Autolycus recognized Iolaus in the town marketplace, and ran to catch up with him. It would be good to tease the earnest, rather short partner of Hercules when nothing momentous was going on, no life threatening monsters. He was hoping for an immediate irritable reaction to his very presence, in fact.
"Iolaus!" he called out exuberantly just a few feet behind the man, ready with a witty insult. He was taken aback by the reaction he did get.
"Autolycus," Iolaus acknowledged when he turned around, "it's good to see you"—and grasped his arm in friendly greeting.
Autolycus looked at him strangely, almost suspiciously. He was about to ask what was wrong, but grew quiet at what he saw. The normally cheerful and outgoing—
or, around him, impatient—man was turned inward, and weighted down somehow. Something was very wrong.
Iolaus saw his confusion and stated, with weariness, "So you haven't heard."
"Heard what?" Autolycus said too loudly, really not wanting to know, hoping it had nothing to do with him, no connection, no concern of his.
"Come with me. We'll find a quiet tavern."
"Xena is dead."
"I just came from talking with Gabrielle, who is taking her body to Amphipolis."
Autolycus stared at him. He tried desperately to find a way out, a way for this not to be, to not concern him, but Iolaus continued, inexorable, tired, answering the questions he did not ask.
Iolaus told about his conversation with Gabrielle, told of her strength and her grief, told of his own upset, said what he knew of the circumstances (something to do with saving a child and a large piece of wood). Autolycus took in the information automatically but was barely listening; he was trying to find a way to escape. He needed to say something harsh and unfeeling, needed to find a way not to see the simple sorrow in Iolaus's face, needed—suddenly he realized he needed to get away completely, because the walls that usually worked so well were not going to work, and he was about to reveal—
Iolaus finished and gave Autolycus a sad, grateful smile. "Thank you. I didn't realize how much I needed to talk about this. You're a surprisingly good listener."
Numbly Autolycus nodded, found himself wishing Iolaus safe travels back to Hercules, and breathed in relief when the man took his leave.
Now he'd find some distraction—but when Iolaus left the need to hide his own reaction did as well, and that was what had been keeping it at bay—he had to put on a front with Iolaus, of course. But now—it fell.
Quickly he ordered a drink and hid in an empty corner of the tavern. He completely failed not to think of the warrior and the bard, one gone, one grieving, and he wasn't sure which hurt more to think about.
Xena's spirit found the thief in a tavern. His skills would be most useful—it was the theft of a body she needed accomplished, after all—and he was reliable. Reliably chaotic and tricky, but also something else, and when she tentatively inhabited him, just as an observer, she knew why she'd sought him out.
He was staring blankly at a drink he'd stopped drinking some time back, trying not to cry—ah, he'd just heard, from Iolaus. His thoughts of her and of Gabrielle were fond and sorrowful; he was worrying about Gabrielle, and wincing at the thought of her death, and trying to convince himself all the while that he could ignore this and move on.
Her spirit self found this all too familiar—didn't she do the same, pretend lack of concern, coldness, do everything she could to protect her heart? He was failing miserably. She was touched. She'd known the thief had a good heart, but feeling the evidence was something else: He'd grown quite attached to her, and to Gabrielle, more than she'd realized.
Now she knew she'd chosen well. And she knew she could begin by giving the thief the distraction from his sorrow that he so craved at present; carefully, she planted in his head the notion to steal the dagger of Helios, and while it took a bit to get the thought established—it was harder than she would have thought it would be to get Autolycus thinking on a valuable item to steal—as soon as the problem was laid before him his mind began working on it. She stepped back and watched with fascination as he obsessed over the details of how he would accomplish the task, with the brilliance she was used to from him. The only difference: instead of the offhandedness or the braggadocio that usually informed his plans, there was only a tinge of desperate desire to escape his thoughts of her death.