By the time they reached the inn, they were both in foul moods.
Iolaus was limping slightly and brushing absent-mindedly at the scratches on his face. Hercules' stance was a little too straight and stiff and he stared directly ahead of himself, refusing to look to either side, to the point that he continually stumbled and tripped over rocks on the path. The last stumble had brought him into contact with Iolaus, who had taken a certain grim pleasure in pushing him back to his own side of the road with more force than was necessary.
Overhead, dark clouds rumbled, threatening to drench both of them.
Whatever it was Hercules muttered incomprehensibly under his breath had only brought even more of a smile to Iolaus's lips.
Good. Let him be uncomfortable. This entire trip has been like taking a picnic in Tartarus.
Now, finally, they had reached their destination. Not much of one -- a run-down little place with a roof that badly needed patching and odors wafting from it that boded ill for the chance of settling either of their rumbling stomachs, but their arrival gave them something to focus on besides their determination to ignore one another.
"About time! Thought you said this place was just down the road!" Iolaus grouched.
"Well, I suppose if your legs are that short it does seem a lot further." Hercules was all sneering sweetness.
Iolaus deliberately picked up his pace and entered the inn first, striking the door with the palm of his hand and causing it to slam open and bounce off the wall. Heads jerked in his direction and silence replaced the hum of conversation as Iolaus found himself the center of attention for many a rheumy eye. He hesitated for a fraction of a second then lifted his chin and continued forward. Better to make a grand entrance than to slink, now that he'd made his presence known.
The floors were little more than packed dirt, the furniture had seen better days, and Iolaus made a point of not looking at the small shapes moving along the edges of the walls. He approached the grimy bearded figure that was presumably the innkeeper. Seated behind a rickety table, the man gnawed a bone with unidentifiable meat attached and idly scratched his head as he looked up.
"We'll need two rooms for the night. Clean sheets. Is there any food available?"
"Got one room. No food."
"We need two rooms. And you're eating food," Iolaus insisted.
"One room. No food."
"How about your barn?" Hercules joined them, but stood back and a bit to the side, as if he didn't quite wish to acknowledge he was traveling with Iolaus.
"How much for one of us to sleep in your barn," he repeated, with forced patience.
"Thass for horses!"
"I know that, I'm asking...."
"You don't want to sleep in the barn, son," warned a voice from the corner. Both Iolaus and Hercules turned to peer into the shadows at a wizened elderly man nursing his mug of ale. "Trust me, even the horses shouldn't be sleeping there."
"Well that's just great," Iolaus burst out, "I'll just sleep outside. I don't care, we'll --" The storm that had been producing a low continuous rumble during the last few hours of their trip chose
this moment to get down to business. The crack of thunder deafened them all as the skies finally opened up with torrents of rain. The lobby roof immediately sprang three leaks.
"...Take the room," Hercules interrupted. "How much?"
The price was ridiculous enough that even Hercules couldn't let it go without an argument. After five minutes though, he gave up, unable to penetrate the layers of dirt that seemed to have caked and sealed away the innkeeper's higher reasoning abilities.
"Fine, just give us the room!" Iolaus slapped coins onto the counter.
"Last door, end o' hall."
They turned and hurried out at once, both anxious to escape the curious stares of their audience. Conversation sprang back up the second they stepped into the hallway.
The room was about what could be expected from the rest of the inn, and the roof was leaking directly onto the small straw mattress. Wordlessly, they each went to one end of the bed to move it to the other side of the room. The rotted top of one of the posts snapped off in Iolaus' hand. He threw it to the ground in disgust.
"I'll sleep on the floor," he announced.
"On that floor?" Hercules asked, too aghast to remember their feud.
Both of them scrutinized the floor for a moment. Iolaus shuddered.
If only it wasn't raining! The forest ground would be cleaner and more comfortable than this dung heap, Iolaus thought in dismay.
"We've slept on beds smaller than this together before," Hercules argued.
"Yes, and you always kick me on the floor after a few hours. I'm going to end up there anyway."
"I do not!"
"Yes, you do. You're like a giant bed kraken. You steal all the covers and then you knee me in the side till I fall off the bed. I have the bruises to prove it."
