DISCLAIMER: - these characters are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures and no attempt is made to infringe the copyright thereof. We are just borrowing them and will give them back at the end of the story!

SUMMARY: Okay, I admit it - this is pure h/c, nothing else. There is little or no plot (although it did start out with one and I had every intention of fleshing it out!), and lots of suffering by our glorious golden hunter. Basically, what we have here is Iolaus being very, very ill, and Hercules becoming worried, concerned, anxious and frightened, then scared to death by turn A little grief (well, a lot, actually), is also included - just to ensure that all our dear readers get the idea. (Close friendship h/c = hurting one's favourite from the duo as much and as frequently as possible and having the other go through anguish and pain and the deepest sorrow possible, and then belabouring the point as often as you can ... and I have!)

So, get the hankies out and read on ...


by Cass

Part 1 - Visit to a Small Town ....

"How do you feel?" questioned Hercules gently as his friend's eyes flickered open and focused on him somewhat blearily.

Iolaus couldn't respond to the anxious query immediately; his befuddled mind was too busy attempting to establish whether the excruciating pain he felt was real and if so, from whence, exactly, it originated.

"Iolaus? Are you all right? Can you hear me? Can you speak to me? Iolaus!"

Hercules' voice contained a note of panic and the blond warrior felt guilt wash through him at the notion that he was the cause. "Hold ... hold on a minute, Herc," he gasped, forcing one trembling hand to reach up and grasp his friend's strong forearm in order to reassure him. "I .. I'm still trying to .. figure out an answer to your ... first question."

A shaky smile found its way onto the demigod's strained features, his friend's attempt at levity alleviating, at least a little, the panic which had overcome him when there had seemed to be no response to his initial question. He could see, however, that the blond hunter was still in much physical distress. It was etched only too starkly on his fine, sculptured features, lines of pain hollowing out his cheeks and forcing a grimace to the lips which were so accustomed to smiling. And his eyes - those expressive, amazingly blue orbs - were clouded with the extent of his ordeal and - something else - guilt. Guilt?

"You should rest," he said, forcing into his voice a calm he did not feel, one large hand gently enfolding the smaller one which lay on his arm, the other reaching up to push a stray lock of burnished gold hair from the searing forehead. "There's time enough to talk later."

"No ... no time." Iolaus blinked several times as Hercules' deeply worried countenance faded in and out, overlaid with a strange fog which nothing he did seemed to dispel. "Herc ..."

"You're going to be fine, Iolaus." The demigod choked back the ever-present panic which was attempting to wrest control over his composed exterior as his best friend began to sink back into the stupor from which he had only barely awoken moments before. "I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

"My fault ..." came the barely audible response, as the straining eyelids over the blue eyes finally conceded to their compulsion to close and fluttered down, lashes casting dark shadows on the pallid skin beneath. "Should've been .... more careful. Sorry ...." His voice faded completely away on the last word and Hercules could only watch, helplessly, as his beloved friend lapsed back into an unconsciousness which was like a little death.

The next moment, he arched upward as a wave of pure, undiluted agony coursed through his already weakened frame. Raw terror overwhelmed Hercules as the convulsion continued, seemingly for eons but in reality only a few moments. Then Iolaus's sweat-streaked, sickness-ravaged body flopped back on the bed and the demigod remembered to breathe again.

"Oh gods, Iolaus," he groaned, covering his eyes with one hand, oblivious to the tears streaming down his face. "Please don't die, my friend. Please. I need you. Gods, please don't die ..."

This time there was no response to his entreaty. He choked back a sob borne of anguish and sheer frustration at his inability to help the sick man, and clutched the limp hand all the tighter, almost as though trying to anchor Iolaus to him so that his friend would be unable to set sail toward the Elysian Fields.

"You must rest," came the voice from behind him. Marchus, the healer, whose work in the small, illness-ridden town they had been supplementing with their own rudimentary skills before Iolaus had fallen prey to the same sickness which had already killed so many therein.

The demigod's eyes were awash with tears, his expression bereft as he turned to glance into Marchus's kindly face. "I can't," he replied, with quiet determination. "Not until I know that he's going to be all right."

The other man shook his head sadly. "Hercules, Iolaus's recovery is now in the hands of the gods." Marchus regretted this prognosis almost as soon as he had uttered it as an expression of utter horror swept over the taller man's face. "Perhaps they will be merciful," he tempered. "After all, they have no reason to end your friend's life and every reason to ensure he remains here to continue the fight you both wage against evil."

"There are certain gods who would relish the opportunity to take Iolaus's life," snarled Hercules, in response to the healer's well-intentioned words of comfort. "You obviously know nothing of Hera's hatred of Zeus's bastard son, nor of the war with my half-brother Ares and his sniveling little cohort, Strife. There are others, too, who don't look too kindly on me ... No, Marchus" he continued, bleakly, "the gods have every reason not to be merciful, and that's what terrifies me. I have no-one to call on for help. No-one to beg for the life of my best friend. Hera and the rest know how much I love Iolaus and they would like nothing better than to snatch him away from me. How can I - how can he fight that?"

Marchus was nonplussed. "But surely Zeus ...?"

"Zeus?" echoed Hercules, harshly. "My wife and children were slaughtered by Hera, Zeus's wife, and what did he do? Nothing. He simply stood by whilst they were engulfed in a fireball and allowed it to happen! My father will not intervene for Iolaus. Perhaps if he meant less to me ... " A grim smile found its way past the pain and anguish and he gently squeezed the cool, lifeless hand he still held in his own. "But how can I love him less when each example of his courage, each day with his easy companionship and ready smile and all the proof of his selfless friendship and love of me makes me love him the more?"

"Your friendship is legendary," mused Marchus, brought to the verge of tears himself by the demigod's soul-baring statement and the expression in his eyes as he glanced frequently and often at the unconscious man on the bed before them. "But surely there are some gods who look kindly upon you?"

"Kindly?" Hercules echoed, almost as though the word was foreign to him. Then, "yes, I suppose there are some gods who are less ... capricious than others. But it won't do any good to call on them, Marchus. If this sickness has been visited on Iolaus by Hera, there are none who dare to stand against her. Except me. And the only power I possess is my strength. I don't have any other, especially the power of healing."

"But you do possess another power - just as strong as that of a healer," Marchus said, in a bemused tone of voice, as though astonished that Hercules had not realised it himself. "Yours is the power of love and the strength of your friendship with Iolaus. That which binds the two of you is stronger than anything I have ever seen, and perhaps it will be the impetus which Iolaus requires to find his way back. I can do nothing else here, Hercules, but perhaps I was wrong in seeking help from the gods and mistaken in advising you to rest. You should stay here, with Iolaus, be the torch which lights his path home- and hope that he remembers that his home is here, with you."

The demigod stared after Marchus as the man took his leave, the healer's words ringing in his ears, and swirling around incessantly within his mind. The hand which held the hunter's tightened into a near death-grip as he contemplated the enormity of the task ahead of him, but he could not and would not shrink from his task, if it was indeed within his power to save his friend. His sapphire gaze returned to rest on the inert form of the man who was closer to him than a brother and he made him a silent, heartfelt vow. He would not let him go. Not without a fight. And fight he would - with his very soul as a weapon if necessary.

If only they had never ventured into this town in the first place. If only they had travelled another route - the route which Hercules himself had suggested, taking in peaceful valleys and several well-loved fishing spots. But Iolaus had insisted - unusually turning down the opportunity to indulge in some fishing in some of his favourite streams. He had a friend in Miycea whom he had not seen in some time and he had proposed that the two of them visit with him on their way back to Corinth from their latest adventure together.

Hercules closed his eyes against the incipient tears which were threatening to fall and pondered once more on the fates which had led them here. It seemed incomprehensible to him now how ill-prepared they had been for what they had found upon their arrival in Miycea. They should both have known better than to remain. They should have left whilst they had the chance, whilst they were both still fit and well - whilst Iolaus had been his usual, energetic, irrepressibly cheerful self. But that had never been an option, not once they had discovered the seriousness of the situation in Miycea and the fact that the townspeople had actually looked upon their arrival as a propitious sign from the gods - if only those poor, deluded folk had known, Hercules reflected, bitterly - and even whilst he railed against it now he recognised the futility of his train of thought. This was getting him nowhere. What had happened had happened. There could be no way of undoing it. Still, he could not help wishing that there could be some way of turning back time, retracing their steps so that he and Iolaus could give this poor, decimated town a wide berth and be well on their way to his brother's kingdom, where his entire family were awaiting them.

