After the Apocalypse
Hercules awoke from a sound sleep with a terrible sense of foreboding. He lay on his back, tense and anxious, listening to the crackling of the fire and the sounds of the night, trying to puzzle out what had disturbed his sleep. As he concentrated, his mind flooded with images from the dream he had just been having.
Iolaus, ascending into The Light.
Iolaus, dying in his arms after using his body to stop Dahak's dagger.
Iolaus, screaming in agony as Maceus tortured him.
Iolaus, dying in his arms again or before after facing Hera's fire-enforcer.
Iolaus, in a thousand different terrible situations, some of them real, some of them invented by Hercules's troubled mind.
Iolaus, plummeting into the abyss.
Cautiously, Hercules looked to his right and saw his friend's still form, sleeping peacefully by the fire. He's back, Hercules told himself. He's here, and he's real, and he's really here. The realization flooded his body with relief. He could actually feel his muscles relax and his heartbeat slow down.
For how long? a treacherous, cynical voice in the back of his mind asked, and just like that, his chest constricted painfully around his heart again.
Hercules was under no illusions about The Light. Sooner or later, It would realize what It had given up by exiling Iolaus back to Earth, to the bosom of his family and friends. Sooner or later, It would want its Golden Warrior back, and somehow, Hercules knew that It had the power to take him any time, from anywhere.
If Iolaus didn't die a hero's death on the battlefield, he'd be gutted by a bandit who landed a lucky blow on the road from one town to another, or drowned in a storm at sea when they travelled between the islands.
Or maybe he'll just fall asleep and never wake up, the malicious voice in his head giggled maniacally.
Hercules propped himself up on one elbow to better see his friend. For a few eternal seconds, he watched and listened for the rise and fall of his friend's chest, the flicker of his dreaming eyes behind closed lids, the soft snuffle of quiet snoring. Whether it was due to a trick of the light, or the sounds of the forest and the crackling of the fire, or just his own impatience, Hercules did not know; but he could neither see nor hear the signs of life he needed to reassure him, and suddenly, his heart was pounding in fear like a that of a rabbit trying to evade a fox.
Quickly and quietly as a cat, Hercules rose to his feet and came round the fire to crouch beside his friend. He watched intently for a few seconds, but fear made his patience short, and after only a moment or two, he placed his hand lightly right over the warrior's breastbone just below where the amulet had slid up to rest at Iolaus's throat.
Tears of relief stung his eyes. The skin was warm to the touch. The chest rose and fell with slow, measured breaths, and the heartbeat was strong and steady. Hercules lingered there a moment, allowing the joy of simply being able to touch Iolaus again to course through him. Then reluctantly, he drew his hand away and returned to his side of the fire.
He was just beginning to relax and drift toward sleep again when a soft, familiar voice called to him.
"I'm back," Iolaus told him in a warm, reassuring tone. "I really am here."
The words so closely matched his own thoughts of a few moments ago that before he could stop himself, he'd blurted out, "For how long?"
Then Hercules felt the heat of shame flood his cheeks. Iolaus had described The Light as perfect bliss. What right did he have to want to keep his friend away from that?
"For as long as you need me," Iolaus replied the same confident, comforting tone.
Hercules remained silent. He didn't want to trouble his friend with his own fears, but he would soon realize that he already had.
"The Light won't take me from you again," Iolaus said, "and It won't let Hades have me, or Ares either. Now that It knows what a great team we are and how much you mean to me, It won't let us be separated against our will again."
"At least not until It gets bored, or distracted, or just too busy to care, you mean?" Hercules retorted bitterly.
"The Light is not a god, Herc," Iolaus informed him. "Or maybe It is a god, but infinitely more powerful and compassionate and humane than any of the gods we know."
"Sounds like the Cult of Lorel," Hercules snorted derisively, recalling the underground city of pliant slaves Karkis had created using a little lotus and a kidnapped child made to pose as a goddess.
"No, Herc, It's nothing like that," Iolaus sincerely assured him, "and It's nothing like our gods either. It doesn't just admire humanity in general like Prometheus or have just a few chosen favorites like Ares and Aphrodite. The Light knows each of us individually. It sees into our hearts and our minds and our souls. It knows what hardships we can handle and what is too much for us to bear. It rejoices when we have reason to celebrate and grieves for us when we suffer. It knows our deepest desires and our greatest fears, and even when we are not aware of Its presence, the Light is there, sustaining us through dark times."
"Sounds wonderful," Hercules murmured, somehow comforted by the cadence of his partner's voice.
"It is, Herc. It's the most wonderful thing I have ever known."
"Then why did you come back?" Hercules demanded. "Did It tell you how much I missed you? How much I needed you?"
"Ah, Herc, It didn't need to," Iolaus said fondly. "I know you better than you know yourself, almost as well as the Light knows you. I didn't need to be told how you were grieving, but that's not the only reason I came back."
"Of course not!" Iolaus insisted. "Do you really think I could just go and not miss you as much as you missed me?" Hercules, my death was a loss for both of us. I came back because I need you, too."
"And you really think the Light will let you stay?"
"I know it," Iolaus said.
"The Light doesn't toy with people, Hercules. It loves us."
"Then maybe It will let me get some sleep," Hercules grunted, suddenly wanting to end the conversation.
When he could feel Iolaus's eyes still on him several minutes later, he grumbled under his breath and turned onto his side. More time passed, and then he was startled to feel a smallish, warm body snuggling up beside him.
"Iolaus! What the . . ."
"You talk in your sleep," came the gruff reply. "I may not know the details of your dream, but I think I can grasp the substance. I don't need the Light to tell me how frightened you are."
Hercules felt the flush of embarrassment warm his face again, and he said, "Iolaus, you don't have to . . ."
"I want to," the other man interrupted. "Maybe you'll sleep better if you can feel that I am by your side and breathing."
"But . . ." Hercules choked out.
Determined not to let his friend give him any excuse to move away, Iolaus interrupted again. "Besides, it might be warm now, but when the fire dies and the mist gathers, it will be cold enough to raise goose bumps. I'll want your bulk to keep me warm."
Hercules felt his throat tighten and his eyes sting with tears of gratitude. "My bulk, eh?" he managed to gasp. "You calling me fat?"
"No, but you are big and warm," Iolaus replied ingenuously.
"Well, as long as you're sure," Hercules replied hoarsely.
"Of course I'm sure," Iolaus told him. "It's nothing we haven't done dozens of times before on cold nights in the woods or on the battlefield."
"It's more than that this time," Hercules insisted. "You can't deny it."
"It's just me, being here for you, any way I can, like I always have done and always will do," Iolaus said. "You'd do the same for me if our positions were reversed. Now shut up and go to sleep, you big oaf."
With a sheepish grin and a small laugh, Hercules wrapped one massive arm around his best friend's chest and said, "All right, I will."
And he did.
And they both slept soundly until morning.