Then – Hercules
Hercules stormed back to the temple the next morning with a vengeance, throwing the iron doors open with vicious ferocity, not caring if he disrupted the monks or their solitude. It seemed, however, that the powers that be of the Chan temple were ready for him. Instead of the white and maroon clad monks he was expecting to go scrambling out of his way, he came face to face with a horde of black clad guards, all staring at him stoically, carrying blunt wooden staffs.
The demigod strode into the middle of the courtyard and paused long enough to consider his odds, especially after what he had seen the first two do three days earlier, before thinking, To hell with it.
“Iolaus!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, and they descended upon him. He somehow in all the confusion managed to get in a few good hits, sending three of the guards flying backward against the walls and pillars of the actual temple, and two more into the iron gate. He noted that the temple itself seemed content to just stay out of the fight this time before one of the staffs collided with his forehead, making him blink in surprise.
He grabbed the offending weapon and tried to block another, but wasn’t quick enough and felt the sharp crack of a staff against the bridge of his nose. He felt blood spurt and barely had time to register his annoyance before the end of another staff caught him in the gut, then another against his right bicep, and another to his left knee. He felt his leg buckle and forced himself to stay upright.
“Okay, guys,” he tried hopefully, blocking another swing to his face but getting one in the rib cage in return, “maybe we could just talk about this?”
They all came at him at once, and the demigod became a blur of arms and legs, blocks and kicks, as he tried to fend off the blows. None of them used their fancy wind trick, and none of the blows were aimed at incapacitating or seriously injuring him, but they were forcing him to continually step backward, inching him closer and closer to the gate. They were trying to drive him back out.
“Oh… no… you… don’t…” Hercules grunted. He set his stance and, raising his arms to his face in a block, pushed back against the horde of swinging staffs as hard as he could. To his satisfaction, the group of black clad monks stumbled backward and seemed surprised at his show of strength. He hadn’t really fought back against them when they had tried to throw him out a few days ago, and they obviously knew who he was from the son of Zeus comments, but up until this point hadn’t had any reason to believe the stories. They recovered quickly, however, and began pummeling him with new intensity. Luckily for him, he was the son of a god, because he doubted a mere mortal would still be on his feet fighting at this point. He dodged, he kicked, he hit, he swung, but with every victory they still managed to make him take a step backward. The blood from his nose was getting in his mouth and he spat it out angrily. This was getting really old, really fast.
“All right, that’s it!” he shouted, crouching down low and then shooting up to standing, flinging his arms back and he did so and sending at least a dozen of the guards flying through the air. The rest ignored their fallen comrades, all standing with their staffs raised in a defensive posture, regarding him intently.
Hercules wiped the blood off his face, wincing as one of his fingers brushed his bottom lip. He touched it experimentally and felt that it had been split open at some point during the fight. He glared at the remaining guards, dropping his hand back to his side. “Well?” he demanded. “Is that it?” He spat more blood out of his mouth onto the pristine and polished stone in front of him. “Is that all you’ve got? Because I could do this all day.”
He’d made smarter decisions in his life and he realized egging on this particular group was not exactly wise, but he also didn’t care. He was tired, he was sore, he was frustrated, but most of all he was miserable – miserable and angry. He’d been away from Arcas for almost three months and he was no closer to getting to Iolaus than he was when he left. He missed his son, he missed his home, and he longed for a good old fashioned hydra fight as opposed to whatever was going on here. He didn’t understand this country and its strange mysticism, and he had never felt so out of place. Part of him just wanted to go home and go back to farming, while the other part of him was screaming in protest, wanting to tear and bite and scream and do whatever he needed to get to his friend. He didn’t want to wait around long enough to see what part of him would win out.
The monks were still staring at him curiously, obviously trying to decide if his threat was serious, as if they could sense his inner turmoil. And for all he knew, they could.
One of them finally took half a step forward away from the group. Hercules eyed him warily as the monk, lifting an eyebrow at him, raised his staff up over his head with both hands. Impossibly, one of the ends started emitting a soft golden glow, and Hercules felt that same odd change in the air that he’d sensed before Jiang Nu had appeared. Uh, oh.
Lightning fast, the monk twirled the staff back down to slam the glowing end into the stone in front of him. The odd light traveled down the end of the staff and started making its way through the cracks in the courtyard floor, straight toward the demigod, who quickly jumped and rolled to the side just as it was about to connect with this feet. With wide eyes, he watched as the spot he had been standing on burst into nothing more than tiny pebbles and powder that rained down on his head.
Hercules grit his teeth and turned to glare back at the monk, rising to his feet. This was getting serious. When it appeared that he was not about to take the hint, the same monk allowed a look of annoyance to cross his face and raised his staff in the air once more. The demigod braced himself to charge when a voice, clear and commanding, rang out loud through the courtyard.
Immediately, every single black robed monk dropped their staffs and hit the ground, prostrating. Hercules glanced around in surprise and saw the middle-aged man that had been watching him from the window standing in the now open doorway to the temple antechamber. He had short, cropped hair that was as black as onyx, and wore robes that were impossibly white, as if they’d never seen a spot of dust or dirt. He clasped his hands behind his back and strode barefoot into the courtyard, barking something in his native tongue at the guards on the ground. To Hercules’ astonishment, they immediately rose, picked up their fallen staffs, and left, making their way through the door the man had left open. Hercules blinked, trying to make sense of this sudden change in pace.
The white robed man watched them go and waited for the door to shut before turning back to regard the demigod with a curious expression. His eyes were almost as dark as his hair, and Hercules found them extremely off-putting. “Well,” he said slowly, in accented Greek, “it is an honor to finally meet the great Hercules. We have heard many stories of your strength and bravery. It is… agreeable… to see that they were not exaggerations.”
Hercules shifted, crossing his arms across his chest, not yet ready to lower his guard. “I think you have me at a disadvantage,” he said in forced politeness, but there was only one person this man could be.
The man raised an amused eyebrow but decided to humor him. “I am Li Er, Chan Master of this temple. And you have done a splendid job of disrupting our sacred place of solitude.”
“I wasn’t the one who threw your people around and then beat them with staffs,” Hercules said, shortly.
Li bowed slightly. “Forgive them. They take their job of protecting our temple quite seriously. However, it is not the way of Chan to cause pain or injury.”
Hercules wiped some blood off his lip. “Yeah, well, you could have fooled me.”
“You put up a fight. They were not expecting this.”
The demigod smiled sardonically. “I’m sorry, I thought you said you’ve heard of me.”
Li chuckled softly and began slowly walking the courtyard. “Indeed. I suppose I should also not be surprised then to see that you are still here?”
Hercules shrugged indifferently. “You seem to know a lot about me so why don’t you tell me.”
Li continued in his slow stroll. “Not surprised, no. But still… disappointed. I had hoped that you would understand. I can see that is not the case.”
This time, Hercules let an annoyed scowl come across his face. “All I understand is that you’re keeping me from my friend. I still don’t know why that is, but I know that you think me being here is a problem for him. I’m beginning to think that it’s more of a problem for you.”
Li nodded to himself. “As I said… you do not understand.”
Allowing his irritation to creep into his voice, Hercules asked, “Did you come out here just to patronize me or is there some kind of meaning to all of this?”
“Jiang Nu was unable to convince you to go,” Li explained, “and I had hoped your unsuccessful attempt to defeat the barrier that surrounds this temple would be enough to deter you. But, you have proven to be more stubborn than I had anticipated. So… I thought, perhaps, it was time for us to meet, and talk.”
“Talk,” Hercules repeated. “As in… try and make me leave.” When Li didn’t respond, he rolled his eyes and threw his arms up in frustration. “Well, instead of telling me about everything I don’t understand, why don’t you enlighten me? Why can’t I see Iolaus? Why can’t I tell him about what’s going on back home? He doesn’t even know I’m here! Why don’t you tell him I’ve come and let him decide?”
“That is not our way,” Li said. “Iolaus knows this, and he has accepted it, as well as accepted our help to ensure he returns to his path. As his friend, you should accept this as well.”
“His path?” Hercules asked, raising his eyebrows. “Iolaus doesn’t need you or anybody else’s help to be a hero.”
