For about the third time that evening, Hercules thought to himself how great it was to be back in Thebes. As Iolaus went up to the bar to get two more ales, Hercules leaned his large frame back comfortably in his chair. He was feeling quite full and content. The two had just polished off a great meal and were now enjoying catching up on all the happenings here in their hometown.
Sitting with the two was, Talon, an old friend and the town healer. He was a man in his late 50's, with brown hair, which was slowly graying at the temples, and brown eyes that had seen much pain and suffering, but could yet enjoy life.
About halfway through the meal, they had been joined by Demetrius and his son, Marcus, who's farm bordered Alcmene's land. Demetrius was a big man, a few years older than Hercules and Iolaus. He stood almost as tall as Hercules, and possibly outweighed him by about fifty pounds. But despite his size, he was a gentle, jovial man, with a keen business sense and a great sense of humor. Marcus, who was just barely twenty, was simply a younger version of his father.
Although listening to the story Demetrius was telling, Hercules nonetheless let his eyes skim the room. He had been passively watching the many friends and neighbors who had been coming and going for the past couple of hours. Many had stopped by and greeted the two warriors, warmly welcoming them back into their midst. Thebes had always been a tightly knit community and the people were always happy to see their hometown heroes return.
This local inn had been the main meeting place for the town. Men would come to get caught up on what was happening, to share information or ideas, or relax from the day's work. Hercules smiled at being back in a more peaceful atmosphere. It was just what he and Iolaus needed.
Hercules and Iolaus had returned to Thebes only that morning. They had pushed themselves hard the last four days, once the decision had been made to return home. Both were looking forward to some much needed rest and relaxation. Something they hadn't had much of in the past few months.
They had been going from one appeal for help to another for over three months straight. It had idly occurred to Hercules that they had not been in any one place longer than a few days, and then only long enough to take care of the immediate threat-at-hand before another plea or summons would send them racing off in another direction. Sometimes the hero business seemed endless.
They were exhausted. Weary in both body and mind. Especially Iolaus. Hercules had never seen him so languid before. Iolaus had always had more energy than any ten people he knew. He had been like that for as long as Hercules had known him. But finally even Iolaus' supply had been depleted.
Arriving in Thebes, they had immediately headed to Alcmene's old farm. It was empty at the time, since Alcmene and Jason were in their castle in Corinth. This home was used only when they wanted to be on their own and get away from the big city.
Although Iolaus' home was closer, they had decided to push on to Alcmene's, since friends had been taking care of the place regularly and it was always ready to live in. With no thoughts of anything but sleep, they had rummaged through an old chest for some clean linen and blankets and the two quickly made up the beds in their respective rooms and were soon fast asleep.
Hercules had awakened first, although reluctantly. After realizing how late it was, he had finally managed to rouse Iolaus. Iolaus, too, was reluctant to leave the comfort of the first comfortable bed he had seen in months. He was finally persuaded when his empty stomach took precedent over his exhaustion.
Seeing there were no supplies in the house, they headed to the inn for dinner. Truth was, they were looking forward to a nice warm meal that had not been cooked outdoors, or, by their own hands. They would enjoy the meal, have a couple of ales while catching up with friends, before going back to those warm, comfortable beds.
Hercules idly turned his eyes toward Iolaus. He watched as the hunter leaned heavily against the bar, speaking to a neighbor. Even from here he could see the weary smile and the slightly sunken eyes on his friend's face. Maybe they should have just left after the meal. Well, the two had decided on one more round of ales before heading back. He would hold Iolaus to that, although he doubted if his party-loving friend would offer much objection this time. Iolaus looked like he was almost dead on his feet.
The innkeeper handed Iolaus two mugs and with a last comment to the man next to him, the hunter turned and immediately collided with a big man.
The man's mug and its contents went crashing to the floor. Iolaus, however, had fared a little better. With a certain amount of fancy footwork and juggling, he had managed to lose only a small amount of the liquid out of his mugs.
Hercules was pulled from his slight reverie by the accident. It had almost seemed to him that the big man had bumped into Iolaus on purpose. But that was crazy.
"Hey, watch where you're going," came the angry reply from the big man.
"I'm sorry, I didn't see you," Iolaus apologized with a smile.
"You drunks shouldn't be allowed in public with decent people," was the angry response.
Iolaus' smile faded a little. Hercules brain went on immediate alert and his body straightened in his chair. But Iolaus merely looked up at the big man and with a cool, calm voice said, "Look, friend, I'm not drunk. It was an accident. Why don't I just buy you another drink and we'll call it even, okay?"
"I ain't your friend and another drink ain't gonna do it. Maybe I'll just wipe up the floor with you," he laughed.
Suddenly the inn quieted down. Hercules slowly rose from his chair, but remained where he was. He had caught a look from his friend's blue eyes and an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
"There's no need for a fight, mister. I'm apologizing and offering you a drink. Why don't we just leave it at that," Iolaus tried again.
"Oh, so there's more yella than just your hair, huh, shorty?"
Now there was dead silence in the inn. Most everyone in the place knew Iolaus and were well acquainted with his quick fiery temper. Men instinctively started backing up 'out of the line of fire.' This man had just taunted the blond warrior with two major trigger words, ensuring a less than peaceful ending to the evening.
