Eyes of A Child

by by Dreamcatcher

Note: Because of the constantly changing "facts" in the "Hercules" show, I have pulled out those needed to fit my story. Thus, Alcmene and Jason still live in the castle they had in "Surprise." Hercules and Iolaus grew up together. Iolaus has known how to swim since he was a child. Rena is still alive (although only mentioned in passing) and Serena never was in Hercules life at all. I've probably taken liberties with medical stuff as well. However, I hope you enjoy the story I've created. I've enjoyed writing it, and writing it, and writing it, and, well you know ....

Delos was a peaceful village, nestled snuggly in the middle of two large mountain ranges. Its hardworking inhabitants were farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. Although far from being a wealthy community, the Delosian's made a fair and comfortable living.

A strong sense of family and community thrived there also. Families and neighbors watched out for one another and helped each other in times of need. Travelers were easily welcomed into their midst. It seemed to be the ideal place to call home.

Or at least it had been until it became plagued by marauders several months earlier. Every few months these raiders bullied their way through Delos, and its neighboring communities, collecting "protection" money. Though truth be told, the only ones they really needed protection from were the marauders themselves. Along with money, the raiders also appropriated anything that caught their eyes, completely terrorizing everyone. Anyone foolhardy enough to get in their way or put up protests, was dealt with swiftly and usually with some finality. In the beginning, when the raids had first started, there had been a few brave souls that had tried to stand against them; scattered gravesites attested to their valiant efforts.

King Stephen, who had always been a fair and just ruler, was well aware of the problems that plagued his northern providence. Normally these raids would have been nipped in the bud shortly after their first few occurrences; however, a civil war incited by a neighboring kingdom had greatly depleted his army. Troops that traditionally patrolled and protected different parts of the kingdom, were now busy protecting their borders. The remaining troops were spread out so thinly through the kingdom that the marauders always managed to keep one step ahead of them.

Living in constant fear, a few families from Delos had finally given up and moved on, hoping to find safety elsewhere in larger towns. The remaining villagers, unwilling to leave their familial homeland, had resigned themselves to the way things were to be.

However, to compound their existing problems, it seemed like the weather this winter was also in league against them. This had been one of the hardest in over fifty years. Mountain passes and roads had been blocked by heavy snowfall, almost cutting Delos off from the rest of the world. Much needed supplies had been delayed for days. In addition, travelers who would normally stop over in Delos, avoided the area, looking for easier routes to their destinations. The only good part was that the raiders were also unable to get to them. They knew, however, this would only be a temporary state of affairs.

In the early spring, seemingly endless snow gave way to seemingly endless rain. Due to the warmer weather, snow from mountain ranges melted and added to the swollen rivers flooding the land. By the time planting season finally arrived and the rain had ended, the damage had already been done. The yield from crops had hardly been enough to keep the village fed.

The village had struggled greatly the past few months to come up with the raiders' demands. The most recent "visit" had ended with veiled threats as to what would happen if they did not do better in the future. No amount of explanations or pleas were accepted, leaving the villagers terrified of the next encounter.

A chance visit from the Magistrate's cousin had finally shed a small ray of hope. Passing through the beleaguered village, the man had sympathetically listened. He then told of the solution his own town had taken to a similar problem.

The Magistrate wasted no time in summoning the people to an emergency meeting. The cousin told everyone how his town had sent for Hercules, son of Zeus, and his fearless comrade-in-arms, Iolaus, to help them. He told of how these two remarkable men, almost single-handedly, had driven the bandits out. By the end of the meeting, everyone eagerly agreed to send messengers to try and find these men and request their help.

It had taken more than a week to track down the two heroes, but a messenger finally returned with word that the two warriors would arrive in a few days. With great relief and anticipation, the villagers went back to some normal semblance of life.

Two men wound their way in and out of the heavily forested mountain pass. A shortcut the smaller man had heard about in the last town. It had been a pleasant, quiet trip so far. For a little over an hour, the two had walked in almost complete silence. However, this had been of growing concern to the taller man.

Hercules' comrade was never one to stay quiet for long. Normally on their journeys, Iolaus babbled on endlessly with jokes, stories, or remembrances of past events. He was even known to belt out a few outrageous songs he had learned -- happily aware that Hercules would cringe at them. At times he would even engage Hercules in a battle of words, taking the side of a topic that he did not necessarily believe, as long as it was the opposite of Hercules'. The demigod, however, knew what his friend was up to, but enjoyed their verbal sparing as much as Iolaus did. It was comfortable banter and it helped pass the time.

So when his companion remained silent for any length of time, Hercules knew something was wrong. Iolaus had always been a bundle of energy as long as Hercules had known him, except when he was sick or something was bothering him. Both scenarios worried Hercules, because it was hard at these times to pry things out of his friend. The two had no secrets from each other and Iolaus would eventually confide in him, but sometimes the wait could be unbearable, causing him endless worry.

Hercules tried for about the fourth time to engage Iolaus in conversation. All previous attempts had ended in brief, mumbled replies. He decided to try once more before he went to more drastic measures. What those drastic measures would be, however, he was not sure yet himself.

"What do you think we'll be facing at Delos?" Silence met his questioning glance. "Do you remember how many men the messenger said were in that gang?" Still nothing. "I seem to remember him saying something about there being a hundred marauders, each having two heads, and riding three-headed hydras."

Hercules stopped abruptly. He watched as his friend continued on, oblivious to everything around him. "IOLAUS!!!"

Iolaus jumped, as the deep booming voice startled him out of his inattention. No longer finding his friend walking beside him, he stopped, looked around and finally realized Hercules had halted several feet behind. "What's wrong?" he said as he trotted the short distance back to the demigod's side.

"I was hoping you would tell me. I seemed to have been carrying on a conversation all by myself. Now as interesting as that might be, I was just wondering if you might want to jump in now and then?"

A faint smile played over Iolaus' lips. "Sorry, Herc. I'm afraid I had my mind on other things."

"I noticed. Anything you want to share?"

The blond warrior hesitated for a few moments. "Herc, will you make me a promise?"

"A promise? What kind of a promise?"

Iolaus looked at him hesitantly.

Hercules arched his eyebrows. "You'd better spill it. I'm not making any promises until I hear what it is. The last time I promised you something, I almost ended up ..."

Iolaus interrupted. "Promise me that if anything happens to me, you'll continue on with what you're -- what we're -- doing."

Hercules stood there immobile, a smile frozen on his face. A sudden chill rose up his spine. As the meaning of the words suddenly sunk in, he grabbed Iolaus firmly by the shoulders. "Iolaus, what's wrong? What aren't you telling me? Are you all right? Are you sick? Are you ..."

Iolaus saw the reaction his words had caused and interrupted the hysterical tirade. "Hercules, calm down. I'm fine. I--I shouldn't have said anything. I'm sorry." Iolaus tried to pull away.

Hercules tightened his grip. "Oh no you don't! You don't just throw something out like that and walk away. You answer me now! Are you all right?"

Iolaus sighed. "Yeah, Herc. I'm fine."

"Is that the truth?"

"Yes!"

Hercules searched the depths of his friend's eyes. He knew Iolaus as well as he knew himself and he read the truth in the statement. He finally breathed a sigh of relief.

"Then where did that come from?" he asked softly.

Iolaus shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. I was just thinking about all the battles we've been in over the past few years ..."

Hercules looked at him for a moment, then released his grip on Iolaus. He moved a few paces away, then turned and came back. He ran his fingers through his hair trying to calm down. There was almost an edge to his voice and a glare in his eyes as he found words to speak again. "Iolaus, don't you ever do that to me again!! You had me believing all sorts of things!!"

"I'm sorry."

"You should be. You took several years off my life."

Iolaus smirked. "Yeah, I could tell. You have several new crinkle lines under your eyes."

"Really?" Still flustered by fear, Hercules absently reached up towards his eyes. Seeing the mischievous look in the blue eyes staring up at him, he remembered his partner's quirky sense of humor and put his hands back down. "Very funny."

As Iolaus giggled, the two started walking again. Hercules watched his friend out of the corner of his eye for a few more paces. "Want to tell me why that came up all of a sudden?"

It took a few moments before the blond sighed and spoke. "I don't know if I can."

"Iolaus, we've never kept secrets before."

Iolaus looked quickly over at the demigod and then straight ahead again. "It's not really a secret, Herc. I ... I just don't know how to explain it. It's nothing tangible. It's just a feeling I have."

Hercules put an arm out and stopped Iolaus. "A feeling?"

"Yeah! I ..." Iolaus raised his hands in a helpless gesture.

"Iolaus, if you have concerns, I need to know about them."

"I told you, it's nothing I can put my finger on."

"That doesn't matter. You know I've always trusted your instincts. If you have a feeling something is going to happen ..." Hercules hesitated a moment, already knowing the answer he would receive, but having to ask it. "Look, Iolaus, do you ... do you want to sit this one out?"

Iolaus gave him a startled look. "NO!"

Hercules winced slightly at the raised voice, even though he was already expecting a strong reaction.

Iolaus saw the wince and immediately calmed down, smiling apologetically. "Sorry."

"No, it was my fault, but I, well, I just had to ask. I've never heard you say anything like this before."

Iolaus nodded. "Let's just forget I said anything, okay?"

With this, he turned and started walking away. Hercules sighed and moved to catch up to him. He grabbed Iolaus' arm and stopped him again.

"Look, we may do a lot of things, my friend, but forgetting about it isn't one of them." A hint of a smile formed on Hercules' face, as he looked down into Iolaus' eyes. "How about if I promise to protect you?"

Iolaus' head jerked up. This protection thing had always been a bone of contention between them over the past twenty-some years. However, after seeing a smile on Hercules' face, Iolaus began to chuckle. "Oh, gee, yeah, Herc, that should do it."

Continuing his gaze, Hercules sobered. "You know I mean it, my friend."

Iolaus looked warmly into his partner's eyes. "Yeah. I know you do. Thanks."

"One thing ..."

"What's that? Iolaus asked.

"You promise if that feeling gets stronger, or you figure out what it is, you let me know."

Iolaus smiled. "I promise, Herc. You'll be the second to know."

Hercules nodded, satisfied. Once again the walk began in silence, however, true to his nature, and now that he had voiced his concerns out loud, Iolaus' face cleared. Having been quiet much too long, the air soon rang with one of his vociferous songs.

"What have I done?" feigned Hercules, putting his fingers into his ears. With a dismayed shake of his head he added, "I couldn't leave well enough alone," although his smile belied his words. Iolaus' amused response was to belt out verse two, at an added volume.

They had been on the road for only a few more hours, when Hercules drew them to a halt at a clearing overlooking Delos. They had traveled long and fast since their last stop. Iolaus brushed away some perspiration that had beaded on his brow. Bent over slightly, hands on his knees, he took several deep breaths. Sometimes trying to keep up with the demigod's long strides was quite a challenge, especially when he really got to moving.

"Are you okay?" Hercules said a trifle concerned.

"Oh yeah, sure! ... I'll be fine, ... once my lungs ... realize we've stopped." Still bent over panting, he tilted his head up slightly toward Hercules, a wry grin forming. "Was this your punishment ... for my not talking to you earlier ... or to silence my brilliant vocal performance?"

A matching grin spread over Hercules' face as well. "Brilliant vocal performance? Ohhh, is that what that was? I thought it was some poor dying animal following us."

Straightening up, Iolaus managed to evoke a pained look. "Herc, you really know how to hurt a guy."

"That's the truth hurting you, my friend."

Suddenly a loud growl came from Iolaus' stomach.

"Ahhh!!! Now I understand why you didn't slow me down!" Hercules remarked with amusement."

An apologetic look spread over Iolaus' face. "Well, it has been a long time since breakfast and we didn't take time for lunch." Then he turned his attention back to the village below. "What do you think?"

Hercules looked over the layout of the walled village. "If we can get everyone inside the walls, maybe. There's only one road in and out. That'll help."

"Yeah. If we could stop them right at the entrance. Make sure they never even get in. The walls should offer some protection."

"Sounds like the best plan to me. Guess the rest will have to wait until we find out what kind of help we can expect."

Iolaus' stomach growled once more. Hercules smiled and threw an arm around Iolaus' shoulder. "Come on, my friend, let's get on into the village and check in with the Magistrate. Then we can get you something to eat. It's getting a little noisy around here."

Iolaus grinned. "My stomach and I would be eternally grateful."

A few miles more, just as they reached the bottom of the mountain pass, an older man came from a small path to the left. He was in his mid-sixties, a little taller than Iolaus, and had silver-gray hair, hazel eyes and a warm, caring smile. The two stopped and waited until the older man met up with them.

"Hi!" said Hercules. "Are you from Delos?"

"Sure am. I'm Cyrus, the village healer."

Hercules reached out his hand in greeting. "It's good to meet you, Cyrus. I'm Hercules and this is my friend Iolaus."

"At last!" Cyrus said with a bright smile. He reached over and pumped their hands. "I'm glad to meet you both. We can't thank you enough for coming to help us."

"We'll be glad to do what we can," smiled Hercules.

As Iolaus shook hands, he looked rather seriously at the healer. "Yes, we're very happy to help. Can you tell us a little about the situation?" He suddenly sent a quick side-glance over at the demigod and continued: "I've heard there are over 100 marauders, and they each have two ..." but before he could finish, an arm encircled his shoulder with a hand clamping over his mouth.

Looking over at Cyrus, Hercules laughingly stated, "Just ignore him, he tends to babble at times. It'll pass soon enough." Then looking back to his friend, the demigod released Iolaus from his grip. "How do you do that?"

Hercules received a wide-eyed, innocent look. "I don't know what you mean, Herc."

"Yeah, I'm sure you don't," Hercules mumbled, seeing a slight smirk on his friend's face.

Cyrus' first reaction was one of mild surprise at the strange conversation between these two heroes. He began wondering if maybe the village had made a mistake. Could all the stories about these two have been greatly exaggerated or completely wrong? But he put the thoughts aside and filled them in on what had been taking place in Delos.

Finally Iolaus spoke up. "About twenty-five men, huh? That doesn't sound too tough. What that's, fifteen for you, Herc, and ten for me."

Hercules smiled. "Hmmm, sounds about right."

Cyrus looked from one to the other. Were they serious? Actually the problem seemed to be that they didn't sound like they were taking any of this seriously enough. He was beginning to have grave doubts.

The healer had also been baffled a bit when he had first seen Iolaus. Many of the stories and songs about Hercules' exploits had included verses on the bravery and courage of Iolaus as well. Now, as Cyrus looked him over, he wondered if they really could be true. Hercules was certainly imposing enough with his height and brawn; there was no doubt of his capabilities. Taking side glances at the small blond warrior, the healer saw the well-muscled arms, the grace of movement, and could almost feel a tangible energy emanating from him. And yet, as many people often had, he focused in on only the small part. However, he would soon learn why no one ever made that mistake twice.

As they came around a bend in the road, about a half-dozen scraggly looking men jumped out from behind bushes and trees lining the path. The three men came to a sudden halt. For a moment there was no sound, no movement, while the two groups stood sizing each other up.

Hercules and Iolaus realized these men were not a part of the marauding group. Probably just a scruffy group of bandits roaming the countryside, looking to make some easy dinars off weary travelers. Unfortunately, they had chosen the wrong victims this day.

Cyrus looked over at his two companions and found a mixture of amusement and exasperation on their faces.

The leader of the bandits finally broke the silence. "Well, well, looky what we have here, men."

Just at that point, Iolaus' stomach decided to make itself evident again. He looked over at Hercules questioningly and received a shrug and a "help yourself" gesture. He tossed his sword and sheath to Hercules and turned back towards the bandits. There was a look in his eyes that Hercules knew well. He almost felt sorry for these poor fools.

Hercules took Cyrus by the arm and leisurely moved him off the path and leaned up against a tree, to calmly watch the coming fracas.

Iolaus slowly moved a step or two forward as he spoke. "All right, guys, I'm tired and I'm hungry, and we're kinda in a hurry here, you know. So let's cut to the chase. Okay? I believe the usual speech is 'give us all your money and no one gets hurt.' We say we don't have any. You tell us we're lying. We start fighting." He paused, smiling sweetly. "Does that about cover it?"

The little speech caught the bandits off guard. Iolaus looked back at Hercules for confirmation. Hercules gave a quick nod in agreement. Iolaus turned to the bandits again, who were still standing with open mouths; so they were even more unprepared for the startling battle cry and the blond warrior hurtling in their direction. Iolaus quickly took out the leader with a swift kick to his chest. As luck would have it, his fall took out another man, when the two collided.

Cyrus became completely flustered, looking between the burst of purple and gold energy in the midst of battle and Hercules who was standing so nonchalantly observing it all. Especially as at this point, since two men held Iolaus securely between them, with a third advancing threateningly with a knife in front of him, and yet a fourth coming from behind. Cyrus turned to Hercules, not believing his indifference to his friend's predicament. "Aren't you going to help him?" he cried out.

"Nah! He'd only get upset."

"But, ... but ..." Cyrus sputtered.

To appease the man, Hercules shouted, "Need any help, Iolaus?"

"Thanks, Herc, but I got it under control," he said watching the man advancing on him.

Hercules turned toward the healer. "He's got it under control."

Cyrus turned troubled eyes back to Iolaus, just in time to see the blond suddenly kick off the ground. Using the leverage of the two holding him, he did a flip up and over, taking out the man advancing in front of him with the knife, somersaulting over to strike the man advancing on him from behind. After landing, he quickly pulled his wrists free and backhanded the two that had been holding him. In only a few seconds, all four ended up in a cluster at his feet.

Cyrus gaped, opened mouthed, as two of the bandits half-heartedly struggled back up to continue the fight. If that's what you could call it. As he watched closer, Cyrus somehow got the impression that Iolaus seemed to be holding back a little, almost toying with them. He never seemed to be really struggling to keep up. His motions were smooth and graceful as a dancers. It was also very obvious that Iolaus seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously. His face was almost gleeful.

Iolaus had just taken care of the final man and turned to grin at Hercules, when the leader of the group shakily rose and started to move in behind him with a sword. Before Cyrus could offer a word of warning, he caught what he later realized was a wordless signal passing between the two warriors. He watched, astonished, as Iolaus whirled on the man at just the precise moment. Ducking down to miss the sword, Iolaus kicked the legs out from under him and the man stumbled, tripping over one of his own men.

"Thanks, guys. It was nice talking to you," Iolaus said as he brushed off his clothes and stepped over the legs of the prone figures. He returned to the smiling demigod and the astounded healer.

Iolaus looked up at Hercules expectantly. Hercules tossed Iolaus his sword and shrugged. As if critiquing the fight, he wobbled his hand in a so-so gesture. "Not bad." But his expression told a different story.

Silently, the trio once again proceeded on their way. Cyrus kept taking sporadic looks back at the groaning pile of men, alternated with amazed glances at the small blond warrior next to him.

Hercules smiled to himself. He had seen the earlier questioning glances at Iolaus by the healer. He was pretty sure he knew what those glances meant, just as he was sure Iolaus had. When the bandits had appeared, it seemed the opportune time to let Iolaus demonstrate his skills. Albeit Hercules was not quite as calm as his outward appearance had made him appear, especially after the earlier conversation out on the road. However, Cyrus needed to see what Iolaus was capable of, and Iolaus needed to show him.

At last Cyrus' mind let him accept what his eyes had just beheld. He smiled broadly. There were no more doubts or concerns. This small blond whirlwind had been amazing all by himself. At the side of the demigod, they would be impossible to stop. Iolaus' words drifted back to him. About twenty-five men, huh? That doesn't sound too tough. He now truly believed that statement and finally relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the journey back to the village.

As they entered Delos, Hercules asked Cyrus where he could find the Magistrate, so they could alert him of their arrival.

"I'd be happy to take you to Nathan. He'll be relieved to know you're here. His place is just down the street."

As they walked along, Cyrus got the impression of both men sizing up everything around them. Nothing seemed to escape their glance. His estimation of both men had grown by leaps and bounds as they had walked together. "This is it," he said, as they came to a halt before a small store. "This is Nathan's place."

Just as they were getting ready to enter, there was another loud grumble from Iolaus' stomach.

Iolaus grinned sheepishly. "Sorry!"

Hercules and Cyrus both laughed.

"Look, Iolaus, it doesn't take both of us to check in with the Magistrate. Why don't you go on down to the marketplace and find something to help temporarily fill that empty void, until I finish up. Then we'll get some real dinner."

"Great! One of your better ideas, Herc."

Hercules clapped Iolaus on the back and fondly watched him as he started off. He turned back to Cyrus. "Shall we?"

Hercules and Cyrus went on into the store and spoke quietly together while Nathan finished with a customer. Once the man left, Nathan came over to greet them.

"Nathan, I was just returning from hunting for herbs and ran into this young man and his friend. May I present Hercules!"

Nathan's eyes lit up. "Hercules! You made it. Thank the gods." He reached out and pumped Hercules' arm. Nathan was about the same age as Cyrus. Slightly taller, with a slender build, brown hair, just starting to gray, and wise brown eyes showing back from an angular face. A small scar was visible running down his left cheek, a souvenir from an earlier altercation with the marauders.

"Yes, we made good time."

"You can't imagine how delighted we are to have you here. We didn't know what else to do. This has been an extremely bad year. Crops were poor. Trade has been slow and dinars are scarce. We're just barely making it. There's nothing left to give those marauders."

"Well, hopefully we'll be able to give them something they aren't expecting this time."

"Good, good! I've made arrangements for you and your friend to stay at the local inn, but I'd like you both to share meals with my family."

"Thank you. That's very kind of you. We'd be happy to accept."

"Cyrus, how about joining us this evening?"

"Thanks, Nathan. I'd like that."

"Good, good!" said the Magistrate again. "Let's go down to the inn and get you and your friend checked in, so you can rest before dinner if you'd like." Nathan looked around. "Where is your friend?"

"He went on down to the marketplace. I told him we'd meet him there."

"Fine. Well, let me just close up here for awhile and we'll pick him up on the way."

Hercules, Cyrus, and Nathan were just coming out of the store when they heard a big commotion down near the marketplace. They unconsciously picked up their pace. At the far end of the street they could see a crowd had formed and could hear a lot of yelling and screaming. The people were so closely packed that the three men could not see what was happening on the other side of this human wall.

About half-way there, one of the village elders came running excitedly towards them. "Nathan!! Nathan!!"

"What is it, Eris? What's going on?" asked the concerned Magistrate.

"They caught a man down there. Someone said he was a spy for the marauders. The people've gone crazy. They're after blood. You better come quick."

All four men took off in a dead run. The crowd's roar was almost deafening now. When Hercules neared them, he was able to see over the tops of some heads and caught a flash of blond curls. He heard a familiar voice painfully cry out, "No, wait! ... I told you ... you've got the wrong ..." and then several thuds, followed by a groan, as the blond head disappeared.

Hercules roughly broke through the crowd, shoving people aside, and froze for a second as he saw what his heart had already told him. Iolaus was the target of their attack. Iolaus' arms, chest, and head were bruised and bleeding from various wounds already inflicted. Several various-sized rocks lay on the ground around him.

Hercules saw another large rock flying through the air straight toward Iolaus, who was already on his knees, dazed and gasping for breath. The demigod moved swiftly to catch the projectile, as a deafening yell of "NOOOOooooo!!!" tore from his lips. But he was not in time and the rock hit the hunter on the right side of his head. Hercules saw a bright crimson stream erupt immediately from the jagged wound and watched Iolaus pitch forward like dead weight.

A couple more rocks came sailing through the air, but Hercules, now positioned in front of his friend's body, caught them in his hands and crushed them to powder. This amazing feat instantly stilled the crazed crowd. Hercules swiftly turned and knelt down by Iolaus.

Cyrus and Nathan had followed Hercules through the opening. Both were startled at what they saw. The healer quickly moved to Iolaus' side, while Nathan faced the angry mob.

"What in the world possessed you to do this?" Nathan yelled.

"We were told he was a spy for the marauders," said a man out in front.

"And so you just decided to take this matter into your own hands? What's wrong with you people?"

"We didn't mean to," a second man volunteered. "Someone started yelling to stone him. I guess things just got out of hand."

"I'd say so!" Nathan replied angrily.

"Who said he was a spy?" demanded Hercules, who had risen and joined Nathan. His hands were clenched in tight fists.

The crowd looked around and suddenly spotted the young man who had started the accusations.

"Over there."

"That's him."

"He's the one."

Came the cries from the crowd.

Hercules turned and started toward him. However, before his eyes, the young man dressed in peasant garb, suddenly shimmered, changing his appearance and before them stood a thin, dark haired young man in black leather.

"STRIFE!" came Hercules' furious cry.

Before Hercules could move, Strife mockingly bowed towards him, swiftly disappearing, with only his cruel laughter echoing behind.

The stunned crowd, having seen the transformation, turned back to Hercules and their Magistrate with dawning guilt registering on their faces.

Cyrus' voice penetrated Hercules' anger and the demigod swiftly moved back to Iolaus' side. "Come, we need to take him to my place immediately. He needs attention and be careful, he has a couple of cracked ribs."

Hercules gently lifted the small blond warrior.

Still angered by the villagers' actions, Nathan continued, "Did you even stop to realize what that band of cutthroats would do if they found out you had injured or killed one of their men?"

A bolder man yelled back: "Hercules will be here soon."

Another added: "Yeah! He and his friend will save us."

Hercules stopped, Iolaus' body held protectively in his arms. "I'M HERCULES, and THIS IS MY FRIEND!"

Suddenly there was utter silence on the street. No one moved a muscle as the demigod scanned the crowd before him. Almost as one they took a step or two back at what they read on his face. Barely controlled rage was evident as his voice boomed out. "THIS MAN AND I HAVE KNOWN EACH OTHER SINCE CHILDHOOD. WE'VE FOUGHT TOGETHER, SIDE BY SIDE ALL OF OUR LIVES. HE'S MY FAMILY. MY BROTHER. DO YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?" Carefully he held out the bloody body of his friend in front of him as he spoke. "WE CAME TO HELP. TO SAVE YOUR LIVES AND HOMES FROM THOSE WHO WOULD USE FORCE TO GET WHAT THEY WANTED. IS THIS WHAT WE CAME TO SAVE YOUR VILLAGE FOR?!! SO JUST STRIKE OUT AT ANYONE ACCUSED OF A CRIME!! NO CHANCE TO EXPLAIN!! NO HEARING!! NO TRIAL!! JUST INSTANT MOB JUSTICE!!"

As he took a deep breath, Cyrus touched his arm. "Come, Hercules. Iolaus needs us now."

Hercules was almost shaking with rage as he pulled Iolaus' body back close to his chest. He nodded to Cyrus. The crowd parted wordlessly and watched as the two men headed down the street.

Cyrus swiftly led the way to his dwelling; a small house in the middle of the village. As he entered, Hercules followed him through the living area into another room. In the middle of that room was a long, narrow table. Cyrus motioned Hercules to place Iolaus on it.

