“Look, this is not how I intended for this evening to go. And, I know it’s a shock, but if you’ll let me explain…”
Iolaus distantly registered that Hercules was speaking to him, but it sounded like it was coming from very far away, like he was under water. His mind was a jumble of confused thoughts, moving too rapidly for even him to comprehend, and before he knew what he was doing, he had sprung out of his seat like a panther.
Meg… daughter… Niobe… Hercules… He knew. He knew this whole time…No. No, he wouldn’t. He wouldn't have done that to me. Not to me. This is NOT happening. He realized, suddenly, that he was saying these things out loud in the language of Chin, and tried to regain control. He hadn’t slipped up like this in years, not since he had gotten to India, and they had given him that weird potion that had enabled him to go spirit walking.
Iolaus finally stopped, forcing his mind to go blank. He had to ask the question. His mind recoiled from it, because it would mean the unthinkable, but he had to know. He could hear Hercules still talking to him, trying to get him to calm down, and suddenly there was an enraged fire from somewhere deep inside him that Iolaus thought he had snuffed out a long time ago. He whirled on Hercules, fists clenched, and forced himself to focus just enough to make sure he was at least speaking the correct language. “How long?” he managed to get out, the Greek sounding strange in his ears.
To add to his already mounting infuriation, Hercules tried to act innocent. “I don’t-” the demigod began, but Iolaus cut him off. “Don’t do that! It’s insulting, to both of us! How long did you know about this, Hercules?”
When he received no response, he took an involuntary step toward him. Hercules pushed his seat back in alarm, and Iolaus tried once again to maintain the very feeble grip he still had on his control.
“Iolaus, if you’ll just-” Hercules started again, trying to placate him, but Iolaus had had enough of Hercules’ stalling. It’s just like before, he hasn’t changed at all…
“Answer me!” he bellowed at him, his fists clenched, and Hercules swallowed nervously. Iolaus refused to take his eyes off him, and Hercules was finally forced to admit he was backed into a corner.
The demigod took a deep breath, and Iolaus knew, just by the look in Hercules’ eyes, that he was not going to like what he was about to hear.
“About a year after you left,” Hercules said softly, and Iolaus felt the entire world break apart and crash down around him in tiny bits and pieces.
He suddenly felt like he no longer knew how to speak, or walk, or do anything useful. The words were echoing in his head, and he grabbed it with both his hands, trying to block it out. I did not hear that, it’s not happening. There was a rushing sound in his ears and he thought for an insane moment that he’d gone blind, but he realized it was only because he was squeezing his eyes shut. He blinked them open and vaguely saw Hercules’ mouth moving. It looked like he was asking if Iolaus was okay.
Am I okay? Iolaus thought, scornfully. Am I OKAY? “How could you?” he whispered when he finally remembered how to speak again. Hercules was looking at him strangely, so he raised his voice, “How could you do this to me?”
Hercules’ expression was that of immense pain. He shook his head, standing up. “Iolaus, I-”
“How could you do this to me?” It was like a knife in his gut that just wouldn’t stop twisting. Hercules tried to grab his arm, but he dodged him, walking around to the opposite side of the table.
“Iolaus, please! I can explain. I can. It’s-”
“You haven’t changed at all!” Iolaus shouted, making Hercules stop in his tracks. “This is… this… I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you would do this to me.” To his utter astonishment, Hercules looked like he was getting angry.
“I couldn’t do this to you? You’ve been gone for twenty years, Iolaus! I never thought you could do that to me!”
Iolaus gaped at him. “Don’t you dare try and make this about you!”
“I’m not making it about me! But you need to let me explain!”
“Explain what? Explain to me that my best friend has kept such a huge thing from me for… for…” Iolaus felt dizzy, and he shook his head as if trying to push the offending thought away.
“Iolaus, I tried! I tried to find you, I did-”
“Please!” Iolaus scoffed. “You obviously didn’t try hard enough!”
Hercules blinked, the words hitting him like a slap in the face. He wanted to tell him about how he had gone to Chin, that they wouldn’t let him see him, but a sudden righteous anger made the words stick in his throat. He pointed at Iolaus accusingly. “You’ve been gone for two decades, Iolaus! What the hell was I supposed to do?”
“Oh, so this is my fault now?” Iolaus snorted in disbelief. “Of course it is. This is so typical of you, Hercules, it’s so typical.”
“Niobe made me give my word.”
That only seemed to make things worse. Iolaus stared at him, dumbfounded. “Niobe made you? Niobe?! So, your word to her is more important than me?”
“No!” Hercules shouted, grabbing his hair in frustration. “Gods, Iolaus, do you know how hard it was for me to convince her to even let Meg know who you were? She was trying to pass her of as Orestes’!”
“That’s…” Iolaus trailed off, the roaring in his ears dying down long enough to focus on what Hercules was saying. “Well! That just…That… makes some sense.” Dammit. Most of his anger seemingly spent, he sunk back into one of the kitchen chairs and let his head thud on the table. That would make sense. No one was supposed to have known he switched places with his cousin. My cousin… He glanced up at Hercules, eyes narrowed. “Wait… Are you sure she’s not-?”
“They never… well…” Hercules gestured vaguely. “Niobe and Orestes they didn’t do… that.”
“Oh,” was all about Iolaus could get out. Then he shook his head, trying to make sense of it all, and got up and started pacing again. “She told you that? But- but- but… Niobe and I, we only had the one… night…” He sighed deeply and tried to ignore the smug look Hercules was giving him.
“Well, that must be one of the perks of not being a half god,” Hercules said, dryly.
“That’s not funny.”
“No, it’s not. Look… I found out by accident. I had to convince her to tell Meg the truth, to even let me see her. You weren’t here, it wasn’t right. Meg deserved to know the truth.”
“But I didn’t?” Iolaus spat.
“It’s… complicated.” Hercules shook his head and took a tentative step toward Iolaus. To Hercules’ relief, he didn’t try to get away from him this time. “I did try to find you. But… you told me not to…”
Iolaus fixed him with a glare that would have made Ares shiver. “I meant I didn’t want you to come and try and bring me home. This is different.”
“I know that!”
“There is nothing you can say to me that is going to make this okay!”
“Iolaus you were gone for two decades! I made the best of a really bad situation. You were the one that wasn’t here!”
“I wasn’t ready to come home, Hercules!” He shifted away from the demigod again. “And now… I really wish I hadn’t.” He could tell the words stung, but he didn’t care. “You know what… you have changed. Because my Hercules… he would never do this to me. Not for a second.”
“I said it’s complicated,” Hercules growled. “And I never wanted to keep Meg from you. That was the point. But Niobe-"
Iolaus threw him a look of utter disgust. “Oh, Niobe… Please, Hercules. Since when have you let anyone, gods or royalty, tell you what you needed to do?”
“It was either that, or she didn’t get to know you at all. Or me, or Arcas. Niobe asked you to live a lie once – to pretend to be Orestes, forever, didn’t she?” Iolaus didn’t answer. “That’s what she was trying to do with Meg. I couldn’t let that happen!”
“You should have just left it alone,” Iolaus said, sadly.
Hercules frowned at him, looking disturbed. “You don’t mean that,” he said, softly.
“Don’t I?” Iolaus looked around the room, like a trapped animal. “I shouldn’t have come back. This was a mistake.”
“Don’t say that Iolaus. I handled it badly, okay?” He ignored Iolaus’ sarcastic laugh. “But… you say you weren’t ready to come home, and I didn’t want to… to take you away from whatever it was you were doing.”
“Don’t even,” Iolaus warned, but he was tired of fighting, and from the look on Hercules’ face, he was, too.
“I really can explain everything. I know you’re not going to like it, but-” Hercules and Iolaus both jumped and whirled as the door flew open and Arcas came barreling in, almost tripping over door frame in his rush.
“Okay, what’s going on?” he demanded, looking back and forth between the two men.
Iolaus barely spared him a second glance. He no longer felt angry. He just felt… empty. “Were you that angry with me, Hercules? Did you hate me so much that you would keep something like this from me?”
“Ah,” Arcas said, quietly. “I see you told him.” Hercules gave him a poignant look and ignored him.
“I could never hate you, Iolaus,” the demigod said quietly. “And I didn’t want to keep it from you. I kept waiting for you to come home, but… you never did.”
“So… that’s it? ‘You weren’t here, Iolaus’? That’s really your excuse?” Iolaus couldn’t even comprehend what he was hearing. “You never came home, here’s your kid?”
“I told you, I tried to find you,” Hercules said again, teeth clenched. “Will you just listen to me?”
“I can’t even look at you,” Iolaus spat out, the very words choking him. “I… I need to go. I shouldn’t have come here.”
Arcas looked back and forth between his father and Iolaus. He felt like he ought to do something, say something. “Iolaus,” he started, but the blond held his hand up.
“Don’t! I really don’t need it from you right now,” he snapped.
“Look, you couldn’t have come back to Attica anyway, because Orestes was supposed to be dead. If you came back, it would have messed a lot of stuff up,” Arcas said in a rush. “I was there, and I remember that Dad had to fight her tooth and nail to even get her to admit you were Meg’s father. She kept using that stupid peace plan as an excuse.”
Iolaus really didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to hear any explanations, any excuses, and he really didn’t want to hear any more about how Niobe had somehow gotten his best friend to agree to keep such a huge thing from him. He ran his hands over his face and then through his hair, turning in a slow circle in the middle of the room.
This was just too much to process. He felt sick, tired, weak, and most of all, betrayed. He knew he had been away too long, he knew he should have come back ages ago, and he knew that things were going to be different. But this…
“I have to go,” he mumbled.
Hercules stepped forward and grabbed his arm like he was a drowning man. “No, you can’t leave-”
Iolaus roughly yanked his arm out of Hercules’ grip, growling in irritation. “I’m not leaving, dammit! I’m going to go sleep in the barn. I just… I can’t be around you right now.”
