Not quite looking at him, Gabrielle murmured: "Tell me about you, Iolaus. About your dreams, about how you see yourself in ten years. Tell me ...." Then her lower lip trembled and, without warning, tears started to flood her eyes. She wanted so much to get past this, to give him a chance, but it wasn ít working. She lifted a hand to her mouth and ducked her head, sobbing. "Poor excuse for an Amazon Queen ..." she murmured through her grief.

Iolaus, confused and distraught, could do only what instinct told him was right. He moved over to sit next to the bard and put his arms around her, "Iím sorry ..." he said, comforting and holding her close. It occurred to him that she wasnít pulling away. For a moment he thought she might. "I know you loved him.."

"Oh...no..." She sniffed, leaning into him a little more, absorbing in his kindness - "I mean, yes I did but ... He was my friend. Not my ...." She rested her forehead against Iolaus cheek. She didnít even know this man but felt instantly comfortable with him. Same face. Same voice .... It was strange, actually. "Next to Xena and my own family ... Iolaus knew me best, I think. And by that I mean ...inside." She pulled back slightly to look into his eyes. They were lovely, expressive eyes. "We were bound together. I ím not sure it was love. At least not the type a man feels for a woman or visa versa. She paused, reconsidering a moment, then inwardly shrugged. What was the point of hashing through it now? "But Iolaus and I knew each other so well." Through her tears she smiled, "We didnít often get together but when we did ... we knew what the other was thinking."

Iolaus nodded. Strangely, he understood what she meant. "Did you ever stop to think that it wasnít a coincidence? I mean, you travel with Xena and he traveled with Hercules. Both are big time heroes and you and Iolaus ...You two keep them in line in a way." He looked past her, searching for the right words. "Maybe you two shared something ethereal. A gift from the gods."

Puzzled, he suddenly stared at the young woman, matching her wide eyed expression with one of his own, "That has to be the oddest thing Iíve ever thought. It makes no sense. I donít even know why I said it."

She looked contemplative, closing her eyes for a couple of seconds, then cleared her throat. "But you may be right." she whispered. Then Gabrielle smiled and looked into his eyes again, "Youíre very nice." she said. It was Iolaus turn to look away and smile. He picked up an apple resting near his leg and gave it to her. "Lunch." he stated, feeling a blush come to his cheeks.

****

By evening Xena and Hercules returned to camp. They werenít surprised to see Gabrielle, although they were pleased their worst fears hadnít come to pass. She looked fit and healthy. They werenít surprised by the rabbit roasting on a spit in the campfire either. Hercules had told Xena Iolaus was a fantastic cook. They werenít even surprised to see that their companions, anticipating the outcome of the heroes quest, had laid out blankets and bedrolls, fed a contented Argo and had gathered fresh fruit for dessert.

What did surprise them was the peculiar sight of Iolaus, standing directly behind Gabrielle, a little away from the fire - positioning her arms - teaching the bard how to juggle. She wore his jester hat. Both suppressed a chuckle.

They might have laughed even more robustly if they saw, an hour before, Gabrielle and Iolaus sitting cross legged, her wilting flowers laying ceremoniously in his lap, both sets of hands raised in concentration. They hummed in unison. The bard was teaching the wanna-be hero how to meditate -- as did the holy men in India.

******

"So, where do you go from here?" Hercules asked Xena, watching her check the straps on Argoís saddle, "Any grand adventures awaiting you?"

She turned and grinned at him, her eyes straying to make sure Gabrielle was a good distance away so she couldnít hear what The Warrior Princess was going to whisper. "Gabrielle has a birthday coming up in a few days. Iíve made arrangements for a small surprise party at my Motherís inn. Her sisterís going to be there, Joxer ... Maybe even Autolycus." She chuckled lightly at Hercules expression to the last name mentioned. Then, she brightened as another thought struck Xena, "Why donít you and Iolaus come to Amphipulus? My mother would love to meet you and ..."

Hercules put his hands on her shoulders and pulled Xena a little closer to him, "As tempting as that is ... I donít think itís a good idea. I just introduced Iolaus to Thebes and we had a rather bad experience. Well, he did anyway. Heís still not sure of himself and I just get the impression heíd feel like a fifth wheel if we went along for the ride. Besides, Iíve made arrangements of my own. I want him to meet someone I think can teach him a few things." Hercules put a thumb under her chin and lifted Xenaís despondent face to look into those beautiful baby blues - "Maybe next year." He said.

"Iím going to hold you to that." She leaned forward and kissed him very gently on the lips.

Iolaus and Gabrielle said their good-byes as they doused the campfire. He then reached for her scroll sack and helped to slide it on her shoulder. "Iíll have to read some of those one day. Particularly the one titled ĎOde to a Hunterís Laughí." he chuckled, "I wouldíve last night but ..."

"No ..." she smiled softly, "You need to get adjusted to this world, Iolaus. That much I know. You have to become a little more confident. One day, when weíre sure you wonít feel inhibited by thoughts of the Iolaus of this world, you can read my scrolls -- and his part in them."

He nodded carefully, "Okay."

"Who knows," she suddenly grinned, "Maybe next time we meet Iíll have written a scroll or two about you. Iolaus chuckled softly. "Where are you an Hercules going now?"

"Corinth. He wants to introduce me to Jason. The Jason I knew was over-thrown by The Sovereign long ago and sent into exile. No one knows what happened to him after that."

The couples stared at each other for a little while then, when hearing Xenaís ĎCome on, Gabrielle.í, the bard leaned forward and gave Iolaus a tender hug. "Take care." she murmured.