Hercules quickly glanced around. It reminded him of a well-stocked, miniature hospital. Everything was clean and well ordered. Multitudes of crockery, jars, and bottles containing powders, liquids and herbs, a rainbow of colors, lined the many shelves. Another wall with cabinets, contained all types of instruments, blankets, cloths and bandaging materials. A long counter area used as work space held basins and pitchers.

"Hercules, remove his clothing and that medallion. And mind the ribs."

Hercules carefully removed the vest, tossing it to a nearby chair. He placed the medallion in the pouch on his belt for safekeeping. Then he pulled Iolaus' boots off and undid his belt. As he removed the pants he saw only a few angry welts on Iolaus' thighs and legs.

Cyrus grabbed a thick blanket and tossed it to Hercules to keep Iolaus warm. The healer then brought over water and some clean cloths and instructed Hercules to start cleaning the excess blood from Iolaus' already swelling and purpling head wounds. There were two deep gashes that were bleeding profusely. Cyrus knew he needed to take care of them immediately. The other wounds were not as serious and could be dealt with later.

Nathan entered soon after and lent his hand in getting things that Cyrus needed, while Hercules assisted the healer work over and stitch the wounds. After they bandaged Iolaus' head, Cyrus moved down to examine the cracked ribs. With Hercules' and Nathan's help, bandages were wound around Iolaus' midsection.

Cyrus checked Iolaus' arms and legs for broken bones, and was relieved to see there were none. Hercules cleaned the cuts on Iolaus' arms and chest and Cyrus followed, placing a healing salve over them before bandaging them also. Although Iolaus' legs and thighs had been bruised, his leather pants had offered protection from being cut.

As they finished, Cyrus instructed Hercules to carry Iolaus into a spare bedroom, which was sparsely furnished with two beds, a table and a chair.

Hercules carefully placed Iolaus on one of the beds and sat down next to him. While Cyrus went to get some extra blankets, Hercules had a couple of moments to finally breathe. So much had happened so fast. Tears slowly started to trickle down his face. Iolaus was so pale and so still. Hercules reached up a shaky hand to check Iolaus' pulse on his neck. It was weak, but the precious beat was there. He breathed a small sigh of relief. Leaning back in the chair, the demigod took in the whole appearance, noticing that his friend had almost begun to take on the appearance of a mummy, swathed in so many bandages. If it hadn't been so serious, it might have been funny.

Hercules turned as he felt a comforting hand on his shoulder. Through partially blurred eyes, he saw Cyrus holding blankets. He quickly wiped away the tears and rose to help Cyrus cover Iolaus and tuck him in warmly.

His eyes never leaving the hunter's face, Hercules finally ventured the question he most feared. "Is he, ... is he going to be okay?"

Cyrus hesitated a moment.

"Please, the truth!" implored the demigod.

Nathan came and stood in the doorway.

Cyrus sighed audibly. "The truth is, Hercules, I don't know. His pulse is weak and thready." He paused. "All I can tell you is the bruises and cuts will heal without any problem. The ribs, as long as he's kept still, will also heal completely."

Cyrus saw a look of relief come over Hercules' face. "But, I'm not going to lie to you, son. The head wounds are quite serious. And, if he does survive, and I must emphasize 'if,' I'm afraid he could face some serious problems."

"Problems? What ... what kind of problems?" Hercules' face paled.

There was hesitation from the healer.

"Cyrus, please!"

"He could lose his eyesight, his hearing, his memory, or he could be ..." His voice trailed off.

Hercules flinched as each possibility was revealed. Cyrus paused and reached his arm out to pat Hercules' shoulder. "Look, there's no use speculating right now. We'll just have to wait and see."

"How long?"

"I'm sorry, I can't tell you that either. The swelling will have to go down some."

Hercules dropped into the chair again, a defeated look on his face.

Cyrus softly added, "Let's take one step at a time, okay?"

"Yeah, ... yeah, one step at a time," Hercules said quietly.

"Is there anything I can do for you, Hercules?" offered Nathan. When the demigod failed to reply, Nathan spoke again. "Hercules?"

Hercules slowly turned towards the voice. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"Is there anything I can do for you?"

"No. No nothing," came the disheartened answer.

As Nathan turned to leave, Hercules turned. "No, wait. We were supposed to head to Corinth to see my family, after we left here. Could you please send a message to my brother, King Iphicles. Let him know it could be awhile before I ..." he paused, "before 'WE' get there."

"It'll be taken care of at once." He hesitated a second. "Hercules, you must know how sorry I am about what happened. I didn't think anything like that would ever happen here. The people normally aren't like this. It's just that ...." Nathan realized he was babbling. "If there was any way that ..."

"Thank you." Hercules interrupted and turned back towards Iolaus.

Suddenly a loud knock echoed throughout the house. Startled, Cyrus and Nathan hurried to the door and saw a large group of people had gathered.

"What is it?" Nathan asked, as the two men stepped out. "What do you want?"

One of the group, who evidently had been made spokesperson, looked around a little uneasily. "We--we just wanted to know how the young man is, and, and if, ... well, if Hercules is still going to stay here? If he is still going to help us?"

Moving forward, the angry healer, his eyes flashing, spoke up before Nathan could even utter a word. "Well, I guess you all have pretty well seen to that, haven't you? That boy is extremely critical and in no shape to be moved. Your foolishness has not only taken away his help, but has put him in the same danger as the rest of us now."

He stopped as he heard movement behind him. Nathan and Cyrus turned to see Hercules standing silently in the doorway. His darkened eyes scanned the crowd.

"Don't worry. I'll save your village," the icy voice of the demigod answered. He watched as a small girl pushed her way through the crowd, reaching out for her mother. He pointed to the child. "I'll do it for her and the other innocent ones like her. AND, I'll do it for that man laying in there fighting for his life. Because despite what you've done to him, he would never forgive me if I didn't." He then turned and went back inside.

The people looked around uncomfortably at each other and quietly turned and dispersed without another word. However, his affirmation had given them no real peace of mind.

When Cyrus came back into the bedroom, he saw Hercules sitting in the chair. His hands firmly gripped Iolaus' hand, as if he could hold on to his friend's life by sheer force. His head was bowed, his eyes closed, but it was not in prayer to the gods, as Cyrus had thought. Hercules knew all too well that he could expect no help from them. His eyes were closed in a vain attempt to keep his emotions from overwhelming him.

Cyrus went back into the living room without disturbing him. What could he possibly say anyhow. As he sat wearily at the table, he thought of how things had progressed. It had been such a relief when he had met the two on the road and realized they had finally arrived to help the village. Now here it was only a few hours later and one young hero was in the next room fighting for his life, the other struggling through the pain of possible loss; and they had not even faced the enemy that had brought them here.

What if the boy should die? How would Hercules react? Their love and friendship were well known and Hercules' earlier outburst and his obvious anguish left no doubt to that fact. Would Hercules angrily leave them to their troubles after all? He quickly removed that thought from his mind. He instinctively knew that Hercules would never desert them. The demigod might be angry, and he certainly had every right, but Cyrus knew this man would never be vindictive enough to leave them to the marauders' mercy, no matter what happened.

Just as strongly, he knew he would not let Iolaus die. He would do everything in his power to make sure he had a fighting chance. What that chance would be, he wasn't sure. But like he had told Hercules, one step at a time.

That first night turned very long, as fever and convulsions hit Iolaus. Cyrus had warned Hercules they could come and when they did, they came with a vengeance. The two men spent most of the night and late into the next day using every bit of healing knowledge to keep death at bay. Medicinal herbs in tea were given to lower the fever along with sponging him down with cool water. Just when they would think they had won the battle, another bout would come.

It was the most terrifying experience Hercules had faced so far. Most of the time he simply sat and held his friend's hand, hoping that through his touch, Iolaus would know he was there with him. Whether it had helped directly or not, Hercules would probably never know, but late into the second evening, the fever finally broke.

Iolaus was extremely weak, but one more hurdle had been conquered and he was still with them. Hercules blessed Iolaus' incredibly strong will to live. It had once again pulled him; no, them, for the loss of Iolaus would have in many ways meant the loss of Hercules, through a rough time.

A few days passed with no change in Iolaus' overall condition. He was fed small amounts of water, teas, and thin nourishing broths several times a day. The body lived, but there had been no other encouraging signs. There was only the endless, agonizing waiting.

Nathan had popped in and out when he could and kept the villagers up to date about Iolaus' condition. They were a good people generally, but had simply been pushed far beyond their endurance and been an easy target for a malicious god. Once they had stopped and thought out their actions, they had realized how foolish they had been. Their interest in the small blond warrior was soon for his own sake. Cyrus' story, passed on through Nathan, about Iolaus' bravery out on the road against the bandits had greatly intrigued them. They were all now pulling for the handsome, young hero.

At the end of the week, word came that the marauders had been spotted less than a day's ride from Delos. They had stopped and made camp for the night, knowing full well the citizens knew they were there. It was a psychological maneuver, meant to instill terror of their impending visit in the villagers and make them more submissive. And, it had always proved most effective.

Hercules reluctantly left Iolaus' side and went to speak to the elders. Since the defense of the village seemed to be left to him alone now, he decided the best method of protecting them was to temporarily evacuate them. He had learned of a group of large caves several miles outside of the village that could temporarily house them all. If he failed to stop the marauders, they might lose their homes, but at least they would keep their lives. They could start over elsewhere if necessary.

After dusk, families started moving out in small groups. Although Nathan's family had been moved to safety in one of the earlier groups, he returned to help his neighbors. Many of the men had stayed to keep lamps lit, to give the village a still lived-in look, just in case there were any curious eyes on the hillsides. Nathan didn't think the marauders would waste their time, so sure were they of their fear tactics, but they kept up appearances just the same.

Cyrus had stayed with Iolaus who was to be moved in the last group. The small blond was carefully attended by Hercules and the healer to make sure he received no further injuries in the transfer. Once inside the cave, he was placed on a small cot and was warmly wrapped with blankets.

Hercules knelt down beside his friend for a few moments. His heart in his eyes, he reached out and placed a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. Suddenly without warning, Iolaus' eyes popped opened. It only lasted a brief moment, and though they were obviously unfocused, it was the most beautiful sight Hercules had ever seen. Tears started to burn the demigod's eyes.

He looked over at the healer, who was kneeling on the other side.

"Cyrus, did you see that!!?" he said excitedly.

"I saw, Hercules. That's wonderful."

"Does this mean, what I hope it does?" he asked eagerly.

Cyrus smiled. "I think so, son. He's been growing steadily stronger, but I didn't want to say anything until I was completely sure. But I think I can pretty much guarantee he's going to make it."

Joy flitted across Hercules' face and he breathed a small, grateful sigh. "Thank you."

"I didn't do much. That boy seems to have a pretty strong will."

Hercules looked down lovingly. "He always has."

Cyrus sobered a bit. "You realize, of course, that ..."

Hercules looked up. A hint of anxiety swiftly flashed across his countenance and then was gone. "As long as he's alive, that's all that I care about. Nothing else matters to me."

The healer nodded. "I'm happy that this happened before you left, Hercules. Maybe it'll give you extra incentive to come back in one piece. He's going to be needing you, you know."

"I know, and believe me, I'll be doing my best." He paused. "But if I don't make it, there is one thing I'd like to request of you."

"Anything, Hercules."

"I'd like you to take him back to Corinth for me when he's able to travel. Explain to my family what happened. They'll take care of him, ... if he needs anything."

"Of course. It'll be done. I promise."

"Thanks." Hercules leaned down close to Iolaus and quietly whispered, "I'll be back soon, my friend. Stay strong." Then with a small squeeze to Iolaus' shoulder he rose and left.

Cyrus knew it took every bit of Hercules' courage to walk away. As he watched him disappear, he made a silent vow. If anything did happen to the demigod and his family, for any reason, balked at Iolaus' care because of any of his injuries, he himself would make sure the young warrior would be well taken care of for the rest of his life.

The healer had become quite fond of both these men. During the long days and nights that he and the demigod had waited and watched, he had learned much. Hercules had needed to speak of his friend and the old healer had wisely encouraged it.

Cyrus heard of their meeting as children, their growing friendship, and some of their boyhood pranks. Tales of some of Iolaus' earlier escapades had earned more than its share of chuckles and laughs. Hercules also spoke sorrowfully of the love and loss of their wives and children.

Cyrus understood completely how Hercules felt, for he too had lost his beloved wife, and his two sons and their families, to fever a few years back. He still missed them greatly. Having these two men here and needing him, temporarily mollified the loneliness he had often felt.

He leaned over and pulled the blanket up closer around Iolaus. "You heard him, son. You stay strong. He needs you, as much as you're going to need him," and he patted Iolaus' shoulder.

Hercules met up with Nathan and the other men at the inn.

"What now, Hercules? We wait?"

"You wait a little longer, then slowly begin dousing the lamps in your homes. Make it appear as if the village is slowly settling down for the night. Then get to the caves. Make sure all visible tracks leading there are wiped clean. I'm going to head towards their camp."

"But, I thought you were going to wait for them to come here tomorrow?" asked Eris.

"I was, but I decided it would be better to meet them out there. I might be able to discourage them from even coming here. Spare the village if I can. However, if they do get through me, they might destroy your village, but you should all be safe." Hercules turned to the Magistrate. "If I haven't come back to you by late tomorrow afternoon, keep your people hidden for three or four days. You have more than enough food to last. Just be careful when you finally emerge. Scout it out first."

"We will, Hercules. Thank you," declared Nathan.

The two men reached out and shook hands.

"Hercules, I know I've said this before, but I'm truly sorry all of this turned out like it has. I mean with Iolaus. Had I known ..."

"Don't blame yourself. It wasn't your fault. Besides, Iolaus just opened his eyes a few minutes ago. Cyrus believes he's going to make it. Right now that's what's keeping me going and giving me hope. Iolaus may have a long struggle ahead of him and I aim to be there to help. So don't give up on me yet, Nathan."

"That's wonderful news, Hercules. I'm glad to hear it. Good luck!"

"Thanks."

As the demigod set out, his thoughts were not of marauders, or strategies, but of his best friend. What would Iolaus be facing when he woke? Would he ever have him back completely? Cyrus had said there was a possibility that he could have permanent damage of some kind: loss of eyesight, hearing, memory. How would Iolaus react to the loss of his eyesight or hearing? For a man like him, either would be difficult. His friend was the most fiercely independent and proudest man he knew. If he were to lose these, Hercules knew his own biggest fear would be that Iolaus' loving heart and proud spirit would not want Hercules to be burdened by him and would try to push him away.

If Hercules had his choice, and he knew he didn't, he guessed he would pick loss of memory. A memory loss might be temporary or permanent. But at least Iolaus would be able to keep his independence, since he didn't do well asking for help.

However, he knew that no matter what the injuries, he would stand by his friend. He knew he might face stubbornness, independence, probably even anger, but this was his beloved brother. He would be there. Always. Despite any objection Iolaus might try to throw at him.

He knew his family would want to help. They loved Iolaus, too. Depending on the extent of his friend's injuries, Hercules knew he might have to accept their help and he would be grateful. But Iolaus was ultimately his responsibility, no matter what. One he gladly and lovingly accepted.

That was as far as his mind would let him go with this. He finally turned to what he needed to do to prepare for the battle. With more determination than ever before, he knew he needed to survive and return to his friend.

He soon found himself wishing Iolaus was here to discuss the plans and then had to laugh at himself. He couldn't even put two connecting thoughts together without bringing his friend into it.

Moving cautiously, he finally saw the faint glow of campfires. Carefully he scouted the area and knew he had found the marauders. He easily located the guards who had been posted and crept in close enough to get a layout of the camp. Anything else would have to wait. At present, he knew he needed some sleep, even if only a couple of hours; so he slowly, silently moved back to his first location and found a secluded area and settled down.

Just before dawn, Hercules was up and moving quietly towards the guards. After incapacitating them, he walked boldly into the camp, just as the men started to stir. He had always preferred the direct approach, but a little surprise couldn't hurt.

Trachis, the head of the marauders, at first was astonished by their visitor. So much so, that he and his troops stood and watched this "intrepid fool" walk boldly into their camp.

Trachis walked slowly forward to meet him. "Is there something I can do for you?" he asked with an amused look on his face. Hercules watched as Trachis gave an almost imperceptible nod to his men, who slowly started to fan out.

"I came to stop you from riding into Delos."

Trachis looked at him a moment and the amused look grew broader. "Have you looked around, friend? You can count, can't you?"

"I'm not your friend, and, yes, I can count. I still say you're not going to ride into Delos."

"I see!" Trachis paused. "And you're planning on stopping us?"

"Yes!"

Trachis turned and looked at his men, eliciting laughter from them. "Tell me, who should we tell the villagers it is that died for them?"

"Hercules!" He watched as the self-assured smiles fell from the faces of Trachis and his men.

Trachis, however, quickly recovered as he heard the murmuring along side of him. "Quiet, you fools! Hercules, or not, he's still only one man. He can't take us all on at once."

Hercules was just about to answer when he heard movement and turned slightly. "Well, I probably could, but I guess I won't have to."

Hercules nodded to Nathan as he and a dozen of the villagers came up along side of him.

Nathan nodded back. "We thought you could use some help."

"Glad to have you."

Trachis shrugged. "A few villagers aren't going to make any difference." He turned his gaze to the Magistrate. "You know that, Nathan. I thought we had all this straightened out several months ago." He made a gesture on his own face that mirrored the path of the scar on Nathan's face.

"Yeah, well, I guess I've forgotten."

"Well, I guess we'll have to have another lesson then. Maybe the next magistrate will pay closer attention." Trachis turned toward his troops. "This shouldn't take too long, men."

The two groups suddenly advanced on one another. Although Hercules was able to easily handle those that attacked him, he was concerned about the villagers. However, much to his surprise, relief came before there were anything more than a few cuts and bruises. As they had engaged in combat, neither group had at first discerned the slow, careful approach of about two dozen men coming in -- well-hidden behind the marauder's own picket lines.

A sudden war cry from the soldiers caused Trachis and his men to turn pale as they caught sight of an old and feared enemy: Nascius, the Captain of King Stephen's army.

As Hercules turned toward the new arrivals he saw two "civilians" riding along -- one was Jason and the other Antares, Iphicles' palace healer.

The surrender was immediate. Trachis was no fool. Nascius' elite troops not only had cross-bows already trained on them, but they were also known as the best swordsmen in the kingdom. He knew when he was outmanned.

As the Captain's men took charge of their prisoners, Jason helped Antares check over the injuries of the villagers and marauders as well. Nascius, meantime, approached Hercules and greetings were exchanged. The Captain extended King Stephen's apologies to the demigod on what had taken place and thanked him for his willingness to intervene. Soon after, Hercules and the others left the soldiers with their prisoners and began their journey back to Delos. He was anxious to get back to Iolaus.

As they walked, Jason explained that when Iphicles heard what had happened to Iolaus and the problems in Delos, he decided to send word to King Stephen. He pledged his help to Stephen's forces. Not wishing to take on two kingdoms, the warring faction soon signed a peace treaty. King Stephen, free of the threats, was now anxious to get back to protecting his own kingdom and responded to Iphicles' request regarding Delos immediately. He quickly dispatched his best men to Delos to back up Hercules and stop the lawlessness in his province.

Hercules, in turn, explained to Jason and Antares about the villagers hiding in the caves, and about Iolaus' condition, to which Antares asked a few brief questions. Hercules was quick to note Antares' solemn look as he described the injuries and what had happened since.

Jason mentioned how worried they all had been about Iolaus, especially Alcmene. He had practically had to tie her down to keep her from coming along. Iphicles, not knowing what medical care Iolaus was receiving, had insisted that Antares be sent to offer whatever assistance he could. If Iolaus survived, his instructions had been to wait until Iolaus was well enough to travel and then bring him and Hercules back to Corinth.

Alcmene's orders to Jason had been more specific: bring them back to their own home.

Permanent living quarters had been set aside for both her boys at the old castle. A place to call their own; a refuge whenever they were in Corinth. The suite of rooms was in the west wing and consisted of two bedrooms, a living and dining room. It offered privacy from the rest of the castle. Both men had always gratefully enjoyed their small piece of home when they were nearby. It was straight to these rooms, that she wanted Iolaus brought. She knew he would be the most comfortable there and she could make sure he was well cared for.

Hercules felt a warmth and pride in his family. They had rallied just as he had known they would.

A few of the brave men who had remained and stood lookout on the village walls as a second defense, came rushing out as they saw Hercules, Nathan, and the others approach. Word spread quickly of the victory and soon everyone headed happily off to the caves to bring their families back home.

Many hugs, slaps on the backs, and thank you's were given as the heroes of the mission returned. Hercules and the others suffered through the greetings and finally, with Jason and Antares, worked their way to Iolaus and Cyrus.

Kneeling beside Iolaus, Hercules made quick introductions and briefly told Cyrus what had happened. He then asked the question that had constantly been on his mind. "How is he doing? Did he wake up again?"

"No, I'm sorry, Hercules, he didn't. But he's no worse. His pulse and breathing are still strong and steady."

A look of discouragement dropped over Hercules.

Cyrus saw it. "Come, Hercules, let's get him back to my place, where he'll be more comfortable."

As carefully as he was brought, Iolaus was returned to his former bed. Cyrus and Antares conferred over him for long moments before finally declaring that he had come through all the latest excitement without any difficulties. Hercules, however, still worried over him, as he carefully adjusted the blankets around Iolaus to his own satisfaction.

As Cyrus and Antares wandered from the bedroom to get acquainted and talk 'healing', Hercules sat down on the other bed and Jason in the chair. Hercules was exhausted. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, then placed his elbows on his knees and put his head down in his hands wearily.

Jason watched silently for a moment. "Hercules, why don't you get some rest. I'm sure you haven't had much sleep since all this began. I'll watch over Iolaus. Besides which, we have two fine healers in the next room. So Iolaus couldn't be in better hands."

"I know." He sighed. "It's just that so much has happened, so quickly."

"I know it must be hard, but Iolaus seems stable now. Both Antares and Cyrus looked quite satisfied. You need some sleep, Hercules."

Hercules looked over at Iolaus once more. "All right. I am tired. But you'll wake me no matter what?"

Jason smiled. "I promise. The minute I see an eyelash flutter or a finger twitch, I'll wake you."

"Thanks."

Hercules settled back on the bed and was asleep almost the minute his head touched the pillow. Jason had been right, he had not had much sleep, and the emotional strain was almost worse than the physical. The demigod slept for several hours and was finally awakened in time for dinner.

Nathan stopped in briefly to check on them and to once again thank them for their help.

The house finally quieted for the night. Antares had settled into another bedroom and Jason had wearily dropped into the bed Hercules had vacated earlier. Hercules had declined his offer to watch over Iolaus again. He had felt more rested and wanted to sit with Iolaus for awhile. He promised to wake Jason toward morning.

It was only a few hours later when Iolaus opened his eyes once more. Hercules smiled broadly. He spoke quietly so as not to startle him or awaken Jason. "Iolaus! It's good to see you, buddy. How are you doing?"

Iolaus turned his eyes toward the voice, although it seemed to take him time to focus on Hercules' face. However, there were no words of greeting or any golden smile offered, only confused, pain-filled blue eyes staring back.

"How about some water?" Hercules picked up a mug as he spoke and poured water into it. He carefully raised Iolaus up so he could drink.

After Iolaus took a few sips, Hercules gently lowered him back down. Iolaus then started to turn his head slightly to look around, but it brought a cry of pain. His eyes closed and his hands reached up towards his head.

Hercules caught Iolaus' arms in mid-air and returned them to his sides. "No, Iolaus! Try not to move. You're hurt pretty bad!" Hercules carefully placed his own hands on both sides of Iolaus' face to try and hold his head still.

Iolaus slowly reopened fearful eyes, which almost seemed to plead. Hercules knew Iolaus was in considerable pain, but because of the seriousness of the head wound, they had been afraid to give him any pain killers that might put him under too deeply. It tore to the depths of Hercules' heart and soul to see Iolaus suffering so much.

Jason woke with a start at Iolaus' cry and was immediately at his side. "What happened?"

"He tried to move."

"Do you want me to get Antares or Cyrus?"

Iolaus, his head still held inert in Hercules' hands, used his eyes to look sideways to find the source of the other voice, and then turned them back toward Hercules.

Hercules shook his head. "No!" He moved his hands and began to gently massage Iolaus' temples and forehead below the bandaging. "Shhh. It's all right. It'll be better soon," he crooned softly to Iolaus. Although never speaking, Iolaus watched Hercules until his eyes slid shut once more.

Hercules continued to massage his temples until Iolaus fell back into a deep sleep. He had actually seemed to relax under Hercules' gentle touch.

Jason had sat quietly and watched. "Hercules? You realize what just happened, don't you?"

Hercules smiled faintly and nodded. "Iolaus heard and saw us."

"That should relieve your mind some."

"It does. I just wish he had spoken."

"Give him time. He took quite a beating."

"Yeah, I know," Hercules sighed.

"Look, I know it's earlier than you planned, but Iolaus will probably sleep for awhile now. Why don't you let me take over. Then you'll be alert for the morning."

After a moment's hesitation, Hercules finally nodded. He exchanged places with Jason and lay down. But his mind wouldn't turn off. He kept seeing Iolaus' pleading eyes. He wished he could take all the pain and suffering away with a sweep of his hands. So much for his promise to his best friend about protecting him.

It was well into the early morning hours before sleep finally came. Jason had seen him tossing and turning for a good portion of the time, so had let him sleep as long as he could. There had been no further stirrings from Iolaus.

As Iolaus slowly crept back to life, a routine soon began. Iolaus awoke once or twice during the day and sometimes during the night. Both Antares and Cyrus had been amazed how Hercules always seemed to know exactly when Iolaus was about to wake and was there to minister to him. While awake, Iolaus was always given water, tea, and spoonfuls of a heavier broth. Hercules was disappointed that Iolaus could still only manage a few bites before he fell back exhausted, but was grateful at least something warm and nourishing was getting into his system. Hercules always followed the session by settling Iolaus back down and massaging his temples and forehead until Iolaus would drop back into a peaceful rest.

It was inevitable, however, that at some point, Iolaus would wake and Hercules would not be there. It happened almost a week later. Hercules had been called off with Cyrus, to help in an emergency on the far side of the village.

Jason had just spelled Antares at the bedside, when Iolaus' eyes opened.

"Iolaus," Jason had greeted. But Jason noticed Iolaus' eyes frantically scanning the room. Suddenly, without any warning, Iolaus tried to rise, but dizziness and pain drove him back down. Jason called Antares and together they tried to calm him, but Iolaus thrashed about, refusing to accept their help, his eyes continuously searching and his cries filling the room. They knew he was searching for Hercules and tried to explain that he would be back soon. Finally, exhausted from this mini-battle, Iolaus sank into a restless sleep, tossing and turning almost feverishly.

Jason began to massage Iolaus' temples as Hercules had done, trying to calm him, but it seemed to no avail. Suddenly the restlessness ended as quickly as it had begun, as without a spoken word or loss of a stroke, two large hands took over. Iolaus instantly relaxed and fell into a peaceful sleep once again.