“I need a minute! Okay? Just… let me have some space.” He backed up out of the room and walked out the door Arcas had left open in his mad rush to get in the house.
Hercules sank back into his chair, his head in his hands. That could have gone better. He felt Arcas’ eyes on him, and looked up to see his son giving him a sideways look. “What?” he growled, not in the mood.
“Why didn’t you tell him about Chin?” Arcas asked, baffled. “He thinks you lied!”
“I don’t know,” Hercules admitted, and it was true. He didn’t know why he had held on to that piece of information. “I don’t know, okay?”
“Well you need to figure it out!” Arcas pointed out to the barn. “Dad, this is not helping whatever issues you two have got.”
“He doesn’t want to talk to me right now.”
“Yeah, no shit!” He sat down across the table, making Hercules look at him. “You knew this was going to be bad.”
“I didn’t think it was going to be this bad,” Hercules said.
“Really?” Arcas asked, perplexed. “I did. I’m actually surprised it wasn’t worse. At least he’s in the barn. That’s a good sign, right?” Hercules muttered something incoherently that Arcas didn’t catch. “Uh… look, I don’t know the man, so I don’t know if it’s a good sign or not. But… he didn’t leave. And he didn’t kill you,” Arcas, added helpfully.
Hercules sighed, resting his elbow on the table and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Just… let him stew in there and calm down. I’ll go try and talk to him again later.”
“You’d better. I know... I know how you feel about him, what the two of you mean to one another.”
“Hmmm, then maybe you shouldn’t be threatening to kill him if he upsets me,” Hercules muttered darkly.
Arcas shrugged indifferently. “That was nothing. He knew what I meant. Well, he did,” he insisted at Hercules’ dubious expression. “And whether you two like it or not, we’re going to the Academy tomorrow morning, and I really don’t want to have to pry your fingers off each other’s throats the whole time. You can’t let him think you did this to him on purpose.”
The fact that he would even think that is unbelievable, Hercules thought, but kept it to himself. He had changed, and so had Iolaus. They had both experienced different lives, different things. “I’ll go talk to him in a little bit. He needs to…” Hercules waved his hand. “I dunno what he needs to do, but it’s just not a good idea right now.”
“Fine. But, he needs to know everything. And I mean everything. You need to tell him how you feel.”
Hercules stared out at nothing, exhausted. He felt terrible, like he’d ripped his own heart out. The look on Iolaus’ face when he’d told him… it would haunt him forever. He’d been waiting for years for Iolaus to come home, and now he was here and they were right back where they started twenty years ago. The thought made him feel hollow and cold.
Arcas was still staring at him, looking concerned. “Arcas, I’ll deal with it,” he said, firmly, as his son opened his mouth to argue. “I will. Just… you need to back off and let us handle it.”
The younger man looked like he really wanted to press the issue, but he finally nodded solemnly. “All right. But enough screwing around. Tell him what happened. He needs to know what they told you in Chin.”
Then – Hercules
“Please, I don’t want you to go.”
Arcas was hanging onto Hercules’ pant leg as the demigod traipsed across the yard and into the stables. “Arcas, come on. We went over this. It’s important. Now, let me go so I can saddle Arturos.”
Hercules had waited a week, at Jason’s insistence, but he couldn’t sit around any longer. He had sent a message to Iphicles, asking if there were any transports heading out of Corinth to the East. He really didn’t want to have to go the long way, as Iolaus had, through Thrace and Persia. It was just a little too close to Sumeria for his liking. There wasn’t going to be one for some time, so he had opted for a ship from Athens to Cairo, and then from there he could catch another ship that would take him closer to the Eastern lands.
“But why? What’s so important?” Arcas demanded as Hercules laid the riding blankets across the horse’s back. “Why do you have to go so far away?”
He hadn’t told Arcas he was going to the East to find Iolaus. The boy would never be able to keep that a secret. He had just told him someone needed his help and he had to take a ship to get there. “Because, Arcas… it’s part of my job. You’re going to stay with Jason, and he’ll take you to the Academy. Unless you want to stay with Nemesis and Evander?” He hadn’t felt right about asking Nemesis to watch Arcas for such a long period of time. It was going to take over a month to get to Chin at least, and he had no idea how long it was going to take him to find Iolaus once he got there. He had thought the decision to leave and find his friend was going to be easy, but he had struggled for a time with leaving Arcas for so long.
“No, I don’t want them, and I don’t want Jason. I want you!” Arcas wailed, throwing himself on his father’s leg again.
Hercules tried to push his guilt for leaving him aside and knelt down so he could look at him. “Arcas, everything is going to be okay. I’ve left before, and I’ve always come back, right?” Arcas nodded. “Then what’s the matter?”
“I just don’t want you to go. You said you weren’t going to leave so much anymore.”
“I know. I know I said that but… this is different. It’s something I have to do. I wouldn’t leave you if it wasn’t very important.” Arcas was staring at him, and Hercules narrowed his eyes. “Arcas. What are you doing?”
His son quickly averted his gaze. “Nothing.”
“You’re not going to get anything from me,” Hercules admonished him. “So stop trying.” He grabbed a saddle and bridle and lead the horse out into the yard where there was more sun. He gave the bridle to Arcas to hold onto while he adjusted the cinch on the saddle. “I need you to promise to be on your best behavior for Jason,” he said, checking to make sure everything was in place. “And Tabor, too, if Jason needs you to stay with him for any reason. Okay?”
Arcas didn’t answer and just handed the bridle back to him. Hercules glanced down to see him staring sullenly into the ground. “Arcas… it would mean a lot if you could do this for me.”
“When are you coming home?” the boy mumbled, wiping his nose on his arm.
“As soon as I can. I promise.” Hercules picked Arcas up and pressed him into him, hugging him tightly. Arcas wound his hands in Hercules’ hair, unwilling to let go.
“Don’t go, Dad.” His voice was muffled against Hercules’ shoulder.
“I have to. I’ll be back soon. Come on, here’s Jason.” He put Arcas down as the former king walked over, carrying Hercules’ sack and another smaller pack.
“Some rations, because who knows the next time you’ll have a decent meal,” Jason explained, tying them to Arturos.
“Thanks, Jason.” He cleared his throat gruffly, putting a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Take care of him, okay?”
Jason nodded, putting an arm around Arcas and drawing him close. “We’ll be fine. Won’t we?” Arcas blinked up at Hercules, his eyes shining. Hercules bent down to give him one last hug, and then clasped arms with Jason before swinging up onto the horse.
“Be safe,” Jason said to him, and Hercules nodded, glancing once more down at Arcas, who was biting his lip and staring straight ahead.
“I’ll be back soon,” he said again, before giving the horse a little kick and riding away from the house. He didn’t look back as he went, not wanting to see the expression on Arcas’ face. He was making it a lot harder than he needed to, he knew that. Just go to the East. Go find Iolaus, and then you can come home.
If he thought the ride from Athens to Cairo was long and tiresome, it was nothing compared to the grueling weeks he spent on the Egyptian trade ship to India he’d managed to hitch a ride on. Hercules had been on longer journeys… the trip from Sumeria to Eire alone had cost him months at sea, but at that particular moment in his life he hadn’t really cared too much about how much time he spent on the water. He was more concerned with finding a way to forget about his pain, or die trying.
The Egyptians were friendly enough. He mentioned he knew Princess Anakit, which was one of the only reasons he’d managed to get the captain to let him on board. He didn’t speak Egyptian and most of the merchants only knew enough Greek to get them decent trade prices, so it made for an interesting, yet lonely, trip.
Hercules spent most of his time trying to figure out what he was going to say to Iolaus. Jason was right; his friend was probably going to see him and automatically assume he was there for the wrong reasons. He was going to have to come up with a way to get Iolaus alone, somewhere he couldn’t run off, and make him hear him out. He also told himself he was not going to make Iolaus return with him if he wasn’t ready. Whether or not that actually happened… No, he thought to himself, forcefully. This is his decision. You can’t get involved… again.
He helped out around the ship, the sailors grateful for his experience. He got the occasional ask to spar or to his horror, arm wrestle, but he declined by feigning exhaustion, and other times just flatly refusing out of annoyance. Once they had seen him move one of the large pallets of wine barrels by himself, they wisely backed off.
Upon arriving in India, Hercules had sent a message back to Corinth to let Jason know he had made it, and opted for the land caravan route to Chin. He vaguely recalled Iolaus saying something about wanting to journey to India, like Xena and Gabrielle had. He wondered sadly if he even knew they were dead.
He tried to take in all the sights and smells of the exotic country as they bumpily made their way along the trade road. It was colorful and very loud, like many of the Greek markets, but it seemed to just be a way of life for the people here. In all of his travels, he had not once gotten this far East. He wished he had come under different circumstances so he could have the opportunity to look around and take it all in. Most of all, he wished he could explore it with Iolaus.
It took over two weeks until the caravan finally arrived in Chin territory. After that, he was on his own, and it finally occurred to him that he really hadn’t thought up a plan of action. He had brought Iolaus’ scroll, which had been written on a different type of parchment than what they had in Greece. The ones there were either leather or papyrus, but this was thinner and lighter. He had tried to show it around to get some idea of the area that it had come from, but no one could understand what he was saying. He wasn’t surprised, but it wasn’t going to make things any easier. Oddly, some of the people he encountered in his wanderings spoke some Latin. Hercules didn’t think that the previous Caesar had gotten this far, but he could be wrong. He had usually left Xena to deal with him, while they had been alive.
