After Alicita put a soothing anointment on her bruises and scratches, discarding the torn and bloodied gown, and cloaked her granddaughter in a robe of the finest, silkiest fabric, the older woman had Iolaus carry Gabrielle to her bed. She watched the couple from the curtained door frame, studying them and forming an opinion or two from his mild, sensitive treatment of her.
He lay her down as gently as possible and was relieved when he saw Gabrielle smiling sleepily up at him. Iolaus then lifted a hand, his fingers brushing a straying tuft of fair hair back a bit away from her forehead. 'She needs to eat.' he thought carelessly, ignoring his own hunger.
"Thank you, Iolaus." she whispered.
"Go to sleep." he urged, gently. "In the morning you'll forget everything."
It was a foolish thing to have said. Iolaus knew better but she didn't comment, merely allowed her eyes to flutter closed as he look down at her. Gabrielle was strong, he knew, and she would be able to take whatever happened next but he would not add one iota to her mental or emotional pain if he were able to avoid it. He'd made this decision as they traveled from where Haleus had merciless mistreated the young woman to Alicita's, on the other side of the Styx river.
He relaxed and grew pensive as he recalled how they had walked for awhile, Gabrielle stubbornly insisting she needed no help, but soon - as they made a move up a steep hill - her weakened legs gave out and the bard could not continue on her own. He then lifted her in his arms and, as gently as he could - not making mention of the turn of events for fear of wounding her pride - walked with Gabrielle as she rested in his protective embrace, all the way back to Alicita's.
She was complacent and suffering as her grandmother fussed over her, very quiet yet murmuring incoherently about an injured Perdicus and apples. He didn't have to be told to know she was in a bad way. Iolaus merely watched Gabrielle. The half closed eyes, the lethargy and shuddering discomfort she was obviously attempting to hide. The tears she refused to let fall.
It broke his heart. If he'd only gotten there a little sooner ... if Hera hadn't distracted him with Anya and Myles ... This could all have been prevented. More than ever, Iolaus despised Hercules villainous stepmother. She and Haleus. They deserved one another.
With a fair amount of bitterness, Iolaus recalled the weapon Haleus carried, the heavy tree branch he'd beaten Gabrielle with. He also saw the obvious pleasure it gave him. To see a woman, defenseless and at his mercy. The hunter's teeth clentched and he felt sickened when he thought of it. The absolute cowardice, the *evil* that was Prince Haleus.
Iolaus wanted to see him hurt. Mental pictures of Haleus dangling, as Gabrielle had been, entered into his mind -- but he quickly disregarded them. Even with a pig like Prince Haleus, the hunter couldn't purposely inflict continual pain on another while the recipient was powerless. Iolaus didn't do torture. Although, if he didn't have his own integrity to fall back on, memory of what the prince had done to Gabrielle certainly could steer Iolaus in that direction if all else failed.
"Iolaus, come." Alicita urged the hunter from his musings and Gabrielle's room.
Reluctant, not wanting to part from her now that he finally had her safe, he followed.
Alicita instructed him to sit down at a small table near the hearth and gave him a warm tonic (which she assured Iolaus was not considered either food or drink but actually a medicine). It was thick and fortifying and made him feel good. He told Alicita to make certain Gabrielle got some in the morning.
For awhile, as he watched the woman apply a bandage to his cut arm, Iolaus could almost forget his hunger which had grown considerable over the last couple of hours. Still, Gabrielle had gone longer without food than he and he hadn't heard a complaint from her yet.
"Iolaus ..." Alicita started, putting her medical supplies in a small tin box, a very concerned expression on her face. She stared thoughtfully into the flames of her hearth, "When you came here, did you ever stop to think that Gabrielle might not want to go back with you?"
"No, it never occurred to me." Iolaus spoke truthfully, "Not until I remembered Perdicus." A fleeting image of Anya appeared in his mind and he pushed it away. "I haven't had a chance yet to even ask her if she wants to remain." He pondered a moment and asked, "What do you think?"
Alicita turned to look at him, the firelight causing a rippling effect through the older woman's silver hair. "She doesn't belong here." she said, firmly. "I know it, Perdicus knows it and - although she won't admit it - Gabrielle knows it too."
"If anyone belongs in The Elysian Fields, it's Gabrielle." Iolaus commented affectionately but thought he understood what the woman was saying, "But I'm not going to lie. I want her back in my world, among the living. I hope she wants that too."
Alicita raised an eyebrow, "Be sure you do this for her and not for your own sake, Iolaus. Gabrielle told me what happened in that castle and I know how a horrible event can cloud the mind. If you love her and she loves you, take her back and live a happy life together."
Iolaus allowed a chuckle, "Happy home and children? I know that's not what she wants in life." His expression held regret, coupled with hope. "At least, not yet."
"You think she needs to be with Xena a little longer?"