“Ah,” the Chan master said, softly, in sudden understanding. “You assume that is the path he wishes to take.”
The sentence was so ludicrous it took Hercules a moment to formulate some kind of response. “What other ‘path’ are you talking about? We help people, the two of us. It’s what we do.”
“I am aware of how Iolaus spent his time in Greece,” Li told him, but didn’t answer the question. “I am also aware of the events that brought him here to us.”
Hercules paused, clenching his jaw. “Dahak,” he said, quietly.
Li shrugged slightly. “The demon is only part of the reason. His death and resurrection, yet another. Your friend is a puzzle, and there are many pieces. He must discover for himself where those pieces fit. He is…” Li paused, as if trying to find the correct words. “He is unwell.”
Hercules felt a sudden headache coming on and tried to hold onto what little was left of his patience. “Look… you say Iolaus is sick, and I get that. I’m not here to take him away. I told Jiang that when she came to talk to me. If he’s hurting, and this is helping him, then I want him to stay for as long as he needs to. I just want to talk to him. That’s it.”
The Chan master shook his head. “As we have told you, that is not possible. Your friend has come a long way in the short time he has been here, but he still has far more to go. He needs to do this alone.”
“I’m not here to stop that!” Hercules all but shouted. “I just want to talk-”
“Iolaus’ love for you is the only reason I have allowed this charade to continue, and have not simply had you banished,” Li said, sharply, interrupting him. “It is only out of the utmost respect for him, and the damage any harm to you would inevitably cause him, that you are still allowed to stand.” He had stopped pacing, and was staring at Hercules with a look of haughty condescension. “It will behoove you to leave, now, before we are forced to enter into any more… unpleastantries.”
“I thought it was not the way of Chan to cause pain or injury,” Hercules said, coolly.
Li titled his head in a slight nod. “We have, at times, been known to make exceptions.”
The demigod pressed his lips into a thin line. “I see. Is that just when anyone disagrees with you, or just me?” Li fixed him with a stony expression and didn’t respond. “Just tell me why I can’t see him. That’s all I’m asking. No more cryptic half-answers. I want to know why.”
For a moment, Hercules thought the Chan master was simply going to refuse to answer, but he finally shook his head sadly, and said, “Because you are the reason he is here.”
That brought Hercules up short, and it felt like something cold and heavy had settled into the pit of his stomach. “What do you mean?” he asked, cautiously.
“Was it not you who wanted to help the people of Sumeria?” Li asked calmly. “Was it not you who told Iolaus you needed to… broaden your horizons? If it was not for you and your inability to turn people away, these terrible things would not have happened to your friend.”
The words were like ice water in his veins, and Hercules tried to stop the mounting panic that was suddenly working its way through his system. How could he know about that…? It was almost as if the Chan master was echoing his own thoughts and secret fears. Li was studying him strangely, and Hercules wondered for a moment if that wasn’t exactly what he was doing, maybe reading his mind somehow. Telling Hercules the things he was constantly telling himself, in order to convince him to leave. Hercules narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms, refusing to be baited. “Iolaus is his own person. Trust me… if he didn’t want to go, he wouldn’t have.”
“He would follow you to the ends of the earth,” Li stated simply. It was so matter of fact that it actually gave Hercules pause. When the demigod didn’t respond, Li clasped his hands behind his back and slowly walked toward him again. “When he died, did you not have to discover who you were without him? To discover that you can go on without him?”
Hercules’ jaw worked furiously. Li’s knowledge of the events of the past few years was unnerving, and he was reminding the demigod a little too much of Maben. The druid also had that annoying habit of pointing out the things Hercules already knew and forcing him to confront the truth. “Yes,” he said, finally, albeit grudgingly.
“And this, in turn, helped to ease your pain and allowed you to continue fulfilling your path?”
Again, Hercules agreed. “Yes.”
Li stopped a few paces in front of him and spread his arms. “All I am asking is that you grant him the same courtesy. He cannot do this while you are here. For the same reasons,” he said, holding a finger up to staunch the interruption Hercules was about to make, “that you could not and would not have discovered your true potential had he not been taken from you.” Li stepped forward and gently placed a hand on Hercules’ shoulder. “He needs to learn he can live without you. The two of you have been living as though you cannot function without the other. Cut off one arm, does the other one die as well?”
“That’s a stupid analogy.”
Li shrugged. “Perhaps. But, the point is still the same.” He turned and headed back for the temple. “Iolaus alone must discover what is causing his pain. You cannot do it for him. He needs to realize who he is, outside of you. It is the only way he will find peace.”
Hercules got the feeling he was being dismissed, and refused to let that be the end of the conversation. “I only found out I could go on without Iolaus because I had to. This isn’t the same thing!” he called after him.
“Maybe not for you. It may be for him. It is his test. Perhaps… this is a test for you as well.”
Hercules clenched his fists in fury. “We already had that test, and we passed. It was called Dahak.”
“Dahak was only a catalyst, and a small piece of the puzzle. Go home, Hercules. He has to learn he can go on without you, the same as you did.” Li stopped and turned back over his shoulder to observe him. “A tree cannot grow if it is always in the shadows.”
Hercules gaped, affronted. “I have never treated Iolaus like he was in my shadow!”
“That does not mean he did not feel it.”
Hercules made a disgusted noise and ran a hand through his hair. This is just perfect. I am so sick and tired of hearing this shit. “We’ve heard all this before, from that thing that took his body.”
“And that makes it untrue? You know these things. But Iolaus must learn and see for himself. He cannot become who he was before and who he will be now if you are always with him.”
“I don’t understand that. And don’t give me that crap about the tree again. Iolaus and I… we’re a team. We’re a part of each other. What affects him affects me.”
“You must learn to be separate.”
“Why?!” Hercules bellowed, frustrated. “Why is it so important to you that he stay away from me?”
“Because he is on a journey, and you will only impede it. As I said, he would follow you to the ends of the earth. If you ask him to leave, he would, even if he did not want to. That is the hold you have on his heart. This cannot be. He must not leave until he is ready, or he will never be well. What is more important to you? Having him at your side, or having him at peace?”
“I am just having a really hard time understanding why he can’t have both.”
“You want both,” Li argued, “and he cannot have either until he confronts what has happened to him. Having you here will only serve as a distraction, not a help.”
“Iolaus has a family now,” Hercules told him, desperately. “I suppose he can’t get well if his daughter is around either, is that it?”
“Jiang told you – he has no family. He has no friends. He is alone. When he is ready, he will become whole again. Perhaps that will include you.” Li shrugged solemnly. “Perhaps not. That is for Iolaus to decide. Not Hercules the half god from Greece.”
Hercules narrowed his eyes. “If you know so much about me and about Iolaus… you should know I’m not going to stop unless you let him talk to me. It’s not for you to decide either.”
“It is for me to decide. I am his teacher. He came to me for help.”
“And keeping me away from him is helping?”
“Yes.” Li sounded deadly serious. He had stopped walking and was now facing Hercules head on, standing in the middle of the stone courtyard.
Hercules put his hands on his hips. “I’m not leaving. I’ve been out here for four days. I can stay a bit longer.”
They stood staring at each other for a few minutes as the sky darkened and it again started to rain, casting a dreary shadow around the temple yard. “Do you love him?” Li suddenly asked.
“More than anything in this world, other than my son,” Hercules answered without hesitation.
The Chan master regarded him sadly. “Then I do not understand why you will not go.” When Hercules still refused to budge, Li sighed deeply. “I suppose there is only one way to convince you to leave.”
“Yes. Let me talk to Iolaus.”
“I will let you see your friend,” Li agreed, “if you can get passed me.”
Hercules repressed a snort. “I don’t want to fight anyone. I didn’t want to fight your guards, but they didn’t really give me much of a choice.”
“I do not believe it will be much of a fight,” Li stated, making Hercules raise his eyebrows in amusement. “But… you will try nevertheless. It is what you do.” He unclasped his hands and crouched down into what Hercules assumed was a fighting stance, raising his arms to chest height, his palms facing outward. “We have an agreement?”
