To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
Hamlet: Act 3, Scene 1
The first incident occurred within days of him coming back.
They had just left the city, and he couldn’t stop talking, and Hercules kept stopping and looking at him and touching him and hugging him, as if trying to make sure he was still there. The sun, the air, the grass, the feel of Hercules’ hand on his shoulder… everything felt new and wonderful and alive. He picked up flowers, rocks, dirt, it didn’t matter, and stared at it with open fascination. This was real. He was real.
He was home.
He and Hercules fell into their old rhythm instantly, as if not a day had gone by, and it wasn’t long before they came across what he used to like to refer to as the “daily dose” of bandits. He felt his heart start pumping faster.
His heart… alive and beating.
Rush of adrenaline.
Hercules split off to the right, and he automatically to the left. Hercules was calm, but he was almost giddy. This wasn’t like the fight with the Horsemen, when he was still part of the Light. This was real, this was here, this was fun.
Or, it was fun, until after he had taken out the first two bandits he missed an obvious feint and felt the cold bite of metal sink into his bicep as a sword slashed across his body. He gave into the natural reaction to head butt the offending bandit and knock him unconscious, and the thug collapsed to the ground. Luckily it had been a bad aim, but the shock of it suddenly did something very different to his body. Giddiness melted into surprise and confusion. He froze, and stared at his arm in bewilderment. It hurt… it hurt bad. What was this?
He poked at the wound experimentally, causing more stinging agony to shoot down his arm. Something came off on his hand. It was wet and red and slick.
He narrowed his eyes at it, moving it around between his fingers. How was this possible? He didn’t bleed. He couldn’t bleed. Dead people didn’t bleed.
But, no. That wasn’t right. He was alive. He’d gotten back a few days ago. They’d saved the world, and Michael sent him back. Why didn’t he remember?
A voice. It sounded familiar.
Hercules was here and he was here and this was Greece.
Sounds of fighting. They were in a fight?
Bandits. They were fighting bandits. Hercules needed his help.
“Iolaus, what are you doing?” the demigod shouted, tossing one of the bandits aside into a nearby tree.
Reality snapped back into focus, and Iolaus instinctively rushed to Hercules’ side. Together they took out the remainder of the group and stood over the unconscious bodies. Hercules prodded one of them with his foot, mumbling something about Ares not wasting any time. Iolaus was sweaty and breathing heavily. Blood trickled down is arm. He stared at it, watching the line it made across his skin.
“What was that about?” Hercules asked, turning back to Iolaus. He saw the way his friend was looking at his arm, and his brow furrowed in concern. “Iolaus? You okay?”
Iolaus didn’t answer and kept poking at the wound, wincing every time his finger touched it. “My arm hurts,” he said in confusion.
“Yeah,” Hercules agreed, slowly. “You got a nasty cut. Doesn’t look bad though. We probably won’t even have to stitch you up. Hey!” He grabbed Iolaus’ arm, because his friend was now prodding the cut harder, making more blood escape every time. “Stop that!”
“I’m bleeding,” Iolaus said numbly, blinking up at Hercules as if the demigod could provide some insight as to why.
“Because you keep messing with it,” Hercules told him. He was becoming increasingly alarmed. Iolaus was still staring blankly up at him, as if not really sure what was going on. His eyes were unfocused, staring at a point beyond him, and he was still and pale.
Hercules carefully put an arm around Iolaus’ shoulder, making sure his friend didn’t start messing with the wound again. “Come on… let me help you wrap it up.”
Iolaus allowed Hercules to lead him off the path so they could sit down. He made no movement as Hercules dug out some medicinal supplies from the pack that had been tossed aside once the fighting had started.
The second the demigod started to clean the wound, Iolaus jumped, startled. He stared at Hercules and then back down at his arm. “Ow!” He seemed surprised at his own reaction.
“Iolaus, you have a gash in your arm. It’s going to hurt,” Hercules told him, patiently. “Just sit still.”