Antares and Cyrus were no longer surprised by the extraordinary bond demonstrated by these two men. No longer amazed at Hercules' ability to know exactly when Iolaus would awaken, nor Iolaus' immediate response to Hercules' touch, without ever awakening. Some things just defied any reasonable explanation.

One week later, it was decided that Iolaus was finally strong enough to travel. Although still plagued by the headaches and dizziness, the cuts and bruises were healing nicely and the ribs seemed to be doing well. It suddenly became important to Hercules to get his friend back to Corinth. He felt being back around familiar things might help speed the final healing process. And yet, Iolaus had still not spoken. Most of his needs seemed to be automatically met by Hercules, without any words.

It was a sad day for the people of Delos as the small group finally prepared to leave them. Hercules and Iolaus had become an important part of their village. Hercules had not only fought for them, but had also given them back their courage to stand up for themselves. Something they could be proud of once again.

And, although Iolaus had never been a part of the skirmish, his fight back to life from his injuries, ones they knew they were responsible for, was quite heroic in their eyes.

The parting would be even harder on Cyrus. The two had become an integral part of his household. Almost like sons. However, he, too, knew it was time. They needed to return home and start putting their lives back together again. It was right. But it didn't stop the impending loneliness.

Because of Iolaus' condition, a huge farewell celebration had not been planned. Hercules smiled sadly to himself at how much Iolaus would have loved a big feast. However, it did not stop the villagers from flocking to say farewell as the small caravan prepared to leave. In gratitude, they had made sure the cart Iolaus was to travel in was made as comfortable for him as possible for the long journey ahead. Food and other supplies were also gratefully provided.

Hercules turned to Cyrus and shook his hand. "Cyrus, I don't know how I can ever thank you enough for all you've done for Iolaus. If it hadn't been for your skills, I could have lost him. I'll always be grateful."

"It was my pleasure, son. I've enjoyed having you both with me. I just wish it had been under better circumstances."

"Me, too."

"I'm sure you'll take good care of him." Cyrus paused. "It may be a long, hard struggle."

Both looked down at the small blond warrior's still pale countenance. He was sleeping peacefully. Cyrus had given him a light sleeping potion that would keep him carefully resting for today's leg of their journey.

"I know," Hercules said, a loving look on his face, "but at least I still have him. He's a fighter. I'm sure he'll mend faster at home."

Cyrus nodded. "When he's well, I hope you'll both return sometime for a visit."

"You can count on it," assured Hercules and quickly shook the man's hand again.

Cyrus said his farewells to Jason and Antares as Hercules turned to Nathan. He reached out for the hand of the magistrate.

"Hercules, 'thank you' seems to be such a small token of our gratitude for all you've done for us."

"You're welcome, Nathan. Your people are to congratulated, too. They overcame their own fears and came out to help."

"Yes, but without you, I'm not sure that we would have had the courage to do that. Your willingness to continue to fight for us, even after what coming here has cost you," he glanced over at Iolaus, "was more than we deserved."

"I think your people learned a valuable lesson about taking matters into their own hands," Hercules added.

"We learned an even bigger one about compassion and forgiveness from you, Hercules."

Hercules dropped his head, slightly embarrassed.

"Hercules, you and your friends will always be welcome here."

"Thank you, Nathan."

There were final handshakes and waves as the group finally started off.

The morning they left, Hercules became aware of some prior arrangements that had been made. A dozen of King Stephen's elite troop, once again led by the Captain, arrived just as Hercules' party was ready to depart. They were to escort them to the border of their kingdom, where King Iphicles would meet them to escort them the rest of the way into Corinth.

Hercules had been surprised at the arrangements, but was very grateful for the courtesy of both King Stephen and his brother. He had to admit that having the soldiers escorting them would give him a certain peace of mind and the chance to concentrate on Iolaus' comfort and welfare, without worries of random attacks.

There had been a brief encounter on the road with Salmoneous, who had spent a night's camp with them before moving on. He had extended his sympathies to Hercules over Iolaus' injuries, learning more from the others than Hercules was willing to admit.

Once back in Corinth, Iolaus was comfortably established in his own room and seemed to settle in like he knew he belonged there. He had come through the long journey well. However, he slept soundly for three days without much stirring. Hercules, as usual, was always there when he woke, and the routine that had been established in Delos continued on.

When Iolaus was awake, he incessantly watched Hercules and whoever else was there. He also seemed to listen intently, but there was either a blank or a quizzical, unsure look in his eyes when directly spoken to. And he still had not spoken.

Hercules tried to keep things as normal as possible, still speaking to him and treating him as he always had. He had completely convinced himself that Iolaus was suffering from a form of amnesia. That he would speak when he felt ready. That he just needed more time to recover. Hercules refused to even hear any other theory.

However, there came a day when even Hercules had to face the reality of Iolaus' condition. The reality which Cyrus had finally tried to tell him about, but which he had refused to believe. The reality which Antares, too, had tried to speak to him about, but which had ended in angry words. However, a singular incident finally brought it all home.

Believing Iolaus to be asleep, Hercules had gone to see his Mother in the next room. They had stood speaking, when a blood curdling cry came from the bedroom.

All the color fled from Hercules' face as he went tearing into the bedroom, almost ripping the door off. As he skidded to a halt, he saw Iolaus on his knees in front of the dresser, tears coursing down his cheeks, holding a bloody, fisted hand. Iolaus' boot knife lay on the floor in front of him, the blade covered in blood. Hercules dropped to the floor in front of Iolaus and pried his friend's hand open, but the palm was so bloody, he was unable to see how bad the wound was.

Alcmene, who had been right behind Hercules, grabbed a towel from a nearby table and passed it to her son. He tightly bound the towel around the hand.

They both watched Iolaus turn white as a sheet and knew he was going to be sick. Alcmene once again went into action, snatching a bowl and getting it underneath Iolaus just in time. Hercules held his friend until he had finished retching and then the blond collapsed in Hercules' arms.

"Hercules, get him into bed and hold the pressure on that wound. I'm going to send for Antares and get my medicine kit," Alcmene ordered. She turned and fled from the room.

Hercules quickly carried Iolaus to the bed and held the hand securely, until Alcmene returned with clean water, towels and her supplies. She gently washed the wound and put a temporary bandage on it. She was relieved that it didn't look as bad as she had originally thought, but knew it was going to require a few stitches. She spent the remainder of the time trying to comfort her distraught son, who had only a shade more color in his face then Iolaus.

Antares got there in a little over an hour. After examining the hand, the healer confirmed Alcmene's diagnosis and told them that the cut was not too deep and no muscles had been damaged. It would be as good as new in time. He then placed several small stitches in the hand and bandaged it.

Jason arrived back from an errand just as Antares was finishing. As he had entered the castle, a servant had told him that Antares was there because of an accident to Iolaus. He rushed immediately to the west wing.

Bolting into the bedroom, he saw Hercules and Alcmene hovering near the bed. As Jason started to cross the room his foot touched something. Looking down, he saw a bloody knife laying on the floor and stooped to pick it up, before coming to stand beside his wife.

"There, that should hold him," said Antares, rising from the bed. "He's going to be fine, but his hand is going to be pretty sore for several days." He dug around into his bag and brought out a small vial and opened it. He poured a little of it into some water, stirring it, and then, leaning over, forced it between the unconscious man's lips.

That should help the pain and keep him asleep for awhile longer. He placed the stopper on the vial and set it down on the table. "You can give him more later as needed." As he rose, he looked up into Hercules' anguished eyes. "Relax, he's going to be fine. There won't be any permanent damage."

Hercules could only nod. Slowly the color started coming back into his face.

"What happened?" asked Jason still holding the bloody knife in his hand. "I found this on the floor over there."

Alcmene leaned against him heavily; now that the immediate fear was over, she felt almost weak in the knees. "Hercules and I were talking in the living room when we heard Iolaus. When we came in, the knife was laying in front of him and his hand was bleeding. He must have gotten hold of it somehow ..."

"It was right there on the top of the dresser," interjected Hercules, "right where he's always kept it. I put it there myself after we got back. I--I never thought ... I never knew it would be a danger to him."

"I'm afraid that anything like this, has now become a danger to him, Hercules."

Hercules looked up at Antares with wounded eyes. At last, he could no longer lie to himself; he finally had to admit the truth, that although Iolaus seemed the same at first glance, the injuries to his head had damaged his brain ... his mental capacity. Permanently. How severely was still yet to be determined. But the truth was, Iolaus was little more than a child now. A child dwelling in the body of a warrior.

That night, Hercules wept silently at Iolaus' bedside for the loss of his comrade. A few words spoken by a spiteful god. A villages' angry response. And two lives had been forever changed. As he sat in the chair, his head slightly bowed, he was suddenly startled at a gentle touch to his face. He opened his eyes to see Iolaus sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning towards him.

A puzzled gaze appeared on the blond's face and Hercules could almost swear there had been a look of sadness and compassion in Iolaus' eyes. His emotions raw, the demigod moved over onto the bed pulling the smaller man into his arms. Tears flowed unimpeded into the blond hair. It wasn't until sometime later that Hercules realized, that although Iolaus had never returned the embrace, neither had he struggled against it. He had waited patiently and quietly until Hercules had released him.

Hercules finally wiped the remainder of the tears from his face and rose. He helped Iolaus slide down into the bed and sat back down next to him. "Okay, enough of the tears. It won't change anything, will it?" He smiled weakly. "Maybe we won't ever fight back to back again. Maybe you won't be the best hunter and tracker in all of Greece anymore. But you will always be my best friend and my brother. Nothing will ever change that." He paused as his voice cracked. "And, I think you can speak. You just need a little encouragement."

Blue eyes watched Hercules attentively.

"Your first lesson." He pointed to himself: "Hercules!" He repeated again: "Hercules!" Then he touched Iolaus' chest: "Iolaus! ... Iolaus!"

Iolaus cocked his head slightly, a quizzical look crossing his face.

He repeated the same thing over a few more times, pointing first to himself and then to Iolaus. "I'm sure you can learn. I don't know how much. But we're going to find out. Okay?" He flashed Iolaus a loving smile.

As he saw the physical pain creeping into Iolaus' eyes, he reached over and took the vial and mixed it with some water and raised him to take it. "Now close your eyes and get some sleep, my friend." He reached over and with a gentle touch, closed Iolaus' eyes.

However, Iolaus' eyes popped back open. "Sleep," Hercules said quietly. Iolaus watched him for a moment and then succumbed to the light touch of Hercules' hands on his temples, long before the medicine ever had a chance to take effect.

The lessons continued the next day after Iolaus' breakfast. Each time Iolaus had awakened that day, Hercules began repeating their names. However, it wasn't until about mid-afternoon of the third day, when Hercules had left the bedroom area for a moment that he heard a voice. When he stopped to listen, he realized he was hearing his name being called. He went quickly into Iolaus' room and saw Iolaus propped up on an elbow.

As he entered the room, Iolaus looked straight at him. "Herc."

An unspeakable joy welled up in the big man, but it was a somewhat bittersweet joy. Obviously unable to pronounce 'Hercules', Iolaus had used the 'cherished' nickname he had given the demigod when they were children.

But the delight far outweighed any pain. He went over and sat on the edge of the bed, as Iolaus lay back staring at him. "Yes! Herc," and he pointed to himself. Then he touched Iolaus' chest, repeating Iolaus' name.

"Oluss," finally came the word, as the small blond pointed toward himself.

"Close enough!" A broad smile formed on the demigod's face and he squeezed Iolaus' arm. "I knew you could do it." A faint, perplexed smile appeared on Iolaus' lips.

A short while later, shimmering lights appeared on the other side of the bed from Hercules, which dissolved into a pink and blond goddess and a dark-haired, leather-clad god.

"Hi, big brother!"

"Hello, Hercules!"

Hercules smiled. "Aphrodite! Hephaestus!"

Iolaus had started as the two figures materialized right next to him. Aphrodite looked down at him and smiled. "Hi, Sweetcheeks!"

Iolaus looked from Hercules back to the two.

"Hephie and I just wanted to let you know how sorry we were to hear about what happened. He didn't deserve this," she said, as tears pooled in her eyes. She brushed them away quickly.

"Thanks." Hercules was touched at Aphrodite's caring attitude. His sister rarely showed that side of herself to others. But he knew that she and Iolaus had finally become friends after their rocky beginning with the apple. She genuinely cared about him.

Iolaus had also earned the friendship and admiration of Hephaestus for his courage in facing and overcoming the god's remarkable inventions, not to mention having brought Aphrodite back into his life. One other important thing to Hephaestus, Iolaus had treated the disfigured god with respect and had never turned away from him in mockery, repulsion or fear as many others had done.

"How are you holding up?" she asked sympathetically.

"As well as can be expected, I guess. He just spoke his first words before you came. My name and his own. It may not be much, but it's a start." He turned to Iolaus and smiled. "We have a long way to go though, don't we?"

"If anyone can help him, you can, Hercules, and, if you need anything, let us know."

"Thanks, Hephaestus."

As they got ready to leave, Aphrodite gave Hercules a big hug. "You take good care of him, and yourself, big brother."

"I will, thanks."

"Bye, Curly," she said affectionately, as she leaned down and placed a kiss on Iolaus' cheek and tousled his hair.

Iolaus once again started as the pair disappeared before him. He looked at the empty space for a moment or two and then reached out a hesitant hand and passed it through the air a few times. Hercules couldn't help but laugh at the look of confusion on his friend's face.

That night there were two more godly visitors. Just after Iolaus had fallen asleep, Hades and Persephone materialized.

A look of apprehension came over Hercules at the appearance and he immediately placed himself bodily between Iolaus and the god of the underworld. His voice was tinged with fear and anger. "What are you doing here, Hades?"

"Relax, Hercules. We simply came to offer our regrets as to what happened. I'm not here to take him from you." Then chuckled under his breath, "As if you'd let me have him, anyhow."

Realizing Hercules was still somewhat apprehensive about their visit, Persephone reached out and took his hand. "Please don't worry, Hercules, we really did come just to let you know how sorry we are about what happened to Iolaus. He's a good man. Anyhow, you can see for yourself, he's returning to health wonderfully."

Hercules finally allowed himself to relax. "I'm sorry, it's just been so ..."

Persephone smiled and patted Hercules' arm, then moved back into her husband's embrace. "We understand!"

Hades looked to his wife and then back to Hercules. He was not comfortable with small talk, but a wry smile came to his lips. "Well, personally, I'm grateful for Iolaus' strong constitution. Charon had been grumbling for weeks. Neither one of us were too happy about the possibility of you showing up again."

Hercules finally allowed himself a semblance of a smile. "The feeling was mutual, Hades. I wasn't looking forward to another trip either."

"You seem to have made great progress with him," said Persephone, a smile lighting her face. "I knew you would. He couldn't have a better friend."

Hercules turned and looked down at the sleeping form. "Yeah! I'm a perfect friend." A look of anger crossed his handsome features. "He's been dead three times. Has more scars on his body then any one man should have. Has more enemies then any ten men would have in a lifetime. And has at least four gods whose part time job it is to go after him any way they can, just because they hate me." He looked back at Persephone. "Yeah. Perfect!"

"Hercules ..." A pained look crossed her gentle face.

Hades spoke up. "Do you think he would trade all that for a simple, peaceful life, Hercules? Could you really picture Iolaus settled down, with or without you?"

Hercules paused. "Maybe not."

"He followed you because what you do is right," Persephone added, "and he wouldn't have changed it for anything. He told me that himself his last visit."

Hercules laughed bitterly to himself at her choice of words: 'his last visit.' 'Visit,' indeed. He still had nightmares about his friend's feverish body, battered and bleeding, going limp in his arms, after his brief encounter with Hera's fire enforcer. But Persephone was not the cause of that. She had been kind and gracious to Iolaus during his time in the underworld. It had also been her that had swayed Hades to give him a chance to win that precious life back. He was extremely grateful to her for that.

"Thanks, Persephone. Hades. I'm sorry. I apologize for my earlier outburst. I do appreciate your coming." He paused for a moment. "You know, I don't think I ever told you how grateful I really am for what you did for him when he was there during that time.

"We knew, Hercules. We were just glad we could help then. Weren't we, Hades?"

"Yes, my love," agreed Hades, smiling at his wife.

They stayed only a short while longer and then departed, returning back to their own realm.

A couple of days later, Hercules had once again settled Iolaus for the night and had left the bedroom. He had come back in for just a moment to retrieve something from the dresser. His heart froze as his eyes adjusted to the dim light in the room and realized that a person in a long-hooded cloak was bending over Iolaus, reaching out towards him. Swiftly he crossed the room, grabbing the person by the arm and pulling them away.

The hood dropped back and revealed a tall, slender, beautiful woman with light brown hair and blue eyes.

"Artemis?" Hercules said, releasing his sister's arm.

"Hello, Hercules!"

"I'm sorry, I didn't know it was you. I just saw the hood and someone bending over Iolaus."

"It's all right, Hercules, it was my fault. I should have let you know I was here. I just wanted to come and see him."

"I thought you and Athena were still angry at him about that beauty contest with Aphrodite."

"Well, it was a little hard on our egos, I'm afraid, but we got over it some time ago." She laughed lightly. "We were more upset at Aphrodite talking us into that ridiculous contest then we ever were at Iolaus. Besides, who could have competed against her golden apple," Artemis laughed.

"I'm glad of that."

"Athena couldn't come, but she sends greetings also." She then turned slightly back toward the sleeping figure and sighed. "He was one of the most skilled hunters and trackers I ever trained. There was no one in the whole of Greece that could come close to him."

"Yes! He was."

She continued reminiscently. "He loved everything about the outdoors. It was like his second home, almost from the time he began to walk. He was curious about everything and feared nothing."

Hercules chuckled. "He never really changed much." Then his brows knit. "I figured you had had a hand in his skills. Why?"

She looked at Hercules. Should she tell him that Zeus had chosen this boy to be his son's future friend. That he had asked her to teach him a skill that would serve both men. A skill that would also help keep the boy's small family fed and clothed in the long absences of the father. And maybe even in a small way protect him from some of the evil influences he was inclined to follow in his loneliness.

She smiled. "He was so small, but so determined. His father, well, you know how little attention his father paid to him -- unless he was 'putting him in his place'."

A flash of anger crossed Hercules' face at the memory of Skouras' cruel treatment of his own son.

"Iolaus was always fighting, trying to prove himself. Except when he was out hunting. When he was out there he felt free and self-assured. I just thought maybe I could keep him alive a little longer, by helping him hone his hunting and tracking skills. Keep him away as much as possible from outside influences."

Hercules thought about that and then a grin spread across his face. "So you're the 'old hunter,' huh?

She broke into a soft peal of laughter.

"You might say that." She moved back over and looked down at the handsome, blond sleeping so peacefully. He looked like a young god. She leaned down and swept a stray lock of hair from his forehead and then her fingers traced the outline of his cheek. "Be safe, my young hunter." She then placed a tender kiss on his brow.

She turned and smiled at her brother. "I know you'll take good care of him, Hercules."

"Always," he promised.

Before she disappeared she reached over and kissed Hercules on the cheek, also. "Take care. I'll see you both again."

"Bye."

He reached down and fussed with the blankets around Iolaus, even though they didn't really need it and smiled at the peaceful figure, before heading to his own rest. He wondered idly about the sudden interest in his and Iolaus' welfare from the gods. He shrugged. Who could figure them out.

Then late the next afternoon, there was another shimmering arrival. This time it was Hermes who appeared before them both.

"Hello, Hercules. How are you?" He clapped his brother on the back.

"I'm fine. What can I do for you?" Hercules said, as he watched Iolaus' surprise at seeing the sudden appearance of the winged god.

"Nothing, I just came to see Iolaus." He turned and reached down and clapped his shoulder, too. "Hi, Iolaus. How's it going?"

Hercules looked puzzled. "First Aphrodite and Hephaestus, then Hades and Persephone, Artemis, now you. Who's coming next, Ares? Or maybe Hera?" he stated wryly.

"Well now, that would certainly be quite interesting, wouldn't it?" Hermes laughed.

Hercules smiled. "Yeah, I guess it would. Look, I don't mean to be rude. But why are you here?" He shook his head bewilderedly. "Why are you all here?" He paused. "I mean, I guess I can understand Aphrodite and Hephaestus coming. Iolaus and Aphrodite have become friends. Artemis taught him his hunting skills ..."

"And Hades and he are much more acquainted then you would have ever liked them to have been. I know, I know," Hermes interrupted. "But you forget, dear brother, I had him for a short time myself, until you interfered."

"Me? Interfered?" Hercules looked confused.

"Have you forgotten the trouble Iolaus got into when you left that one summer? His involvement with a gang of thieves, until you two renewed your friendship. Ahhh!! He made a perfect thief. He was small and wiry and had such a cunning mind. With his comeliness and charm, he could talk his way out of just about anything." Hermes smiled broadly.

Hercules laughed. "Yes. I remember. Well, you still have Autolycus."

"Indeed! Well, don't ever tell Autolycus this ..." Hermes sighed as he looked down at Iolaus, "but not even Autolycus could have held a candle to your friend once I would have finished with him. A little training, a little polishing ..." Hermes shrugged. "Oh, well. That's water under the bridge, Father had other pla ..." He stopped.

"What did you say?" Hercules asked looking back at him again. He had missed the last few words, as curiosity had gotten the better of Iolaus, who had tried to sit up. Hercules had leaned over for a moment and moved some pillows behind Iolaus so he could rest back comfortably.

"Nothing important, Hercules."

"Not to change the subject, Hermes, but tell me, why are all the gods suddenly taking such an interest in us now? No one ever bothered much before. Except for their own amusement or benefit."

"Despite what you may think, Hercules, many of the gods are on your side. We can't always interfere, but we are proud of what you and Iolaus do." Hermes turned and looked down at Iolaus once again. "You might also be interested to know, that Iolaus is held in very high esteem by many of the gods, for standing by you in your fight in the mortal world. He took the same risks, but without the same protections. He is greatly admired and respected for that."

A feeling of pain for what 'standing by him' had cost both of them, shot through Hercules' heart. A trace of anger soon overtook the pain. "Well, I haven't seen Zeus coming yet to offer any regrets. He, as usual, has been conspicuous by his absence."

"Both Father and Mother, have been gone for quite awhile. Neither knows anything about what has happened to Iolaus yet."

"Zeus and Hera off somewhere together? That's quite a switch," Hercules said bemusedly.

"Did I say anything about them being together?" Hermes grinned at him.

"It wouldn't have mattered, even if Zeus had been around?" Hercules sobered, remembering about all his past cries to his father that had gone unheeded.

Almost as if reading his mind, Hermes answered, "You'd probably be surprised how many times Zeus has protected both of you over these past years."

"Probably," Hercules said with a small note of sarcasm.

Suddenly Hermes tilted his head for a second. "Well, I'm off. I'm being called. Take care, Hercules."

"Thanks for coming, Hermes. And thanks for the words about Iolaus. It's important to me, even though maybe a little late."

"You bet. Bye." Hermes then reached down and once again touched Iolaus' shoulder. "Goodbye, Iolaus. Be well." A broad grin crossed his face. "Ahhh!! You could have been one of the best. Too bad!" Then with a quick wave to Hercules, he disappeared as swiftly as he had appeared.

Alone once again, Hercules leaned over and helped Iolaus slide back down into the bed. "You're esteemed by the gods. Did you know that, Iolaus?" he laughed bitterly. Seeing Iolaus' wondering expression, he smiled. "Rest," he said quietly. As Iolaus' eyes started to close, Hercules spoke once more. "Let's hope that's the end of our visitors, my friend."

And it seemed to be. There were no other godly visits and life settled back down. However, it was only a couple of weeks later that what Hercules feared the most, happened. The lives of those in need of his services caught up with him. When he thought about it some time later, he was surprised that he had been free as long as he had. Had some of the gods shielded him for a time? That thought would never have occurred to him before these past visits. Who knew.

But the call had finally come and it was a request he knew he could not deny. He knew Iolaus would not have wanted him to turn down the plea. Yet it tore him apart to even think about leaving.

The hardest part would be when Iolaus realized he was gone. Iolaus had easily let others minister to him when Hercules was within visual range, but he still became somewhat frantic when Hercules would disappear from his sight for long.

Hercules realized he would have to leave just before dawn, before Iolaus awakened. He wasn't sure what would happen once Iolaus realized he was gone, but he hoped that he might finally learn to trust the others. However, he promised himself he would get this mission over and return as quickly as possible.

It had been an extremely hard parting for him. He had stood looking down at the sleeping figure for a long time before he was able to pull himself away, even though he knew he was leaving him in Alcmene's and Jason's loving care.

He camped out the first two nights, wanting to be alone with his thoughts, but finally on the third night he stopped at an inn. He longed for the sound of others around. The loneliness had just about overwhelmed him.

Hercules was sitting at a table, with his barely touched meal before him, when he heard familiar voices. He looked up to find Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer approaching.

He stood and greeted them with a smile. It was the first smile he had even felt like giving since he had left Corinth.

As they sat down, Xena noticed the partially eaten meal in front of him. "Is this a commentary on the food?"

Hercules gave Xena a puzzled look. "What?" He followed her stare down to his plate. "Oh, no. The food's fine. I guess I just wasn't as hungry as I thought."

"Mmmm!" Xena saw the distracted look on Hercules' face and reached out and touched his arm. "We met Salmoneous on the road a few weeks ago. He told us about Iolaus. We're sorry, Hercules." She refrained from telling him that Ares, too, had been in touch, gloating over the news. "We meant to come and see you both, but we got kind of busy."

For the second time he briefly wondered about his extra time with Iolaus. "Thanks," he smiled faintly.

Joxer, never at a loss for words, and truly remarkable at putting his food in his mouth, leaned over and slapped Hercules on the back. "Guess you'll be needing a new partner about now, huh? Well, I'm sure Xena and Gabrielle could spare me ..." but he never finished as Xena reached down and jerked him up. She had seen the surprise and then anger play across Hercules' face, at Joxer's thoughtless words.

"Joxer, why don't you go order our meals. Okay?" But it was not really a request.

He struggled trying to get his arm loose from her firm grip. "Xena, please! Hercules and I have some business to ...," but his voice faded away as Xena deepened her fingers into his flesh. "Owww!!! Xena!!"

"Our meals! Now, Joxer! And wait for them."

Joxer opened his mouth and was about to protest again, but saw that look in her eyes that brooked no arguments. He started on up to the crowded bar, mumbling as he went.

"Sorry, Hercules, he doesn't mean it like it sounds. Sometimes, he just doesn't stop to think," added Gabrielle as Xena sat back down.

Hercules nodded.

Gabrielle had been watching Hercules fiddling with something in his hands and reached out to touch it. "Isn't that Iolaus' medall..." She suddenly stopped as if the dark green stone had burned her fingers and her hand flew up to her mouth. "Oh, Hercules, we ... we thought he was only injured. I'm so sorry, we ... we didn't know he had ..."

Xena turned startled eyes to Gabrielle and then to the medallion.

Hercules followed their gaze to the medallion. As he looked back up at them he could see both faces had drained of color. He suddenly realized what they were thinking. "No, no. Iolaus is alive." He gathered the medallion back into the warmth of his palm. "I took it off his neck the day he was hurt, so the healer could work on him. I put it in my belt pouch and had forgotten all about it until I went to pay for my meal."