Hercules sighed. “Look, I really don’t want to do this.” He had barely finished his sentence when Li suddenly swung his arms around in a wide circle, took a step forward, and pushed out with his right hand. A golden light, like the one that had come out of the guard’s staff, jumped from his hand and sailed through the air, hitting Hercules square in the chest and sending him flying back into the stone surrounding wall. The demigod slid to the floor, stunned. “Okay,” he grunted, shaking his head and quickly pushing himself back up, “maybe I do want to do this.” He weighed his options as Li allowed him to get his bearings before resuming that same fighting stance. Is it just me or is this guy deliberately asking for it?
The Chin man regarded him, mouth quirked in a half smile, and then turned his right hand so that the back was facing Hercules and made a quick beckoning movement. The demigod scowled. I guess that answers that question.
Li started the circle with his arms again, and Hercules quickly dodged to the left as another beam of light escaped from the Chan master’s hand. The demigod rolled and came back up, seeing to his dismay that the light had changed direction and was following him. He raised his arm at the last second, using his Hephaestus-forged gauntlets as a shield and was only partly successful. The metal took the blow, but Hercules could still feel the force of it vibrating in his bones, making his teeth clack together painfully. He felt something like static running up his arms, his hair standing on end. This is getting me nowhere, he thought, angrily. Ever since he arrived at the temple that morning he’d been playing defense, mostly because he was aware enough to realize he was completely out of his element, like he had been in Eire with his first fight with Morrigan. Chan is similar to Illumination, he reminded himself. I wonder…
Hercules relaxed his guard and thought of nothing but the calm that he had felt the night before when he’d been trying to beat the riddle of the temple wall. The Chan master stared at him curiously, as if realizing what he was attempting and was amused by it. Hercules ignored him, and instead focused on relaxing and opening his mind, the way Maben had shown him.
He took a deep breath, gathering his strength, and ran, faster than even he thought possible. He sped across the temple courtyard in a blur and passed the suddenly extremely bewildered Li, who turned around just in time to see Hercules heading straight for the maroon doors of the antechamber. Li jumped, sailing through the air to land softly in front of Hercules, again blocking the way. Damn, Hercules thought, furious.
Li paced lightly back and forth in front of the entrance, like a tiger eyeing its prey. “You learn quickly,” he said appraisingly.
Hercules gave a half shrug. “I’ve been told it’s a demigod thing.”
The Chan master said nothing to that, but pushed up the sleeves of his billowy white robes and jumped through the air again, this time kicking out at Hercules as he landed. Hercules, still using the Illumination techniques, blocked them with lightning fast reflexes and took a swing at the Chin man as he landed, which Li blocked just as easily as Hercules. They went back and forth like that for a while, each trading kicks and blows, each blocking with whirlwind swiftness, a blur of white and yellow to anyone watching.
Li seemed to always be half a second ahead of Hercules, as if he was anticipating his movements, and the demigod began to get frustrated. He tried for a punch to the side of Li’s head, but the Chan master was already there, grabbing Hercules’ wrist. To his complete astonishment, he couldn’t pull his arm out of the other man’s vice–like grip.
“Why are you really here, Hercules?” Li asked. “For Iolaus, or for you?” He let Hercules go and then pushed him in the chest. It felt like barely a tap, but it still sent him soaring backward. The demigod once again found himself on the stone floor, utterly mystified. Not even Ares could keep a hold on him like that.
“Admit it,” Li demanded. “You came out of selfishness.”
“That’s not true!” Hercules shouted, jumping to his feet and coming at Li again. He swung two punches, each blocked, and then was he back down on the ground. His chest was starting to hurt from the force of Li’s blows. “He should know about his daughter.”
“Why is it so important to you? You forced that woman to admit to the truth and now you force it upon Iolaus.”
He could he possibly know about Niobe? Li was trying to get in his head, shake him of his resolve, playing some kind of mental warfare. “Because it’s the right thing to do!”
“No. It is because you want him back. Only you do not realize he’s not yours to take.”
Outraged, Hercules got back up and sped towards Li as fast as he could. This time Li simply dodged his blows and kicks, dancing out of the way, not even bothering to block them. “Iolaus is not a thing. I’ve never treated him like a thing!”
Quick as a flash, Li struck out and got Hercules on the side of the head, making him drop to his knees on the stone. “Are you sure?” the Chan master needled him. “Didn’t you tell the death god of Sumeria it had something that belonged to you?”
Hercules was completely thunderstruck. “What?” he whispered. He stared up at Li from his position on the ground, a horrified look on his face.
“You said it had something that belonged to you. You also said it to Dahak… that you had come to ‘repossess’.”
Hercules was so shocked he could barely formulate a rational thought. “How do you know about that?” he demanded, fiercely, trying to rise to his feet, but Li took his foot and pushed him back down.
“It does not matter how I know. Did you or did you not say those things?”
“Yes, I did,” Hercules admitted. “But I didn’t mean them. I was angry, I was out of my mind-”
“No. You were being honest with yourself, perhaps for the first time.”
Rage, white hot and uncontrollable, started making its way through his body. Hercules took his fist and slammed into the floor, cracking the wall surrounding the reflective pool behind him and actually making Li take a step backward. “That’s enough! I am not going to lower myself into debating this with you. You can think whatever the hell you want. Iolaus is not a thing. He never has been. He’s never been my sidekick. He’s never been anything except my best friend, and he always will be. You can throw me to the ground as many times as you like, beat me against the floor until I die. But nothing you do to me is ever going to change how I feel about him, and you will never make me think otherwise! I said those things because I was terrified to live without him. You weren’t there! You couldn’t possibly know how I felt!”
Li tilted his head slightly, as if judging the sincerity of his words. Finally he nodded, almost as if to himself. “And what of your son?”
Hercules angrily rose to his feet. This time Li didn’t try to stop him. “You leave him out of this,” he warned. “Arcas has nothing to do with you.”
“Is Iolaus more important to you than him? Will you leave him in Greece forever, while you futility try to beat me and gain access to this place?” Hercules immediately felt a pang of terrible guilt at the thought of his son, and Li raised an eyebrow in shrewd observance. “Ah. So that’s what it is.”
Before the demigod could even think to ask him just what in Tartarus he meant, Li spun and knocked him back with a flying kick, sending him hurtling through the air and into the reflective pool. The force of it knocked the wind out of him, and he instinctively tried to take a breath only to gulp in a lungful of water instead.
Hercules came up sputtering, shaking his wet hair out of his eyes, and felt a fist clenching around his tunic, hauling him up and out of the water and then dropping him just as unceremoniously back onto the cold stone floor. He leaned against the outside of the pool, coughing and clenching his side against a sudden cramp from inhaling the water.
“This is over,” Li told him.
Baffled and angry, Hercules just stared at him. “No,” he said, stubbornly. “It’s not over…” He attempted to stand back up but was shoved roughly back down by what he assumed was nothing more than Li’s pure strength of will, as the Chan master hadn’t even bothered to move at all. Hercules felt what little breath he still had in his lungs get knocked out of him once again as he struggled against the invisible force.
“You cannot beat me, Hercules. Your heart is not truly in it. It is at home, with your son and your people,” Li said, not unkindly. In fact, he sounded extremely apologetic about the whole thing, as if part of him was hoping Hercules might actually win. “I had thought it was because you were lying to yourself about your intentions. But I was wrong.”
The demigod tried to argue but he could still barely breathe, so he just settled for fuming up at the Chan master instead. My heart is in it, he silently insisted. Iolaus is my heart. He wondered again if Li could read minds and silently prayed to whoever was listening that he could somehow hear him now. Please. Don’t do this. He should know the truth. The pressure released and Hercules gasped in lungful’s of precious air.
Li knelt down so that he was eye level with the demigod, dark eyes gazing into blue ones. “You are a great and loyal friend,” he said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Iolaus has been lucky in life in that regard. I may have been… wrong… about you. But, it is time for you to go home now, son of Zeus.” He squeezed Hercules’ shoulder gently. “Go home to your son. Iolaus must stay here, until his journey is complete. He belongs here now.”
The demigod shook his head, biting back on the feelings that were threatening to take his breath away for a completely different reason. I can’t. I can’t go back there without him. I don’t know how to do this without him.