Iolaus obeyed, and Hercules went about cleaning and dressing the wound as his friend stared blankly off into the afternoon sky.
“There,” Hercules said, sitting back. “All done.”
Iolaus glanced at the bandage, brow furrowed, and then picked up his amulet. Hercules watched him warily as he turned the dark stone over in his hand. “Why is this broken?”
A jolt went through Hercules. “Um… it broke in half when…” He swallowed. “When you saved Nebula.”
“But… why is this here? It’s not real. This isn’t mine. If it’s not real, how is it broken? It shouldn’t be broken.” He rubbed his chest, trying to feel for a scar that wasn’t there.
Hercules tried to keep his face neutral and stay calm. This was about to happen sooner or later. Iolaus had been dead a long time. “Iolaus-”
“This isn’t me,” the blond continued. “This isn’t right, it’s not real…” He rubbed his chest harder, looking around nervously.
“Iolaus, it’s okay. You’re here, it’s you. It’s okay-”
“No, it’s not!” Iolaus shouted suddenly, making Hercules jump. “I’m… This… It’s not me. This… this isn’t real. It’s not real…”
“Iolaus, you’re you. This is real. All of it. You’re back. Don’t you remember?”
Iolaus let the amulet drop back down and stared again at his arm. “This is new.”
With effort, Hercules tried to keep the rising panic out of his voice. “You got cut.”
“No… I mean… I’m new. This body…”
Hercules tried not to wince. He hadn’t thought of that. In a way, Iolaus was right. Hercules had buried the shell that was left when Dahak had finally been vanquished and had left Iolaus’ body. Michael had returned Iolaus from the Light fully formed, just as he had been when he’d died, except for the pink scar on his chest from where the knife had sunk into his heart. Iolaus… his soul, what made him who he was, was here in a brand new body, and the other body was in the ground, rotting away.
The demigod repressed a shudder. He couldn’t imagine the things that were probably going through his friend’s mind right now.
“Iolaus,” he began, “this is you. This body… it’s just that. A body. What I buried… that wasn’t you. What’s inside is who you are.” He put a hand on his shoulder and was relieved when Iolaus didn’t flinch. “You’re you. I promise. This is you.” Hercules gave Iolaus’ shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
Iolaus seemed to finally focus on him and he nodded, his breathing slowing back down. “Right. You’re right. Um… sorry, I guess I just… freaked out for a second.”
Hercules gave him an encouraging smile. “It’s okay. I think that’s to be expected.” He took a breath. “That feeling in your arm? It’s pain.” Iolaus looked over at him and then back down at his arm. “You forgot, didn’t you?”
“No,” Iolaus said, a little too quickly. He looked away, down at the ground. “Maybe.”
“You were dead a really long time, Iolaus. It wasn’t like before, when you didn’t really have a chance to get used to it.” Hercules was dimly aware how absurd that would have sounded to any passerby, but to them, it had become normality. It was a disturbing thought.
They were quiet for a few minutes before Hercules put his hand on Iolaus’ shoulder again. “Iolaus … it’s going to get easier. Just, give yourself some time.”
Iolaus waved him off. “No, I know… I know.” He cleared his throat. “Sorry about back there. I should have been paying attention.”
“Don’t worry about it. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Sure I’m sure.” He gave the demigod a half smile, as if the whole thing never happened. “Back for three days with a brand new body and I’ve already got a brand new scar.”
Hercules snorted. “Yeah, well… you wouldn’t really be you if you didn’t find some way to hurt yourself,” he chided, putting the medical supplies back in the pack. He gave Iolaus a grin, which Iolaus automatically returned. “Same old, same old, right?”
Iolaus knew he was kidding, but he couldn’t stop the sudden wave of panic that enveloped him. This wasn’t going to be the last time he got hurt, he realized. He was alive again. And people who were alive got hurt. Whether they tripped and fell down and skinned their knee, or whether they almost got their arms sliced off by bandits. It was going to happen, eventually. It’s what always happened, especially in his line of business.