Hercules moved the chair back from behind him. There was going to be trouble and he was not happy about it. This man was big and powerfully built. As least as big as he and Demetrius. Any other time, Hercules would not have worried quite as much about the small blond. Iolaus was more than capable of taking care of himself. However, he knew Iolaus was not really up to this confrontation. Even on the best of days, Iolaus would not likely come out of this fight without a few cuts and bruises. However, Hercules had seen enough cuts and bruises on his friend these past few months to last a lifetime.
As much as he would like to prevent this latest altercation, Hercules also knew he couldn't interfere. His head-strong friend was very proud and to imply he couldn't take care of himself, especially in front of their friends and neighbors, could cause a bigger problem. But, he was going to be prepared nonetheless.
However, Hercules was startled and finally realized the true depth of the blond's exhaustion as he heard Iolaus' reply. "Look, I've already told you I'm sorry. I don't want to fight. Plus, I'm sure the innkeeper doesn't want his place rearranged." Iolaus' hands still held the mugs of ale, his arms outstretched in a gesture of truce. "Just accept the ale."
"Are you telling me what to do?" came the angry retort.
Iolaus sighed and a look of weariness and exasperation spread across his face. Normally he liked nothing better than a good brawl to get the blood going, but he was tired and he really didn't want this fight. He just wanted some peace and quiet for a change.
But peace and quiet were not on the big man's agenda.
No one actually saw where the knife came from. One moment the big man's hand was empty, the next, the gleaming blade was swiftly heading for Iolaus' chest.
For a brief moment everything in the inn seemed to stop as the man brought his bloody hand back free of the blade. Then suddenly chaos erupted.
Demetrius and his son had also risen and moved their chairs back at the same time as Hercules. As Hercules ran towards Iolaus, the two men circled and came up behind the big man and seized him. Even as they pinned his arms, he managed to turn with a savage smile as he saw Hercules reach Iolaus. He had heard Hercules' scream and saw the outrage and terror written across the distorted face. As he was being dragged out of the inn by the two men, Hercules heard him yelling out: "Victory for Hera."
At Hercules' scream, Iolaus turned slowly toward him. Iolaus saw the terrified look on his friend's face, as he froze in front of the small blond. Iolaus lowered his head, following Hercules' frightened gaze, and looked down at his own chest. He seemed almost surprised at the sight of his blood flowing freely from several wounds and the knife still embedded in his side.
He had felt several sharp jabs and heard his own voice cry out in pain, but everything had happened so fast, he hardly had time to register it all. In shock and confusion, he now looked up questioningly at Hercules, as if his friend could explain what had happened.
Then reality set in. The mugs slipped from his hands, crashing to the floor, as he felt himself start to sink. Everything started swimming, as strong arms quickly reached out for him. He felt himself lifted up into a place of safety, comfort and warmth. Before he gratefully faded into the sanctuary of blackness, he heard Hercules' hysterical cry of his name once more.
Like the others, Hercules had not seen the knife appear at first. The big man had held it in the hand closest to the bar. As he heard Iolaus' cry and saw the other people move back in surprise, Hercules barrelled through; slinging chairs, tables, and people aside to get to the blond hunter.
Now here he stood, with his friend protectively cradled in his arms. In his own weariness and shock, he stood there helplessly for once, unsure what to do next. His mind was still screaming: 'This can't be happening. Not here! Not home!'
Suddenly he felt arms guiding him and he looked over to see Talon and the innkeeper.
"Come, Hercules, let's take him back to one of the rooms."
Hercules nodded and gratefully followed the two men almost in a daze; happy to be given some instructions. He was guided into one of the rooms and gently laid Iolaus on the bed. Sitting down beside the already pale figure, he pulled opened the vest and gasped. 'Blood. So much of it. This was Iolaus' precious life-giving blood flowing so freely.' Talon was on the other side of the bed and reached up to the corded neck and felt for a pulse.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, can you hear me!" came Hercules' hysterical cry. "Iolaus, answer me."
The eyelids fluttered a bit, and he heard a few faint moans, but Iolaus remained unconscious.
"IOLAUS!! Please! Answer me."
"Calm down, Hercules," came Talon's quiet voice.
Hercules' hand reached down toward the knife still embedded in his friend's side.
"No, Hercules, don't touch that knife, ..." Talon shouted.
Hercules froze and looked up numbly.
"If you pull that out before we're prepared, he could bleed to death. Let's take it one step at a time. Okay?"
Bordering on hysteria, though, Hercules grabbed Talon's arm, nearly yanking the man off his feet. "You've got to do something, Talon. Get the knife out. He's bleeding so much. You've got to stop it. He's going to bleed to death."
Demetrius and Marcus, having locked up their charge, returned swiftly to the inn, just in time to assist Talon. Demetrius assessed the situation quickly and with a quick nod from Talon, gently tried to draw Hercules away from the bed.
"Come on, Hercules, give Talon a chance to look Iolaus over."
"Let go of me!" came Hercules' angry cry as he pulled away from Demetrius.
Demetrius grabbed him once again, and this time was joined by his son. They temporarily managed to pull him away from the bed. But no one was about to make the demigod do what he didn't want to do, and at present he wanted to be near Iolaus.
