Hercules stood at the Dolphin's railing, watching the first stars come out in the clear sky. Another three days would get them back to Corinth and thence to King Zolas, provided the weather held. They had done everything they could to get the ship seaworthy, but the repairs wouldn't last through another storm. He sighed, thinking of Cercetes and his men, whom they had buried on the island. At some point Iolaus and he would have to find their families and give them the news. He hated that part.
Iolaus came up to the railing and bumped shoulders with him. "Hey."
"Everything all right?" Hercules asked casually.
Iolaus rubbed his neck and gazed at the rolling waves. "Looks like it, yeah. Of course the mast has to be replaced, and there's not enough spare rope to do a really good job with the rigging..."
Hercules listened patiently as Iolaus catalogued all the ship's remaining defects. He could say, 'That's not what I meant, really,' but Iolaus would only find another way to deflect the question. Yet he had to ask now, while Nebula was at the wheel - he had a feeling Iolaus would rather have his legs chewed off than admit to anything in front of her.
"Nebula said you and Arachne were...getting close, when she found you," he said, interrupting Iolaus mid-gesture.
Iolaus cocked his head and grinned. "Oh, yeah? Did she sound jealous?"
Hercules snorted. "Yeah, I'm sure."
Iolaus eyed him, then dug an elbow into his ribs. "Worried?"
"About what?" Hercules said cautiously, looking down at Iolaus.
Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Oh, I dunno. Me having lots of spider babies while you sleep?"
Hercules considered this idea. "Yuck."
"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up for me, too."
Giving up for now, Hercules dropped an arm around Iolaus' shoulders, and they watched the Pleiades come out until Nebula called Hercules up to the upper deck for his shift at the wheel.
Nebula had set a course that hugged the mainland shore, and just before moonrise, Hercules steered the ship into a narrow bay overshadowed by rocky cliffs, where they could lie at anchor for the night. They could have kept going if necessary, trading shifts at the wheel, but they hadn't even discussed that option. It had been a long, exhausting day.
While Iolaus let down the anchor at the ship's stern, Hercules climbed down the ladder into the gloomy hold, bending his head to avoid the low beams. He found the lantern hanging from a crossbeam by touch and lit it carefully, then held it up to look around.
Rolled-up hammocks hung toward his left, and the rest of the hold was taken up with Cercetes' cargo, mainly wine, olive oil, and sacks of wheat. The racks of amphorae had withstood the storm, packed in netting and lashed tightly to the beams, but one of the sacks of wheat had burst. He had to step carefully to avoid slipping on the kernels.
Wood creaked as Iolaus set foot upon the ladder. "Did you get our stuff?" he called down.
"Working on it," Hercules called back, taking another careful step toward the corner of the hold where he'd dumped their supplies and bending low to avoid another beam.
"Hey, wonder if this wine is any good," Iolaus said, coming down the ladder. He moved toward the amphorae with easy strides.
"Show-off," Hercules said fondly.
Iolaus had unsealed an amphora and was eyeing it with faint suspicion. "This smells...Yeah. It's that Etruscan stuff that Jason used to drink. Tastes like goat's piss."
"What, you finally met a wine you don't like?" Hercules said, grinning.
"Water it down and see for yourself." Iolaus made a disgusted face. "I'd rather drink seawater."
"No, thanks." Hercules picked up their supplies. "Which hammock are you taking?" He knew from long experience that no hammock on the ship would fit him, but Iolaus didn't have that problem.
Iolaus spared the hammocks a cursory glance. "Nah, I'm going to sleep on deck."
Nebula was sleeping up there, too. Hercules hunted about for a delicate way to ask the next question, then gave up. "Want me to stay below?"
Iolaus raised his eyebrows, looking vaguely annoyed. "What in Tartarus are you talking about?"
Hercules just looked at him.
Iolaus' eyebrows slowly came down. "...Oh. No, come on up." He ran a hand through his hair. "Anyway, it's stuffy down here."
"Right," Hercules said, trying not to sound relieved.