As he leaned over the sweat-stained, suffering figure of his best friend to gently push away another tendril of damp hair from a forehead which was burning hotter than the furnace of Hades, whispering soothing nonsense words as the hunter moaned and began to mumble deliriously, he wondered, briefly, if he would eventually leave here without a major part of his family. He pushed the stray thought away, angrily. He had made a vow and he was going to keep it. No matter what it cost, no matter what he had to do. All he had to do was concentrate entirely upon his friend, reach the agile mind which the fever and the pain was doing its best to ravage, and he would lead Iolaus home - away from the delirium, out of the sickness and the bone-wrenching muscle spasms which plagued him every few moments. It was so simple. All he had to do was to concentrate.

But he could not prevent a small part of his mind meandering back to the events which had precipitated his current bedside vigil, and remembering ...


They had been travelling for two or three days. Iolaus was ready for a rest - well, actually, he was ready for some decent food and an equally decent bed.

"Don't get me wrong," he told Hercules, as they strode down the trail to the small town, where they could see tiny furls of smoke curling from several of the dwellings' chimneys. "I have nothing against camping out and I love sleeping beneath the stars, but, Herc, much as I enjoy your company, I can't say the same about your cooking."

The demigod hid a smile at this latter remark, instead raising an eyebrow, archly. "And what's wrong with my cooking?" he demanded.

The blond haired warrior stopped in his tracks and stared at his friend uncomprehendingly. "What's wrong with your cooking?" he repeated, his voice climbing about two octaves above normal in his disbelief. "What's wrong with your cooking? Herc, I can't believe you asked me that! You know damned well how awful it really is. I can never understand how someone who has Alcmene as a mother - Alcmene, Herc, whose food has to be tasted to be believed, because it's so amazingly, incredibly, astoundingly ..."

"Good?" Hercules supplied for him as he appeared to be running out of adjectives to describe the demigod's mother's culinary skills.

Iolaus levelled a glare at him and continued, ".. as I was saying, I can't believe how someone who has that kind of paragon as an example can be so ... so ... incompetent at preparing even the simplest thing like a fish! Where did you learn to cook, anyway? Falafel's School for Bad Cooks, or something?"

The taller man affected his best 'offended' expression. "Iolaus, Iolaus," he tutted,
reprovingly, "is that any way to talk to your best friend? Your buddy? The man who rescued you from a fate worse than death in Pursua?"

"You did *not* rescue me!" spluttered Iolaus, indignantly. "I was getting along just fine without *your* help! I had everything under control. I was ..."

"About to get thrown into a very deep well by five very large men," Hercules finished off for him, helpfully.

"I don't know why I bother talking to you," The blond hunter turned away and started down the trail again, leaving Hercules to catch up to him, which he did in two short strides.

"Aw, c'mon, Iolaus," Hercules cajoled him, nudging him gently with his shoulder, and steadying him as the smaller man almost went flying into a rather nasty looking blackberry bush beside the path. "Sorry," he said.

"You *will* be sorry," Iolaus threatened him, glaring up into the grinning face of his best friend and trying to be as mad as he projected, failing dismally in the attempt as his gentian blue eyes twinkled with amusement. "You'll be sorry next time you try to make me eat that disgusting mess which you try to term 'food'. Next time, despite my better judgement, not to mention my prowess as a hunter and my skill as an archer," (he ignored the rather rude snorting noise which erupted from the demigod's nose at this latter part of his self-description) "*You're* going to do the hunting and *I*'m going to do the cooking. At least then what we eat will be edible and I can feel I've actually *had* something to eat!"

Hercules shrugged. "Okay," he said, agreeably. "I can live with that ... course, that could have been my plan all along, you know."

The other man turned a puzzled gaze on him. "*What* could?"

"For you to be so disgusted with the way I cooked food that you offered to do it whilst I did the hunting."

It was Iolaus's turn to snort. "Well, if it was, then you got the harder job," he pointed out. "Besides, you've always been lousy at cooking. Your lousy cooking is almost as much of a legend as you are!"

"I could take exception to that!" Hercules retorted, good-naturedly. "You know I was never very good at .... Iolaus? What do you think is wrong?"

The small warrior noticed what the demigod had seen at about the same time Hercules began to point it out to him. He peered into the town square, which was still some distance away but close enough to make out panicked figures darting to and fro, one of them sinking to its knees in the middle of the quadrangle, obviously in some distress. They could also now hear the muted sounds of wailing and crying, sounds which cut through them, igniting old memories and filling them both with a nameless, shapeless fear as a cold wind crossed their backs almost simultaneously.

As one, they began to run toward Miycea, all banter between them forgotten in the wake of the evident disaster which had occurred below them.


Miycea was in utter chaos. This was only too evident when they reached the outskirts of the small town. The faint wailing and crying which had reached them on the trail had increased tenfold now they were almost upon the place and, somehow, its very volume chilled their bones, even more than did the hopeless, despairing tone of it. Their eyes met as they ran into the town itself, intent on discovering just what had prompted the sheer pandemonium. Trouble was awaiting them - of that they had no doubts. The only question was - what kind of trouble and how could they help these people?

"Are you all right?" Hercules stooped to ask of a woman in front of them. She was crouched on the sandy ground, her face hidden in her hands, sobbing brokenly.

Glancing up, she seemed barely able to acknowledge their presence there as tears streamed down her pallid features. Her eyes were red-rimmed - as though she had been crying for some time - and there were dark shadows beneath them, contrasting alarmingly with the almost bone-white skin of her sunken cheeks. "Who ... who are you?" Her voice was a thin thread of sound, and she regarded both of them with something between suspicion and desperation.

"My name is Hercules," the demigod told her, gently, grasping her arm and helping her to stand, holding her steady as she swayed. He gestured to the blond warrior beside him, who was trying to mask his own concern - without much success. "This is Iolaus."

"Herc ... Hercules?" she managed, her eyes widening. "You're Hercules?"

"Yes, he's Hercules," Iolaus confirmed, as the woman continued staring at his friend as though he were a ghost. "What's going on here? Why all the wailing? Has something terrible happened? Has the town been attacked?"

"A plague," moaned the woman, despairingly, burying her head in her hands. Hercules continued to hold on to her arm, realising that his grasp was possibly the only thing holding her up. "It's a plague!"

"A plague?" Iolaus echoed. He turned horror-stricken eyes to meet those of his best friend. "What .. what kind of plague?"

"A killer." The woman blinked several times and gazed into Hercules concerned features. "So many people have died. So many ... " She broke off and sobbed, quietly, whilst Hercules and Iolaus exchanged appalled glances.

"We have to help them, Iolaus," said the demigod, firmly, moving forward, his momentum taking the woman stumbling along with them. "And this poor woman needs medical assistance. She's burning up!"

"If there's some kind of illness here, and it's as bad as she intimates, Hercules, then there must be somewhere in town where the sick are being treated. I know the healer here - his name is Marchus. His house is just outside of town so I doubt that they're taking the sick there - they wouldn't be able to walk that far if they're all in this condition."

"Is there somewhere in town which could house a large number of people?" Hercules asked of him, fighting now to keep the woman upright, finally ending the struggle to sweep her up into his arms and carry her, without much protest.

Iolaus considered this for a moment, then, "There's the old temple - it used to be on the edge of town until they built more houses and eventually surrounded it. It isn't used any more."

Hercules nodded, then a thought occurred to him. "Whose temple was it?" he asked. It was more than mere curiosity, and he held his breath waiting for the answer, hoping that its abandonment had not angered one of his more capricious relatives, and that all of this was not some judgement sent down on the townspeople in retaliation.

Iolaus smiled, grimly. "It was a temple to Artemis, Herc - these people are mainly hunters by nature. Artemis wouldn't punish them by visiting a plague on them ... would she?"

The son of Zeus shook his head, sighing in relief. He had been half afraid that the temple had been dedicated to Hera or Ares, who would not have hesitated in punishing the town for their temerity in abandoning their worship. Artemis, however, had a tendency to be haughty and took her duties *far* too seriously, but she was not vindictive - at least not to mortals, and certainly would never even have contemplated their full-scale murder, let alone been capable of carrying out such an act of vengeance. "No, Iolaus," he said, at length. "Artemis wouldn't do anything like that. She's not vain enough to care about one small temple."

The hunter regarded him doubtfully for a moment, then nodded. "We'd better get there, then, and see what we can do to help."


