Call Back Yesterday
O! Call back yesterday, bid time return. Richard II
Iolaus straightened, grimacing as he held his hand against the sharp pain in his lower back. He was too old to be a farmer, even a bad one. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he reached for the wineskin he kept handy. He took a long swallow, pausing to catch his breath and glare at the garden soil that needed his attention.
Hoof beats in the distance took his attention away from the garden. He turned, reaching for his bow. With the conditions the way they were, everyone kept a weapon close at hand. Iolaus was old but his eyesight was still good and he could take down a bird in flight five times out of ten.
Three riders approached, cantering easily, apparently talking to each other as they rode. Women, from the look of it, although they were far enough away he wasn't sure. There weren't many Amazons left, not after the armies of Livia had finished, but there weren't any other women who would dare ride, unescorted, through the countryside.
His heart clenched in his chest as he recognized them, two dark, one fair, warrior women with nothing to fear. Iolaus notched an arrow even as the fair-haired woman raised her hand in greeting and called out in a voice he hadn't heard in more than 25 years.
"Iolaus," cried Gabrielle, impossibly young. "Is that you?"
He didn't answer, just aimed his arrow at the slighter of the two dark-haired women. If what he had heard were true, then now was his chance to have his revenge.
"Iolaus! It's me." He heard her carefree laugh. She kicked her horse sharply and trotted forward, leaving the other two to rein their horses to a stop. "Or us, rather. Really!"
She was close enough for him to answer. "I know who you are." He twitched his head at the two other women. "And I know who she is."
His aim didn't waver. Gabrielle slowed her horse. When she saw the way he didn't lower his bow, she frowned.
"Iolaus, really. It's us. Xena and Gabrielle and. . ."
"The Bitch of Rome. The monster who tore the soul out of Greece. I've heard the stories."
Gabrielle glanced back at Xena and Eve. They were watching the white-haired old man who held his bow as steady as someone half his age.
Gently, Gabrielle said, "It's all right, Iolaus. Eve has changed. She follows the path of the Light, the way of Eli."
Iolaus barked out a humorless laugh. "The Light. As if that were a good thing. You forget, I know what the Light is really like. And from what I knew of Eli, he was a fool."
"Shut up, Gabrielle. I don't want to kill you. Just her and the bitch that spawned her."
Xena, after laying a reassuring hand on her daughter's shoulder, nudged her horse forward a few paces.
"Iolaus, I know it seems impossible but so much has changed."
"Not in my life, Xena. Now, I know you can catch an arrow the way Hercules used to but can she?"
Xena shook her head. "Iolaus we need to talk."
"Wrong, bitch. You and that monster child of yours need to die and rot in the darkest depths of Tartarus. And the only reason you aren't dead yet is because I'd hate to murder you right in front of poor, deluded Gabrielle."
Gabrielle started to say something but Xena interrupted. "Maybe we better ride on. Maybe this isn't a good time to visit."
The arrow remained aimed at Eve's heart. Xena turned her horse, kicking it to a trot. Eve followed but Gabrielle stayed behind, staring at the old man.
"Iolaus, what happened to you?"
"Me? Nothing much. But didn't Ares tell you about Hercules?" He lowered the bow as the two women vanished behind a line of trees.
"And you didn't ask."
"No. I mean, the last few months have been. . ."
"And now they tell me Ares is mortal." Cold blue eyes, faded pale by age and sun, met hers. "He gave up his godhood to save his two lovers, mother and daughter. Pity. I always thought better of him. Ride away, Gabrielle, and don't come back."
She hesitated, trying to see something of the man she had known in the man before her. There was a resemblance in the cloud of waving white hair, in the shape of the nose and chin, but nothing in the mouth, bent in a frown, or in the eyes.
"Good-bye, Iolaus," she whispered as she turned her horse after Xena's.
He said nothing. After she rode away, he picked up his wineskin and went inside.
They argued, Xena and Gabrielle. Xena hadn't wanted to seek out their old friends in the first place. She suspected that Hercules and Iolaus had grown old and wouldn't want to be reminded of the passing of time. Gabrielle had the opposite argument. Hercules had done so much for them, they had to thank him in person, introduce him to woman he had saved as a baby.
In the end, they had ridden down the road to Thebes, where rumor said Iolaus lived, surprised to find a near abandoned farm, with a rundown house, and an angry old man. So, they had ridden away. In the end, Gabrielle insisted she had to approach Iolaus alone, to find out what had made him so bitter, to explain to him how Eve had repented. Xena sighed, knowing that Gabrielle, even after all that had happened, still retained a foolish innocence.
Gabrielle found him, sitting on a bench beside the tumbledown farmhouse, a wineskin between his knees, his bow, the string broken, lying nearby. He stared up at her, his eyes blurred with drink.
"I came alone," she said, kneeling next to him, putting her hand on his knee. He had aged so much, more even than she expected, but it was the change in his soul that puzzled her. "Please, let me try to explain."
He didn't look at her, instead studying the wineskin. "You were always gullible."
His head came up suddenly. "What, you think that I should forgive Xena's daughter for everything she did just because she says she sorry?" He took another long swallow of wine.
"She has changed. . ."
"So have I. And she's the reason I can't forgive anyone any more."
Gabrielle tried to sound reasonable. "Could I talk to Hercules? I mean, does he feel the same way?"
To her surprise, Iolaus' face twisted in grim amusement. He lurched to his feet, a horrible gurgling laugh, so unlike the joyful giggle she had once loved, slipping past his lips. He staggered, righting himself on the door frame.
"Sure," he said, his voice slurred, "you can talk to Herc. Jus' don't expect much of an answer." And he pushed the door open.
The room beyond was small and sparsely furnished, a long table, two chairs by the fireplace, a few shelves tacked haphazardly along one wall. The window was unglazed, covered by a shutter. The fire was unlit. The room was so dark, Gabrielle could see nothing beyond a few shapes until Iolaus struck a flint and lit a candle. Then she could see the tall, thin man sitting by the empty hearth.
There was no response. Behind her, Iolaus was muttering, "Go on. 'Splain to him about the Bitch of Rome."
The man by the hearth was Hercules. Gabrielle was sure of it, but he had changed even more than Iolaus. His hair hung in a long, uncombed hank down his back. His beard, as filthy as his hair, fell onto his chest. Where the Hercules she had known had robust, this man was gaunt, where Hercules had been clean, this man stank of urine and rotten food, his clothes and body unwashed. All he wore was a crude shift, stained and torn.
"Hercules?" She touched his face and turned it towards hers.
His eyes were blank, his gaze focused either on something so far away as to be invisible or turned inward to darkness. Nothing showed in those eyes, no recognition, no intelligence, nothing. The pupils contracted in the light, Gabrielle didn't think he was blind, but she was certain he didn't see her.
Iolaus sagged into the other chair, a fresh wineskin in his hand. He held the skin close to his chest as he stared into the empty fireplace. She could see now how much he had aged, even more than in the sunlight earlier. Every movement was stiff, slow and uncertain, so unlike the quick and graceful man Gabrielle had known a lifetime ago.