Hercules woke with a shudder. He had dreamed he was back in the cave looking for Iolaus, running through an endless maze of rock with Arachne's spiderlings chittering all around him.
It was a relief to see Iolaus asleep right next to him, dimly lit by the waning moon. Nebula was further away, sleeping right next to King Zolas' treasure. Hercules rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to make his heartbeat slow down. Beside him, Iolaus turned over on his back, making stifled sounds, little more than puffs of breath. He had wrapped his blankets tightly about himself, even though it was a warm night and the cliffs sheltered them from the wind, and he seemed to be struggling with them.
"Iolaus?" Hercules said softly. He laid his hand on Iolaus' shoulder.
Only very fast reflexes saved Hercules from a broken nose as Iolaus sat up abruptly, looking wild-eyed. "Wha-"
"Easy, it's me."
Iolaus pushed the blankets off, then ran a hand through his tousled hair and shook his head as if trying to get rid of something.
"Dreaming about Arachne?" Hercules said. Iolaus gave him a narrow-eyed stare, and he added, "I did."
"Hunh." Iolaus scrubbed at his face with his hand and began to arrange his blankets, spreading them out on the deck. Like Hercules, he had stripped down to his breechclout; they had hung their clothes in the rigging to dry. His hair fell forward, hiding his expression, but the muscles in his back were tight with tension.
Hercules watched him with growing worry. Normally, he was the one who fussed over blankets, and Iolaus was the one who yelled at him until he stopped. Yelling probably wouldn't help in this case, though.
"I dreamed I was looking for you," Hercules said, hoping to draw him out. "I was worried I'd be too late." He tried not to flinch as he said it. The dream had been bad, but not nearly as bad as the waking nightmare of looking for Iolaus in a cave full of cocoons and acid-eaten corpses. He was very, very grateful to Nebula for showing up when she had.
"Yeah?" Iolaus said absently. He had smoothed out the last wrinkle in his blankets, but he didn't turn. "I was dreaming about the Minotaur."
That made sense. Horrible sense. Hercules moved closer and clasped his upper arm in sympathy. Iolaus looked at him over his shoulder and grinned wryly. "It's pretty funny, really. When did waking up stuffed in a cocoon become a part of my life?"
Hercules lifted an eyebrow. "Ever since you met me?"
"Yeah, that must be it. I guess that means you owe me."
"But I don't have any money," Hercules said, deadpan.
Iolaus' grin reached his eyes. "Oh, I'll think of something."
Nebula watched the interplay between the two men from beneath her lashes, keeping her breathing slow and even. So, Iolaus was uncommunicative, and Hercules was worried. Again. It seemed to be his role in the relationship, or one of them.
Nebula had had to revise her opinion of Hercules and Iolaus several times. She wasn't used to that, and it intrigued her. Hercules had struck her as a typical hero at first, all brawn and bravado, while Iolaus had to be a hanger-on. After all, why would a demigod keep company with a mortal except to make himself look big? A gorilla and his pet chimp, she had called them, to cover for her chagrin at being outmatched. She had expected them to react in anger - nothing betrayed a man's nature more quickly than anger - but instead, they had just traded exasperated looks and helped her up from the ground.
She had not been impressed by the company they were keeping, either. A backstabbing coward like Paxon wouldn't have lasted a week under her command. But that was before she found out that Hercules and Iolaus had only been passengers on Ceretes' ship. Her ship, now, though possibly Hercules hadn't realized it yet.
When Hercules went back for Iolaus after Arachne had taken him, she'd thought him a fool. After being trapped in the caves for weeks on end, trying and failing to keep her own crew alive, she had been certain that Iolaus was dead. It wasn't Hercules' courage that had impressed her, but his desperation. If he was willing to risk that much, then she could do no less. There was something about that man that made the impossible sound reasonable.
And Iolaus...Well. Hercules might be the son of thunder, but Iolaus had the fire. He also had Hercules wound around his little finger, which was impressive in itself, and yet he had made it very clear that that had no bearing on any other partners he might choose.
She smiled to herself, watching the moonlight turn their bodies to silver. The one thing she hadn't changed her opinion on was that they were two very good-looking men.