His Latin was extremely rusty, but he knew enough to try and convey that he was trying to find where the scroll had come from and that he was looking for a friend. To his dismay, it seemed that the parchment was just what they used in Chin, so that was not going to be of any help. Iolaus had told him some about what he had learned and where he had gone when he’d come to the East the first time, but not enough to be of any value. He had been pretty secretive about the whole thing, saying it was just something that wasn’t discussed, as part of the teachings. There were a lot of temples and the lands of Chin were vast. It was going to be like searching for a needle in a haystack. He began heading northeast to what everyone kept referring to as the Wall, if he translated it correctly. Most people avoided him, or they just dismissed him entirely as a barbarian. At first he had found this offensive, but then had gotten a good look at himself in a mirror when he was walking through a market one day and could understand why. He needed a haircut and a shave, and probably a bath. He tried to inconspicuously sniff his tunic. Yep… definitely need a bath.
He tried to remember the name of the master that Iolaus had studied with. It had been so long since they had discussed it, he honestly couldn’t remember. What a perfect time for your memory to start going. He had a hazy recollection of Iolaus telling him the method he’d been studying was something called Chan. That finally started to get him some headway, and he was instructed on how to get to several different temples suited to those who wished to study, with the main temple being in the city of Chang’an under the tutelage of Li Er. The name Li sounded familiar, so he hedged his bets and headed for that one.
It took him three weeks to finally come to the city’s massive stone walls, and Hercules had to keep himself from whistling in surprise and admiration. There were three gates that served as entrances facing him, the pathways lined with some of the tallest and most beautiful trees the demigod had ever seen. It was quite different than cities in Greece, which were easy accessible and only had walls surrounding the palace or town centers. From what he had seen of Chin so far, most of the larger cities were built with this sense of containment. He had also discovered that the cities were in provinces, much like the ones in Greece, but the territories were under the rule of different families as opposed to kings or queens, with the Emperor of Chin ruling over all.
Hercules passed through one of the three gates, making his way along the narrow and busy lanes, trying to absorb the things around him. Well, Iolaus, you wanted to get away… The demigod couldn’t get over the stark differences between Greece, and even Eire and Sumeria, and what he had seen in Chin and his brief stop in India. He could understand why Iolaus would be drawn to this place.
He followed the path down to a bridge over a large river, which connected him with the main marketplace in the center of town. He kept being jostled by travelers and peddlers trying to make their way in and out, and he’d already had at least a dozen chickens and fish shoved into his face by aggressive Chin tradesman before he had even made it a quarter of the way through. He tried to ask for directions to the Chan temple but either no one was paying him any attention or they just didn’t care, they were so caught up with trying to haggle or outbid each other. He could barely hear himself think over all the commotion.
Pushing his way through as politely as possible, he finally caught sight of a stone building in the distance, far up on top of one of the cities rolling hills. It had a sweeping architecture of complex arches interlaced with different sized beams and pillars. Even from this distance he could tell it was enormous, and the way the fog surrounded it made it almost seem like it was floating. Due to its seclusion from the rest of the city, Hercules assumed that had to be the Chan temple, and he wasn’t disappointed – he caught sight of several small figures in plain robes of white and dark red making their way up the long and narrow path. Those have to be monks, or students. Hefting his pack, Hercules set his jaw and followed, having to continually push more pedestrians out of the way as he did so.
The path was steep but not too strenuous, and it wasn’t long before Hercules reached the top and came to rest in front of the temple’s iron gates. He raised his eyebrows, surveying them. They looked like something you would see in a fortress as opposed to a temple. He could hear people inside. I guess I just let myself in. Bracing his hands, he slowly pushed one of the doors open just enough so that he could slip through and then tried to close it quietly behind him. He turned to face a large stone courtyard, which was lined with dozens of trees whose leaves had been cut in strange, oblong patterns. There was a reflective pool in the center and several of the robed monks were sitting by it, engrossed in conversation or reading scrolls, and seemed unperturbed by his presence. The stones and benches were pristine and shone as though they had just been polished, and Hercules felt that his very presence was somehow dirtying the place. He sniffed his vest again and made a face. So much for first impressions.
He tried to discreetly make his way down the courtyard and to the steps that lead into what he assumed was the main hall of the temple. He could feel eyes on him as he walked, but so far no one had gotten up to stop him. It was very quiet, and despite the peaceful appearance, it was making the demigod’s hair stand on end. Usually when things were too quiet it just meant something large and dangerous was about to come flying out of thin air to knock him on his ass.
The main temple doors were smaller and more ornate, with bamboo and floral designs carved into the wood. It was painted the same maroon color as the monk’s robes. Hercules took a wary glance around, and when again no one rose from their positions to stop him, he shrugged and went inside to find himself in a large and brightly painted antechamber. The walls were also the same maroon color, and painted with gold lettering that Hercules didn’t recognized and assumed was the picture language of Chin. The ceiling was tall and vast, with more enormous pillars reaching up to meet it. They looked like they could go on forever.
The antechamber was empty, and Hercules began to get suspicious. Frowning, he crossed the expansive hall, his boots echoing on the stone, until he came to another door. This one lead into yet another courtyard, but it was sparse compared to the first one he had entered, and contained sand pits and what looked like training equipment. So the place isn’t so peace and love after all, Hercules mused. He gave it another quick glance and turned to head back into the antechamber only to find his way suddenly blocked by two men in black robes. He blinked and stepped back, startled. Where did they come from?
They stared at him. He stared back. “Uh… sorry to intrude,” he said in Greek, and then wondered if maybe he should switch to Latin. “I’m looking for a friend of mine.” Neither man responded, nor took their eyes off him. Oookay. “Uh, he’s Greek, like me. Blond, about this tall,” Hercules continued, holding a hand to his shoulder, then realized there probably weren’t a lot of short blond guys in Chin and felt immediately silly. “His name is Iolaus.”
The two Chin men glanced at each other out of the corner of their eyes. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. “I just need to talk to him,” Hercules began, but barely got the last word out before he was swiftly grabbed and thrown bodily back through the doors and into the antechamber. He flew about thirty feet before landing roughly on the stone floor, the wind knocked out of him. “What the..?” He blinked and shook his head, trying to clear it. It was almost like getting knocked around by Ares. Okay, small guys, but pack one hell of a punch. He started to get up when he noticed two pairs of feet had somehow materialized next to him. Oh, boy. One of them placed a bare foot on the small of his back and pushed him hard back down onto the floor. Hercules gasped in shock. It was like someone had thrown a ship’s anchor onto his back. To his astonishment, no matter how hard he used his considerable strength, he could not push himself off the floor.
“You are not welcome, Greek,” the one who was not crushing him intoned, his accent making the words clipped and halting. Hercules tried to glance up at him but could only see about up to his knees. “You will leave now.”
“Not… happening…” Hercules managed to grunt out before feeling one of them grab him by his belt with one hand and the back of his tunic with the other. Uh, oh. He was hoisted up and then thrown again, this time into one of the pillars, the force making his teeth clang together. He tasted blood and realized he must have bitten his tongue. His anger rising, he stood up, putting a hand to his mouth as he did so and felt something wet. “That hurt,” he said, dryly as the two monks, if that’s what they were, started circling him. “Look, I’m not here to fight. I just want to talk to my friend.”
There was a sound like rushing wind, and the next thing Hercules knew he was flying backward in the air, through the temple doors, and out into the main courtyard. He rolled as he landed and just managed to barely avoid slamming his head against one of the stone benches. The maroon and white robed monks jumped up in alarm and scattered as the two black clad men came striding out after Hercules.
The demigod blinked, stunned, and tried to clear his head. Bracing himself on the bench that had almost knocked him unconscious, he slowly stood again, eyeing the two men warily. He had seen Iolaus do some pretty incredible things when he’d gotten back from the East – slowing his heart beat so he could stay under water for hours, like Hercules had done in Eire, for starters. But, nothing like this. Hercules’ first assumption was that they were guards, semi-divine like himself, who possessed some kind of powers. Or maybe it’s this place. It gives them these abilities, like Illumination. Whatever the reason, they had been very efficient at tossing him around as if he was nothing more than a rag doll, and seemed very determined to get rid of him. Which was all the more reason for Hercules to stay.
“Your friend is not here,” one of them said in that same clipped Greek. He didn’t know if it was the one who had thrown him into the courtyard or the one who had thrown him into the pillar. Hercules decided it probably didn’t much matter. “Go now.”
“Really? Is that why you suddenly got really interested in throwing me around when I said his name?” Hercules countered. He dusted off his pants and crossed his arms across his chest. “I’m not leaving until I get to talk to him. I’m not here to take him away. I just… really need to talk to him. It’s important.” He hesitated, and then added, “And I would really like it if you could not do… whatever you just did in there with the wind again.”
The two men glanced at each other, and then back at Hercules. After what felt like an eternity of them scrutinizing him, the other man stated, “You will go now.” And without another word, they both turned and started walking away.
Hercules gaped at their dismissal of him. Taking a step forward, he said, “I’m not leaving.” They whipped their heads back around, and Hercules immediately stopped as that same invisible force he felt in the temple started to shove him back. He grunted and tried to push against it, his feet sliding backward on the polished stone, making him bump into the bench behind him.
“We do not wish to hurt the son of Zeus,” one of the men said and Hercules felt the pressure lift. “But you cannot stay here.”
Hercules gathered his footing and narrowed his eyes. “How do you know who I am?”
“A man is well known,” the other man answered, obscurely. “A man fights for peace, yet finds no peace himself.”
Oh, great. What did these guys do, take lessons in speaking from the Druids? “Uh… yeah, okay. I just… want to talk to Iolaus.”
“Your friend is not here,” they said again.
“Look, I’m not an idiot-”
“You are Greek,” the one on the left said indifferently, as if the two things were interchangeable.
Hercules blinked a few times. Ignoring that… “I know he’s here. You wouldn’t be trying to get rid of me otherwise. Now, I don’t know what’s going on here… If he told you to come get rid of me, or if you just like picking people up by their pants and throwing them around, whatever… But, I know Iolaus is here, and I am going to talk to him whether you like it or not.”
