Dreams of Friendship

by DreamCatcher

"Yeah, well you're the one that came rushing in after me, you know," Iolaus said with a mischievous grin.

Hercules nodded. "I was just trying to keep you out of trouble."

"Me, in trouble?" Iolaus looked at his friend with guileless blue eyes.

The demigod shook his head, but a wry smile formed on his lips. "Don't give me that innocent look. You were constantly getting us into trouble."

Iolaus cocked his head slightly. "Funny, I don't remember breaking any arms."

"I told you, I was just trying to keep my best friend out of trouble."

"Herc, you keep saying trouble. I prefer to see them as adventures."

"Adventures?" Hercules rolled his eyes. "That's not what our mothers 'preferred to see them as'."

"They just didn't understand, ..."

"Oh, they understood all too well, my friend," Hercules interrupted. "And we had all those extra chores to prove it."

"Well, it did have a side benefit, you know."

"A side benefit? I can hardly wait to hear this!"

"It was good training. It built up our muscles. Made us stronger warriors later." Iolaus raised his arms and flexed his muscles, as if to prove a point.

Hercules looked at him with raised eyebrows for a second or two and then broke out in a full-throated laugh. When he had finally recovered, Hercules regarded his blond-headed companion with amused affection. "Iolaus, your mind is an amazing thing to behold at times."

"You mean because I'm so intelligent?" He knew he was setting himself up, but willingly walked right into it. That was half the fun for Iolaus.

"Not hardly. I was speaking more along the lines of your being able to rationalize all the trouble we got into, and making it sound like a benefit to mankind."

Iolaus laughed heartily and flashed Hercules one of his infamous golden smiles. "Well, Herc, you have to admit, at least you were never bored."

"That's for sure. My life was never the same once we met." And then silently added, 'and I wouldn't change it for anything.'

Hercules and Iolaus had made camp at this location the previous day. They had been on the road for three days, after having rescued a besieged village from mercenaries. They had easily won the village's freedom and had started on their way the next morning, after an evening of celebration. It was a small village, but the grateful villagers had outdone themselves in honoring these two heroes. There had been good food, good wine, and good company. They couldn't have come up with any better way of saying thank you than that in Iolaus' mind.

Since the two had no particular destination in mind at the time they departed, they simply started walking west. Three days later had brought them to the present campsite.

They had found this clearing, set near a large shimmering lake, surrounded by sheltering trees, offering both shade and protection from the elements. Bushes and trees abounded all around with edible berries and fruits. Iolaus had been delighted to find that the lake offered some of the best fishing he had found in a long time. The area had also proven to be quite plentiful in small game. It could not have been more ideal.

After a peaceful night's rest, they had decided this would be a perfect place to remain for a few days. They hesitated to call it a vacation, knowing their "vacations" somehow never seemed to actually materialize.

A swim in the crystal clear lake had quickly escalated into horseplay between the two, until laughing and exhausted, they emerged a couple of hours later. They laid back lazily in the warm sun to dry off and watched as big white puffy clouds rolled above them. Laughingly, they vied with each other to identify the more unusual shapes. It was a game they had often played when they were kids. Hercules could still remember some wonderful afternoons happily spent listening to Iolaus' rather active imagination spin his tales around whatever and whoever he had visualized in the cloud formations.

Before long, however, relaxed and drowsy from the activity and the warm sun, the two were soon lulled asleep.

Hercules roused a short time later, after hearing Iolaus moving about the camp. As he rose and finished dressing, Iolaus headed out to catch their dinner. By the time Iolaus had returned, with two fat quail in his hand, Hercules had a blazing fire going. By dusk they were sitting down to a tasty meal, enhanced by extra provisions donated by the grateful villagers.

Content, they sat by the campfire that night, and triggered by the earlier memories, reminisced about their younger years. They had laughed and teased each other for the past few hours, enjoying their easy companionship of many years.

Finally, Iolaus yawned and stretched and laid back on his blanket. His hands under his head, he lay still for a few moments and watched the myriad of stars twinkling overhead. Only the crackling of the fire broke the peaceful silence.

"You know, Herc, this has been a really great day."

"Yeah. It has. We don't get many like these."

"Hmm. I'm glad we found this place," Iolaus remarked as he slowly turned over on his side, toward the comforting warmth of the fire. For the first time in weeks, he felt totally relaxed and happy.

"Me too."

"You know, we really should do this ..."

Hercules, who had been idly poking at the fire, looked over as Iolaus' words faded. He saw the hunter's head resting comfortably on his arm, his eyes closed, his breathing slow and even. Hercules watched for a few moments as the fire illuminated his friend's golden hair and seraphic face. The soft fireglow gave Iolaus an appearance of innocence and vulnerability. And yet Hercules knew the depth of strength and courage that lay within the heart of this man who had been his best friend for over twenty-five years. "I agree," Hercules said softly and smiled. "Rest well, my friend."

Hercules rose and threw some more wood on the fire. The wind had picked up and the temperature seemed to have dropped a bit. It was going to be a cool night. He glanced once more at the hunter's sleeping form, went over and knelt beside him. He picked up a blanket and pulled it over him.

As he started to rise, he heard a quiet voice. "Thanks, Mom."

Hercules gave a playful tug to a lock of Iolaus' hair and saw a grin form on his friend's face without him ever opening an eye.

Hercules went back over to his own blankets and laid down. But sleep didn't come right away. The laughter and camaraderie still clung close and wrapped about him like a warm comforting garment. Today had been a perfect day. One of a handful lately. A chance to relax, unwind, and to spend time with his best friend, without the usual life and death threats. It had been great to reminisce about their early days, when the two warriors had been carefree boys, full of enthusiasm and passion. Well, actually that described Iolaus all the time, Hercules mused.

Back-to-back heroes is what they had called themselves back then. And heroes they now were in the eyes of those that knew them. But they had paid a price. At times a heavy price. For their intervention wasn't looked upon favorably by those they defeated.

Hercules wasn't sure whether this life had chosen him, or he had chosen it. Perhaps it was some of both; depending on which day you checked with him. But Iolaus had willingly chosen to follow him from the start. That he had always done so, joyously and without hesitation, continuously amazed Hercules. Iolaus seemed to thrive on it. Actually, with his boundless energy, sometimes even Hercules had trouble keeping up with him.

As Hercules pulled his blanket up closer around him, he realized once again, how blessed he was to have such a friend as Iolaus. Their meeting had given two lonely boys the greatest gift either had ever received. Only the hunter knew the joys and fears, almost the mind, and certainly the very heart of the demigod; just as the demigod knew the hunter's. Born of different families and yet united by a deep respect, trust, and an unconditional love. One mind, one heart. Iolaus truly was the beloved brother of his heart and soul. With these comforting thoughts still playing through his mind, he finally fell asleep.

Hercules stood still for a moment trying to orient himself, a slight dizziness clinging to him. He looked around and was startled to find that he was standing in the shadows, near a small slightly ramshackled house on the edge of what appeared to be a fair sized town.

