The First time was actually the Fourth.
//So this is how it ends//
Pain clouded his vision and his mind. But not, unfortunately, enough to let him escape, to sink into oblivion, to become blissfully unaware of what was happening. Slivers of agony shot through his back and his thoughts seemed to skitter about in the dark confines of his mind as they tried to shy away from fact of the wooden spike that was emerging from his chest. The humiliation was easier, but almost as painful, to focus on.
//Not in the heat of battle. No heroic rescue. No great sacrifice of my life for a worthy cause//
Panicky voices of strangers were screaming and cursing at one another, accusations of blame already flying as the participants in this calamity began to realize how serious the accident had actually been.
//Will they write on my gravestone what a hero I was? About my feats as a warrior? Loving Husband? Best Friend and Companion to the Great Hercules? Not likely//
Footsteps were running in his direction. With the odd clarity that comes to one who is gravely injured, the slowing of time and the sharpening of details, he could feel the soft squishiness beneath his shoulders.
//Here lies Iolaus. Killed by a Rogue Tomato.//
Breathing hurt. From where he lay, it was clearly the fault of the fruit cart merchants. Every town they had very stopped in, ever brawl he'd ever been involved with--sooner or later, it would somehow involve a fruit cart. Runaway fruit carts, carts which got smashed, carts conveniently placed to throw your enemies into, or, on those unfortunate occasions, to be thrown into. They were placed like small, deadly booby-traps in every village. Perhaps it was some type of godly joke. Was there a God of Fruit? Fortune was probably having a pretty good laugh at his expense right now. Breathing hurt, and he could hear the most unpleasant wet sucking sound just below his collarbone.
/Oh Gods. Not like this. Please not like this/
He forced open eyes he hadn’t realized he’d closed, and tried to focus on the sky, the edge of a building, a banner floating, just barely at the edge of his vision. The large, heavily whiskered and sweating fleshy male face that inserted itself in the space between himself and the clear blue sky, the clouds he’d wanted to see just once more, was almost enough to make him wish he hadn’t bothered. He could tell the man was speaking to him by the way his lips were moving. But the voice that reached him didn’t match what he knew he should be hearing. It was high pitched, a woman’s, and extremely annoyed.
"This is just getting ridiculous!"* * * * * * *
Death was surprisingly comfortable. Well, he was in the Elysian Fields now, right? Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all. He pulled the blankets tighter around himself and snuggled down. A fist smacked him on the shoulder. "OW!"
"Come on, get up already! I’ve given you some time to get over the death trauma, now wake up, we need to talk!"
"What’s the hurry?" Iolaus pried one eye open, and peered at the blurry woman-shape standing in front of him. Nice shape. Nice face. Definitely unfamiliar. He never forgot a face. Well, not an attractive female face, anyway. "If you can’t sleep in when you’re dead, when do you get to rest, anyway?"
"Unfortunately, your death is only temporary, and I need you briefed on a few things before you go back."
"What?" Iolaus opened the other eye and sat up, blanket slipping to the floor. "Who are you? What do you mean, I’m going back?"
"I’m Clotho. Perhaps you’ve heard of me. I’m one of the Fates. I weave lives. I wove your life, and I’m the one who’s going to weave your life back together in a few minutes, but I need you to do something for me when you get back.
"You mean, a mission? My life back for a task? What is it? I’ll do it!" Iolaus was on his feet and pacing, face split by his huge grin. Another chance, another journey, he’d tell Hercules and they’d face it together….
"No, nothing like that. Stop that pacing and sit down, would you? I just want you to lie about having been dead." Clotho took his arm in a firm grip, and steered him across the room towards where a fire burned merrily. Iolaus took a moment to survey his surroundings. Stone walls but no brick or mortar – was this a man structure? A God-made structure? Or perhaps just a conveniently shaped cave? Wall hangings a king would sell his castle for covered every available surface. Small candles perched on every outcrop and jutting rock and lit the area. There was no door that he could spot. Clotho shoved him into a cushioned wooden chair and drew up one for herself in front of the fire.
"But... why? I mean, what’s in it for you? Isn’t this against the rules or something?" Iolaus patted himself on the chest, looking for damage, happy to find the surface unbroken. "Why lie?"