They stared at him as if he was something of great interest they had found on the bottom of one of their feet but otherwise made no movement. Hercules decided he’d have better luck talking to a brick wall. He pressed his lips together and raised his hands in a placating manner. “Fine. You want to play this little game? Fine, I’ve got time.” He sat down on the bench, his hands on his thighs, staring at them. “I’m not leaving.”
The two men exchanged glances again, and Hercules was half convinced they were trying to decide what to send him flying into this time, when the one on the right said, “Then you will sit forever.”
Hercules shrugged. “I’m a patient kind of guy.”
The one on the left started muttering something to his companion, too fast and inaudible for Hercules to hear. The man on the right shrugged. “Let him do as he wishes. It does not matter.”
“Master Li says he is to go,” the other man insisted. They both looked at him again.
“He will,” the first man said.
Hercules smiled slowly. “We’ll see.”
They ignored him, the one who had spoken nodding to his companion and then walking back into the temple, the conversation over. After a beat, the other black robed man followed, shutting the temple door and leaving Hercules sitting on the bench in front of the reflective pool. All the other monks had left as well. He was alone.
Well, that was interesting. He was expecting more of a fight, and realized he was still tensed for one and tried to relax. He didn’t care what those two monks or whatever they were said – Iolaus was here, and either he didn’t want to see Hercules, or they didn’t want Hercules seeing Iolaus. After they realized they weren’t getting rid of him, they seemed content to just let him sit there. Hercules found that strange, but wasn’t about to argue.
Judging by this interaction, his trip to Chin was summing up to be just as fun as when he went to the Norselands. He’d almost managed to bring about the Norse version of the Twilight then, and vaguely wondered if Chin had any gods, or at least any he should be worried about. Or, maybe they had heard of his reputation for patricide and getting the deities of other lands killed, and had wisely disappeared just in case. He wouldn’t have blamed them.
Hercules pushed those thoughts away and sighed, crossing his arms and shifting his weight on the stone in an effort to get more comfortable. He had a feeling he was going to be here for a while.
Three days later, Hercules was still sitting. He felt a drop on his head and suppressed a groan. Great. More rain.
True to his word, he had not moved from the spot the monks had left him in. The temple went about its business around him, and seemed content to just pretend he wasn’t there. It seemed like this front courtyard was mainly used as a meeting space, and Hercules would occasionally hear what sounded like sparring from what he assumed was that training courtyard. His stomach made an angry rumble and he grimaced, trying to ignore it. As a demigod, he could last longer without food or sleep, and luckily one of the monks had taken pity on him earlier on and brought him a bucket of water from which he was able to drink. But he was starting to get tired, and hungry.
He felt the sensation of eyes on him and glanced up at one of the large windows on the east side of the courtyard. And they’re staring again. Fantastic. Ever since the end of the first day when it became apparent that he was serious about sitting there for as long as it took, he would have an occasional audience of a middle-aged man, and sometimes a young woman. They would come off and on during the day and watch him for a time, and then leave, apparently having satisfied their curiosity that he was indeed still sitting there. This time it was the man. He was studying him the way a gardener would study a particularly stubborn weed. Hercules tried to ignore him.
The rain started pelting him harder now and he closed his eyes in abject frustration. He shifted positions and his back creaked in protest. He really wished he could just get up and stretch, but he had said he was going to sit there until they let him talk to Iolaus and that was stubbornly what he was going to do.
Hercules suddenly felt a strange tingling on his skin, like something in the atmosphere had shifted. It was the same feeling he usually associated with one of his godly siblings appearing. Tensing, he opened his eyes only to see the entire courtyard had been cleared save for the young woman he had seen sometimes watching him from the window. He glanced around, instantly suspicious, but everyone else seemed to have just vanished into thin air. The demigod tried not to let the startled uneasiness show on his face. Aside from gods, he had never seen this kind of display of power before.
The sky had turned gray and the rain was falling steadily now. The woman didn’t seem to mind it as she crossed the courtyard to stand a few paces away from him. She was dressed in the maroon and white robes of the monks, instead of the black ones the men who had attacked him had worn, and had long, straight black hair that was pulled into a low ponytail behind her head.
“Hercules,” she greeted him, bowing slightly. “I am Jiang Nu.” Her voice was soft and almost childlike, and she spoke Greek fairly well. She cocked her head, and looked down on him with large, brown eyes and he realized she was waiting for him to say something. When he still sat there with his arms folded, one corner of her mouth came up in a small smile. “You can stand, if you would like.”
“I said I was going to sit here until you let me talk to Iolaus,” Hercules said, stiffly.
Jiang inclined her head. “I am afraid that will not be possible.”
“So, you’re not going to try and convince me that he’s not here, like your friends.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Since it was obvious that he wasn’t going to get up, she came to sit next to him on the bench. “They are our guards. They were instructed to make you leave. Usually, they do not have such a hard time.”
Hercules snorted. “Yeah, well… I’m a little different.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Perhaps I can offer you something to eat?”
“Not until I see Iolaus.”
She looked down, and Hercules thought she looked a bit sad. “Very well,” she said, and rose again. She took two steps before curiosity got the better of him.
“Have you seen him? Can you at least tell me that he’s all right?” Jiang stopped, but didn’t turn around. Hercules finally rose, albeit slowly, his muscles stiff from staying in the same position for so long. “Please… just tell me he’s okay.”
She hesitated, and Hercules could tell she was wrestling with the decision. Finally, she turned back to face him. “He is… managing.”
Managing? What is that supposed to mean? “Well, is he doing better?” the demigod demanded, out loud. “Does he know I’m here? Does he not want to see me?”
“Hercules,” Jiang interrupted, putting a hand up, “why do you want to see Iolaus?”
“Does he know I’m here?” Hercules asked again, each word slow and deliberate.
Hercules let out a breath, as if a weight had been lifted off his chest. Okay, so it’s not that he doesn’t want to see me. “Why are you keeping me away from him?” When she didn’t answer, he ran his hands through his hair and growled in frustration. “I’m not here to take him home! I just want to talk to him.”
“He told you not to come.”
“I know that! But… something’s happened. Something important, and I need to talk to him.”
Jiang clasped her hands in front of her and tilted her head at him again. “Whatever you have to say to him, you can say to me.”
Hercules pursed his lips. “I don’t think so.”
She spread her arms and bowed again, once more turning to leave.
Hercules shook his head incredulously and yelled after her, “I don’t even know who you are!”
“I am Jiang Nu,” she said simply.
Holding onto his patience with some effort, Hercules said, “No, I got that. I mean… I don’t know you, or what you can do. Where did all the other people go?” He swept is arm around, indicating the courtyard.
“They are still here. They are on another plane, in order to give us some privacy.”
Hercules didn’t even begin to try and process that. “If you say so,” he said, quietly. This was chalking up to be one of his more unusual trips.
“Iolaus speaks of you often,” Jiang told him, making him stare in surprise. “Master Li does not always approve.”
He thought of the way the two guards had tossed him around, and about the strange power they seemed to possess. “I hadn’t noticed,” he said, deadpan. She smiled, and Hercules was begrudgingly coming to the conclusion that he may be able to trust her. “You and Iolaus… you spend a lot of time together?”
“We learn,” she said ambiguously. Hercules had a feeling that was all he was going to get out of her on the subject.
“I really do need to talk to him.”
Jiang nodded. “Yes, you have said so many times. What is so important that the son of a god has left the people he protects and traveled so far to deliver a message to his friend?”
“It’s… complicated,” he said.
She regarded him for a few moments. “You can tell me what it is you wish to say, or you can continue to sit here until starvation takes you,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“And if I tell you, will you deliver the message to Iolaus?” Hercules asked.
Jiang hesitated. “If Master Li decides it is something Iolaus needs to know, he will allow it.”
Hercules snorted. “What, he controls everyone here? Controls their lives?”
“In a manner of speaking. He is the teacher. We are the students. It is not our place to decide what is right or wrong. We submit to his wisdom.” She clasped her hands in front of her again. “As does Iolaus. He understood this before he arrived. It is why he came.”
“To submit to Master Li’s wisdom?” He tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice and knew he was only partly succeeding.
“To heal,” Jiang corrected, gently, and Hercules felt his rising anger suddenly dissipate again. “And to learn.”
Hercules stood in the courtyard, not sure what to say to that. The rain was making little pattering noises on the stone. He pressed his lips together, trying to decide what to do. “Even if I tell you what I came here to say, you still may not tell him, is that right?” Jiang didn’t answer and just stared at him, blankly. This is ridiculous. He could try and storm into the temple, but aside from the two men who had tried to get rid of him, this was a place of solitude and study, and he really didn’t want to go proving their point about him being a Greek barbarian by crashing through the door, bellowing for his friend.
“I found out he has a daughter,” he said, finally. “He doesn’t know. Her mother… her mother is a queen and its… complicated. I’m not even supposed to be here, I’m not even supposed to be telling him, but… I couldn’t not let him know. And, I didn’t know if it would make a difference, with everything that was going on and everything he was going through. But, I had to… try.”
Jiang took in this information and seemed to be thinking it
over. Hercules stared at her expectantly.
“Well? Will you tell him, please?”
“You think this information will help him in some way?” she asked.
He gave her a bemused look. “I don’t know. I just thought he might like to know.”
“Why?” She seemed genuinely curious, and Hercules blinked at her in bewilderment.
“Because he has a family now, what he’s wanted since…” He waved his hand airily. “It’s just something I know is important to him.”
“Iolaus is...” Jiang began, and then sighed, squaring her shoulders as if about to deliver a piece of information she knew Hercules was not going to like. “Hercules… when we say your friend is not here, we mean the person you knew as your friend is not here. Iolaus is… damaged, in a way that you cannot understand. The fact that he has a child is meaningless.”