And next time it might be worse.
And if he could get hurt… that meant he could die.
He could feel Hercules’ eyes on him and knew the demigod was still worried. And he knew Hercules well enough to know he was probably thinking the same thing himself.
Iolaus tried to look calm, pushing his fears and doubts away and hopping up off the ground. “You ready?” he asked, expectantly. He realized that he still had his blood on his fingertips and tried to unobtrusively wipe them off on his pants.
“Yeah. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Iolaus nodded vigorously. “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine, really. I just need to get back into swing of things that’s all. I’m fine, Herc.”
That seemed to satisfy Hercules for the time being, and they gathered up their things and continued down the road toward whatever their next destination happened to be.
The next fight, Iolaus felt the same rush of excitement and adrenaline, but now there was something else – fear. He’d been afraid in fights before; deep down, he and Hercules were always afraid, but they just ignored it and fought anyway, because the importance of what they did was always much stronger than whatever could happen to them.
But this time, it was different. It was cold, and wormed its way into the back of Iolaus’ mind to the point where it would invade his dreams, making him have visions of tombs and dark holes in the ground. For months he would wake in the middle of the night, shaking, unsure of where he was, and Hercules would have to remind him again and again that he was alive, that he was here, it was just a dream…
He was so tired that he’d started spacing out during the day. When they had gone after Xerxos and the demon had tried to strangle Hercules, he’d stood by too long and his reflexes were sluggish, resulting in a broken nose. He’d felt terrible for not paying enough attention, for not being quicker, even though if Xerxos could throw Hercules around like a rag doll there was definitely not much that Iolaus could have done about him either.
When Sin had appeared, Iolaus knew what she was, and she knew that he’d been to the Light. He’d tried to warn Hercules but every time he tried, the words got stuck in his throat. He knew it was her doing, and that seemed to snap Iolaus out of whatever bizarre funk he’d allowed himself to get into. He was never going to let anyone, or anything, control him again. He’d meant what he said about killing Hercules before the demigod damned himself, like Iolaus had. He was just very happy he hadn’t had to go through with it.
When it was over, and Sin and Xerxos had gone back to Hell, he’d joked with Hercules, remarking how ugly he’d become when he’d been possessed.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t look too hot either,” Hercules had shot back.
“Yeah, but I was dead.”
They had both laughed. Iolaus tried to act like everything was fine, everything was back to normal. Soon after they had split up for a few days, Iolaus insisting he had to go check on his long abandoned house.
“It is still there, right?” Iolaus had asked Hercules.
The demigod was forced to admit he hadn’t gone back there in the months after Dahak. “I thought you hated that place anyway.”
He did hate it. He’d wished he’d just sold it long ago. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why he hadn’t now. Or why he hadn’t just burned it all down, like Hercules had done to his home after Deianeira and his children died. “I should at least make sure it’s still standing, I guess. You know… check on the forge…”
He knew Hercules didn’t believe a word of what he was saying, but he’d let him go, and Iolaus had instead gone to see Jason. He had to talk to somebody, and he couldn’t bring himself to talk to Hercules. The whole thing with Sin had shaken him up, more than he wanted to admit, and he needed someone who would kick him in the ass and get his head on straight. Hercules had been walking on eggshells with him lately, and he couldn’t stand it anymore.
The talk with Jason helped. The dreams stopped, the fear lessened. He and Hercules got back into their normal routine. He even let himself feel something for the Amazon Kayla, something he thought he wouldn’t be able to do again after what had happened with Nebula. He had himself half convinced everything was going to be okay after all.
It wasn’t until Dacia, when the vampire had bitten him, that the fear had come back in full force.
“Am I dead again?”
He’d said it to Hercules as a joke so that the demigod wouldn’t worry, but a part of him was dreading the answer.
“No. You just lost a lot of blood.”