"He came back to me, after he murdered Zeus in order to save Xena's child. He told me what happened, weeping and trembling in my arms, horrified by his crime." Iolaus' voice was calm, even if he still clutched the wineskin as if it were the only thing keeping him from drowning. "I tried to comfort him, to tell him he had done the right thing, that saving an innocent baby was important." He gave a her glance, full of sorrow and pain. "If I had known what she would grow up to be, I'd have killed her myself."
"Look at him!" He pointed a trembling finger. "Look at him."
"The Furies did this, didn't they?"
"No." Iolaus shook his head slowly. "No, they didn't. He did it to himself. His own guilt. His own horror. He couldn't live with it. First he stopped talking, then eating, then everything." Iolaus took another drink. "I tried so hard to bring him back. I begged. I cried. I threatened." He drew a deep, shuddering breath. "I hit him. I raped him. I starved him. Nothing."
"All these years?" Gabrielle's soft voice reflected the agony.
"It happened less than a month after he came back. He was barely eating, wouldn't let me help him, wouldn't let me touch him or talk to him. On night, I was sitting here and he came out of the bedroom and he said, 'I never thought it would be me. I always thought it would be Ares.' Then he turned and went back to bed. He never said another word. Ironic, the last thing he ever was 'Ares.' I wish it had been my name."
"Oh, Iolaus." Gabrielle wiped her eyes. "I'm so sorry. But you can't blame Eve for this! As awful as it is, this isn't her doing."
Iolaus stood up abruptly and went to the mantle. There was unfilled lamp, a dead plant in a pot and a box on it. He picked it up, wiping his sleeve across the top, and handed it to Gabrielle. She examined it. The box was two handspans long, half again as wide and deep, finely crafted, polished rosewood, inlaid in ivory and copper with the arms of Corinth. Enameled metal bands encircled it, making it impossible to open.
"That's her doing."
"What is it?"
"The ashes of the last king of Corinth and his family." Iolaus slumped down in his chair again.
"Jason and I both thought, when Jason told us what happened to Iphicles, that even after more than 20 years of silence, Hercules might react to that story. It was so awful, how could Hercules not react? But he didn't. I doubt if he heard a word."
Unwilling to hear but desperate to know, Gabrielle set the box back down in its place as she said, her voice low, "What story?"
"Haven't you heard since you got back, what Livia the Bitch of Rome did to the royal houses of Greece? How she destroyed them? Didn't she boast to you how complete her conquest was?"
"I know. . .I know she conquered Greece but. . "
"Iphicles agreed to be her hostage," Iolaus said, "if she would leave the citizens of Corinth unharmed and give his family safe passage to Macedonia, his wife's homeland. He walked out of the city gates wearing nothing but a white chiton, no crown, no sword. They say he was never more beautiful. Livia ordered her men to crucify him against the city walls.
"Then they brought his family and she ordered her legions to rape his wife and daughter until they were dead, and to castrate his sons. She laughed as they screamed, as Iphicles begged, told him she would sell his sons to the Persians to be eunuchs. Fortunately for the boys, the soldiers were too crude in their efforts and both the boys bled to death quickly.
"Then she ordered Iphicles to be castrated, only she had his wounds cauterized. She left him, hanging on the wall, his dead family piled up in front of him, while she had the city burned. Someone who was a good shot killed Iphicles before he had hung there long. Livia was furious. She thought her entertainment would last longer. So she ordered every man in the city killed, every boy castrated, every woman raped, before she let them flee the inferno."
Halfway through Iolaus' cold recital, Gabrielle had to stagger to the window, throw open the shutter and suck in fresh breaths of the night air, untainted by the stink that came off Hercules and the horror of Iolaus' words.
"Iphicles got the worst of it, they say, because he refused to bed her. He was faithful to his wife; he didn't want to fuck the woman who was destroying Greece. So she did what she did. Most of the other royal families were just murdered, poisoned or buried alive, down to the last baby.
"The day after Jason brought the ashes here, he hanged himself. I wanted to follow him but I couldn't leave Hercules alone." Iolaus voice was emotionless. "After I buried Jason, I tried to kill Hercules. I slit his throat. When that didn't work, I stuck my old sword through his heart. But he's immortal, you see. I might be able to burn him to death, reduce him to ashes, like Iphicles, but if that doesn't work, he'd be left horribly crippled. He's bad enough as it is. I can't kill gods or half gods."
"Iolaus. . ."
"They say Xena can kill gods. Do you think she might be willing to put him out of his misery?"
Gabrielle fled the shack, the flat, implacable voice, and staggered into the cool night hair, sobbing. She heard Iolaus follow her.
"Aren't you going to convince how she was right and everyone else was wrong?" There was a cruel edge of mockery in Iolaus' voice. "Hercules was always right up until he made one, last mistake. He bought Xena's argument that one person was more important than a thousand, than a hundred thousand."
"They are good people," moaned Gabrielle, leaning against the fence, shaking her head from side to side, "Eve and Xena. . ."
"Are selfish." he said. "She told me once that Hercules was selfish but she was the selfish one, the one who thought the universe revolved around her and what she wanted. Aren't you going to protest, Gabrielle, tell me how Xena changed and became good? Well, in my estimation, true goodness can be measured by the amount that a good person is willing to sacrifice to help another. Self-sacrifice is something Xena never learned.
"Hercules gave up everything for her and she didn't even thank him! You were the one who wanted to come here, weren't you? Not Xena. She didn't care. She got what she wanted! She uses people, Gabrielle, uses them to get what she wants and damn the expense!"
"Eli says. . ."
"Eli!" Iolaus spat on the ground. "Does she follow the teachings of Eli? Non-violence? Peace? Of course not, then she couldn't get what she wanted. Then she might have to give something up. Peace requires sacrifice and Xena does not make sacrifices. Only with violence can she have her way.
"How many people died for what she wanted? Thousands? I understand Amphipolis was destroyed because Xena didn't want to give up her baby. Her baby was worth the lives of everyone she grew up with, everyone in her village. One baby versus how many lives? Tell me!" Iolaus was shouting, grabbing at Gabrielle's arms, forcing her to face him. "How many people died in the known world because Xena thought what she wanted was more important than anything else? How many souls are on her head? Iphicles? His family? Everyone in Corinth? Does Xena care? Does she?"
Gabrielle wrenched her arms free and staggered back. "Of course she does!"
"Does she?" Iolaus looked at her with those cold eyes. "If she could save all those lives simply by letting her child die, would she? If she could kill herself before her child's birth and save all those who Livia murdered or enslaved or tortured or destroyed, would she? I think not.
"I gave my life to save Hercules. I gave my life to save Nebula. If I thought my death would save even one of the people murdered by Livia, I'd happily sacrifice myself. Would Xena? Would you?"
Gabrielle couldn't answer. She was crying too hard, sobbing, on her knees, her hands wrapped around her stomach. How could this be the Iolaus she had loved and admired, so long ago, this bitter, cruel man who mocked her and everything she believed in?