He didn't know where he was or how he had gotten there. The last thing he remembered was laying down on the other side of the campfire from Iolaus. And now he was -- where? He shook his head and the dizziness seemed to disappear.

He took quick stock of the situation. He knew who he was and where he had been. *Check.* He had no headaches and could feel no other injuries. *Check.* So there were a couple of remaining possibilities. Either this was a dream, or, the gods were involved. He thought the first definitely preferable to the second.

Well, it was obvious he wasn't going to find any answers standing here. He had just decided to head into town, when voices cut through into his thinking. He moved deeper into the shadows as he watched a small angry boy come dashing out of the nearby house, followed by an even angrier man and a pleading woman. They were too far away for him to see any of them distinctly and although there was a full moon, a band of heavy clouds moved in and out hampering a clearer view.

"Come back here you ungrateful little ...", but the rest was drowned out by the pleading woman.

"Please, don't; he doesn't understand!!"

"He doesn't want to understand," came the irate response of the man, as he shook off the woman's detaining arm, which caused her to stumble slightly. The boy came charging forward with an angry voice of challenge. "You leave her alone."

Hercules' brow knit; something about those voices touched a deep-down memory. But his thinking was quickly interrupted by the shouts again.

"I've had it with you, boy. Get back in that house."

"No! I told you, I'm not leaving here and you can't make me," came the furious retort from the boy.

Hercules was just about to turn and leave, not wishing to become embroiled in a family feud, when the man came within reach and grabbed the small boy's arm almost brutally.

"I'll teach you to answer me back." The man started dragging the resisting boy, who suddenly dug in his heels and fiercely jerked his arm loose. However, the momentum caused him to lose his balance and fall hard, knocking the breath out of him. He lay on the ground slightly dazed. The man quickly retreated back and reached down to grab the boy once more, but never got any further.

Hercules had seen enough and had swiftly closed the distance. He grabbed the man's wrist and yanked him back away from the boy.

The man struggled helplessly in the iron grip of the demigod. "Let me go. This is none of your business."

"When you start pushing around women and children, it is," came the cold reply. Hercules then looked full into the face of the man and a startled look came over him.

"Let me go. That's my wife and son," the man was shouting.

The woman had flown to the boy's side at once. She knelt down and lifted her son's head onto her lap. Hercules had vaguely heard her weeping and crooning: "It's alright. It'll be alright. You're okay. Your father didn't mean it."

The woman's head was bent over the boy's as Hercules released the man and turned his stunned gaze to the two on the ground. Suddenly, the boy rolled away from his mother's grasp and jumped up once more to stand defiantly before his father.

As the moon moved out from under the clouds, the boy was now clearly bathed in a flood of moonlight. Hercules' confused and startled mind realized that somehow he was now looking at the familiar tousled blond hair and flashing blue eyes of his best friend, but set in the frame of the small boy he had known so many years ago.

Hercules was shaken. How could this be? Now he knew he had to be dreaming. This couldn't be happening. Yet it all seemed so real. First Skouras, Iolaus' father. Now Iolaus. To complete the picture in his mind, he turned his eyes toward the woman, and recognized the distraught face of Iolaus' mother, Erythia.

Before Hercules fully recovered, Iolaus yelled back at his father, "I'll never go with you!" and with angry tears running down his cheeks, turned and fled.

"Iolaus!! Iolaus, come back!!" came his Mother's pleading cry. "Skouras, please go after him."

Skouras' only reply was to raise a taunting voice toward the retreating form of his son. "Let him go. The little crybaby will be home soon enough when he gets hungry, or it gets too dark and cold." He then turned and stalked off towards the house.

Hercules heard the sharp intake of breath from Erythia as she listened to Skouras' loud angry words. There had been no doubt that these statements had reached the boy's ears, as Iolaus stopped dead in his tracks. Hercules saw the small shoulders shudder slightly and the head lower; a few seconds later hands came up, as if fiercely wiping tears away. From past experiences of consoling his friend after other "fatherly visits," Hercules knew how deeply those words had cut his friend.

Hercules had always believed much of Iolaus' fiercely competitive nature and ofttimes rash and foolhardy actions, had stemmed from his constant quest in seeking approval from his father. Iolaus had tried to excel at everything to prove he was worthy of his father's love. When Skouras ignored him or blew off his accomplishments, anger had taken over and the battles between the father and son ensued. Iolaus would at these times become more reckless and foolhardy then ever, many times striking terror into Hercules' heart. But Iolaus had never been able to quite measure up in his father's eyes, no matter what he did. Or so Iolaus had felt.

Hercules and Erythia were both torn deeply by the sight of the small vulnerable child. It was all Hercules could do to keep from running to the boy, gathering him in loving arms and try to ease the pain he knew was there. He saw Erythia's face and knew how much this had hurt her also. But before either could even react, the boy took off running again.

The anger Hercules suddenly felt rising within him at Skouras, was somewhat defused by Erythia's harsh, stinging words. Stretched to the breaking point as she watched the small hurt form of her son escaping, she lashed out at her husband. "Skouras, how dare you say such hurtful things to your own son!"

Skouras stopped and turned. "I'm tired of his talking back all the time. He needs to learn some respect."

"And grabbing him and dragging him back to the house, or hurling those demeaning words at him, that was the way?"

Confronted by his normally gentle wife's accusing words he hesitated for a moment, then retorted, "I didn't mean to do that. He just ... Every time I come home, he ..." Flustered, he finally threw up his hands. "Oh, forget it."

"Please, go after him."

"No!! He'll come home soon enough on his own." And Skouras stomped towards the house again.

But Iolaus' sad-faced mother turned and started running after her son. She had only gotten a short distance when she realized she had no idea which way he had gone. He had completely disappeared into the night. She stopped, confused and upset, the tears starting to form again. "Iolaus! Son, where are you?" she yelled, but only silence greeted her. She turned and jumped slightly, suddenly realizing she was not alone.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. Are you alright?" inquired Hercules, still a little shaken by the whole turn of events.

"Yes! Thank you," she said. "And thank you for what you did back there."

"You're welcome."

"I'm sorry you had to become involved," she continued. "As you could probably tell, my husband and son have a slight communication problem."

"I noticed," Hercules grinned, remembering once again where Iolaus had gotten his wry sense of humor.

As he looked down at her, other memories came drifting back also. As much as Iolaus had always thought of Alcmene as a second mother, so too had Hercules thought of Erythia. The two boys had become instant friends and almost inseparable from the moment they first met; as if the gods (or maybe only one god) had ordained this from their birth. They shared their houses, their families, their chores, their strengths, and their love. It was common knowledge among the citizenry of Thebes, that if you found one boy, you would most certainly find the other close by. Actually, not much had changed over the years.