“Please,” he said, voice rough with emotion. “I need him.” As soon as he said the words, he knew it was what Li wanted him to admit all along, and he felt such a surge of hopeless despair that he felt like he was back in Sumeria, in the realm of the god of the dead all over again, listening to that horrible being tell him he was too late, that Iolaus was gone…
The Chan master gazed at him knowingly. “I know,” he said, softly. “Jiang asked you before if you were doing this for Iolaus, or for yourself. I think now, you know as well. I understand you think you are doing what’s best for him, but you must refer to my judgment now.”
“This isn’t about me!” Hercules insisted. “It’s about Meg, too.”
“Yes and no. I think you will find, Hercules, that you need him much more than he needs you. I said you could see him if you could get passed me. You did not. I know that you are a man of honor, and that you will leave in peace.” Li stood and gave Hercules a deep and graceful bow. “Go home now, Hercules. Go to your son. You will see Iolaus again. Just not today.”
And with that, he just disappeared into thin air. Hercules was unfazed; after what he’d seen the last four days, he would have been disappointed if Li had actually just used the door. That didn’t stop him from immediately jumping up with a yell of fury and trying to wrench the maroon egresses of the antechamber open, refusing to acknowledge that it was over, that this was the end. He beat on them, he pulled as hard as he could, he even tried to use his full strength and weight to break them down by slamming into them repeatedly with his shoulder, but it was no use. The temple was as quiet as death, the only sounds the pounding of the rain on the stone and Hercules’ anguished screaming. He yelled for Iolaus until his voice was raw, and then he tried again to break down the doors, beating them so hard he left smears of blood on the wood. Then he sunk back down to the floor, exhausted, shoulders heaving pitifully, his body wracked with sobs. This can’t be it. It can’t be. He couldn’t leave. If he left, he would be giving up.
After his body was too spent to cry or to even move anymore, he sat in a heap in front of the antechamber doors, staring out into nothing. He was soaked through from landing in the reflective pool and then sitting in the rain, but he was numb to it. It felt like he was numb to just about everything, except for one thought – that Li was right. His thoughts, before he had even set foot in Chin, were divided between getting to Iolaus and getting back to Arcas. And he knew he couldn’t stay here forever, abandon Arcas in Greece with Jason while he hoped and waited for an opportunity to see Iolaus. He needs you, he reminded himself. He’s just a boy. He needs his father. He doesn’t have anyone else. He thought back to all the times growing up that he’d wished for his father to come see him, to acknowledge him in some way, before finally accepting that Zeus was just too busy to give a damn about one of his undoubtedly numerous half mortal children. Too busy, or just downright didn’t care. Hercules refused to let Arcas feel like he had. But, that meant he would have to leave Chin… leave Iolaus here. This entire trip would have amounted to nothing, and he felt another surge of hopelessness coming on.
Pointless, it was all pointless… All the months spent on ships, travelling across the country, had been for nothing in the end. Iolaus still didn’t know anything about what was going on in Attica, and Hercules was back in the same state he’d been when Iolaus had left. The only thing that was different was that now, more than ever, Hercules felt responsible for dragging Iolaus to Sumeria in the first place. He had tried to brush off Li’s comments, had said Iolaus wouldn’t have gone anywhere he didn’t want to, which was partly true. But, it had struck something deep within the demigod, something he’d been wrestling with since before he’d even left for Chin.
He’d said it to Maben, and to Morrigan – the people closest to him wound up hurt, or dead. He’d been able to stop thinking that way, to move past it eventually, because he had enough things to worry about to let misplaced guilt weigh him down. But watching Iolaus struggle with his torments, watching him get worse and worse and be unable to help, had brought all those old thoughts back up to the surface. He couldn’t say no, they had gone to Sumeria, and Iolaus had died. Everything that had happened after had made him leave and come here, where Hercules couldn’t get to him. It was ridiculous – Hercules had gone to the Underworld, browbeat Hades into letting him take Iolaus back, but he couldn’t even break down a simple wooden door. Maybe Li was right; maybe his heart really wasn’t in it, because he knew that he was the reason Iolaus was here in the first place.
He was being selfish. Li had gotten Hercules to admit what he was hiding even from himself – he came here for him, as much as he had come for Iolaus. And it was time for him to accept that maybe this was what was best for Iolaus after all. Being with Hercules obviously wasn’t – Iolaus had been tortured, beaten, had his arm broken twice, and been dead three times along with a slew of other physical and mental abuses since joining up with the demigod. Maybe Iolaus’ place really was here, and not with Hercules.
He still felt the decision didn’t rest with Li, or him, but with Iolaus, and he was at least somewhat comforted with knowledge that when his friend got tired of this place and people like Li that he’d pack up and head home just as quickly has he’d left. It wasn’t like Iolaus to stay in one place too long. The man had way too much energy, was too curious and too impatient to be stuffed inside a temple listening to platitudes for the rest of his life. All there was left for Hercules to do now was accept it, and go home.
Realizing that he really wasn’t going to be able to see Iolaus, that this wasn’t a trick, was the hardest part. Every time he got close, his mind recoiled from it, refusing to give up. He sat there in front of the doors for a few more hours, hoping that the students would have to open it to come out into the courtyard eventually, but the rain was only getting worse and it seemed as though everyone was perfectly content to stay inside and leave him out there to rot. He glanced up at the window where he had seen Jiang and Li watching him sometimes, but all the openings were shut and locked as well.
Eventually he picked himself up off the floor and dragged himself to the gate, which had been left open from him bursting through that morning. He couldn’t believe he was actually doing it, that he was going to leave. He felt torn between Iolaus and Arcas, and he hated himself for it. He knew it really shouldn’t even be a choice, which made him hate himself even more. He remembered what he’d said to Arcas when he thought he’d lost him in Attica: “You are the most important thing to me. Not Jason, not Iphicles, not… not even Iolaus. You.”
It was the truth, and he knew it. And, as much as he may never forgive himself for walking away now, if he stayed and left Arcas instead, it would haunt him for the rest of his life. He couldn’t do that, and he knew that Iolaus wouldn’t want him to.
Feeling his heart break even more with each step, he slowly walked through the gate. He couldn’t make himself walk down the path just yet, so he leaned against the temple wall until he’d calmed himself down again and could muster up the emotional willpower. Maybe he could find an inn and leave in the morning, when the rain had stopped. The thought made him sick. Now that he’d made the decision to go back to Greece, he didn’t want to stay in this place any more than he absolutely had to. Chin, like Sumeria and even Eire, had too many painful memories for him now.
It’s only been a year, he told himself. Iolaus has only been gone a year. He’s going to come home. He’ll be home soon. He’ll be home, he’ll be better, and you can tell him everything.
He took one more look up at the temple, at the shut windows, hoping and praying that Iolaus, or Jiang, or someone else would come running out after him, but it was no use. Finally, he pushed himself off the wall and made himself stare straight ahead as he walked down the sodden path back into Chang’an.
It felt like he had left a piece of his soul behind.
Hercules should have figured, after the way his trip had turned out, that nothing was going to be easy in this place. It took him until almost dark to find someone that would take him in since he had no money and didn’t speak the language, and even then he’d had to sleep in the barn, which suited Hercules just fine. He’d had a restless night, tossing and turning, unable to sleep, his mind refusing to settle down. He would be angry, then sad, then angry again, and then he would just lie there, listening to the rain before starting the whole process over again. His shoulder ached again from ramming into the antechamber doors, and the cut on his lip itched as it healed. His nose had already mended earlier in the night; at least the guards hadn’t broken it. That gave him the smallest bit of satisfaction, before he would replay everything in his mind again and go back to feeling miserable.
The next day the rain was even worse than before, and the water from the river was rising steadily. The people around him didn’t seem surprised, and looked like they were making preparations to either be stuck inside for a good long while, or leave the area. That did not sit well for the demigod.
The old Chin man whose barn Hercules had stayed in brought him some kind of hot soup and then made shooing motions, yammering at him in their strange tongue. Hercules got the gist: Here’s some food, now get out. He gave the man a gracious smile and accepted the bowl, nodding at the door. The old man nodded back and then went back into his home. Hercules sighed. He did not want to travel in this weather.