The sprawling, ornate structure at the edge of Miycea seemed completely out of tune with the surrounding buildings. Although fallen into disuse, and obviously neglected, it retained its quiet dignity. The four tall, grooved pillars at the front were stained green with moss and ivy was clinging to the sides, twirling around the stonework possessively. This seemed fitting, somehow, however, as did the bright yellow flowering plant which had seeded itself on the peaked roof of the entrance, and hung down, garlanding the doorway with its cheerful blooms. The rest of the stonework seemed untouched, even by the ravages of time. Towering over the smaller buildings on either side of it, which seemed pristine in comparison, it still contrived to look proud and beautiful. The sculptures and inlays in the walls were grimy, but a layer of dirt and dust could not conceal the skill which had gone into creating them. The marble ivy leaf pattern which circled the smoothly hewn murals of deer and arrows had lost some of its lustre but that could not disguise its amazing artistry. All in all, it was impressive, well-constructed and amazingly intact.

It was also a bustling hive of activity - none of it pleasant.

As Hercules and Iolaus approached, they were surrounded by a multitude of people, some of them pale and weak-looking, others more healthy but gaunt and grey with exhaustion. The Miyceans seemed awed and even excited by Hercules' presence in their small hamlet, despite their desperate situation. Their behaviour toward him bordered on gratitude and even relief, and Iolaus quickly realised that they were looking upon his friend as their saviour; that they believed that, now the son of Zeus was here, everything would be all right.

He exchanged a quick, concerned glance with his companion, knowing that Hercules had also surmised the reason behind their persistent clamouring, and also aware, as was his friend, that the demigod was powerless to prevent the sickness which pervaded this entire place from exacting its toll on the population.

Despite the crowd of people who were following them - some of them also recognising and acknowledging Iolaus as both a regular visitor and the best friend of Hercules - they quickly gained entrance into the temple. The cool interior of the vestibule was a relief after the blistering heat of the midday sun, but the scene which met their appalled gaze within the stone-walled temple itself was the stuff of nightmares.

The entire temple was filled with row upon row of sick and dying people. The stench of illness and death hung heavy in the oppressive air, and the constant tortured moans and cries from both the patients and those relatives who remained to mourn them sliced through the hearts of the two observers.

Before they could speak to each other, they were almost pounced upon by a tall, muscular, pleasant-looking man with a shock of long, jet black hair which was scooped back and gathered with an ornate clasp, although long, recalcitrant tendrils of it hung in disarray around his ruddy face.

"Iolaus! Hercules!" he exclaimed, relief and confusion warring for prominence on his familiar features.

"Marchus." Iolaus greeted the man with a warrior's firm handshake. "Looks like you've got your hands full here," he continued, indicating the room with a nod of his head. "Need any help?"

The dark brown eyes kindled in relief. "Gods, yes," came the response. "I don't think I've slept in 6 days and it seems that every day there are 3 or 4 new cases of the sickness. I'm only one man. I've had a little assistance from some of the relatives, looking after their own, but, as you can see, I'm fighting a losing battle just to keep pace with the fever, let alone get ahead of it. Hercules;" He greeted the demigod with a weary smile, then bent forward to examine the woman in the demigod's arms. "Put her down on that cot over there," he directed. "There are some blankets in a pile in the corner of the temple and water and cloths are kept over by the tall window at the back."

"I'll take care of it," Hercules assured him, following his instructions and the direction he had indicated, striding forward to the empty cot to place the woman down gently thereon.

"Looks like all Hades broke loose," Iolaus said to his friend as they moved forward, negotiating through the seemingly endless array of cots and blanket covered forms. "Marchus - what happened here?"

"The fever started about 10 days ago," the healer told him grimly, stooping as they walked to lay a comforting hand on a fevered brow, to administer to a weeping carer and direct a helper to a patient in need of their services. "Sirius returned from a long voyage with a slight fever and raised temperature and two days later, he was dead. It was not an easy demise, Iolaus. The man suffered before he was taken. The disease is characterised by a fever, sometimes low grade, sometimes full blown, but always present in one form or another. But this illness is not simply fever. It includes stomach cramps, spinal convulsions, heart palpitations and delirium. The pain is intolerable - and that, combined with the incredible heat which builds gradually from the fever itself is what has taken so many of my friends and neighbours here."

Iolaus was stunned at the image which Marchus was presenting to him. "How many have died so far?" he managed.

"As of this morning, about 45 people - men, women and children. The disease is no respecter of persons, my friend. It will kill a healthy man just as quickly and as torturously as it will strike down an elderly woman. It spreads quickly. No-one seems immune although there are some who have held out longer than others. It began shortly after Sirius's return. Within a day of his death, I was caring for ten more people, then fifteen, then twenty. Now there are too many for me to count, and as fast as I move, I cannot seem to defeat the monster. It creeps up, insidiously, and strikes like a serpent, and people lay sick and dying and it seems that nothing I do can save them."

The hunter heard the note of anguish in his old friend's voice and grasped the man's shoulder in response, seeking to lend comfort through his touch. Marchus tossed him a grateful glance then shook his head.

"I should not have been so quick to accept your assistance, my friend," he went on. "You should not stay here, Iolaus. You and Hercules should leave, now, before the disease snatches you both into its deadly grasp. I do not wish to be responsible for the deaths of the son of Zeus and his best friend."

"You won't be," announced a new voice. Hercules. He had tended to the woman they had encountered on the street and had arrived beside them just in time to hear Marchus's last gloomy statement.

"Herc, we're not ...?"

"No, we're not leaving, Iolaus." The demigod clasped his friend's shoulder as he forestalled the hunter's question.

"Good." The blond warrior breathed a sigh of relief. "Well, Marchus, it's all settled. We're staying. What do you need us to do?"

"You're sure?" The dark-haired man let out a breath he had not been aware that he was holding. With the demigod and the blond warrior helping him, he at last stood a chance of catching up with the sickness, perhaps even working on his potions for a cure - something he had been unable to do since the disease had begun because of the amount of work which had been forced upon his shoulders. Willing or not, they were now bowed under the strain of the last two weeks.

"We're very sure." Hercules' tone brooked no argument. "You know, Marchus, the
first thing you need to do is lie down and rest. You're exhausted. I know that these people need you, but you're not going to be of any help to them if you collapse. Iolaus and I will take care of things. You get some sleep."

"Herc's right, Marchus," Iolaus concurred, tightening his grip on the man's shoulder. "I would have suggested it myself if he hadn't. C'mon, let me help you. You can tell us what to do and then you can go to sleep. Herc and I will take care of everything."

It was difficult to argue with the demigod's logic. It was impossible to argue when Iolaus lent his not inconsiderable persuasive talents to the argument. Marchus reluctantly agreed to get some rest - but not before giving them a list of instructions which would have made any long-winded scribe proud.

"Now, you're sure you've got all that?" he demanded, leaning back on a cot at the back of the temple, just beneath a small aperture, through which a gentle breeze was blowing. "You're sure you understand it all?"

"Yes, I've got it. Yes, I understand it all," Iolaus replied patiently, forcing his friend back onto the blanket and spearing him with a glare. "Now will you please lie back and rest! And stop worrying! Herc and I might not be healers, but we do possess a modicum of intelligence between us and if anything starts to go seriously wrong or we need you, then we'll get you, okay?"

The healer stared into the cool gentian eyes of his friend, seeing within the concern and the sincerity behind his words. "All right," he conceded, reluctantly. "But you promise to come and get me if there's anything ...?"

"I promise!! Now go to sleep - otherwise I won't be responsible for my actions."

With that threat ringing in his ears, Marchus allowed his aching eyes to close and fell into the deep abyss of sleep before he had the opportunity to have second thoughts.

"He asleep?" Hercules enquired of his best friend as Iolaus returned to his side a few moments later.

The small warrior nodded. "Yeah. Took a bit of persuasion and he's left us a list long enough to paper the entire Pantheon but he's accepted that we'll be okay for a while and he's sleeping like a baby."

"I knew he wouldn't be able to resist your persuasive powers," the demigod said, with a broad grin which disappeared completely a moment later as he surveyed the scene and the task before them. "Iolaus," he continued, in a sombre voice, "Are you sure you're all right with this? I mean - this disease kills. I volunteered our services before even consulting you and I don't want to risk your life ..."