To say Hercules was taken aback by that would be an understatement. “That’s not something I would consider to be meaningless.”
“You must understand… Iolaus has no friends. He has no family. He cannot know his child until he knows himself. I know that you feel very strongly about this – the people you love have always been the source of your strength. That you have been touched by such things as having a family, having a...” She tilted her head, as if trying to decipher the demigod’s emotions, like Arcas, “… a brother, in Iolaus, it is what guides you, gives you purpose. But you must accept that this is not the same for him.”
“You don’t know that, you won’t even tell him!” Hercules yelled, exasperated. “You have no idea what drives him, or what’s important to him!”
“It is our way. We leave all things behind. All there is is this place, and Chan. Letting go of you has been a constant source of struggle for him. This would only add to his distraction. And that is why we cannot allow him to know. He has just started to understand, Hercules. Would you deprive him of finding his peace?” Before he could give her the indignant answer he was coming up with, she added, “I know this is not what you wanted to hear. And you have demonstrated great patience and loyalty by staying here. Now I ask you to take everything that you feel for Iolaus inside of you, and go.”
“You’re really not going to tell him?” She’s as bad as Niobe. What is it with everybody? He barked a laugh and looked at her as if she had gone insane. “You really expect me to just go?”
To his surprise, Jiang didn’t argue. Instead, she merely looked around the temple courtyard, the rain sending drops of water rolling down her pale face. “This place is very beautiful, is it not? It holds many questions, and many answers. It also has its secrets.” She fixed him with a look, and Hercules was worried for a moment that she had somehow read his mind earlier about breaking into the temple. “Go or stay, it makes no difference. But, I can assure you that while our conversation was quite pleasant, it may not go the same way for you with the others.”
Hercules let those words hang in the air, contemplating them. “Is that a threat?”
Jiang Nu inclined her head to him once more. “I am very sorry you traveled all this way to face disappointment.” She truly did sound apologetic, but Hercules had no time for it.
“This isn’t fair,” he said through clenched teeth. “Iolaus should know the truth. Why doesn’t anyone seem to get that?”
“Perhaps you should ask yourself if you are doing this for Iolaus… or for yourself. Goodbye, Hercules.” She bowed again, and in the next blink she was gone, the courtyard once again filled with maroon and white clad monks and students. Hercules whirled on the spot with a start. The people around him didn’t even seem to notice he had just appeared out of thin air. Or that they had appeared out of thin air. Hercules was extremely confused on that part. It also looked like the sky had suddenly cleared up. The rain was not falling as hard as before, and Hercules saw just the tiniest bit of sun trying to peak out from behind the clouds. What just happened? he asked himself, troubled. He continued to look around, but Jiang Nu was nowhere in sight. He clenched his fists in fury. He was not going to let them do this. Iolaus had a right to decide for himself what he wanted to do. He stared down at the bench he’d been sitting on and debated using it as a battering ram against the temple doors, or just angrily smashing it into pieces and throwing it in the reflective pool. Judging by the way the monks had suddenly started giving him a wide berth, he figured neither would be the best idea at the moment, although it would certainly make him feel better.
He took a final look up at the east side window. The middle-aged man was back, watching him. Hercules gave him a tight smile before turning and walking toward the iron gate of the temple complex, attempting to affect the air that he had given up. Using all his strength, he roughly threw the doors open as if they weighed no more than a feather and stalked back out onto the path down the hill, already formulating a plan.
Okay, he thought, grimly. That was round one.
Hercules came back that night under the cover of darkness. Jiang’s words about the temple had perked his interest, and while he really did have no intention of storming the temple, he did want to find out what he was up against.
He crept up quietly to the heavy doors and lightly put his hand against the metal. It was warm to the touch, and vibrating slightly. Hercules pulled his hand back and raised his eyebrows. Huh. That’s interesting. There was definitely some kind of power radiating from it, although after what he had seen inside, he wasn’t surprised. He had just hoped he was wrong. It’s never easy, he thought to himself, taking a few steps back and surveying the surrounding wall. It was fairly high, but not unclimbable.
Hercules hesitated. Was this really how he wanted to go about getting to Iolaus? He had already probably made a bad enough impression by sitting in the courtyard like a permanent fixture for the last three days, not to mention getting into a fight with two of the guards. He pressed his lips together in a grim line. Scaling a Chan temple wall in the middle of a strange city was probably not the best solution, but this Master Li was not giving him much of a choice. While he at least respected Jiang Nu for coming out and talking to him instead of throwing him bodily around the place, he didn’t approve of the monks’ methods, or of the fact that they seemed to be content to let Iolaus live in blissful ignorance. That wasn’t the same as peace, at least in Hercules’ mind.
The demigod walked back up to the wall and cautiously placed his palm against it, seeing if it also emitted that same strange humming power. It was cool to the touch and felt like exactly like what it was - stone. Hercules was still wary, remembering what Jiang had said about the temple having its secrets. He’d had enough experiences in Egypt and Sumeria, not to mention Greece, to know that meant the building was protected in some way. Usually that meant traps, but here… he wasn’t so sure.
Well, he thought, anxiously, guess we’ll find out. He took a step back, searching for a good hand-hold. He spotted a niche that he thought would work nicely and leapt up to grab onto it. Impossibly, just as his fingers were about to grasp onto the small recess, his hand passed straight through the stone as if it was made of smoke. Startled, he landed back on the ground and stared at his hand in fascination. That was different, he thought, turning it over a few times, examining it. His hand looked unchanged, and so did the stone wall. Hercules narrowed his eyes at it and experimentally passed his arm back and forth through the wall a few times. The stone changed into that same odd smoky material, coalescing over his hand with strange fluidity. It started thickening, as if the demigod had stuck his hand in mud, and he quickly retracted his arm. Needless to say, that changed the game considerably.
If it turns to smoke every time I try to touch it, I should be able to just walk right through the wall… He figured that would be too easy, but shrugged and attempted it anyway. Sure enough, his forehead and nose collided with the again solid stone with an audible thunk. Yep, he thought, irritably rubbing his nose.
Scowling darkly, Hercules stepped back and put his hands on his hips, mind working furiously. When I wasn’t thinking about climbing it, it was solid. I think about climbing it, and it turns to smoke. All right… I guess the object of the game is not to… think. That had to be the challenge. He was beginning to see a lot of similarities between Chan and Illumination. Iolaus had used mind clearing techniques before, to get into enough of a meditative state to hold rocks on his back for an hour when he’d been put on trial in Autolycus’ place, for example. This had to be the same principle.
Hercules took a few deep, calming breaths, like he had shown Arcas how to do if he was having one of his bad days. In through his nose, out through his mouth. He tried to clear his mind of all thought, pushing his worries about his son and his need to get to Iolaus out of his mind. It wasn’t easy. Just think about nothing. He tried to call up the memory of when Maben had frozen the lake in Eire, how he had calmed his mind, envisioned himself on the land, and had slowed his heartbeat. There is no wall, he told himself. There is no anything. He kept repeating that mantra to himself over and over, still as a statue, until he could no longer sense anything around him. The noise of insects in the forest behind him became dull and muted. The feel of the dirt beneath his boots, even the smell of the air around him, slowly started fading away, as if it didn’t exist. How many minutes had passed? How many hours? He didn’t know.
On instinct, he took a step forward and put his hand out, brushing the fingertips lightly against the surface. As soon as his mind registered something was there, the stone turned to smoke again. Dammit, Hercules thought in exasperation. There is no wall. If there’s no wall, you can’t climb it. Made sense. Think Herc. If there’s no wall, then you should be able to walk through it. He realized with a start that when he felt the stone change that’s exactly what he should have done. No, because if I realized I could walk through it, it would turn to stone again. He was becoming increasingly frustrated. Iolaus has been here for a year. He could have probably snuck in and back out by now. Unfortunately, Hercules didn’t have a year to sit down and figure it out. He didn’t even have months, or days. I really do not have time for this.
Unwilling to give up quite yet, he sat down on the ground and studied the wall and the iron gate, thinking about how Jiang had somehow made all those people in the courtyard disappear. They’re on another plane, she had said. That concept was even more distant to him than trying to climb the stupid wall. Somehow they had moved, but they were still there at the same time. Hercules shook his head. It was impossible, but yet, it wasn’t; he had seen Jiang disappear and the rest of the monks reappear in an instant, as if nothing had ever happened. Maybe the same idea could be applied here. Those people had to have gone somewhere. It was the same concept as there being no wall. He just had to concentrate hard enough on being inside the temple… And what, I’ll just magically move? The idea was ludicrous.
What was it he had told Iolaus before they had gone to Sumeria? Keep an open mind, broaden your horizons. He grimaced at the memory, but decided, for the moment, to take his own advice. Settling back into the rhythmic breathing pattern, he started trying to picture the courtyard in his mind. He had picked up Illumination very quickly in Eire; he just had to keep reminding himself that the concepts were not all that different. He could almost hear Iolaus playfully grumbling about demigods and how unfair it was that Hercules was “good at everything”, and his lip twitched in a smile. He pushed the distracting thought away, concentrating on his goal.
He sat up straighter and put his hands in front of his chest, the thumb and forefinger of both hands forming a circle in front of his heart as he had seen Iolaus do on numerous occasions, and focused on his breathing. There is no wall. There is no anything. No temple, no earth… just me. All there is is me… and Iolaus. Hercules concentrated harder on the image of his friend. Let me see Iolaus. A memory flashed through his mind of the first time he had seen Iolaus since they had been very young. It was in Corinth… Iolaus was trying to steal that urn, and they had gotten into a fight. It was how Iolaus had wound up at the Academy. Yes. Iolaus. Let me see my friend. Another memory… this one even younger. Hercules was five and Iolaus was seven, and the older boy was climbing one of the large trees by Hercules’ house. The demigod was afraid. They weren’t supposed to be doing that. He wanted to run and tell his mother but Iolaus had warned him not to. The older boy grabbed a branch and it snapped, making Iolaus lose his footing. Hercules yelled as Iolaus fell.