The soup smelled of onion, which Hercules wasn’t too sure about, but it was sure warming his hands up nicely. The rain was making the air damp and cold. He was starting to get a little cold himself, so he sipped the soup experimentally and had to admit that it was pretty good. Well, at least that’s one thing I like about this place. Soup, one; Hercules, zero. Nice. It was hot as well, and it warmed the demigod up as he slowly drank it.
He carried the soup over to the door of the barn and leaned against the frame, watching everyone bustle about. The market was beginning to look deserted. Hercules frowned, listening to the people yell back and forth rapidly, and tried to pick out some of the words but to no avail. He raised the bowl to his lips, watching two young Chin children try and fail to pull a brown donkey through the muddy alleyway, when he thought he saw a blond head out of the corner of his eye. He immediately dropped the bowl out of shock, splashing it on his boot. He cursed and did an awkward hop as it seeped through his laces and burned his foot. Impossible. It couldn’t have been him. Could it?
Not wanting to hope but incapable of just standing there in case he was wrong, he tore out of the barn into the rain, startling the donkey, which brayed loudly and ran down the street with the children chasing after it.
Hercules made a quick left around the home he’d seen the blond man and ran up the street, eyes searching wildly.
It was a blond alright, but he had short hair and wasn’t wearing the traditional robes he’d seen the students in. But he was Iolaus’ height, and Iolaus’ build…
The demigod jumped and whirled on the spot to see Jiang Nu standing behind him. He made an impatient noise and turned back around. The blond was gone.
Hercules stared at the empty alleyway, torn between laughing, crying, or breaking something apart. “You did that on purpose,” he said, menacingly, slowly turning back to face her.
“Are you sure you even saw what you saw?” Jiang asked, mildly.
He opened his mouth to argue, and then stopped. Maybe she was right. He was exhausted from fighting the guards and Li yesterday, he hadn’t slept much since he arrived, and he was heartbroken. Maybe… maybe he’d just wished it was Iolaus…
Hercules blinked and shook his head. It felt fuzzy. “Whatever you’re doing, I suggest you stop before you make me angry.”
There must have been something very dangerous in his voice, because Jiang took the tiniest step back. “I did not come to quarrel with you. I came to warn you.”
Hercules snorted. “About what? What else could you people possibly do to me that you haven’t done already? I’m leaving. You won. You should be happy.”
“Your sorrow does not make me happy, Hercules.”
“That’s news to me,” Hercules spat, glancing over his shoulder again. He was sure it had been Iolaus…
“The rain will not stop,” Jiang told him, making him turn his head back around to regard her. “It will not stop for many months. If you wish to go back to your son, you must leave now. There is a port in Hangzhou. It will be easier for you to travel that way and leave by ship than by trying to go across country back to India.”
Hercules didn’t bother asking how she knew he had come through India, and just laughed scornfully. “Easier? What the hell do you care?” he barked hatefully.
“Whatever you may think, it was never any of our intentions to hurt you,” Jiang said softly.
Hercules snorted. “Well, thank you for your consideration, but I’ll be fine.” He pushed past her and headed back up the way he came.
“The rain will come for many cycles. This area is home to the Wei River, and it will flood. It’s why people are leaving,” she said, following him.
“Looks like some are staying.”
“They are fools. I did not take you for a fool.”
Hercules stopped again, almost making the woman run into the back of him. “Why are you here, Jiang? Unless you decided to go against your master and give Iolaus my message, I don’t have anything more to say to you.”
“As I told you, I came to warn you. You are an outsider and do not know these lands.” She bit her lip. “Master Li was surprised to see you were gone this morning. He doesn’t surprise easily.”
Hercules raised his eyebrows at that. “I thought he made himself pretty clear. And he was right about me being an honorable man,” he muttered, resentfully. “You have no idea how much I wish I wasn’t sometimes.”
Jiang shook her head. “No, you do not. Then you wouldn’t be Hercules. You would be someone else.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t really feel like being me today, so… I suggest you just leave me alone and go back to your temple.”
“Do not think of it as giving up, Hercules,” she told him, taking him by surprise. “Iolaus loves you, and you love him. You’re doing the right thing.”
“Then why do I feel like this?” he demanded. “I can’t keep this from him. I don’t know why you won’t tell him.” He took a step toward her, trying to read her expression. “You care about him, don’t you?”
Jiang looked down. “Entanglements are forbidden.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“My feelings are of no consequence. He is my friend, and he is hurting. Anything else would be disrespectful to the pain he has. But… I do not like to see him suffer. If I tell him you came, he will suffer. His heart will suffer.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
Hercules made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. “Then go home, Jiang.” He threw her another disgusted look before turning his back and stalking up the alleyway. I don’t know what Iolaus sees in this place. Everyone here talks in riddles and contradicts themselves half the time. Hercules had a feeling that if he stayed here any longer his head would simply explode just from trying to figure out what the hell everyone was talking about.
Again he thought about the uselessness of this entire endeavor. He hadn’t been able to see Iolaus at all, let alone tell him about Meg, or about what had happened to Xena and Gabrielle…
Hercules stopped again and glanced over his shoulder. Jiang wasn’t following him anymore, but she was still standing where he had left her in the middle of the alley, looking like a drowned rat from all the rain. She looked so miserable that Hercules almost felt sorry for her. He could tell that she maybe didn’t agree with Li as much as she said she did, and that she truly didn’t want to see either Iolaus or Hercules suffer.
“I get why you won’t tell Iolaus about Meg. You’re right… he would leave. And he’s obviously not ready. I don’t care what Li has to say, but you I believe.” He walked back down to stand in front of her again. “I won’t ask you to go against your tenants, or your master. But… there’s something else Iolaus should know. It won’t change what he’s doing here.”
Jiang slowly looked up at him but said nothing.
“We had some friends. Their names were Xena and Gabrielle.” Hercules didn’t miss Jiang’s quick intake of breath. “You know them?”
“Xena is well known throughout Chin, for both her past and present deeds. She became a great friend of our people when she killed Ming Tien.”
Hercules loosely remembered Gabrielle telling him something like that, years before. “She’s dead,” he said, flatly. “So is Gabrielle. They were killed almost a year ago, outside Rome.” Jiang tried to hide her astonishment and wasn’t entirely successful. “Iolaus would want to know that. We were all very close. And there won’t be anything he can do about it, so he won’t leave. It will make him upset, though. So… maybe you can tell him when the time is right. But, he’d want to know.”
Jiang gave him a small nod. “We will see if Master Li agrees,” she said, wistfully. “You really do need to leave soon, Hercules, or you will be trapped here for months.”
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want that,” he said, sarcastically. “Go home, Jiang.” This time when he walked away, he didn’t look back, and she didn’t stop him.
In hindsight Hercules realized he should have listened to her, but he was still holding out hope that the man he had seen was Iolaus and that he’d catch a glimpse of him again. Ultimately, he’d had to vacate Chang’an right along with everyone else, and he’d had no choice but to make for Hangzhou as Jiang had suggested. The only other place he could go was the temple as it was on the high ground, but he seriously doubted that they would let him in along with all the other villagers.
He mentally berated himself the whole time he was trying to get back home. I can’t believe you’re going to leave here without telling him… He’d tried to send messages, but they all came back unopened, the carrier birds somehow finding him wherever he was. He’d tried to sneak them into provisions, or onto other travelers heading for the temple, but they, too, somehow found their way back to the demigod. Hercules tore up the last scroll he had sent in a rage and tossed it into the fireplace of the latest inn he’d managed to find refuge in. He’d never felt so hopeless.
He finally made it to Hangzhou but was told due to the storms that he’d have to wait at least another week. Luckily he’d managed to pick up some of the language in the months of travelling, and spent the time helping the people around him with simple tasks in exchange for food and lodging. He tried not to enjoy the stories they would tell about their legends and heroes out of spite, but he found himself liking the people that lived in Hangzhou. They would laugh at him good humoredly when he said words incorrectly and would try to help him with the pronunciation, and they couldn’t get enough of his tales of Greece and Eire. He could tell they thought he was making half the things up, but embellishments seemed to be part of their story telling process, so they didn’t mind.
By the time he got back to Greece, it was fall and he’d missed Arcas’ birthday. Luckily he’d had the presence of mind to get him something in Chin one day. He overheard some of the merchants arguing over a table of precious gems and had asked them about them and what they meant. He didn’t believe in that sort of thing, but he was interested in what they had said about the garnet, how it warded off bad dreams and evil spirits, thinking of Iolaus. But they also explained it could help with those who were sensitive to psi.