Both women drew relieved breaths.

"I'm sorry, Hercules; when I saw that in your hands ..."

"It's all right, Gabrielle."

"We heard about the injuries to his head and ..." From Salmoneous' account, Xena wasn't quite sure of how to phrase her question, so she asked: "How's he doing?"

"He's doing as well as he can, I guess. He still sleeps most of the time. The dizziness seems to have stopped, but he's still suffering from a few headaches." Hercules smiled weakly. "He can dress himself and eat by himself. He can take care of most of his own personal needs. But he hasn't spoken much at all.

"Does he ... understand what you're saying?" Gabrielle ventured carefully.

"He knows my name and his own. He knows 'eat'." Hercules and the others laughed. Then the demigod's eyes darkened. "He knows the word 'hurt.'" Hercules' voice cracked. "He's learned that one extremely well." Hercules stopped to regain his composure.

He looked over and saw two sympathetic pair of eyes.

"Actually though, I don't know how much he understands. Sometimes he has such a puzzled look on his face." He paused.

"Something else is worrying you though, isn't it?" Xena queried.

"He was totally dependent on me when I left on this mission. He'd let others help him as long I was there. Once I was out of sight, he would become almost hysterical."

"He remembered you?"

"I don't know for sure, Gabrielle. Antares, my brother's palace healer, says he could have retained a few deeply embedded memories. Possibly because our friendship was so much a part of our lives for so long, or, it could simply be because I was the only one he saw in the early days after the injury. I pretty much refused to let anyone else get near him in the beginning," he laughed. "I needed to be there, to know he was all right."

"That's understandable," smiled Gabrielle.

Hercules nodded. "Later, Mother and Jason stayed with him, while I would leave the room, trying to get him use to my being gone, but I wasn't very strong when he would cry out for me. He's been through so much, suffered so much; I couldn't stand for him to be upset. The worse part is, when I got this call to help, I left while he was still asleep." He paused. "I feel like I've betrayed him."

"I'm sure he'll be fine," the small blond woman comforted.

Hercules smiled, then changed the subject. "What brought you three here?"

Xena spoke up. "We were on our way to Mitoa. We heard they were having trouble there."

"Mitoa? That's where I'm headed."

Xena nodded. "I had a feeling you might be. Would you like some company?"

"Sure. That would be great. I only stopped in here to get the noise." He smiled sheepishly. "It's been pretty quiet out there on the road without ... without Iolaus' constant babbling," he ended with a weak laugh.

"Well, you may be sorry," Xena laughed, "Gabrielle can talk your ear off pretty easily. Not to speak of Joxer."

"Xena!" cried out Gabrielle, with a mock look of anger, "you know ...," but before she could finish her sentence another familiar face came into the inn and towards him. Having spotted him, Hercules vaulted from the chair.

"Tobias! What's wrong? Is Iolaus all right?" In his fear and panic, he had moved around the table and had grabbed the soldier's arm.

"I'm glad I found you so quickly, although you left a pretty clear trail," came Tobias' calming voice. "Yes, he's all right for present, I think, but I'm afraid he needs you."

"I knew I never should have left ...!"

"Hercules, why don't you let him sit and explain," said Xena. She had seen the tall soldier wince at the tightening grip.

As Xena spoke, Hercules realized what he was doing and released Tobias' arm. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right, Hercules."

Gabrielle was just about to sit down with the others when she spotted Joxer returning. Whatever news General Tobias brought was probably not good and Hercules looked like he was on edge once more. Knowing full well that Joxer could easily say the wrong thing and upset Hercules again, she decided to intervene.

Xena watched gratefully as Gabrielle took the tray and sent Joxer off, obviously on some kind of errand, before she returned to the table.

As she sat, Hercules introduced the women to Tobias, his brother Iphicles' commanding general and personal advisor.

After the introduction, Tobias relayed his story to Hercules. "Iolaus did not handle your departure very well. Of course, I'm sure this won't be much of a surprise to you."

"No! But I was hoping that he would eventually accept the others."

"He started calling for you. No one could comfort him. Antares finally was called. He gave him a sleeping potion that got him through the next day and night. However, when he woke, he managed to somehow slip out the door of your rooms. He encountered four guards in the hallway and they tried to carefully get him back to the room. Unfortunately for them, one of the memories Antares seems to think he has retained, is his fighting skills. He took all four of the guards out."

"Were they hurt? Hercules eyes were wide.

With a twinkle in his eye, Tobias smiled. "Only their pride, I'm afraid."

Hercules had to smile in spite of himself. "That's my Iolaus."

"I'm afraid his success was short-lived." Tobias sobered. "Your Mother was just coming down the corridor to see Iolaus, when she confronted him. A new young guard, who didn't know about him, was just coming around the opposite corridor. He saw the other guards just recovering and your Mother standing in front of Iolaus. Iolaus' hands were raised towards her. The guard thought he was threatening her. He rushed in behind Iolaus and swung his sword hilt. Your Mother and one of the guards yelled, the guard tried to deflect his swing, but the yells startled Iolaus and he turned right into it.

Hercules' face went pale. "How badly was he hurt?"

"A deep cut by his hairline. Right here," he said pointing to the right side of his head. "It took several stitches. Because it's a head wound, Antares can't give him anything for the pain. He's been calling for you continuously and he's refused to eat anything." Tobias hesitated a moment. "He seems to be making himself sicker; they're afraid he may ..." The General never finished.

But there was no need to finish. Hercules' face showed he fully understood the meaning. Xena and the others could see the struggle on Hercules' face. Torn between duty and where his heart really wanted; no, needed to be.

Before Xena could speak, Tobias stated: "Hercules, Iphicles sent me with a small contingent of men, with orders to head for Mitoa, so you could return immediately."

Xena interrupted. "There's no need, General, we were already on our way there ourselves." She turned to Hercules. "We can handle this, but only you can help Iolaus."

He turned towards her, a hopeful look on his face. "Xena, Tobias and his men can go along and assist you."

Xena looked over at Tobias. "General, I mean no offense, but I've dealt with this gang before. We can handle it." Gabrielle nodded.

Tobias tilted his head in a slight bow. "No offense taken. Your reputation is well known. I will abide by your wishes. However, my men and I stand at your disposal."

Xena smiled. "Thank you, but we'll be fine. Just get Hercules safely back to Iolaus."

They rose as one and headed out the door. Tobias' men were still mounted and one soldier held the reigns of the General's horse and one for Hercules. Tobias bowed to the two women and then mounted as Hercules said his goodbyes.

Xena touched his arm. "Hercules, we'll let you know where we are at all times. Stay with Iolaus as long as needed. We'll take care of things until you can get it all sorted out."

Gabrielle added, "Don't worry, Hercules. Iolaus is a strong man. He'll be fine. But please, let us know how he's doing from time to time. Okay?"

Hercules smiled. "Yes, of course. Thank you. Be safe, my friends." He gave both Xena and Gabrielle a quick hug.

As he rode off, he thought he faintly heard Joxer's voice yelling his name.

Even though it had only taken about half the time on horseback to return home, it still had seemed like an endless trip to Hercules. But they finally arrived and he flew in the door.

Alcmene met him as he arrived.

"How's he doing?"

As they walked to the west wing, her emotions spilled over. Her mother's heart had always fiercely loved Iolaus. He might not have been hers by birth, but he was hers by every other measure. She had suffered the anguish of his injuries almost as much as her son. And knowing how much Hercules loved him and was hurting from this, only added to her own sorrow.

"He became terribly upset once he found you missing. It broke my heart to hear him continuously crying out for you. No one seemed able to console him. Then after he was injured again, I was so terrified. He wouldn't eat or drink. We've had to force broths and teas down him and he's fought us constantly. Then a day or so ago, it was almost like he just gave up altogether. I thought we were going to lose him."

As Hercules entered the bedroom, he saw Antares sitting near the still figure. Hercules sat down on the edge of the bed and reached up and gently brushed aside a stray lock of hair above the new bandages. Iolaus was so pale and motionless and fear once again crept through his heart.

Before Hercules could even utter a word though, his touch permeated Iolaus' subconscious and the pained blue eyes shot open almost as if on verbal command. "My Herc!" came the faint cry.

Hercules smiled. "I'm here, Iolaus."

Even as weakened as he was, somehow Iolaus found the strength to rise up, seeking the safe shelter of the demigod's arms. "My Herc!"

Hercules wrapped loving arms around his friend and held tight to the almost frail shaking body. "It's all right. Shhh!! I'm here. I'm here, now. Shhh!! It's okay," he soothed gently rocking Iolaus. When the trembling finally stopped, the demigod tried to settle his friend back down, but Iolaus became greatly agitated, clinging to him with an almost death-like grip. Hercules finally repositioned himself up against the headboard. The blond burrowed comfortably into the warm embrace, as Hercules tenderly stroked his back. A short while later, Iolaus wearily slumped against the demigod, sound asleep. Even then, it was awhile before Hercules was finally able to get up and slide Iolaus back down into the bed. Almost as soon as he was settled, and although never fully waking, Iolaus reached out a restless, searching hand. Hercules grasped it and smiled as it relaxed and nestled comfortingly in his own hand. His other hand began gently massaging Iolaus' temples, which evoked a small contented sigh, as a semblance of a smile played across the sleeping man's lips.

Alcmene, Jason and Antares were sitting in the living room when Hercules finally emerged. They had left the bedroom earlier, all dabbing at misty eyes over the scene that had unfolded.

Alcmene rose and went to her son and hugged him. She looked into the tired face. "Son, why don't you go and get some rest. You're exhausted."

"I can't, Mother. I need to stay with Iolaus tonight in case he wakes again. I want him to know I'm here."

Knowing it would be useless to even argue, she nodded. "All right, dear."

After they left, Hercules returned to the bedroom. As he settled into the old familiar chair, he realized he had thought that he had seen the last of the bandages. Now here was a new one encircling Iolaus' head. A wave of sickness passed over him as he remembered all the pain and suffering Iolaus had been through over these past several weeks. 'Would it never end?' With those thoughts he finally sank back into the chair and closed his eyes.

Once during the night, Iolaus awoke and called out fearfully for him. Hercules moved over and sat on the edge of the bed, gave him some water and began massaging his temples.

"It's alright, my friend. I'm back and I promise I won't leave again for awhile. Not until I know you're able to let me go. You just rest and get well. We have plenty of time."

But the small blond lay for a long time just watching Hercules before he finally succumbed and fell back into a peaceful sleep. Hercules knew he probably had feared the demigod might disappear again.

With Hercules nearby, Iolaus seemed happy and content once again and his recovery progressed well. The headaches that had been plaguing him, finally seemed to lessen.

About two weeks later, during a rare visit from his royal brother, the family joined Hercules for dinner in their suite. Iolaus had joined them for the meal, but soon afterwards Hercules had sent the weary blond off to bed.

Small progress had been made: as long as Hercules left the door ajar and Iolaus could occasionally hear his voice, he no longer needed constant visual contact of the demigod.

As Hercules rejoined the family, the topic finally came up about Hercules' future missions. He knew he could not continuously consent to Xena and Gabrielle handling all the problems. There would come a time when he would have to leave again.

Someone broached the subject of having a permanent caretaker for Iolaus. Hercules was hesitant at first, but finally realized it made sense. He had already vetoed Alcmene's and Jason's volunteering. They had been gracious about the last time, but they, too, had responsibilities and obligations and Iolaus would be a full-time job.

Iphicles suggested putting out a request for a caretaker and Hercules could interview those who came. Hercules was still not totally sure how Iolaus would handle this whole idea. However, he knew it needed to be done and finally agreed.

Hercules had almost despaired of finding anyone. He couldn't believe some of the people who had come. He was looking for someone who was kind, understanding, and patient, yet firm. Like a small child, Iolaus on occasion would grow suddenly stubborn and when pressed would throw a temper tantrum. They were rare and were usually when he was not feeling well. Yet it emphasized the need to have someone who had the strength to handle him. He had not forgotten Iolaus' last painful encounter with the guards.

Each person was introduced to Iolaus and would be allowed to spend some time with him, under Hercules' watchful eye. However, Hercules had seen no one to whom he would be willing to turn over the care of his best friend.

He had gotten a little upset with his Mother at one point, when she indicated that he was probably being too critical, until she finally came in on a couple of the interviews. She then realized the enormity of the situation of her son finding the right person. She would never have turned over Iolaus' care to those applicants either.

Just when all had seemed hopeless, Neleus, a man in his early fifties appeared at the castle. He was not quite as tall as Hercules, dark hair, a muscular build, a gentle smile and brown sympathetic eyes. He had reminded Hercules somewhat of Cyrus.

Neleus informed them he had experience in caring for almost the same type of injuries as Iolaus'. He had references from the family of his last job, whose son had died of a sudden fever just a few months prior. He had cared for the youth for over five years.

When Neleus had finally been introduced to Iolaus, he had seemed genuinely interested in him. Unlike the other candidates, who had tried to impress Hercules, Neleus had readily approached Iolaus and concentrated his efforts toward him.

Iolaus had sat in a chair and watched the man, turning occasionally to Hercules as if not quite understanding what was happening. Neleus had tried to get his attention and keep him occupied, but Iolaus did not seem to be cooperating well.

Alcmene and Jason had come in just a while before and had also stood watching the proceedings.

Finally Neleus approached Hercules. "I'm sorry, this may sound very presumptuous of me, but might I ask a chance to be with him alone for awhile."

Hercules straightened up and a look of objection overshadowed his face. "I don't think that's such a good ..."

Neleus quietly interrupted him. "I'm afraid he keeps looking to you whenever he's unsure. If I am to care for him, we need to see whether he might respond to me. How about giving me about a half-hour with him. By then we should both know whether I'm right for this position."

Before Hercules could say anything, Alcmene spoke up. "Son, it seems like a reasonable request."

Hercules looked at Jason and saw him nod. It was still hard for him, in reality, to turn over Iolaus' care to anyone else, even temporarily. However, he reluctantly agreed.

"Alright!"

"Thank you, young man. I really would like a chance to show you what I can do."

"I guess you deserve it. I'll be back in a while."

The three turned to leave. Hercules allowed his Mother and Jason to pass and then started through the door himself. Neleus had gone back over to Iolaus and was standing nearby when Iolaus realized Hercules was leaving. Panic come over him and he bounded out of the chair, only to be caught by Neleus' strong arms.

Without looking back, Hercules quickly closed the door behind him. He stood with his back against it, his eyes closed, as he heard his name being cried out over and over. A hand came down on his shoulder as the cries inside the room finally subsided. He opened his eyes and saw his Mother's smiling face. "It's time to let go, Hercules."

As she spoke, a guard came toward them announcing that there was a visitor for Hercules down in the main hall. Hercules reluctantly made his way there, his heart and mind still back in the west wing. What he encountered the hall there was a stranger seeking help for his distant town. Hercules realized, if he went, it could probably take him away for approximately two or three weeks.

He was about to send one more mission to Xena, when Jason, seeing the look in his eyes, reminded him of what was going on back in the west wing. If this man, Neleus, did work out, this would be a great opportunity for Hercules to start out on his journeys again. By the time the stranger was finished with his appeal for the demigod's help, forty-five minutes had elapsed. Hercules was anxious to get back to the west wing and find out what had happened.

Hercules asked the traveler if he could wait for a short while and he would give him an answer soon. Alcmene had the man escorted to the dining room, with orders for him to be fed.

The three proceeded back to the west wing. Part of Hercules wanted this to work and part of him didn't. He knew that sooner or later he would have to leave. He needed to know Iolaus would be well taken care of and be able to handle his absence. But if he was truly honest, a small part of him selfishly wanted this all to fail. For Iolaus to need him. In many ways, the 'friendship/brotherhood' aspect of their lives had now become 'father/son'. And unbeknowingly and subconsciously, Hercules had become the loving, devoted father Iolaus had never known.

When they got to the door, Hercules sighed and hesitantly entered. Iolaus was still sitting in the chair, but there was no look of panic or terror on his face. Neleus rose as they came in.

"Well, how did it go?" asked Alcmene.

"I think it went very well," said Neleus. "He was a little upset when you all first left, but I started to tell him a story and he seemed to calm down." Neleus laughed. "I'm not sure how much he understood, of course, but I think he seemed to enjoy it."

Alcmene smiled sadly. "Iolaus always did love a good story. And he told some of the best, too."

The three turned to Hercules and there was complete silence in the room as everyone seemed to wait on him. All of them, except for Iolaus, seemed to realize the importance of the silence. But the choice was obvious.

"When can you start?" Hercules finally asked.

"My bag is with me. I can start whenever you'd like."

"I've been called away. I'd like to leave early in the morning. Is that all right with you?"

"Fine. I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you."

"You can move into my bedroom tomorrow after I've left."

"Great."

Alcmene and Jason looked at each other and smiled. They knew this wasn't an easy decision. Jason came toward Neleus and shook his hand. "Welcome! Come, we'll take you to your room for tonight. Hercules, we'll let the villager know you'll be leaving with him tomorrow. We'll get him settled as well."

Hercules nodded.

Alone at last, Hercules turned to see Iolaus starting to drift off in the chair. This had been the longest he had been up yet. Hercules came over and knelt by the chair. "Hey, my friend, it's time for bed," he spoke quietly, his hand on Iolaus' shoulder. Iolaus' only response was to turn his head to the other side of the chair. Hercules smiled and rose, gently scooping up the sleepy figure to carry him into the bedroom. A constriction formed in his throat as Iolaus reached up unconsciously and placed his arms around Hercules' neck and snuggled closer. Once again, the warm, protective 'father' instinct crept through Hercules' heart. How would he ever be able to leave tomorrow, he wondered.

As Hercules sat in the chair next to the bed, he leaned back wearily. Now that he had made the decision, he wanted to run back out and tell them he was wrong. He had changed his mind. He couldn't do this. But he knew he wouldn't. He sat for a long time in the chair, just watching Iolaus sleep. Tomorrow was going to be very painful for him, especially with the disaster of the last mission still in his mind. Plus, he had made Iolaus a promise before. Had he fulfilled it? Was Iolaus ready to let him go? It appeared so, but only time would tell.

He knew he needed rest for the journey and he knew he would never get any decent sleep in the chair, so he reluctantly rose. He pulled the covers up around his friend and went to his own room and got ready for bed.

Hercules was up bright and early the next morning, almost before the sun rose. He put in a carry sack what he would need for the journey and left the rest for servants to move after he was gone. He went to Iolaus' bedroom door and stopped. Leaning up against the door jam, he rested his head back against it. There seemed to be a constriction in his throat again and his eyes were misting. He had known it was going to be difficult, but he hadn't realized until now how hard it really was to leave both Iolaus and this suite of rooms which the two had shared. For even when he returned, Neleus would be established here with Iolaus. There would be no room for him in this suite any longer. He would be nearby, yes, but somehow it just would never be the same. Once again he wondered if he was doing the right thing in leaving so soon. But he had given his word.

Hercules decided not to wake Iolaus. It would be too hard to walk out while Iolaus was watching. So he quietly entered, reached over and lightly touched his friend's forehead, eliciting a small sigh from the sleeper. "Goodbye, my friend," he said almost inaudibly. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Be happy and well!" Then he left swiftly, before he changed his mind.

Neleus was up early, too, and arrived at the door of the suite as Hercules came out of the bedroom. The demigod gave him some last minute directions and requests, and then prepared to leave. "Please, keep him safe. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Don't worry, Hercules. I promise you, I'll take good care of him for you."

They shook hands and Hercules left the west wing with mixed emotions. Finally he, and the villager, were on their way, after having said his goodbyes to his Mother and Jason. They had encouraged him by telling him he would probably see a much improved Iolaus by the time he returned.

Once again he left them information of the route he was taking, in case they would need him. Despite the fact that he trusted Neleus to care for Iolaus, a small part of him still worried about leaving Iolaus' welfare to another. Did anyone know his friend as well as he did? Could anyone love him or care for him any better than he himself?

But he also knew he had to go on this journey; he couldn't let others continue to do his work. Iolaus would have never wanted that. He remembered back, as he had done many times before, at their conversation on the way to Delos: "Promise me that if anything happens to me, you'll continue on with what you're -- what we're -- doing," Iolaus had asked. Why hadn't he taken that whole conversation more seriously? Why hadn't he watched over Iolaus more closely? He grew angry at his own flip response: "How about if I promise to protect you?" Well, anger wouldn't change anything, but he could at least honor Iolaus' last spoken request.

The trip was long, but the fight at the other end was no more than he usually faced. One more monster to subdue. All in all, it had been a rather routine trip -- at least routine for Hercules; although he knew Iolaus' presence would have made the mission a bit easier. But then again, Iolaus was home safe and sound for a change. So, happy with that in mind, he made short work of the task and sooner than he had hoped, he was on his way back to Corinth.

Sadly, the trip home in itself turned out to be extremely hard. There was no comforting presence at his side. No smiling, bubbling laughter. No endless babble. He even missed the loud, bawdy songs. Right now he'd give anything to hear one of them.

He grimly realized that this was what the future now held for him. He shook the thoughts from his mind and quickly picked up his pace for Corinth. But as luck would have it, he was delayed on the way by another problem that 'only Hercules' could handle.

After this new emergency, Hercules had finally made good time back to Corinth. He stopped on a small rise and saw the outline of the stately castle spread out before him in the fading sun. A smile crossed his face. At last. Home! The place his heart now dwelt!

He hadn't felt this kind of anticipation about returning home in a long time. It was a bittersweet reminder of his journeys away from his own family. The missions were important and people needed his help. He also had to admit that he had liked the adventures, even as deadly as some of them had been, and, he had especially enjoyed the time spent with his best friend, fighting back to back. But there had always been a special feeling of excitement about returning home. To safety, to the ordinary, every day routine and most especially to his family. Since their death, he had felt no specific ties to a home. Mostly, he and Iolaus had drifted from place to place, whenever, wherever the need took them, never staying in any one place for long. But that was okay, since Iolaus was his family.

The two men would arrive back in Corinth only for special occasions it seemed. But again, through the intervention of one of the gods, Corinth and this castle were now "home." He started down the rise, the old eagerness tugging at his heart. His smiled broadened and his pace quickened, as his feet flew over the familiar paths.

Hercules entered the castle and was warmly greeted by his Mother and Jason. They had just been preparing to go into dinner when he arrived. Delighted to have him home safe and sound again, Alcmene hurriedly arranged for a place to be set for him at the table.

"Let me just go check on Iolaus first and I'll be right back."

"Come, Hercules," she smiled, "Iolaus will be sitting down to his meal right now also. If you're there, he may not want to eat right away and everything will get cold. There will be time after. Sit and relax."

Hercules hesitated for a moment and then allowed himself to be persuaded to join them.

As they began the meal, conversation turned to Hercules' trip and he spoke of his latest adventures.

"You know, you've only been gone a little over a month. You got back a lot quicker than we thought you would," Jason finally remarked. "When you sent word about your second mission, we thought it would be another few weeks before you would be able to return."

"It had to do with incentive," laughed Hercules. "I wanted to get back here as quickly as I could to see how Iolaus was doing."

Alcmene and Jason gave a knowing look. Then Hercules looked from one to the other. "How is he? Was he very upset after I left? I kept waiting for another messenger to bring me back."

"He seems to be doing fine. However, we haven't seen much of him since you left," said Alcmene regretfully.

"Why?" A surprised look crossed his face.

"Neleus felt it best to keep the outside contact down for awhile, until Iolaus learned to depend on him and to get him into a daily routine. Then we were away for awhile on some business. We just returned home a couple of days ago. However, from what we've seen recently, Iolaus seems to have adjusted quite well and be quite attached to Neleus."

"Oh! Great! I'm, ... I'm happy to hear that." Hercules smiled, but somehow the smile didn't quite make it up into his eyes.

"Is something wrong, dear?"

"No. No, everything's fine, Mother."

Alcmene said nothing more.

As they finally finished the meal, Alcmene and Jason knew Hercules was anxious to see Iolaus, so they started for the west wing.

Just as the three approached the door, Alcmene reached up and stopped Hercules.

"Son, there's something you should probably know before you go in."

A fearful look came into his eyes. "Is something wrong? You said Iolaus was all right."

"No, no. He's ... he's fine. But well, he had a small accident."

"Accident?"

"Yes. He fell a week ago and struck a table. His right cheek was badly bruised."

"Bruised?"

"Yes, but he's all right. Honestly. We were gone, but Neleus called one of the servants. She alerted Captain Darius, who sent word for Antares immediately. The bruise is almost gone now, but I just wanted you to know before you went in and saw it."

Jason reached out and knocked.

The door opened widely and Neleus smiled, as he saw Hercules standing before him.

"Hercules, I didn't know you had returned. Welcome!"

Hercules smiled as he reached out and clasped hands with Neleus. "I just returned a short time ago."

"Come in, come in. Iolaus is almost asleep. I was just about to send him to bed."

A smile crossed Hercules' face as he looked past Neleus and saw Iolaus sitting in one of the large over-stuffed chairs in the living room. He was dressed in a long-sleeved, sky blue shirt and a pair of dark blue pants. His head rested back comfortably and his eyes were closed. He looked so peaceful. But something else struck him. Was it his eyes playing tricks on him, or, did Iolaus look a little thinner and more frail than when he had left? He was pulled back by Neleus' voice.

"Hercules, why don't you go on in and greet him. I'm sure he'll be happy to see you."

Hercules nodded and eagerly crossed the room and stood before Iolaus. It was so good to see him again. However, the demigod winced as he saw the faded, but still colorful bruise.

So as not to startle him, Hercules called Iolaus' name softly. He watched as the eyes fluttered and then slowly opened. Iolaus blinked a few times, rubbing sleepy eyes. However, instead of the welcoming smile Hercules had been expecting, he found frightened eyes staring back at him.

Hercules moved a step towards his friend, his hand outstretched. "Hello, buddy!"

As Hercules approached, he could see Iolaus looking wildly around, as if trying to find an escape route.

Hercules halted. "Iolaus?!!"

Startled, Hercules started to reach down to touch Iolaus' shoulder, but Iolaus threw up his hands in front of his face, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. "No hurt Oluss! ... No hurt Oluss!"

"Iolaus, what's wrong?"

"Change! Change! Change!" His voice was on the edge of hysterics.

Neleus was there immediately and moved in between them. "It's all right. I'll take care of this, Hercules."

Hercules backed off and watched helplessly as Neleus pulled a visibly shaking Iolaus up from the chair. Neleus put his hands on Iolaus' shoulders, speaking softly and gently; comforting him. "It's all right, Iolaus. Calm down now. You're okay." Slowly the shaking subsided. "Come on, let's get you to bed. Everything will be okay."

As Neleus led the unresisting blond towards his room, Iolaus turned his head and looked back once more. He quickly turned forward again when he saw Hercules' eyes on him. The demigod was stunned by the depth of fear still lurking deep within them.

Alcmene and Jason watched Hercules drop into the chair that Iolaus had just vacated. His face a mass of conflicting emotions.

