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"
Format: short story
Universe: Hercules: The Legendary Journeys
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.