His voice continued, no longer slurred by drink but brutal. "I went back in time once, to save Hercules. If I could go back in time again, I'd kill Eve myself, even if it meant Xena or Hercules had to kill me. I'd give my life, my soul to reverse the damage Xena and that bitch daughter of hers caused."
Taking deep breaths, Gabrielle got her crying under control. She had to prove to Iolaus he was wrong but she couldn't think of the right words.
"Xena," continued the old man, "would probably even kill you if you got in her way."
Gabrielle winced, remembering Xena' s chakram, bouncing off her skull, slitting her scalp and cracking the bone, delivering what was meant to be a fatal blow.
"Go away, Gabrielle. Go and rot in Tartarus or wherever the believers in Eli and the Light go when they are damned. Because if ever anyone was damned, it was you, for helping Xena achieve her goals."
When she said his name, it came out as a moan. "Iolaus, please."
"Please what? Change the past? Gladly. Tell me how. Otherwise, fuck off."
The old man turned and walked back into the dark house, to sit by the side of a silent shell that once contained the person he loved more than any other on earth. For a moment, Gabrielle considered following him, considered what words she could say that would bring Iolaus back to the Light. She stood in the yard, chewing her lip, unable to think of a clever way to counter his argument. In the end, she mounted her horse and rode away.
Iolaus woke up groaning, hungover and stiff from sleeping in the chair all night. He opened his eyes reluctantly at the sound of water dripping. There was yellow puddle beneath Hercules' chair. Damn. He had overslept. He had to wake up early to get Hercules out to the privy in time.
Cursing, he got to his feet and tugged on Hercules until the bigger man was standing, then pulled him out into the weed-choked yard where Iolaus could sluice cold water from a barrel over Hercules. He wrinkled his nose as he did so. He had let Hercules go without a bath for far too long but washing Hercules was like washing an uncooperative horse and Iolaus was getting too old for the task.
When he decided he had rinsed enough of the stink off, Iolaus paused, leaning forward, his hands on his thighs, while he tried to catch his breath. It was getting harder and harder, every effort squeezing his chest painfully.
The voice was familiar but he couldn't place it immediately. He turned and saw the speaker, a blandly pretty woman, with curly light brown hair forming a halo around her face, wearing an ornate dress of black and gold, a circle of gold on her head. Persephone. Queen of the Underworld, dressed in black in mourning for her murdered husband.
He gasped out her name hoarsely. Frowning, she waved her hand and his breathing eased.
"What are you doing here? I thought the gods wrote us off a long time ago."
As far as Iolaus knew, they had. He hadn't seen or spoken to a single god since Hercules killed Zeus. After Hercules had fallen silent, Iolaus had been desperate enough to ask Aphrodite for her help but hadn't been surprised when she didn't answer.
"Most of us did," replied the goddess. She waved her hand again and Hercules was suddenly dressed in a clean linen chiton, his hair and beard neatly trimmed, his body washed and scented with cypress. If he was impressed by the trick, he gave no sign, his expression blank as a statue's. "You said something last night and it got those of us that are left thinking."
Iolaus pointed at Hercules. "Thanks." Then he went and sat on his bench, leaving his friend to stand like a tree in the middle of the yard. He knew Hercules wouldn't notice if he were left out for days like that. Night or day, fair weather or foul, Hercules didn't notice anything. "Thinking about what?"
"Time," said Persephone. "Since Hades died, I have been trying to think of a way to get him back and the only solution I can think of is going back in time and changing what happened the day Xena's daughter was born. I've talked to Aphrodite and we agree, it might work."
Iolaus reached under the bench and snagged a half empty wineskin. "I heard about Hephaestus. I offered my sympathies to Aphrodite but I don't know if she heard."
"I did." The Goddess of Love was suddenly standing next to Persephone. Her clothes were as skimpy as always, only they were black, not pink. "I appreciate the thought."
Iolaus looked away from the goddess, unchanged in the long years since he had last seen her. He could see the horror and pity in her eyes when she looked at him, old and sick and aching for death.
"Iolaus." Persephone's voice was calm. "The remaining gods do not have the power we once did. It has been drained away but, if several of us cooperate, we should be able to send you back to before all this went wrong. If we can do this thing, would you take the risk?"
He looked at Hercules, standing as still a statue. "Promise me one thing and I'll do it."
"What?" The Goddess of the Underworld sounded suspicious.
"Kill Hercules for me. Put him out of his misery and find a way to let his soul cross to the Elysian Fields so he can be with his family."
Persephone nodded. "His soul is already there, a silent observer. He took his spirit there because he was afraid Hades wouldn't let him in after what Hercules did to Zeus. Once it was there, he couldn't find the way back to his body, nor could he die so that he was able to be with those he loved. I will destroy his body so that he can join his loved ones for eternity."
Iolaus nodded. "That makes sense. One of the last conversations we had, he said he worried that Hades wouldn't let him into the Elysian Fields, that he'd never see his mother or his children or his wife again. I guess he found a way to see them." He took a deep breath. "If you promise to set him free, I'll do it."
"We must wait for the others. I will need the help of Hestia and my mother. Because they are of the elder generation, their powers are less compromised than mine."
"Fine." Iolaus took another swallow of wine and leaned his throbbing head back against the wall of his house, closing his eyes. So, Hercules was in the Elysian fields only he couldn't communicate with Deianaira or Alcmene. Iolaus had seen Hercules staring at something in the distance and wished he could see what it was. Perhaps it was Hercules' children at play. It was some comfort to know Hercules had suffered less these long, empty years than Iolaus had thought.
He felt rather than heard the arrival of other gods. When Persephone spoke his name, he opened them and saw two more women, goddesses both. He had expected them but the fifth god puzzled him. It was Cupid, Aphrodite's son. He was standing with his mother, speaking to her. He turned and nodded once to Iolaus. They had shared a bond, long ago. Cupid had changed some, too. His hair was no longer bright gold but light brown and his wings seem dull, lacking the sheen they had once possessed.
"Ares should be here shortly," Aphrodite said. The other three goddesses nodded.
"Ares?" Iolaus was surprised to find himself curious. "What do you need him for? To kill Hercules?"
Aphrodite frowned, looking a little disturbed by the idea. "No, he's going with you." The goddesses looked at each other again. "We felt that while you were explaining to Hercules why he shouldn't kill Zeus, a mortal Ares might be able to convince Zeus not to kill Hercules."
Iolaus said, "Ares liked Livia. They were lovers. He defended Xena and Livia. Why should he want her killed now?"
"Because," came the reply, "I want my godhood back and these bitches made that the requirement."
Ares was dressed in his usual black leather but the garments were dusty and torn. His hair hung in his face, in need of cutting and combing, and his face was dark with stubble. He sneered at Iolaus, who took an odd comfort in the familiar expression.
"So." Ares poked Hercules in the chest. "I heard little brother here was even less talkative than normal." Tossing a grin in Iolaus' direction, he added, "It's so nice not to be lectured by him."
Iolaus snarled in response, then went over to look up at Hercules' face. He lifted his hand and touched the taller man's cheek. "I promise I'll fix this. And if I can't change it, then at least you'll be at peace."