Hercules watched her as she spoke, his mind only half listening to her words. He had forgotten how beautiful she was. She was small and slender and had long golden blond hair, which waved and curled much as Iolaus'; also the same piercing blue eyes looked up at him. Hercules smiled to himself as he recognized some of the same mannerisms in her, that he had grown so accustomed to seeing daily: a certain stance, a quick graceful movement, a tilt of the head. He knew, too, that Erythia's gentleness, kindness, loyalty, and fierce loving heart, dwelt within her son. Of course, Iolaus had also inherited some of his father's traits -- unfortunately the ones that came foremost to mind were his stubbornness and quick temper. At times some of these two conflicting set of traits warred within the hunter, but in the end her's usually won the battle.

Erythia suddenly brought Hercules back to the present, as she continued. "I don't even know where he's gone."

"Don't worry about him, he's a pretty tough kid. I'm sure he can take care of himself."

"Do you know my son?" she asked, trying to place him.

Hercules smiled down at her. "I've seen him a time or two," he evaded. Before she could ask any further questions, he said, "Why don't you let me take you back home and then I'll go find him. It'll give him a little time to cool down."

Erythia looked up into the kind gentle eyes of this stranger and somehow knew she could trust him. She nodded and they started walking back towards her house.

"My husband just arrived home from a military campaign. He's away so often and it seems like he and my son clash every time he comes. Iolaus tries so hard to live up to what he thinks his father ..." She hesitated and started again. "My husband doesn't mean to be gruff like that. I'm afraid he just doesn't seem to know how to ..." Erythia paused once again not knowing quite how to explain Skouras to this stranger without being disloyal. She finally changed subjects. "My son has had a tough time here in this town. He's smaller than most of the boys his age and they haven't exactly been easy on him. Of course, he doesn't make it very easy at times either. He's come home more than a few times with cuts and bruises." She flashed him a sad smile.

Hercules nodded an understanding.

The two stopped in front of her gate. "My husband is leaving again soon for another campaign. Before he goes, he's moving us back to my hometown of Thebes. Iolaus doesn't want to leave here. That's what started the battle this time." She sighed. "I'm not sure I can blame him. He doesn't know Thebes or what to expect. It'll be smaller; he won't be able to lose himself as easily."

"Lose himself?"

"In the streets. That's another reason why I want him away from here. He's been seen on occasion with the street kids. They are the only ones that seem to accept him, but I'm so afraid of him getting into terrible trouble. He's already been caught stealing."

Hercules could see the tears starting to form again.

"He's basically a good boy. He has such a loving heart, but sometimes I think I'm the only one that can see it. If only he could find one good, decent friend. One that would accept him as he is ... I just know it would make a difference." She brought her hand up to wipe a tear that had escaped. "I've almost given up hope for him."

"Please, don't give up. Everything will turn out alright."

She regarded him for a moment. "You seem so positive."

"I am positive. Look, I'll go find him and bring him home. I promise. He'll make the move and things will eventually fall into place for him. One day you'll be very proud of him."

She looked deeply into his eyes and smiled. "I believe you. ... I don't know why, but I believe you." She paused. He then saw a beautiful loving look come over her face. "He's had to go through so much hardship and disappointment in his young life. I know he's not perfect, but he's been a wonderful son and I've always been proud of him."

Hercules smiled at her warmly, as she went through the gate and up into the house. It was true. She had always believed in her son and Iolaus had loved her fiercely for it. In the present time, she had seen the results of her faith and rejoiced at all her son's accomplishments, as only a loving mother could.

Hercules turned and headed back in the direction that Iolaus had taken. Now alone once more, his mind started trying to make sense out of what was happening. If this wasn't just a dream, then here he was, somehow seemingly transported back in time, evidently just prior to Iolaus' move to Thebes. What was his purpose here? Well, there was nothing else to do but play out his part until he found out.

As Hercules started towards the town, he thought briefly of what he was going to say once he found the young Iolaus. 'Hi, I'm Hercules. I know this may sound crazy, but we're going to grow up together and we're going to be best friends.' Yeah, that would work. Or better yet, 'Come on home. Your father didn't really mean what he said. You'll meet him after he's dead and solve some of your problems. Of course, you're dead also. But don't worry, I bring you back to life.' Yeah, that too had possibilities. He laughed aloud at the absurdities running through his mind.

Seriously, he did realize that once he found Iolaus, he would have to be extremely careful in what he did and said. If this indeed was the past, he mustn't say or do anything that might jeopardize any part of the future. Iolaus was alive somewhere in that future; still peacefully sleeping by the campfire, he hoped. And he wanted to go back and join him. Well, the first thing was to find the young Iolaus; the right words would come.

Hercules spent the next two hours trying to locate Iolaus, but couldn't seem to find even the first clue as to where he had so quickly vanished. He wished the adult Iolaus was here to help track the boy. Iolaus tracking Iolaus. That would certainly be a great story for his friend, he mused.

'Where are you, Iolaus?' Then a thought came to him. The street kids. Iolaus' mother had mentioned the street kids. He stopped abruptly. He tried to remember back to when he and Iolaus had first become friends. Iolaus had been reluctant at first to mention his past life, but as their friendship had rapidly grown, he had opened up to Hercules completely. He had told the young Hercules about his time spent with the street kids.

They had accepted him without question; fed him, given him a place to stay when he needed it and asked for nothing in return. He in turn had respected them, and on one occasion had been involved in a theft. Whether it had been an act of repayment for their friendship or a reckless act of anger to get even with his father or to get his attention, no one knew. Possibly not even Iolaus. But he had been caught stealing and had been punished.

After his move to Thebes and his meeting with his new best friend, things did change for Iolaus. The gentle, honest and noble nature of Hercules completely awakened the same dormant nature in Iolaus. Hercules had treated Iolaus as an equal, a partner, a friend, and most of all like a beloved brother, giving the boy a new confidence in himself that others had tried to destroy. And Iolaus' mother rejoiced as the cocoon had opened and her "butterfly" was finally set free.

Hercules drew his thoughts back to the present. The temperature had dropped and he shivered in the cold. Iolaus would need a warm place to stay tonight, for unlike Skouras, he knew the boy would not go back home anytime soon. Something inside told him to find the street kids and he would find Iolaus.

He started through the town once more, this time with the objective of locating the street kids. After about a half-hour he finally managed to find a small group of ragged young children that he believed to fit that description. Distrustful of adults, he knew they would not willingly give any information, so he silently watched and followed. Very soon he saw them disappear into an abandoned warehouse on the north edge of town. The place was boarded up and looked as if it was ready to collapse.

Hercules quietly entered an opening, barely large enough for him to squeeze through and was immediately surrounded by a startled group of children, ranging from those just barely walking to mid-teenage. Most were ragged and dirty, some very thin. There was a look of quiet desperation and hopelessness in some eyes and an angry mistrust in others. His heart fell as he saw so many of them, and it fell even more, as he realized Iolaus did not seem to be among them.

A young man he had heard called "Enos" approached. The boy looked to be about fifteen and seemed to be in charge. He was almost as tall as Hercules, but was slender in stature. His ill-fitting clothes were ragged and torn in spots, and an unruly mop of dark brown, stringy hair fell into large brown eyes. -- eyes that seemed much too old for his age. For a silent moment the two simply stared at each other, each sizing the other up. Hercules finally broke the silence with his request. Enos listened without emotion as Hercules relayed the story of Iolaus' running off and Hercules' promise to his mother to find him.