'I know I need to be with Hercules.' Iolaus thought but didn't say it aloud, "I think she thinks she needs to be with Xena and I'm not equipped to argue with her." he sat a little straighter, "I deeply care for Gabrielle. Whenever I'm with her I know what it's like to feel pure and uncomplicated devotion from a woman. If it's meant to be, our time will come. If not, then we will both go on."
They heard the scream from her room and quickly ran to Gabrielle as she sat up in bed, looking terrified and lost. Her eyes were wide and searching, a remnant from a nightmare.
"It's okay." Iolaus sat on the bed's edge and put his hands gently on her discolored shoulders, "We're in you grandmother's home and everything is all right. You're safe."
Her hands lifted desperately to clutch his upper arms, "Stay with me.' she pleaded, sobbing. "I don't want to be alone -- please!"
Iolaus glanced over at Alicita who nodded her assent and walked from the room.
Carefully, he lay on the bed next to her, holding the frightened and shivering woman in his arms as she cuddled close. She took strength from his mere presence, breathing at first shallowly then slightly heavier, mind now eased, as sleep claimed her once again.
Soon, he joined her in dreams.
The night sky held a billion different stars. Beautiful and mysterious.
Xena admired them. Hercules ignored them.
"Don't be so impatient. It's going to take time, Hercules." she attempted to lighten the mood. She was just as anxious and impatient as he but decided she had to keep her cool. This time it looked as if an overly thoughtful Hercules was at the breaking point. It both frightened Xena and fascinated her. She'd never seen him look so flustered and angry.
The evening started good as they returned from the woods with their dinner. They ate their meager supper of nuts and fruit, discussing some past history together, and then Hercules made a comment about the underworld and how Iolaus couldn't eat or he wouldn't be coming back. And Iolaus loved to eat. From there it went down hill.
Xena blamed herself. She never should have mentioned Hera by name.
Hercules tried to remain calm, but every time he thought about the gods - Hera inparticular - he could not get past their mettling in the lives of he and his friends. What type of life might he and Iolaus have lived if he wasn't the son of Zeus? Both would be happily married, watching their children grow in fine men and women ...
"I really think it will be all right." Xena spoke lowly and sincerely. "Iolaus may be impulsive but he's a good warrior and I know he'll do whatever he has to ...."
Hercules could only half listen. His best friend was in mortal danger because of his guilt and love for a young woman who, for all intents and purposes, could not return his affection. That was a little unfair, Hercules amended. Gabrielle did care for Iolaus but he couldn't help wondering if she would do the same for him as he was currently doing for her. Gabrielle had good sense, he thought cynically, Iolaus doesn't.
What had the hunter hoped to accomplish by doing such a stupid thing, sneaking off in the middle of the night like that? Why didn't he just *listen*? Why did he always react instead of thinking a matter carefully through? Why did he have to have such a big heart and feel guilt and love so deeply?
The answer was simple. Iolaus was Iolaus and couldn't change how he felt or reacted for a million denars. Not for Hercules, who he loved like a brother, and not for his own good sense that, despite what Hercules was currently pondering, had saved Iolaus life on more than one occasion. Iolaus did all he did for his own peace of mind and, this time, for the love - be it pure and honest - of Gabrielle.
"I heard something." Xena suddenly sat up a little straighter.
Hercules attention immediately turned to the lake.
"No," Xena clarified, "from the woods, I think."
Both heroes stood, Xena pulling her sword. They saw nor heard a sound for the longest time but continued to stand in wait. Hercules had always admired Xena's instincts and he wasn't about to brush them off now.
When the first of Hera's archers appeared, it was Xena who caught the arrow directed at Hercules chest. This was quickly followed by Hercules, who managed to catch an arrow intended for Xena's left shoulder.
"Hera sends greetings," the lead archer called to the heroic couple, "and says you can go home now. Your friends will not be returning. They are very happy where they are and have decided to stay."
Xena and Hercules glanced at one another briefly before the true battle began.
"Yeah, right." Hercules said.
The following morning, Gabrielle was the first to wake - groggily eyeing the bandage which wrapped her bed partner's right bicep. She recalled the barbarian who attacked Iolaus the evening before and felt regret. Iolaus seemed to always be sacrificing a part of himself to help others. Then she smiled a little. 'Of, course, he wouldn't have it any other way', she thought. And neither would she, Xena or Hercules. Gabrielle then let her eyes stray to Iolaus' vest, as her cheek lay against it. Such a tattered and well used piece of cloth. Soft. No wonder he wore it often. Then, lifting her head, Gabrielle realized his amulet was missing. Her fingers reached out to lift a part of his vest, uncovering his smooth chest, to see if it had fallen off somewhere. She'd never forgive herself if she were responsible for him losing it.
"What are you doing?" Iolaus asked deeply, suddenly awake and curious about this odd examination.