He was able to loose himself easily from both men, merely by flexing his arms and flinging them backwards. The two stumbled but didn't fall. Quickly, Talon intercepted Hercules by stepping in front of him. "If you think you're helping Iolaus like this, you're wrong. You're only making it worse on him. Look at him, Hercules. He can hear every word. He knows your upset."
Breathing heavily, Hercules finally calmed down enough to look past Talon and watched Iolaus tossing back and forth restlessly. "Herc! Herc!"
"Besides that," continued the healer, "you're keeping me from caring for him. Now settle down."
Nothing served to calm Hercules down like seeing his friend so obviously distressed.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I didn't mean ... You just don't know what he's been through in the past few months." Hercules was close to tears.
"What I'm sure you both have been through, Hercules. But he needs you calm."
Hercules nodded. He breathed deeply a couple of times and came and sat down on the bed next to Iolaus' tossing form. Barely holding his emotions in check, he reached up his hand and began to caress Iolaus' forehead. "Iolaus, I'm here. Shh! Shh! It's alright. Everything is alright. Just lay still. Don't move."
Hercules watched as the tossing and turning slowed and then finally stilled. Iolaus seemed to calm down.
"Good. Good. Just rest easy now. Talon's going to take care of you."
Talon put his hand on Hercules' shoulder and Hercules turned and slowly rose. The healer quickly moved back to Iolaus' side once more and began his work.
Hercules moved away. He was emotionally drained. Demetrius led him, unresisting over to the other bed and sat him down there and Hercules put his head wearily down in his hands. A moment later Demetrius touched Hercules' shoulder. Looking up, he accepted the mug that was handed to him. He was so upset and exhausted he didn't even notice the bitter taste as he drank.
Shortly after, he felt even more sleepy than before and he realized Demetrius was lowering him into the bed and holding him down gently as he struggled to rise. Then nothing.
When Hercules awoke, he found he had lost two whole days. Talon admitted to giving him something to put him out and to keep him sleeping. His first reaction was extreme anger at being placed in a position of not being able to be awake to watch over Iolaus. But Talon quickly reminded him that he had been completely exhausted, he had been in shock after the vicious attack, and his emotional limits had been overloaded to almost irrationality. Although still upset, Hercules reluctantly conceded that he understood why it had been done.
Talon conveniently forgot to tell him that he had also missed two days of Iolaus' tossing and turning in fever and convulsions. Although he had a sneaking suspicion that from Hercules' restlessness during those times, he probably had heard them all; just as Iolaus had heard Hercules. However, unknown to Talon, they had mixed in with Hercules' own harrowing dreams of Iolaus' attack. Hercules never made the connection.
When Hercules was once again calm, Talon quietly explained Iolaus' injuries. The blond warrior had three knife wounds: two in his chest and one in his side. Remarkably, no vital organs had been hit. He was weak, he had lost a lot of blood, but he seemed to be holding his own. Talon thought that Iolaus had a very good chance of recovery.
During the next couple of days, Hercules sat by Iolaus' bedside watching over his friend. Most of it spent in black thoughts of guilt and anger. Guilt for having brought Iolaus back to Thebes, although the decision had been made jointly. Anger at his own inability to keep those he loved safe. Anger at his father for his failure to control his evil wife. And the most intense anger directed at Hera, herself, for her continued effort to hurt the one man he loved most in this world.
These black thoughts brought back their recent adventures. How many times had Hera lashed out her attacks directly at Iolaus in the past three months? His eyes sought the healed scar on Iolaus' right bicep, from a little over two months ago in Tanius. One of Hera's elite troops had attacked them on a road to the town. They had gone straight for Iolaus. Then there was a smaller, fainter set of scars on his left shoulder, sharp talons from one of Hera's 'little flying pets', over a month ago in Elisia. He remembered the creature swooping down directly at Iolaus, striking before he could reach it. Then less then three weeks ago, the now fading bruises on his right temple, from hairline to jaw, and his left side at his ribcage. Administered by more of Hera's elite soldiers. Once more, Iolaus the main target.
All these attacks directed at Iolaus for no other reason than to hurt Hercules. And they had readily accomplished their purpose. Each attack had torn through Hercules' heart like a sharp pain.
Hercules dipped a cloth in the cool water and started to bathe Iolaus' pale face and neck. The weariness was still so evident on the beloved face. Only now it had been joined by pain. He wished he could use the cloth to wipe away all the pain and hurt. He sighed.
Finally on the afternoon of the fourth day, Hercules was rewarded with a fluttering of the eyelids and the blue eyes slowly opened. Hercules breathed a sigh of relief.
"Iolaus," Hercules uttered, "you had me so worried."
Iolaus slowly focused on the voice and smiled. It was a moment or so before he whispered, "Hercules!" His voice was weak and full of pain.
"How do you feel?"
"Don't ask." Iolaus' eyes searched the room. "Where are we? ... I thought ... we came home." Iolaus caught his breath as fire seemed to shoot through his chest and side. He closed his eyes for a brief moment.
Hercules quickly reached over and grabbed a small vial Talon had left and mixed it with some water. Lifting Iolaus up slightly, he put the mug to Iolaus' lips. "Here, take this, it will help the pain." Iolaus grimaced at the taste, but slowly drank it all. Hercules then helped Iolaus back down and pulled the covers up snugly around him. It would take a little while for the potion to take effect.