Ares made a gagging sound and was ignored. While Iolaus bid a silent farewell to Hercules, Ares and Cupid exchanged a few, soft words. Iolaus was surprised to see Ares embrace the winged god before coming to stand next to Iolaus.
"We're ready, ladies," said Ares, pushing his hair back and straightening his tunic, as if he were about to be introduced to someone he wanted to impress.
"Oh, Ares," sighed Aphrodite, "Your hair is going grey! You have got to fix this so you don't end up as an old wrinkled mortal."
"Thanks, sis. That is what I needed to convince me to do this. Come on, ladies. Time's a wasting."
The four goddesses each extended a hand. Gradually, the air in front of the two men began to twist and spin, as if a whirlwind had somehow been laid on its side. The air crackled with lightning.
"Now!" cried Persephone and Iolaus felt a strong hand grab his upper arm and pull. An instant later, he was collapsing, gasping, on a dirt road, Ares beside him. After he caught his breath, he stood up, looking around.
There were beside a little used road, in a narrow valley, shaded by a few trees. There was no sign of a farm or other human habitation. It looked, to Iolaus, like a thousand other nondescript places in Greece.
"Where are we?"
"Right where we should be." Ares turned slowly around. "If they timed it right, and I'm not sure I trust that bunch to be big on timing, then Xena should be showing up from that cave there," He pointed towards the base of a hill, "it's a back exit to the Underworld. . .and little brother should come tearing down that road and my dear father should pop in a second later."
Even as Ares finished his sentence, Gabrielle, her arm wrapped around Xena, staggered out of the cave. Xena had her hands on her distended stomach, her face twisted in pain.
"My cue," said Ares, going to give a startled Gabrielle assistance.
A heartbeat later, Hercules came running around the bend in the road, a thick, curved object clutched in one hand. Before Iolaus could approach, the air sang and flashed blue, signaling the appearance of Zeus. Hercules leapt forward, trying to catch his father's arms before Zeus could throw a thunderbolt.
"Hercules!" Iolaus tried to shove his way between Zeus and Hercules. Even in the prime of his life, he wouldn't have been strong enough but he was small enough to try to fit into the gap. "Stop! Listen to me!"
The appearance of the old man surprised both the King of the Gods and his half mortal son enough that they froze, staring at Iolaus. Hercules' brow furrowed.
"Get out of my way," Hercules said, "I have to protect Xena."
"No!" Iolaus clutched Hercules' wrist. "Please, Herc, this is a big mistake. Don't kill Zeus."
Hercules' eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
It was Zeus who answered, sounding puzzled. "It's Iolaus." The god looked carefully at the mortal, "But he's wrapped in the dust of time."
"What?" Hercules stared at Iolaus, taking in the wrinkled skin and white hair.
The three men stepped apart, Iolaus letting go of Hercules as Hercules released Zeus. Hercules reached out and touched Iolaus' face.
"It's true, Herc." Iolaus swallowed and blinked against the tears. Hercules was looking at him, seeing him, for the first time in so long. "The surviving Olympians sent Ares and me back in time, from more than twenty-five years in the future, to try to change the timeline and alter what happened. What will happen, if you kill Zeus."
Hercules looked uncomfortably down at the curved bone he still held in his hand, almost as if he were hoping it wasn't there. "I don't want to. He is forcing me into it. I have to protect an innocent child."
"Xena's baby isn't innocent. She is the reincarnation of Callisto and in my world, the most vicious warlord who ever rode across Greece, slaughtering and enslaving."
While Hercules tried to get his mind around the idea of an Iolaus from the future, Zeus looked over at Ares, noticing the changes.
"Why is Ares mortal?"
"He healed Gabrielle and Livia--that's the name Xena's daughter used while serving the emperor of Rome as his general--of mortal wounds. He healed them without Athena's blessing." Iolaus stopped to catch his breath. "It's a long story."
"Let me get this straight." Hercules looked over Ares, kneeling next to Xena, then back to the old man in front of him. "You and a mortal Ares came from the future where Xena's daughter is a Roman warlord? That's ridiculous!"
"I know how it sounds!" Iolaus said, annoyed. "I told you, it's a long story and damned complicated but the point is, if you kill Zeus, you will be making the biggest mistake of your life. You drive yourself insane with your guilt, Eve ends up being raised by the emperor of Rome and turns into the most evil creature who ever lived, most of the gods are slaughtered, Greece is in ruins. . ."
Hercules shook his head. "I will not let Zeus murder a child! None of this has happened yet, even if you are who you say you are, so that baby is still innocent."
"Wait." As Zeus held up his hand to silence them, Xena moaned. All three men glanced at her, then quickly looked away. "I want to hear his story. This is Iolaus, son, and that is Ares, and they have moved through time."
Wearily, Iolaus found a rock to sit on. He looked up at Hercules. "You came home after killing Zeus and told me what you had done. You were eaten up with guilt. After a month or so, you stopped talking, stopped doing anything. For the last twenty-five years, I've had to feed you and bathe you and care for you." He wiped his eyes. "Just before I came here, Persephone explained that you'd somehow sent your soul to the Elysian Fields and left your body behind for me to take care of.
"Because of that, I didn't pay much attention to what happened, only I heard that Xena and Gabrielle had been killed, as well as the baby, and that Ares had, in his grief, abandoned Greece for Rome. I lived on your mother's farm, took care of you, and drank myself into a stupor whenever Jason wasn't looking."
Hercules was biting his lip as he watched Iolaus recite this story. Zeus, in turn, watched his son, who was standing in for his sister, helping a woman in the travail of childbirth. Very odd. "Go on," said Zeus, laying a hand on Iolaus' shoulder and surreptiously giving him enough strength to continue.
"Years went by. I barely noticed. Then we started to hear rumors about a warlord, the favorite of the Roman emperor, a woman called Livia. She lead the Roman armies to conquest. Iphicles and the other kings tried to rally Greece but then we heard that Ares was Livia's mentor and lover. Athena couldn't inspire men to bravery in battle the way Ares could and soldiers, learning that their god had betrayed them, were defeated before the first blow was struck.
"Livia arrived in Greece with a dozen Roman legions at her back. She conquered everyone, killed Amazons by the thousands and sent the rest into slavery. She murdered every king in Greece."
Hercules started at that. "Iphicles?"
"Iphicles. His wife and children. Brutally. Iphicles found some measure of happiness in the last few years. He got married about ten years ago. . .well, fifteen years from now. . .late in life, to a Macedonian princess. They had two boys and a girl. One of the boys was even named after me. They're all dead now, at Livia's hand. I keep the ashes in a box on the mantle."
Iolaus' grim recitation was interrupted by the gasping cry of a newborn baby.
As Xena and Gabrielle had fled back into the world of the living, they had both been surprised to find Ares waiting for them. He had helped Xena over to a convenient log, kneeling next to her. Caught in the wave of a contraction, she didn't look at him but Gabrielle did.
"What happened to you?"