"I don't understand. ... He seemed terrified of me."

Jason leaned over and squeezed Hercules' shoulder. "I'm sure that's not true."

"You probably just startled him awake is all," added Alcmene.

"Plus, you have to remember, you've been away for over a month. He may just have forgotten who you are. You know we still don't understand fully what Iolaus' mind is capable of." Jason paused. "Look, I'm sure in the morning things will look different."

But Hercules sat stunned.

A short while later, Neleus came out of Iolaus' bedroom.

The demigod rose. "How is he? Is he all right?"

"He's fine, Hercules, don't worry. He's already sound asleep. He was pretty tired. But I am sorry that happened on your first night back."

"I don't understand ...?" agonized Hercules once more.

"I'm not sure why he reacted that way either. I've never seen him do that before," shrugged Neleus. "Maybe in the light of a new day, things will look better. He probably wasn't completely awake. Or, maybe because you've been away for so long, he's forgotten you."

Jason nodded. "That's just what I told him."

"Come on, Hercules," said Alcmene as she put her arm within her son's. "You must be tired yourself. Why don't you go and get some sleep?"

Hercules opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah, okay. Maybe you're right."

"Why don't you come for breakfast tomorrow and spend the day here and let him get reacquainted with you, Hercules? I'm sure he'll remember you soon enough," Neleus suggested.

"Yeah ... thanks! I will. Look, I, ah, I appreciate what you've done with Iolaus. He seems to feel quite at home with you," Hercules said with a faint smile.

"He's a fine young man, Hercules. I'm glad I've been able to help. We'll see you tomorrow then?"

Hercules, seemingly lost in his thoughts, vaguely nodded and left with Jason and Alcmene.

"Hercules?" his Mother questioned, "Are you all right?"

For a moment he remained still. "Yes, Mother," he finally said and turned towards his new quarters.

The three went off to their rest, although Alcmene wasn't sure just how much rest Hercules would get this night. He and Iolaus had been practically inseparable since they were boys. For the most part, dependent only on each other. Now suddenly Iolaus was totally dependent on another. She knew how hard this had to be on Hercules, first to lose that strong, vital life of his friend to this injury and then to trust that life to someone else.

Hercules lay awake for hours. This wasn't exactly the homecoming he had been looking forward to. It had never crossed his mind that Iolaus might not remember him, but he certainly had not expected him to be so terrified. The look of fear in Iolaus' eyes haunted him.

He turned over and tried to get comfortable. Sleep finally did come, but was interlaced with nightmares of Iolaus running fearfully from him.

The next morning, Hercules arrived once more to the west wing suites. Neleus greeted him with a broad smile and beckoned him in. Breakfast had just arrived and Iolaus had already begun eating. He halted in mid-chew as he saw Hercules enter the room.

Neleus had moved up behind Iolaus and in hopes of avoiding the same panic as the night before, had placed his hands on Iolaus' shoulders. "Look who's come to join us for breakfast, Iolaus," came the cheery voice of the older man.

Hercules had seen the fear filter back into the azure eyes as he sat down across from him. He gave Iolaus one of his best smiles, but it seemed to do little good.

Neleus sat down next to Iolaus and turned to him. "Come on, boy, eat."

Hercules looked over at Iolaus, as Neleus had spoken. He knew how much Iolaus had detested being called "boy." It had been his father's name for him, or at least one of the less derogatory ones, and had always been spoken degradingly. On more than one occasion, Hercules had seen Iolaus bristle when others had called him that. It had easily been grounds for a brawl. Of course, there had been no reaction this time and Hercules had not heard Neleus use it in that manner.

As Hercules and Neleus began to eat and converse, Iolaus slowly resumed his meal. However, Iolaus' warily watched him like a hawk.

The rest of the day was much the same; Iolaus watched Hercules with apprehension. Whenever the demigod would approach too closely, Iolaus would back off and look to Neleus. Once Iolaus had even fearfully fled to Neleus, using him as a shield. Nothing else had quite jolted Hercules as that sight.

Nothing seemed to work to draw Iolaus out. Only when he napped in the chair, with Neleus nearby, did Iolaus seem to feel safe. Finally, after dinner, Neleus declared that it was time for Iolaus to be put to bed.

Hard as it was to admit, it was almost a relief to Hercules. Tired and discouraged, he returned to his own room, realizing how badly the day had gone and that he was no closer to winning Iolaus' trust then he had been the night before.

After a second, and yet a third day, much like the first, Hercules made a decision. He had been toying with it since the night before. It was not going to be a popular one, he was sure.

Alcmene and Jason had joined them for dinner that night. Shortly after they were through, Iolaus had, on his own, wandered off to bed. Neleus finally left the room to go check on his charge, but soon returned to join the others.

Neleus laughed as he sat down. "He was probably asleep before his head even hit the pillow. He was so tired, he didn't even undress. I didn't have the heart to disturb him, so I just slipped off his boots and covered him."

Hercules looked almost guiltily at the others. 'Well, here goes nothing,' he thought. "Neleus, you've done a great job with Iolaus. He seems to be completely comfortable around you ..." He paused.

"But ...?" came Neleus' questioning voice.

"But I'd like to take over his care, myself, for a little while."

Alcmene turned a startled look towards her son. "Hercules?"

A surprised look came over Neleus' face as well. "Hercules, I know how upset you've been over Iolaus' reactions, but are you sure this is wise?"

"No! ... I'm not," Hercules stated. "I feel, though, like I've lost him."

"Look, I'm sure if you just continue to come ..."

"No!! It's not working and frankly I don't think any amount of visits are going to help. I need to somehow win his trust again. As long as you're here, he'll keep turning to you. You had the right idea before, although our situations are now reversed."

"Hercules ..."

Hercules stood and paced a few steps. "Neleus, I need to do this."

Neleus looked at the demigod for a moment, then nodded. "As you wish, Hercules."

"You've been with him for over a month. I'm sure you could use a break anyhow."

"Well, I do have some family I can visit."

"Good! Why don't you come back in about four weeks."

"Fine. Would you mind if I left right away?"

"Not at all. Thank you for understanding."

Neleus nodded. He rose and headed directly to his room. The conversation in the living room was very general during that time. Mostly between Alcmene and Jason. But Hercules knew it was only a matter of time.

Neleus soon appeared with his carry bag and shook hands with them all. "I'll see you in four weeks. Good luck, Hercules."

"Thank you."

After Neleus left, Alcmene faced her son. "Hercules! What was that all about?"

"Like I said, Mother, I just want to spend some time with Iolaus."

"Is that all there is to it?"

"What do you mean?" His eyes would not quite meet hers.

"You and Iolaus have been together for a long time. Iolaus is injured and you're the only one he turns to. Then along comes someone else and ..."

"Alcmene!"

"No, Jason, let her speak. Are you saying I'm jealous of Neleus?"

"Can you tell me you're not?"

Hercules lowered his head and closed his eyes for a moment. "No!" he finally admitted. "But, Mother, I need to be a part of Iolaus' life."

Her voice softened. "I know you do. But at what cost?"

"What do you mean?" This time his gaze met hers directly.

"Iolaus is not a possession or a prize to be won. This isn't a competition, son."

"Is that why you think I'm doing this?" He hesitated, marshaling his emotions. "It's been extremely painful, but I've finally gotten used to the fact that things will never be the same between us. I'll never have the partnership of my best friend again." He struggled to hold back the tears that threatened to come. "But I just don't want to lose him completely." He paused again. "You know I would never do anything to hurt him, Mother."

"I know you wouldn't; at least not intentionally."

Hercules turned away from them and moved toward the window, standing and staring out into the blackness.

"Hercules, have you really thought all this out?" she continued. "What if you do win Iolaus back? And what if he refuses to go back to Neleus and someone comes along needing your help? What happens to Iolaus then?"

He leaned his head wearily against the window jam. "I don't know, Mother," came the slow reply. "I really don't know. I guess I didn't think that far ahead."

Alcmene came up behind him and placed a hand on his arm. "Remember what happened the last time." She paused. "You were lucky to find Neleus."

"I know."

She hesitated a moment. "I know you may not want to hear this, but you know, what's best for you, may not be what's best for Iolaus."

Hercules straightened up and turned his startled gaze toward her. "Are you saying I may have to leave Iolaus forever? Never see him again?"

Jason, who had been quietly listening to the two, quickly moved in and put his arms around his wife. "No! No, she's 'not' saying that." He looked meaningfully at Alcmene. "Come on! It's been a long day. Let's just go on to bed. Things will work out."

Hercules stood silently.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to come down on you so harshly, son. I know how difficult this time has been for you." She sighed. "Jason's right. It'll all work out. Goodnight, dear." Alcmene stretched up and kissed Hercules' cheek.

"Goodnight, Mother. Jason."

After they left, Hercules sat down in a chair. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He was so tired. He had come back from this last journey, expecting to pick up where he had ended. Now ...

He thought of his Mother's words. No, he didn't know if he was doing the right thing. He readily admitted that. And he was usually more logical and methodical than this, but he realized when it came to this beloved brother of his, there was nothing logical or methodical about his feelings. Iolaus had always been a part of his life. Matter of fact he couldn't think of a time when he hadn't been. He couldn't let that happen now. You don't desert family when something happens to them. Iolaus had trusted him before. He would again. He had to believe that.

Hercules rose and quietly stole into Iolaus' room. He sat down in the old familiar chair. Reaching over, he pulled the covers up around the blond. A soft sigh came from Iolaus as he turned over in his sleep.

Hercules smiled as he looked down at the moon-bathed face of his best friend. There was such an innocent and trusting look on the tranquil face. Unfortunately, it was no longer directed at him. He knew it wasn't going to be easy, but he had to win that trust back. He leaned back comfortably in the chair and watched his friend sleep.

Hercules woke abruptly. He hadn't meant to fall asleep at Iolaus' bedside. He heard stirring in the bed and knew he would soon face the first test of this brand new day. He rose, took a deep breath, and steadied himself for what was to come.

Iolaus stretched and turned over and saw him standing near the bed.

Hercules smiled. "Hi, buddy. How are you this morning?"

Iolaus quickly sat up and stared. He began looking around frantically. Hercules moved a step closer to the bed to reassure him and watched helplessly as Iolaus flew out of the other side of the bed, a look of panic spreading across his face. Iolaus plastered himself against the wall behind him, his arms spread wide.

"Nels! Want Nels!"

"Iolaus!" But even as Hercules raised his arm in entreaty, it was too late, for Iolaus had turned and bolted out of the bedroom. Passing through the living room, he fumbled for a moment, but managed to open the door of the suite and ran before Hercules could even comprehend what had happened.

Iolaus had managed to get about half-way down the corridor, before bumping straight into two guards who had been patrolling the west wing. They halted the flight of the terrified man, but once again the warrior's instinct, buried deep within, begin to lash out. The guards quickly backed off and desperately tried to keep him at bay without hurting him or being hurt.

Fortunately for all concerned, Hercules came almost immediately. From behind, he grabbed his friend's wrists. "No, Iolaus! Stop!"

As Iolaus heard the commanding voice behind him and felt the grip on his wrists, he froze and the fight suddenly seemed to drain from him.

Hercules turned Iolaus around to face him. At sight of the big man, the small blond began to tremble. Hercules released him and gently started to steer him back to the room.

"Come on, my friend, let's go back."

Iolaus obediently walked along next to Hercules, watching him furtively. Just as they entered the suite, a servant arrived bearing the breakfast tray. Hercules led Iolaus over and sat him down at the table.

He moved a plate of food in front of Iolaus and poured some water into a mug and placed it before him. Then he moved around to the other side of the table and sat down. Iolaus never moved a muscle. He watched circumspectly as Hercules picked up a fork and began eating.

After a few moments, Iolaus slowly picked up his fork and also began to eat, periodically glancing up at Hercules, a confused look in his eyes.

Hercules kept up a running commentary about his latest journey during the meal, trying to keep Iolaus at ease. After rambling on for almost twenty minutes, he finally laughed, which caused Iolaus to jump slightly.

He looked into the cautious blue eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I was just thinking about how much I've been babbling. It's something I've always teased you about." He sobered. "Right now I'd give anything to hear you babbling your head off."

Iolaus cocked his head, his brows knitting, and watched Hercules.

"You don't understand any of this do you? Oh, my friend, I wish you could understand how much I've missed you. How lonely this last journey was without you. How my heart aches knowing any future journeys will be just as lonely."

Just then, Iolaus reached out to take his water, accidentally bumping the mug and spilling the contents. Hercules jumped up quickly trying to catch the spill with a napkin, but his brisk movement startled Iolaus. Once again the terrified look came across Iolaus' face, as he looked down at the spill and back up to Hercules. Suddenly, Iolaus jumped up and started backing away from the table, true fright on his face. Hercules moved swiftly around the table to reassure him, but as he reached the blond, Iolaus immediately backed further away and threw up his hands protectively in front of his face. Hercules heard the same cry as a few nights before.

"No hurt Oluss! ... No hurt Oluss! ... No hurt Oluss!" he kept crying.

"Iolaus!" Hercules reached out and took a hold of Iolaus' shoulders. "Iolaus, I'm not going to hurt you!"

But Iolaus' only response were the other puzzling words.

"Change!! ... Change!!"

"IOLAUS!" Iolaus was so hysterical, that Hercules shook him slightly. He quieted down immediately, but the panicked eyes sought Hercules' face. "Iolaus, listen to me! No one is going to hurt you. Do you understand? I won't hurt Iolaus."

Hercules released his grip on Iolaus and backed off; his hands harmlessly out to his side. "I won't hurt Iolaus," he repeated. Iolaus was breathing heavily but finally started to calm down.

Hercules spoke in a gentle, reassuring voice. "Come on, let's go finish eating."

Without approaching or touching him, Hercules returned to his own place. He motioned to the table and Iolaus slowly, hesitantly started toward it. Iolaus stood and nervously watched as Hercules took his mug and refilled it and set it by Iolaus' plate, then sat down. Iolaus looked quizzically at Hercules.

"It's all right," Hercules repeated softly.

After a moment, Iolaus settled back down and started eating again, though still guardedly watching Hercules' movements.

As the day progressed, Hercules tried as hard as he could to keep his friend occupied. However, Iolaus merely sat and watched him. Hercules, instinctively, stayed at a safe distance from him and some of the fearfulness seemed to finally disappear. Only a quick or unexpected movement would startle Iolaus and bring it back. Still not quite physically up to being awake the whole day, twice Iolaus had fallen asleep in one of the big chairs, although Hercules knew he had struggled fearfully to stay awake.

The day had not been exactly what Hercules had hoped it would be, but toward the end of it, there seemed to be an easy truce. Iolaus' wariness of the demigod became less pronounced. Hercules sighed wearily. 'It was a start.'

That evening, Alcmene and Jason entered the suite just as Iolaus was being sent off to bed. While greeting them, Hercules was delayed a few moments before getting into the bedroom. By the time he entered, Iolaus had already crawled under the covers. Hercules picked up Iolaus' dropped clothes and put them on a chair. He went to the dresser and set out fresh clothing for the next day.

He felt Iolaus watching his every move. Finally, Hercules turned back around, but was careful to stay at the foot of the bed, so as not to feel a threat.

"Goodnight, Iolaus. Rest well, my friend." He smiled and then left the room.

Hercules came back in and sat down near the others.

"How did it go today?" Alcmene inquired.

"Other than that early morning escapade, not too bad, I guess. I think I've made some small headway. I'm not always sure. At times he gives me the most puzzling look. I know it's probably not possible, but sometimes I almost feel like he's trying to work something out." Hercules sighed.

"Maybe he's starting to remember your presence from earlier," stated Jason.

Hercules shrugged. "Maybe."

"There's something else that's bothering you though, isn't there?" asked Jason.

Alcmene had seen it, too.

Hercules nodded. "Before I left, Iolaus was just starting to get up and about. It was hard to keep him down and resting at times. But after all this time, he still doesn't seem to have much energy, he tires so easily."

"He was hurt pretty badly, Hercules, and look at how many setbacks he's had. It just takes time to recover. He's bound to have ups and downs," she answered.

"I suppose. But he's still so pale, ... and so thin. When I left, his appetite was starting to pick up. Now, he only picks at the meals. It's like he's lost his appetite."

"Pale is explainable. I don't believe he's been out of this suite," Jason mentioned. "Neleus said that he couldn't get him to come out."

Hercules shook his head. "He certainly didn't have any problems yesterday morning."

Jason and Alcmene laughed at the look on his face. At the sudden glare from Hercules, they quickly smothered it. "Sorry!" said Jason, "I know this is serious, but if you could have seen your face. " At another glare, Jason cleared his throat and picked up the former conversation. "As far as his weight, you know Iolaus has always been slim. But you're right, now that you mentioned it, he does look thinner. I'm sure that's also due to his set backs. I'm sure things will better for him now that you're here."

Hercules looked up horrified. "You ... you don't suppose he's sick, do you?"

"He doesn't appear to be, son," answered Alcmene, "but I guess we can't know for sure. Iolaus doesn't have any way of telling us if anything is wrong."

"We'll send a messenger to Iphicles tomorrow and see if Antares can come and look him over. It's been a couple of weeks," added Jason.

"Good. Thanks." Relaxing a little, Hercules changed the subject. "Mother, are you responsible for the new clothes?"

Alcmene laughed. "Yes. Neleus thought he would be more comfortable in these clothes. He felt the others were more suited to his outdoors life and he wouldn't be needing those anymo..." She hesitated as she realized what she was saying and saw the look in Hercules' eyes.

To lighten the mood, she added. "I had a wonderful time picking them out for him. You know Iolaus would never let me fuss over him much before."

Jason laughed. "She did have a wonderful time, Hercules. She even dragged me out to look at them with her." He smiled and patted her arm as she lifted her eyebrows at him. "She said that the blue shirt would match his eyes. Then there was the deep purple one that was trimmed with gold, that she thought would make him look like royalty. And the white one with long flowing sleeves that would make him look so 'gallant and boyish', I believe she put it."

She reached out and playfully hit Jason in the arm. "And I was right in every case."

"Yes, you were, my dear," he laughed. "Maybe I should let you pick out mine also."

To which Jason leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

"You did great, Mother. Thanks."

She smiled. "It was my pleasure."

For a short time, Hercules reveled in his family and the cares of the past few days were forgotten for awhile.

A while later, after Alcmene and Jason left, Hercules quietly entered Iolaus' room to check on him. He stood and watched the sleeping man for a few minutes. He smiled. Maybe things were really looking up. Iolaus had evidently felt comfortable enough with his presence to surrender to sleep. Or was it just exhaustion?

Suddenly he realized how tired he was also. It had been a very stressful few days. He knew he had better get to bed, himself, since there was no telling how early Iolaus would rise. Brushing a hand over sleepy eyes, he turned and went towards his own room. He stopped for a moment, then turned and went to a high shelf on a nearby hutch and reached up. His hand closed around an object and he turned it over and over in his hand for a few moments. Slowly, reluctantly, he went over and used the key to lock the door to the suite before finally retiring. He did not want any more early morning run ins with the guards.

He finally sank into his bed and was asleep almost immediately.

Hercules had left his door open so that he could hear Iolaus if he stirred, but when he awoke to the pink dawning of a brand new day, he realized he had not quite accomplished his goal. As he turned over, he saw a slight movement outside his door. He kept still for a second, feigning sleep and through slitted eyes saw a blond head peek around the corner. At his movement, it disappeared. He raised himself slowly against the backboard and smiled to himself. He would have to move cautiously.

"Good morning, Iolaus." He spoke softly, but knew his voice had penetrated to the outer room.

For a moment, nothing. Then the blond head moved cautiously around the corner for an instant.

"How are you this morning?" he said with a smile.

Slowly the small compact figure moved partially into the doorway and hesitated, just staring.

"Are you hungry, my friend? Breakfast should be here shortly. Guess it's time for me to get up and dressed, huh?" He slid cautiously out of bed and reached for his pants on a nearby chair. Every movement was slow and calculated to keep from startling Iolaus. At Hercules' first movement from the bed, Iolaus had moved back a couple of steps.

Hercules kept up a soft commentary while he pulled on his pale yellow undershirt, and quickly followed with the yellow tunic, tucking them in and then fastening his belt. Next he sat back down on the bed and pulled on his socks and boots.

Iolaus had not moved from his position until Hercules had started towards the doorway, and then he backed up into the living room and watched as Hercules entered. Iolaus had already dressed in the white shirt and a pair of soft black pants. Hercules smiled to himself. Alcmene had been right, it did give him a gallant and youthful appearance.

Just as he exited from the bedroom, a knock came at the door. Startled, Iolaus backed up even more, looking around. Hercules' calm voice assuring everything was okay stopped his movements. The demigod unlocked the door and took the breakfast tray and put it on the dining table. He sat down and placed one meal across from him and the other in front of himself. He then motioned for Iolaus to come.

Slowly Iolaus inched his way to the table and finally sat down. Hercules smiled to himself.

Later that morning, Hercules opened the outside door. He moved into the hallway and stretched out his hand to Iolaus. "Come, my friend, I think it's time you got a little fresh air."

Iolaus hesitated at first, not quite sure what was happening. But Hercules waited patiently. Curiosity eventually seemed to draw Iolaus towards the open door and he soon joined the demigod.

The two moved slowly down the hallway, Hercules allowing Iolaus time to look around, as he cautiously followed. The demigod smiled as the blond seemed to take in everything.

Hercules watched his friend closely as they neared a couple of guards standing duty. The blond stiffened a little as the guards nodded and gave a short greeting. Iolaus was startled by the hand that landed on his shoulder, but when he looked up and saw the smile on Hercules' face, he allowed himself to be guided out of the door onto the castle grounds.

The gardens were resplendent in their color and layout. Alcmene loved growing things. Her own gardens had always been lovingly tended and had been beautiful. Her hand was quite evident in these also.

There was a huge expanse of green grass, bordered by neatly trimmed hedges. Tall shade trees, along with lush fruit bearing trees and flowering bushes intermingled. Myriads of colorful flowers, waving gently in the breeze, surrounded the wide pathways. White marble benches and tables were scattered conveniently in sheltered nooks. The entire grounds had been designed to offer beauty and rest to the body, eye and soul.

Hercules watched with pleasure as Iolaus' eyes grew large at the sight. He was like a small child suddenly set free for the first time. Everything delighted him. He looked. He touched. And after Hercules had guided him to a fragrant bloom to smell, it seemed he had to smell them all.

Hercules also pointed out some small humming birds hovering over the flowers, and once had swiftly pulled Iolaus' hand back as he had reached out for a bumble bee. He warningly added: "Hurt Iolaus." And Iolaus had carefully avoided the bees from then on.

Hearing the laughter from her window, Alcmene soon joined the two in the gardens. She explained that Jason had gone into Corinth himself to attend to a couple of errands and would talk to Iphicles and bring Antares back to check Iolaus over. He probably wouldn't be back for a few hours.

Hercules and Alcmene slowly walked and watched Iolaus investigate. She smiled as she watched the blond. "How this brings back memories."

"Your gardens were very beautiful, Mother."

She laughed, "And you and Iolaus, when you were young, loved to work in them, helping me."

Hercules smiled at the memories it brought.

"It's great to see him so happy, Hercules. I was reluctant at first to think you were doing the right thing. But it's been only a couple of days and he seems to have thrived already. I haven't seen him smile and laugh like that in such a long time. I didn't realize until now how much I missed it."

"I know, Mother. I've missed it, too."

As lunchtime approached, Alcmene gave a few orders and a table in another part of the garden was set with a delectable lunch. However, it was almost impossible to get Iolaus to sit still long enough to eat. He seemed unable to contain his new found freedom and was anxious to explore everything around him. It was obvious he was exhausted, but Hercules could almost see his friend's old stubbornness resurface as he refused to give in to it.

Just before the sun waned, Hercules and Alcmene finally led a reluctant Iolaus back inside. They delighted at the content, happy look and the bright, shining eyes that met theirs.

Since Jason had not yet returned, Alcmene decided to join Hercules and Iolaus for supper. Mother and son had already finished and were talking while Iolaus continued eating. They knew he was tired after his long adventuring day and just let him go at his own pace.

A short while later, Jason arrived. Not only had he brought Antares with him, but Iphicles had joined them.

"Hello, brother," Iphicles smiled. "It's good to see you again."

"You, too."

"I'd been meaning to come earlier, but unfortunately affairs of state have kept me busy."

"Well, I'm glad you finally got a chance to break away." Hercules turned slightly to greet the healer. "Antares, how have you been?"

"Just fine, Hercules. Welcome back."

"Thanks!"

Alcmene offered to send for more food, but learned the others had already eaten. Just as they were getting ready to settle down to talk, she glanced back at the table and smiled. She touched Hercules' arm and nodded in that direction.

Hercules smiled warmly, as he saw Iolaus sound asleep, head resting peacefully on his arms next to his plate.

Hercules went over and carefully lifted his friend, trying not to waken him. He soon realized, though, that Iolaus was so exhausted that even a hydra's scream probably wouldn't have awakened him.

Antares joined Hercules. "I'll come with you and check him over."

As they entered the room, Antares moved to turn the covers down. Hercules sat next to Iolaus on the edge of the bed, supporting his head and back against him. Antares reached down and slipped off Iolaus' boots and pants. As he did so, Hercules realized Antares was examining Iolaus' legs.

"What is it?"

"He has a couple of small bruises on his lower thigh and calf."

"Bruises? He was out in the garden most of the afternoon, but I didn't notice him bump into anything."

"No, Hercules. They're not new."

"Then he probably got them when he got the one on his face?"

"No, I examined him thoroughly after that, just to make sure there were no other injuries. These have happened since then."

"Are they all right?"

"Yes, fine. They're not bad at all."

Hercules breathed a small sigh of relief.

Antares then reached up and pulled the shirt up over Iolaus' head and tossed it on to the nearby chair. As he turned around his eyes took on a somewhat shocked look.

Hercules placed Iolaus down on the bed and observed what Antares had discovered. Several more bruises had come to light. There were two small ones on Iolaus' upper right arm, one on his upper left arm, a larger one on his left shoulder, and a fourth on his left side near his rib cage. Hercules carefully turned Iolaus over onto his side and a couple more bruises were revealed on Iolaus' back. None were serious. Each was in varying degrees of color and healing. He once again turned Iolaus onto his back.

First shock and then anger came over Hercules. He started to gently shake Iolaus' shoulder. "Iolaus!! Iolaus, come on, wake up."

"What are you doing?"

"I want to find out who did this to him."

"Did this to him? What makes you think someone did this to him?"

"Am I imagining those?"

"No, of course not. But it doesn't mean that anyone did them."

"Are you saying those were all from accidents?"

"It's possible."

"Then why didn't Neleus tell someone,?" Hercules said, his anger growing.

"Look, I know how upsetting seeing all these bruises are, but none of them are serious. Neleus probably just didn't want to keep calling me back for something that I couldn't do anything about. Bruises occur and they heal on their own." He paused. "Neleus seems very capable of handling things. That is what you hired him for wasn't it?"

"Yes. But it just seems like a lot of bruising."