Clotho sighed and rubbed her fingers against her forehead. "I think I’ve got a migraine starting. Do you have any idea how much trouble you are? You couldn’t, I don’t know, be a farmer off somewhere, leading a nice, peaceful, boring existence? When I made this deal with Erythia, I had no idea the amount of work it was going to be! There is a rule against this, and you’re going to end up getting me in a lot of trouble, I just know it. Particularly if you don’t start taking better care of yourself. I’ve never seen someone so eager to take on every possible danger that crosses their path, or so willing to risk their life for a total stranger. I’ve been watching you all your life, and I’m still not certain whether you’re the bravest man I’ve ever known, or just the most foolish. Lately I’ve begun to think it must be the latter. I mean, a fruit cart. Could you be any more careless with your life?"
"Erythia, as in my mother? How do you know mother? That fruit cart was not my fault."
"Yes, Erythia, as in your mother. I met her when she was pregnant with you. There was this mortal man in your village who could do the most amazing things with his… well, never mind that. I went there for our usual weekly get together, and suddenly he was on about how his family wanted him to settle down with a nice mortal woman, and how they were hinting about grandchildren, and on and on… So I went to the Tavern instead, and there was Erythia...."
"My mom was at the local Tavern?"
"...And she was there for pretty much the same reasons I was, a screaming argument with her husband, who wouldn’t listen to a word she said...."
"Well, okay, I can see that."
"...and all either of us wants is to be left in peace, a nice quiet drink or two, but seeing as the place is full of *men*, that was just not going to happen. Swine, every last one of them, and the tavern keeper tried to make us pay for the broken pottery, like it was our fault or something…"
"What? Who did you hit?"
"...so instead, we went back to Erythia’s barn, where she stored her homebrew..."
"My Mom does not brew ale in her barn!"
"...and before I know it, we’re both pretty plastered, and we’ve spilled our stories to one another, and we’re engaging in what I thought was a nice, friendly game of dice, only as far as I can tell, she must have watered her own cup of ale down, because the next thing I know, I’ve lost everything but my underclothes to her and she’s demanding payment. That Mother of yours is just devious. You have to admire that in a woman."
"My mother beat you at dice? She never even let me talk about gambling! She burned my dice in the fireplace when I brought them home with me that time!"
"At first I thought I’d just been taken in by another greedy mortal. But she didn’t want anything for herself. She didn’t even want anything for her husband. She knew him too well, I think. Saw the way he wouldn’t give up war, give up the battle, knew there was nothing she could give him that would save him in the end. But she looked all around her, all the villagers’ children going off and getting themselves slaughtered fighting in the name of Ares, and she wanted something more for her own child."
"She always... she tried..." Iolaus stammered. Clothos had finally paused for him to speak, and now he couldn’t find the words to describe what he knew of his mother. He shook his head, and Clotho continued.
"At first she wanted you to be completely immortal. Not a God, but living forever. I convinced her this was just not as attractive an option as the stories make it out to be. I can’t stop you from aging, you know. And after about a thousand years or so, let me tell you, those mortals who can’t die don’t think what they’ve been given is a gift. So then she wanted me to guarantee you’d never be injured or harmed or sickly while you lived to a healthy old age. But I couldn’t promise that either. We have to give mortals some choice in their lives, and there’s no way I can stop you from doing whatever it is you’re going to do. Finally, we struck a compromise that had the added advantage of giving me a way of hiding what I was doing from my sisters. I’d never live it down if they found out about that night. Losing at dice to a mortal!"
"What was the compromise?" Iolaus was leaning forward, elbows on knees, head cushioned in his hands. He just hadto go home and get his Mom’s version of this night.
"Nine lives. That way, I could disguise your thread as a cat’s life. Unless anyone looks too closely, that is. Eight chances to die and come back before the final, permanent trip to the Elysian Fields. Or Tartarus, whichever it ends up being. She agreed that was fair. After all, the rest of the world only has that one chance to screw up. If you can’t manage with nine, you really don’t deserve them."
"I’ve got nine lives? I can die..."
"No." Clotho cut him off firmly. "You’ve got five lives. You’ve lost four already. Five left."
There was a pause while Iolaus did some mental reckoning.
"I don’t see how you’re coming up with that number."
"Well, there was the Enforcer..."
"Hercules bargained with Hades for my life back in exchange for killing her."