Hercules’ brow furrowed. He didn’t know if his own mind was churning up these memories, or if it was the temple, trying to distract him. Let me in, he commanded it. Let me see him. He felt another flash of memory coming on and he concentrated on it, changing it to remembering when he had come to see Iolaus for his wedding to Anya. He had hefted the smaller man into the air, Iolaus laughing and thrashing wildly. He changed that to the memory of seeing Iolaus, alive and well, after he had defeated the She-Demon, surrounded by all the others who had been turned to stone coming back to join their families.
Let me in.
Hercules brought up all the happy memories of being with Iolaus – of seeing him after long absences, celebrating the birth of Hercules’ first son at the local tavern, getting him back from the Underworld after defeating the Enforcer, the food fight with him and Nemesis, a purple Iolaus trying to remind Hercules of who he was…
Let me in.
Iolaus and Autolycus chained together with huge teeth and enormous feet… Telling Iolaus he was his family and that was why he couldn’t stay on Olympus…
Let me in!
Pulling Iolaus out of the reflective pool and realizing that it was him, really him, hugging him, lifting him into the air because he was back, he was back…
Let me in!
Hercules felt the ground reverberate beneath him, and it suddenly felt cold and hard. He slowly put his hands back down but kept his eyes closed, unwilling to believe it had actually worked. It was only when he put his fingers lightly against the ground, expecting to feel gravel and felt the smooth stone instead, that he slowly blinked his eyes open.
The main courtyard came into focus in front of him. “I don’t believe it,” he breathed out loud, a wide grin spreading across his face. The demigod pushed himself up to standing, his boots making a scraping sound against the stone, yet another sign that he wasn’t hallucinating, that he’d actually done it, he’d somehow moved…
But his jubilation quickly died down as the courtyard seemed to flicker in and out, shapes of the surrounding forest taking its place. Hercules looked around, wide-eyed, and put his hands up as if he could physically stop what was happening. “No,” he whispered, “no, no, no!”
He heard that familiar sound of rushing wind and braced himself as what felt like the force of an entire army slammed into him, throwing him backward and into the air. Hercules felt his body being flipped and jerked around like a puppet, the force of the wind actually throwing him through the temple wall which had magically turned back into smoke the instant he was about to hit it. He managed to catch a glimpse of it reforming into solid stone as he continued to sail backward, desperately trying to grab onto something as he realized the current of air was sending him well beyond the path and toward the cliff behind him. Not good, not good!
He hit the ground hard, sending dust and gravel up in a cloud around him, the wind still pushing him back to the cliff’s edge. He grabbed at the ground but his hands came away empty, and it wasn’t until he was perilously close to the precipice that the power finally died down, but he kept sliding from the strength of it. He felt his feet go over, then his legs. Hercules grit his teeth and dug his fingers into the ground as hard as he could, managing the snag the edge just in time.
“Son of a bitch!” he yelled, angrily. He glanced down, and then wished he hadn’t. All he could see below him were misty clouds, the night lights of Chang’an city barely visible beneath them. Stupid! He tried to push the image of how far he would have to fall, and what an utterly broken mass of flesh and bones his body would be if he lost his grip, out of his mind. Come on, come on, old man. Pull yourself up! He grit his teeth and pulled against the rock face as hard as he could, grimacing as he felt something in his right shoulder pop. Come ON!
Inch by excruciating inch, Hercules finally managed to pull his chest and torso back onto the ground, taking most of the weight off his arms and wrists, and then dragged himself across the dirt until he was a safe enough distance away. He rolled onto his shoulder and felt the joint slide back into place, grunting against the sharp pain that rolled down his arm, and then collapsed onto his back, breathing heavily.
When the pain in his arm had died down to a dull ache, he scowled up at the stars and turned over, using his left arm to push himself back up so that he was facing the temple once more. Hercules shrugged his injured shoulder experimentally, but it was already feeling almost normal again. He sighed, annoyed at it. He had already dislocated it several times in the past, which was probably why it had slipped out of place again so easily. Either that, or his body had just taken far too many beatings in his lifetime and was starting to protest. The demigod figured it was probably a combination of both.
Hercules glared across the path at the temple, which looked just a little too still for having just about thrown him over a cliff to his death. It didn’t even look like anyone in the temple had woken up, and why would they? Who needs guards when the very building could defend itself? He clenched and unclenched his fists, resisting the urge to put his arm through the wall. He knew it would be fruitless, and the temple would just fight back and possibly really kill him this time. He had a suspicious feeling that if it had truly wanted to throw him off a cliff, he’d be dead right now. That had been a warning.
Hercules squeezed his eyes shut in bitter disappointment and aggravation. I was so close, so close! He knew he hadn’t hallucinated – he’d actually somehow transitioned to inside the temple. With a snarl, he kicked a large rock as hard as he could and sent it hurtling into the nearby trees. “All right!” he yelled at the temple, not even caring how insane he sounded. “I get it! You don’t want me forcing my way in.” He brushed the dust and gravel off his pants before shooting it another dirty look. “I’m leaving! We’ll just… do this the hard way,” he said in grim determination and stalked back down the path that led into the city, careful to keep away from the cliff edge. He knew better than to attempt another try.
That was round two.
Hercules waited until he and Arcas had cleaned up the remnants of dinner before reluctantly traipsing out to the barn. He hadn’t been kidding when he told Iolaus seeing him show up tonight was not what he was expecting, and he hadn’t planned on having to tell Iolaus about Meg so quickly either. And he definitely hadn’t wanted it to happen the way that it had. Nothing about this night was turning out the way he anticipated at all, and Arcas had practically had to shove the demigod out the door and across the porch before Hercules had batted his hand away.
“I’m going,” he grumbled. “Finish drying the dishes… And don’t come out there, do you hear me?” When Arcas failed to reply, he pointed a finger at him menacingly. “I’m serious, Arcas. Let us handle it.”
Everything was all wrong, and once he’d had the opportunity to cool down after Iolaus had stormed off, he realized what a complete jack ass he’d made out of himself. After the initial shock at seeing Iolaus again had worn off, something cold had settled into the pit of his stomach. Halfway through their conversation, he recognized that it was anger – bitter and resentful. He knew he had let it creep into his voice, and that it had prevented him from coming clean to Iolaus about Chin earlier in the evening. There were so many other emotions fighting for control inside him: happiness, joy, confusion… but anger was the strongest. Why now? Why has he come home now? And why had he been gone for so long? The questions burned in his brain. It hadn’t been his intention to pepper Iolaus with thousands of questions when he’d finally come home, but questions, it turned out, were all that he had.
He was overjoyed at Iolaus’ return, so much so that he thought he would burst, but there were just too many things that needed answering for. And Hercules knew that Iolaus would now have just as many questions as the demigod. Getting into a fight within hours of his best friend finally returning, however, was not going to solve anything.
There’s a lot of hurt between us, Hercules thought. He left with so much left unsaid. We both left so many things unsaid. And unexplained. He wasn’t going to try and pretend he understood what caused Iolaus to leave in the first place. Trying to compare the short amount of time he was under Sin’s influence to the horror that was being possessed by Dahak would be like trying to compare a needle to a spear. All he knew was that there was a stark contrast between the Iolaus who left, and the one that had shown up on his doorstep tonight. Hell… there was a stark contrast between the man he’d known his whole life and this Iolaus. And Hercules knew he had changed as well. He was living the life of a farmer and a father now more than a legendary hero. Through the years, as people started relying on him less and less, it didn’t seem to bother him as much as it suddenly did now that Iolaus was back. He realized, sadly, it was because Iolaus was eventually going to ask what had been going on, what he’d been doing while he was gone and when Arcas wasn’t around, and he was going to have to tell him about Zeus, and Xena and Gabrielle, if he didn’t already know. He doubted Jiang or that pompous ass Li had given Iolaus that message either. He was going to have to tell Iolaus… that Hercules wasn’t a hero anymore.
Hercules stopped just as he was about to get to the barn doors. A new feeling had emerged – shame. Shame for the way he had acted, and shame for lately just sitting back and letting the so called Twilight come and metaphorically wipe him out of existence right along with his father, Hera, and Ares. He hadn’t heard much out of the gods in years, not even Aphrodite, although Meg and Arcas had a few run-ins of their own while studying with Jason. He hadn’t given them that much thought, until now. From the time he had found out about Arcas until the day he and Meg had gone off to the Academy, he felt that his son needed him more. The people of Greece – who had finally begun to fight for themselves and rely on themselves instead of the gods and people like him, or even Perseus – didn’t anymore. He was proud of them. It was what he, and Iolaus, had been encouraging them to do for as long as he could remember. And besides… Meg and Arcas were all too eager to take up the mantle, and he had been all too eager to let them. So, why was he so worried about telling Iolaus all of this?
Hercules shook his head in an effort to clear it. There was no point focusing on those thoughts right now, and he had been stalling long enough. He sighed, squared his shoulders, and tentatively pushed the wooden doors open. “Iolaus?” he called softly. When he received no response, the demigod opened the doors the rest of the way and stepped inside. It was quite dark, and he reached for the lantern that was always kept hanging by the door.
“Uh… Iolaus?” he asked again. It was eerily quiet, and for a moment Hercules began to worry that Iolaus had left again, that he had just said he was going to sleep in the barn to keep Hercules from following him. He used some oil to get the lantern going and held it up, surveying the entryway. It sure didn’t look like anyone was there.
Before he started panicking, Hercules raised an eyebrow and lifted the lantern up toward the rafters. “Are you going to come down and talk to me, or just hang around all night?”
He heard the sound of a throat clearing and whirled to see Iolaus sitting on one of the haystacks. “I’m right here,” Iolaus said, irritably. “Come on… I haven’t hid up there since we were kids.”