"Well, Blondie, you'd be surprised. Ow."
That got both women's attention. Xena grip on Ares arm had made him wince in pain.
"You're mortal!" Xena stared at him.
"Yeah, and you're about to have a baby. I'll explain later."
"Get these off," gasped Xena.
As Gabrielle started to remover Xena's wristguards, Ares laughed. "I hate to point this out to you ladies but those aren't the garments she needs removed. I mean, I may not know that much about childbirth, being a man and all, but I think you'd better get her trousers off."
While Ares helped Xena into a crouch, Gabrielle tugged the other woman's garments aside. Xena moaned, clutching at Ares' arms.
"Where's Zeus?" Gabrielle looked around as Xena relaxed for an instant.
"Over there." Ares gestured with a twitch of his head, since Xena still had a death grip on both arms. "With Hercules and Iolaus."
"Iolaus?" Gabrielle could see Hercules, Zeus and another white-haired old man.
"Like I said, long story. What matters is he and I are here to make sure that little Eve gets the right start in life. Which, from the look of things, should be in about two seconds. Um, Gabrielle, you might want to catch the baby. Gaia's garters, I know both of you have done this before so why don't you know what to do. Good thing my sister is the goddess of childbirth. Xena, don't push! Gabrielle, check to see that the cord isn't around the baby's neck. Right, now turn the baby a little and Xena. . .good girl. There we go."
Xena sagged back onto the log, staring at the newborn squawking in Gabrielle's hands. The women exchanged weary but delighted smiles, ignoring Ares' muttering as he pulled a knife out of his boot and trimmed some laces off Xena's coat.
"Eve," whispered Xena, touching the wet dark hair. "Hey! How did you know her name?"
"Because," said Ares, carefully tying the two lengths of laces along the umbilical cord, "I am from twenty-five years in your future and I've known Eve a long time. I assume you want Gabrielle to cut the cord."
Gabrielle turned a little pale but obliged.
"Tell you what, I'll hold the baby and you and Xena, you know, finish up."
He stood up, the squalling infant tiny in his arms. Ever practical, he had wrapped her in Xena's discarded coat.
"Well, hello, Eve. My name is Ares. Yes, you go on and scream. You've got a lot to complain about. Thrown out of that nice warm place into the cold cruel world only to find out Xena is your mother, you haven't even got a proper father and you're the reborn soul of one of the nastiest . . ."
He grinned down at Xena.
"Give me my daughter."
He knelt, sliding the child into Xena's waiting arms. Their eyes met and he leaned forward, kissing Xena gently on the cheek. "Congratulations. It's a beautiful baby girl."
Gabrielle laid a hand on Ares' shoulder. "You're from the future?"
"Yeah, so's Iolaus over there. And we've come back to try to fix a few things that went wrong."
"The baby. . ."
"The baby is fine. It's everything else that sucks. Hello, father."
Zeus looked down at Xena. "I promised Hercules I would grant your daughter a reprieve. She may have one day of life while I determine why this mortal version of my son and Iolaus," The god nodded back to where Hercules was standing next to Iolaus, who was still sitting on the boulder, one hand pressed to his chest. "came all the way back here. Why don't we go some where more pleasant to discuss this?"
"Just where would you suggest?" Ares was squatting next to Xena again, tucking her coat around the baby protectively. "You can't take all of us to Olympus."
"No, but I can manage to summon some horses and get us all to my nearest temple. It's just over the hill."
The temple wasn't large, but what space it had was well-appointed. Startled priests went off in search of proper materials to make diapers while Hercules, Ares, Iolaus and Zeus retired to the priests' study. Ares quickly chose the finest chair and poured himself a cup of wine. Iolaus sat stiffly on a bench near the fire, Hercules next to him. Zeus, always in charge, remained standing.
"By the way," said Ares as they settled, "I know what you did with mother. You're going to have to let her out sooner or later. She and Metis are not going to get along in there together."
Zeus smiled thinly at his son. "Let's deal with this crisis first, shall we? Now, what' s your version of that twenty-five years."
Ares shrugged. "Same as his from a different point of view. You were dead. I heard little brother slipped off the track without the assistance of the Furies but I was more concerned with stopping Athena from killing Xena's baby."
"You were more concerned with a child that wasn't even yours than with your family?"
"You must be joking. I hate Athena and she hates me. You were dead, and Hera as well, since you have her essence tucked inside right now. The rest of us were at each others throats, everyone trying to murder Eve and jockey for power at the same time. It was ugly."
"So, what happened?"
Ares started to speak, stopped, drew a breath and started again, his voice suddenly soft. He had been glaring at his father but now, he gazed in the cup between his hands.
"Xena knew even I couldn't protect her and Eve forever. I tried but. . .Xena came up with a plan. She made it look as if the baby was in a wagon that was destroyed, then she and Gabrielle drank what I thought was poison. It wasn't. It was a vial of Death's tears, enough to create the semblance of death for a short time. But I thought they were dead."
He stood up and paced across the room to stare out the window. "No one ever believed me. Not you, not Xena, but I really did. . .do love her. When I found the bodies, I even buried them side by side, because I knew that was what Xena would have wanted. I buried them in the ice cave on Mount Etna and then sealed it."
"And left Greece." Zeus' disapproval was clear in his voice.
"I wasn't the only one. I know damn well who those Roman gods really are. Jupiter ain't you exactly but he's an avatar of you."
Hercules prompted, "So what happened?"
"Octavius became Augustus, emperor of Rome. He had a foster daughter, a dark haired little girl with a fierce temper. I taught her to fight." He shook his head. "I was so blind not to see who she was. She had her mother's gifts, speed, strength, determination. I should have seen it."
"You trained her to destroy your homeland." Iolaus' voice was oddly flat, not as bitter as his words. "You made her your lover and your protege."
"Yeah. It was great. Then Xena showed up. An earthquake broke the seal and she and Gabrielle awoke, unchanged after twenty-five years.
"I wouldn't go into the boring details but Xena turned Livia, the Bitch of Rome, the best general I ever had, into a mewling, boring, spineless follower of Eli. And it was Eli's god, the god of that damned Light, who gave Xena the power to kill gods. When the others realized what I finally figured out after Xena showed up, they tried to kill Eve."
He turned back to face the others. "The Fates said it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. They were right. If the Olympians hadn't attacked Eve, if they had left her alone, they would have been safe. It was only because they attacked Eve that Xena was given the power. And she used it."
"How many?" said Zeus.
"Not many. There are so many of us, more than I think mortals comprehend, especially if you take into account all the gods of the Underworld and the Seas. But Hades, Poseidon, Hephaestus."
Zeus winced with each name.
"Discord and Deimus, Artemis. And finally Athena."
"In spite of this, in spite of Xena killing so many of your family, you healed her daughter and her friend at the expense of your godhood." Zeus frowned. "I don't understand that."
"Neither did 'Thena but I told her." He smiled at his father as he tossed back the last of his wine. "I love Xena and I knew how the deaths of Eve and Gabrielle would hurt her. Maybe it wasn't my best move but it also kept her from turning her god-killing skills on me. I may be mortal but I'm alive and where there is life, there's hope."