"I ain't never seen you around here before," said the young leader, when Hercules had finished.

"I just recently arrived." True enough.

Enos looked at him suspiciously.

"Look, I can understand your wanting to protect him. But he and his father had angry words; his mother is very worried about him."

"He and his father always have angry words."

Hercules put on his most winning smile. "Yes, I know. But his mother and he don't. Please, won't you just let me talk to him? I promise, he won't have to leave with me if he doesn't want to."

As the young leader seemed to be thinking this over, another young boy about the same age, came running into the place. He came directly up to Enos, stopping only long enough to look Hercules over, and then pulled Enos off to the side, whispering to him.

Hercules could see a dark look come over Enos' face. The two boys looked over in his direction several times, as if trying to come to a decision. After the second boy finished speaking, Enos turned and looked at Hercules again; he seemed to be weighing something. Although wanting to grab and shake this boy by the shirt and force him into revealing Iolaus' whereabouts, Hercules stood silently.

His decision made, Enos finally approached Hercules. "You really want to help Iolaus?"

"Yes, of course I do."

"Okay! I sent Arion, here, to watch, after they grabbed Iolaus!"

All of a sudden panic rose in Hercules' heart. "Grabbed Iolaus? Who grabbed him?"

If nothing else, most of the street kids, seemingly from the oldest to the youngest, had developed an ability to read people. It was what had kept most of them alive. Enos saw a look of fear spread over Hercules' face and seemed satisfied. "Iolaus was grabbed by some men. Couple of the younger kids saw it. They was in the shadows. They said Iolaus struggled and almost got loose of 'em." Enos cracked a smile of pride. "He's a pretty good fighter, for a little guy, you know."

"Yes, I know," smiled Hercules.

"Anyhow, the kids ran here and told us. I sent Arion to check it out."

"Do you know why they grabbed him?" Hercules asked anxiously.

"We think, to get even with his father."

"Get even?"

Enos nodded. "Me and Arion saw 'em this mornin'. They was arguing with Iolaus' father. We couldn't hear what. They left, but didn't look too happy."

"Where are they now?" asked Hercules, more concerned then ever. Finally Arion spoke up for the first time. "They took the north road. They had horses and I couldn't keep up with 'em. They got a camp out near the creek though; I heard 'em talking about it."

Hercules got directions from the boys as to the general area, and headed out immediately. He had only gone about half a mile when he realized he hadn't told the boys to notify Skouras. Somehow, now that they had turned the problem over to him, he didn't think they would be so willing to go to Iolaus' father.

He would be alone on this mission. Not that that part worried him. Maybe in the long run it would be better this way. Having a volatile man like Skouras along might do more harm than good. Hercules wouldn't chance further endangering the young Iolaus.

The demigod flew down the road as swiftly as he could. He soon came to the place where the boys had guessed the kidnapper's camp might be. He stopped and listened. Nothing. It still took him well over an hour, criss-crossing the general area, before he finally heard voices. Excited voices from what he could judge.

He carefully and silently worked his way through the heavy foliage. As he crept closer, staying in the deep shadows, he soon came upon five men in a small clearing.

The biggest of them had a struggling Iolaus dangling in his arms. The boy's back was pinned tightly against the big man's chest with a savage grip. However, despite strong arms wrapped around his waist and chest, Iolaus' legs were delivering vicious back kicks to the man's legs and his fists were furiously lashing out blows to whatever he could reach.

The other four men were standing, laughing at the struggles of their cohort.

"I think you're going to have to tie that kid down; he almost got away again," came the first voice.

"Hey, Dirk, maybe we should let him join us, instead of selling him," said another.

"Yeah, he's a real fighter; got quite a temper; just like his ol' man," remarked a third.

"Shut up, you guys," came the angry outburst as Dirk tried to gain a better hold on the spirited boy. "Grab his arms and legs."

Before any of the men could move, and just as Hercules was about to emerge from his hiding place, Dirk yelped with surprise and dropped Iolaus. "He bit me!" cried the astonished man, as he stood there rubbing his arm. "That brat bit me."

For a moment, Hercules hesitated and watched with amusement as the irate boy struck an all too familiar stubborn, defiant pose. "That's my Iolaus!" he smiled to himself. But suddenly Hercules' amusement changed to horror and outrage, as he saw Dirk move forward a step and backhand Iolaus. A powerful and vicious swing from the huge man sent the small form flying and crashing heavily into a nearby tree. Hercules stood frozen, unable to move, as he watched the boy slide down the tree almost as if in slow motion and then crumple to the ground.

As Hercules finally bolted forward, a guttural scream of "NOOooooo!!!" tore from his throat. It caught the five men totally by surprise. They had stopped and also watched as the boy had hit the tree and fallen and then turned at the cry, to see this big man wrathfully charging at them.

Hercules grabbed the first two men and knocked them together with force, putting them out of action. He grabbed the arm of the third man and slammed him into the fourth. They, like their comrades, dropped unconscious at his feet. But through it all, Hercules' eyes never left Dirk. Dirk's reaction had gone from open surprise at the shout and the appearance of this intruder, to mild astonishment as Hercules took out his cohorts, and finally to a dawning terror as he saw the raging anger in his adversary's eyes.

Dirk started slowly backing up, watching as the enraged man advanced on him. He hesitated one moment too long. Hercules reached out and grabbed the large man and easily raised him up over his head and threw him across the clearing, where he too, met a tree.

However, Hercules' eyes never followed through, but swiftly turned back to the small blond figure lying on his stomach, unmoving. "Iolaus!!!" Hercules was at his side at once. He knelt down and carefully turned the boy over, gently lifting his head and back. Iolaus' face, arms and chest were covered in blood and dirt. Hercules' mind painfully flashed back to a frighteningly similar picture of his friend laying in his arms, his face, arms and chest cut and bruised, covered with blood and dirt, warning him about Hera's new enforcer with his last breath.

"No!! Please, no!!" came the silent terrified plea of Hercules' heart. He reached down with shaking fingers towards the small neck and searched for the pulse. It seemed strong and steady. Hercules closed his eyes and realized he could finally start breathing again. For a moment, he simply held the small figure in a gentle loving embrace, tears silently flowing, dampening the soft golden curls under his cheek. A soft moan brought him to his senses and he carefully rose and carried Iolaus over near the fire and knelt down with his precious charge.