“Psi?” Hercules had asked, nonplussed.
One of the merchants pointed to his head and nodded enthusiastically. “Powerful minds.”
His thoughts had immediately shifted to Arcas. If nothing else, his son would like the color of the stone itself and would probably like what it was supposed to represent, so he had asked the merchant what he could do to earn one, but the man had just pushed it into his hand and shooed him away. “Take it,” he had told him in Chinese. “You tell good stories.” Hercules just shook his head and hadn’t argued.
The boat ride back had been lonely and miserable. Hercules tried to write to Iolaus again a few more times, but it ended up being just as fruitless as his other attempts. All in all his trip had cost him half a year, and once he arrived in Athens he barely gave anyone the time of day, he was so focused on getting back to Corinth and back to his son.
He got to the Academy two days later, stopping only once to get a fresh horse. The entire place was in a tizzy when he strode through the gates, but he ignored the cadet’s excited questions, dropping his pack in the practice yard and heading straight inside. He had to deflect more surprised and enthusiastic students as he marched through the halls and up the stairs to Jason’s office. He burst through the door, startling Jason out of his wits and almost making him fall out of his chair.
The Argonaut gaped at him, open-mouthed. “Hercules? My gods!” he exclaimed. He jumped out of his seat and crossed the room. “When the hell did you get here?”
“Just now. I got to Athens two days ago,” Hercules said, quickly. “Where’s Arcas?”
Jason continued to stare at him as if he were a ghost. “Gods, Hercules, you’ve been gone for six months!”
Hercules sighed. “I know that, Jason, and I’m sorry. I’ll explain later. Now, I’d really like to see my son. Where is he?”
Jason gestured to the door. “Downstairs with the other kids, probably learning math or something. Wait, where are you going?”
Hercules wasn’t listening. He turned on his heel and walked swiftly back out the door, Jason running down the hall after him.
“You couldn’t have sent me a gods damned scroll letting me know you were on your way?” he demanded once he caught up to the demigod.
Hercules opened his mouth to argue and then quickly closed it again. He had forgotten, as he was furiously trying to send scrolls to Iolaus, to stop and write one to Jason as well. No wonder he looked so surprised. “Uh… sorry. I forgot.”
“You forgot?” Jason repeated incredulously as they both made their way down the stairs. He put a hand on Hercules’ shoulder, forcing him to stop and turn around. “What about Iolaus? Did you see him?” He glanced around, as if expecting the blond to pop out from behind a corner somewhere.
Hercules pushed his irritation over that situation aside and said, firmly, “I told you I would tell you later. All I want to do right now is see Arcas. How is he? Has been okay?”
Hercules spun towards the sound of Arcas’ voice to see him running past the inside practice yard from the classrooms as fast as his little legs would carry him. Hercules dropped to his knees, Arcas throwing himself into his father’s arms. “Hey, buddy,” he said tenderly, hugging his son to his chest, never wanting to let go ever again.
“I can’t believe you’re home!” his son exclaimed joyously.
“Yeah, I’m home. And I am never going to leave you for that long again. I promise.”
Arcas mumbled something into Hercules’ tunic and he pulled back, looking at him questioningly. “I thought you were dead,” Arcas repeated. “You didn’t come home and I thought-”
Hercules swallowed down the lump in his throat and hugged him again. “Arcas, I am so sorry. I-”
“He wrote a few weeks ago. I wanted to surprise you,” Jason told Arcas, making Hercules stare up at him, wide eyed.
The boy pulled back to give Jason a narrowed eyed glare. “What? You knew he was coming home and you didn’t tell me?”
“I said I wanted to surprise you. You know, for your birthday.”
Arcas made a huffing noise and just buried himself in his father’s arms as Hercules looked up at Jason in gratitude. Thank you, he mouthed.
Jason just shook his head ruefully and patted him on the back. “It’s good to have you home, Hercules.”
“Thank you,” the demigod said again, out loud. He stood up, his hand on Arcas’ hair, ruffling it affectionately. “For everything. For taking care of him-”
“You never need to thank me, you know that.”
“I’m going to anyway,” Hercules told him, embracing Jason in a quick hug. “Thanks, Jason. Really. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
Jason cleared his throat and Hercules pulled away, noticing for the first time that every cadet in the practice yard had stopped what they were doing to stare openly at the reunion playing out in front of them. “Come on, not in front of the kids,” Jason whispered. He gave Hercules a once over. “You smell like onions.”
Hercules had no response to that except to throw his head back and laugh.
Jason and Hercules sat on the ground in front of a fire pit in the practice yard later that night once the cadets had all gone to sleep. Hercules had given Arcas the piece of garnet earlier in the day once everything had calmed down, and his son had turned it over and over in his hands in awe.
“It’s supposed to ward off bad dreams, and help people like you, with your powers,” Hercules explained. “We can get a cord and make you an amulet to wear, if you want.”
“Cool,” Arcas breathed, pocketing it. “Is it from wherever you went?”
Hercules nodded. He still didn’t want to tell Arcas he had gone to the East, in case he let it slip, but he told his son the name of the city, figuring he was too young to put two and two together. “Yes. From a place far away, called Hangzhou.”
“Where’s that?” Arcas asked.
“Just… very far away from here. That’s why it took me so long to get home.”
“Did you help whoever you needed to? Are they all going to be okay?”
Hercules and Jason exchanged glances. “Yep. I took care of it, and everything is okay now.”
Arcas had nodded forcefully, as if there was no doubt in his mind that his father could take care of all the world’s problems. “Good.”
Now he was asleep on a blanket next to the fire as Hercules quietly told Jason about everything he had experienced in Chin and at the Chan temple. Arcas had scarcely wanted to leave his father’s side since he’d gotten back.
Once Hercules had finished with his story about Jiang and Li and what they had told him, Jason had shaken his head, leaning back against a log and resting his arm on it.
“So, you didn’t talk to him at all?” he asked, mystified. “You didn’t even see him?”
Hercules shook his head and angrily threw a log into the fire. “Nope. I thought I saw him once, in Chang’an city when everyone was running around trying to get the hell out because of the rain. But then Jiang showed up to make sure I was leaving and I didn’t get to find out.” He let out a deep, regretful sigh. “I don’t know what to do, Jason. They wouldn’t let me see him, they’ve sent back every message I tried to send to him. I feel… lost.” He looked at Jason, hoping for some kind of guidance. “What am I supposed to do now?”
“I’m not sure there’s anything else you can do,” Jason said, softly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You did everything you possibly could.”
“I had to have missed something. I should have done more. I don’t know.” Hercules shook his head. “This can’t be it, Jason. I can’t keep this from him. Part me can’t believe I willingly left, but I just couldn’t…” He glanced down at the small form of Arcas, sleeping peacefully. “I couldn’t stay away from him any longer.”
“Look, Hercules… it’s only been a year. Iolaus is going to come back. You have to believe that. We may not get to tell him the way you wanted, and Meg may not get to know Iolaus as soon as you would have hoped, but he’s going to come back. And when he does, you can tell him everything. He’ll understand.”
Hercules took a deep breath and forced himself to nod in agreement. Jason was just trying to be encouraging, and he knew that, but he was already tired of talking about it. It made his heart hurt. “You’re right,” he said. “I know that. He’ll be back. Everything’s going to work out. It has to,” he added, quietly.
Hercules wished, time and time again over the following years, that he could go back in time and tell his younger self to stop being a complacent idiot. To get back on that boat, and smash through anything and anyone that got in his way once he got back to Chin, and demand to see Iolaus. Because a few years turned into a few more years, and then into ten years, and then before he knew it, two decades had gone by. Meg had gone from a four-year-old to a headstrong but beautiful twenty-three-year-old who reminded him of Iolaus more and more every day. She was the unwilling heiress to a kingdom she barely spent any time in, once she had gotten older, and the relationship with her mother became more and more strained, which made Hercules long even more for Iolaus’ return.
