October 21st, 2004

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When Hercules Stumbled

First, a word of preface from Farscapeville: R.I.P. Ka D'Argo (also known as #11). May his brave soul be at peace for all time -- or at least for as long as he remains dead. He will be dearly missed.

After all, he is your daddy.

Now to the main event of this post. Once again I return to my personal "hall of fame" fan fiction retrospective. This time I want to mention two separate stories (the second will follow in a separate post). I read them at very different times while exploring two very different fandoms, and both independently made my "must reread often" list of noteworthy works. Both stories contain moving characterizations, real contributions to their respective universes, and thoughtful explorations of universal themes. Only recently did it occur to me that both were written by the same author. Both showcase Nym's gifts for vivid internal voices, for careful dialogue that employs silences as effectively as words, so I shouldn't have been surprised. I'll present the stories in the order I first read them, which also follows the chronological order of the respective universes in which they take place. Here is the first:

Title: "Hero Worship"
Author: Nym
Format: short story
Universe: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
Rating: NC-17
Warning: Explicit slash
Availability: Archived at Nym's website Idiosyncratic Attic.

One of the main attractions of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is the relationship between Hercules and his long-time friend, travel companion, and fellow warrior, Iolaus. During the series, Iolaus is a thirtysomething man in his prime. Despite the fact he manages to cheat death several times, however, one fundamental truth cannot be escaped: Hercules is a demigod, and Iolaus is a mortal. At some point, Iolaus will age and/or die, and the crime-fighting, wrong-righting partnership the two have enjoyed will end. Nym addresses this inevitability in an unexpected and touching way, leaving the reader to consider the pending retirement of both heroes and the larger issue of mortality.

The story opens years after the series as Hercules travels with an Iolaus not yet fully recovered from a dire winter sickness. This Iolaus is greying, slowing, and mellowed, and he finds that the long-term relationship he has shared with Hercules is strained. Hercules is shaken by having nearly lost Iolaus to illness, and the specter of the warrior's fragility now hangs between the pair. As the tension continues, the two visit Hercules's brother Iphicles and attempt to repair their bond. At this point, Nym inverts the reader's expectations and reverses the two roles to remarkable effect. While staying with Iphicles, Hercules himself falls ill, and Iolaus becomes his caretaker. The experience highlights the grace and good nature Iolaus has shown throughout his own ordeal, and it proves that he is not alone in succumbing to the weight of the years.

Nym explores the progression of Hercules's sickness and eventual recovery through the demigod's own first-person narrative. The story is one of irreparable loss, of humility, and of persistent loyalty and love. The characters don't wallow, opine endlessly about their feelings, or indulge in cheap theatrics: instead, the grueling physical work of recovery mirrors the difficult mental and emotional adjustments each makes largely in quiet and isolation. Despite the fact that Hercules wins his battle with his illness, the tale does not suffer from the traditional happy ending cliches. The two return to the home of Hercules's late mother to prepare for their eventual retirement. Throughout the piece a certain bleakness balances the heartening affection and dedication apparent between the two: it is clear that no matter how close the men have become over their decades together, there are still times when they cannot understand or empathize with each other, times when each is truly alone. The same is true in both men's dealings with Iphicles, which are likewise presented with careful characterization and spot-on dialogue. There is a haunting quality to the realization that even these heroes are not invulnerable to regret, self-doubt, and the progress of time. When Hercules mourns his newfound weakness, however, Iolaus counters with a simple affirmation:

"I never loved you for your strength," he whispers. His voice shakes, and when I try to pull back to see his face he holds me tight and doesn't let me move.

At its heart, this story shows us that even legends are subject to the most base and troubling realities. In the end, it is not superhuman strength or skill at arms, but rather the two men's shared honesty and vulnerability, their mutual experience of hardships faced and only temporarily vanquished, that binds them together and truly makes them heroic.

"Ever since Dahak I've had nightmares," I tell him, but that's not news. He's been there by my side through most of them. "About something beyond my control, something I can't fight, taking you from me."

Iolaus goes right on looking expectant. Sometimes a hint and silence is all we need to share as much as needs to be shared, but obviously not today. Perhaps he's being deliberately dense, or perhaps he's more hurt than I thought, but we're not sharing thoughts today. That echo was just a coincidence, is all. "Can you survive another winter?"