Gabrielle started a little, peering up at him. "Sorry. It's your amulet ..."
"Hercules has it.' he said.
"Oh." Gabrielle then smiled, slightly embarrassed, patting the material of the cloth down again. She looked a bit dreamily at him, suddenly in awe of how good looking he was first thing in the morning, "Thank you for staying with me last night, Iolaus." she said.
He gave a small chuckled, "I could hardly refuse you." He looked at her a little closer and concentrated on what he saw, "Gabrielle, you look really good."
"Thank you ..." her smile widened.
"No, I mean ..." he sat up, forcing her to raise with him, "The bruises, the scratches ... they're almost all gone." he observed, brushing some of her hair back so he could get a better look at her shoulders, "Either your grandmother has an incredible liniment or ..." He then remembered Anya and her cut finger. It had been a minor wound and healed instantly. They were in The Elysian Fields -- which had an incredible healing power all its own.
Gabrielle brushed fingers against his chest, "Your scratch, from when Hera's hand maiden attacked you at the palace, it's gone too." she marveled. Then, curious and wanting even more evidence, she reached for the bandage on his arm and untied it. Revealed was a long but very minor scratch. It looked as if it had been healing for weeks instead of over night.
They grinned at one another and hugged gently. It was the first genuinely good thing Iolaus experienced since coming here.
Unexpectedly, he felt himself being pushed back again on the bed.
"I *feel* great too, Iolaus." Gabrielle said, leaning against him, her full lips finding his left cheek, moving a little lower to nibble at his earlobe.
He reveled in this attention for a few moments, amused by just how sexy this woman could be when she wanted to be looked at as more than a young companion to the Warrior Princess, and he was eager for the affection to continue. However, a sudden slap of good perception came to Iolaus, something he would later attribute to his many years of traveling with a more than focused demigod, and he reluctantly pulled away a little, "Gabrielle," he whispered, "This is really great. More than just great ...." he said gently, "But it's got to wait. I have to get Haelus back to Tartarus before he causes any permanent damage to The Elysian Fields and - well - I don't know about you but I'm starving. And we can't eat until we ..." He then trailed off.
He never actually asked Gabrielle if she wanted to return with him. They had talk about everything on their walk to Alicita's last evening - she even told him about her reluctance to remain with Perdicus while living in The Fields - but they never got around to actually discussing any other alternative.
"I can't believe you're really here to take me home, Iolaus." Gabrielle hugged him to her again, "I've missed Xena so much." Her lips moved up to kiss him on the mouth.
That covered, Iolaus sighed his relief but was again aware of the feel of her body against his and almost decided to allow nature to take it's course, despite what he had earlier decalred. He was a man and mere mortal, after all.
Fortunately (?), Gabrielle pulled away and tumbled out of the bed before he could effectively reach for her, "I'm going to put on my traveling clothes so we can get started right away." she said brightly, and crouched to retrieve her clothes from a drawer in the corner of the room.
Iolaus arose, watching her seriously, and silently fell back on a decision he had made last evening. There was no stopping Gabrielle now, she was eager to be a part of the outcome of her own rescue, so he decided to be clever, "Take your time, Gabrielle. I'm going to get my sword and some medical supplies from Alicita, just in case."
He walked from the room and allowed her to get dressed.
"He's gone from you, Hercules! Neither he or the girl will be back!" the last archer called just before he snapped the string on her bow.
Xena looked from the damaged weapon in his hand into Hercules expression, as he stared where the archer-goddess had once stood. "Do you think it's true?"
"I doubt it. Hera loves to play these games." Hercules said but knew, in his heart, that he could also be very wrong. "More than likely Iolaus and Gabrielle are causing problems for Hera in the underworld and the archers were sent in the heat of anger."
"Revenge against us for whatever it is they are doing there?"
Xena raised an eyebrow and smirked at Hera's expense. "Good for them." she said.
Gone? What did she mean he was gone?!
Gabrielle had come out of her room wearing her traveling clothes, that which she always wore while amongt the living, and saw only Alicita.
Her grandmother had picked up some sewing and was working diligently. "He told me to tell you he had everything well in hand and he would be back for you once he drove Prince Haleus back to Tartarus and had his gold cloak."
Feeling betrayed, the bard's fingers bunched into fists. "I can't believe he did that to me. He's treating me like ... like ... a little girl!"
"Darling, you were hurt last night and he was very concerned. He just wants you safe."
"And I want him safe too. He needs help in this even if he thinks he can do it all on his own." Gabrielle nearly headed for the door when she hesitated, "Grandmother," she turned, "I may not be coming back here again ..."
Alicita arose and, smiling, moved to her grandaughter. She gave her a warm embrace. "Gabby dear, I will always have you in my heart and cherish the moments we had while you were here. Now, go find him before his trail disappears."