"Yes, because I wove the idea for Hades that the Enforcer was his enemy. Do you have any idea the type of skilled weaving it takes to slip a thought into a God’s mind? Or for that matter, the danger involved? Luckily, its much easier to push them if they’re inclined to believe in the direction you want them to go."
"All right. So the Enforcer counts as one."
"Don’t interrupt. Then there was the time the Amazons killed you…."
"What? I’ve never been killed by Amazons!"
"You were. You just don’t remember it because Hercules convinced Zeus to turn back time to save you and the Amazon queen. So, it never happened."
"If it never happened, it shouldn’t count."
"I had to do the work to get time turned back, didn’t I? Any time I have to put that much effort into something, it’s going to count. Then the third time was when you were turned to stone by the she-demon."
"Now wait a minute! Everyone in the entire village came back to life when Hercules killed the She-Demon! You didn’t have to do anything! I’ll grant you the Amazon thing, but that’s not fair...."
"Oh, and it’s fair you’ve got nine lives to begin with? Now you’ve thrown the fourth one out the window with that little fruit-cart incident, and I need you to cover it up. The others I could all manipulate. Zeus thinks he brought you back the first time, Hercules attributes the second to himself, and Hades can take credit for the third. But you know you died, and when you wake up, you’ll know there was a spike through the middle of your chest a moment ago that won’t be there anymore. I can’t have you jumping up in the middle of the village square and proclaiming that you were dead and came back to life for no particular reason." Clotho paused, and took a deep breath, as though her relentless retelling of events had worn her down. "I’m trusting you with the facts here, Iolaus. What I’ve done here, with your life, could get us both in a lot of trouble. At the very least, I’m you’re smart enough to realize it’s in your own best interests not to say a word to a soul about this, even if you are as dumb as a rock, and not swift enough to keep yourself from losing your lives in the first place."
"I’m going to ignore that, because if what your telling me is true and I’m not just dreaming all of this, then I can get up and walk away from that cart, and not have to spend the rest of eternity meeting warriors in the Elysian Fields who will all recognize my name from songs the Bards sing about "Iolaus, The Warrior Who Couldn’t Defeat Fruit."
Clotho actually gave a snort of laughter. "Yes, you’re getting out of this one. And I’d appreciate it if you’d be more careful with the rest of your lives. I’d feel like I was cheating your Mother if I couldn’t at least get you through to til age 50 or so. Ready to go back?"
"What, right this second? But I’ve got all these questions..."
"He’s awake! He’s okay! Get up son, you scared the life out of me there!" Iolaus’ arm shot up in self-defense, pushing away the fat face breathing noxious fumes directly down his throat..
"Get off of me! What happened?"
"It’s okay, you just took a little tumble. Jerio, he let his horse get away from him, it startled, knocked my cart away from me… for a moment there, you really had me scared. Thought I’d killed you, can you imagine? It’s all right, its just the tomatos, trick of the light, it looked like blood. What a way to go, eh? You’ll be fine, though, let me help you up. You know, one inch to either side, and those spikes...!"
Iolaus stood unsteadily, and looked down at the wicked looking wooden trap. Two deadly spikes, which he had apparently fallen between. It would appear to any onlookers as though he’d escaped certain death by a mouse’s whisker.
He put a hand to his chest and finger his tomato stained vest. "Yeah," he shuddered. "I know."* * * * * * *
The Fifth time was almost, but not entirely, a waste of a life
Having lives to spare didn’t make dying any less painful. And drowning turned out to be much more painful than he’d expected it to be.
"Just take deep breaths!" Hercules shouted, and thumped him on the back again.
//I would if you’d stop hitting me! Gods, Herc, you’re gonna cost me another life in a minute if you don’t get some control over your strength!// Iolaus coughed and hacked and spit foul tasting river water into the grass. Strong broad hands lifted him into sitting position. "Come on! You’re all right! Come on, Iolaus!" The fear in his friend’s voice both confused and pleased him.
"Did you get him? Is he all right?" Gabrielle’s voice as she shouted down at them from the top of the hill.
"He’s okay! Just took in a lungful of water!" Hercules called back, sounding more sure of his facts than he had a moment ago.
"Iolaus." Hercules’ hands tightened on his arms until it was painful. Iolaus looked up in surprised, still coughing up the last of the liquid. "Sorry," he loosened his grip, but not by much. "I just... you were down so long. You… gave me a scare there, Iolaus." He gave a sickly sounding laugh.