Hercules dashed the tears away, and looked back down at the boy in his arms, to inventory his injuries. He carefully removed the boy's torn and bloody shirt. There were bruises and scrapes on both arms from his contact with the tree. He gently probed the boys ribs and chest, but there was nothing broken. The scrapes and cuts, would soon heal. Iolaus' left arm, where he had reached out in an effort to protect himself, was broken between the elbow and wrist. It would be painful, but would also mend easily once it had been properly set. There was a large purpling bruise on his right arm. Hercules knew it couldn't have turned that quickly, then realized that it had to have been from Iolaus' earlier encounter with his father. Hercules fought down a momentary surge of anger at Skouras for having placed his son in this danger. Continuing his check of the boy's injuries, he saw a large angry red welt near the boy's right cheek just below his eye, where he had been struck by Dirk. There was already some swelling. Iolaus would probably be sporting quite a black eye by morning. But it was the deep gash to the boy's left temple by the hairline, where he had squarely hit the tree, that frightened Hercules the most. He was bleeding profusely from that wound. He checked Iolaus' eyes. The pupils were wide and unfocused. He knew Iolaus had a concussion -- but how serious was it?

Hercules quickly tore pieces of Iolaus' already torn shirt into several strips. He used a piece to mop up some of the blood from the wound, then used another to press on the wound, trying to stem the flow of blood. He took a longer strip and wound it around the boy's head to hold the cloth in place. Then Hercules reluctantly put Iolaus down and checked to make sure that the five men were still out. He moved quickly, taking a hunting knife from one of the men and went over to where the men's bedrolls were laid. He knelt down and grabbed a water bag, and also removed a sword from it's sheath, leaving the sword. He opened a small flask and realized it was wine; he replaced the stopper and added it to his stores. His final task was to cut a few small strips of leather from the leads of one of the horses before he released their tethering and sent them on their way.

Just as he returned to Iolaus, he heard him moaning once again. He swiftly knelt and laid the things down. Iolaus came awake and tried to rise, but because of the pain from his arm and head he immediately dropped back down.

"Don't try to move," Hercules cautioned. "Can you tell me your name?" he said as he opened the water bag and poured some water on another piece of cloth.

The boy looked around, his eyes still slightly unfocused, but trying to find the source of the voice.

"Can you tell me your name?" Hercules repeated more intensely.

The boy finally found the source and after a couple of moments and a few blinks, brought the man into focus. "I'm Iolaus."

"Good!" Hercules breathed a sigh of relief.

"Can you remember what happened?"

"Some men ... they grabbed me. They were going to ... to sell me to slavers, ..."

Iolaus turned slightly and the pain in his arm shot through him and he stifled a cry, through clenched teeth.

"Easy, easy," comforted Hercules. "Try not to move. Your arm is broken and you've got quite a gash in your head. I know it hurts, but just lie as still as you can."

Hercules removed the cloth from the deep gash, which had already soaked through with blood. He took another piece of the cloth strips and once again held it on the wound. Iolaus winced. After a few minutes, Hercules removed the cloth, turned it over, and poured water on it. He then gently bathed the area again removing as much blood as he could. Then he poured a little of the wine on it. He looked down at the boy. "This is going to sting. I'm sorry." Iolaus held his lips tight and never made a sound. Hercules finally rebandaged the head wound. Afterwards, he set himself to cleaning the remaining blood and dirt from Iolaus' face, arms and chest, using the wine to disinfect the cuts.

Through this whole time, Iolaus watched Hercules while he tended to him. His pain filled eyes stared into the eyes of the stranger's, but he laid there quietly, trustingly. He was confused by the deep emotions he could see in the eyes of the man working over him. Even at his young age, much like the street kids, Iolaus had been able to read people. In this stranger's eyes he could see concern and fear. Despite the pain, he felt safe and comforted. He finally asked, "Who, ... who are you?"

"A friend."

"Those men ...?"

"Don't worry, they're temporarily indisposed." He paused. "Iolaus, I'm going to have to set that arm. It's going to hurt pretty bad."

"Mister, it hurts pretty bad right now."

Hercules gently laid him back down. "I know, I know. I'm sorry I don't have anything to give you for the pain."

"I can handle it," came the brave reply.

"I'm sure you can," said Hercules as he smiled and lightly tousled the boy's hair. He thought to himself, 'You always have. Now, I only hope I can.' Hercules closed his eyes for a second, preparing to do what needed to be done.

Hercules grasped the small arm in his hands. He looked down at Iolaus. "Are you ready?"

"I -- I guess so!"

The muffled scream of pain and the tears that came to Iolaus' eyes, tore through Hercules' heart. Working swiftly, Hercules used the sheath and the leather strips to secure the arm to keep it immobile. Just as he finished tying the last of the leather strips, he saw Iolaus' face drain of all color.

"I'm going to be sick," Iolaus cried out. Hercules carefully raised him and turned him over, holding him securely as the boy vomited. Hercules' felt tears of anger and frustration. He knew he would never get use to seeing Iolaus, child or adult, in pain or suffering.

When Iolaus was through, Hercules bathed his face. For the second time that night, Hercules cradled the small limp body in his arms, the boy's head resting against Hercules' wildly beating heart. Iolaus was weak and disoriented, but the color seemed to slowly come back into his face.

"It's alright. You're going to be fine. I promise," Hercules crooned to the boy, as he held him sheltered in his arms.

Though the bleeding on the head wound seemed to have slowed a little, Hercules knew he had to get the boy back to town and to a healer as soon as possible. He rose and grabbed a couple of blankets, wrapping them tightly around the boy against cold and shock, and then started off. He couldn't run with Iolaus' broken arm and head injury, but he walked as rapidly as he could without jarring the boy. His biggest problem now was to keep Iolaus awake. He couldn't tell how bad the concussion was; he knew head wounds always bled a lot, but until he could get the boy back to the healer, he would have to keep him awake and talking.

"Iolaus! Can you hear me? I want you to stay awake. Iolaus!!"

Weak and slightly lethargic, Iolaus slowly responded to his name and opened his eyes. Although his head throbbed and his arm hurt terribly, the nausea had abated; but a slight dizziness continued, and at times his vision blurred. He looked up and tried to focus on the man who was carrying him.

"Where are we going?"

"I'm taking you back to town, so I can get you to a healer. You'll feel better after that. Plus, your Mother is pretty worried about you"

"Yeah, I know."

"Your father, too."

A bitterness crept into Iolaus' voice. "Not him." He paused. "Do you have kids?"

The statement caught Hercules by surprise. He answered sadly, "I did have. They and their mother died a couple of years ago."

Iolaus looked at Hercules for a moment. "Oh! I'm sorry. I think you were probably a good father."

Hercules smiled warmly. Once again he marveled as he had done many times in the past, at the rare gift Iolaus seemed to possess of saying the right thing, at the right time.

A look of apprehension came over Hercules' face, as Iolaus seemed to fade little by little. "Iolaus! Come on, stay awake."

"I'm so tired."

"I know you are, but I need you to stay with me until we get into town and the healer looks you over."

"O--Okay!"

"Tell me why you don't want to move to Thebes," Hercules asked, mostly to keep Iolaus talking.

"Thebes? ... You know about the move." Then as if he was just remembering something, a look of dawning lit his face. "I know who you are!"

Hercules was startled. How could Iolaus know who he was? He, as the young Hercules, had not even met Iolaus yet. How could be possibly know?