"Hercules, Iolaus is still recovering. It isn't unusual for his coordination to be a bit off."

Hercules seemed to calm down. "I know. I just haven't seen him have any accidents since I've been caring for him though."

Antares shrugged. He had no answer. He started his examination and just to ease Hercules' mind, he once again examined him thoroughly from head to foot, but was unable to find anything physically wrong with Iolaus.

"Thanks, Antares. I'll just finish putting him to bed, then I'll be out."

Antares nodded and left. By the time Hercules joined the others, Antares had told them of their discovery.

Alcmene looked up at her son. "Is everything okay, Hercules?"

"Yes, Mother. I guess it was just a shock to see all those bruises on his body."

"I know. I felt the same when I saw the one on his cheek."

The small group finally drifted into other topics. They visited for a long while, until Iphicles realized the lateness of the hour. He had to return to the castle. Just as they broke for the night, Hercules broached a question.

"Mother, Jason, do you think you could have some food and supplies drawn up for about a week's trip?"

"Yes, of course. What did you have in mind?" Jason asked.

"Iolaus enjoyed today so much, that I thought I'd like to take him off on a hunting and fishing trip. What do you think?"

"I think he would absolutely love it," beamed Alcmene.

Hercules smiled. "That's what I thought, too."

"You know," Iphicles spoke up, "you're welcome to go to the area to the west of the castle grounds. It has a private lake, well stocked and the nearby forest has plenty of game. Plus, you wouldn't be troubled by anyone else. You and Iolaus would have it all to yourselves.

The demigod's face lit up. "That sounds perfect. Thanks!"

Iphicles nodded.

During the exchange, Jason and Alcmene looked at each. He raised his eyebrows and she nodded, knowing exactly what he had in mind. "How would you boys like some company?" Jason ventured. "I'm sure you could probably use a little help watching over Iolaus. But I've got some business that could take about three or four more days. Can you wait that long?"

"Sure, no problem and it would be great to have the company ... and the help. Thanks." Hercules then turned to his brother. Iphicles, how about you?" he broached.

"I wish I could, but I'm afraid duty calls again. Rena and I have to leave day after tomorrow for Taris. We'll be gone for about ten days. Maybe later though."

"I'll hold you to that, brother."

Iphicles smiled. "Okay! In the meantime, Antares loves to fish, how about if he steps in as my representative for now?"

"That's very gracious of you, your majesty. Thank you." Turning to address Hercules, he stated, "If you don't feel I'd be in the way?"

Hercules clapped the healer on the shoulder. "No, not at all, Antares. We'd love to have you. Truth is, I'll feel a little better knowing you're along."

"Fine," smiled Iphicles, "he can also guide you to my best fishing spot on the reserves. You won't have to worry about any outside intervention either. The surrounding area is well-patrolled. You'll have all the privacy you want, but help is close by if you should need it. It's only about a half-day away."

"Great!" smiled Hercules.

Alcmene reached out and touched Hercules' arm. "In the meantime, son, I was planning on going to the marketplace tomorrow. Why don't you and Iolaus come along. We can travel slowly, rest when he gets tired. Many of our friends and neighbors have asked about you both. Especially Moira and Caiphus."

Jason chimed in. "Alcmene's right. It might give him a chance to start building up his strength for the trip and also allow him to get use to others being around again. He's been pretty isolated here."

"I'd have to agree," Antares added. "Being around others may help him not to be so dependent on just one or two people. It might ease your concerns a little when you have to leave him again, knowing he's back into some semblance of life and living a more normal routine."

"Okay! Okay! I'm convinced. I'm convinced," he laughed. "It's a great idea." Although a look of sadness flitted across his face at the thought of having to leave Iolaus again. But it was bound to happen sooner or later, whether he wanted it to or not. Helping people is what he did and what he knew Iolaus would want him to continue to do. His face soon brightened; well, he didn't have to think about that right now. This was Iolaus' time and he would make sure his friend enjoyed it as much as possible.

Alcmene saw the look and patted her son's arm understandingly.

Hercules and the others swiftly finalized their arrangements for the trip at the end of the week. Iphicles, Antares, and the royal guard then took their leave, Jason and Alcmene went to their own suite, and the castle finally quieted for the night.

Iolaus woke earlier than they had expected. There seemed to be an excitement or anticipation in him that hadn't been there for a long while. Hercules smiled broadly at the vibration and bounce that seemed to run through his friend. It was like the old days when Iolaus would be raring to get started on an adventure.

Shortly after they had eaten, Hercules opened the door into the hallway as he had done the previous day. This time, there was only a momentary hesitation on Iolaus' part. Hercules led him down the long, twisting corridors to the living room, where Alcmene was seated with some sewing.

She rose and greeted them with a smile. "Good morning, you two. It's a beautiful day."

Hercules leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Yes, it is."

"Good morning, Iolaus," she said touching his cheek. Iolaus turned briefly and smiled, but obvious curiosity with his new surroundings drew his attention. Hercules smiled as he watched his friend's eyes sweep the large room. "Are you ready, Mother?"

Alcmene nodded and grabbed her bag. "Yes! I am."

"We should get started then. Iolaus!"

Hercules placed one arm around his Mother's shoulder and the other briefly against Iolaus' back and guided them out of the castle.

With Iolaus sheltered protectively between them, Hercules and Alcmene chatted amicably as they made their way. They were delighted to watch his shy enthusiasm at being out and away from the castle.

Watching Iolaus closely, Hercules called for a couple of short rests when the blond's steps slowed. Although Iolaus sat quietly enough during the breaks, his eyes never seemed to rest, continuing to scan his surroundings with great interest. Hercules was pleased to see that for a second day in a row there seemed to be an eagerness on his face and a spark of excitement in the blue eyes. Hercules breathed a contented sigh of relief and smiled to himself. Maybe he hadn't made such a bad decision after all.

Alcmene read her son's look and smiled, too. Her heart was relieved by the outcome of the past few days. Things seemed to finally be looking up for her boys.

During this time, a little of the old Iolaus one more peeked through. Although he seemed to appreciate the rest stops, after a short while he grew restless with the inactivity and the three were soon on their way again.

As they finally entered Corinth's busy streets, Iolaus' eyes became wide with wonder. The streets, the buildings, the myriad of sights, sounds and smells, and the crowds of bustling people, seemed to intrigue him. However, when eager friends and neighbors came to greet the three and find out how Iolaus was doing, it became a little overwhelming for him. Shielded from all but the family and caretaker as he had convalesced, Iolaus hung back behind Hercules like a bashful child, a little unsure and fearful of all the attention he was receiving. However, a hand on his shoulder and an encouraging smile from Hercules would calm him.

One of the first booths they approached in the marketplace had fabrics of many different hues and textures stacked neatly on several tables. Alcmene drifted over to browse through them. She smiled as Iolaus reached out timidly to touch several of the brightly colored pieces.

She chose a rich looking brocade of "hunter" green with gold threading and designs and examined it for a moment. Unfurling a bit of it, she turned and draped it loosely across Iolaus. "This is lovely. How do you think he would look in a tunic made from this, Hercules?"

"Ummm, fine, I guess," the demigod said, shrugging.

She tilted her head slightly, eyeing it critically. Iolaus stood silently, glancing back and forth between Alcmene and the material laying lightly across his chest.

"It sets off the gold in his hair wonderfully, don't you think?"

"I ... I guess so!"

She looked over at her son and shook her head. "Hercules, you're as bad as Jason."

"Mother, I'm afraid this whole shopping thing is a little out of my league. I mean, I've never really paid too much attention to what colors would go with Iolaus' hair," he laughed a little embarrassedly. "It's not exactly come up in conversation before."

Alcmene laughed heartily. "Yes, of course. Well, you may take my word for it. It does."

"I would never disagree with you, Mom," he smiled and gave her a quick hug.

"I raised a pretty smart son," she said patting his arm.

She wrapped the bolt back up and shook her head at the vendor bearing down on her. "Maybe after we get back from the trip," Alcmene casually remarked.

They continued on, wandering past booths filled with more fabric, jewelry, leather goods, cooking and kitchen wares, cut flowers and plants, and many other types of merchandise. Foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, was also in great abundance throughout the marketplace. The aroma of fresh cooked meats, fish, fowl and vegetables blended in the air, with that of baked goods.

The trio stopped for a brief lunch and rest, only to be hurried along by an eager blond, who once again had no patience to sit still when there was so much to see.

Iolaus could hardly take in everything. They allowed him the freedom to stop and look when he seemed interested. He explored to his heart's content, except for a booth displaying knives and swords. He froze in front of the table until Hercules put a gentle hand on his shoulder and quickly steered his steps away, both obviously remembering only too well the earlier incident with the knife.

At many of the booths, Hercules, Alcmene and Iolaus were greeted with smiles and handshakes. And even Iolaus seemed to take this attention in greater strides as time went on.

Above all else, Hercules was eternally grateful to their friends and neighbors with how they treated Iolaus. There seemed to be an extra measure of kindness and gentleness in their attitudes. But he should have known there would be, for many of these people had known them both since they were children, not to mention that these two were hometown heroes.

However, Hercules couldn't help but think to himself how embarrassed his friend would be with all the attention. Iolaus had often teasingly complained about being the invisible partner in the team, but during the times when he did get the recognition he deserved, he shied from it uncomfortably.

Although eager to see everything, Iolaus seemed to be tiring once more and Hercules was suddenly anxious to get him somewhere to rest for a while. Hercules soon sighted his objective. It was a booth which belonged to Moira and Caiphus. They had been special friends of Alcmene since before both boys were born. The couple was among the few that had never condemned her when Hercules' heritage had been questioned and had been stalwart friends to her and in turn to Hercules and Iolaus.

Hercules smiled. Even from a distance, he could smell the tempting pastries so appetizingly displayed on their carts. As they drew near, he could see the sweet, sticky, brown crusts, with its myriads of fruit fillings generously oozing out of their plump golden sides. So, it was not a surprise that the booth was one of the most popular in the marketplace. It certainly had always been Iolaus' favorite.

Moira was about Iolaus' height; an attractive, slender woman, with large green eyes and a bubbling personality. Her auburn hair, streaked now with slight traces of silver, was neatly coiled on the back of her head.

Her still handsome, silver-haired husband Caiphus was only a few inches taller. Like Moira, Caiphus was a warm, caring person, whose blue eyes could twinkle as merrily as his wife's.

Since the couple had been unable to have children of their own, Moira and Caiphus had more or less "adopted" all the youngsters of the town as theirs, though none more than Hercules and Iolaus. These two had always held a very special place in their hearts.

It had also been from this very booth that the toddler Iolaus had earned his reputation for stealing pastries. But it had never really been stealing, since Moira and Caiphus had purposely left pastries down within the toddler's reach. Who could resist the bright, sparkling blue eyes, the sunny disposition and infectious giggles of the tiny, golden whirlwind. He had been a charmer even back then.

Knowing Iolaus' rough family background, the couple had taken a distinct interest in the small boy. Like Alcmene, they had readily seen in him a lonely little child with a loving and loyal heart that needed to be encouraged and nurtured.

It had broken their hearts when Hercules had spent one long summer with members of his "godly" family and Iolaus, feeling abandoned by one more person he had cared about, had carelessly taken up with a gang of street kids that were constantly in trouble. When Hercules had returned, he had found Iolaus sullen and unwilling to allow him back into his life. Unknown to the demigod, Iolaus' self-esteem had been greatly damaged, courtesy of his father's continuous verbal and physical abuse. Iolaus' fragile ego was fearful of reaching out and trusting anyone again.

It had finally taken Iolaus being caught for theft and sent to Cheiron's academy to start putting things back on track. Even so, the path was strewn with many pitfalls. It had been Cheiron, himself, who had wisely made the boys sparring partners. He had forced them to work together and depend on each other, despite the fact it came to physical blows several times. But the two had been destined at birth to be soul mates and brothers of the heart. They had felt a bond all their growing lives that neither could completely understand or ignore, even in the midst of the turmoil.

After one such physical confrontation, the truth finally emerged from the two. Hercules had been angry and frustrated that Iolaus could have so easily turned to a life of crime. Iolaus had been angry at the "supposed" defection of his "supposed" best friend without a word. He had never realized that Hercules had not wanted to go to Mount Olympus, or leave his best friend, nor had it been an ideal visit. Long overdue, the boys finally sat and talked everything out. At last the misunderstanding had been healed and the bond between the two had fused into what it was always meant to be.

No one was more delighted to see these two "special" young men finally back on track, then Moira and Caiphus. They had always somehow known these two were destined for greatness.

Moira, finishing with a customer, turned delightedly as she saw the three approach. "Alcmene, Hercules, Iolaus. I'm so happy to see you all!!"

"Thank you, Moira!" greeted Alcmene with a quick hug.

"Hercules, it's been much too long. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Moira. It's good to see you, too," and he leaned down and kissed her cheek. He then spotted a stool next to the booth. "Moira, can Iolaus rest for awhile? I'm afraid he's pretty tired."

"Oh, of course. Of course." Moira and Alcmene followed Hercules as he led Iolaus over to a stool and made him comfortable.

Standing in front of the blond, Moira smilingly caressed his cheek. "It is wonderful to see you up and about again." Iolaus sat silently watching her, managing a tired smile.

Presently she turned to her husband, who had just finished with a customer. "Look, Caiphus!! Look who's come to say hello."

Caiphus greeted Alcmene with a pat to her hand and then reached out to shake Hercules' offered arm. "We were wondering when we would get a chance to see you and this young man." Caiphus turned toward the blond and patted his shoulder. "Hello, son."

Moira put her arm through her husband's. "Iolaus looks well, Hercules; except he's much too thin."

"Yes, I know," stated Hercules, a concerned look on his face.

"He's doing a lot better. His appetite seems to be improving each day," interjected Alcmene.

"Good!" Moira declared. "How is it going for him?" she asked the demigod.

"He's had his share of ups and downs, but finally seems to be making progress, I think. He's been confined for so long, Mother thought it would be a good idea to get him out. She convinced us to come along with her today."

Caiphus nodded. "I'm glad she did. He does look good."

"Thanks, Caiphus. His list of accomplishments keeps growing. He's learned more than I had ever hoped for." Smiling, Hercules turned back towards his friend and a look of shock spread across his face. "Iolaus!!"

Hearing his name, Iolaus looked up with an innocent, joyous expression. Temporarily forgotten, the blond had reached over and helped himself to the tempting treats laying within reach. Both hands were closed around oozing, half-eaten pastries. Alcmene, Moira and Caiphus erupted into laughter as they saw his pouched cheeks and berry stained smile and hands. His chin, chest and shirt front were a combination of crumbs and dripping berry juice.

"Well, I guess there are a few things he still might need to learn," Hercules declared, shaking his head, unable to contain his own laughter. "I'm sorry about this, but he always did love your pastries."

Hercules reached out and wasn't quite sure where to grasp Iolaus, since the juice had run down his hands and wrists also. He quickly turned the sleeves up, although it was already much too late to save the shirt.

"Don't worry about it, Hercules," stated Caiphus. "He is welcome to those and more, for all that you two have done for us over the years."

"Yes," agreed Moira. "If it hadn't been for Iolaus, Caiphus wouldn't even be here right now."

The two remembered all too well when years earlier, Caiphus had joined a group of neighbors in tracking down some marauders. The men had looted a nearby group of farms and had kidnapped the occupants to sell as slaves. Iolaus had kept Caiphus from a sword in his back in the final confrontation. The grateful couple had never forgotten that act of heroism.

Nor had they forgotten when a group of robbers had managed to overpower them on their way home from the marketplace a little over a year ago. However, they had picked the wrong day for their theft. Hercules and Iolaus, returning to Corinth for a short visit, had come upon the scene and taken care of the bandits in short order.

Hercules nodded gratefully.

"Besides," Moira laughed, "who could resist that glorious smile and those large, wistful blue eyes of his."

Alcmene agreed knowingly. "You can't."

Hercules just laughed. It was true, very few people were ever able to resist Iolaus' charms or bright, sunny smile. Nor could they stay upset with him for long. It had been like that since babyhood. Unfortunately, Skouras was one of those rare exceptions, Hercules momentarily and bitterly recalled.

Letting the dark thought go, he smiled and spoke to Iolaus. "Come on, my friend, finish those up so we can get you cleaned up."

As Hercules watched over Iolaus and Caiphus went to help another customer, Moira spoke softly to Alcmene. "It's great to see the boys out here together again. I'm glad you were able to talk them into coming."

"Me, too. It's been a very rocky road for both of them since Iolaus' injuries. Iolaus has had so many setbacks and Hercules has suffered each one alongside him. Yesterday Hercules took him out into the garden and I realized it was the first time I'd seen Iolaus' smile and heard his laughter in months. It brought tears to my eyes."

Moira smiled sadly and patted her arm.

"I was so concerned," Alcmene continued, "when Hercules insisted upon taking over his care once more, but in just a few short days Iolaus seems to have almost come alive again. Whether he remembers Hercules or not, he at least appears to be responding to him. The fearfulness has almost disappeared. I'm very grateful for that." She shuddered. "I've never seen Hercules react like he did when Iolaus wouldn't let him near him."

Caiphus had finished with a couple of other customers and had returned to hear the last part of Alcmene's statements. "Do you know why the boy reacted like he did?" he asked, as they watched Hercules fuss over Iolaus, trying to clean the blond up as best he could.

Alcmene shook her head. "No. I'm just glad it's over. It was tearing Hercules apart inside. I'm still not sure what will happen when Neleus returns. But for right now, I'm just relieved."

Moira smiled. "I believe it would have eventually worked itself out no matter what, Alcmene. Iolaus' love for Hercules is too deeply ingrained for it not to have surfaced again, sooner or later."

"Maybe, but I'm afraid I almost made a big mistake suggesting that Hercules might have to stay away from Iolaus. I can't believe I even said that to him."

"I'm sure you were just thinking about what was best for Iolaus," stated Caiphus. "Don't be so hard on yourself."

"Thank you! At least Hercules didn't listen to me on that one," she smiled.

The three ceased their conversation as Hercules led a slightly cleaner Iolaus back toward them.

"Well, Mother, if you're through, it's getting late and I think we should probably start back home. I think Iolaus has had enough adventure for one day."

"Yes, of course. I'm ready."

"It's been good to see you both. Take care." Hercules stated.

"You, too," Cyrus nodded.

"If you think Iolaus is up to another 'adventure' soon, I think we can have a couple more pastries set aside for him. Maybe a couple of towels also," Moira stated as she viewed the ruined shirt.

Hercules turned a fond smile down toward the small, motherly woman and his face lit up with pleasure. "I think we can arrange it. Thank you."

The three weary travelers started off happily for home. Hercules had been quite pleased with the way the day had gone. It was quite obvious that Iolaus had also enjoyed his time in town.

As tired as Iolaus seemed to be, even after the short rest, Hercules had envisioned several stops and even the remote possibility of having to carry an exhausted Iolaus part of the way back home. However, luck favored them when a neighbor came upon them shortly after leaving and offered a lift home in his cart.

That evening, after Iolaus had rested for awhile, he and Hercules joined Alcmene and Jason in the formal dinning room for dinner. It was such a new experience for Iolaus that he had a hard time concentrating on his meal. Once again though, despite the rest, he barely lasted through the meal before he grew weary. Hercules led him off to their suite and made sure he was comfortably tucked in bed. As Hercules headed off to his own room, he felt very satisfied and was happier than he had been in weeks. So much so, that the key was not used to lock down the suite for the night anymore.

For the next three days, Hercules, Alcmene and Iolaus made the trip to town. Each day they would end up at Moira and Caiphus' booth and Iolaus would sit happily munching on a pastry or two, a towel tucked securely under his chin.

The final morning before the delayed trip, Alcmene begged out of going. She had several things to take care of and suggested that the two go by themselves.

Hercules had no sooner sat Iolaus down by Moira and Caiphus, when there was a disturbance in the crowd. A man came seeking Hercules' help. A large freight wagon had overturned at the edge of town blocking the roadway and they needed Hercules' help to right it.

Hercules looked reluctantly at Iolaus, who was already totally engrossed in his delightful treats.

Moira saw his hesitancy and smiled. "Go, Hercules. He'll be fine for a little while. We'll just keep him supplied with pastries if we have to."

After a moment he nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can," and followed the man. He couldn't help but glance back once and saw that Moira and Caiphus had moved in front of Iolaus hoping to divert his attention. He smiled as he realized that Iolaus was so involved in eating, he probably had not even noticed his disappearance. However, he picked up his pace; he would just make sure he took care of this as quickly as possible and get back.

It was about ten or fifteen minutes later, when another disturbance occurred. Half a dozen loud-mouthed, scraggly warrior-types, pushed their way through the crowds. The couple had seen these bullying types before and could only hope for the best.

Unfortunately, they seemed to be heading in their direction. After having already "terrorized" several of their fellow vendors, it appeared they were set to be the next victims.

Moira moved closer to Iolaus as the men approached. The crowd scattered and moved clear of the booth. A customer that Caiphus was dealing with gave him a sympathetic smile and swiftly moved away as she saw the scruffy looking men head towards them.

Caiphus turned and put on his best smile, hoping to avoid any trouble and knowing that probably wasn't going to be possible. He just hoped it wouldn't amount to anyone getting hurt. His immediate fear was for his wife's and Iolaus' safety.

"Hello, gentlemen," he greeted with a warm smile.

The leader of the group pushed past him and moved toward the table.

"May I help you, sir," Caiphus tried once again.

The leader looked Caiphus up and down. "We'll just help ourselves. Right, boys?" He laughed and scooped up several of the pastries and tossed them to his men.

One of the men standing near the end of the booth caught his pastry, then turned to stare at Iolaus. Moira felt a moment of panic as she saw the look on the man's face. It was as if he was trying to remember something. She reached up and placed a protective hand on Iolaus' shoulder.

"Hey, Teiran. Does this guy look familiar to you?"

The leader strode over and looked at Iolaus closely. "Yeah, he does. Where we seen him before, boys?!"

Suddenly Iolaus seemed to be the center of attention, although he seemed unaware, content with the new pastry that Moira had plopped into his hand to keep him occupied.

"Wait, I remember who he is. It's that little runt that always hangs out with Hercules," said a third man.

"Yeah, you're right." Teiran's eyes narrowed. "We owe 'em for messing in our business a couple months ago." Looking around and not seeing the demigod anywhere, Teiran approached Iolaus. "Hey, you, where's your big buddy?"

Iolaus looked up briefly at the man, but never spoke. He started to raise the pastry to take another bite, but Teiran angrily knocked it from Iolaus' hand. "Hey, I'm talking to you."

Iolaus looked up again and Moira could see fear start to filter into the azure eyes.

"Please," Moira said, moving in front and trying to shield Iolaus, "just take what you want from the table and leave him alone."

Teiran shoved Moira roughly aside and she was caught in the grip of another warrior. Two others grabbed Caiphus and held him securely as he attempted to come to his wife's aid. Teiran stood in front of the couple.

"No woman's gonna tell me what ta do. We'll take whatever we want," Teiran turned back to Iolaus, "but first we got some unfinished business right here." He nodded and two others reached out and dragged Iolaus from the stool, each tightly gripping an arm.

"Don't hurt him," Caiphus yelled, struggling to get loose. But he was held with an iron grip.

Teiran saw the fear and panic on Iolaus' face and laughed. "What'sa matter, hero? You looked kinda scared."

"Don't hurt him, please," Moira begged. "He was injured. He's no threat to you."

"Injured?" Teiran snorted as he looked the blond up and down. "He looks fine ta me." He faced Iolaus again. "Well, whadda ya got to say, hero? Gonna let a woman speak for you?" he laughed cruelly.

When nothing was forthcoming, he backhanded Iolaus. Iolaus rocked back from the blow, still held securely by the two warriors. Iolaus looked up with a hint of tears in his eyes, cowering from the blow. "No hurt Oluss!! No hurt Oluss!!"

Startled, Teiran turned towards the couple. "What kinda game's he playing?"

"It isn't a game," Caiphus stated emphatically. "He's had a head injury. He's like a child. Just take what you want and leave him be. He can't hurt you."

"No hurt Oluss!! No hurt Oluss!! Iolaus continued.

Teiran turned threateningly about to backhand the blond once more. "Shut up, you ..." However, a steel grip clamped onto his wrist, tightening painfully.

"I don't think you want to do that," came the steely voice.

As he looked up at the tall man before him, he saw icy eyes burrowing into him and it was Teiran's turn to cower. He quickly glanced down at the two men who had held Iolaus and were now sprawled unconscious on the ground.

"Hercules?!!"

"Release them!" Hercules' voice boomed once more, as he looked menacingly at those who held Moira and Caiphus. There was no hesitation on their part to obey. "Moira, Caiphus, would you please see to Iolaus."

The couple moved swiftly and took a shaking Iolaus to the other side of the booth.

Once he saw the three were safe, Hercules released Teiran's arm. Just as he did so, a small contingent of Iphicles' guards came running up.

A young captain quickly appraised the situation. "Hello, Hercules. Is there a problem here?"

"No, I don't think so, Marcus. I believe these men were just leaving town."

"I see."

"However, you might want to have your men help them find their way. I think they got a little turned around."

"My pleasure."

Hercules nodded with an icy smile.

The troops gathered up the two semi-conscious men from the ground and started to lead the group off.

Hercules swiftly turned and moved towards Iolaus. Moira and Caiphus were having a hard time trying to calm him down. In his haste to see what had been done to his friend, Hercules grabbed the blond's shoulder and swung him around. This had the effect of frightening Iolaus even more.

"No hurt Oluss!! came his terrified cry.

However, instead of backing off this time, Hercules enclosed Iolaus in his arms, holding him tightly. "Shh!! It's okay. It'll be okay," he comforted.

Iolaus, at first, was so fearful that he stood there shaking violently in Hercules' grasp, but as Hercules held and consoled him, his own arms finally went around the demigod and he pressed into the remembered safety and comfort. After a moment, the shaking slowed and Iolaus finally calmed down.

Hercules released him and speaking softly, led him back to the stool. Once he had him seated, Hercules examined Iolaus. He was relieved to see the only injury was the cut to Iolaus' bottom lip and some slight swelling. Moira provided Hercules with a cloth and some water and Hercules gently dabbed at the cut and bathed Iolaus' face.

"You rest for a few minutes. Then we'll start back home," Hercules stated as he moved a strand of damp hair from over Iolaus' eye.

"Thank the gods you got back as quick as you did. I'm not sure what they would have done to him," Moira said with tears in her eyes.

"I'm sorry we didn't take better care of him, Hercules," admitted Caiphus a little downheartedly.

"Don't be upset, Caiphus. There were too many of them. You two might have been hurt. Neither Iolaus nor I would have wanted that to happen." Hercules turned back towards the blond. "Are you ready to head for home now?" he asked with a smile.

A faint grin formed on Iolaus' face and he grimaced, reaching up to touch his injured lip. Moira immediately poured a bit more water on the cloth and put it back up against the cut.

"Thanks," said Hercules gratefully.