Meg and Arcas had developed a friendship and a bond that their fathers had shared, and there was no separating them. They balanced each other out – Arcas the cool, collected voice of reason and Meg the sarcastic antagonizer. They pushed each other to be better, and they pushed Hercules’ patience to the limit, but seeing the two of them together began to be the only thing that gave him any real joy.
Hercules had tried to hold onto his silent prayer, year after year. But after the first decade had gone by, he had made himself accept the hard and painful truth: Iolaus wasn’t coming home. He couldn’t keep telling himself he would show up one day, he couldn’t keep thinking, Just another year. Just one more year. He could tell that his hope gave Meg hope, and he grew tired of her disappointment more than his own.
On the day he gave Meg Iolaus’ amulet, he pushed everything down, locking it away somewhere in the hopes that Arcas wouldn’t feel it and Jason and Meg wouldn’t sense it, and did the one thing he thought he would never, ever do.
He gave up.
“So, that’s it. That’s what happened.”
Hercules and Iolaus were still in the barn. Iolaus had perched himself back on the haystack and Hercules had moved to the dusty and straw filled floor, but he got up again as his story ended and started to pace agitatedly. “I did try to find you, Iolaus. I was this close. But what was I supposed to do? I stayed there for three months. I had to… the rain wouldn’t stop and I couldn’t get a ship or a trade wagon out of there to save my life.”
“Meiyu,” Iolaus muttered quietly, lost in thought. At Hercules’ odd look, he said, louder, “Monsoon season. Happens late summer… well, you obviously know that now.”
“Yeah, something like that. I stayed as long as I could but, I had Arcas, Iolaus. I couldn’t leave him here. I had to come home!” He realized he was raising his voice and, swallowing, tried to control his temper. “I tried. I really did. I tried to talk to them, they forced me out. I tried to- to do whatever the hell I did to get passed the temple wall, and that didn’t work. I sent you messages, they sent them back. Repeatedly.” He stopped pacing and turned to Iolaus, angrily. “So, don’t go putting all of this just on me.”
The smaller man shut his eyes and shook his head. “I just… I can’t believe that they would do that. That they wouldn’t tell me. They didn’t even tell me that you had come at all.”
Hercules raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he asked, skeptically. “You really think that, Iolaus?” When Iolaus didn’t answer, the demigod nodded. “That’s what I thought.”
Iolaus was still and quiet. He hadn’t moved from his spot on the haystack, and he looked down at his feet before saying, “I believe you. I do. They probably thought they were doing the right thing. I know you don’t want to hear that.” He looked back up at Hercules. “I was, um… in pretty bad shape, when I got there. The things you saw… the dreams, the panic attacks…” He gestured outside. “That night, in the river… Those were nothing. It was like, once I left, I couldn’t stop it anymore. Once I didn’t have you, there was nothing holding any of it back.” Iolaus gave a half shrug. “They made a decision and it’s done. And, they probably made the right one. Even if they had let you talk to me, I don’t know if, uh… I don’t know if I really would have cared much at that point. You said you tried a year after I left?”
Hercules nodded. “Right before spring solstice, I think. Everything kind of got blurred together.”
“I know the feeling.” He scratched his head thoughtfully. “Yeah, I was… not in a good place. It’s probably good you didn’t see me, the state I was in. And, I hate to say it, but Li and Jiang made the right decision, at least at the time.” He shrugged again. “Besides, it was part of the deal. Leave-”
“-all things behind,” Hercules finished, flatly. “Yeah, I know. So, I came home and I just threw myself into fixing the house and farming and raising Arcas… and Meg, sort of, too. We went to Attica to see her, and eventually Niobe started letting her come here, to Corinth. They went to the Academy together and now… here we are.”
“Here we are,” Iolaus repeated.
“You, um… you look better,” Hercules said tentatively. “I remember how you were, when you left. You were… well, you weren’t good.” Iolaus didn’t agree or disagree. “It’s nice to see you so healthy. I guess that’s the right word.”
Iolaus smiled wistfully. “Yeah, well… it took a very long time.”
You can say that again, Hercules thought, but bit his tongue.
“By the way,” Iolaus said, softly, “Li and Jiang did tell me about Xena and Gabrielle.”
That was a surprise to Hercules. “They did?”
“A while ago, but years after you were in Chin, when it would be too late for me to do anything about it, I guess.” He shifted nervously, not sure how to broach the next subject. “I also heard… well, I don’t really know what I heard exactly, but… um… I know about Zeus.” He regarded Hercules, trying to gauge his reaction.
Oh. Great. Hercules swallowed and tried to keep his face blank. “Yeah… He really didn’t give me much of a choice.”
“So, it’s true then?” Iolaus wasn’t sure what to do or what to think. When Li had told him, he hadn’t wanted to believe it. He’d thought the Chan master was just making things up, testing him. “You killed your father?”
“Yes, it’s true. He went after Xena, and her daughter. I wasn’t going to stand by and let him kill an innocent baby. The whole thing with the Twilight, whatever it was… it was like everyone went insane. And it doesn’t matter anyway, because three months later Athena took up the cause and killed them all anyway.”
“What?” Iolaus was stunned, forgetting about Zeus for the moment. Athena was one of those gods Iolaus liked to refer to as their “rare few” that they never had to worry about, back in the day. “I don’t believe it…”
“I didn’t want to believe it either, but yeah… Athena, Hades, and Hephaestus-”
“Athena and Hephaestus?” This time, Iolaus didn’t even try to keep the shock out of his voice. “I mean… Hades was always kind of up in the air, but Hephaestus?”
“I know. I was surprised, too.”
Iolaus put his head in his hands. “It just doesn’t make any sense. Hephaestus had his moments, but for the most part, he was all right. He and Aphrodite… Oh, no. Please, don’t tell me…” But Hercules shook his head, making him breathe an audible sigh of relief.
“No. Aphrodite didn’t have anything to do with it. And, after that, I don’t think she had much to do with Hephaestus either. I haven’t seen her in a very long time.”
Iolaus found that surprising but was too confused to comment. Everything was so different, he didn’t know where to begin. Hera and Zeus were gone, Athena was apparently Queen of Olympus, Xena and Gabrielle were dead… and Hercules had committed patricide…
“I don’t get it. What did Xena’s baby have to do with them? And when the hell did she get pregnant?” he added as an afterthought.
Hercules waved that one off. “I never found out who the father was, but there was some prophecy about Eve bringing about the Twilight, the end of the gods. And, well, dear old dad couldn’t have that.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t either,” Hercules said, bitterly. “I still don’t understand, but they’ve stayed out of my way and I’ve stayed out of theirs, so… I guess I don’t need to.”
“And Athena was just fine with the whole you killing Zeus… thing?” Iolaus asked in disbelief.
Hercules shrugged. “It made her queen of the gods, so I guess she figured she made out all right. Funny how they suddenly seem to forgive and forget when it benefits them.”
Iolaus couldn’t argue with that. The gods had always been fickle. But he was still surprised that Athena, or at least Hades or Poseidon, hadn’t come down to exact some kind of revenge against Hercules, especially Poseidon. While the other gods were just general, uncaring pains in the ass, Poseidon thoroughly enjoyed tormenting and killing those who made their life by the sea. “How did you find out about all of this?”
“Oh!” Hercules exclaimed, suddenly. “I almost forgot. You are not going to believe this.” At Iolaus’ expectant look, he continued, “I got a visit from Ares.”
Iolaus’ eyebrows shot up. “Ares? Like a ‘Here I am to kick your ass and by the way your friend is dead’ visit from Ares?”
“No. It was really, really weird. I had come out to check on the horses before going to bed and he was just sitting there on a barrel, right next to where you are now,” the demigod said, nodding at the haystack.
Iolaus looked over at the spot Hercules was indicating, eyeing it dubiously, before quickly hopping off his seat and moving instead to lean against one of the wooden posts on the other side of the barn. It was such an Iolaus thing to do that Hercules couldn’t help but smile fondly.
“Better?” he asked.
Iolaus made a show of getting himself comfortable. “Much.”
“Good. So, there he was, just hanging out in my barn, and my first thought was that the gods had finally decided get revenge on me, and that he was there for Arcas. And, I was terrified. I remember trying to think how fast I could knock Ares out and get to the house, get Arcas to safety, but… nothing like that happened. He said he came to tell me that they were dead. That Xena and Gabrielle were dead. And that was it.”