He was freezing, and he could hear Vlad in his head, urging Iolaus to come to him, to feed, to rip and tear and he fought it with his entire being. No, he thought, forcing the voice out of his mind. No! I won’t let you! Get out of my head! He’d pushed Vlad out, slammed his mind closed and fought, fought with all his might against whatever was trying to change him. He let himself feel a small amount of pride. Vlad was much easier than Dahak, and Galen, for all his smug superiority, hadn’t been able to resist. But Iolaus would. He had to. He would resist forever, even if it killed him.
He could tell Hercules was trying to form some kind of plan but was too concerned about Iolaus to focus properly.
“Herc… don’t give Vlad your blood,” he said, firmly. Hercules still looked nervous, so he quipped, “Give it to me.”
That had seemed to help, Hercules figuring if Iolaus could joke, then everything was going to turn out all right.
His mind was fuzzy in the effort of trying to keep Vlad at bay. The thought of losing Hercules kept him from slipping during the fight against the vampires, and then finally it was over. But Iolaus couldn’t help feeling dirty, and violated. It had brought up too many memories; memories he thought he had successfully buried months ago.
Hercules had tried to talk to him about it, and Dahak, on the ship ride back to Greece but had Iolaus brushed it off, not wanting to go there. He made jokes about ingesting demigod blood instead. “Should have let me bite you, Herc. Who knows? Maybe it would have given me super powers.”
Hercules grinned and ruffled his hair. “You don’t need any super powers. I like you the way you are.”
Bitter resentment. It crept up seemingly out of nowhere, and Iolaus quickly pushed it back down, horrified. What the hell was that? His neck itched where the vampire had bitten him. Two more scars. At least those would be an interesting story.
Hercules was looking at him carefully, so he showed him the marks, laughed, and called them his “permanent hickeys”. This got the expected eye roll from the demigod.
“Iolaus, your neck has probably been sucked on so many times I’m not surprised you don’t have more ‘permanent hickeys’.”
That’s because they’re on my old body, he wanted to say, but bit his tongue. It would only upset Hercules. And he didn’t want to upset Hercules.
When they’d gotten back to Greece, Iolaus threw himself into their work with reckless abandon. The dreams came back, so when Hercules wasn’t around, he drank himself into a stupor to try and black out but they came anyway. He somehow managed to hide them from Hercules for a long time. He still didn’t know how he had done it. Part of him thought it was because Hercules just didn’t want to know. Something in their relationship had shifted since Iolaus had gotten back, and neither one of them were ready to admit it.
He had written a scroll to Gabrielle some time ago and had gotten one back, and he read it during the nights when Hercules had fallen asleep and the fear of nightmares was just too much. She told him about how she had felt after what had happened with Hope, how lost she had been. She urged him to go to India, like she had. It will help you, she wrote. It helped me. You need to find your path again, Iolaus.
He missed her terribly, and was horrified at everything she and Xena had gone through while Hercules had been travelling and he had been… gone. Gabrielle was the only other person who could understand what it was like. She’d had Hope, and he’d had Dahak. They were a sad pair, the two of them. Dahak’s little fools.
He traveled. He fought. Iolaus would joke and lighten the mood. Hercules would smile and act like everything was fine. This was their new routine, and after the Titans and Hera and they had walked off into the sunset leaving a cursing Ares behind them, it had started to break Iolaus down. He’d become unable to push the dreams away, and he woke Hercules up in the night, screaming, like he’d done when he’d first come back. He’d absently rub his chest where the scar was supposed to be when Hercules wasn’t looking, and when he felt nothing there, he would instead touch the two small scars in his neck from the vampire’s teeth. He was alive, he was here. He didn’t let Vlad take him, like Dahak had.