Coughing, Iolaus repeated his question.
"Shhh. Don't talk, just rest. We are home. We're in one of the rooms at the inn."
Iolaus eyes took in the room and turned to Hercules questioningly.
"You were stabbed."
Blinking back another wave of pain, Iolaus nodded. "I remember ... the man. Hera," he whispered. He immediately regretted his words when he saw the anguish and guilt on Hercules' face.
"I'm so sorry, Iolaus. I should have never suggested coming back here. Corinth would have been safer. ..."
"... I always put you in danger. No matter how hard I try ..."
"Herc!" Iolaus realized how upset Hercules was becoming. He vaguely remembered in his recent fevered state, the angry, hysterical voice of his friend.
"... she keeps on hurting you again and again."
Hercules was finally pulled back from his tirade as he heard the moan and noticed the blond's eyes closed in pain once again. Hercules' grabbed his hand and held tight, helping Iolaus ride it out.
When it was over, Iolaus gratefully smiled at Hercules. "Not your fault," he whispered and saw the distraught face and tear-brimmed eyes that met his. "Never been ... your fault." Then Iolaus faded into that blessed darkness again.
This time Hercules' tears flowed freely. All that pain and still no look of condemnation in those blues eyes. He wondered, as he had many times before, how Iolaus ever stayed with him time after time, after all the attacks. After all the pain. Yet, Hercules could not even envision a life devoid of this bright, loving, noble friend, this brother, by his side.
And Iolaus' heart, despite the darkness and safety of his sleep, registered the tears and pain.
Talon came in the next morning to check on Iolaus and to clean and rebandage his wounds. Iolaus regained consciousness shortly after. As the healer worked over him, Iolaus focused his weary gaze on Hercules. He saw the torment still on his friend's face and in his eyes. In that one look, a decision was made.
After Talon had finished and was cleaning up, Hercules sat down on the bed next to his friend. He smiled faintly, his heart in his eyes.
Iolaus looked directly into the blue eyes. "Herc, ... I want to ... go home."
"Iolaus, it's not safe to move you yet. You could break the wounds open and start them bleeding again. Later, when you're stronger I'll take you back to the farm...."
"No, ... I mean ... my home ... my bed."
"Iolaus, we haven't been in Thebes in months. You're place isn't in any shape to ..."
"Herc, please!" Iolaus interrupted. He tried to rise, but the pain sent him reeling back down before Hercules could catch him. Hercules reached out for Iolaus' flailing hand and wrapped both his around it.
"Easy! Easy! ... See, you're not ready."
Unable to speak at present, Iolaus let his eyes plead.
Hercules looked up at Talon questioningly. "Can I safely move him?"
Talon paused, then nodded. "If you're careful, it can be done." Talon saw a grateful look from Iolaus, along with something he didn't quite understand.
Hercules looked back down at Iolaus.
"Please!" came the whispered voice.
After a moment, Hercules finally nodded. "Alright. But it may take a little time to get your place cleaned up. It's been empty a long while. You rest until I can arrange it."
Iolaus smiled a weak thank you before he obediently closed his eyes. He was soon sleeping peacefully.
"Talon, could you please stay with him until I return?"
"Of course, Hercules."
Hercules rose and stood for a moment looking down at the small blond. He wasn't happy about this, but he would honor his request. There wasn't anything that Iolaus could ask of him that he wouldn't be willing to do, if it would mean that his friend would get well quicker.
Hercules left the inn, prepared to head out to Iolaus' place and get it ready. In his haste, he almost ran over Demetrius' wife, who had been at the marketplace. She stopped to inquire about Iolaus' condition and when she heard about his request, much over Hercules' protests, she insisted on going out there at once with her two daughters to make the place ready. She shooed him back to Iolaus' bedside and said she would send Demetrius and Marcus to help him, when she was ready for them.
A few hours later, Demetrius and Marcus showed up at the inn with the news that the place was ready and Iolaus could be brought home. At Talon's suggestion, Hercules had gone to his place for a stretcher. He felt it would be too dangerous for Hercules to carry Iolaus in his arms all that distance for fear of jarring him too much. A cart would be too bumpy. The stretcher, carried by these men, would offer the least amount of stress to Iolaus' injured body.
The small convoy soon arrived at the house. The women were still there and Hercules' couldn't help but observe that they had accomplished more than a cursory cleaning in the short time. He also had noticed the wonderful smells of baked bread, meat and soup permeating the house.
Hercules soon had Iolaus comfortably arranged on his own bed amongst clean, sweet smelling linens and blankets, that Demetrius' wife had obviously brought from her own home. He flashed a grateful smile at her for all her extra thoughtfulness.
Talon quickly checked Iolaus over, as Hercules and the others hovered silently. Iolaus had been given something to keep him comfortable during the trip, so slept serenely on. Talon finished his examination and declared Iolaus had made the journey without any problems.
With relief, Hercules saw Talon and the others off with his deep gratitude. Demetrius had told Hercules he would return the next evening to see if there was anything he needed. Talon had indicated he would drop by in a couple of days to look in on Iolaus to make sure he was progressing well.
As he came back into the bedroom once more, Hercules could seen a peaceful, content look on Iolaus' face, as if even in his sleep, he could sense he was home. As he sat to take up his vigil once more, there was no doubt in Hercules' mind that Iolaus would soon recover. His beloved friend was now on the mend.