He heard her rapidly moving boots as they crunched the leaves that fell from the trees surrounding them. Iolaus turned and could have cursed. Instead, he quickly faced forward again and didn't stop his rapid pace. Why couldn't she take the hint and stay put?
"Just what did you think you were doing, walking off and leaving me like that?"
"I don't want you to get hurt."
She came to walk beside him, keeping pace with the hurried hunter. Gabrielle was not happy. "It's a little late for that, Iolaus. I've had some really interesting experiences since coming to paradise. I've been intimidated, beaten, insulted, pushed aside and now abandoned. You want to throw in a couple of 'she's an irritating little blond' comments while you're at it? I haven't heard any of those yet today."
Yes, she had her verve back. Iolaus was silently glad. It was this vitality he missed and now he could look into her eyes and see that spark of life that Haleus had almost succeeded in destroying. Still, he didn't want her with him. Not when he had to go find that monster and put an end to him. Gabrielle didn't need to be around for that. She could get hurt again and if he were responsible ..."I didn't mean to push you aside, Gabrielle, nor did I abandon you. But you've been through so much. I don't want to see any further harm come to you."
"Stop assuming, Iolaus." she insisted, "Despite what happened, or maybe even because of it, I have to see this thing to the end. Haleus included."
"You're not being smart."
"And you are?" she questioned brusquely, "You're convinced you can do this all by yourself and, who knows, maybe you can -- but the fact that you came to the underworld is strange all by itself." She then said, "You didn't think I could take it, Iolaus? You've decided all by yourself that my little brain would just shrivel away at the thought of confronting Prince Haleus again? Haleus may be a complete jerk but I at least know what he's thinking. He's not that complicated. You, on the other hand, put up this really pretty picture and lull a person into a false sense of security, only to leave said person hanging. Why did you *really* come to the underworld?"
What she said stung but Iolaus would not be baited, "To bring you back. We already covered that."
"Yes, we have. And it sounded very sweet last night, while we were on the road, you telling me about your guilt and what you have been asked to do for Hades in return for my life. I appreciate that, Iolaus, I really do. I know your heart is in the right place but a little part of me thinks you're being selfish."
"Selfish?" Iolaus nearly gasped and stopped walking to look at her, "*Selfish*?"
Gabrielle's expression didn't soften, "I've already said you don't need to feel guilt over what happened, it was beyond your control, but you are so driven you refuse to listen to me or anyone else. There is some *man* thing inside of you that is so stubborn it makes you deaf to reason, Iolaus!" She then summed up, "You have something you need to do and that's pretty much it. No room for argument, especially from a mere woman."
He turned from her, a little angry, and started to walk again. She was over-reacting as far as he was concerned.
She followed, not letting up. "How many time do you have to hear 'It's not your fault' before you begin to see it as the truth?"
"There's more to it than that ..."
"Well, I wish you'd tell me what it is. What is driving you? Why are you *really* here?"
"Is it to settle a score with Haleus? Is this some sort of honor code you and Hercules live by?"
"It's not a ..."
"Is this self-sacrificing something you learned at the academy when you and Hercules were boys? Tell me, Iolaus. Why? Why are you here, throwing yourself into the lions den, like this? And why won't you let me help you?"
With all they needed to do he couldn't just blurt it out. Too many more new questions would have been added into the mix and he just didn't have the time or energy to answer them all. Yet, Iolaus needed her to hush up, even for just a moment, so they could continue the journey in peace and he could concentrate on what needed to be done next. However, Gabrielle was now on a roll and when her dander was up there was no stopping the line of chatter that came from her mouth. Iolaus knew he was partly to blame and he understood what she needed to hear even if she wasn't aware of it herself.
Iolaus, in a moment of weakness (or clearity), decided it was time for a demonstration. What he did next was impulsive but he was glad, afterwards, he did it.
With a wide, sweeping motion, Iolaus took Gabrielle into his arms and, bending her backward a bit in a dip, he kissed her firmly and passionately on the mouth, both effectively silencing her chatter and softening her manner. He could feel her body gasp underneath him, startled by the sudden passion. Then slowly, as he lifted her up, lips still clinging to her's, he felt Gabrielle move her hands up his arms to rest softly on his shoulders.
When they parted, she was silent and swooning.
"Now," Iolaus straightened slightly, please by the effect his kiss was having on the bard. "I think, for now, I've answered all of your questions. We really need to move on, Gabrielle. Shall we?" he asked, resigned to the fact she was coming with him and there was no stopping it.
Dazed, she looked off, unsure of what to think - "Okay." was all Gabrielle said. There was silence for miles as she walked beside the hunter, down the road. Then, "Iolaus, where are we going?"
"It finally came to me last night where Haleus and his goons are going this morning. That "friend" Hera wanted them to "visit" can be only one person ... Deianeira, Hercules wife."