Fortress Around Your Heart

Iolaus helped Chryseis down from her horse and handed the reins to a page clad all in crimson. He then moved to his oldest sonís horse, helping the boy down, while Chryseis helped little Medea off her horse. Finally there was Jason, almost fast asleep, his blond head bobbing back and forth as he swayed in the saddle. "Iíll get this group to bed," Chryseis said, picking up Jasonís slack form from the saddle and settling him on her shoulder. "You go and see whoís here."

Iolaus nodded. "We already know whoís not..."

Chryseis looked at him tiredly. "Go. Stop thinking about him. Itís his loss."

"Youíre right," Iolaus agreed. "Iíll head on up to the castle. Talk to you later."

She blew him a kiss and escorted the children out of the stable, toward the inn where they were staying. Iphicles had offered to let them stay in the palace, but they had agreed with all the commotion going on with the wedding that it might be better, considering the children, to have someplace quiet to stay.

The castle was still bustling when Iolaus reached it; he produced his wedding invitation and was admitted at once. He made his way past the pages who were setting up in the main hall and continued up the stairs, careful not to disturb any of the flowers that had been placed there to pretty the place up. And I thought our wedding was an event, he thought, smiling, as he left the main hall and moved down the corridor to the throne room. If he knew Iphicles, he would be holding a huge banquet, and everyone would be gathered around the table, laughing, chatting, and gorging themselves like there was no tomorrow.

When he entered the room, though, the only people still there were the servants cleaning up the banquet table, and Iphicles and Joxer. "Hey!" Iolaus called out, and the two men looked up and smiled.

"I told you heíd make it!" Joxer said as they moved to greet the new guest.

"I never doubted it," Iphicles said, taking Iolausí hand and giving it a firm shake. "Welcome, Iolaus. Itís good to see you."

"And you," the blond man replied. "The both of you." He looked around the empty table. "Are we that late?"

"Itís almost midnight," Joxer said. "We were afraid youíd be late for the wedding."

Iolaus smiled. "I wouldnít miss this for the world."

Iphicles put a hand on his shoulder. "What about Hercules?"

Iolaus frowned and shook his head. "Sorry. I tried. But he isnít coming."

"What?" Joxer asked. "Why not?"

"Itís... a long story," Iphicles told him.

"But theyíre best friends," Joxer said. "Friends are supposed to be there for one another."

"Thatís what I said," Iolaus answered. "But heís... well..." Iolaus threw up his hands. "I donít know exactly what he is, really. Unhappy? Mad? Who knows." He glanced at them both. "But I do know heís not gonna be here."

"Maybe I should go talk to him," Joxer offered.

Iolaus shook his head. "I donít know, Joxer, if he wouldnít listen to me..."

Iphicles put a hand on Joxerís shoulder. "Thereís no time for anyone else to go talk to him. The weddingís in the morning. Youíd never make it back." He looked at Iolaus. "This time, weíll have to go on without Hercules."

"Is everyone else here?" Iolaus asked.

"Yes," Iphicles said, smiling. "Autolycus and the Amazons arrived here this afternoon. The guest list is complete. Or as complete as itís going to be."

Iolaus nodded. "Howís our groom holding up? Come to his senses yet?"

The king laughed. "No, he still intends to marry Xena." Both he and Iolaus laughed, but Joxer was quiet.

"Iolaus, did Hercules say why he wasnít coming?" Joxer asked him.

Iphicles turned to his friend. "Let it go, Joxer. Hercules hasnít been himself ever since he retired to motherís farm." He sighed. "This is just another one of his strange choices." Iphicles shook his head. "I thought for sure Xenaís wedding would draw him away from his beloved farmhouse."

"So did I," Iolaus added. "I really thought I could talk him into it."

Joxer rubbed his chin. "Something doesnít add up here. Hercules has always been there for all of us. He was at my wedding to Gabrielle, he was at your wedding," Joxer gestured to Iphicles, "and he was your best man, Iolaus. Heís always been there for all of us."

"Thatís the past, Joxer," Iphicles said. "Ever since he abandoned the world for his precious solitude, he hasnít been right." The king shrugged. "I donít know about the two of you, but Iím heading off to bed. I have a very busy day tomorrow. And so do both of you." He took Iolausí hand. "Itís good to see you again. Weíll talk more after the wedding."

"I look forward to it," Iolaus said, and the king left them.

Joxer threw an arm around Iolaus. "It is good to see you again, Iolaus. Itís been what, five years since Autolycusí wedding?"

Iolaus smiled. "Yeah, What a time. Amazon dancers everywhere. Gabrielle must have loved that."

Joxer chuckled. "About as much as Chryseis."

The older man grinned. "Donít remind me. Youíve never experienced a cold shoulder until youíve felt hers."

Joxer laughed. "Gabbyís pretty good at that too. Fortunately Iíve learned how not to provoke it." The two of them left the banquet hall and headed toward the stairs.

"Whereís your room?" Joxer asked.

"Iím not staying at the palace," Iolaus told him. "Iím at an inn down the road."

