The choked voice dragged Iolaus' eyes open.
Dark...it was so dark. Yet even in the jet blackness that surrounded him, he still saw a glint of blonde hair.
"Don't worry, Gabrielle," Iolaus whispered. "Don't worry."
"I know." Gabrielle took a deep breath and thanked the gods Iolaus was still alive. She desperately stroked his hair. "I'm really not afraid of the dark, you know. I just like to have company."
Iolaus tried to laugh but wound up coughing instead. He felt the searing pain along his ribs and gasped for air.
"Breathe slowly." Gabrielle stroked his forehead even as she forced herself to remain calm.
Iolaus wondered what would become of her. He wasn't going to be of use to anyone pretty soon. And if neither Hercules or Xena was able to break the chains binding Prometheus, everybody was going to be in a miserable state of affairs. He took a deep breath to tell Gabrielle to leave him when he died...to go as far as she could to hopefully find either Xena or Hercules...and if not...to just leave and get as far away as she could from this mountain.
But the words died in his throat. It was so hard to breathe let alone talk. Instead, he mumbled a weak "Thanks."
"For what?" Gabrielle softly asked.
"For stayin' with me." Iolaus felt his eyes close.
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle sharply shouted as she felt his body relax.
In the darkness, Gabrielle didn't see the impish grin on Iolaus' face. Well, he thought, there were worse ways to die than having a pretty woman fuss over him. In a way, it was almost expected, he wryly acknowledged. Still, it would have been better if he'd been at Hercules' side...like they'd promised...back to back...
Desperately, Gabrielle placed her hand just over Iolaus' nose. 'Please', she silently prayed. 'Breathe!'
Just as she felt a slight exhalation from Iolaus' nose, the nearby torch burst into flames.
"Iolaus!" Gabrielle shouted startled by the sudden light. 'Gods, he looks awful.' "Iolaus!" she repeated a little more gently.
Iolaus' eyelids fluttered. He opened his eyes staring up into Gabrielle's worried face.
"The torch," Gabrielle stammered. "They did it. You're going to be alright."
Iolaus' eyes flickered to the brightly burning torch. He'd be alright, he acknowledged, assuming infection and fever from his wound didn't kill him. Still, it was nice that Gabrielle was an optimist.
Suddenly, his eyes flashed back to Gabrielle's. He saw the knowledge in her eyes as well. For the torch to be burning, Prometheus had been freed...and someone had died in accomplishing his release.
With brutal honesty, Iolaus sent a silent prayer winging towards Olympus that Xena had done the deed. Not that he wanted Xena dead, but...
With brutal honesty, Gabrielle sent a silent prayer winging towards Olympus that Hercules had done the deed. Not that she wanted Hercules dead, but...
Slowly, Iolaus took Gabrielle's hand and squeezed it. "It's okay," he murmured. "Herc wouldn't have let..."
"He couldn't have stopped her," Gabrielle interrupted with a short laugh. She brushed away the tears from her eyes. "Please, Iolaus, let's not talk about this. I don't want to think of either of them as dead."
Iolaus nodded squeezing her hand again. 'If he's gone', he silently promised, 'I'll carry on. I don't know how but I swear I will. I won't let his legacy die on this damned mountain.'
Gabrielle's head swiveled even as Iolaus tensed. They glanced at each other then Iolaus nodded to let Gabrielle know he'd heard the sound as well. Someone, walking quietly, was coming down the passageway towards them.
"Help me up," Iolaus whispered automatically reaching for his sword.
Gabrielle quietly helped Iolaus stand watching closely as he leaned against the sharp rocks to catch his breath. He slowly drew his sword from the scabbard and waited. He glanced at the nearby torch and silently shook his head. It was too late to put it out. Whoever was coming would have seen it by now.
"Xena!" Gabrielle squealed as someone came into view. She flew past Iolaus and into Xena's arms.
Xena gave her a quick hug her face still showing the strain of the battle.
'Xena...' Iolaus dully thought. 'Xena's here...that means...' Iolaus slumped against the rocky wall his sword slipping from his fingers. He knew it had been more than an even chance that Hercules had struck the blow against the chains binding Prometheus...the blow that would destroy him in the process. Still, knowing it was one thing...having it fly up and hit you in the face was another.
Dimly Iolaus felt his knees buckle as his eyes closed. 'I promise, Herc', he silently vowed. 'I promise...'
Hercules managed to catch his friend just before the hunter fell to the floor.
"Herc?" Iolaus' eyes flickered open even as Hercules helped him sit against the wall. "What are you doing here?" He glanced over Hercules' shoulder to where Xena and Gabrielle stood quietly talking.
Hercules gave him a questioning look. "Prometheus?" he prodded. "Chains? Disappearing gifts?"
"Yeah, yeah, I know that," Iolaus impatiently shrugged. "But Xena came back. That meant..."
Suddenly Hercules realized that with Xena's appearance, Iolaus must have believed he had struck the blow to free Prometheus...and died.
"Did I miss something?" Iolaus shook his head to clear it.
Hercules glanced over his shoulder as Xena took the torch. "Go on," he told her. "We'll be right behind."
"Iolaus?" Gabrielle softly asked stepping forward.