Iolaus continued, "You were in front of my house when my father and I were arguing. I remember you standing between us."

Hercules breathed a sigh of relief. "You're right, I was there."

"Why did you stop him?"

"Because I don't believe in anyone pushing others around, even if they are your own family. Now stop evading the question? Why don't you want to go to Thebes?"

"Why should I? It'll just be the same as here. I know my way around here. The hunting; the fishing!"

Hercules chuckled. "Thebes is not the end of the world, you know. You might just be surprised if you give it a chance. Thebes has some of the best hunting and fishing. And it has some great swimming holes. I think you'd like it if you went." He hesitated, and then added, "You know, you might even meet some friends there."

"Friends! The only friends I got are the street kids. I could stay here. I could stay with them."

"Yes! You could! But, how would your Mom feel about that?" Hercules saw the small brows knit above the weary blue eyes. "She said your father was heading off to war again. Would she be able to manage without you?"

Iolaus seemed startled by the question. "I -- I never thought about that."

Hercules smiled. "You would have."

It was a hard burden to put on a boy so young, but Hercules knew Iolaus had done an admiral job of caring for his family. Iolaus' mother had tried to give him some semblance of childhood -- school and a little time to himself -- but times were rough, especially after the long absence, with only a handful of visits from Skouras, before his death. Iolaus had had to grow up fast. He had taken on man-sized chores at a very young age. He had hunted and fished to help put food on the table. Had worked in the fields. Had kept the firewood cut and stacked and did as much repair work around the place as he could.

He may have been young and small but he never backed off from any hard work because others felt it was too much for him to handle. It only made him more determined to prove himself capable. Hercules was the one person that Iolaus had accepted help from without reservation because he knew that he would be allowed to reciprocate. They were a team and working together, the two boys had always been able to accomplish almost anything they set their minds to.

Iolaus looked up confidingly at the stranger. "You really think I might be able to make friends? I don't really have any here. Most of the boys my age, tease me about my size."

"Size doesn't mean anything. My best friend and partner is smaller than me."

"He is?" for the first time, Iolaus' eyes opened wide.

Hercules laughed. "Yes, he is."

"Is he a warrior, like you?" Iolaus had caught a glimpse of the unconscious men before they left.

"A great warrior. We've fought in many battles side by side and we've helped many people. There's no one else I'd rather have at my back."

"Wow!"

"He's also one of the best hunters and trackers in all of Greece."

"I'm a good hunter and tracker," Iolaus piped up.

"I'm sure you are."

"Where is your friend? Is he here? Can I meet him? How much smaller is he? ..." came the whirlwind of questions.

"Iolaus!"

"When did you meet? Have you always ...?"

"Iolaus!"

"Huh!"

Hercules first thought was: 'Iolaus, you're babbling,' but he smilingly managed to keep it to himself. "Slow down. Take a breath." Typical Iolaus, the pain was already forgotten in the excitement of the moment.

"Oh, yeah!" he grinned.

"Well, to answer all your questions; no, I'm sorry, he's not with me right now. We're meeting later quite some distance from here." This was true enough; at least he hoped so. "He's about up to my shoulders. And we were about your age when we met. He moved to the town where I lived."

"Really?"

"Yes, really."

Hercules could see Iolaus weighing all this.

"Would you tell me more about Thebes?"

As Hercules carried Iolaus, he told him all he remembered of Thebes of the early days, back when he and Iolaus had first met. A couple of times, Iolaus had started to drift off, and Hercules had to rouse him. By the time they finally made town, Iolaus was only barely awake and Hercules was frightened. It seemed to be harder and harder to keep him alert.

As they came in on the north road, they were met by Enos and Arion, who it seemed had been waiting for them. It was early morning now and would be dawn in a few hours.

Hercules sent Arion off to tell Iolaus' parents where he was taking him and had Enos show him the way to the healer's. Once they had awakened the old man and explained what had happened, the healer quickly drew them into the house.

The old man examined the injuries, removing all the make-shift bandages and after checking them over, cleaned the wounds, applied a healing salve and rebandaged. He had to put several stitches into the gash on Iolaus' head, and had just finished resplinting the broken arm, when Iolaus' mother finally came running into the room.

She took one look at the small bruised and battered body and started to cry. She knelt down and took his good hand in hers. "Oh, my baby; my poor baby."

Iolaus turned painful and weary eyes up to her. "Mom, please," he said, slightly embarrassed, "I'm not a baby!!" But his wide smile showed he was genuinely happy and relieved to see her.

She started to laugh through the tears. "You're right, you're not. I'm very sorry!" She mopped her eyes, then looked up to the healer. "Is he going to be alright?"

The old man smiled. "Yes, yes, he'll be fine. I've never known anything to keep this young rapscallion down for long. He's a pretty tough young man."

"Tell that to my father," Iolaus said resentfully. "He didn't even want to come, did he?"

Iolaus' mother turned and saw the bitterness flash in his eyes. "No, son, you're wrong. He's out looking for you right now."

"He is?" There was a mild look of surprise in his eyes. Then they narrowed again. "Probably only because you made him."

Erythia turned slightly away and Hercules could see that Iolaus' words had seemed to hit pretty close to home. Hercules had not had much dealing with Iolaus' father when he and Iolaus were growing up. The rare occasions Skouras had come to Thebes, had not been especially happy times for Iolaus and he had generally ended up spending most of that time staying at Alcmene's and his home.

"Please, can I take him home?" she asked to deter any answer. But Iolaus had already started to drift off again.

"Yes, of course, he'll be more comfortable there, I'm sure. I'll come by later today and check on him."

Hercules looked down a little fearfully at Iolaus. "I know the boy's completely exhausted, but shouldn't he be kept awake?"

The healer sighed. "It's going to be next to impossible to keep him awake. The sleep will do him more good right now. He needs to be kept as immobile as possible for a few days. Unfortunately with his concussion, I can't take a chance and give him anything for the pain; I don't want to put him out. I want you to wake him every hour over the next 24 hours, just to make sure he's alright. Send for me immediately if he doesn't respond or seems disoriented or incoherent."

Iolaus' mother smiled. "Thank you, very much!"

The healer looked up at Hercules. "Thank this young man. He did all the right things, including setting your boy's arm perfectly. There wasn't much left for me to do."

"I only did what I promised." He smiled down at Erythia.

"Thank you again. Now, could I impose on your kindness just once more, to carry him home for me?"

"Of course. I'd like to see him safely home before I have to leave. By the way, Enos and Arion, ..." he turned, but the two street kids were gone. "Where did the boys go?"

"They left right after Arion brought Iolaus' mother in," stated the healer.

"If it hadn't been for them, I might not have found Iolaus in time," answered Hercules.

"I'll make sure they're thanked properly," Iolaus' mother replied.

Then Hercules reached down and gently lifted Iolaus into his arms, while the healer carefully placed Iolaus' broken arm on the boy's chest.