"You know, you're getting to be a real worrywart," the hunter replied, a soft smile illuminating his mobile features as he glanced upward into the worried azure eyes of his friend. "We both wanted to stay, you know that. Herc, we can't just abandon these people. They need help, and if we can give it to them then we have an obligation to do just that."

"Okay." Hercules tried to conceal his increasing anxiety with a smile of his own. "Well, we better get to it before Marchus wakes up and accuses us of negligence."

"Yeah - he would too." Iolaus' tone was rueful, but he was hiding his own worry from his too perceptive friend. If this disease was as virulent as Marchus claimed, and there was no reason to believe otherwise, then they too could end up being two more victims of its deadly thrall.


Helping Marchus administer to and care for the sick townspeople was never going to be an easy task and was made even more difficult because of the number of children who had fallen victim to the terrible plague.

The temple, full to capacity already with the sick and dying, saw a constant stream of new cases. As each new fever spiked, and the convulsions which followed robbed each person of what little strength remained, death became a regular visitor, sometimes striding in and taking suddenly and without warning; in other cases, gliding in on invisible wings and lingering for several days, whilst those helping were forced to stand by and watch, helplessly. No-one was immune. Young, old, weak and healthy. The sickness continued to sweep through Miycea and ravaged its population, who were powerless to do anything to prevent it. Those who were taken were taken at random, seemingly for no reason at all. Those who survived - and there were a number of them - were a part of the same equation. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the manner in which it decimated some, leaving others either untouched or recovered.

The elderly were, of course, the most susceptible. By the time the plague had seemingly run its diabolic course, most of the elders of Miycea were gone. A large majority of the town leaders had been taken, together with many of the previously strong and healthy young men and equally young women.

But it was the children who were the most tragic and most senseless victims. Hercules watched many of them die, witnessed the snuffing out of each bright young life, and each death convinced him that his heart could not possibly withstand any further grief. He was wrong. He lost count of the number of times he had been forced out of the temple, into the daylight, or the dark twilight of the evening, to sink to the soft ground, his head hidden in his hands, dark chestnut hair obscuring his face, as his heart broke, again and again and again.

Iolaus, too, was stricken by the suffering of the children. He used his seemingly irrepressible humour and his apparently boundless energy to conceal the heartache, masking his feelings with a bright smile and a laugh which only Hercules recognised as being false as he tended to those youngsters who had not yet fallen prey to the ever-present spectre of death, attractive as she might be in the guise of Celesta. These children he fed, cared for and told stories to, keeping them enthralled despite their obvious weakness. One in particular, a girl of about 10, with piercing jade green eyes and a tumbling mass of dark chestnut curls, caught his attention. She did not seem as sick as her contemporaries, and when she laughed at one of his silly jokes, adding a few of her own to the mix, the tinkling peal of her childish joy clutched at his heart. From that moment, they became firm friends. He would do anything for her, and she delighted in this kind, gentle, fair-haired warrior paying her the attention she craved but would no longer receive from her parents, who had died in the first wave of the fever.

Hercules watched them as they engaged in avid conversation, their whimsies leading in all sorts of strange and wonderful directions, each vying with the other for the most outrageous storylines. He observed as the girl, whose name was Ariane, helped out with some of the smaller children, her eyes always fixed adoringly on his best friend. He felt the sharp sting of anguish as she grew steadily weaker and sicker until, finally, she too succumbed to the fate which had claimed her entire family.

As he watched her final moments, he felt his chest constrict with both his own anguish and an echo of what Iolaus was feeling. The blond warrior held her as she died, easing her passing to the other side with gentle whispers and a soft kiss on her burning brow. Then she was gone and Iolaus, as though sensing him there, glanced up at him. His eyes were liquid pools of shimmering blue, his face drawn and grief-stricken. Ruthlessly thrusting down his own sorrow, the demigod went to his friend and, crouching next to him, laid a comforting arm across the hunter's back, his other hand reaching up to rest gently on one trembling shoulder.

Two days later, Iolaus himself showed the first signs of contracting the sickness. Hercules was outside the temple, getting some water from the town well, when he heard a scuffling sound at the temple entrance. He glanced back and his heart missed a beat. The blond hunter was clinging precariously to one of the pillars, his right hand running shakily through his tousled golden curls. Even from this short distance, Hercules could see the sweat which poured off his friend's ashen face and the eyes which rose to meet his were febrile and clouded with pain.

"Oh gods, no, Iolaus!!" The demigod dropped the bucket, ignoring the water which soaked his pants leg and sped toward the shivering form. He reached Iolaus' side just as the warrior crumpled, and swung him into his arms, attempting, without success, to force down the utter terror which was threatening to overcome him.


There was no response from the limp form. Desperate, his mind reeling in abject horror, his heart chilled by the sudden manifestation of his worst nightmare, he tightened his embrace, cradling the blond head securely against his shoulder and bolted into the temple, screaming Marchus' name at the top of his lungs.

The healer appeared beside him immediately, his face blanching at the sight of the panic-stricken demigod and the unconscious and very obviously feverish blond hunter.

"My house - now!" he ordered, ushering the chestnut-haired man out of the door of the temple and leading them up the hill. The temple was practically empty now - all its occupants either having been taken to Hades realm or recovered sufficiently to move back into their own homes. It still reeked of sickness, however, and Marchus was sufficiently selfish to want his friend in a place which the deadly disease had not invaded and to which it now clung, like a limpet to each crevice, every niche. Besides, the bed at his home was soft and comfortable, and it was altogether quieter.

Beyond the crushing despair, which threatened to stop his breathing; beneath the overwhelming sense of dread which was holding his heart as hostage, Hercules recognised Marchus's actions and the reasons behind them and felt a sense of gratitude. But it was only fleeting, as he glanced down into the sweat-sheened blanched face surrounded by soft golden curls; felt the heat blasting out of that small, sturdy body and struggled to come to terms with the fact that he could lose Iolaus. This was no dream. This was real. Iolaus was sick with the fever - a fever which had stolen over 70 lives. He could, conceivably die.

"No!" he snarled, daring argument from anyone, defying everyone. "No, I won't let you go. You're not going to leave me, Iolaus. I'm not going to allow it. You hear me? You better get well, because ... because there is no alternative. Not for you. Never for you. Live, Iolaus," he continued, his voice breaking despite his resolve. "Please, please live."

Part 2 - A Friend in Need

Iolaus had been sick now for eight days. It was, Hercules reflected, somewhat bitterly, quite a record. No-one else had been sick longer than a week before succumbing to the heat and the exquisite agony which accompanied the fever. It was quite some testament to the strength and the will of the hunter - and, he mused, impatiently sweeping away a stray tear, quite some testament to the depth of their friendship.

Since the fever had taken and tightened its hold on him, the warrior had been in almost constant pain. At first he had been unconscious, dead to the world, feeling little and unaware of Hercules' constant presence beside him. Then had come the delirium, during which he had called out several names - most of which Hercules knew, including his own, which was the most frequent word to escape those parched lips - some of them he barely recognised. Iolaus had also called out for Ania on several occasions, all of which had speared Hercules' ripping heart with a fear which seemed eternal, as the darkness which was threatening his dearest friend's life was eternal.

Inbetween the delirium had come periods of lucidity - occasions when Iolaus would awaken, always reluctantly, always suffering the most excruciating spasms of undiluted agony. He would leave, temporarily, his fever-ridden dreams, become aware of the outside world and the voice which spoke to him almost constantly and he would force open eyes which could barely see through the pain which assaulted him from every crevice of his traitorous body. Hercules would watch this slow, torturous process, feeling an agony of his own, both relieved and glad to be able to speak to his friend and have Iolaus speak coherently to him, but anguished beyond words for the effort it was costing him and the agonising torment he could see in the dark-ringed gentian blue eyes.

The fever and the disease itself had whittled down the warrior's fine body. He had been unable to keep anything down and what little water they had managed to force into his parched throat had been negated by the sweat which swam from every pore of his poor, wasted frame.

But he was still alive. And for that, Hercules was grateful, even though guilt assailed him day and night for the begging, the pleading to which he had resorted to keep Iolaus with him. Sometimes, when he had regained a modicum of consciousness, and had been unable to speak beyond the pain which assaulted his very nerve endings, the blond warrior had looked at Hercules with an expression of such despair, such helplessness, his mute, pain-darkened blue eyes begging his friend to let him go, to stop this never-ending torment, that the demigod had been forced to look away. He was so afraid. He knew that, if he allowed himself to meet that beseeching gaze, he would weaken. He would be unable to bear seeing his closest friend in this condition any longer and would utter the words which he was determined would never pass his lips. So he hardened his slowly shattering heart, averted his gaze and waited until Iolaus had slipped back into insensibility, then he would look upon that dear, familiar face and continue to urge his friend to stay. Don't leave. Please don't leave.