At least that's what should have happened.
A couple of days later, Hercules finally had to admit to himself that Iolaus seemed to be losing ground. Talon dropped by that very afternoon and Hercules immediately spoke his fears.
"Talon, what's wrong with him? The wounds seemed to be healing well, but now he's getting weaker and weaker. I don't understand? You have to do something."
Talon sighed. "I had hoped I was wrong, ..." he said softly, as he examined the blond.
Hercules' ears picked up the words. "Wrong? Wrong about what?"
Talon looked up at Hercules and shook his head. "I can fix broken bones and I can sew torn flesh, but I can't keep someone alive who doesn't want to be."
"What? What are you talking about?" Hercules turned to him startled; his mind refusing to grasp the unbelievable words.
"I'm sorry, Hercules," Talon gazed at him sympathetically.
"No! You're wrong," he angrily cried out. "I've seen Iolaus survive a lot worse injuries than this. He's got the strongest will to live of anyone I've ever seen. He would never just give up. Never! There must be something else. Something you've missed."
"I've missed nothing, son. You're right, he should be better by now. But flesh can only take so much. I was afraid of this when he asked to be brought home." Talon paused. "I believe he was asking to be brought home to die."
Hercules violently shook his head. "NO! I won't believe that."
"No, I don't want to hear anymore. Iolaus is not going to die." Hercules stubbornly turned and sat down in the chair near the bed. "I won't let him."
Talon stood for a second just looking at the demigod's shaking frame. He knew the fear and anger at this admission. He also knew that probably deep inside, Hercules already had started to believe this himself. He squeezed Hercules' shoulder and walked out of the small dwelling. There was nothing more he could do here.
That night, Hercules sat and watched over Iolaus. He couldn't help but notice how shallow the breathing was becoming and he saw a grayness in the beloved features that had not been there earlier. He could no longer deny it. Talon words were true. Iolaus was slowly slipping away from him.
He couldn't understand why this was happening. Iolaus had healed from wounds much worse than these. But now, for some reason, Iolaus had just seemed to be giving up. Had seemed to stop fighting. Well, he wasn't going to allow it. He wasn't going to lose Iolaus without one big battle.
He reached over and placed his hands on both sides of Iolaus' face. "Iolaus! Iolaus, can you hear me? Wake up."
Iolaus moaned softly.
"Iolaus!! Come on. Wake up. Iolaus!!
Iolaus stirred and slowly opened his eyes. His voice was weak and strained. "Herc?"
"Iolaus, we have to talk."
"I know. ... Have to say ... goodbye."
"Not goodbye, Iolaus!"
Iolaus smiled faintly. "Have to go ... has to be ... this way."
"What are you talking about? Why does it have to be this way?"
"I'm tired, Herc. ... So tired ..."
"I know you're tired. You've been through so much lately," Hercules voiced cracked, "but all you need is some rest."
"The pain ..."
"I have something that will help with the pain, Iolaus. But you can't give up."
"It's my fault for keeping us out on the road so long. My fault for allowing Hera to ..."
"No!" Iolaus raised a hand and laid it on Hercules' arm. "Not your fault. ... Never been ... your fault. ... I chose."
Hercules hands moved from Iolaus' face down to once again clasp Iolaus' hand. "You never chose Hera. She chose you, -- because of me."
"Soon it'll be over, ... then she can't hurt you anymo..." Iolaus broke off, his eyes showing he had spoken more than he had planned.
Suddenly it all became quite clear to Hercules. "Iolaus, you're allowing yourself to die because of me, aren't you?"
Iolaus turned his face from the demigod, but Hercules raised his hands and turned it back. "Iolaus!!! Iolaus, look at me!"
Iolaus slowly raised his eyes to the demigod's. It was written plainly, and, lovingly.
"No, Iolaus!! I won't let you sacrifice your life like that. Not to her. I need you here. By my side."
Pained eyes locked on Hercules'. "Herc, ... I've seen what ... she's doing to you. ... Each time ... she attacked ... saw your face ... your pain."
Hercules started to interrupt, but Iolaus raised his hand to silence him.
"Herc, ... she's tearing you ... apart ... piece by piece ... soon ... won't be ... any pieces ... left."
"Iolaus, if I lose you, she'll have finished the job."
"I know ... it may hurt ... for awhile. ... But you're strong ... you'll survive. ..."
"No, Iolaus. Not this time. She's already taken too much away. I--I can't ..." Tears formed in his eyes.
"Herc, ... it'll be okay." A golden smile shown from Iolaus' face. He closed his eyes and was so still that Hercules was afraid he was gone already.
Panicking, Hercules reached up and with shaky fingers touched the pulse on Iolaus' neck. It was weak, but it still beat against his fingers.
He reached down and grabbed the shoulders. "Iolaus, no. Please, don't leave me! Please!" he cried out again, giving Iolaus' shoulders a quick shake.
Iolaus' eyes drifted back open. "Soon, Herc. ... soon be over."
"No! Iolaus ..."
Hercules quickly moved up behind Iolaus on the bed, cradling him in his arms, trying to hold his friend's life force there.
Iolaus leaned back wearily against Hercules' shoulder and looked up at his friend.
"Have to say goodby ... now."
