This takes place after Iolaus has returned to Corinth after his second impersonation of King Orestes of Attica in "Long Live the King".
Hercules was busy at work trying to dig a stump down near the lake. He had been working alone for a couple of hours or so and was just barely seeming to make any headway. It was hot and he lifted his hand several times to wipe the sweat from his brow. He took the pole in his hands and brought it down heavily again over and over, breaking up the ground around the stump. Just as he brought it down once more he heard a familiar voice.
Hercules looked up and smiled. "Hi, Iolaus. Welcome back!" His blue eyes lit up with joy at seeing his best friend appear.
"Thanks. It's good to be back."
Iolaus had been up to the house and after having been greeted profusely by Jason's strong handshake and Alcmene's hug and kiss, was told that Hercules was working down near the lake. He followed the path down, feeling the need to be with his best friend once more. If anyone could take the sadness away from his heart, being with his friend could.
"So, how was it?" Hercules asked, watching Iolaus' face closely.
Iolaus turned slightly away for a moment almost not knowing how to answer. "Like I expected. There was ... trouble, but ... it ... sorted itself out."
Hercules read the look on Iolaus' face and in his eyes and knew there was more to the story. "Yeah! How's Niobe?"
"Niobe was," Iolaus paused, "she was royalty!"
Hercules nodded and looked deeply into his friend's eyes. He wanted to know what had brought that look of pain to his friend. 'It's more than just Niobe,' he thought. But he respected Iolaus' right to his privacy until he was ready to talk. Hercules knew his friend would open up to him sooner or later. He would wait.
"Ahh, you wanna give me a hand here?"
"Yeah. Sure." Iolaus said quietly. He removed the patchwork vest and tossed it carelessly to the ground and picked up the pickax and started to break ground next to Hercules.
"Thanks," offered Hercules. "Why is it every time you go visit your Mother, they make you work?"
"Well, that's what Mothers are for, isn't it?"
Both men started to laugh. Hercules looked up briefly and saw the smile on his friend's face. "It's good to have you back, Iolaus."
They worked away most of the afternoon and finally got the stump removed. It had been a hot and sweaty job. To cool down before they went back to the house and as a well-earned reward, they decided to take a cooling swim in the lake. They swam and splashed around in the lake like two little boys for over an hour. Diving, splashing each other, trying to dunk each other. All the fun things they had done as boys. Both were laughing and giggling as they crawled out and laid for a few minutes in the warm sun to dry off.
Hercules was happy to see a smile come back to his friend's face, but he knew a deeper pain lurked down below that smile. He wanted to ease whatever hurt there was in his friend's heart, but he knew it still wasn't time yet. They talked about general things. Mostly Hercules talked and Iolaus listened. Hercules told him of all the things his Mother had been giving him to do for her. Iolaus laughed at all the chores Alcmene had been able to think of. As they finished getting dressed and headed up the path to the house Iolaus commented, "It sounds like the kind of chores we did when we were kids and getting punished."
"Maybe punishment for staying away so long? What do you think?" laughed Hercules.
"Yeah, you may be right." And they both laughed. "It *is* good to be back, Hercules."
Hercules smiled broadly at his friend. As they entered the house, Alcmene and Jason were just about to send someone out searching for them. It was almost dinner and Alcmene had been getting concerned about "the boys" getting back so they could eat while things were still hot.
Through much of the dinner Iolaus had remained much quieter than he normally would have been and only picked at his food. It was noticed by the others, but Hercules tried to keep a running commentary going with Jason and Alcmene to make up for the lack of Iolaus' participation. Therefore, Hercules, had not eaten very much either.
When dinner was finally concluded and they rose to go into the living room to sit for awhile, Iolaus moved up near Alcmene.
"Thank you, Alcmene, for a great dinner. You fixed all of my favorites."
Jason walking behind with Hercules, laughed. "She couldn't wait, Iolaus. The minute you left to find Hercules she disappeared out into the kitchen and insisted on making the dinner herself. And, you are right. She outdid herself. Wonderful, my dear."
"Thank you. It was good to get out there and get involved again. I don't do it as often as I like, but" and she smiled over at Iolaus, "this was a special occasion."
She was walking arm in arm with Iolaus and he brought her hand up and kissed it. "I appreciate it. Thank you."
"You're welcome, dear," she said with a smile, neglecting to mention that he had eaten very little. She was pleased that he had at least seemed happy to be back. She knew from the moment Hercules had arrived alone that something was wrong. She had seen it in Hercules' eyes. She had not pressed for any information, but instinctively knew, as only a mother could, that he was worried about Iolaus. And watching the two of them tonight, she knew that Iolaus was still troubled about something, and she could see the worry still in Hercules' eyes. It hurt her to see her *two* boys like that, but she knew they would work things out, together. They always did. They were good for each other and always had been.