His conversation with Marchus of two days ago seemed a lifetime away now. He had been determined, then, to do everything in his power to prevent his childhood friend from dying. But nothing had changed. No, he corrected himself, everything had changed. Iolaus' condition was deteriorating with every passing moment. He himself was more terrified than he had ever imagined he had the capacity for, and the world had shrunk to this small room, to this small, withered figure, to the trembling, rasping voice, the gaunt, sallow features and the great heart which still beat beneath the sweat-stained chest.

So deep was he in his contemplation that he did not realise that the man who was so uppermost in his thoughts had awoken.

"H ... Herc?"

The demigod snapped his eyes open with a start at the weak but gloriously familiar voice. "Iolaus! You're awake!"

"You're ... why are you still here?" It was obvious that the warrior was having difficulty remaining conscious. His eyelids fluttered, and he fought to focus on the bleary image of his friend. It had a disconcerting tendency to waver in and out and was distinctly blurry around the edges. When the wavering form spoke, it was with a tone of fond exasperation.

"Well, that's a dumb question. Where else would I be when you're sick?"

"Oh ... dunno. Off killing a few dozen monsters, maybe ... fighting off a coupl'a warlords ... rescuing a damsel in distress for good measure ..."

"What - without you? What fun would that be?" Hercules' voice held a teasing note, but it was overlaid with the deep anxiety which had taken up residence therein since Iolaus had become ill. The blond hunter sighed, fighting back the waves of pain which were attempting to wrest away his consciousness and prevent him from trying to speak to his friend.

"Herc ... maybe you should."

"Maybe I should what?" Hercules' frown deepened at the words.

"Go. Maybe you should leave me ..."

His friend snorted derisively. "You're obviously still delusional. Why would I want to do that?"

"You should go, Herc," Iolaus persisted.

Hercules narrowed his eyes, the familiar icy fear reinstating its grasp on his aching heart and chilling it. "What are you saying, Iolaus?"

"I can't do this." It was almost a whimper and the demigod's throat clenched at the pain and distress which was so evident in the small voice. "It's ... too hard."

"Iolaus ..."

"Let me go, Herc. Please."

"No!" Hercules practically shouted the word. Iolaus flinched slightly, taken aback by the extreme reaction, although somewhere within his jumbled thoughts was the realisation that he might have expected Hercules to give this answer Noting the expression of surprise which flashed in the blue eyes, the demigod's voice quietened, growing gentle and loving as his fingers caressed the back of one limp, cool hand. "I can't do that, my friend," he went on. "I need you too much. What would I do without you? Who else would be reckless enough to want to fight at my side. Who else would be there for me whenever I need someone? Who could I rely on to take me down a peg or two when I'm getting swell-headed? No, Iolaus, you can't go anywhere. I can't let you. Besides," he continued, forestalling a weak attempt at an interruption from the blond, "you're not going to die. You're going to get well. You're not gonna let this thing beat you."

"Oh, Herc ..." Iolaus sighed, brokenly. "It already has ... don't you see? Please - if you love me, please ... let me go."

"I can't ..." Hercules allowed the tears to fall. If Iolaus saw them perhaps he would retract his plea. Perhaps he would try harder. Perhaps the moon would be made of goat's cheese ...

"It ... hurts, Hercules." The agonised whisper broke down his badly shored defences, washing over them and piercing his heart.

"I know," he whispered back. He leaned forward, laying his weary head on the paled chest, listening to the rapid heartbeat, hearing the wheezing breaths emerge from the tortured lungs. This wasn't fair! None of this was fair! But he had already railed against this - he had done everything in his power to prevent this day and yet here it was, upon him, and he knew, with a sinking certainty, that he could not refuse Iolaus this one request - even if it killed them both in the process. And it would. For if he permitted his best, his dearest friend the freedom to die, then surely the hunter would be taking two souls with him on his journey to Hades kingdom.

And he would permit Iolaus that freedom. It had been his own stubborn pride, his own burning desire to keep his childhood companion with him at all costs which had, in the end, caused the hunter more suffering than his beleaguered body could tolerate. He would not allow his selfish love of his friend to continue that suffering. He had to concede that the battle was lost, the war over and that the vanquished warrior had the right to choose his next path. Even if conceding that did not make his acceptance any less a lie.

"I know," he repeated, lifting his head from the warmth which was Iolaus and smiling sadly into those piercing blue eyes. His left hand sought that beloved face and tenderly stroked one pallid cheek. "I'm sorry, buddy. I'm so sorry. I know I have to let you go, but ... it's just been so hard ... you know?"

There was a slight nod from the tousled blond head. Incapable of further speech as the disease robbed his body of even that last vestige of dignity, Iolaus was determined to convey to Hercules his gratitude at his final surrender, but darkness was zeroing in again and the faint buzzing in his ears told him that oblivion was on her way to claim him once more. He fought against the sweet blackness which had at least given him some respite from the pain, and was successful for a moment or two - just long enough to force a tremulous smile to his aching lips and move his numb fingers beneath the gentle touch which was Hercules hand.

As he watched his beloved companion yield once more to the omnipresent darkness which claimed more and more of what precious little time he spent awake, the demigod bent his head and wept.

Some hours later, Hercules lifted his bleary eyes from the gaunt, bone-white face in front of him for a moment, and blinked. The sun, streaming in through the shutters, cast its golden rays over the bed and played gently with the shadows of the room, sending the contours of the sparse furniture into sharp relief and warming the entire place, suffusing it with its friendly light.

The demigod rose from the chair in which he seemed to have spent a lifetime and stumbled to the window, throwing back the shutters to allow the sun unimpaired entry. He glanced upward at the sky. It was a magnificent, azure blue - the colour of his best friend's eyes, he reflected, dismally - and there was not a cloud to be seen.

It was a beautiful day outside.


He glanced back toward the bed, toward that temporarily still, silent, tortured husk which held the soul of the human he loved most in the world, and came to a decision.

In three strides, he was standing once again beside the sickbed. Grim-faced, he reached down, and pulled one of the blankets around the wraith which was Iolaus and, slipping his arms around the unresponsive body, gathered him up and cradled him against his chest, the blond head nestled protectively against one broad shoulder.

As he turned, Marchus entered the room. His curious look was silenced by the resolve in the demigod's face and he nodded. "You're taking him outside," he said. It was not a question.

"If he's going to die," said Hercules, his voice cracking on the last word, his heart and mind still unable to accept the inevitable, "then it should be surrounded by nature and beauty, and in the arms of a friend - not in some godforsaken sickroom, with echoes of his suffering in every corner, every niche."

Marchus nodded. "It certainly can't do him any harm at this stage," he said, grimly. "And it *is* a beautiful day."

Their brief conversation over, Marchus watched as Hercules carried his dying friend out into the sunshine and walked over to a large oak tree on the small hill outside the building in which Iolaus's life had slowly been ebbing away. There he settled, holding the smaller man so close to his own body that he could feel their two hearts beating almost as one, Iolaus's shallow, wheezing breaths fluttering against his windpipe.

"I know I have to let you go, Iolaus," he murmured to the blond hunter, unsure if the other man could hear his words, but needing to say them just the same. "The Gods know - I don't want to. I would give anything - even my own life - to give you back your health and strength. But fate seems to have decreed otherwise for you, my friend and ... you were right. I can't bear to watch you in such pain. It's only for selfish reasons that I held on to you this long - I don't know what I'm going to do without you. I can't even bear to consider my life without you in it - even with your constant complaints about my cooking!" his own attempt at humour fell flat as he almost sobbed the words. "Iolaus?" There was no response from the frail body which he held so tightly in his strong arms, and he went on, trying valiantly to suppress the ever-threatening tears. "But it isn't fair to you to allow you to hold on to this life for my sake - not when you have to suffer so much. And if I truly love you, then I will allow you to leave ... leave me ... because ... because ... oh gods, Iolaus, this is too hard! I don't want to lose you! I don't want you to leave me! I want you to open your eyes, say you feel much better and stay - please, Iolaus. Please stay."