"Hey. I’m sorry, Herc. Didn’t do it on purpose, you know. Just....""Acted before you thought? Like always? No, I'm sorry, Iolaus, I didn't mean that."
"It's okay. Happens to be true this time," Iolaus responded in a whisper. "I just, wanted to help...."
Hercules' expression was one of disbelief. "What are you talking about? You always help. But Iolaus, if we'd If we’d lost the key, we’d have found another way in." Hercules gesture at the small box sitting next to them on the flattened grasses. "Can't say the same about you. There’s a lot a stake here, but it’s not worth your life, Iolaus."
"Yeah, I know." //Gods, I'm a fool. Am I really so desperate to prove myself?// "I am sorry, you know. I...."
"Xena wants to know how much time you need to rest!" Gabrielle's voice interrupted once again. "She says she thinks they’re only a few miles behind us now!"
"For the love of...."
"Just give me a minute to make sure his lungs are clear, Gabrielle!"
There was a moment of silence, as they stared at each other, and Iolaus could see the thoughts and emotions behind that had been clearly evident on his friends face being carefully packed up and hidden away once again.
"Guess we should have the conversation some other time, huh? About recklessness and all of that?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Give me your hand, I’ll help you walk."
Unsteady feet were guided up the rocky slope.
He firmly ignored Clotho as he passed her standing by a tree. He absolutely did not see her mouth the words, "dumb as a rock!" in his direction.
* * * * * *
The Sixth time was worth it
"Have you ever heard of the concept of privacy? Don’t wake Herc."
"All this time I thought you were just dumb as a rock, but you inherited some of your Mother’s craftiness after all, didn’t you? I can’t believe you. Throwing away an entire life just to get him in the sack with you. Did you take that dart in the back for him intentionally? You could have just pushed him out of the way. He’d probably have survived if the dart his him anyway. Son of a God, and all that."
"It wasn’t a waste of a life. And I didn’t throw it away, I tried to get us both out of the way fast enough, and I couldn’t. And I couldn’t risk it Clotho. He may be the son of a God, but unless you’re holding back on me, he only has one life to risk." Iolaus tucked the blankets more firmly around the sleeping figure next to him, taking a moment to trace his hand over his friend's, now his lover's, back. //Finally!//
"You knew you would be fine! You knew the poison wouldn’t finish you off permanently, and you said those things to him, letting him think you were dying!"
"I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true. I didn’t say anything I haven’t wanted to say for years."
"So why wait until you’re having convulsions and about to expire in his arms?"
Iolaus stroked the body beside him for another moment, gathering his thoughts together. "If I needed the courage of being able to hide behind the seeming tragedy of my own death, why do you begrudge me that, Clotho? We’re not all brave at heart in all matters. If he’d been horrified, if he’d been sympathetic but just couldn’t return the feeling, then it gave me a way out, a way to smile, and shake it off, and say it was the stress, and the pain, and the fear that made say those words. I could still have my friendship, I wouldn’t lose it. Or anyway, I’d be less likely to lose it," he amended.
There was another silence, as they both surveyed the sleeping form sprawled across the bed, the faint but very real smile that played across his lips, even in his unconscious state.
"He would never have given you up as a friend, not even if the feelings weren’t mutual. You must have known that," Clotho whispered.
"Perhaps I did. I probably did. I’m mortal, Clotho, and sometimes we mortals are irrational when the price is so high, when even the possibility of a loss we couldn’t bear is enough to make us act like fools."
"Well, you’ve got him now."
"So just don’t do anything like that again."
"I’m never going to get you to old age at this rate."* * * * * * *
The Seventh Time Was War
"Bring her back."
"I can’t, Iolaus."
"Bring her back, Clotho. You can. You bring me back all the time." Bloodstained fingers stroked silky blond hair.
"Iolaus, I can’t. It’s not the same."
"Why not? What’s different? You brought me back for a * bet. * She’s so young. She can’t even be nine years old yet."
"She was seven. She’s gone, Iolaus. I changed the way your life would be before you were born. The thread was woven to be broken and rebound."
"Please, Clotho. I’ve got two lives left now. Give her my eighth life. Give her both of them. Bring her back and take me. You were right, I’ve had plenty of chances." Iolaus lifted a tiny soft hand and laid it against his own roughened and calloused palm. "I need to save her. I can’t just let her go like this."