"Thanks for coming around." He replied and meant every word of it.

EPILOGUE

(Seven and one half weeks later...)

"Iíd forgotten how wonderful Thrace is." Iolaus stretched his body as they walked, lifting his arms high and lulling his head back and forth, "And the food! Incredible."

Hercules laughed at his best friendís enthusiasm. "And where do we go now?" He asked, pulling gently at the shoulder of his tattered, multi patched vest.

"Corinth?" Iolaus suggested. "Iíd love to go to The Academy and see Jasonís expression when he gets an eye-load of me."

Hercules patted Iolaus on the back, "Iíve missed you Iolaus. I really have."

The hunter slowed his stride and his hands dropped to his sides, "I think that makes number one hundred, Herc."

"One hundred?"

"One hundred times youíve told me how much you missed me while I was gone."

"Well, I did."

"Even though you had company?" There was no jealousy in Iolausí tone. Hercules smile faded slightly and his stride slowed.

"Yeah, even though I had company." Noting his change of mood, the hunter turned his head and met Hercules eyes.

"Hey, I didnít mean anything ..." he said, "You had every right to find another partner. Iím just sorry it took so long. And Iím sorry he ended up leaving you after only a few months."

"Then youíll understand when I tell you I kind of miss him too."

"But heís happily married, right? To that mermaid girl you mentioned."

"Yeah, Iím sure he is. Happy, I mean."

"Happy endings are hard to find these days, Herc." Hercules looked again at Iolaus and his lips upturned, "Some endings couldnít be happier." he said with a touch of sentiment.

There was an unspoken devotion between the two men. Even now. Eventually, there would be time to tell one another stories, disclose their own separate experiences while parted. Iolaus had just scratched the surface regarding "the light" and Hercules still hadnít mentioned Morrgan to him. Oddly, Nebula had not been brought up between the two over the past few days either. Hercules wondered if Iolaus even remembered what had happened between he and the beautiful pirate-queen of Sumeria.

"Is that ...?" Iolaus stopped walking, his eyes transfixed to a sight straight ahead. Hercules looked at his friendís profile. He was staring down the path at a vision that obviously delighted him. You still have eagle eyes, my friend. He thought and suspected Iolaus was looking at a woman. He could tell by a familiar gleam in his eyes.

Hercules then turned and looked at what his friend was taking in ... Two women, all right. Approaching them on foot, pulling a light colored horse behind them. Hercules mouth opened and his lips parted in a laugh, "Xena..." He whispered.

" ...and Gabrielle." Iolaus followed. "She looks so different ..." His expression indicated that he liked the changes. Exotic. Slightly mysterious. But still Gabrielle.

Then a thought, startling in its gravity, suddenly yanked Hercules into the present - "Ah, Iolaus ... You better not ...."

But the hunter was already off, running down the pathway to greet the two women, "Xena ... Gabrielle ..." He saw their smiles, the way they laughed and lifted their hands to wave at him. Then, as he came closer, still running, he saw their expressions change. Gabrielle appeared shocked and Xena .... Iolaus practically screeched to a halt as Xena drew her sword.

"What?!" he asked. "Is that any way to greet me after Iíve been away so long?"

"Iolaus?" Xena questioned, "What are you doing in those clothes?"

"What else would I be wearing?"

"Not those clothes." Gabrielle commented suspiciously. Disappointed, he balanced his hands on his hips and clicked his tongue.

"A man has to come back from the dead before he knows who his true friends are."

Hercules, approaching slow, stood behind Iolaus, laying hands on his slightly slumped shoulders. He looked over his friendís head at an dubious Xena, "Itís all right. Heís Iolaus ...." Then he smiled, "The original."

"Ho ... How?" Xena lowered her sword.

"Do you have a week for us to explain?" Iolaus looked from The Warrior Princess to Gabrielle, noting the girlís bewilderment ... and perhaps even a little fear. "Are you going to hug me or what?" he asked her, attempting to infuse a little humor into the circumstance.

The bard just stood and stared at him. Her eyes looked from his face to his chest, examining the damaged, dark stone as it hung on its leather string around the hunter-warriorís neck. "Iolaus?"

"Itís really me!" he pressed.

Then the passive expression dissolved and tears flooded from her blue-green eyes, "Iolaus!" Gabrielle cried and jumped forward into his arms. "I thought Iíd never see you again!"

He laughed and held her tightly, "Thatís more like it."

Hercules moved forward to embrace Xena, "I got my miracle." he whispered in her ear.

"I canít believe it." Gabrielle said to Iolaus, trying to stop her sniffles. What was it with Iolaus and the tears he always made her shed? Happy or sad, he always made her cry. Then Gabrielle pulled back from him, smiling. "Iíd like to show you something." she said immediately, attempting to be brave, regain composure and not show girlish weakness.

"What? A new scroll? About me?" he chuckled, teasing. He still held the girl loosely in his embrace.

"Yes, I do have a new scroll about you and you must read it ... but thatís not really it."

"Tell me."

"Iíve ..." she hesitated, "Iíve learned to juggle."

"Juggle? Do you think you can teach me?"

She reached up to touch his cheek, "Iím sure I can." and slowly, Gabrielle moved in to gently kiss Iolaus on the lips.

The couples stayed together for two days. Then Xena and Gabrielle had to leave. The Amazons were having war problems with Rome. Ephiny might need their help. A destined meeting with Caesar awaited -- as well as another old "friend" ... and an eventual tragedy ...

Hercules and Iolaus decided to go to Thebes. Iolaus thought it a good time to visit home.

The End

(Written: May 1999)


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