"You've never said anything before now." Iolaus could tell by the expression on his face that Hercules didn't believe him.
"I get back up and fight for a tiny bit of space."
"Oh, and you can't do that now?"
"Fine, have it your way, we'll share the bed." Iolaus turned away, refusing to meet Hercules' eyes any longer. He didn't want to have this conversation.
"Blow the candle out."
Iolaus blew the candle out despite the absurdity of the request. Darkness provided a welcome respite from the tension. Getting undressed, however, was an uncoordinated dance of grunts and muffled curses as both tried to navigate in the limited light. Getting into the bed was another experience altogether.
Iolaus found the edge of the bed with his fingertips. Fingertips which quickly encountered damp scratchy straw. He bit down on his tongue before he could utter a telltale sound, and carefully crept forward, to the far side of the bed. A moment later, Hercules' backside landed firmly on his stomach.
"What are you doing?!" Hercules shot to his feet, leaving Iolaus gasping for breath. "That's my side of the bed!"
"I'm…" Iolaus sucked in another lungful of air. "I'm on this side, so it must be my side of the bed. Watch where you put that thing!"
There was a moment of silence, then Hercules carefully felt his way around to the other side of the bed, and carefully lowered himself down -- only to shoot up again a moment later.
"Then you sleep over here!"
"I'm fine where I am, thanks."
"Because it's dry over there! You moved over there and left me with wet straw. Move over!"
"I will not! Why should I have to sleep on the wet side? Hey, get off! This bed is too small too already, I've barely got any room to begin with! Hey, whaddya think…"
The struggle was brief but intense. Hercules attempted to drag Iolaus back to his original side of the bed, and Iolaus latched onto the bed frame as though defeat would mean knives through the eyes, and not just an uncomfortable night's sleep. Hercules got to his knees on the mattress, latched onto Iolaus' waist, and braced his feet against the bed frame. Iolaus planted his feet in the center of Herc's chest, never losing his own grip on the bed frame. Muscles tensed, curses were uttered, and with a groan and a sway, the bed frame split, falling open on either side. The mattress hit the floor and with a soft, slightly squelching thud, split open as well, sending mold and straw into the air around the now prone and coughing opponents.
Hercules spat out a mouthful of straw and realized the mattress beneath him had components that were fleshy and squirming. Blinking furiously, he confirmed his suspicion that it was, in fact, Iolaus attempting to kick his balls through his back, and not the mattress suddenly come to life as a rather poor attempt at humor by one of his many siblings.
"Gerorf!" came the demand.
"I'm getting!" It was easier said than done. Getting to his knees involved an elbow to Iolaus' side, accidentally planting his hand on Iolaus' hair and eliciting a howl of rage and pain, and eventually tangling his own feet between the legs beneath him, and ending back on top of the form under him again. Closer than before, in fact. Way too close. He could feel Iolaus' breath on his face. There was a moment of silence while both of them lay shocked.
"Isn't this what started this mess?" Iolaus asked bitterly. "Don't you think you'd better get off, before I shock your precious sensibilities again?"
Hercules rolled off, and lay on his back next to Iolaus, letting the straw settle around him, hoping his thoughts would follow suit.
"You didn't shock me the first time," he answered softly.
"Could've fooled me. That why you shoved me away so hard I ended up half a league away on my ass in the brambles?"
"Well, I didn't mean… okay, you did shock me, but not the way you think."
"Oh no? So, that wouldn't have been a 'my best friend just kissed me and I'm totally surprised and repulsed, so I'll hurl him as far away from myself as I can?' move you executed back on that road?" Iolaus flung one out in a dramatic sweeping gesture.
"Cause, I gotta tell you, if you don't hang that way, fine, okay, I can understand it. But you'd think, all the time we've been together, I don't know, masquerading as best friends or something similar, that you could at least have the courtesy to be polite about it. Maybe an, 'Iolaus, I'm sorry, but haven't you been paying attention for the last 25 years? I'm strictly into partners with rounder parts.' Or, maybe, 'Iolaus, I love you like a brother, and therefore this feels pretty incestuous to me,' or even…"
"….Iolaus, get your tongue out of my throat, I have a fear of slimy objects. Anything that didn't resemble the reaction of 'Gods, I'd sooner be kissing a goat than you!' I mean, if it had been…."