A few weeks before he’d left Greece, they had stopped in Athens for a festival. They’d had an incident in Thebes earlier in the week with some of the people that had been captured and tortured by Dahak, and it was still weighing on him. This was Hercules’ attempt to try and get his mind off it. He’d been hesitant; crowds had started to bother him. But to his own surprise, he’d genuinely been having a good time. He was drinking, eating, flirting. Hercules had had to roughly pull him away from a gorgeous red head before her husband saw the two of them in the corner. He’d tried to insist he hadn’t known she was married and Hercules just rolled his eyes, shoving Iolaus back into the courtyard and the throng of happy, drunk Athenians.
The crowds got bigger, and Iolaus got drunker, and as more and more people pressed into the main square Iolaus suddenly started having trouble breathing. The people’s faces became blurred, took on different shapes. He shook his head and tried to take deeper breaths. Through his haze he saw the congregations at Dahak’s temples, the masses of people that had flocked to him. No, not him. Dahak. Or was it him? He couldn’t seem to remember. He could see people writhing in agony, clothes bloody and torn, screaming on the floor. There were pools of blood everywhere. More people, paying him tribute – more bodies, more blood, fire… fire and blood. There was fire everywhere.
He shut his eyes and pushed his hands against them in an effort to stop the torrent of images, and when he opened them again, he was back in Athens with people dancing around him. Everyone was happy. There was no blood, no fire, no piles of bodies. He pressed his hand to his chest where the scar was supposed to be. There was nothing there.
His heart kept pounding. His breath kept coming in shallow gasps. He couldn’t breathe. It was hot, so hot and there were people, too many people, he had to get out of there. He could see Hercules across the square, apprehension etched across his features, but he didn’t care. He had to get out before it was too late. Dahak was going to hurt these people, he had to get out!
Pounding in his chest, rushing in his ears, can’t breathe, can’t breathe… gods, what was happening?
He shoved people roughly out of his way as he ran back to the inn where they were staying, but instead of going inside, he ran into the barn, braced himself against the heavy wooden door and threw up into the dirt. Once that was done, he tried to get his breathing under control. Shaking, he recognized he’d just had a panic attack.
He’d had a panic attack in front of Hercules.
He’d hallucinated, had a panic attack in the middle of a festival, and Hercules had seen him. Not. Good.
Once he had finally gotten his breathing under control he walked back outside to the horse trough and scooped up a handful of water, throwing it on his face. It was icily cold, and the shock as it hit his cheeks helped bring him back into focus. He heard Hercules’ familiar foot falls behind him and took a deep breath. “Hey,” he said, not turning around. He didn’t know how he was going to explain this one.
“Hey,” Hercules replied, tentatively. “You want to tell me what happened back there?”
“I just needed some air,” Iolaus muttered, scratching at his chest. He was staring at his reflection in the horse trough. “My scar is gone.”
He could almost feel Hercules tense up behind him. “I know, Iolaus. We’ve been through this, when you first got back. Remember?”
He forced himself to nod and put his hand back down to his side. “Yeah.”
Hercules took a few steps forward and turned Iolaus around to face him. “Iolaus… what’s going on? You haven’t exactly been yourself lately.”
“It’s nothing. Really. I just… it was just all a little too much, after what happened in Thebes…”
Hercules nodded sympathetically. “I’m sorry about that. I tried, when it was all over, to explain to everybody what had happened-”
He’s apologizing. Again. “Not your fault,” Iolaus interrupted. “And I don’t blame them.”
Hercules put his hand on Iolaus’ shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay? The dreams… this… I’m worried about you.”
Iolaus really didn’t want to talk about his nightmares outside a barn in the middle of Athens. And he really didn’t want Hercules to keep looking at him with that sad look on his face. “You always worry,” he joked, sliding his grin back into place. “Really, I’m fine. I’m just not ready for all that yet. I think I may just end up going to go to bed.”
Hercules raised his eyebrows. “You’re going to go to bed? Now?” He peered around Iolaus to inside the barn. “Alone?”