He did not expect a response to his desperate, heartfelt entreaty. Tears blurred his vision as he finally succumbed to the despair which had been threatening to overwhelm him for days. Therefore he was not witness to the pain-darkened, deeply shadowed eyes opening and blearily focusing on his gaunt, unshaven face. From somewhere, Iolaus found the strength to free his right hand from the confines of the blanket and feebly reach up to wipe away the moisture which was streaming, unchecked, down Hercules' cheeks.

"Herc ..."

It was the thinnest thread of sound, barely even a whisper. But above the rustling of the leaves above him, above the cheerful chirruping of the birds and the other sounds of nature, Hercules heard it, and forced a faint smile as his gaze met and held that of the ailing man in his arms. "Iolaus."

"Herc ... you ... I'm sorry ... can't ... stay ..."

The demigod's upper teeth sank into his lower lip at his friend's words, uttered in a voice dredged from Hades itself. He knew he should say something - beg Iolaus not to go, plead with him to hang on - just a little longer - but he couldn't. It wasn't fair, he raged, silently, again. None of this was fair. Iolaus shouldn't be lying limply in his embrace, about to embark on his final journey to the Elysian Fields. This wasn't how it was all supposed to end - in some unknown, unremembered town far from anywhere, from a fever which had stolen his strength little by little, day by day, and then burned into his muscles, his bones, his very being, stealing him away from everyone and everything he loved; forcing him to leave behind a best friend who had never envisaged life without him, and who would never forget that once he had a friend who loved him despite and because of who he was. That once he had had a friend who meant everything to him. They had been meant to die heroes, back to back. They had pledged that as children, had meant it too. How could that happen when one of them had died of some stupid, insidious sickness which, years from now, would be obsolete and recalled only as a story to frighten children.

"Iolaus ..."

"It's ... beautiful out here," murmured the hunter, a sweet smile illuminating the pain-etched features. "Herc ... it's Ania. Ania's here ..."

Hercules had now passed from grief into sheer terror. Ania? If Iolaus could see Ania then it meant .. "No-o-o-o-o-o!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" he screamed, hoarsely, the word echoing sharply in his memory - another occasion when Iolaus had died in his arms. That time he had been able to bring him back by making a deal with Hades. This time there was to be no such deal, and he could no more bring his best friend back to life than he could walk upon the stars which had shone so brightly last night, illuminating the night sky with their distant brilliance. "Iolaus!" He shook the slight figure as those incredibly blue eyes dimmed and were covered by the closing eyelids, long lashes fluttering once, twice against the pronounced cheeks, then were still.

He did not know how long he sat there, gently rocking the cold, motionless body of his best friend. One large hand reached out to tenderly stroke the inanimate face, trying to ease the lines of stress which had been painted on the beloved features during Iolaus's illness. He could not bring himself to believe that that face would never again break out into the smile which rivalled the sun itself for splendour; that those gentian eyes would never again twinkle with merriment, cloud over in sadness or look upon him with all the love which the hunter had held in his heart for Hercules. Nor could he bring himself to accept that from hereonin, he would be alone. No boyhood friend with whom he could share confidences, no constant companion, whose ability to endow every journey with laughter and the sheer, unfettered joy of simply being alive had made him a necessity in the demigod's life. The world was already a colder, more unfriendly place. He could feel it. The part of him which had not been so cruelly ripped out of him by Iolaus's passing cowered away from it. How could he continue without all that Iolaus had been to him - was still, despite his departure from his earthly life? Who would make him laugh when he was sad or tense, tease him when he became overbearing, console him when he was in despair, fight alongside him in every battle regardless of the cost to his own mortality? Who would be there for him, whenever he needed someone who believed in him - Hercules, the son of Alcmene, not Hercules the famous demigod; who could ever replace such a friend, such a comrade, such a unique and amazing individual?

Tears rained down his bloodless cheeks unheeded as all of these thoughts haunted him in the wake of Iolaus's death, and he clutched the slight form ever closer, lowering his head to rest his forehead against the well-loved features. This action brought his mouth close to Iolaus's lips, and for one crazy, hysterical moment, he wondered if he could restore his best friend to life by bringing their mouths together, so that they shared the same breath, the same life.

It was a thought born of grief and despair. The rational part of his mind forestalled any such act by bringing him rudely to his senses, forcing him to realise the utter stupidity and futility of it. Nothing he could do would bring back the soul of the body in his arms. The bright, uninhibited spirit was gone, and the sun suddenly shone less golden, its streaming rays, splintering through the sturdy branches of the spreading oak, attired in all its summer finery, bathed the two figures sheltered beneath with an effulgence somehow tempered and dulled by the darkness which splintered what remained of the demigod's tortured soul.


More time passed, Hercules completely oblivious to its progress. His entire world consisted of pain and loss and the body he was clasping so firmly to his broad chest that his own breathing was constricted. Therefore, when the still figure moved slightly against him, and he felt the heartbeat next to his stutter briefly then, unbelievably, joyously, resume its steady rhythm, he was at first incredulous and then overjoyed. Elation filled him; his own heart, splintered, bleeding, then, scant moments ago, shattered into tiny pieces, began to heal, its disparate parts re-attaching themselves to each other almost as though never broken as his soul welcomed back its other half, rejoicing in the reunion. "Iolaus?" he managed, in a rasping voice, gazing down in rapt wonder at the hunter, watching in speechless shock as Iolaus turned his head slightly and struggled in a weak attempt to free himself from the demigod's near-death-grip.

"H ... " The hunter's throat was too raw; his voice was unable to form the sound of his friend's name. Strange, he thought, blinking rapidly in a vain attempt to clear his fogged vision, he could have sworn that moments ago he had been elsewhere, talking to someone - someone warm, and soft and beautiful; someone he had loved very much for a very long time; someone whose memory still seared his heart whenever he remembered her.

He gave up the struggle to recall what it was his recalcitrant memory refused to bring forth and instead snuggled further into the warmth which he recognised as his best friend. A distant throb of recently-remembered pain made him wince a little but it was nothing. He seemed to recall a burning heat coursing through him, but that was gone, and with it the almost desperate and, he thought, in sudden amusement, somewhat uncharacteristic need to give up. With a deep sigh, he sank into blissful oblivion - and she, in turn, welcomed him as a mere visitor rather than a permanent resident in her realm.

Hercules panicked as his friend lapsed back into unconsciousness, until he realised that the heart still beat beneath his hand; that the warm breath was tickling his throat. Tears of utter joy coursed down his pale cheeks and he rocked the lax body to and fro, completely bewildered by this extraordinary yet wonderful turn of events. Iolaus was alive! He had been dead, and now he was alive. 'He *had* been dead, hadn't he?' pondered Hercules, his thoughts running round his befuddled mind in crazy circles. 'Maybe not,' he told himself. 'Maybe I just thought he was dead.' But beneath the heady exhilaration , beneath the elation, he *knew* that Iolaus *had* been dead. Again. And now he was alive - again. Alive - but not recovered. With a strangled curse at himself, Hercules tightened his hold on the unconscious man and practically ran back into Marchus' house.

The healer turned, his face steeled, expecting the worst. When he saw the expression on Hercules' face, however, he stepped back apace. The man looked wild. Worse, he looked completely out of his head. Fearful that Iolaus' death had completely unhinged his best friend, Marchus moved to one side, intent on finding something with which he could fend off the expected attack - for surely Hercules would blame him, another of Iolaus' friends, for failing both the blond warrior and the demigod himself.

"Hercules..." he began.

"He's alive!"

"Wh ... what?"

Hercules bounded forward, stopping in front of Marchus, sealing his escape route. "He's alive, Marchus," he repeated. He could barely keep the excitement from his voice. He thought that at any moment he might sing, jump for joy, break out into an uncontrollable fit of laughter - anything, to celebrate the fact that his dear friend had been returned to him. But Iolaus still needed the services of a healer - and why was Marchus looking at him so strangely? "He's alive," he repeated, forcing himself to calm down, needing to explain. "He was dead - and now he's alive."

"Dead?" echoed the black-haired man, warily, searching the demigod's azure eyes for the sure signs of madness. "He was dead?"

"And now he's alive," reiterated Hercules. Gods, why couldn't the man *see* what he was trying to tell him?

Marchus leaned forward to examine the limp body in the demigod's arms and was stunned as he felt first the pulse at the base of the corded throat and then the cool dampness of the warrior's pale face. "By the grace of the gods!" he exclaimed. "He's alive! And what's more - his fever has broken!. Hercules," he glanced upward into the equally mesmerised face of the warrior's companion. "I think he's going to be all right. Iolaus is going to live!"