“Well… you never know,” Hercules said, trying to slow his heart beat. Iolaus had definitely not been over there before, and he hadn’t heard a sound. It was like he just appeared out of nowhere. “Um… how did you do that?”
“Do what?” Iolaus asked, crossing his arms. Hercules scowled.
“I can see it’s going to be one of those nights.” He placed the lantern back on the hook and folded his arms in return. “So, I’ll go first… I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, I would say so.” The irritated look still hadn’t left Iolaus’ face. “Am I supposed to be apologizing for something now?”
Hercules smiled in spite of himself. “No, I guess not.”
Silence. Iolaus unfolded his arms and began methodically pulling pieces of straw out of the stack and tossing them on the ground. Hercules watched him for a few beats before leaning against the far wall and asking, “Are you ready to talk about this?” When Iolaus still didn’t answer, the demigod just nodded, resignedly. “All right. I’ll leave the lantern here for you.”
Iolaus rolled his eyes. “Wait,” he said as Hercules had started to turn to go back outside. “I…” He made an aggravated noise and ran a hand over his face. “Sorry I… blew up at you like that, and in front of your son. And… that I called you a selfish son of a bitch.”
Hercules blinked. “You didn’t call me that.”
“I didn’t? Oh. Well, sorry for thinking it. And saying it just now.” The bland way Iolaus said it made Hercules think he wasn’t sorry in the least, but he probably deserved it, so he kept quiet. “But,” Iolaus continued, “you deserve it.”
Hercules’ mouth twitched.
Iolaus, misinterpreting, scowled again. “This is not funny.”
“It’s not that,” Hercules explained, leaning against the wall again. “I just… knew you were going to say that.”
Iolaus snorted. “Yeah, well… I knew you were going to come in here after me eventually, too. So…” He shrugged. “Here we are.” He eyed Hercules from across the barn. “Please tell me you understand why I’m so angry with you, and that you didn’t come out here to… I dunno, make excuses, or convince me that you were trying to do the right thing, or some other kind of bull shit.”
“Well, are you ready to listen to me?” Hercules countered. “Because, as I kept trying to tell you, I can explain everything.”
“I don’t want an explanation!”
“Then what do you want, Iolaus? What do you want from me? I said I was sorry!”
Iolaus stopped shredding the hay and looked at him incredulously, hopping off the stack to stand in front of him. “And I guess that makes it all better? Hercules, there’s no apologizing for this!”
Hercules felt his temper flaring, despite his efforts. “And what about you? What about you disappearing for so long and leaving me here? There’s no apologizing for that either!”
“I wasn’t about to!” Iolaus shouted, but then shook his head, waving off what Hercules was about to say. “Stop, stop, stop,” he said, looking pained. “What are we doing here? What are we doing, Hercules? This isn’t us.”
Hercules sighed. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t want to fight with you, Iolaus.”
“Neither do I. That’s the last thing I wanted to do when I got here, believe me.”
“Okay,” Hercules nodded, “then… let’s just both agree that we each have things we’re angry at each other for and… move on.”
“Okay,” Iolaus agreed, but he sounded guarded. He walked back over to the haystack once more and leaned against it, mirroring Hercules. “I wouldn’t want Arcas to come storming in here threatening to kill me in my sleep or something.”
The demigod sighed and rubbed his eyes tiredly. “Yeah… about that…”
“How did he know what was going on earlier?” Iolaus asked.
“-complicated?” Iolaus finished, dryly. “Yeah, I get that. A lot of things are complicated, it seems.”
“Look, Arcas is… Arcas, and that’s whole other conversation. And, he’s not going to kill you in your sleep.”
“I know that, Herc. I was just giving you a hard time.”
“Right.” Hercules pursed his lips. “So… are you ready to listen? No matter what I say, you’re not going to like it. I know that.” Iolaus made a noncommittal noise and gestured vaguely, indicating Hercules should continue. “And, for the record… I truly am sorry it came out the way that it did. It wasn’t my intention. I just… didn’t know how to break it to you.”
Iolaus blinked rapidly. “I’m pretty sure that qualifies for understatement of the year. And, when have you ever been any good at breaking bad news to people?”
Hercules couldn’t argue with that. “Yeah. The whole ‘Don’t go to Alturia because the food is bad’ thing.” At Iolaus’ blank look, Hercules laughed. “Come on, you don’t remember that?”
“Oh, no… I remember. I just… don’t usually try to compare you to your father.” Iolaus shrugged. “And the food was pretty bad. Not getting shoved into a minotaur cocoon with gunk smeared all over your face bad, but still.” He tried to hide his smile but it wasn’t working.
“Yeah, my father was never any good at telling the truth, was he? I guess I… picked up something from him after all.”
“You are nothing like Zeus,” Iolaus said, quickly. “I mean that.”
Hercules wasn’t sure how much Iolaus knew about the whole Zeus thing and he wasn’t about to ask. He wasn’t even sure if he could bring himself to tell Iolaus what had happened. “So… Meg,” the demigod began, clearing his throat uncomfortably.
Iolaus’ lips formed into a thin line. “Yeah…”
“This is going to sound… so stupid, but… the whole thing of me and Jason finding out about it was a complete accident.”
Iolaus’ eyes widened. “Jason?”
“Jason was there? He knew about this?” He barked an incredulous laugh. “Unbelievable!”
“Yes, he was there. It was during the peace negotiations between Corinth and Attica.”
“What? What peace negotiations?” Iolaus demanded. “Corinth went to war with Attica?”
“No!” Hercules growled in frustration. “Just, listen to me. No!” He held up a hand to stop the questions that were about to start tumbling out of Iolaus’ mouth. “No – stop talking.”
Iolaus looked like he really wanted to argue, but he slowly leaned back against the haystack and shrugged at him, obviously trying to be reasonable.
The demigod continued, “You’re going to have a ton of questions, and I understand that, but we’re going to be at this all night if you keep interrupting. Yes… Jason was there. No, we were not at war with Attica. You remember the peace plan you helped negotiate?” At Iolaus’ scowl, Hercules rolled his eyes. “Of course you remember. Anyway, Niobe’s new husband, Amphion… he wanted to expand it, bring in all the neighboring city-states. He’d been pressuring Iphicles for a while, and Iph somehow convinced Jason to go with him to sort it all out. And then Arcas convinced me to take him and go, too. He was a kid and he was bored, and frankly I couldn’t think of anything better to do. So, we went.” He gave a sarcastic laugh, remembering the day. “The whole thing was a complete accident, believe me. If I hadn’t gone… I dunno. Niobe… she, uh… well, like I said, she was trying to pass off Meg as Orestes’.”
“And let me guess?” Iolaus asked, unable to help himself. “You figured it out?”
“Not at first. But… yes,” Hercules admitted. “The timing was right, and she, Hector, and Linus were just acting a little too strangely.”
“Hector and Linus…” Iolaus looked like he was very far away, in another place, or another time. “How are they?”
Hercules wasn’t expecting that question. “Hector and Linus?”
“I assume you still talk to everyone? What with, um… Meg and Arcas being such good friends?” When Hercules nodded, Iolaus asked again, “How are they?”
“Good, I guess? Hector’s retired. Linus heads up the guard now.”
Iolaus nodded his head absently in agreement. “So… what happened to make you keep it from me? Did they threaten you? Arcas?”
Hercules frowned. “No. Nothing like that. Niobe gave me this song and dance about how you couldn’t come back to Attica, that that was why you died as Orestes-”
“You’re not going to want to hear this, but she’s right. I couldn’t go back there. No one was supposed to know what had happened.”
“Yeah, she told me that, too. But, eventually… she saw my side of it.”
Iolaus grunted. “I’ll bet.”
Hercules pursed his lips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The smaller man began bouncing on his toes in nervous energy. “Just that… you have a bad habit of sticking your big, demigod nose where it doesn’t belong sometimes.”
“If I hadn’t done that-”
“If you hadn’t done that, what? No one would be the wiser, and we wouldn’t be here having this conversation.” He gave the demigod a long-suffering look. “Hercules, even if I had stayed… If I had stayed, you never would have gone there, and neither of us would have known the difference. You know Niobe would never have come to find me and tell me the truth. And… maybe she would have been right to do it.”
“That’s the second time tonight you’ve said something like that,” Hercules said, shortly.
“Because it’s the truth. You and I would have both gone about our lives, not knowing, and-”
“And Meg would have been living a lie, like Niobe wanted you to do. Yes, if you had stayed, things would have been different. A lot different.” He swallowed the bitter comment that was about to force its way up. “But, things also have a way of working themselves out. Melinus still would have come to find me, to bring Arcas to me, whether you were here or not. Jason still would have gone to Attica, with Iphicles. Maybe it would have been me and you with Arcas, instead of me and Jason… Maybe Niobe would have changed her mind, come to find you. Who’s to say what would have happened?”
Iolaus shrugged resignedly. “I don’t know. I try not to dwell on ‘what ifs’ anymore. What if I stayed in Greece, what if you hadn’t gone to Attica…” He waved his hand dismissively. “It’s done. And none of this explains how she got you to… do what you did.”
“Well,” Hercules said, flatly, “as you keep reminding me, no one was supposed to know you took Orestes’ place. I think she was looking for an excuse to tell somebody, but… yeah, you couldn’t come back. She made that pretty clear. And if you’re so convinced that she was doing the right thing, even if I had told you…”
“I couldn’t have come back anyway,” Iolaus sighed. “And we’re going around in circles. I guess I’m just having a hard time believing Niobe fessed up to all of this, what with that peace plan and everything.” At Hercules’ silence, he groaned and fixed the demigod with a weary look. “What? What now?”
“Iolaus,” Hercules sighed, “you keep saying you don’t think Niobe would have come to find you, but… if she knew that you were back all those years ago, I think maybe she would have.”