"Iolaus, don't do this, please ..." Hercules' hand captured one of Iolaus' hands.
Iolaus tried to squeeze Hercules' hand, but there was barely any strength to it. "We had ... lot of good times ... Only one regret ... we weren't ... brothers."
"You know how much you've always meant to me, Iolaus. We've always been brothers. Brothers of the heart.
" 'Brothers of the heart'," Iolaus repeated with a smile. "Has a nice sound. ... Just wish we ... could have been ... real brothers ... shared the same ... blood."
The tears coursed their way down Hercules' cheeks and fell onto his and Iolaus' hand, which were still tightly clasped together.
In the stillness that followed, suddenly the air became charged with electricity. Both men felt it.
"What makes you think you aren't real brothers," came a thundering reply that seemed to emanate from everywhere at once.
Iolaus and Hercules were both startled, as shimmering light flooded the room and the king of gods appeared.
"Father!" Hercules recovered first.
"Zeus," added Iolaus.
"Hello, boys!" he smiled broadly.
"What, ... what did you just say?" asked a stunned Hercules.
"You mean about the two of you being brothers?" he smiled.
Iolaus nodded weakly.
"Just that. You are, and always have been, half brothers."
Iolaus and Hercules exchanged startled glances.
"Are you ... serious?" breathed Iolaus, his eyes suddenly bright.
"Completely. You are just as much my son, as Hercules is."
"How?" Hercules asked.
Zeus raised his eyebrows amusedly. "Hercules, you've had a family of your own. I shouldn't have to explain these things to you now."
An exasperated look flitted across Hercules' face, but turned to a smile as he heard a faint giggle from Iolaus.
The giggle turned into a cough and Hercules quickly reached for some water, allowing Iolaus to drink. After taking a few sips, he nodded and Hercules looked back up to Zeus.
"I know *that* part, ..." he picked up where they had ended.
"Oh, you mean Iolaus' mother?" Zeus only shrugged. "I came to her the same way as I came to your Mother, my boy. In the form of her husband. She was very beautiful. Sparkling blues eyes, long golden hair, incredible smile. I loved her as much as I did Alcmene. Fortunately, no one ever found out about my visit. I even erased her memory of the visit. However, Skouras, arrived home a month later than he was suppose to. He was a little suspicious about the whole thing, when Iolaus was born a few weeks early. He never accused your mother of anything, but I'm afraid he probably thought there was something amiss. You were so small when you were born that the midwives were positive you had just come early. There was great concern about you even surviving." Zeus sighed. "But I still don't think Skouras ever completely bought it. I'm sorry, Iolaus, I'm afraid it didn't make for a very good life for you."
Iolaus turned away for a moment, letting the astonishing words sink in. Skouras was not his father. It certainly did explain a lot of things.
"Skouras stayed close by for awhile, so I never got a chance to go back and visit in the beginning. It was just as well, it was too dangerous for you both anyhow." Zeus continued. "When Skouras went back to war again, and then rarely came home, I was able to easily arrange circumstances for your Mother to move. She was worried about your joining that gang and starting to steal. I made sure she came to Thebes. Hercules' mother had already moved there. It was one way I could keep an eye on you both, without it arousing any further suspicion." He grinned. "I had no doubts that you two would soon reestablish your friendship. Then I could visit you both, while seemingly visiting Hercules. Hera's wrath at Hercules was already strong though, so I had to limit my visits."
Iolaus was astonished at the words. He remembered several visits by the king of the gods around the campfire when he and Hercules were out on missions in earlier years. Usually when Hera was away. He also remembered the warm treatment and the encouragement he had always been given by Zeus. He had thought it merely because of his friendship with Hercules. Then another thought came to Iolaus.
"But if I'm, ... I'm half god, ... why don't I ... have special powers, ... like Hercules?"
"The powers given to half mortal children are up to the gods to dispense. In your case, it was up to me. But it would have been too dangerous for you. Like I said, no one ever knew. I just couldn't risk it. Since Hera already knew about Alcmene, there was no use covering it up. Hercules would need all the advantages he could get. However, when I realized the problems it caused Hercules, I knew I had been right in protecting you." He paused and smiled. "Besides, you do have some special powers!"
"Yes, you do. Your unrivaled skills as both a hunter and warrior were strengthened by my hand. Plus, all that boundless energy you have," his eyes twinkled, "how else did you ever think you kept up with Hercules. Your fierce love of life, your indomitable spirit. These were all gifts I was able to safely give you, since they could also be easily thought of as just exceptional human characteristics."
Once again Iolaus seemed to be turning all this over in his mind. He looked up at Zeus. "But why are you ... telling me now?"
"Because in your pain and exhaustion you were about to sacrifice yourself. I know you thought you were helping Hercules, but you were too weary to understand what you were really doing, playing straight into Hera's hands." Zeus paused. "I have already allowed your life to be spared twice ..."
"Three," Iolaus corrected.
Zeus looked to Hercules, who nodded.
"Three times. I could not allow it again without arousing suspicion. Also, Hera finally grew bored at watching Hercules suffer. She thought your death was a sure thing and there would be time to gloat later. Hera never was very patient. I had to come while it was safe."