Iolaus said, "Speak for yourself."
"Ares," said Zeus, "from the sound of this, killing that child now, before Xena has additional powers, is the right thing to do."
"No, the right thing to do is to try to find away to avoid killing anybody."
"Now that," said Hercules, "is the last thing I ever expected you to say."
"He's wrong, though." Iolaus looked steadily at Zeus. "Eve should be killed, now, while there is still time, while Hercules is still in his right mind and Xena can't harm anyone."
"Iolaus!" Hercules stared at the old man, his eyes wide.
"I told you, Hercules. She grows up to be a monster. Kill her now and save the lives of thousands of innocent people, including your own brother."
"Come with me," commanded Zeus, spreading his arms.
A moment later, the three Fates looked up from their labors so see one mortal, one former god, one half god and one full god.
"It's Iolaus again," sighed old Atropos "Mucking about with time." The edge of her scissors plucked a bright blue thread in the great tapestry. The thread distorted the pattern, twisting back on itself and spaced with tiny knots. "If he's not dying, he's changing destiny."
"Very annoying," agreed Clotho, her hands never pausing as the spindle spun.
"I like him," said Lachesis to no one in particular. "I like his thread. Such a nice color."
"So, Zeus," said Atropos, "What brings you here? We already told you what we have in store."
Zeus stepped forward and studied the tapestry. He leaned close, finding a magenta thread and next to it, unraveling from the magenta thread, another, slender, short piece of thread in the same shade.
"That's her." Zeus touched the thread, ignoring the hisses from the Fates. "Eve, child of Xena, unnatural creature born with no father."
"That's why her thread is the same color," said Clotho. "No father's thread to blend with it. It will take on its own shade with time, though."
"Blood red," said Iolaus. "Eve's should be red and so should Xena's. Xena killed dozens to protect her daughter, counting her daughter as more important than anyone else."
Ares came up behind his father. "Mother's are protective." Something flickered across his face. "Normal mothers."
"Normal mothers understand that other people's children count, too," said Iolaus. "That self-sacrifice is necessary sometimes. That you don't always get your own way. That what you want isn't always for the best. Xena never learned that. Neither did Livia."
"Eve," said Hercules.
"Iolaus." Zeus held out his hand and in it appeared a delicate pair of silver sheers, finer than the pair Atropos used. "If you are so certain that the death of that child is the only hope for Greece, kill her. Cut her thread and stop her life before it has barely begun."
Iolaus reached out and, without hesitation, took the scissors from Zeus' hand. He leaned forward, squinting to discern the correct thread to cut.
"NO!" Hercules shouted, lunging forward. There was a moment of panic, Hercules pulling Iolaus away from the tapestry. Clotho shrieking as her spindle was knocked from her hand, Atropos crying "No one cuts a thread but me!" and then, silence, as Iolaus crumpled to the floor, his face ashen. Nodding, Atropos picked up her scissors and sought the bright blue thread.
"Stay your hand, sweet Fate," said Zeus. "If you cut now, you may sever the thread of the Iolaus who yet lives."
"Keep your opinions to yourself," she replied tartly, "I know how to cut a thread, even one as complicated as his."
Her younger sister laid a hand gently upon her arm. "Wait a moment, sister. Surely we can grant Iolaus that. A few hours for a man out of time is nothing. Besides, look, Asclepias and Paeon are here. They will keep him alive for a bit longer."
It was Hercules who stood up, carrying the limp form in his arms, and Zeus took them all back to the temple, where Asclepias and Paeon could work over the old man.
"It's his heart," explained the physician of the gods, "worn by strain and grief."
Asclepias added, "And his liver hasn't benefited from a twenty year soak in cheap wine, either."
Paeon clicked his tongue disapprovingly before turning to Hercules. "He is resting but nothing we can do can prolong this mortal's life. In a few hours, his heart will beat its last. I have taken away the worst of the pain but I cannot do more than that."
Ares and Zeus stood at the foot of the bed, quietly, as Hercules knelt and took the thin, pale hand in his. Iolaus' eyelids fluttered and opened.
"Sorry," he said, his voice a whisper.
Hercules had to struggle to speak. "Nothing to apologize for. I'm sure you thought you were doing what was best."
"You're not selfish, Herc, but you can be arrogant."
Ares stifled a snort of laughter.
"Iolaus. . ."
"Shhh. I know I don't have much time." The old man drew a shuddering breath. "You may have turned her away from evil but you never made her understand what it means to be good. Inside, Xena is still selfish, still uncaring and unthinking. She never learned what it means to put someone else's desires before her own. I imagine that even if I could show her all the terrible things Livia did, Xena would still let them happen, because what she wants is more important than what's right." Iolaus looked away from Hercules. "Ares?"
"Fix this. Save Greece. Save yourself."
Ares grinned, as wolfish as always. "Trust me, Sunshine, I'll save my ass no matter what. That's why the ladies sent me back. They figured if the strain was too much for you, I'd still manage."
"Herc." Iolaus' voice had faded even more. "Say my name. I want that to be the last thing I hear."
"Sure but. . ."
As Hercules said his friend's name, Iolaus' eyes closed. He kept breathing, shallowly, but Hercules still let his tears fall.
Zeus laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "Hercules, your friend is alive and well and working in his forge right now. In fact, he just burned himself slightly and used my name as an oath. This Iolaus may be dying but there is no reason to believe that your Iolaus will follow the same path."
"He will unless we change things." Hercules' brushed the thin white hair back from Iolaus' forehead, his thumb tracing the familiar scar above Iolaus' right eye. "Father, he wanted to kill a baby! What happened to turn my Iolaus into a man who would murder a newborn?"
It was Ares who answered. "Livia. She really was something." He sighed, staring at Iolaus. "You know, I'm willing to admit it now. I always kind of liked Iolaus. Aside from the whole warrior thing, he was a smart little mortal."
"He hates to be called little," Hercules corrected automatically.
"Fine." The corner of Ares' mouth twitched. "Smarter than he looked." The twitch became a smile. "There is a solution to this whole mess. Look," Ares turned to his father. "Iolaus is right. Xena is selfish. Personally, I like that about her but in this case, he has a point."
"And," said Zeus, "I'd appreciate it if you got to it."
Ares paced back across the narrow chamber, his hands waving as he explained, "It's so simple! Xena needs to learns to put others before herself. We need to stop Eve from turning into Livia. Which is regretful but necessary. And the gods need to save our asses! So. . .how's this? Let Xena raise Eve."
Zeus opened his mouth to protest but he didn't have a chance.
"We've all been fathers. We all know. . .or at least Iolaus and Hercules and I know. . .that nothing teaches a person more about self-sacrifice and putting someone else's needs before your own faster than being a parent. Xena's had a child but she's never raised a child. She is impatient and selfish because she's never done the midnight feedings. . ."
Hercules said, "And you have?"