"You two have a wonderful hunting and fishing trip," said Caiphus, as he shook hands with the demigod and patted Iolaus' shoulder.

"Yes, enjoy yourselves," she said to Hercules, while reaching over and kissing both men on their cheeks.

"We will."

Moira smiled and pushed a cloth bag, obviously filled with pastries, into Hercules' hands. "I wouldn't want him to miss these," she laughed.

"And he probably would," Hercules acknowledged. "Take care and thanks for everything."

Hercules touched Iolaus' shoulder and they started off, but had only gotten to the edge of town when a coach, escorted by Captain Marcus and a dozen soldiers came rumbling up.

Hercules and Iolaus looked up into the face of Antares, who stuck his head out of the coach.

"Iphicles is getting ready to leave, but he figured after what happened, you might like a lift home. He sent me to check on Iolaus and to accompany you back, so we'd be ready to take off early tomorrow morning." As he spoke, Antares climbed down and approached Iolaus to examine the cut lip. "Doesn't look too bad," he said and turned and reached for his bag. He pulled out a small vial and a cloth and dabbed a stinging solution on Iolaus' injury. Iolaus pulled back and bumped into Hercules. Tilting his head, he looked up behind him into Hercules' eyes as the demigod placed his hands comfortingly on the blond's shoulders.

"It's okay, Iolaus," he smiled.

Antares finally climbed back into the coach and reached down to take Iolaus' hand as Hercules helped his friend up. Once Hercules entered, Antares added, "Captain Marcus has been instructed to accompany us to the castle to make sure it's a peaceful trip."

Hercules smiled and nodded as the Captain snapped a quick salute to them.

Once they reached home, Alcmene fussed over Iolaus and then after a quick meal, Iolaus was shuffled off to bed. It had been a long day and Hercules knew he was exhausted. Iolaus fell asleep almost the moment his head touched the pillow. Realizing how tired he, himself, was, Hercules soon went off to his rest, anxiously anticipating the next day.

Hercules was up bright and early. He had such a light-hearted feeling this morning. He had been able to find Iolaus' purple vest and leather pants and put them out before Iolaus rose. When Iolaus came out of his room with these old familiar clothes on, Hercules couldn't help but smile a little. Now he looked more like his partner and comrade-in-arms.

"Just one thing missing," Hercules announced. Approaching Iolaus, he opened the pouch on his belt. While his friend watched, the demigod removed a dark green object on a leather thong and slid it over Iolaus' head. The blond made a slight movement as Hercules first raised his arms, but when Iolaus saw the medallion dangling in Hercules' hands, he stood still and let it be dropped around his neck. He reached for it and examined it curiously for a moment; looking up as Hercules smilingly said, "There, that completes the picture," and noted with delight, Iolaus returning his smile.

Hercules moved away, only to turn back and see Iolaus turning the medallion over and over in his hand, examining it. The demigod realized it didn't have any real significance to Iolaus any longer, it was just curiosity. But it gave Hercules a great deal of pleasure to see it back where it belonged.

After an early breakfast, the small party began their journey to the lake. Alcmene and Jason rode in the horse-drawn cart, containing all the supplies. Hercules and Antares walked beside it, with Iolaus between them. After they were safely on the preserve grounds, Iolaus broke free of the group at times. With a simple nod of approval from Hercules, Iolaus wandered happily. Once again everything seemed to be new and exciting to him. Staying in sight, he explored to his heart's content.

Iolaus was eventually put in the back of the wagon after his steps slowed. His heart was willing to continue on foot, but his body was not yet up to the long walk. Once settled, he was content to ride and look.

So the trip that should have taken only a few hours to complete, had taken most of the day. However, no one seemed to mind. This was Iolaus' outing.

Shortly before they arrived at their location, Iolaus' eyes started closing. The motion of the cart lulled his weary body to sleep. It was decided to leave him asleep while they set up camp. They chose a beautiful grassy area, with a large clearing opening to the lake and across from a magnificent waterfall. It was surrounded by thick trees and bushes and a flowering meadows, much like the view of the gardens which Iolaus had loved.

When Iolaus finally rose, even as tired as he still was, the lake and waterfall drew his attention. Barely containing him until after they had eaten their evening meal, Hercules finally took him down near the water's edge for awhile. They removed their boots and Hercules let him wander along the shallow periphery for awhile. Then he brought him back to the shore's edge, just below their camp and sat watching as nature put on one of her best light shows for them. The others came down and joined them for the beautiful sunset.

After the moon rose above the water, the small group slowly moved back up to camp and prepared for sleep. Iolaus, of course, was asleep almost from the moment he put his head down. Hercules at first worried about remaining on guard, to make sure Iolaus didn't wake and wander off, but realized he would probably be asleep until late in the morning. He also knew that with all the 'ears': a mother's, a healer's, and two seasoned warriors, someone was bound to hear him. So he settled down and fell soundly asleep himself.

However, he need not have worried, he and the others were up long before Iolaus started to stir. Hercules came over and knelt down next to him as breakfast was about to be served.

He gently shook his shoulder. "Iolaus! Come on, wake up, buddy."

Iolaus' eyes opened. For a moment he seemed to be confused as to where he was. He looked around and then turned back as Hercules spoke again.

"Come on, sleepyhead, it's time to come eat."

Iolaus grinned and pushed the blankets off. He reached out and took Hercules' proffered hand and allowed himself to be pulled up.

After breakfast, Hercules and Antares led Iolaus downstream. A short distance from camp, they sat him between them on some rocks overlooking the water.

Hercules carried two fishing poles. Iolaus watched curiously while Hercules baited the hook on one of them and threw the line into the water. He then placed the pole into Iolaus' hands. Iolaus looked from the pole to Hercules. He held it tightly, but turned to watch as both Hercules and then Antares went through the same procedure with their poles.

When Iolaus finally looked back up at Hercules, Hercules replied. "Fishing." Both men smiled at Iolaus' curious look at them. It was only a short time later that Hercules' pole gave a sudden jerk.

"Antares, could you please take Iolaus' pole?"

Antares grabbed the pole and Hercules placed his own quivering one into Iolaus' startled hands. He wrapped his hands around Iolaus', letting him feel some of the pull on it and helped him, until they finally landed their prize.

Iolaus seemed surprised and delighted. He looked at Hercules, as Hercules held the large fish up, still dangling on the line. "Fishing" he repeated to Iolaus.

Iolaus grinned. He watched, fascinated, as Hercules removed the fish from the line, put it in a holding net and tossed it back into the water. He also watched as Hercules re-baited the hook and threw it back in, then he eagerly accepted his own pole back.

From that point on, Iolaus seemed to settle in. Both men were surprised to see how content he was to sit there without fidgeting or getting impatient. He appeared to understand the process and his patience was soon rewarded. With only minor help from Hercules, he was able to land one of the biggest catches of the day. Just before noon, much to Iolaus' dismay, the two headed back to camp.

Alcmene, Jason and Antares, who had come back earlier, watched as the two returned to camp, with their catches. Alcmene could see the pride in Hercules' eyes at Iolaus' accomplishment.

"Look at what Iolaus caught!" He beamed as he raised Iolaus' arm to display the catch.

"Iolaus, dear, what a beautiful fish," she exclaimed.

"Great job, Iolaus," Jason clapped his shoulder.

Iolaus looked to Hercules and saw his smile and began to grin, even as he turned back to the other smiling faces.

"Matter of fact," said Alcmene, "I think it would be nice if we fix Iolaus' fish for lunch. It will give him more a part in this trip, even if he doesn't realize it."

"Great idea, Mother," smiled Hercules.

However, as Alcmene reached out to take it, the smile disappeared from Iolaus' face. He quickly moved a couple steps backwards and turned sideways, keeping the fish away from reaching hands. "Oluss!" he stated emphatically.

Iolaus' defensive stance had caught them by surprise. At first startled by his maneuver, they stood silently watching him guard his fish. However, it finally dawned on them what was obviously going on in Iolaus' mind and they erupted in laughter. Iolaus' look of defiance suddenly melted as he turned a questioning glance on the group.

Hercules recovered first. "It's all right, Iolaus. If you don't want to give up your fish yet, you don't have to. Mother, why don't we prepare mine and maybe he'll understand what's going on."

The others agreed and moved off to their chores. Hercules sat down near the fire and began to clean his fish. Iolaus remained where he had stood for a moment and then moved over near Hercules and sat down to watch him -- still holding his own fish tightly in his arms. When Hercules was done, he passed it over to Alcmene, who finished preparing it with herbs and spices and placed it in the pan.

When Iolaus looked up towards Hercules, puzzled, the demigod smiled at him and stated: "Eat."

Iolaus looked at the fish sizzling in the pan and then back to Hercules. Tempting smells were already drawing the small blond. Iolaus then leaned over and dropped the fish eagerly into Hercules' arms. "Eat."

Hercules smiled and began to clean and prepare Iolaus' fish, much to the blond's delight.

Alcmene was soon happily frying Iolaus' fish too and he hovered over it, watching it until it was done and placed on the plates. His enthusiasm was enjoyed by all. As Alcmene handed him the first plate and he bit into his fish, he beamed her a glorious, golden smile. Her heart was so full of joy over the broad smile and bright, sparkling eyes before her that she reached down and tousled his hair. "I'm very proud of you, son. You did well."

The exchange was not lost on Hercules, who thanked her with his own glorious smile and a look of love at the two most important people in his life.

After Iolaus' lunch and a short rest, Hercules took him back down and allowed him to fish for the rest of the afternoon. He seemed to love it as much as the Iolaus of old. 'How many other memories remained,' wondered Hercules, as he rested back on the rock, watching his friend's enraptured countenance. Though they didn't catch anything this time, neither seemed to mind.

After dinner they sat on the bank once more and watched another glorious sunset. Hercules felt an inner peace and contentment he hadn't thought possible again. He smiled as a weary Iolaus moved closer and leaned his head against Hercules' shoulder. The demigod instinctively reached out and wrapped his arm around the small blond and Iolaus comfortably nestled into his arm like a sleepy child.

He knew this Iolaus was not the Iolaus he had grown up with. Things had changed. This Iolaus was trusting and childlike. It couldn't help but bring back thoughts and sweet memories of his own children. He still didn't know what Iolaus' mind was capable of grasping, but he would teach him as much as he was capable of learning, as he had his own children. That he vowed.

Alcmene looked over lovingly. "Well, son, I guess you've got him back completely now."

"Yeah. I have," came his soft, satisfied reply. Soon afterwards the tired group rose and headed back to camp. Rather than waking Iolaus, Hercules carried him up to his blankets and once again the small group settled down for the night.

The next morning was filled with more fishing, but in the afternoon after Iolaus' rest, Hercules, Jason and Antares decided to take Iolaus hunting with them.

Alcmene had been enjoying the solitude of the few hours the men had been gone. She had wandered down near the water and had enjoyed a short bath. Some time later, she heard some noise and saw Jason break through into the clearing. In his hands dangled a couple of quail.

She rose and met him with a kiss. Looking behind him she inquired: "Where are the others? Still hunting?"

"No. They're not too far behind me."

"Looks like the hunting trip was quite successful."

"Yeah. Hercules and Antares each have a quail, and ... and Iolaus has a rabbit," Jason stated laughingly.

"Iolaus caught a rabbit?" she smiled broadly. "How wonderful. I know how much he likes rabbit."

A wry smile flitted over his face as he heard the others approaching. "Yeah, well, I wouldn't get my heart too set on rabbit. This time, I don't thing we're going to be able to talk him out of it."

She looked curiously at Jason until she saw the others emerge into the clearing. As Iolaus came into sight, she almost gasped. Iolaus, indeed, had a rabbit. A very "live" rabbit.

She looked from Iolaus to Hercules. Hercules just grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

Iolaus went and sat down near the fire, with the rabbit securely in his arms, and begun quietly stroking its fur. Again Alcmene looked at the others, but they could do no more than shrug. Finally, they all came over and sat down near the fire and began to prepare the quail for dinner.

"Well, isn't anyone going to tell me about this?" she inquired with some exasperation, after a long period of silence.

"Alcmene," started Jason, "I'm not even sure I believe what I saw, let alone explain it."

"It was the darndest thing I've ever seen in my life," Antares agreed with a shake of his head.

Hercules smiled knowingly. His delight was that Iolaus had still appeared to have the keen eyes and hearing of a hunter. 'Another memory?'

About an hour after they had started out, they had come upon full traps, which they had set out the day before. Previous to that discovery, Hercules had been able to point out a few quick moving small animals to Iolaus. The men were not sure Iolaus really understood what was happening, but he had seemed most interested.

As they were going through a small clearing, Hercules saw Iolaus suddenly stop and look around. It was an old, familiar move. One he had seen hundreds of times in the past. He too stopped and halted the others with a wordless raise of his hand. He watched as Iolaus seemed to look around and listen, then focus in on a particularly bushy area. Suddenly, he found what Iolaus had seen and heard. Hiding in some overgrowth was a small rabbit, silently staring at them.

He held the others back as he watched Iolaus silently move a little closer and then stop. The rabbit, thinking it was well hidden, remained completely still. The blond then knelt down and he too became motionless. There was a small dead log laying on its side off to the right and Hercules quietly motioned to the others. The two men looked questioningly at Hercules but silently followed him and sat down.

There they sat for almost twenty minutes, watching the most unusual set of events they had ever seen, unfold before their startled eyes.

Hercules' thoughts returned to the present as he heard Jason's voice. "So we sat down on the log. Iolaus and that rabbit both sat, staring each other down for a short while. Then Iolaus moved one of his hands slowly out in front of him, and it held some of the berries he had grabbed earlier. He crushed a couple in his palm. Finally, that rabbit's nose started twitching and it slowly, hesitantly started moving. Right towards Iolaus. Iolaus never moved a muscle."

Jason watched Iolaus, as he sat totally engrossed with the rabbit in his arms. He shook his head for the third time, as he picked up the thread of his story again. "The rabbit finally got bolder, it came up and actually started nibbling the berries out of Iolaus' hand. Then swifter then I ever saw, Iolaus' other hand flew out and grabbed the rabbit by the scruff of his neck." He laughed. "It put up a small struggle, but Iolaus held tight, then the rabbit just resigned itself, I guess." He gestured toward the calmly, blinking rabbit in Iolaus' arms. "I've never seen anything like it before."

Antares nodded.

Alcmene laughed. It did not surprise her at all, as she winked at her son. As she leaned over to touch the soft fur of the rabbit, Iolaus grinned broadly.

Hercules grinned, too. This was nothing new to him. His Mother well knew he had seen Iolaus do this in the past, as they were growing up. Of course, the first time, he had been as awe struck as Jason and Antares were now. Well actually he still was; his friend's skills still never ceased to amaze him.

He remembered back to the clearing again, as Iolaus had finally held his prize; Hercules had heard a soft peal of laughter. Then a broadly smiling Artemis appeared next to him, looping her arms through his. Jason and Antares had already started towards Iolaus and only Hercules knew she was there.

He, too, was beaming at his friend. "You do that for old time's sake?" he quietly asked her.

"No. He did that all by himself," she answered. "Some memories are so deeply embedded they will find their way out no matter what." She looked into his eyes. "Especially those of friendship and love."

He leaned over and kissed her cheek, just before she disappeared.

His mind once again came back to the present, as he saw the joy on Iolaus' face. It certainly matched the feeling in his own heart.

Just before dinner, Hercules was able to convince Iolaus to release the rabbit back into the wild. Unlike the incident with the fish, the small blond readily opened his arms and watched the small furry creature bound away. Iolaus looked up and smiled confidently at Hercules, as the demigod lovingly squeezed his shoulder, and gave a verbal promise of more fishing in the morning.

Early the next morning, Hercules felt fingers prying open an eyelid. He slowly opened his other eye and found Iolaus kneeling beside him.

'Well, that hasn't happened in a long while,' he thought. With bittersweet joy he remembered the small, warm prying fingers of his little daughter, on more than one occasion, trying to open her father's eyes in an attempt to get him up. He laughed to himself and sat up.

"Fishing," was all Iolaus' said, but there was an eager expression which lit up his face. "Fishing," he repeated and started to pull on Hercules' arm, when he evidently hadn't moved fast enough to suit Iolaus.

Hercules laughingly rose. "I think I've created a monster."

Iolaus already had the poles and nets in his hand, as he turned and started down toward the lake.

"Wait, Iolaus," Hercules shouted.

Alcmene and Jason, sleeping on the other side of the campfire, roused. "Hercules, what's wrong?"

"Nothing, Mother. Sorry. Iolaus just woke me, he's in a hurry to go fishing."

She laughed. "Well, Iolaus always was an early riser when it came to fishing."

"That's true. I don't know how many times in the past he dragged me out before dawn," stated Hercules, before he ran to catch up to his eager friend.

"Well, that is quite extraordinary," said Antares, who had also been awakened by the exchange.

"Extraordinary?" asked Jason.

"Don't you realize, Iolaus is the one that initiated this. He's never done that before."

"Makes coming out here all worthwhile doesn't it," smiled Alcmene.

The two men fished until lunch, at times joined by Antares and/or Jason. Once again Iolaus was successful in snagging a couple large fish. And once more, Iolaus became the provider of the meal. More readily giving up his catch this time. If Hercules hadn't known better, he would have thought he had seen a look of satisfaction and pride on Iolaus' face. 'Was that possible?'

After things were cleared up from the meal and he had rested, Iolaus grabbed Hercules by the arm again. "Fishing!"

"No, Iolaus. No fishing."

Iolaus dropped his head, a disappointed look spreading across his face.

But a wry grin formed on Hercules' lips. "Swimming."

Iolaus crooked his head at Hercules, blue eyes questioning.

Startled, Alcmene turned to her son. "Oh, Hercules. Do you think that's a good idea?"

"Don't worry, Mother. I'll be right there. You know I'm not going to let anything happen to him."

She nodded, but a concerned look remained on her face.

Hercules smiled. "I have this feeling that this might be something else he'll remember. He doesn't seem to be afraid of the water at all."

"Well, please, just be careful." She was still going to worry, she knew.

"Of course."

Hercules took Iolaus by the shoulder and led him down near the water's edge and behind some thick bushes where they were going to strip down to their breechcloths. When Hercules finished, he moved out into the clear at a call from Jason.

As Hercules stood there speaking to Jason and his Mother, Alcmene suddenly looked up at a noise behind Hercules. She flushed a little and turned quickly away with a small gasp. At the same time, Jason raised his hand to cover his mouth, a small chuckle escaping. "Ahhh, Hercules, you might want to take care of that," he nodded his head.

Hercules turned to see Iolaus standing behind him. Startled at first, he took Iolaus' arm and guided him back behind the bushes. Alcmene and Jason tried to contain their laughter as they heard Hercules' voice: "Let's just put this back on Iolaus, okay?"

A few moments later, Alcmene watched Hercules and Iolaus move down toward the water. Knowing that Alcmene was still quite concerned about this venture, Jason had decided to join the others in the water, which eased her mind somewhat. It wasn't that she didn't trust Hercules. She knew he would never allow any harm to come to Iolaus, it was just that Iolaus was like a child now, and his actions were so swift and unpredictable. She brought a blanket down closer to the water's edge to sit and watch.

However, before long, her worries all but disappeared. Iolaus was unsure of himself at first and seemed to cling to Hercules, but before long he was swimming and chasing the others and seemed to be having the time of his life. Once again she cherished the giggles and laughter that rang to shore.

After about an hour, Jason swam to shore and joined Alcmene on the blanket. The two sat and watched Hercules and Iolaus as they continued to chase and dive and splash. It brought back more loving childhood memories and she leaned into Jason's arm and sat contentedly watching.

Hercules had watched Iolaus carefully and finally realized he was starting to tire out. He decided it was time to go back into shore. Iolaus was reluctant to go at first, but started to follow Hercules.

Alcmene and Jason, seeing that Hercules was bringing Iolaus in, rose and started to fold the blanket between them. Hercules was almost to shore and was just starting out of the water, when he turned back toward Iolaus. Only, Iolaus was no where in sight.

Hercules panicked at once. "Iolaus??!! Iolaus??!!" But there was nothing. Not even a disturbance in the water. "IOLAUS!!!"

At Hercules' hysterical yell, Jason dropped his half of the blanket and fled toward the water. Alcmene stood on shore, her hands over her mouth, trying to suppress her fears. She was shaking.

At the cries, Antares, who had been up in the camp, also ran toward the water.

Hercules had already dove back in and with strong, quick strokes was headed back where he had last seen Iolaus. But before he had gotten very far, a blond head popped to the surface a few yards downstream and started wading ashore. Hercules quickly closed the distance.

"IOLAUS!" Hercules cried out.

As the demigod reached Iolaus, he took a hold of the small blond's arm and almost dragged him onto the beach. The other two men, once they saw that Hercules had Iolaus, waded back in and caught up to Alcmene, who had fled towards the two boys.

Once on shore, Hercules took a couple of deep breaths to try and still his terrified heart. He was still shaking with fear, as the others arrived. He grabbed Iolaus by the shoulders. "Are you all right?" he demanded.

However, totally oblivious to the panic he had just caused and with a broad smile on his face, Iolaus brought his right hand out from behind his back. "Fishing!" he declared, and, dangling from his right hand was a large fish. In their terror and panic they had not seen it previously.

The group just stood staring blankly at the fish for a moment. Hercules recovered first and pulled Iolaus into his arms almost savagely, embracing him tightly. After a few moments, Hercules held him out at arm's length, hands on Iolaus' shoulders. "Don't you ever do that again, do you hear me?"

Iolaus was startled, first by the strong embrace and then by the harsh words. But instead of being frightened as he had been in the past, he tilted his head and looked up at Hercules. He reached his left hand up to Hercules' face and touched the tears that had started to slip unknowingly down Hercules' cheek. Iolaus gave a perplexed look at his wet fingers and then again at Hercules' face. "Hurt My Herc?"

Hercules knew Iolaus didn't understand how terrified he had been or why. "No, ... no not hurt," he smiled warmly at Iolaus and embraced him briefly once more. Then he looked down at the fish dangling in Iolaus' hand. "Fishing, huh?" He shook his head and began to laugh.

Iolaus eyes lit up once more and the smile returned to his face. Hercules took the fish and with an arm around Iolaus' shoulder, guided him back to camp. The others breathed a sigh of relief and followed.

After dinner, Hercules, almost reluctantly at first, took Iolaus back down to the shoreline. The others watched from camp as Hercules seemed to be instructing him in how to make rocks skip across the water. It had taken a few tries before Iolaus seemed to get the hang of it. But they soon heard the familiar giggles ring through the air.

Antares shook his head as he watched. "Those two are so amazing together. Hercules is so patient with him."

Jason smiled. "They have a long history together."

Antares was quite for a moment. "It must seem very unusual for Hercules."

"Unusual?" queried Jason.

"Here's two of the mightiest warriors this world has ever seen. Iolaus is struck down and although in the body of a man, has become like a child. And here is the great son of Zeus, the strongest man in the world, patiently teaching Iolaus things he probably had taught his own children. I'm sure it's been hard enough on Hercules to have Iolaus like this, but it must also be a constant reminder of his own lost family."

Alcmene nodded. "I'm sure you're right."

"You know, though, I think Iolaus, even like he is now, keeps Hercules centered. That was why it was so important for him to be a part of Iolaus' life," Jason interjected.

Alcmene agreed. "Iolaus has always made the way easier for Hercules. Kept him sane, especially through all the tragedies. Iolaus had ... has ... the rare gift of handling the ills of life and being able to bounce back with a smile. He's helped us all through hardships at one time or another. But none more than my son."

Not long afterwards, Hercules and Iolaus came back up and the camp settled for yet another night.

Hercules awoke and turned over. But even before he had opened his eyes, he realized something was wrong. Something was very wrong. It took him only a few moments to realize what it was: Iolaus was missing. He shot up from his blankets, looking around. "Iolaus? Iolaus, where are you?" Silence. "IOLAUS, ANSWER ME!"

There was no sound anywhere around, except for those of the others as they came awake at Hercules' cry.

"Son, what's wrong?" asked Alcmene.

"Iolaus is missing."

"Maybe it's just a nature call, Hercules," offered Jason.

Hercules was bending down near Iolaus' blankets. "No! His blankets are cold. He hasn't been here in awhile."

Antares asked, "Do you think he went fishing on his own?"

"No, at least not with the poles," answered Jason, as he checked out the equipment.

Alcmene spoke fearfully. "Oh, Hercules, you don't suppose he went back down to the lake to swim by himself do you?"

Hercules face drained of all its color as he rose and sped down to the bank, with the others close behind him. There was no sign of him anywhere around and no sign of his clothes on the shore or behind the bushes where they had changed the day before.

Slowly they returned to the camp and Hercules started looking around more carefully. He bent down once again by the blankets. There were so many tracks and no way to tell Iolaus'. Only the Golden Hunter could have found the right trail through all these tracks, he thought mockingly.

"Maybe he did go off on a nature call, but spotted something and curiosity got the better of him. He might not know how to get back," remarked Antares.

Hercules nodded. "Maybe. Come on, we have to find him!!"

Jason spoke up. "We'll split up. Cover three different areas. Alcmene can stay here in case he returns."

"I'll keep him here if he comes back. Go!! Hurry!!" cried out the frightened mother.

Jason nodded, "We'll meet back here in an hour. If we haven't found him by then, we'll find Iphicles' troops and get them to help us. I'm sure they'll be patrolling the area not too far away."

Hercules, Jason and Antares split off and took different paths.

As Hercules started his own search, he cursed himself for having brought Iolaus out here, or, at least for not keeping a closer eye on him. He should have been more vigilant. He had thought he or one of the others would hear him if he had arisen. They had let their guard down, become too complacent. He remembered the previous morning when Iolaus had pried his eyes open. Iolaus had been up and moving about the camp without anyone knowing. Why hadn't he remembered that and been more cautious.

He had thought this trip such a great idea in the beginning. After the time spent in the garden, he had felt Iolaus would love being in the great outdoors, and, he had. But the outdoors now held too many dangers for his friend on his own. The swimming incident had proven that. Now if Iolaus had wandered off, he could be open to any number of dangers. If anything else happened to his friend, he would never forgive himself.

He had wandered for almost an hour before his keen hearing had picked up a slight sound. He quickly raced toward the source. As he approached a small clearing, he distinctly heard Iolaus' terrified voice crying out. As he neared, the words became clearer.

"No hurt Oluss! ... No hurt Oluss! ... Change! ... Change!" Followed by muffled blows and cries of pain.

As he broke through the clearing, he stopped in total shock as he saw 'himself' bending over a frightened Iolaus. Iolaus was laying on the ground one hand holding his ribs and the other raised outward to try and protect himself. Before Hercules could move again, he saw the other 'Hercules' jerk Iolaus up by his vest and deliver a backhanded blow across Iolaus' face with his fist. The force of the blow sent Iolaus flying backwards several feet, where he lay panting and dazed.

The sight immediately pulled Hercules out of his reverie. Outraged beyond belief, he charged toward his double. There were deadly intentions in his eyes, as the double suddenly materialized into Strife. The god shot a small bolt of energy right in front of Iolaus' body. "I wouldn't, if I were you."

