Thick, strong fingers dug deeper into the wood, trying to gain purchase on the damp bark. Small bits of earth clung precariously to the rough bark, which gradually shook off as the fingers pressed deeper and the trembling of the wood increased. Shoulders flexed; biceps strained, and at last, with a loud grunt, Hercules pulled the stump from the ground, almost falling over backward as the roots ripped free of the earth with a tearing sound. He stumbled back a few feet, tossing the stump aside and peering at the gaping maw it left in the ground. Thatíll take an hour to fill, he thought as he wiped his brow and grabbed the shovel from where it stuck out of the earth. He took soil from around where the stump had been and began to fill in the pit; but there would still be a depression in the area surrounding the hole, and he wanted the land level. Itís not like it matters, he groused silently, but Iíll know the difference. He wiped his brow again and sighed, moving back toward the barn where he kept most of his tools, and the wheelbarrow. Filling it with dirt, he laid the shovel across the top and headed back toward where the pit was. As he rounded the corner of the barn, he saw a small group of riders heading up the road toward the house. For a moment his brown eyes peered; but when he saw the purple vest, the blond hair, and the beard, he continued on toward the hole. Itís not as if you didnít know he would come, Hercules mulled as he reached the hole and grabbed the shovel. This shouldnít be a big surprise. He slid the shovel into the pile of dirt in the wheelbarrow and scooped a huge mound of it into the pit. The peaty aroma of loose earth filled his nostrils, and he smiled for a moment. This was what he wanted; to work the land, to look after the farm and live a simple life. Nothing more. And why the hell wonít they respect that? he wondered as he heard, distantly, horsesí hooves. He ignored the riders as they drew closer, contenting himself with shoveling the dirt into the hole. After a time, the hooves had come too close to pretend he couldnít hear them; he looked up, patting down the top of the dirt with the shovel, and took them in: five riders, all in purple, all blond, all smiling at him as he rammed the shovel into the earth and turned to greet them.
"Hercules!" Iolaus cried out, swinging down from his horse in a fluid motion. "Itís been a long time, friend!"
The son of Zeus nodded. "That it has, Iolaus." He allowed himself a faint smile as he regarded the other riders. "Hello, Chryseis," he added, and the stunning woman nodded back.
"It has been a while, Hercules," she said, her blue eyes twinkling at him. "Not that youíve changed any."
Hercules shrugged. "Eternal youth is a burden. What can I say?" But he smiled at her as he said it; his eyes switched to Iolaus as she slipped down from the horse, turning to help her children from their mounts.
For a moment Iolaus saw Herculesí eyes cloud over as he watched the slim blonde woman ease her two sons and daughter from their steeds. Then the big man looked away, at the dirt, the stump, the fence-- anything to keep from looking at Iolaus.
Iolaus scratched at his beard. "So howíve you been?"
Hercules stared off at the horizon. "Quiet. And you?"
Iolaus smiled, clapping him on the shoulder. "Busy. You know... the kids... my job..." he shrugged, and for just a second he was the same Iolaus that Hercules had fought alongside, the same Iolaus who had helped him recover the Golden Fleece, the same man who served as best man at both of his weddings. But then the years covered him again, and Hercules seemed to see him only at a distance, as if his friend were standing on a distant shore rather than at armsí length.
Iolaus allowed his voice to slip to a loud whisper. "You heard, right?"
Hercules made no response, but Iolaus could see his brown eyes grow hard, and cold. Silence fell between them for a space; the only noise was that of the wind blowing across the field, and Chryseis gathering in her children.
"I heard," Hercules said at last, turning away and grabbing the shovel.
Iolaus put his hands on his hips. "Youíre not going?"
Hercules turned, and for a split second Iolaus could see the pain etched there, the sense of loss, and Hercules opened his mouth as if to say something. But then he stopped, his eyes dropping to the ground for a second, and he said, "Iím not going."