Iolaus stopped at the door to the living room. "You know, I think I'll take a little walk out in the gardens, if you don't mind."
"Of course not, Iolaus," stated Jason. "It should be nice and cool out there now, after the heat of the day."
Alcmene, her arm still entwined in Iolaus' stopped and turned facing Iolaus. She reached up and put her hands on either side of his face. "Don't stay out too late, my dear, you look exhausted. You need some rest."
"Thanks, Alcmene, I won't!"
"The idea of putting you to work after the long journey you had," and she shot Hercules a motherly exasperated look.
Hercules looked a little flustered but grinned, "Well, if you hadn't given me so many chores, I probably wouldn't have needed the help," he said laughingly.
She turned back towards Iolaus. "I had to keep inventing chores for him to do, he was so restless with you gone. I kept expecting him to disappear after you everyday."
"Mother!" Hercules cried out in surprise.
"Well, are you disagreeing with me, son?"
Hercules bowed his head for a moment before lifting it with a sheepish grin. "No, Mother, I would never disagree with you."
"I didn't think so!" and she turned back to face Iolaus and smiled. She leaned over and kissed Iolaus on the cheek. "Don't stay up long!" She raised up one hand and brushed a few stray locks of the soft golden hair from his forehead.
"Yes, ma'am," Iolaus grinned back. As he left he gave a light clap to Hercules' shoulder, as a way of saying 'thank you for the worry and concern, old friend.' Their eyes said it all. There was no need for conversation between them at times.
Iolaus headed on out and Hercules followed Jason and Alcmene into the living room and sat down. But Hercules became distracted and several times had missed out on what was being said, only to pick up a later thread and realize they had changed topics. The final time Hercules' train of thought was interrupted by his Mother calling. As he finally heard his name, he realized it probably was not the first time she had been calling him.
"I'm sorry, what?"
She smiled over at him. "Hercules, your mind is a million miles away from here."
"No, my dear," said Jason. "I think only as far as the garden."
"Yes, you're right. Son, why don't you go on out there to him?"
"I don't know if he wants me yet," he sighed.
"Well, you won't know by sitting in here with us, will you?"
Hercules let a slow smile cross his lips. "No, I guess not." He rose to leave.
The two sat side by side on the couch. Jason put his arm behind Alcmene and pulled her closer to him.
"Jason, do you think Iolaus will open up to him?"
"He will. They've never kept anything from each other before. Don't worry, dear. Hercules will be there for Iolaus no matter what or when."
She smiled up at Jason and nodded, then snuggled in closer to him.
The garden was as cool and fragrant as Jason had said. Iolaus had slowly walked along the paths, breathing in the perfumed fragrance of Alcmene's garden, his hunter's hearing and instinct picking out the night sounds all around him. The garden. It brought back long buried memories. What was it that Hercules had said long ago when he had returned to be his best man and he had walked Hercules out to his Mother's house? "You know the one thing I never forget about my Mother's house is her flowers. I always thought they smelled like her." It brought with it a sad remembrance from the past of a lost love. And his mind quickly brought him to the present and he remembered the gardens at the palace in Attica, coupled with the feeling of a more recent loss. So many memories tied into the smells of the garden. Iolaus dropped down on the bench. He puts his elbows down on his knees and dropped his head down into his hands. So many sorrows lately. He was weary from it all.
Suddenly he felt rather than heard someone sit down next to him. He didn't have to look up to know who it was. The comfortable, safe feeling he always had when he knew his friend was nearby, seemed to permeate his being.
He raised his head and saw the look of concern and worry in Hercules' eyes before the moon slipped behind some clouds.
He heard Hercules' soft voice. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Iolaus paused for a few minutes. Without turning towards Hercules, his voice low, he began.
"My cousin Orestes is ... is dead. He died in my arms, Herc!"
He heard Hercules' startled intake of breath. "Oh, Iolaus. I'm so sorry, my friend!" He reached out and laid a gentle hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "How did it happen?"
Iolaus told Hercules everything that Hector and Linus had told him about King Xenon and how he had pushed Orestes into a hunting trip alone. And how he had been too late to stop Orestes from being hit with the arrow. How he had held Orestes as he died. How Orestes had begged him to be the king and to get his peace plan through.
Hercules could see the pain and hurt behind each word. He let Iolaus speak without interruption.
"I should have done more, Herc. I should have protected him better. Maybe if I had switched places with him before the hunt?"
"Then would I be burying you, my friend?" It was a sobering thought to both men and Iolaus had no answer.
"I wanted you to meet him," Iolaus smiled.
"I would have liked that. He sounds like a good man."
"He was. He had changed so much from our first meeting. We spoke for several hours that first night. Just the two of us. He outlined the plan for me. It was a good, solid plan. He had wanted it so much. He had learned to love his kingdom and its people. He was a little naive in some of his thinking, but he had never been a warrior. He simply trusted too easy."