And, oh, now it was getting interesting. Iolaus had apparently gotten over his snit, or whatever it was, and was looking up at Hercules in a way she recognized. He'd looked at her that way when he was checking out her tattoos. Or pretending that that was what he was doing.
She slipped out of her bedroll. Time to cut herself in for a little slice of the action.
Iolaus looked up over Hercules' shoulder to see Nebula stalking toward them. She was dressed only in a thin shift that clung to her every curve. Hercules said something, but he had no idea what it was.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi." She smiled at him, looking like a bronze goddess in the moonlight. No, don't think of goddesses, Iolaus told himself, or one of them will show up and it'll be the thing with the apple all over again. Think of seawater. Very cold seawater.
Hercules sat up, facing Nebula and obstructing Iolaus' view. Iolaus hit his shoulder, but Hercules didn't budge. Ah. Still didn't trust her, then. Oddly enough, Iolaus did, even though he had seen her hold a knife at Hercules' throat that morning. Generally he didn't look kindly upon people who did that, but with Nebula, it was just as likely to be a sign of affection. Plus he had to admire a woman who wore fewer clothes than he did and still managed to stow more knives in them.
"You know what?" Nebula said. She dropped to her knees gracefully, facing them. "I forgot something."
"Well, we're not going back for it," Iolaus said, shoving Hercules until he moved over so he could see Nebula's face. "Not unless you ask nicely," he amended, grinning up at her.
"Not that kind of something," Nebula said. "I forgot to say thank you."
"Well, you saved me from becoming spider food, we'll call it even," Iolaus said.
Nebula's eyes glinted. "Still." She moved in closer and bent towards him. Iolaus closed his eyes. Her lips tasted of salt, and her hair fell forward to tickle at his bare shoulder. He sighed against her mouth, and she cupped his face in her hands and kissed him harder.
The deck creaked to his left, and Iolaus tore himself away with an effort to say, "Herc, wait--"
Hercules picked up his bedroll and glanced at Iolaus, his expression bland. Iolaus glared at him. Damn him for being so noble. Okay, generally he did appreciate Hercules' discretion, but the thought of him sleeping alone in the damp hold, dreaming of spiders, was making his gut clench.
Nebula looked down at him and her lips shaped the words, Don't worry. Then she was on her feet and moving toward Hercules.
"Thank you," she said again, and locked her arms around Hercules' neck to draw him down. Hercules resisted her for a moment, neck stiff, and looked over her head. Iolaus gave him a hopeful look, and Hercules closed his eyes, then bent his head. Iolaus exhaled in relief.
Breaking off the kiss at last, Nebula turned her head to meet Iolaus' eyes and drawled, "I think it's time we showed him what else we learned in the East."
Nebula stretched luxuriously, as lazy and content as a cat in the midday sun. "So, I guess that was a first for you boys?" She tried not to make it sound smug, and failed.
Hercules' mouth twitched and he looked at Iolaus, who gave a hiccup of laughter.
"Not really, no," Hercules said gravely. Iolaus laid his head on Hercules' shoulder and lost it completely, giggling like a fool.
She grinned. "Okay, I'll admit it, I'm surprised. Who--?"
"Deianeira," Hercules said, his voice gone soft. "My wife. A long time ago." Iolaus' laughter subsided, and he lifted his head a little to look at Hercules.
"Oh," was all she could think to say. Iolaus turned to her and waggled his eyebrows. She couldn't read all his facial expressions as well as Hercules, not yet, but she was fairly sure that meant, Don't ask.
Nebula stroked Hercules' long hair. It slid like silk between her fingers. "She was a lucky woman," she said softly.
Hercules nodded, his eyes distant, but Iolaus smiled at her, and she leaned over Hercules to kiss him. When she came up for air, Hercules' gaze was on them both, and he was smiling, too.
"You know," she said, "if you boys are interested, my ship still needs a crew."
Hercules propped himself up on an elbow and gave her a look. "Your ship?"
Nebula grinned. Hercules sighed, and her grin widened.
"Just call me Goldenbeard," Iolaus said.