"Hercules, you have to--" Iolaus began, but Hercules turned his back. "You and the family are welcome to stay the night. The house is more than large enough to accommodate all of you." He grabbed the wheelbarrow and started walking. Iolaus began to go after him when a slender hand on his arm restrained him.
"Letís stay the night," Chryseis said. "Maybe young voices playing in his yard will soften his heart." Her blue eyes took in her husbandís concerned face. "He needs our company right now, you know."
Iolaus glanced over at his wife. "I wish he knew that."
Chryseis took his hand in hers, and grasped young Jasonís in the other. She led both of them to the gate in the stone fence as the other children ran ahead to open it for them.
_ _ _
Tiny feet flapped as they ran across the wet stone; blonde hair dripped as the young girl ran around the bathtub, oblivious to her motherís outstretched arms.
"Faith," Gabrielle said, exasperated, herself chest deep in the warm water, the steam rising off the surface in lazy tendrils. "Faith, would you come here?"
The little girl tucked a loose tendril of hair in her mouth and nodded no; then she scampered off out of the tiled bathroom.
"Lila!" Gabrielle called.
Moments later her sister entered the bathroom, wrapped in a dark crimson robe, carrying little Faith, who was squirming as only a small child can. Lila put the young girl down on a soft fur and began to dry her off with a towel. Lila clucked at Gabrielle as she rubbed the girlís head.
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"Havenít you learned yet?" Lila shook her head. "You bathe them first. Then you bathe." She gathered Faithís damp hair in one hand, wringing out the water. "Or you get your lazy husband to do it for you."
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. "Toris washes little Cyrene?"
Lila grinned. "If he knows whatís good for him." Both sisters laughed.
"I wish we could stay here longer," Lila said, rubbing down Faithís back. "Toris and I so seldom get this far south. And we never get to see enough of you."
Gabrielle grabbed her sisterís hand. "Youíre welcome to stay with us at our place as long as you like. You know that." Her smile broadened. "Itís always good to see you three."
Lila smiled back. "Itíll be four soon enough," she murmured.
Gabrielleís jaw dropped, her eyes wide. "Really?" she squealed.
Lila started laughing and nodded her head in confirmation.
"I donít believe you!" Gabrielle said. "This isnít a race, you know. Just because I have two..."
Lilaís blue eyes narrowed. "Gabrielle..."
The older sister laughed. "Iím only teasing you. Congratulations," she said, and both of them looked up as another set of bare feet slapped on the floor.
This girl was dark haired, and looked rather more like her father than her mother. She had her motherís green eyes, but she was at that awkward age where she was not quite a woman and not still a child. Coltish legs stuck out from under her short robe, and she flashed her mother and her aunt a shy smile.
"Mind if I join you?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle gestured. "Not at all, honey. Come on in."
The young girl slipped off her robe and sank into the warm water with a sigh. She grabbed a bar of soap from the ledge of the huge tub and ran it down the length of one thin arm.
"So what did you do today, little Xena?" Lila asked her niece.
The girl pouted. "Iím not little anymore," she said. "Iím almost twelve."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and shared a glance with Lila.
"I beg your pardon, dear," Lila said, running her hand along the surface of the water.
"So what did you do today?" Gabrielle asked the girl.
"I was being fitted for my dress," she said glumly.
Gabrielle smiled softly. "I go tomorrow, dear. Iím not looking forward to it either."
Young Xena pouted, scrubbing herself with the soap, staring down at the water. "Yeah, but youíre not skinny," she said, her voice barely loud enough to be heard.
Lila bundled up Faith in a big towel. "Iíll take care of her. I think I better check on Cyrene. Itís been too quiet out there." She stood, cradling the young child, and left the bathing room.
"Did someone say something to you?" Gabrielle asked when her sister was gone.
"No," Xena said, avoiding her motherís gaze.
"Then...?" Gabrielle asked gently.
Xena looked up at her mother, her green eyes round and sad. "Someone didnít say something to me."