“So… are you saying Ares was doing something… nice?” Even as Iolaus said it, the words sounded strange coming out of his mouth. He made a face, as if he had eaten something particularly bad.
“No, I have no doubt it was to hurt me, and it worked. I didn’t want to believe him, so I did my own investigating. Anyway, after he said what he had come to say, he just left. I haven’t seen him in… well, almost as long as you’ve been gone. No one has. It’s like he just… disappeared.” He shrugged helplessly, as if the whole episode still bothered him after all this time. “I thought maybe the prophecy about Eve was bogus, that the Twilight was coming regardless and he had just succumbed to it, but… I think he just outright left.”
“As in, left Greece?” Iolaus asked, dubiously. “Our Ares. The god of war Ares. He just… packed up and left Greece.” It sounded absurd, but Iolaus could tell Hercules was being serious.
“He was in love with her, Iolaus. With Xena. I think… I think he was actually in pain.”
That brought Iolaus up short. Ares did always have some weird bondage and leather, god of war and warrior princess obsession with Xena, but love? “Huh,” he said thoughtfully. “Who knew?” I bet it drove Gabrielle nuts. “So, he just took off? For good?”
“Seems like it. Things have been quiet around here. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that he’s no longer around. Once he, and Hera and Zeus… well… It’s just been quiet. Athena seems to be content to let the human race alone, as long as they keep up with traditions. It’s not until recently that things have been getting out of control again, with these followers of Eli.”
Iolaus glanced over at him curiously. “Eli?” he repeated, surprised.
“You’ve heard of him?”
Iolaus nodded. “In India. He’s revered as a Devi, a healer. I didn’t know it had spread so far.”
“The movement has mostly stayed in Rome, oddly enough… but it’s slowly making its way into Greece. I’ve been telling the people for years not to rely on the gods, and with this new message of Eli’s, it seems to be getting through to people. I actually haven’t had a lot to do in years, at least where the gods are concerned. It’s been nice, actually. I got to spend a lot more time with Arcas. And with Hera and Ares gone… I didn’t have to worry about him, you know?”
Iolaus smiled sadly, thinking of Deianeira and the kids. “I’m happy for you. Looks like you raised a good man. Nosy,” he added, making Hercules chuckle, “but I think that’s hereditary.”
“Yeah, well, all his good traits obviously came from me.”
“Uh, huh. I bet I can think of a few more things he’s probably picked up from you. Like, stubborn pig-headedness-”
“I’m kidding… mostly.” Iolaus smiled wistfully. “He has your eyes, and your smile. I, uh… thought he looked familiar when I walked up. I can’t believe I didn’t realize who he was as soon as I saw him. It was almost like looking back in time.”
“Funny. I thought almost the same thing about Meg, as soon as I saw her. I knew you and Orestes were identical, but… I knew who she really was.”
That made Iolaus tense up again ever so slightly. It would have been missed by anyone except Hercules. “I can’t say that I’m happy with this situation,” Iolaus told him after a moment. “And, it’s going to take me a little bit to move past it all, and the part you played in it. But… I think we’ll get there eventually.”
It took Hercules a few seconds to realize that Iolaus was serious. He stared at him, dumbfounded. “Are you kidding me? After everything I just told you, you’re still mad at me?”
“Not mad. More like… disappointed. And this thing with Zeus…” Iolaus shook his head miserably. “I’m so sorry. I truly am. I can’t even imagine… You know, when Li told me all those years ago, I didn’t want to believe-”
“What?” Hercules interrupted. He was staring at Iolaus, a look of stunned disbelief on his face. “You knew for years? You knew what happened with Zeus, what I had to do, and you didn’t come back?”
Uh, oh. “Um…”Iolaus stuttered nervously, immediately trying to backtrack. “I wanted to. Of course I wanted to. I really did. Li had to practically hold me down to keep me from getting on the next ship out of there, but… then he told me it had happened three years before and I…” He shook his head helplessly. “I just figured that it was too late.”
“Too late?” Hercules repeated, numbly. “You thought it would be too late for what, Iolaus?”
The blond frowned, allowing some annoyance to creep into his voice. “Hercules, I don’t think you really understand the place I was in back then. They barely even let me outside.”
“You knew, and you didn’t…” Hercules laughed in complete disbelief. “Iolaus, I needed you. I needed you here after that. You have no idea what it did to me-”
“And you have no idea what it was like for me when I left! I don’t want to fight with you about this,” Iolaus said, harshly. “Gods, Hercules, when I got there I was half drugged out of my mind and suicidal.”
Hercules gawked at him. “What?” he whispered, shocked.
“Yeah. I was knee deep in opium dens with people who would kill me as soon as look at me. I almost hoped one of them would, but I decided…” He swallowed. “I decided if I was going to die again, it was going to be on my terms.” Hercules had gotten paler with each word he had said, and in a rush of anger, Iolaus spat, “So, sorry I wasn’t here to help you out while you were out committing patricide.”
The demigod winced, and Iolaus instantly regretted his words. “Sorry,” he said shortly. “I’m just… I’m having really a hard time accepting all of this right now.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Hercules said bitterly. “Is this what it’s come to now between us? Sitting in a barn, trading insults and yelling at each other?”
“I don’t know, Herc. You tell me. I know why I’m angry – I just got some pretty shocking news. You know, the kind that changes your life?” Iolaus stalked over to where Hercules was standing. “But you… you were angry before you even told me about Meg, about any of this. So, I’ll say it again… you tell me. What is going on with you?”
“What do you want from me, Iolaus?” Hercules asked, honestly. “You want me to be happy over the fact that you’ve been gone for the last twenty years? It wasn’t like it was four or five. That I could get past. Twenty years is a long time, Iolaus. I get that you were suffering, I get that you needed to find yourself, but I just don’t understand why you had to go away for so long to do it!”
“Because I needed every single year,” Iolaus shot back. “Why don’t you believe me? You have no idea how I felt, what it was like for me!”
“Okay, then let’s start there.” Hercules crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at Iolaus expectantly. “What was it like for you?”
“Hell,” Iolaus said, tersely. “Although, I think that’s a bit of an understatement. I feel like hell would have been a lot nicer, and they would have at least given me my own bathroom.”
Hercules gave him an annoyed eye roll, not in the mood for games. “This isn’t a joke, Iolaus.”
“I’m not joking,” Iolaus insisted. “I told you… I was drugged up, suicidal… Everything got worse once I left, nothing got better, not for years. The stuff they put me through to try and make me realize why I kept having those dreams, why I was feeling what I was feeling, was almost as bad as the actual feelings.”
“Then why didn’t you just leave?” Hercules asked in genuine curiosity.
“I wanted to. Believe me. I thought about it thousands of times, thinking nothing could be worth that, but it was.” He turned his back and ran a hand over his face. “I don’t like thinking about the person that I was when I left. I can’t even remember a day that I wasn’t high or drunk or…” He trailed off and shook his head, ashamed. He knew Hercules was right, and the demigod had done his part and explained a lot of what happened all those years ago. And he knew Hercules deserved an explanation himself. But that required Iolaus to go to a place he really didn’t want to return to, a place he hadn’t thought about it over a decade, a place he knew Hercules didn’t really want to know about no matter how many times he asked. Iolaus had left to keep it from him, to try and keep it even from himself.
Thinking about all that had happened, and the bitter, detached way Hercules was treating him, and the situation, cut Iolaus to the core. He abruptly whirled back around, fixing Hercules with a look of hurt disbelief. “What the hell’s happened to you?” he demanded before he could stop himself. “I don’t know what you want me to say! It was horrible. It took me years to even get to a place that wasn’t utter darkness! Is that what you want to hear? What the hell did you think I was doing? Skipping through the fields, having the time of my life without you? Do you really think I was on some kind of fucking joy ride?” He threw his arms up, exasperated, and stared at Hercules, waiting for some kind of response. “Well? What do you want me to tell you? What do you want me to say?! Just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it!”
Hercules just snorted self-righteously and shook his head. “I don’t know, Iolaus,” he said, sadly. “I don’t know what I want you to say. And no… I don’t know what you were doing.” He shrugged helplessly. “That’s kind of the point."