Zeus noticed that Iolaus had been trying harder and harder to stay awake. His energy was fading once again. "It's up to you now. You must choose. If you choose to die, I will have to allow that this time, to protect the remainder of your family."
Hercules had sat silently supporting his friend, listening to the conversation between the two. He watched Iolaus' tired, flushed face and for the first time in months there was a look of real joy there. The golden smile that had been absent too long had returned and a semblance of life had slowly crept back into the weary cerulean blue eyes.
Iolaus looked up at Hercules. "Brothers! .... We're actually brothers. ... I can't believe it. ... Isn't that great, Herc?"
"Yeah! It's the best thing I've ever heard, Iolaus. But now you need to rest, okay?" Hercules said with concern in his voice.
Iolaus seemed to still be lost in his own world. He looked up vaguely. "What? Rest? ... Yeah, sure. ... Rest. ... I'll see you in the morning, Herc."
Hercules slipped out from behind him and settled him down on the bed.
"Remember," warned Zeus, "this has to remain our secret. It could be dangerous if you even speak of it again. I took great care before I came here, but you can't ever tell who will be listening. It's for your protection and your family's. Alright?"
Iolaus nodded. "Alright."
"Good boy," Zeus smiled.
Iolaus closed his eyes and the two thought he was already asleep. His eyes popped back open briefly. He looked up at Zeus. "Thank you, ... Father," and he reached out a hand.
Zeus reached and grasped and squeezed the hand in his. "You're welcome, son."
This time Iolaus did fall into a deep sleep, a beautiful smile on his lips.
Hercules reached over and felt the pulse on Iolaus' neck. Already it was beating stronger and steadier. Hercules closed his eyes for a brief moment and then looked up at Zeus. "Thank you."
Hercules paused. "Zeus ..."
"Sorry, I'm afraid I haven't time right now to stay and chat. It might be dangerous. I'll check back later."
Hercules watched as Zeus quickly disappeared. "Sure. See you later. Dad!"
Iolaus was slowly back on the path to health. His strong will to live had resurfaced and he had grown steadily stronger. However, once he was feeling better, he had nearly driven Hercules to distraction trying to get up and move around before he should, somewhat impeding his progress. As much as Iolaus had improved, he still was weak. Although he stubbornly refused to admit it.
At one point, Hercules had been occupied at the forge and Iolaus had not wanted to disturb him. Iolaus was on his way back to the house after a nature call. However, his short trip out had well taxed his reserves. Hercules came back towards the house just in time to see Iolaus fall to his knees. Hercules had helped him back into the house and put him back to bed. There had been a round of threats, which Hercules knew Iolaus had not taken too seriously.
The one thing that Hercules had noticed, however, was the joyful, peaceful look that Iolaus constantly wore. He had never seen Iolaus so happy.
Two days later, Iolaus had been allowed up for a short time and seemed to be doing well. He and Iolaus had just finished lunch at the table when Zeus appeared once again.
Iolaus was pleased to see Zeus and greeted him warmly. However, Iolaus realized from Hercules' surprising coolness, that he was not as happy to see 'their father.' Zeus, 'his father.' He still found it hard to believe. But he chalked Hercules' aloofness up to their old estrangement.
Zeus laughed and clapped Iolaus lightly on the shoulder. "Iolaus, my boy, you're looking well. I'm happy to see you made the right choice."
"Thanks!" Iolaus answered. He looked up at Hercules and smiled. "I had a lot of incentive."
Zeus merely nodded.
Before anything else could be said, there was a sound of female laughter, after which the pink clad form of Aphrodite materialized in front of Iolaus. She smiled brightly at him.
"Hi, Sweetcheeks, I heard you had been hurt while I was gone." Looking him up and down, she smiled and declared, "Mmmm! Well, it didn't seem to last. You're certainly looking very gorgeous right now." She laughed and reached over and placed a quick kiss on his flushed cheek. She then turned to Hercules, "Hi, bro, how's it going?"
Before receiving an answer from either, she turned and took in the imposing figure standing nearby and started to laugh.
"Hermes, what are you doing here? You do realize Father is back, don't you?"
Iolaus' smile at Aphrodite's greeting, slowly fled from his face and a startled look appeared, as suddenly the form of Zeus dissolved into that of Hermes.
"Does he know?" Hermes nervously questioned Aphrodite, looking all around.
"I don't think so, but I wouldn't push my luck. I don't think he'd be too happy about your impersonation. What's the joke?"
Hercules looked over and saw the color drain from Iolaus' face. Iolaus looked from Hermes, to Aphrodite, and then over to Hercules. Hercules could read the shock and hurt in his friend's eyes. The hunter opened his mouth as if to speak, then turned and fled out the door.
Hercules found Iolaus sitting out behind the forge about fifteen minutes later. His back was to him.
"Iolaus?" came a soft questioning voice.
Iolaus stiffened a bit as he realized he was no longer alone, but he remained silent.
Hercules tried again. "I think we need to talk."
He saw Iolaus raise his hand towards his eyes. With a crack in his voice, he finally said, "What's there to talk about, Herc. Your family did it to me again, didn't they?" He shook his head. "You think I'd learn by now, wouldn't you?" Followed by a small bitter laugh.
Hercules knew the hurt Iolaus must be going through. "Iolaus, turn around."
"Please, go away. Now is really not a good time."
"Now is exactly the time. Turn around. ... Please!"