Hercules came to a skidding halt. It took him a few minutes to get himself under enough control to speak. His eyes never left Iolaus as he spoke to Strife. "I should've known! You led him off didn't you?"

Strife's eyes glittered with mirth and evil as he nodded. "You got it."

"Why? Didn't you do enough damage to him back at Delos?"

Strife roared with laughter. "Hey, man, that was only act one. How did you like my second performance?" he smirked. "I was brilliant, if I do say so myself."

"Second performance?" Hercules dropped his eyes for a moment, and then suddenly looked up. "Neleus! You were Neleus."

"Wow! You got it. And Unc said you weren't that bright."

"Yeah. Yeah, I got it," declared Hercules, as his anger began to build again. "That was how you got him to accept you when you first showed up. When you were alone with him, you changed into me. He didn't cry out because he thought I was there. When I came back into the room you had changed back into Neleus. Still no cries, because I was there ..."

"Pretty cool, huh?"

"Then after I left, you started knocking him around, but as me." Strife's cruel laughter was all the acknowledgment he needed. Hercules breathed heavily. "No wonder he was so terrified of me. The one thing that always puzzled me was his words: 'change,' but it all makes sense now. His cries of 'change,' meant you changed back into Neleus."

"Right on! I taught him that. You know that dummy really can learn."

"He's not a dummy!" Hercules shouted taking an angry step forward and Strife raised his hand threateningly at Iolaus again.

"Whoa, cool it, man. Don't get bent outta shape. Nothing personal."

"Nothing personal?!!! I almost lose him because of the riot you incited. I have lost him as a comrade, then you show up as his caretaker and hurt him again, and, now this ..., and you say it's nothing personal?"

"Where's your sense of humor? I was bored."

"Bored." Suddenly a stark realization came to Hercules. "I was gone for over a month. I can't believe you devoted yourself to his care for that long."

Strife shrugged. "It wasn't too hard. After a few little 'discussions' with him, he kept out of my, ahh, I mean, 'your' way."

Hercules remembered the bruises. 'I was right.'

"Did you even stay with him?"

"Me, stay and look after a mortal. You gotta be kidding me? " Strife continued, "Somehow he found it, shall we say 'safer', if he stayed in his bed all the time. It was a lot harder, of course, when your snooping family came around." The young god shrugged his shoulders. "Anyhow, he didn't cramp my style too much, once we established the ground rules. I was pretty much able to come and go as I pleased." He laughed as he saw Hercules' eyes grow large in horror.

"You left him all alone," Hercules spit out.

"Hey, I was back in time for meals. ... Well, at least some."

"How many of those did he actually get?" he thundered, remembering how thin Iolaus had appeared to him when he had first seen him.

Strife shrugged carelessly. "I only did it to reinforce his lessons." Strife's eyes suddenly narrowed and an evil gleam came into them. "By the way, how does it feel to be raising another child? Of course, he's a little older than you're use to. But, I thought you might like a replacement for your three."

Anger exploded inside Hercules and he lunged toward Strife, but Strife had been expecting it and disappeared from his present spot, only to appear on the other side of Iolaus.

"No, no, no," he teasingly laughed. As he saw Hercules about to attack again, a knife suddenly appeared in his hands. He moved in closer to Iolaus' still prone form and toyed with the blade. "I wouldn't, if I were you."

Hercules stopped abruptly.

"Ahhh, that's better. Isn't it?" Strife laughed.

Hercules visibly stiffened and his hands flexed in and out from a tight fist. "What do you want, Strife?"

"I'm still bored. I want to have some more fun." He paused dramatically. "Tell you what," Strife said, as he noticed Iolaus trying to rise. "How about we play a game. Winner take all," and he pointed the knife in Iolaus' direction.

Hercules followed Strife's gaze, a mixture of anger and fear in his eyes. "I'm not playing any games with his life."

Only his dread of what Strife was capable of doing to Iolaus kept his anger in check, although it took everything he had in him to keep that control. For what he had done to Iolaus, he would have gladly incurred the wrath of the gods once he got a hold of Strife.

"All right, then I'll kill him now." Strife started to advance on the helpless blond.

"No, wait!" cried Hercules.

"There, that's better. I thought you'd see it my way, 'Herc'." Strife laughed as Hercules' bristled. "Ooops, sorry, I forgot, that's his name for you, isn't it? Don't want to bring up painful memories."

Hercules' eyes smoldered.

"Okay, now here's the rules. We both get to call him," he said, "and the one he goes to 'gets' him. Now isn't that fair?" He laughed maniacally, as he transferred back into the likeness of Neleus.

Hercules looked over at Iolaus, who had finally managed to struggle up. He was still holding his ribs. The new bruise on his face was already puffed up and turning colors. Hercules heart wrenched. How could one person be made to suffer so much pain, and for no other reason than he was a beloved friend? How would he ever convince Iolaus that it was not him that had struck the blows.

His hands were tied though. If he refused to play this game, Strife would kill Iolaus outright. He had no doubts about that. If he was killed by a god, this time all the threats and browbeating would not bring Iolaus back. But if he did play this game, Iolaus would probably be too frightened to come to him and he could only imagine the new sufferings he would receive in Strife's hands. Although he knew Strife would make sure he saw the end results.

Iolaus stood unsteadily. He turned and looked toward Hercules and there was a hint of tears in his eyes, along with a mixture of fear and betrayal. Hercules heart broke at the sight.

Strife looked at Hercules and laughed evilly. "May the best god win. Oh, sorry again, I forgot, I'm the only god here. You're just half, aren't you?" prodded Strife.

"Let's get on with it," snarled Hercules.

Both began to call Iolaus, imploring him to come to them. There was a wavering at first on Iolaus' part. Something that confounded Strife somewhat. With the attack on Iolaus in Hercules' form and the look the blond had just given Hercules, he didn't think there would be any hesitancy.

"Come on, Iolaus," came the voice of the older man, who had been his caretaker. "Come to me. Hercules will hurt Iolaus."

Iolaus started to take a step toward 'Neleus,' when Hercules' called out to him again. "No, Iolaus, please."

Iolaus stopped and looked toward Hercules.

"Iolaus!" yelled 'Neleus'. "Hercules will hurt Iolaus. Come! Now!" he repeated.

"No, Iolaus! Please, don't be afraid." Hercules raised his hand, imploring Iolaus.

It was obvious that this was a struggle for Iolaus. He looked back and forth between the two, while they yet overlapped their pleas. Both men had their arms outstretched to him now. Iolaus hesitated one last time and looked first towards 'Neleus' and then to Hercules. He then turned toward 'Neleus.'

"IOLAUS, NO!" Hercules voice cracked as he cried out the name in one last pained plea, a few tears escaping, unnoticed, "PLEASE!!"

For a moment Iolaus stood and looked at Hercules. Then without any further hesitation he went straight to him. Hercules couldn't believe it. Standing before the demigod, Iolaus slowly raised his hand, and as he had done twice before, he reached up and touched the tears. "My Herc."

Hercules put his arms around the shoulders of the smaller man and embraced him tightly. "Iolaus." But his joy was short-lived when he opened his eyes and saw that Strife had changed back into his own form. Hercules saw the look of fury and released his friend, quickly moving Iolaus behind him.

Strife was livid. "NO!!! You can't have won!! It's not possible!!" He angrily raised his hand and threw an energy bolt at Hercules, knocking him across the clearing.

Hercules shook his head trying to clear it. He looked up and terror struck him as he saw Strife, knife in hand, advancing towards the confused blond. He knew he could never get to Iolaus in time.

"NOOOoooo!" Hercules screamed.

But before Strife was even able to get close to Iolaus, a shimmering light appeared and a form materialized between them.

"You always were a poor loser, " came Aphrodite's angry voice.

Before Strife could recover, Aphrodite's appearance was followed by Hephaestus, then Artemis, Athena, Hades and Persephone, Hermes, Cupid, Psyche, Demeter and Proteus, until one after another of the Olympian gods and goddesses formed a protective ring completely around Iolaus.

Strife stood with his mouth wide open, as Hercules struggled to his feet, himself too shocked to move at first.

Strife looked fearfully from one to the other. He had never really gotten along well with any of these Olympians, but working alongside Ares, it had never really bothered him much before. However, he suddenly realized that he was in way over his head.

Hercules finally made his way toward the circle and to the blond. He saw Iolaus' fearful, unsure look at what was happening and Hercules reached out and touched his shoulder and squeezed it gently. A faint smile crossed Iolaus' lips, as he looked up at him trustingly; a look Hercules had been afraid Strife had once again destroyed. Hercules breathed a sigh of relief.

It suddenly dawned on Hercules that the gods had actually intervened for once. He couldn't believe it. They had actually saved Iolaus' life. This was one he would owe them. His eyes suddenly narrowed. There was something he owed Strife, too.

While Strife was still focused on the group, Hercules turned and charged him, catching the god by surprise. "Keep Iolaus safe," Hercules shouted over his shoulder to the others, as he hit Strife head on.

For awhile the fight was very lopsided. Strife never even had a chance against Hercules' tremendous strength and zealous anger. Strife realized he could not win against Hercules' brute strength. However, Ares was always telling him to "act like a god," to "use your powers." At the next approach of Hercules, Strife once again used a bolt of energy and tossed the demigod across the clearing.

Strife quickly looked over at the others, having almost forgotten their presence during Hercules' attack. But beyond cheering for Hercules and seemingly protecting the blond mortal, they had not tried to interfere.

Hercules shook off his disorientation and struggled to regain his footing, but before he could completely rise, Strife struck out at him once more. As Hercules went down again, Aphrodite and Artemis felt Iolaus break between them, a cry of "My Herc," coming from his frightened lips. Both made a grab for him but he slipped past them.

However, before he got very far, Zeus materialized right in front of the small blond and grabbed him by the arm. The king of the gods noticed the fierce anger emanating from icy blue eyes. "Whoa!! No you don't, son. This is no match for you."

Iolaus looked up at the imposing figure holding on to him and tried to wrestle free. "My Herc, My Herc," he shouted, agonizingly struggling against the iron grip.

Zeus also turned back to see a dazed Hercules trying to rise. As Strife raised his hand for yet another strike, a warning bolt dropped harmlessly in front of his feet. Strife looked up and saw Zeus. Its' meaning was all too clear. Strife certainly had no death wish and that was exactly what tangling with the king of the gods would mean. He decided it was time to make a swift exit.

Hercules had just regained his footing when Iolaus broke free from Zeus and ran straight towards him. Iolaus' force almost knocked him over again.

Hercules could feel Iolaus' body shaking in fear as he held him. He heard the tears in his voice. "Hurt My Herc."

"No, Iolaus, I'm not hurt. It's okay," he comforted. "It's all right." After a few minutes of consoling Iolaus, he finally felt the shaking subside.

As the small reunion took place, Zeus spoke to the others and one by one they disappeared. Zeus then turned and walked towards the two men.

"Iolaus is quite a friend. It was all I could do to hang on to him, to keep him from charging in to help you," Zeus laughed.

Iolaus turned around, startled by Zeus' voice so close behind him. Hercules put a comforting hands on Iolaus' shoulders as the smaller man stood in front of him; both of them facing the king of the gods.

"Zeus?" Hercules looked surprised to see his father. Looking around he realized they were alone. "Where are the others, I wanted to thank them."

"I asked them to leave. Besides, it's Iolaus you need to thank. He came over to you by his own free will."

Hercules eyes opened wide. "How? He's like a child. So vulnerable, so innocent and ... he had just started trusting me again, then Strife used that trust to hurt him again. I saw the fear back in his eyes."

"You just answered your own question, son." At Hercules' confused look, Zeus continued. "Iolaus is like a child, but along with it, he has the eyes and heart of a child. Any child, even one in Iolaus' condition, has the capacity to discern love. Can't you, Iolaus?"

Zeus smiled down at the small blond, who was watching him intently. "You were ready to jump in and protect Hercules, too, weren't you?" Zeus reached up and laid a gentle hand on Iolaus' head. Startled by the sudden movement, Iolaus jerked back against Hercules, who quickly wrapped protective arms around the shuddering form. "It's all right, Iolaus. It's okay. You're safe."

"That was very brave of you, my young friend," Zeus said looking straight into Iolaus' eyes. "I'm very proud of you."

"He's always been brave, and, he's always been there for me." A look of pain came into Hercules' eyes. "I always thought I'd be there for him, too."

"You have been."

"Have I? When it was most important, I failed him."

How did you fail him?"

"Out on the road to Delos before all this happened, Iolaus was concerned. It was almost as if he knew something was going to happen. I flippantly promised to protect him. Some protection." Anger tinged his voice. "I can protect and save whole towns and villages full of strangers, but I haven't ever been able to protect those I love the most! Deineira, the children." Hercules' arms gently tightened around his friend. "Iolaus!"

"I know it's been hard on you. I'm sorry." He hesitated for a moment. "Hercules, I want you to know how very proud I am of you also, son."

"Of me? Why?"

"You had a chance, before you ever found out about Strife's masquerade, to separate your life from Iolaus'. He was no longer the man you had known; the warrior you traveled with and fought beside. As far as you knew, Iolaus was being well taken care of. Even your Mother tried to dissuade you. You could have walked completely away and had your own life back. But you didn't."

"Walk away? Don't you understand? I love him. I always will. He isn't just my best friend, he's my brother. Maybe not by blood, but by everything else. I would never walk away, no matter what happened to him."

Hercules never noticed the smile that came to Zeus.

Hercules sighed. "You know it's funny, but in all this, I had finally thought I'd found one small bit of comfort in this tragedy: Iolaus would finally be safe. No more worrying about whether some battle or quest would take him from me for good. He was no longer a threat to anyone." He laughed harshly. "What a joke, huh? I should have realized how much more vulnerable he had really become."

"I know," sighed Zeus.

"Now that it's too late, there is so much I wish I had told him."

"Like what?"

Hercules smiled and tilted his head slightly, resting his cheek against the golden curls. He moved his right hand and placed it over Iolaus' heart and felt the strong, solid beat beneath. "What a great heart he has. How much his love and friendship has meant to me all these years. How he's given me the freedom to just be me, not some great, mighty hero all the time. How he's understood and comforted when I've been angry, frustrated, hurt. How proud I've always been to have him by my side. For his strength, his wisdom, his passion of life and his laughter. For all the times he's saved my life or just been there for me when I've needed a friend. How he got me through the hardest times in my life, when I wanted nothing more than to just curl up and die. And, especially for being willing to stick by me even when he was constantly targeted by my enemies or when at times he lost his own identity in mine. For just being Iolaus."

"I'm sure Iolaus knew all that already."

"I know, but I just wish I had told him more often."

Iolaus stood, unmoving, with Hercules' arms still protectively locked around him.

"You brought us together, didn't you?"

If Zeus was surprised by the question, he never showed it. "I brought about the circumstances for you to meet each other. But it was the two of you who accomplished all the rest."

"I always wondered. Thank you for that."

"You're welcome."

A faint smile suddenly spread across Hercules' face, as he raised his head. "You know Hera and Ares aren't going to be too happy about you and the others intervening with Strife. They're probably going to think you all have now extended your protection to a mortal."

Zeus smiled and reached out, touching Iolaus' shoulder as he spoke. "Would that be a bad thing?"

"Well, personally I don't have a problem with it," came a soft reply.

"Neither would I, Iolaus." Hercules froze. "Iolaus?"

Hercules spun the blond around, holding him at arm's length. He suddenly found himself looking into loving blue eyes, which now sparkled with life and intelligence. Spread across the beloved face was that glorious golden smile.

"Iolaus?" He repeated, almost afraid that the image would somehow fade.

"I'm here, Herc," Iolaus beamed, wincing slightly as the grip on his arms gradually tightened.

Hercules suddenly pulled Iolaus into an almost bone crunching embrace. "Iolaus." However, the minute his arms went around the small blond, he could hold back his emotions no longer. All the fear and terror he had felt since Iolaus' disappearance and then the discovery of him in Strife's hands was too much. As he held onto Iolaus, his body suddenly became racked with enormous sobs.

Suddenly it was Iolaus who was the comforter. He held the demigod tightly in his arms, his hands stroking his back. "It's all right, Herc. It's over with. Everything is okay. I'm back!"

Zeus stood silently, smiling and watching the emotional reunion of the two. As he had been many times before, he was extremely pleased he had brought these two together. They were good for each other.

As Hercules sobs finally died down, he suddenly released Iolaus, horrified. "Iolaus, I'm sorry. Your ribs."

"They're fine, Herc. The pain's all gone."

While he spoke, Hercules also realized that the new bruise on Iolaus' cheek had disappeared as well. He turned to Zeus.

"A little bonus," Zeus shrugged.

Hercules pulled Iolaus back into a quick bear hug. After releasing him, he placed an arm around the smaller man's shoulder, reluctant to let him go.

"How? When? Are you really all right?" Hercules said shaking his head, still in shock.

"Yes, really. It happened when Zeus reached up and touched my head earlier, I felt almost like a charge of energy course through me and all of a sudden ..."

"But why didn't you speak up earlier? Let me know."

"I wanted to, but I couldn't. Something kept me from moving or even speaking, until just now when Zeus touched my shoulder."

Both looked to Zeus.

Zeus shrugged. "You had some things you needed to say and Iolaus needed to hear them. I thought it would be easier this way." The king of the gods laughed. "Now, if you two think you can stay out of trouble for awhile, I'll be on my way."

Zeus started to raise his hands to disappear, when Hercules reached over. "Wait!"

Zeus hesitated.

"There's one more thing that needs to be said. I know we haven't always seen eye to eye, and I've blamed you for a lot of things. But, well, what you and the others have done today for Iolaus, ... for me ... I'll never forget this. Thank you, ... Father."

"You're welcome, son."

"Thanks from me, too, Zeus."

"My pleasure, Iolaus. Now, you two take care of each other, all right?"

Simultaneously came the reply: "We will."

With that, Zeus disappeared.

For a moment the two friends just stood silently. Then Iolaus turned to Hercules. "Herc, what you said earlier. I--I just wanted to say thank you. You know I feel the same." He looked up almost shyly.

"I know."

There was an awkward silence for a few moments. Finally, Iolaus laughed. "A little awkward isn't it? I guess Zeus knew what he was doing, huh?"

Hercules' laughter joined his. "Yeah."

But it didn't stop Hercules from pulling Iolaus into another quick joyful embrace and then with his arm still around Iolaus' shoulder, they started back towards camp.

"Come on, my friend, I know where there's going to be some very happy people."

As Hercules and Iolaus entered the camp, they saw that everyone else had returned from their search. They turned at the sound of the two men. Alcmene was the first one to notice their approach and ran towards them; the others following close behind. She reached up and lightly touched Iolaus' face.

"Thank the gods you found him, Hercules. Is he okay? What happened?"

"I'm afraid I had another run in with Strife, Alcmene," came Iolaus' soft reply.

"Strife? Oh, Iolaus, I'm so sor..."

Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other and started to laugh at the range of emotions that all of a sudden flitted across the startled faces of Alcmene, Jason and Antares when they realized that Iolaus had just spoken coherently.

Alcmene threw her arms around Iolaus' neck, hugging him tightly and kissing his cheek, while Jason clapped him on the back, and Antares shook his hand.

"How?" asked Jason.

You won't believe what happened," Hercules quietly answered. "Come on, let's go sit down and we'll tell you all about it.

Iolaus looked at the group innocently. "Ummm, would you mind if we had some breakfast, too? I'm kind of hungry," pleaded Iolaus.

Joyful laughter broke out. Their Iolaus was truly back.

After some swift preparations, the small group sat down before the campfire and finally heard the story of Iolaus' miraculous protection and full recovery.

Epilogue

Later that evening, after Alcmene, Jason and Antares had settled down, Hercules slowly headed toward the shoreline. He breathed deeply. The air had never smelled sweeter. The stars in the deep midnight sky never seemed to have twinkled brighter. And a lustrous, full moon cast a soft, rich glow over the clearing, shimmering brightly on the dark water. Its' angle almost appeared to create a stairway rising straight upward. For just a brief moment, Hercules felt as if he could walk that stairway right up into the heavens themselves. He laughed to himself at his sudden flight of fantasy. But he couldn't seem to help it. His best friend, his comrade in arms, the brother of his heart and soul, had been restored. And his heart rejoiced greatly.

He stopped for a brief moment and watched the object of his thoughts down by the water's edge and a slow smile formed on his lips.

Iolaus was sitting motionless, his knees tucked up under his chin, his arms wrapped around his legs, staring intently out into the night. However, having felt his friend's presence, Iolaus unwrapped his frame and turned slightly. "Hi."

"Hi! Do you want some company?" Hercules asked hopefully.

"Sure. "

Hercules approached and dropped down companionably next to his partner. "You looked so pensive, I wasn't sure you'd want to be disturbed."

Iolaus' gaze became thoughtful once more. "Just a lot to think over?"

"I know." Hercules looked anxiously at the small blond. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. Will you stop worrying about me."

"Sure. Not a problem."

The two looked at each other for a moment and started laughing.

"You know what I mean," Iolaus finally remarked.

Hercules nodded, but a concerned look soon made its way to the forefront again. "Have you been able to remember anymore?"

Iolaus had remembered most of the events that had happened after his arrival back in Corinth, being established back in his own room and the period after Hercules had taken over his care again. What he had not yet remembered was his time in Delos directly after the injury and the time spent with Strife, in the guise of Neleus.

Iolaus shrugged. "A few more details I guess. Most of them a little disjointed, though."

Hercules reached out and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Antares said it may take awhile to put it all in some order. Give it some time. It'll come." Although Hercules sincerely hoped he would never have any memory of Strife's interference.

"Yeah, I know," the blond smiled gratefully.

Iolaus turned his head toward his friend and saw the flash of sadness that came over the even features of the demigod. Knowing Hercules as well as he did and from what had been said earlier, Iolaus knew how much Hercules had suffered through all this.

"I'm sorry, Hercules," he said softly.

Questioning eyes caught and held his friend's. "Sorry?"

"That you suffered so much," he stated.

Hercules looked at him and shook his head. "Am I missing something here, Iolaus? You have nothing to be sorry for. You were the one that suffered."

"Maybe physically. But, I don't even remember any of that," Iolaus stated."

"And I sincerely hope you never do, but, I remember it only too clearly." Hercules stopped and the overwhelming joy he had felt earlier began to give way to depression and a deep anger.

For a few moments both men sat silently. Iolaus watched as Hercules' eyes closed and knew he was trying to contain his rage. The small blond sighed.

"Herc, do you know what "I" remember most about all of this?"

"What?" the demigod asked apprehensively.

"I remember feeling happy and content when you were with me." Iolaus stared out at the moonlit water, almost as if he could see it all before him. "I felt safe and comforted. I knew you loved me and that you would care for me. I was never afraid, as long as I could see or hear you close by."

There was a sharp intake of breath from Hercules.

"You have no idea what a great gift you've given me, my friend."

"Gift?" Hercules turned slightly misty eyes toward Iolaus.

"How many people can say they got a second chance at their childhood?"

The demigod gave his friend a puzzled look.

Iolaus laughed softly. "Herc, you know what my life was like growing up. My father never cared anything about me. Physical and verbal blows are all I ever knew from him, during his infrequent visits home. I knew my mother loved me and I knew you and Alcmene loved me, too, but somehow ... somehow I guess I always felt something was missing." Iolaus paused. "You know, I use to watch you with your children. You were so loving and gentle and patient with them. I knew then, that that was the missing piece in my life. What a real family was meant to be. But I figured that would always be lost to me. My father was incapable of that. You changed all that, Herc. You gave me the chance to experience having a father who loved me and wanted me. Unconditional love and acceptance." Iolaus' voice cracked on the last words and looked up hesitantly. "It was worth everything I had to endure through this whole time to know that. And I'll never regret it."

Hercules reached over and pulled the smaller man into his arms. "I only gave you what you always deserved, Iolaus," he whispered softly. 'What every child deserves,' he thought to himself, but 'especially you, my friend.'M

Cleansing and healing tears flowed freely from the two. A short while later they released each other and sat silently for a few moments, gathering their emotions back into some semblance of order -- reflecting on and savoring the moment.

Iolaus finally broke the silence. "Thank you for being there for me."

"Anytime, my friend. Anytime at all." Hercules then paused for a moment. "You know, I just realize another good thing that came out of all of this was the chance to finally tell you some things that were long overdue. I'm grateful to Zeus for that."

"Herc, that was never necessary."

"No, Iolaus, it was -- IT IS -- necessary. What I said earlier, should have been said long ago and repeated many times. I've taken you for granted for so long. Your friendship. Your love. Your presence. What it costs you to stay by my side."

"What it's cost us, Herc. What it's costs us. And, my friend, I stay because I can't think of any place else I'd rather be, or, anything else I'd rather be doing," smiled Iolaus.

"I know," came an answering smile. "But the cost at times is ..."

"... is well worth it. What we do is important. We make a difference in peoples lives and we make a good team."

"Yeah, we do. We always have," Hercules agreed.

"That's more than enough for me. I wouldn't be happy doing anything else," Iolaus added.

Hercules stopped for a moment and just stared into the sparkling blue eyes, a fierce pride showing. "You know, you're remarkable, my friend." Hercules smiled affectionately. "It wasn't until I thought I had lost you, that I really truly realized how lucky I am to have a friend -- a brother -- like you by my side. I don't think I've ever said it to you before, Iolaus, but I don't think I could do what I do without you there. You anchor me and keep me sane. Let me be myself."

"Who else would you be?" Iolaus asked wryly, feeling things starting to become a little too serious again.

"Nobody. Nobody else, as long as you're there."

"Well, then you better get use to being 'you' for a long time, because I have no plans of leaving."

Hercules chuckled and reached out and patted Iolaus on the back. "Good! Because I plan on holding you to that."

"Fine by me," Iolaus beamed.

"By the way, in case I haven't already said it, 'welcome back, partner. I've missed you'."

"Thanks. I'm glad to be back, partner," Iolaus said softly.

Hercules finally rose and reached his hand back down. "Come on, let's get some sleep, I know you still have to be tired. Besides, you still look too anemic to suit me, you need a lot more meat on your bones. Plus, the fish aren't going to wait all day for us."

Iolaus smiled broadly and reached for the extended hand and was pulled up. "Eating and fishing. Two of my favorite things. Let's get to bed."

As they walked up toward camp, Hercules slung a careless arm around Iolaus' shoulder and their laughter filled the night.

Alcmene, having heard Hercules leave camp and go down to Iolaus, raised her head slightly at the laughter and saw the moonlit forms of the two returning. She smiled as only a proud and loving mother could. She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed silently: "Thank you, Zeus. Thank you for giving both the boys back their lives." She smiled and then settled back down, curling into Jason's arms and dropping off to sleep.

And the king of the gods, having watched the scene between the two men unfold and then hearing Alcmene's words, smiled. He was pleased. It wasn't often he was able to help the three he cared most about in the mortal world. However, this time he hadn't been alone.

Tonight the small group below could sleep without fear or worry, unknowingly watched over by more than one Olympian god.

~~ finis ~~



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