"There's a lot about me you don't know, little brother. I've walked the floor more than once with a fussy baby." Ares waved his hands, dismissing the memory. "The point is, Xena has never done that, never put up with temper tantrums and sulking and night terrors and general day to day raising a child stuff. Let her raise Eve and she'll learn. Plus. . ." He held up his finger, to emphasize his point. "Eve became Livia, the Bitch of Rome, because she was raised by Octavius. Raise her in Greece and she'll never take that path. Raise her to respect the gods and she'll never attract the attention of Eli's followers and his miserable god. Talk about selfish. . ."
Zeus was stroking his chin, studying the dying man on the bed as his son spoke. "You know, Ares, you might have a point. Something drastic certainly happened. I was genuinely shocked when Iolaus tried to cut that thread. The Iolaus I knew would never have done such a thing. Whether the gods survive or not, a man as fine as Iolaus should never be reduced to this."
Ares made a face, muttering, "Fine, some mortal comes first."
Hercules released Iolaus' hand, folding it carefully over the other, and pulled the sheet up over the dead man's face.
"Father, Ares is right. We need to avoid killing Eve and find a way to prevent this happening." He indicated 'this' by touching the blanket over Iolaus' body. "Why not give his suggestion a try. As he said, the gods were only killed because they attacked Eve. If no one attacks her, if there is no reason to, then Greece is safe."
"All right." Zeus straightened. "I will grant a one year reprieve for the child and allow Xena to raise her, under supervision, to make sure that she doesn't teach her child to hate the gods."
Ares' smirked. "I know what god would be perfect for the job."
To Ares' surprise, his father smiled back thinly. "I agree. I'll let Eve live, one year at a time, and we'll see how it goes."
Ares made a fist and pumped his arm in the air, crying "Yes" just as he disappeared. The body on the bed vanished as well. Hercules made a strangled sound as he reached for what was no longer there.
"Hmmm." Zeus said. "Well, it looks as if the future has changed. I certainly hope for the best."
There was a flash of blue and Ares, God of War, was standing in the room.
"Where is she?" he snarled, reaching for his father.
"Xena and her baby are resting safely here. Just down the hall. And calm down, I'm not going to kill her." Zeus smiled at his younger son. "And Hercules isn't going to kill me, either."
Ares blinked. "What?"
"Long story, my boy." Zeus threw his arm over his son's shoulder. "I'll try to explain it. By the way, your mother and I do believe you truly love Xena but we both think she isn't any good for you."
"Where is mother?"
Hercules watched the two gods walking down the hall for a moment, before realizing he had to see Iolaus.
Iolaus was sitting on the bench by his front door, eating an apple, when he saw Hercules running towards him. His friend was so obviously upset that Iolaus tossed the half eaten apple away and looked around for his sword. Before he had a chance to reach for his weapon, he was swept into a crushing embrace.
"Ah, Herc," he mumbled, trying to break free, "Squashed here."
"Oh, sorry." Hercules released him. "I'm just glad to see you."
"Uh-huh. So, did you catch up with Xena? Boy or girl? I hope a girl, then they can go raise it with the Amazons. Besides, I was making this great rattle and it turned out kind of girlie. . .Herc?"
"Sit down, Iolaus. I have a long story to tell you?"
When Hercules finished, having been interrupted a few times by questions, Iolaus said, "So, what do we do now?" "Wait, I guess."
"For twenty-five years?"
"Well, probably not that long. I mean, if none of the gods attack Eve, Xena won't be granted the power to kill them. Then she and Gabrielle can raise the baby here and that takes care of the Roman threat."
"Huh. Ares gave up his godhood for them. Guess he really does feel something."
"Yeah. You should have seen him holding the baby. Never dawned on me that he could feel that way but, yeah, I think he really does love Xena, in his own way."
"So, we just wait."
Iolaus thumped a rhythm against the bench with his heel. "While we're waiting, could we go to supper? Procne was roasting some lamb this afternoon and promised me some if I got the plowshare done for her husband. I did so. . ."
Hercules grinned. "Sounds good to me."
"Ares was mortal. I can't imagine. Does the Ares of the now know about how the Ares from the future. . .
Iolaus collapsed on the bench, exhausted. The newlyweds had been taken off by Cupid for some secret hideaway, the food had mostly been eaten, the wine drunk, and the guests were starting to drift home while dusk still provided some light. Gabrielle and Xena were sitting at the bride's table, still sniffling as they reviewed the day. Joxer had passed out at some point, his head in his wife's lap, his sword resting near his hand, to protect the gifts piled up on the table from bandits. Yeah, right, like bandits would raid a wedding where the bride was given in marriage by the God of War and the Queen of the Gods herself performed the ceremony. Half of Olympus had been here, along with the royal family of Corinth and their personal guard. Even Autolycus and his sons had behaved perfectly.
Ares, a wine cup in hand, sat down on the bench next to Iolaus.
"My little girl," he said, taking a swig, "is now a married woman."
"In the first place, she's not really yours and in the second place, she's no girl. She's on the wrong side of twenty-five and has thirty in sight."
"True, but I was like a father to her, wasn't I? And I am her brother's father, so that counts for something."
"Granted." Iolaus sighed, shifting his weight a little so he was actually leaning on his companion. Iolaus had learned a long time ago that the sons of Zeus made great backrests. "You know, if you had told me twenty-five years ago that you and I would be sitting here like this, I'd have thought the Furies were messing with your head."
Ares' brows lowered. "That reminds me of something."
"And to think that my son and your son would be best friends. . ."
As if on cue, two young men ran past, being followed by a crowd of laughing, shrieking girls. The man in the lead was tall and dark-haired, his companion was shorter, with long fair hair. They vanished around the barn, their pursuers close behind.
"You son," said Ares, "is always getting my son in trouble. Xena doesn't think they should be allowed to play together."
"Our sons are grown men and they can play with each other if they want." Both men snickered at the insinuation. "Although, from the looks of it, they are going to have lots of company to share the games."
Ares laughed, then nudged Iolaus in the ribs. "Want to know a secret? Eve's got a bun in the oven."
"Really? I thought I gave Virgil pretty clear instructions on how to avoid that sort of thing."
"You did, but a couple of days ago, they got carried away, what with the wedding so close and all."
"Only a couple of days and you know already?"
"Eileithyia told me. She has this list in her temple on Olympus, with pregnant women's names and due dates on it, and she said Eve's name showed up yesterday, at the bottom. The baby will be a bit late so Xena will probably convince herself it was conceived after the wedding vows." Ares chuckled. "Like she was ever married."
"Xena a grandmother." Iolaus shook her head. "I can't see it."
"Want to know another secret?" Ares was snickering again.
"What is in that cup? I didn't think gods got drunk."
"This? This is a special blend, compliments of Dimonyshus. " Ares paused and repeated the god's name clearly. "Dionysus."
Iolaus peered into the cup. The stuff looked like water. "How it it?"
"Great. I'd offer you a swig but it causes mortal's heads to explode." He puffed out his cheeks and made an exploding noise to demonstrate. "Very messy."
"Quite. What's the secret?"
Ares leaned close, his beard tickling Iolaus' ear. "Xena dyes her hair."