Hercules thought at first that Iolaus was not going to acknowledge his request, but slowly he swung around. However, his eyes never left the ground.
"Iolaus, I know you're disappointed in what happened ..." he hesitated, looking for the right words.
In the hesitation, Iolaus spoke up almost angrily. "But you're not. Are you?" Slowly he brought pain filled eyes up to meet Hercules' gaze. "I guess I was too excited myself about the possibility, so I didn't realize it before; but you never seemed to really be too enthusiastic about the prospect of us being brothers."
Iolaus watched as Hercules' eyes dropped.
Iolaus quickly rose and stood before Hercules' downcast gaze for a moment, then turned and walked off.
Hercules took off after him and grabbed his arm. "Wait, Iolaus, it wasn't that, it was just that I knew ..." Hercules stopped.
"Knew what?" Then all of a sudden Iolaus understood. "You knew about the deception, didn't you? You knew all along it was Hermes."
Hercules hesitated at first. "No. ... I ... I didn't know it was Hermes."
Iolaus noticed the hesitation and narrowed his eyes. Hercules looked away uncomfortably. "I just knew it wasn't Zeus."
Iolaus laughed bitterly. "You all must have had quite a laugh in there, huh? Good old Iolaus, going off the deep end again." Iolaus closed his eyes and lips tightly to try and stay in control.
Hercules smiled lovingly. "No. No one was laughing. It was never meant as a joke, Iolaus."
The clear blue eyes looked full into Hercules' matching orbs. "Then why didn't you tell me before? Why did you let me rant and rave about all this."
With a small fierce shake to the shoulders Hercules said, "because what he said gave you the will to live. You were going to let yourself die. Nothing I said seemed to matter. I would have done anything, said anything, promised anything, to keep you alive. I would have even told you *I* was your father if I had thought it would have worked."
Shaken by the whole admission, Iolaus stood silently.
Hercules continued. "Iolaus, do you think it makes any difference to me whether the same blood runs through our veins? Do you really think that's what makes us brothers? Iphicles and I have some of the same blood, and although things are better now, you know that it didn't make any difference earlier in our lives. Ares and I also have some of the same blood, well ... we won't even go there. But it's not the blood. Our history together, Iolaus, yours and mine, *that's* what makes us brothers. We've always shared everything. We've always been there for one another. There isn't anyone that knows me better than you do. Not even my Mother. We always have been and, always will be, brothers in the truest sense. Always brothers of the heart, and, of the soul."
The two locked eyes and a volume of unspoken words were conveyed between them.
A faint smile appeared on Iolaus' lips. "I'm sorry, Hercules. You're right."
"Aren't I always?" Hercules added.
Hercules put his arms around the smaller man and embraced him tightly and was rewarded with Iolaus' arms tightening around him also. A small moan from Iolaus broke them apart.
"Sorry, Iolaus. I forgot about your wounds."
Iolaus' smiled broadened. "That's alright, Herc." He paused. "If it wasn't a joke, then why did Hermes do it?"
"He said it was partly as a favor to us. He knew how much you meant to me and the torments we had been experiencing from Hera these past few months. He also mentioned something about you having been one of 'his children' long ago, in your 'sorted' youth. Not to mention that Hades was already getting all worked up about my storming the underworld again. Something about paper work and a revolving door," Hercules shrugged.
This brought on a round of laughter.
Hercules noticed the weariness creeping back to Iolaus' face and put his arm around Iolaus' shoulder and slowly started to guide him back to the house.
With a mischievous grin, Iolaus looked up to Hercules. "You really think I would have bought that part about *you* being my father?"
Hercules shrugged. "I don't know. It might have been worth a try."
"Nah. I'd of never believed that." He paused and the mischievous blue eyes flashed. "Maybe Iphicles."
Hercules stopped. "Iphicles? What made you think of him?"
Iolaus only shrugged. "I'm not really sure."
Hercules, his brow knit in concentration suddenly grinned. "You as my nephew? Sorry, can't see it?"
The two then broke out in fresh laughter as they headed into the house.
From the shadowed areas of a deep cavern two men slowly turned away from a small "window" where they had watched the whole scene.
"Good job, son."
"Well, they don't call me the trickster god for nothing, Dad," he stated. "That was a great plan. Thanks for letting me in on it."
"You know, Iolaus is pretty cool for a mortal. He could have been quite a thief if only ..."
Hermes stopped and looked at Zeus as the king of gods cleared his throat. Although Zeus' face looked gruff, there was amusement in his eyes.
"Sorry. Anyhow, I'm glad Hercules has him for a friend. They make a good pair. It would have been a total waste to let him die."
"By the way, nice touch, there, sending Aphrodite to reveal the whole thing."
"You did have one of the best teachers, my boy."
Hermes nodded. "Well, I hope Hades will calm down now. He was sure starting to lose it. I guess Hercules last visit kind of unnerved him, huh?"
"Well, guess it's time to take off. Glad it all worked out. Call me anytime you want my help again." He laughed. "Great hoax!" he added, as he disappeared.
Left alone, Zeus opened the window once more to watch as Hercules tucked Iolaus comfortably back in bed.
"Yeah," he smiled lovingly at the scene, "great hoax!" Then he dissolved the window and disappeared.
~~ finis ~~
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