As Hercules carried the boy back to the house, he explained to Erythia what had happened. When they arrived, she quickly thanked and saw off the neighbor who had come to stay with the other sleeping children. She then led the way into Iolaus' tiny room. It was hardly big enough for more than just a bed and a chest for his few things. But it was clean and comfortable. She pulled the bedding down, so Hercules could lay Iolaus down and watched silently as Hercules removed the boy's boots and pants. She pulled the covers up and fussed over him, trying to make him as comfortable as she could.

Iolaus awoke as he had been laid down and the pain Hercules saw in Iolaus' eyes was hard for him to accept. He had all he could do to hold back the emotions he felt surging up within him. He knew he wouldn't be able to explain it to Iolaus and his mother, why a stranger should feel so strongly. He wanted to stay and make sure everything would be alright, but didn't know what was going to happen next. Was his job over? Would he be taken back to the present, and to the present Iolaus? Or, would he soon wake up and find this all was simply a dream.

Erythia rose, as Hercules reluctantly knelt down to say goodby, but a small hand reached out to him.

"Please, don't go! Mom, can't he stay awhile? He told me about Thebes."

A startled look came across her face. "Thebes?"

"Yeah! Did you know they have some great hunting and fishing. And swimming holes?"

She laughed. "No, I didn't. But I'm glad to hear that. Yes, he's welcome to stay. After all he's done, I could hardly say no."

Hercules rose and turned towards her. "Thank you. I'd like to stay, at least for a little while. Just to make sure he's alright."

"Thank you for all you've done for us. I can't tell you how grateful I am."

"It's not necessary. I'm just glad I was here."

She looked down at the exhausted, but eager face that now seemed to be fighting sleep. "I don't know what you said to him, but you're quite a miracle worker. He's been so dead-set against leaving here."

"I just told him the truth about Thebes." He saw the weary, though relieved look on her face. "Why don't you go and try and get some rest? I'll be happy to watch him."

"I will later. I need to wait for his father. Besides, since I'm up, and it'll soon be dawn, I might as well get started on the chores and get them out of the way. I want to be near him as much as possible later. He'll be impossible to keep down, once he starts feeling a little better."

Hercules nodded, knowing all too well what she was speaking about. He had encountered it quite a few times himself.

She knelt down by the bed once more, leaned over and placed a kiss on her son's forehead. "Get some rest."

"Yes, Mom."

She softly caressed his cheek and whispered, 'I love you', and was rewarded with a beautiful loving smile. Another kiss to the forehead and she rose, gracing Hercules with a smile as she turned and left the room.

After she had gone, Hercules came over and sat down on the floor next to the low bed. "Why don't you try and get some sleep?"

"Will you be here when I wake?"

Hercules laid his left arm up on the pillow, behind the boy's head and fingered the soft golden locks. "I'll stay as long as I can. But your job right now is to rest and get well so you can make that move with your family."

"Okay." The eyes started to close, but fluttered back open. "You're sure things will be better in Thebes?" Iolaus asked.

Hercules laughed. "It may not seem like it right away, but it won't take long. Just remember, 'believe in yourself, no matter what others say to you or try to tell you, and remember, too, it's not your physical size, but the size of your heart that's important'," Hercules emphasized as he laid his right hand gently on the boy's heart. "You are very brave and have a lot of courage, Iolaus. One day you'll be a great warrior and hunter."

Iolaus beamed with pride. "And -- And you think I'll find a friend?"

"A best friend," he promised. "Now close your eyes and sleep."

Iolaus closed his eyes, but after a few moments his eyes popped back open again. "Will you be my friend, too?"

"Always!" And he returned Iolaus' bright smile.

Hercules sat and watched the boy as he slept, gently stroking the small forehead. His mind was a jumble of different thoughts and emotions. He smiled as he thought back to the first meeting between them. Small snatches of their years spent together ran swiftly through his mind. Over twenty-five years worth of memories. Some painful; but most joyful. And through it all, they had always been there for each other.

But he could not sit here watching, worrying, thinking, without thoughts of his own children surfacing. Loving memories locked forever in his heart and mind. Visions danced before him of time spent with them playing, teaching, and telling endless bedtime stories. But there were other visions, visions of nights spent sitting at sickbeds. The same fears and worries as now. Then Hera, in one vengeful moment, had taken his children, and their mother, completely from him. Sudden anger drew him back to the present. Hera had tried on several occasion to take Iolaus' life, also. He shuddered as he remembered how similarly the injuries tonight were to the fire enforcer's injuries not so long ago. He reached down and placed a protective hand on Iolaus' chest.

Hercules had awakened Iolaus once after what seemed like an hour and had gotten a groggy, but positive response when he asked his name and a few other questions. Hercules had given him some water, and then the boy was soon back to sleep.

Iolaus' mother had come in and out several times to check on him, and, this last time smiled sweetly at the sight of her son's small hand curled so confidingly in the larger one. Hercules heard her sigh and realized that she was probably wishing that that could have been her husband's hand enfolding their son's, instead of an outsider's.

"You are quite a remarkable man." To Hercules' confused look, she continued. "You seemed to have captured my son's heart. He's usually not that open with strangers."

Hercules looked down at the small form on the bed. "I guess it was just the circumstances we met under. But, I think we're even; he's captured mine also. He's very special."

Hercules didn't realize how much he had conveyed in those few words. She nodded and left the room thoughtfully, treasuring those words in her heart.

At last he heard voices in the outer room. Skouras had returned.

Hercules rose slowly from the floor, trying to get some circulation back into his cramped, sleeping legs. He waited patiently for their entrance into the bedroom, knowing his time with the boy was drawing to a close. Skouras burst in, ignoring Hercules and going straight over to his son's bed. Erythia had started in, but had heard the small voice of one of the other children cry out and went to check.

"Is he alright?" The question was so low, Hercules had almost not even heard it.

"Yes, it appears he'll be fine. The healer said he just needs to be watched over for awhile."

Skouras seemed to be truly shaken by the sight of his small son, laying there so badly injured. He knelt down near the bed and with a shaky hand, reached up and brushed back a couple of locks of his son's hair that had fallen over his forehead. Skouras quickly pulled his hand back, as if embarrassed by his own compassionate act.

Again the low words. "I never meant for him to be hurt." Hercules wasn't sure whether the words were meant for him or if Skouras had merely said aloud what he was thinking. For a few moments Skouras quietly watched his sleeping son.

Hercules remained silent, watching the amazing scene unfold. Erythia had come into the room in time to see the tender gesture also, and Hercules saw tears well up in her eyes, but knew these were tears of joy.

Skouras finally rose and turned to him stiffly. "My wife told me what happened and what you did." He seemed somewhat unaccustomed to this role also. "Thank you for that."

"You're welcome. I'm glad I could help." He paused. "You've got quite a son there!"

Skouras hesitantly nodded and then unsure what to do beyond this, turned back towards the bed and his son. Erythia came up alongside of him and put her hand on his arm. Hercules smiled to himself and left the room to give them some privacy with their son.