Xena put a hand on her arm and pulled her back. "Come on," she advised. "We need to set up camp and tend to Iolaus' wound."
Hercules carefully helped Iolaus stand as the two women walked away.
"Xena, I need to tell you what Iolaus said about you." Gabrielle's voice floated back to them.
Hercules had to smile as he helped Iolaus stand. "Do I get to know what you said about Xena?" he teased.
"Huh?" Iolaus looked at the sword in his hand wondering how it got there. "Oh, just that there was no hard feelings...you know."
"Good," Hercules quietly replied. He carefully took the sword from Iolaus and sheathed it. "How about I carry that for now?"
"Okay," Iolaus nodded. If this was a dream, he decided, it was a fairly good one. The good guys won, the bad guys were defeated, and Hercules was with him. He wondered how much of it would be true when he awoke.
"Come on, Iolaus," Hercules carefully wrapped an arm around his friend's shoulders. "Let's get you outside where we can clean that wound."
"Oh, yeah," Iolaus nodded. After a moment, he took a deep breath. "It hurts." He gave Hercules an irritated look.
"I imagine it does," Hercules half-smiled.
"No, no, you don't understand!" Iolaus snapped. "If it hurts, then this isn't a dream."
"That makes sense," Hercules acknowledged. He carefully edged his friend around some fallen rocks.
"That means you're alive." Iolaus' voice held more than a slight note of surprise.
"I'm alive," Hercules assured him. He glanced at Iolaus in concern. Had a rock hit Iolaus in the head?
"You're alive," Iolaus repeated.
"I'm alive," Hercules nodded.
"Xena's alive?" Iolaus asked.
"Xena's alive," Hercules nodded again.
"Prometheus is free?" Iolaus frowned.
"Prometheus is free," Hercules assured him. He gratefully saw the opening of the cave. Maybe Iolaus would start to make sense once he was in the sunlight.
"No, Herc, it just doesn't make sense," Iolaus shook his head.
Hercules blinked as they stepped into the sunlight. He heard Iolaus wince as he closed his eyes from the sudden glare.
"It does, Iolaus," Hercules assured him as he helped his friend to where Gabrielle and Xena waited. "I just remembered something you once told me."
"Me?" Iolaus looked up at his friend.
"We're better as a team than alone," Hercules reminded him. "She's not you, of course..."
Iolaus giggled then he glanced at Hercules again. "You and Xena worked together?"
"Yeah," Hercules nodded. He suddenly remembered Iolaus' feelings about Xena and wondered just how much of "no hard feelings" Iolaus had committed himself to.
"Good," Iolaus nodded suddenly dead serious. "I'd hate to lose either of you." He groaned as Hercules helped him sit on the ground. "But especially you," he quietly added.
"Same here," Hercules replied equally quiet.
"Let's see about that wound, Iolaus." Xena knelt beside him.
"Uh, Xena, did Gabrielle tell you what I said?" Iolaus put a restraining hand on her arm.
"Yes," Xena nodded after a moment's hesitation. "Yes, she did," she repeated softly.
"Then, please don't take this the wrong way," Iolaus offered. "I want Gabrielle to tend to my wounds." He waited a split second. "You'll hurt me."
Xena stared in stunned silence for a moment then saw the barely repressed hilarity in the hunter's blue eyes.
"And you'd love it." Xena's eyebrows arched upwards wickedly.
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Iolaus then to Hercules as Xena chuckled and Iolaus loudly giggled.
Hercules saw the confusion in Gabrielle's eyes. "Never mind them," he told her. "I'm certain that Iolaus hit his head while Xena..." He glanced at her for a moment then shrugged. "Who knows about Xena?"
Iolaus laughed as Xena gracefully rose to her feet and smiled at Hercules. "I think I'll see to Argo," she announced. "At least there I'll be dealing with an intelligent..."
"Xena!" Gabrielle flushed. After all, she thought, this was Hercules she was sort of insulting.
"I'll help," Hercules offered. "Gabrielle can take care of Iolaus."
"Please," Iolaus' eyes widened in supplication.
Gabrielle giggled despite herself. She sorted the bandages and reached forward to gently push Iolaus' vest away.
"Thanks," Iolaus quietly said.
"For what?" Gabrielle looked at him.
"For staying with me," Iolaus smiled. "I know it was dark and it wouldn't have been easy to find your way out. But it was still a brave act to stay with me."
"I couldn't have left," Gabrielle assured him. "I didn't want to." She found herself caught up in Iolaus' eyes then quickly began unwrapping a length of bandaging cloth.
Iolaus grinned then glanced down the knoll where Hercules and Xena stood with Argo. From the way they were standing, it was a serious conversation. "I'm glad they worked together like you said they needed to," he said.
"I know," Gabrielle nodded. "I was so afraid..." She stopped and turned red.
"So was I," Iolaus admitted meeting her eyes. "We both wanted our best friend back."
"Guess it doesn't say much about selfless sacrifice, does it?" Gabrielle forced herself not to look away.
"Sure doesn't," Iolaus cheerfully grinned. He snickered as Gabrielle blushed again. "But there's no need to tell THEM that."
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