"He is?" Hercules smile would have put the sun to shame. It blistered out of his grey, exhausted features like a beacon, shining with all the love he felt for the friend he held in his strong arms. "Yeah - he is. Told you he was alive."

"He still needs to be cared, for, though," stated Marchus, quickly regaining control of both the situation and his own emotions, the latter of which vacillated between euphoria and complete disbelief. "Are you strong enough to hold him for a few moments whilst I go and change the bed? I don't want him to be put back into soiled bed linen. I won't take long. I promise."

"Take all the time you need," the demigod told him, happily, gazing down at the figure nestled securely in his embrace. "I don't mind."

"You will when your back starts to ache," Marchus predicted somewhat sternly. "I won't be long."

Far too short a time later for Hercules' liking, he was placing Iolaus back into the fresh bed, drawing up sweet-smelling linen and taking his place on the chair beside him.

"You're surely not going to stay there?" Marchus questioned him as he came into the room carrying a bowl of water and some cloths. "Hercules, you haven't slept in days. Iolaus is going to be all right - he'll still be in some pain until the last of the disease has been expelled from his body, but it will be nowhere near as bad as that which he has undergone before. I can look after him. You need to rest."

Hercules met his eyes levelly. "I have to stay, Marchus," he replied. "Don't you see? I have to be here when he wakes up. I was here when he was ...dying, and now I'm going to be here to be the one to tell him that he really is going to be all right. That he's going to live." He sounded like he was explaining things to a small child and the healer would have taken offence had he not been witness to the heartache which Iolaus' illness had caused for his dearest friend over the last week or so. He therefore found it easy to bite back a sharp retort.

"Very well." The tone was eminently patient, with a hint of exasperation thrown in for good measure. "Just don't blame me when you fall off that chair and knock yourself out on the floor because you're too tired to stay seated any longer."

The demigod shrugged, then frowned as Marchus drew back the bedclothes. "What are you doing?" he enquired.

"If you weren't so tired, you'd realise that I'm preparing to wash my patient" As if to demonstrate his words, Marchus dipped one of the cloths in the water, which he had placed on the table by the bed and prepared to run it over the sweat-grimed body. Hercules pre-empted his actions, however, by gently removing the cloth from his hand. "What ...?"

"I'd like to do it." The son of Zeus spoke quietly, a note of entreaty in his voice.

Marchus glanced between him and the sleeping warrior and relented. "Very well," he said. "I'll be in the kitchen if you should need me. I'll go prepare some broth for Iolaus and something a little more substantial for you and I."

The closing of the door left the two friends alone. Admittedly one of them was unconscious whilst the other was now wide awake, but then, Hercules reflected, Iolaus would never have kept still for a bedbath - even one given by his best friend - had he been aware enough to protest.

Slowly, he laved the cool, damp cloth across the broad shoulders, wiping away the beads of moisture which had gathered there. The golden warrior never stirred beneath his sure, gentle touch as Hercules stroked the material over the smooth, tawny chest and flat abdomen, pausing to bite his lips as he solemnly noted the too prominent ribcage, vowing to himself to ensure that Iolaus regained the weight he had lost as quickly as he could. Dipping the cloth back into the slightly scented water, he wrung it out, and trailed it down muscled arms, around the wrists, where the pulse beat strongly, assuring him that life still thrummed within this beloved form, and onto the hands, with their long, sensitive fingers.

He lingered over this bathing of his friend, unable to tear his eyes away from the sleeping figure, and needing the touch to ensure that his lifelong companion was still here and not just some figment of his imagination.

He washed the golden hair last, running his fingers through the soft curls and remembering that he had almost lost something very precious this day. Something which could never be replaced, and something which would have utterly destroyed him had it gone forever, so soon.

At length he put the cloth aside, pulled the bedlinen back to cover the hunter, and leaned back in his chair, gazing at the bed.

Marchus' visit with the food was a necessary but barely felt interruption. Before feeding himself, however, he helped Marchus with Iolaus, holding him against his strong chest as the healer spoon fed the broth into the passive form. Then the healer was gone again and Hercules settled back to keep watch.

The afternoon wore on; the shadows wavered and lengthened in the decreasing light from the departing sun and dusk's arrival gradually merged them into one. Darkness fell, sending the daytime animals into their various homes for sleep, and awakening the more nocturnal creatures which roamed the dark, their nightly chorus adding a sweet poignancy to the vigil which the tall, bronzed, well-muscled man kept.

Early the next morning a muffled groan from the bed alerted the demigod to his friend's impending return to awareness. Hercules watched as the muscles in that beloved face began to twitch, and waited impatiently for those familiar blue orbs to open and focus on him. Eventually, his vigil was rewarded when, with another, louder groan, Iolaus shifted slightly under the thick blankets and his eyes fluttered open, wandering blearily around until they focussed on the figure leaning over him, and a tremulous smile appeared.

"Hi." The voice was weak and hoarse, rasping from a throat parched from dehydration and rubbed raw by the reluctant screams which had been torn from it through his illness.

"Hi yourself. How d'you feel?"



The hunter's smile widened slightly. "Okay - feel like I just took on all of Echidna's and Typhon's kids at the same time ... and lost," he admitted, somewhat ruefully.

"Feel awful then, huh?" Hercules translated.

"Yeah ... but better. D'you know what I mean?"

"Yeah." Hercules smiled and, leaning over, brushed back a stray lock of clean blond hair from the pale forehead. "Your fever broke last night. It was touch and go there for a while. I thought ... I thought I was going to lose you." He swallowed hard at the memory those words evoked - of holding his best friend in his arms whilst the last breath was expelled. The familiar body, eaten away by fever and sickness going still and cold beneath his hands; the turquoise eyes shuttered away forever. If he never lived through a nightmare like that again, it would be too soon.

Iolaus watched the distant pain flicker through his best friend's deep blue eyes and felt a shudder of remorse. "Sorry," he said, simply.

"Sorry?" the demigod echoed in bewilderment. "What do you have to be sorry for?"

"Being sick."

Hercules sighed, heavily and he gently squeezed the cool hand which he was holding firmly within his own. "Iolaus, why do you always apologise for things which are not your fault?" he demanded, in fond reproof.

The hunter smiled wanly. "I guess I get it from you," he said.

The demigod narrowed his eyes, "Are you saying I have some kind of guilt complex?" he demanded, the laughter lurking in those azure orbs and barely concealed within his voice giving lie to the stern tone.

The hunter shrugged, regretting the action immediately as a sliver of pain arrowed through him, not the intense agony which seemed to have been his constant companion for the last few weeks, but still sufficient to make him wince, although he tried hard to prevent it.

"Iolaus ..."

"No .. " he whispered, breathing hard to try to compensate for the searing, knife-edged tendrils which continued to resonate through his entire body. "I'll ... be okay. Just give me a minute."

Hercules could only look on, helplessly, as his beloved friend fought to overcome his pain. Marchus had told him that this would lessen as time wore on; that, now he was on the road to recovery, Iolaus would not have to undergo again the excruciating agony which had gnawed away at his health and strength and spirit. But that knowledge did not help the son of Zeus as he was forced to stand by and watch the hunter fight this latest battle alone. He tightened his grip on the small hand and reached out with the other to tenderly stroke the whitening, contorted features, hoping that his touch would help to ease the blond through this most recent attack.

At last, the pain lessened, and slowly dissipated, settling down to a dull ache. Iolaus' face regained a little colour, although he was still frighteningly pale, and the strained, pinched expression smoothed out as he uttered a small sigh of relief.

"Boy, this isn't any fun at all," he breathed. "I've had fun, and this isn't it!" He was trying to make light of the situation, and realised he was failing dismally when no answering smile appeared on the face of his dearest friend. "Herc, I'm okay. Really. You said I was gonna be fine ..." he broke off and considered his words for a moment, then went on," well, actually, you didn't say that, but I am - right?"

The demigod nodded, not trusting himself to speak for a moment. His friend's continued suffering - although much diminished, was forcing to the surface all those thinly veiled memories of the last few weeks, and most especially of the day before. He could still hear Iolaus begging him to let him die, trying so desperately to remain brave and stoic even when he could not prevent the tears of pain sliding down his gaunt, white face. Hercules would never be able to forget the anguish he had felt when he had been forced to promise the tormented hunter that he would let him go. He had seen the relief which had entered the pain-darkened gentian eyes, and had been unwilling to admit, then, even to himself, that his words were a lie. That he could no more let Iolaus go than he could fly. It was the first time he had ever knowingly lied to his friend, and he would do it again in a heartbeat, if it would bring comfort to the warrior.