"What kind of a question is that?" Iolaus snaps his answer and barges past me, cutting me off completely. I can talk to him when we share that intimacy, when we share the benefit of the doubt. I can't face him when he's mad at me like this. When he's mad because I've wounded him. "You running a book on how long I'll last?"

I don't dignify that with an answer. He wouldn't expect me to. I lean into the window alcove, and watch an old woman hoeing between rows of herb plants in the small walled garden. Iphicles pays her and her daughter to grow herbs for medicine, lots of them, and to dry them and pass them on for trade. It guarantees a supply; so much learning was lost, when Dahak started burning knowledge and killing scholars. Iphicles fosters what's left. People say my brother is an indulgent fool, but is he wrong to try to keep the old world alive? I never noticed, before, that the herb woman is old and crooked, or that she works so slowly.
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Lying Low at Lupin's

And now to review the second story by Nym:

Title: "Just Let It Be"
Author: Nym
Format: short story
Universe: Harry Potter
Rating: PG-13
Warning: Implied past slash
Availability: Archived at Nym's website Idiosyncratic Attic.

One of many "lie low at Lupin's" tales exploring the post-Azkaban reunion of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin, "Just Let it Be" stands out from similar stories in several ways. To begin, it offers a portrait of Black that is suitably wounded considering his experience of more than a decade in unthinkable captivity. This Black struggles with the mundane mechanics of sitting in a chair, eating at a table, even bathing. Since Black serves as the first-person narrator, the reader can track clearly his progress toward sanity and stability as he begins to grow stronger in body and in memory. A key to this progress is, of course, Remus Lupin. I find I am particularly intrigued by J.K. Rowling's Lupin, his personality, and his choices. Not many fan fiction authors portray this tragically flawed and yet heroic character in a way I find convincing. Nym, however, captures him in all of his understated power, gentleness, reservation, and isolation. As Black thinks to himself:

God, I was a prick.

Remus was the one who had everything that truly matters. His integrity and optimism. Of all of us, Remus was the one who seemed most content. Maybe that was why I began to suspect him as our traitor; my own arrogance, my own prejudice. How could a man who had nothing be so openly content? How could a man face being spat on and rejected, day after day, and retain that cheery optimism? I can see the answer now. I think I saw it in Azkaban, during some prolonged period of lucid self-awareness. Remus had those things because he's Remus and because he's a better man than I was, or ever could be.

Of course the reader learns as much about Black as Lupin through Black's own tortured thoughts, and discovers that Black always seems to give Lupin the benefit of the doubt while denying himself that same mercy. As in "Hero Worship," Nym does not adopt the easier path where it would not exist. Again, there is miscommunication, and misery, fumbling moments of attempted connection, and painful realizations of all both men have endured in the intervening years.

Yet there is hope. One particularly moving passage involves Black receiving a letter from Harry Potter along with an awkward gift of a clay sculpture made in Harry's childhood. Lupin and Black alternately consider how little support Harry has received from the Dursleys, how Lupin once refused earlier opportunities to be involved with Harry's life, and how unprepared Black is now for assuming his role as godfather. The scene is guardedly optimistic and thoroughly poignant. In the end, we see a glimpse into the world of the walking wounded, one relearning independence and one relearning dependence, both turning to each other to rebuild trust in an otherwise uncertain time. Through these portrayals of Black and Lupin, Nym allows the reader to find heroism in the smallest of actions and fallibility in the finest of heroes. It isn't the defeat of You-Know-Who but, for the moment Nym describes, it is enough.

"You've still got magic hands." My whisper makes him hesitate. "I--I was thinking of how you'd put Harry to sleep when nobody else could," I explain, managing enough precision to spare us both further discomfort. I hope. He relaxes again, starts to massage my shoulders again, and I'm sure he's smiling.

"Oh, boring babies to sleep isn't magic. It's just a gift."

I don't know what to say after that. I'm out of practice with the kind of conversations that friends have. I don't even know if I'm entitled to call myself his friend, after all that's happened. I don't doubt his forgiveness, because he never said what he didn't mean, but I hardly deserve his trust. Not the sort that really matters, the sort that makes talking about small things easy.

"I'm not very well, Remus." It's only the big things that matter, anyway.

"No." He's completely still, then, his hands just resting at the curve of my shoulders. I can feel him breathing. "You're not."

"Promise you'll say if you want me to leave?"

"I promise." He has to be the only one of us, the fine four friends, who never made a promise he wouldn't keep. Why didn't I think of that, when I was selling James the poison from my heart?
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