Iolaus regarded him with an insulted expression. “Yes,” he said, shortly. “It’s a rarity, but it has been known to happen.” Then he smiled and pushed Hercules back towards the festival. “Now, you on the other hand…”
“…you should go back to the festival and have a good time,” Iolaus continued as if the demigod hadn’t spoken. “You know, have fun. You remember what fun is?”
“I’m not leaving you here in the barn while I go out partying.”
Iolaus snorted. “When was the last time you partied?”
“I party,” Hercules mumbled unconvincingly.
“With who? Salmoneus? Go! Go, go, go!” Iolaus made shooing motions with his hands while Hercules just stared at him incredulously.
“Iolaus, I’m not leaving you here.”
“Why not? I’m fine, I just can’t deal with all that excitement right now, but you can, so go!” He pushed Hercules again, laughing. “Go! Maybe you’ll get laid, the gods know you need it.”
Hercules playfully swatted him on the arm. “Very funny.”
“Who knows, it may loosen you up a little bit, stop you from worrying about me all the time. Go. I’ll be okay. I’m just not ready yet. I still need some time.”
“I’m not leaving,” Hercules repeated forcefully.
Dammit, Herc, you don’t make anything easy…
“I could use some sleep, too,” the demigod was saying. They could still hear the sounds of raucous laughter and dancing music, and he rolled his eyes. “But, I doubt we’ll be getting a good night’s sleep tonight regardless.”
“All the more reason for you to go back to the festival...” Iolaus trailed off, seeing the look on Hercules’ face. “Or, all the more reason for us to head to bed early.”
“Iolaus,” the demigod said cautiously, “I wish you would just talk to me about whatever has been bothering you.”
If I tell you, you’ll think I’m crazy. Or you’ll just apologize to me again, for going to Sumeria. Or you’ll look at me with that face, that horrible, sad, pitying face… “I keep telling you, it’s nothing. Let’s just go to bed.”
“What happened out there wasn’t nothing.”
“Herc, please!” Iolaus snapped angrily, rubbing a hand over his face. “Will you just let it go already?” He sighed at the hurt that flashed in the demigod’s eyes. “Sorry. I’m just really tired, that’s all. I don’t want to talk about it right now.” He could tell Hercules really wanted to push him, and a small part of him almost wanted him to. Maybe they needed a good screaming match, maybe he should tell Hercules all the things that he’d been keeping locked up, maybe…
“Okay, Iolaus,” Hercules said, resignedly. “If that’s what you want.”
For a moment Iolaus was actually shocked. He couldn’t believe the demigod had given up so easily. Blinking, he said, numbly, “Yes. That’s what I want.”
Hercules made a move like he was about to put his hand on Iolaus’ shoulder again, but hesitated. He had hurt his friend’s feelings. He could tell. So, why wasn’t Hercules pressing him more?
“I’ll meet you back at the inn?” Hercules asked, uncertainly. He looked Iolaus over again, waiting for him to respond.
“Yeah.” Iolaus nodded. “Give me a sec and I’ll be there.” Why won’t you argue with me? I’m not going to break, I’m not like the other one…
Hercules nodded shortly and then turned and walked off towards the adjoining building, leaving Iolaus confused and alone. He didn’t know how long he stood there, but sometime in between watching Hercules walk away and when he finally trudged into their room and collapsed into the bed, Iolaus had made the decision.
He didn’t sleep at all that night. He laid in bed, staring at the inn’s shoddy ceiling, listening to the rhythm of Hercules’ breathing mixed in with the sounds of the drums and flutes from the town center where the party was still going strong.
He was going to have to leave. He couldn’t keep doing this. Not to Hercules, and not to himself. And he couldn’t keep lying to himself either, pretending that he hadn’t changed, that everything that had happened – in Thebes and Dacia, and with Sin and Xerxos, and the horror that was Sumeria – hadn’t done something to him. He couldn’t pretend he was better anymore.
Because he wasn’t better. He wasn’t better at all.
And he truly didn’t know if he ever would be.