But Iolaus *was* getting better. Marchus had assured him of that, although he was still at a loss to explain how the blond could have come back to life after apparently dying in his friend's arms (again, thought Hercules, bitterly). He attributed it to some miracle, perhaps wrought by some of the more merciful gods, and Hercules, for once, could not disagree with him. Perhaps that was the case. Or perhaps not. It didn't matter. What mattered was that his best friend, brother of his heart, was here, alive and recovering, albeit slowly and still occasionally wracked with pain. And Hercules would remain by his side, administering to his every need, until he was well again and they could leave this wretched place.


The gentle voice intruded on his contemplation, and he glanced down to find Iolaus spearing him with that intent, perceptive gaze which always seemed capable of reaching down into the demigod's soul and searching out the truth.

"Yes, you're going to be fine, my friend," Hercules assured him, finally answering the question the warrior had posed some moments before. "It's going to take a little while, and we're going to have to take it slowly, but you're going to be okay."

Iolaus smiled again. "Oh, good," he said. "I was beginning to think ... that there was something you weren't telling me."

There was, thought Hercules, with an answering grin which did not quite reach his eyes. He would never be able to tell Iolaus of his complete despair and utter desolation when it had seemed that the hunter had drawn his last breath upon this earth. For the third time he had bidden the demigod 'goodbye' from the shelter of Hercules' arms, and it was the fourth time he had died. Hercules realised he might never discover just how or why his friend had returned to life, and he really didn't care - he was just grateful that it had happened. But he would never be able to talk about it - nor of the preceding weeks when the hunter had been so ill, fading fast, not even with the man himself. The wound was too raw, the memories too painful.

No, from this time forward they should concentrate on life - on their lives, together and apart.

"There is nothing I wouldn't tell you, Iolaus," he told his friend, marvelling at the fact that he was having a conversation with someone who should have been dead - *had* been dead - yesterday; ignoring for the moment the fact that this was his second lie in as many days. "I'm glad you're back with me, my friend."

"Hmm." The hunter lay, quiescent, for a moment, his eyes closed. Hercules was beginning to think he had fallen asleep when the gentian blue eyes opened and focused directly on him. For one moment, the demigod wondered if his friend had seen through his deception and had discovered his two fabrications. But when Iolaus spoke, his heart missed a beat for another reason. "I thought I saw Ania," he said, quietly, his voice serious, sad. "I'm sure I remember seeing Ania. Herc - that's not possible - is it? I mean - Ania's dead, and I wouldn't have seen her unless ... Herc?" The son of Zeus had turned very pale, and Iolaus' hand tightened on the one which still held his tightly within its grasp. "Herc - what is it?"

Long moment passed, long, anxious moments when Iolaus did not think the demigod was going to respond to either his question or his last entreaty. "I think you saw her, Iolaus," he said, at length. His voice was a flat monotone, his expression was haunted. "You said her name just before you ..."

"Just before I what?"

Hercules gazed at him, measuring what he had to say with his friend's ability to both comprehend and recover from it. The blue eyes which met his were full of confusion, tinged with a healthy amount of fear, but confusion would be taken care of by explanation; the fear was something which they had in common and with which they could help each other. "You're still weak, still recovering, Iolaus," he said, giving them both one last opportunity to leave the past few days behind them. "Are you sure you want to hear this?"

There was not even a moment's hesitation. Just as he knew there would not be. As with all things, Iolaus faced the unknown head on and with courage enough for 10 mortal men. Certainly with enough courage for both of them. "Yes," he said, firmly, settling himself more comfortably in the bed, reaching behind him for the pillows until Hercules, exasperated by his attempts to fluff them up, did it for him.
"So come on - tell me. Tell me what happened."

Hercules did just that.

Iolaus became quiet and reflective for a few days afterward. Then he rallied and, as his recovery continued, so the pain lessened and disappeared entirely and whilst he was recovering his strength, Hercules was discovering that Marchus was distantly related to Asclepius, which explained both his profession and the fact that he had escaped the plague - even watered down divine blood offered a modicum of protection from some of the more virulent evils of the world.

Within two weeks, the golden warrior was such an irritable patient that Marchus threatened to kill him at least three times per day. Hercules stayed out of the way of both of them and helped the Miyceans choose new town leaders and assess the full damage to their town.

Two weeks after that, the two friends were back on the road to Corinth. Marchus had given Hercules strict instructions to ensure that Iolaus rested and ate properly. The demigod, knowing Iolaus' appetite for food, had laughingly reassured him on the second point - the first instruction, however, was going to be a little more difficult for him to enforce. He did promise to try - but couldn't hold out much hope. Unless he hogtied the blond warrior it was going to be next to impossible to keep him still.


The demigod and the warrior had stopped for the night at one of their favourite fishing holes, with Hercules vowing to stay away from any potential trouble spots like towns and villages. Iolaus had caught the fish whilst the demigod built the fire and, true to his word so many weeks earlier, the warrior was taking care of the cooking.

"Yeah?" Hercules' response to his friend was a little distracted - mostly due to the delicious aroma wafting in his direction from the fire.


The demigod forgot the fish. He turned to meet the warrior's frank gaze and frowned. "For what?" he queried. "I only built the fire. You wouldn't let me catch the food or cook it!"

"I didn't mean that." Iolaus' expression was serious, but a gentle smile appeared on the mobile face - which was still a little too pinched for Hercules' liking, but some of his mother's cooking and some time on their own would fix that.

"What did you mean?"

"Thanks for looking after me while I was sick."

Hercules' eyes widened. "What did you think I was going to do?" he demanded, "leave you there, alone?"

"I wasn't alone," Iolaus reminded him, gently. "I had Marchus there."

"Yes, you did," the demigod conceded, then continued, "and I know he's your friend, Iolaus but still - he's not your best friend - *I* am. *You're* *my* best friend. You would do the same for me. Surely it doesn't come as a surprise that I would be there for you, look after you when you are ill or injured."

"No," Iolaus admitted, "but it must've been tough - and I wouldn't have blamed you if you'd've wanted to leave."

Hercules sighed heavily. "Iolaus ..." Taking a deep breath, he speared his dearest friend with his azure gaze. "My friend, you would *never* have left me had our positions been reversed. Why do you always find it so hard to accept that you are just as important to me as I am to you? In fact, how dare you believe that I mean more to you than you mean to me when actually, the opposite is true? I need you *far* more than you will ever need me, however much you *do* need me. You have no idea what it means to me to have you as my friend, no idea at all, and I'm not sure I could even explain it - but you underestimate yourself when you make statements like that, Iolaus, something I would *never* do. You are my best friend, my conscience, my confidante, brother of my heart ... I would never be anywhere else other than with you especially when you so sick. Iolaus, I almost lost you. I can never explain to you just exactly what that meant to me, although I gave it a damned good try back at Marchus'. You are the most exasperating, irreverent, irrepressible person I have ever known and I wouldn't change you for anything. (Because you're also brave, loyal, staunch, generous, compassionate and caring', he thought to himself, but did not say aloud to his somewhat stunned looking friend). Now - can we *please* eat? I'm starving!"

Iolaus, open mouthed at this tirade and concealing his delight at the actual words
was not exactly at his most erudite. "Huh?"

Hercules sighed patiently. "Fire? Fish? Eat?" he said, miming the action with his hands.

The blond warrior glanced down at the fish, which were busily roasting to a crisp. "Oh -yeah. Eat! You know, Herc," he went on, too caught up in biting into his own overcooked meal to notice that his friend was grinning from ear to ear - simply enjoying this time with his much loved companion when things could have been so tragically different. "I was right. I am the better cook."

It was just the wrong thing to say and the wrong time to say it.

Hercules had just taken a hefty bite from his own fish.

He choked.

It took Iolaus twenty minutes of pounding heavily on the demigod's broad back before the coughing fit subsided, and by then the hunter was giggling helplessly.

Hercules savoured the sound.

And - despite the rawness of his throat; despite the cooling meal now laying discarded on the grass before them; despite the stinging pain from his back caused by the somewhat over-enthusiastic tattoo which his friend had beaten trying to stop his coughing, life was good.

Yes, life was *very* good.

He had Iolaus back with him, safe and sound and life was looking *very* good indeed.

Now, if only he could find something edible to eat ....


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