Iolaus laughed, swatting the god away. "Hardly a secret! My wife told me that ages ago. She says Gabrielle bleaches hers with camel urine. Has for years."
A few people glanced over at the god and the man as the sat on the bench, laughing hysterically.
Ares stopped, sitting up straight. "Years. Twenty-five years. I know I should remember something."
"That stuff must be potent. Too bad mortals can't. . ." Iolaus stopped suddenly, his eyes going wide, his hand pressed to his chest. "Ow."
Ares leaned forward, bending over and down so he could look into Iolaus' face. "Oh, yeah. That's what I forgot."
Iolaus sucked in his breath sharply. "Shit. That hurts. What is going on?"
"You're remembering the heart attack that killed you."
"Today is the day that you would have gone into the past to change the future if you hadn't gone back into the past and changed the future."
Frowning, Iolaus took his hand away from his chest and touched the cup in Ares' hand. "This must be good stuff. You are not making any sense."
"Sure I am." The cup vanished. "Remember, the other future, where Hercules was a tree and Eve was Livia?"
"I remember Herc telling me about meeting an old me and a mortal you years ago, coming back from some horrible future." His voice faded as it suddenly washed over Iolaus in a wave of pain and memories, doubling him over. When he sat up, his eyes were wide in horror.
"I remember," he gasped. "It was awful."
Ares shrugged. "I don't know. Livia had her moments."
Hercules, who was talking to Iphicles, glanced over at Iolaus and saw how pale his friend was. Excusing himself from the conversation, he came over and laid a hand on Iolaus' shoulder.
"Are you all right?"
Iolaus looked up at his friend, staring intently into Hercules' face, remembering that other future, the future that never happened.
Ares patted Hercules on the shoulder. "Don't panic. He's just having a memory moment. Teach mortals to interfere with time and fate and all that crap."
"Herc." Iolaus cleared his throat. "I remember you, with your mind gone, and what Livia did. . . oh, gods." Tears sprang to his eyes. "It was awful."
"Let's go inside." Hercules helped Iolaus to his feet, giving Ares a dirty look, as if he blamed the god.
"Don't look at me like that," protested Ares. "It's his own fault for messing around in time. The memories will pass as soon as he reaches the point where he died in that other timeline."
"Hey!" Iolaus sat down on the couch in his sitting room. "If it never happened, how come I remember it? And do you remember it?"
Hercules replied, "No. I only remember the old version of you who came back and stopped me from. . .killing Zeus."
"So," Iolaus pointed at Ares, who had flopped down in another chair and summoned up another cup, "how come he remembers?"
Ares made a face. "I'm a god, remember."
"So, Hercules is a god, too. Has been for nearly ten years."
"Yeah, but in that other future, he was a tree." Ares pointed at his head and traced a circle in the air. "Brains like broccoli. His soul was off annoying Hades so he doesn't have any alternate memories."
"But you do?"
"Yeah." Ares peered into his cup, frowning. "The day after Eve was born, after Zeus told me all about old you and mortal me. . ." He grimaced at the word 'mortal.' "The next day, I went to see my great aunt Mnemosyne." He had trouble pronouncing the name and had to try again. "Mnemosyne. What my father ever saw in her. . ."
"Ares." Hercules sounded as if he were losing his patience.
"Right, anyway, I talked to her and I talked to the Fates and I made a deal. With the dawn of every day, I remember what would have happened that day if Chuckles over there and mortal me hadn't gone back and fixed things."
Iolaus gave Ares a puzzled glance. "Why?"
"Old you talked about Livia as the Bitch of Rome, a warrior supreme and my lover. I was curious about what I was missing."
Hercules raised his eyebrows. "And."
"And, nothing." Ares shrugged again. "Yeah, Livia was hot but the rest of it sucked. All those years in Rome were depressing. You should have met Juno. That old bat makes Hera seem like a million laughs."
"And," added Iolaus, "Xena never let you into her bed. You never had a child together. You never got as close in that world as you are in this one."
Ares laughed softly. "Yeah. We had our moments but nothing like it is now."
Iolaus tilted his head, squinting at Ares as if to see him better. "Hey, you've got grey hair!"
"So. I've had it for years."
"Yeah, but in the alternate future, you only had grey hair after you became mortal. How come you have it now?"
Ares looked embarrassed. Hercules laughed. "I bet Xena likes it."
"Yeah, she does." The God of War ducked his head. "It makes her feel better about getting older. I have trouble convincing her that I love her as much, desire her as much, now as I ever did. The grey hair and the laugh lines. . ."
"Wrinkles," said Iolaus, who got a snarl in return.
"Whatever. She likes them." Ares ran his hands back through his hair and suddenly it was jet black again, his face losing several years in age. "I look like this for everyone else but for Xena. . ." The older face returned.
Iolaus sighed. "I wish I could get rid of my grey that easily."
"You could always try camel urine."
They all three laughed, until Iolaus' face grew sober again. "Herc, it really was awful. You were catatonic, I was a drunk, Iphicles was. . .murdered. And Eve was unspeakable."
"And a bunch of the gods were dead." Ares dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It never happened, Sunshine. We changed it. You'll forget it soon."
"I don't want to forget it!" said Iolaus emphatically. "I want to remember how much we could have lost. Our sons, none of them were born in that future. And all the people who died because of Livia. I want to remember how they were saved."
"Do you?" Ares cocked an eyebrow at Iolaus. "You were a drunk, Herc was a tree and we were enemies. Sometimes, I wish I could forget all of it. This life, even without the Bitch of Rome, is much, much better."
"And remembering makes me appreciate it that much more!"
Before Iolaus and Ares could continue their argument, they were interrupted by shouts from outside. Hurrying into the yard, Ares, Iolaus and Hercules found two young men being upbraided by a circle of older adults, including Xena.
"What did you idiots do now?" asked Ares affectionately, ruffling his son's dark hair. The young man ducked away, grinning.
While the matter was settled, Iolaus went back to his bench by the door. He closed his eyes, remembering the bleak years of suffering that never happened.
"You saved the world," said Hercules softly, sitting next to his friend. "Again. And me."
"I guess." Iolaus studied the yard, dim in the lights cast by the lanterns strung from the trees. His son and Ares' son were playing with Iphicles' children, keeping themselves out of trouble for a moment. A few remaining musicians were starting to play. Joxer was awake and dancing with Meg. Ares was standing with his arm around Xena, her head resting on his shoulder, his cheek resting against her hair.
"I can't imagine what that other life would have been like." Iolaus said, his eyes still roaming the happiness surrounding him. "It was so terrible and this is so. . ." He couldn't finish the sentence.
Hercules hugged him and gave him a watery smile. "Yeah, it is. I mean, even Ares and I get along most of the time these days."
Iolaus sat up.
"This weird pain in my chest." He took a deep breath. "Never mind, it's gone. Now what were we talking about?"
Ares kissed the top of Xena's head. She looked up at him and smiled. He smiled back. Zeus was on Olympus and all was right with the world. And that other world, well, it never really happened.