“Back..?” Iolaus prompted, not following.
“She thought you were still dead. I think that’s why it was a lot easier for her to just… pretend and play along. If you were dead, there would have been no point in telling everyone the truth. I had to tell her what had happened.”
Wow. Iolaus could only imagine how that conversation must have gone. “I bet that went over real well,” he muttered.
“She was… shocked, to say the least. I think it may be what caused the sudden change in her tune. She wasn’t expecting to hear you were alive, and I guess it threw her off.”
“Or a certain demigod backed her into a corner.”
Hercules wasn’t a hundred percent sure if that was an accusation of some kind. “Look,” he huffed, “no one forced her to tell anybody. She came to Jason first, actually. Not me.” He tried not to look smug at Iolaus’ look of surprise. “She tried to convince him not to tell me, and obviously that wasn’t going to happen. And this was the only chance I had of spending time with Meg, of making sure she knew about you and not just lies about Orestes.”
Iolaus raised his eyebrows. “So, instead of convincing just Jason, she convinced the both of you not to tell me instead?”
“So,” Hercules said through clenched teeth, “I said I wouldn’t write, and I said as long as you weren’t in Greece I wouldn’t say anything. I said as long as you weren’t in Greece, Iolaus,” he added at the look of supreme dislike Iolaus was giving him. “I didn’t say anything about me not being in Greece. So, the first chance I got, I took a trade ship and went to Chin to try and find you.”
There was a very long silence while Iolaus processed that. Hercules figured he had been prepared to argue, and that this was not what he had expected to hear. Judging by the look on Iolaus’ face, the demigod wasn’t far off. “What?” Iolaus asked blankly, his brow furrowed in confusion.
“I know you told me not to, but I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t… I wasn’t going to keep this from you, no matter what Niobe said.”
“I don’t understand.”
Hercules spread his arms and repeated, slowly, “I… went… to… Chin. A week after I found out, I left Arcas here with Jason, and I came to find you. I took a ship out of Athens to Cairo, and then Cairo to India… It was a huge pain in the ass.”
“But… How? I mean… you didn’t even know where…” The blond shook his head in bewilderment. “You went to India?”
“Yes, Iolaus! I can’t believe you would think I’d keep something like this from you. How could you think that? Of course I came to find you!”
Iolaus, to his credit, at least had the decency to look guilty. All of the things he had been planning to say to Hercules suddenly vanished, replaced by a feeling of deep regret. He felt instantly foolish, both at the way he had lost his center, and at the fact that his first assumption was that Hercules had lied to him.
“I’m… I was just… very overwhelmed,” he stuttered by way of explanation. “It was a lot to hear, and… a lot to take in, what with being back in Greece, and seeing Arcas, and you – seeing you again.”
“Yeah,” the demigod agreed.
Iolaus grew quiet. “Um… sorry,” he said, solemnly. “Again… Overwhelming.”
Hercules resisted the urge to let the silence drag on and just nodded in understanding. “It’s okay. Your reaction wasn’t great, but… I kind of expected it. Like I said, that wasn’t how I wanted you to find out. Especially not on your first night back.”
The blond cocked an eyebrow at him. “Just for laughs… how would you have wanted me to find out?”
Hercules paused. He actually hadn’t even thought that far ahead. “Good question. I’m sure I would have probably come up with something as equally disastrous, if given the opportunity.”
“So, basically you’re saying… you had nothing?”
Iolaus laughed and shook his head. “Nice.”
“Iolaus, I tried,” Hercules said, sobering. “I really did. I tried to tell you. I tried to find you… It took me weeks of wandering around that gods forsaken place. I had to speak Latin! None of them knew any Greek, at least not until I got to the temple in Chang’an.” At that, Iolaus started. “Yeah, I got to the temple. Nice place.”
Iolaus put a hand up. “Wait. You came to the Chan temple?”
“The temple… in Chang’an?” Iolaus repeated, an odd expression on his face. He realized absently he was beginning to sound like a parrot.
The demigod gave him an annoyed eye roll. “Yes, Iolaus,” he said, forcefully. “I think I would remember correctly, seeing as how I got real acquainted with being thrown around the place. No one would let me see you. They tried to tell me you weren’t there. I sat in the courtyard for three days… three days, Iolaus, before they finally sent that woman Jiang Nu out to talk to me.”
Iolaus swallowed. “I, uh… I had no idea.”
“Oh, I know. Believe me, I know you had no idea, because she wouldn’t let me see you either. And I had told Jiang about Meg, about why I was there, but… she said…” He trailed off, remembering the day in vivid detail, suddenly feeling very sad. “She said you had no friends, and you had no family, and that you couldn’t know your child until you knew yourself. That, once you commit yourself to Chan, you leave-”
“-all things behind,” Iolaus finished, quietly. “I… can’t believe you came to Chin.”
“Well, I did. I wasn’t going to lie. I couldn’t do that, regardless of what you thought. But, it doesn’t matter. They wouldn’t let me see you, and Jiang pulled this weird disappearing act with the monks, and then she disappeared...” He squeezed his eyes shut and waved the memory away, deciding it wasn’t worth trying to explain what he had seen. “Anyway… then I tried to come back that night and break in-”
“What!?” Iolaus exclaimed, loudly. “You tried to break into a Chan temple?”
“Yeah,” the demigod said, scratching his chin distractedly. “Not a good idea.”
Iolaus was staring at him as if he’d never seen him before, jaw dropped. “You’re lucky you’re not dead.”
“It wasn’t for its lack of trying, believe me. It threw me out, right through the wall, and almost right off the damned cliff, too.” He laughed grimly, rubbing his right shoulder. “I had dislocated my shoulder again. I almost forgot.”
“Wait, wait, wait. You got through the wall? After being there for three days?” Iolaus shook his head in amazement. Of course he did. Some things never change. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
As if sensing his irritation, Hercules grimaced. “Uh… well, Chan is actually pretty similar to that stuff I learned in Eire. Illumination?”
“Hmmm,” Iolaus nodded politely and changed the subject. “So, Jiang came to talk to you, the temple tried to kill you, and then you left?”
“Uh… well… not exactly.”
Iolaus thought Hercules looked almost embarrassed. “Ah. Well, what happened then, exactly?”
“I… may have come back the next morning and gotten into a huge fight with all the guards.”
Iolaus’ eyebrows shot up so high they almost disappeared into his hair. “You may have?” he prodded, mostly just to cover up his shock and surprise. He was trying to remember what he had been doing, why he had no idea this was happening, especially if Hercules had gotten into an epic fight with the black robed monks who served and guarded the temple.
“Okay, I did get into a huge fight with all the guards,” the demigod admitted. “They hit me with staffs and tried to force me back out.” Hercules scowled as he saw Iolaus cover his face in an attempt to stifle his laughter. “There were almost fifty of them! What was I supposed to do? They wouldn’t let me in, I couldn’t get through to anybody.”
“They beat you back with sticks?” Iolaus’ shoulders were shaking, and despite Hercules’ best efforts to stay annoyed before he knew it, he was laughing as well.
“They were staffs. Okay… maybe they were short staffs, like batons or something, I don’t know. But they hurt.”
“I can’t believe you tried to break into a Chan temple and then got into a fist fight with fifty guards… just to talk to me.”
“Are you really surprised by that?” Hercules asked.
Iolaus knew the short answer was ‘no’. He couldn’t count the many times Hercules had stormed places and beaten back dozens of people to get to him. He also knew, deep down, that writing to Hercules and telling him not to come was probably not going to work. He vaguely recalled even telling Master Li as much. And he remembered being surprised, and a little hurt, that Hercules had listened. Or at least, Iolaus had thought he had listened.
If he was being perfectly honest with himself, he really had wanted Hercules to stay away, at least at first. The dark, terrible place he was in – both mentally and physically – wasn’t something he would have wanted anyone to see, let alone his best friend. But he couldn’t deny that by the time he had left Chang’an and headed for India, he would have expected the demigod to have shown up at some point. Well, he thought, I guess that sort of explains that. He was more than a little surprised that Jiang had kept him in the dark all this time. The two of them had gotten very close. Li undoubtedly had something to do with it.
It was then that he suddenly remembered what he had been doing during the time Hercules had said he’d been in Chin. He had gotten passed the first trial, and they had finally hauled him out of that pit and stopped forcing lotus down his throat and let him sleep, really sleep, for what felt like the first time in months. And he hadn’t dreamt anything in what felt like even longer. It had been so nice, so peaceful, just black nothingness. They let him sleep for three days, because Jiang wouldn’t let anyone disturb him.
When they had decided he’d rested enough, Li had come to tell him that he had to start over. He couldn’t just pick up from when he had left off, the first time he had come to study, and had packed him off to the rice fields near the Wei River along with the lowest caste of monks. He remembered he’d been so disappointed, so frustrated…
“It seemed like the only reasonable thing to do at the time,” Hercules was saying, forcing Iolaus out of his reverie. “I, uh… wasn’t thinking very clearly back then. And I just couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let me see you, until Li came out.” A disparaging look came across his face, and the two men found themselves sitting in silence once more.
“You, uh, spoke with Li?” Iolaus asked, tentatively, after a bit. Great. Who knows what he told him…
“I think he got the hint I wasn’t leaving and decided he better do something about it.”
Iolaus wasn’t sure what to make of that. Li didn’t just go out and talk to anybody. That’s what he had people like Jiang and Ban for. “That’s… impressive,” was all he managed to say.
“He was something,” Hercules agreed, bitterly. “He seemed to know an awful lot about me. About us.”
Iolaus shifted against the haystack. “He had his opinions. And… he knows an awful lot about a lot of things, not just you and me. I studied under him before.”
“I remember. It’s how I was able to figure out to go to Chang’an in the first place,” Hercules explained. “For all the good it did me.”