"Oh. Well, in that case," Joxer said, extending his hand, "see you in the morning."

"Yeah, you too," Iolaus said, shaking his hand. "Tell Gabrielle I said hi."

"Will do," Joxer said, and made his way back to his room.

Gabrielle was still awake, her long blue robe tied at the waist; but her legs stuck out from beneath the soft cloth as she sat close to the lamp, reading from a scroll.

"Whatcha readiní?" Joxer asked, his voice a hoarse whisper so as not to wake the children.

Gabrielle patted the bed next to her without looking away from the scroll. "Just something from the Corinth Library. " She glanced up at him, her green eyes aglow with the fire of knowledge. "Itís fascinating stuff."

Joxer shed his tunic and climbed up on the bed. "Iíll bet."

She leaned over and kissed him gently. "Whatís wrong?" she asked.

She always knows, he thought. No matter how hard I try to hide it, she always knows...

"Iolaus says Hercules wonít be coming," Joxer said. "I really hoped heíd be here."

Gabrielle drew her husband to her, stroking his dark hair. "Me too, hon, me too. But itís not like we can force him."

Joxer slid an arm around her and pulled her close, smiling inside as he took in her scent, the faint smell of soap, and of ink. "I know," he murmured, kissing her on the temple, "but this is important. He came to our wedding." Joxer sighed. "I wish I had time to talk to him, explain to him why he needs to be here."

"Iím sure he knows," Gabrielle said, running her hand along Joxerís neck.

"Iolaus doesnít even know why he isnít showing up," Joxer said softly.

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "Iím sure his reasons are good," she whispered.

"Iím not, hon. I canít think of a single good excuse for him not to be here."

Gabrielle smiled. Still the innocent man I married. "People change, dear. Even half gods." She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.

Joxer looked up into her eyes, still the same gorgeous green orbs he had fallen in love with years ago. "Do you know something youíre not telling me?"

"I know we have to get to sleep if weíre going to do our jobs tomorrow." She caressed his cheek softly. "It would hardly do to have a yawning maid of honor and best man."

Joxer frowned at her, but her smile banished his doubts; he smiled back, kissing her, and settled into the bed. Gabrielle blew out the candle and turned to face her husband, snuggling close to him even though it wasnít cold. She pressed her face into his chest and savored the warmth there, sighing contentedly as he slid his arms around her and drew her body close to his.

I canít tell you, sweetheart. Youíd never understand. Your heart is too open... and I wouldnít change that for the whole world...

Long legs carried him through the night, along a road that was first barely more than a hunterís trail, but slowly widened as Corinth grew closer. No merchants or travellers were stirring at this hour; Hercules had the road to himself. He hadnít run so long or so far for years; but as the wind pulled at his hair, and as the sun slowly began to rise as he approached Corinth, his face wore a smile. Maybe I have been alone too long. Maybe Iolaus was right...

If felt good just to run, just to move, just to know that the power and strength that had made Hercules a legend was no myth, but something that really existedó and something he could still use, when need demanded. He had wondered sometimes if his body was going to sleep because he didnít use it; but becoming a hero again would have raised all sorts of questions that he still would rather not face.

He remembered the layout of Corinth from the year he spent here following Jasonís death. He veered off the road not too far from the outskirts of the city and headed toward the south entrance, which was less well guarded, less well used, and better suited his purposes. About halfway around the city he made a direct turn and headed straight for the wall; he ran as fast as he could, sweat rolling down his chest, the extra exertion forcing him to breathe heavy, and in the dawn he saw it; an old guardís tower at the top of the wall, unused, broken down, forgotten. It was a fair distance from the ground; but with his running start...

It was all he could do not to go crashing through the cracked stone wall on the other side of the guardís tower as he landed. His boots scuffed along a dirty, dusty floor, and only the still well-rooted iron flagpole that ran through the center of the room saved him; huge hands gripped it, and the force of his momentum bent the pole; but it did not break, and he regained his footing. A brief glance around showed him where the door was; but when he tried it, he found it locked. He grabbed the hinges and tore the door off, only to be confronted by a brick wall behind it. "You always were thorough, Iphicles," Hercules grumbled as he raised a fist and struck the brick as hard as he could. Gotta do everything the hard way today...

After a few minutes, he had created a hole big enough to squeeze through, and he pushed his large body through the hole and descended the stairs rapidly. The door at the base of the tower was locked as well; but this was a simpler matter, and he had the lock removed from the rotting wood in a matter of seconds. Brushing himself off, he moved quickly into the streets of Corinth, the sun barely giving him enough light to navigate.

He wouldnít have needed much help, but then, Iphicles had been busy. Corinth hadnít changed that much in a decade, but it had changed enough so that he would have gotten lost in total darkness. He made his way to the palace quickly, trying to avoid areas of merchant activity; they rose the earliest in a city, and he didnít want to be spotted just yet. He crossed the Avenue of Heroes at a quick trot and came up to the two guards standing at the side gate to the palace.

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