"You gave one life for her already, Iolaus, she wouldn’t want you to do more. Believe me about this. I can’t bring her back. I’m sorry, Iolaus."
He cradled the small form against himself, eyes gazing out across the bodies that covered the field. The battle had moved past them hours ago, leaving only the dead and soon to be dead in its wake. And himself. He’d woken to find himself lying on the body of the child he’d fought to protect.
"It’s not fair, Clotho."
"I know, Iolaus. It’s not fair."* * * * * * *
The Eighth Time Hurt
Much the way he imagined the torments of Tartarus must hurt those condemned to dark regions for their misspent lives. Pain had traced its way from his arm down his side, stabbing, pinching, and leaving him on the ground, just grateful he’d accomplished his task before it overcame him. He rested against the thick, rough trunk of a tree, legs spread in front of him, braiding the grass with one hand, and reflected on just how grateful he was this was not his time. Not yet. This last death had not been like the others. His body had betrayed him. Clotho was there when he looked up.
"Heart attack, was that?"
"Yes, it was. That’s what happens when you go about fighting men half your age and twice your size," she gestured to the body lying a dozen yards away. "Look at him. Must have been Titan’s blood in his lineage."
"I won, didn’t I?"
"At what cost? You’re old now, Iolaus. You’re body can’t take the punishments you put it through when you were younger."
"I’ve been careful. I mean, look at me. How many years has it been since I’ve last seen you now? My hair is grey, and my joints ache in bad weather—particularly my knee. Don’t suppose you could do anything about that, could you?
"Iolaus, are you listening to me? You’ve only got one life left now. You have to learn to run instead of fighting. You have to learn to think your way out of these things instead of placing yourself in this type of peril."
"Clotho, I have. I have learned, you know. I don’t want to leave him, to leave my home, my life… I finally have everything I’ve ever wanted. I can’t imagine it being better than this in the Elysian Fields. But sometimes there isn’t a choice. Hercules had his own battle to fight, and I had to watch his back. He couldn’t have taken on both of them. He may be the son of a God, but his mortal half’s taking its toll on him as well. Started getting arthritis last fall, did you know that?"
"I need you to be more careful, Iolaus," Clotho circled the tree.
"I will be, Clotho, as much as any foolish mortal can," he watched her walk. "Is he on his way back here now?"
"Yes, and he’ll take one look at you an know what happened, how bad it was."
"I wouldn’t have hid this from him."
"Of course not. Have you any idea how much he’ll pamper and spoil me when I get home?"
The Ninth Time
And Hera would finally have her due. The life of Hercules, or the life of the one he loved more than himself. The final battle they couldn’t run from, couldn’t trick their way out of, couldn’t bargain with the Gods over. And Iolaus chose as he would have if he’d had a thousand lives left.
The bed was just as comfortable as he remembered it, and Clotho was waiting for him again when he opened his eyes, just as he’d expected.
"Hi there. Come to see me one last time before you have to finally turn me over to Celesta and Hades?"
"Something like that. How are you feeling?"
"How am I feeling? Isn’t that a strange sort of thing to be asking? I feel…." Iolaus hesitated. "I feel like myself. All right. Not perfect. My knee still aches. Is your knee still supposed to ache once you die? Why does this room look just like my bedroom with Hercules?"
"That could have something to do with the fact that this is your bedroom with Hercules."
Iolaus ran his hands over his body. His face, his arms, his chest... he pinched the flesh of one bicep.
"I’m still alive?"You’re still alive."
"I lied to you, Iolaus. You were right. The she-demon turning you to stone didn’t count at all."
"WHAT?""Dumb as a..."
"What did you want me to do? If you had known you had another life, you’d just have found some other way to lose it as well. I promised your Mother, Iolaus, as long and healthy a life as I could manage for you. Do you know, I learned more from her in one evening than I’ve learned from my Brother’s and Sister’s in a millenium? I owed her, and I did what I could. But this is it. The last one."
"The last one?"
From the kitchen, he could hear an argument break out. Xena and Gabrielle, bickering about what the best recovery meal to make for him would be, Hercules frantically shushing them, threatening to throw them out if they woke him up.
Iolaus breathed deeply, just barely holding back the laughter. The tears.
"It’ll be enough, Clotho. Just enough."