"You evidently fulfilled his wish."
"I wasn't sure I could at first."
"Niobe!" nodded Iolaus.
"Xenon accompanied us to King Phaedron's." Iolaus told Hercules the remainder of the story, not omitting any of it. When he had finished, a fresh look of pain and guilt came over Iolaus' face. "Herc, my cousin hadn't even been buried yet when I stole his queen, but I had already stolen her affection long ago. And, the parting was harder than anything I've ever done. Harder than any of the battles we've ever fought in. But it had to be. I know that. I could have never been a king. And she could never have lived my life."
Hercules' hand had remained on Iolaus' shoulder and he gave a quick squeeze. "My friend, I know how hard this whole thing has been on you. Your concern right from the start. I'm sorry about Orestes dying. I would have loved to seen the two of you together. The resemblance had to be remarkable in order to fool everyone. But you tried your best to save him, Iolaus, it just wasn't meant to be."
"Maybe he needed a friend like you."
Hercules closed his eyes at the remembrance of that loss of Iolaus from Hera's fire enforcer and was thankful that he didn't have to go through another death. It hadn't happened too long ago and it hadn't been buried deep enough yet. Hercules still had nightmares about it, as recently as the second night he had arrived at Corinth. That's what had made him so restless. Several times he had almost decided to leave and go find Iolaus, but he knew Iolaus had wanted to handle this all alone. It had been a hard battle to fight inside. And his Mother had thankfully seen through it and had given him something else to occupy his mind.
"And as far as your stealing your cousin's queen, we can never pick and choose the person we fall in love with, Iolaus. It picks us. Neither you nor Niobe could have stopped it. And in the beginning Orestes could have never appreciated his queen anyhow. I'm sorry that they were never able to work things out between them."
Hercules looked over and saw the closed eyes of his friend. "And I know you're feeling guilt over what happened between you and Niobe. Maybe the timing wasn't the best, but it happened. It wasn't something you planned. You loved each other and you were thrown together in circumstances that made it hard not to ...." Hercules stopped. "Stop blaming yourself, Iolaus. You're a good, decent man. I'm sure the man you described your cousin becoming, would be willing to forgive you, Iolaus. So forgive yourself."
"You make it sound so easy, Herc."
"No, it isn't easy. But, it's true."
Iolaus only nodded, but there was a slight smile that came to his face.
"And one last thing, my friend. I disagree with you wholeheartedly that you couldn't be a king. Niobe was right on this one. You would have made a great king. You have the intelligence, compassion, honesty, valor, strength, and you have the hunter and warrior instincts your cousin never had ..."
"Hercules, I could never ..."
"No, Iolaus, you may have lacked the formalities of the court, but those are learned. You would have been able to do 'on the job training'," Hercules laughed. "You spent a whole week as the king before and fooled them all. You could have done it." He then squeezed Iolaus' shoulder tightly again. "But my friend, you were right, too. You would have lived the rest of your life as Orestes. You would have lost your own identity completely. I don't think you could have done that for long, not even for love, my friend. You are too honest to live a lie like that." Hercules paused, "And more selfishly, I would have missed you at my back."
Hercules' smile lit up his face as he looked over into his friend's face, only to see a matching brilliant smile from Iolaus.
They were silent for a few moments. Then finally Iolaus spoke up. "Thanks, Herc. I suppose I knew most of that; I guess I just needed to hear it. I'm glad you came out."
"I am, too, Iolaus. It's a lot of stuff to digest and I know it won't be easy, but I'm here if you need me. Okay?"
"Yeah, I know you are! Thanks!"
Hercules rose and pulled the Hunter up. He put his arm around his shoulder and started steering him unresistingly back to the house. "Come on, lets get back in. You need some rest. The last thing Mother said was to make sure you got to bed as soon as possible. You know how she worries about you."
"Yes, she always has, hasn't she?"
"Yeah. And I think you especially worried her tonight by not eating all the special dishes she made just for you."
"Well, you know, Herc, I am a little hungry now. Do you think we might get some of that stuff warmed up?"
"Iolaus, if I know Mother, she probably already has the stuff warming now. And I'm kind of hungry, too."
Both started to laugh. "It's not only good to have you back, Iolaus. It's good to hear that, too."
They entered and headed toward the living room, finding Jason and Alcmene just leaving for their room, but two trays of food, freshly heated, waited for them on a small table near the fire.
Hercules shot a knowing look toward Iolaus, as Alcmene kissed both of them goodnight. Her parting words as she left the room. "Don't stay up all night, you two."
"Yes, Mother," the two simultaneously shouted back at her as she left. They didn't need to see her face to know the big smile that was on it. Hand in hand with Jason, she went to her rest knowing that her *sons* were safe and secure under her roof. That was all she needed to know.
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