He headed for the dining room table, where he sat and stretched out fully in the chair. His head was swimming. So much had happened in such a few short hours. Most amazing was seeing a side of Skouras he had never known existed. It may not last -- in fact, Hercules knew it had not -- but he was happy to have this small glimpse into possibly the real heart of Skouras. The scene had reinforced what Iolaus had told him of his conversation with his father in the underworld. Obviously Skouras did care in his own way. Erythia may have been right, he just didn't know how to show it easily.

Hercules leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table. He closed his eyes for a moment, resting his head in the palm of his hands. He was so weary.

Hercules slowly opened his eyes and felt the dizziness again. The first tinge of pink was slowly making its way across the sky. He propped himself up on his elbows and realized he was back at the campsite. He sat up and held his head. The dizziness soon left. 'Wow! What a dream!' he thought. He shook his head and looked over toward the other side of the campfire. But there was no sign of Iolaus, nor his blankets. He jumped up with his own blanket still clutched tightly in his hand. A panic came over him. "No!! Iolaus!!" He looked all around but there was no sign of his friend. "IOLAUS!!"

Iolaus came out from a narrow path through some thick bushes on a dead run. Alert for trouble, he saw nothing out of place. "Herc, what's wrong?!!" A look of concern crossed his face, as he saw the panic in his friend's eyes.

"Where were you? Why didn't you tell me you were leaving?" the words tripped from Hercules almost angrily.

"Nature call," Iolaus stated simply, still looking at Hercules strangely. "I didn't think I had to ask permission," he said with a wry grin.

Hercules looked at Iolaus sheepishly. "Sorry! I didn't see you or your blankets. It was almost as if you weren't here."

"You have my blankets in your hand," came the amused reply.

Hercules looked down and realized he was clutching three blankets to his chest.

"I was returning the favor from last night," Iolaus smiled. "It was still kinda cold when I got up, so I tossed my blankets on you before I left."

Hercules finally relaxed and smiled back. "I'm sorry, my friend. Just a strange dream I had."

"Sounds pretty serious. Want to tell me about it?"

Hercules nodded. As they sat down, Iolaus grabbed the waterbag and handed it to Hercules. After Hercules had taken a drink and handed the bag back to Iolaus, Hercules propped himself up against a large rock. He drew his knees up in front of him, still tightly clutching the blankets. He fingered the edge of one of them, while he told of his dream.

"It was all so real, Iolaus," he finally ended.

The hunter shook his head and smiled. "Well, we were reminiscing last night about our younger days, you know. Besides, I told you about that incident a long time ago after we first met. Don't you remember?"

Hercules brow knit. "Yeah. I -- I guess so."

"Hmm. I hadn't thought about that since I was a kid. I was always hoping I'd meet him again sometime, to thank him."

"I can understand that. He saved your life."

"More than that. If it hadn't been for him, we might never have met. He said my life would change and I'd meet a best friend if I went to Thebes."

"Do you remember much about him?" asked a curious Hercules.

"No. When he first appeared in the street, I didn't pay much attention to him. I was too angry. When he took care of me and brought me home, I was so tired and in so much pain, I -- I ..." He shrugged his shoulders.

Hercules shuddered. He remembered the pain and weariness he had seen; this dream had been all too real to him.

"It's funny though, even in that short time together, I felt closer to him than I ever did to my father."

"Not so funny. He rescued you, cared for your injuries, held you while you were sick, carried you back ..."

Iolaus interrupted. "Wait, ... wait, what did you say?"

"Carried you back ..."

"No, no, before that?"

"I don't know, what?"

"You said 'held you while you were sick'!!"

"Yeah, so?"

"Herc, I never told you about getting sick."

"Of course, you did. You must have!"

"No, I didn't." Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Herc, that's not exactly one of the things I would have included in my story."

"But, then, how did I ...?"

"Herc, all I remember about him, is that he was extremely big, ..." He saw Hercules' eyes widen and tilt his head, a wry smile coming to his lips. "Don't even go there!" Iolaus said without losing a beat, a slight smile forming on his lips also, "... he had long hair, and a ..." All of a sudden Iolaus stopped.

"'And a' what?" Hercules laughed.

"And a ... blood-stained yellow tunic. My blood was all over him."

Iolaus, with a shaking hand, crawled closer to Hercules and hesitantly reached over and pulled the blankets from in front of his friend and froze. Hercules saw Iolaus' shocked gaze and looked down. Hercules' yellow tunic was covered in dried blood and dirt. Iolaus' and Hercules' eyes locked.

"That wasn't there last night, Herc. How did you get it?"

"I -- I don't know," came the soft reply.

Iolaus sat quietly, weighing all these things. A confused look came over his face. "This whole thing is impossible!" He lowered his head, then looked back up again. "Isn't it?"

Hercules could only shrug. "We've seen some strange things in our days, Iolaus. You know yourself, with the gods anything is possible."

"But why? And who? I'm assuming since I survived, we could probably rule out Hera, Ares or Strife!"

Hercules laughed. "I don't know, and you know what? I don't even care. As long as it worked out like it did, that's all that matters to me." Hercules watched Iolaus silently struggling with all that had come to light. "Iolaus, I think there's something else you should know."

Iolaus looked up questioningly, as Hercules proceeded to tell his friend all that had transpired when Skouras had come into the bedroom. That the news had hit Iolaus with the force of a boulder, was obvious from his face. Iolaus rose and moved away a short distance, but Hercules soon joined him. For a few minutes they just stood silently together, both pairs of eyes straight ahead on the shimmering lake.

"My mother kept telling me over and over that my father cared about me, but just didn't know how to show it. I'm not sure I ever believed her until I met him down in the underworld. Now this." He paused. "You know, I remember him coming in and out of my room a lot while I was recovering from that concussion and his not being quite so aloof during the rest of his time home then. The move -- it was the only time we worked together and that I remember him treating me like a, ... like a real son." Iolaus shrugged. "It certainly didn't last on his next few visits though. You know that." He sighed heavily.

Hercules reached up and placed a sheltering arm around his friend's shoulders. For a few minutes more they stood silently.

Never one to stay dispirited for long, a slight smile formed on Iolaus' lips. "So, you were rescuing me even before we knew each other, huh!!?"

"It appears so!"

Another silence.

"Thanks!!!"

"My pleasure!"

Iolaus finally turned toward Hercules and the two friends locked gazes for another moment, their eyes conveying all that remained to be spoken. A blazing smile once more crossed the hunter's golden features, followed by a matching one from the demigod.

Hercules then slowly turned Iolaus and steered him down towards the lake. "Come on, my friend. The fish are waiting and I'm hungry."

"Me, too."

"So, when aren't you?"

"Hey ..."

Laughing once again, they went down to the lake and threw in their make-shift poles. The "night's happenings" were a lot to ponder for both of them. However, it appeared they would never really know who had done this. But after all that had happened to them over the course of their lives thus far, they accepted what they could not explain and went on to enjoy a few more wonderful days at the valley, before they finally moved on to new adventures.

~~ finis ~~



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