Gabrielleís brow furrowed; she thought back to that afternoon, before her daughter had left for her fitting, when they had been sitting in the garden, just talking, idly whiling away the sunny day. The children had been romping, but most of them were too young for Xena; she needed someone her own age, but none of the other children were even close. Sheíd ended up sitting with--
"Was it Solon?" Gabrielle inquired, her voice tender.
Xena nodded, biting her bottom lip. Gabrielle took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Young hearts...
"Dear, heís twenty five. Youíre eleven..."
"Mom, I know how old he is."
Gabrielle slid closer to her daughter. "Donít you think heís just a little old for you?"
Xena looked up at her mother, her eyes wet with tears. "Mom, I know what youíre going to say. And I know that itís silly. But heís... heís so..." She stopped, wiping away a tear with a wet hand. "I just wanted a dance with him, thatís all. Nothing more."
"And he said no?" Gabrielle reached a hand out, gently clasping her daughterís hand.
Xena mumbled something unintelligible.
"I didnít ask him," she muttered.
Gabrielle took the soap from her daughter and started gently washing her back. This will take a while... you precious thing...
Chryseis scooped up little Jason from the couch; she had already tucked the other children into bed, and her youngest gave her no struggle; thumb planted firmly into his mouth, his head lolled on her shoulder as she took him past the kitchen toward the bedroom. She stopped for a moment to watch the two men, old friends, their faces painted amber by the lamp in the center of the table. For a reunion, it sure doesnít seem too happy, she thought, noting the way her husbandís eyes shone in the yellow light, and the way Herculesí whole body seemed to lack energy, as if her were propped up. She met Iolausí eyes; he tilted his head almost imperceptibly, and she nodded and moved on toward the bedroom. Such a big house for such a lonely man...
Iolaus looked down at the scroll Hercules was holding. He had one of his own, still in the horseís pack. Heíd received his a few days ago in Thebes, and he had figured he would swing by Herculesí farm and collect his old friend on the way to Corinth. But he hadnít figured on this...
"You have to go, Herc," he said quietly.
"Donít you listen?" the big man responded. "I got an invitation. But that doesnít mean I have to show up."
Iolaus shook his head. "How could ya not go?"
Hercules exhaled. "Iolaus, I donít expect you to understand."
Iolaus spread his hands on the table. "I understand youíll be letting a friend down."
Herculesí eyes sparked to life, the anger there plainly visible. "Like she let me down? Iíd say weíre even then."
"Hercules," Iolaus began, "she didnít let you down. It just..." He put his hands flat on the table. "Things just donít always work out."
Hercules grimaced. "Things worked out just fine for you and Chryseis," he said. "Iphicles and Nemesis," he continued. "Atalanta. Gabrielle. Even Autolycus found a wife!"
Iolaus gave him a weak smile. "Just lucky, I guess."
"Itís not just luck," Hercules said. "I made a decision after Serena, and I donít regret that. Not at all." He looked at Iolaus briefly, then back down at the table. "I swore I wouldnít endanger another innocent life just for my happiness. Deianira and Serena were enough. I wasnít going to give Hera, or Ares, or anyone else the chance to hurt anyone like that again."
Iolaus spread his hands wide. "So how does this..."
Hercules stood, his face once again haunted by the expression that Iolaus had seen earlier that afternoon. "Well..." He walked around the kitchen, his eyes unfocused, his booted feet scraping the floor. He took a deep breath and stopped by the window to look out at the stars. After a minute he turned to face Iolaus, and his friend could see the pain openly in those handsome features.
"It was okay, donít you see?" Hercules said, his voice soft.
"No," Iolaus said. "Iím afraid I donít see, Hercules."
He closed his eyes and exhaled. "Somehow... it was okay that I was alone like this, knowing..." He shook his head. "Look, I know this doesnít make any sense to you, but trust me, I canít go with you to--"
"It was okay so long as she was alone too," Iolaus said, his voice barely more than a whisper, but his words were strong enough to silence the son of Zeus. "So long as that door was open... even if you never took it..."
Hercules turned quickly and walked out of the room.
"Herc, Iím sorry-- Herc, wait..." Iolaus got up and chased after him.
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