn’t want to be rescued by you. That’ s what the heroes were thinking. "I see." Iolaus blinked, "You’re right. I’ll stay here."
Hercules stared at his friend for a few moments, sorry for the disservice Xena’s words caused but understanding her point. Gabrielle had cared for Iolaus and this stranger could never be him, no matter how much he looked like the hunter-warrior. She’d get over it but, like all things, it would take time.
"Be careful." Iolaus told the couple as they walked away from camp.
On her way back she picked flowers. She hadn’t done something this simple since she left Potedia to be with Xena. Maybe that’s why she did it. It got her mind off of troubles. There had been so many of them recently. And now Iolaus .... Gabrielle finally got past the guilt and sorrow. She meditated long and hard, as she was taught in India, while sitting on the dry gravel next to the river. She lifted her hands and emptied her mind, allowing herself to reach a pinnacle of pacification and, finally, managed to find serenity. "Poor guy." she whispered to herself, thinking of this other Iolaus. "What must he think."
Finally, she returned to camp and found it nearly deserted. The only one there was Iolaus ... or rather ... well yes, Iolaus. He was sitting, his back to her and ... it looked like he was juggling some apples. Gabrielle lifted her flowers to hide a smile. Yet, she could see his serious profile and quickly pursed her lips. He seemed like a lonely little boy and Gabrielle suddenly felt contrite. He was special. She didn’t know how she knew this but he was, she was sure. Just like my own Iolaus was special. Gabrielle gulped and attempted to shake away a memory. She couldn’t care for this man like she did the original. Yet, he didn’t deserve to be looked at as some replacement.
Making an emotional adjustment, Gabrielle walked forward and spoke as brightly as she could without sounding phony: "Where is every one?" she asked.
He turned quickly, startled, dropping the apples. "Gabrielle...to find you." he said and watched, in amazement, as she sat cross-legged in the grass before him, pushing away the fallen apples. She lay her flowers down and spread them a little.
"Pretty, aren’t they?" she said. Gabrielle looked about and spoke before he could reply, "Xena and Hercules will probably be back soon. I guess I should have told you I was going to be awhile but I didn’t know myself. I walked along the river bank ... to clear my head. It’s nice and peaceful by the river."
He stared at her, a little nervous, but said nothing. She was right. Hercules and Xena would return when they realized their quest was for nothing. They were probably already thinking Gabrielle had returned to camp.