"IOLAUS!" There was only one way to stop the diatribe, and Hercules executed the move flawlessly, rolling back onto Iolaus, pushing him down flat, and kissing him till he threatened to pass out.
He stopped, gasping a little himself, and buried his face in the crook of Iolaus' neck, allowing himself the opportunity to revel in the warmth, the feeling of the pulse thrumming next to his cheek, the feel of Iolaus' breath tickling his ear as he panted for air.
"Okay, so…." Iolaus cleared his throat and started again. "Wow. So, what you're saying here, is I misinterpreted your body language somehow. Maybe that was actually foreplay or something? Should I have kicked you in the gut to really get things moving?"
Hercules' rumbling laughter caused both of them to shake.
"Iolaus. Do you have any idea how long ago I gave up on you?"
Hercules slid to the side as Iolaus propped himself up on one elbow. "Years ago. I mean, there's just so many times you can watch your friend jump in the sack with anything that jiggles, giggles, and wears a skirt before you start to draw certain conclusions."
"Hey! I don't just jump on everything! I have discriminating tastes!"
"Or, if necessary, you just blow the light out."
"Are you saying I'm, I'm…"
"I'm saying," Hercules said very gently, "that for a long, long time I wanted… and I'm not good at saying… and then it seemed like, you know, you would have laughed at me."
"Laughed at you? Are you…." Iolaus said, disbelievingly.
"Don't." Herc's voice was sharper than he intended. "I… I'm sorry I shoved you. I'm sorry I didn't explain it back there on the road. I thought, maybe, you were having a joke or something…."
"A joke? Herc! I…look, I know it was sudden, but it wasn't like I haven't been thinking about it for a long time. I mean, a really long time. I mean, it seemed like every time… I mean, Herc, not to sound, I don't know, jealous, or petty, or… sometimes, I put what I really think out there, and, it doesn't seem like you take it that seriously, and, I, sometimes I wonder…."
"I always take you seriously."
"No, you don't."
"I do. I know… sometimes I just don't want you to know how seriously I'm taking you."
"I'm not sure what you're talking about."
"I know. That's okay. I just wanted to say… I'm sorry. I know how much you care about me, but sometimes, when I thought that you'd end up leaving me sooner or later… it seemed like maybe it would be a good idea if I left you first."
There was silence for a few moments.
"Is that why you kept doing that?"
"Well, yeah. Mostly."
"That's really stupid." Iolaus cuffed him lightly on the side of the head.
Hercules sighed. "Are we going to have this conversation now? Because, I don't think I can lie in this position much longer. This straw isn't getting any drier, and I think I hear things crawling in it. Can we get a little more comfortable first?"
"That's going to be sort of hard, don't you think? You just broke the bed."
"I just broke the bed?"
"Yeah, and how are you going to explain that to the innkeeper?"
"I'm not going to explain this to him! Why should I have to explain this to him?"
"Well, because we're gonna need a new bed," Iolaus pointed out logically.
"I actually meant, why should I have to be the one to explain, not… Iolaus, he didn't have a spare room, he's certainly not going to have a spare bed lying around in a hallway, or the kitchen, or something."
"Well, we can't sleep on this, we'd be better off with the horses."
"Not according to some."
Silence descended as they imagined the possible state of the barn that belonged with this inn.
"Maybe we could steal a bed," Iolaus finally offered.
"What? Iolaus, that's dishonest. And where would we steal a bed from anyway?"
"One of the other rooms. It's still pretty early. People are still probably drinking and dancing and carousing and making eyes at one another girlfriends and…."
"All right, I take your point, the other rooms probably aren't occupied yet. That doesn't mean we can just go around taking someone else's bed!"
"No. No, you're probably right, Herc. That's hardly the kind of thing we'd do, is it? We'll just have to sleep on this broken bed tonight. With the straw on the floor. And the… things…"
There was a moment of silence as they both held their breath and listened to the… things.
"All right, fine."
"I'm sure they're not really as big as they sound…"
"Just get off me and move. We don't have much time."