Armageddon Now - Missing Scenes

by Bwell

Iolaus shuddered when he heard the sound of the bone crushing under the force of the heavy hammer. There was nothing he could do but turn and get away from the sickening sight he had just witnessed. This world held nothing but heartache for him now, and he just wanted to find some tavern to lose his sorrows in. He walked along the crowded street with his eyes downcast since he didn't want to gaze into the faces of people who never knew his beloved best friend. Without warning, Iolaus crashed into someone coming out of a tavern and found himself sitting in the dirt with his victim.

"Hey, buddy! Why don't you watch...?" stopped the stranger.

Iolaus's eyes snapped up in the direction of a very familiar voice. "By the gods!" he gasped. It was almost like looking into a polished mirror. Both men stared very hard at each other until they both realized the absurdity of it all and began laughing hysterically. "There have been many times that I've struggled with myself, but this is just plain ridiculous!" muttered Iolaus.

"You must be another one of the cousins. Seems like Orestes' grandfather got around more than we thought!" laughed the Other Iolaus. Extending his hand Iolaus's mirror image pulled both of them to their feet. "My name is Iolaus, and yours is...?" he asked.

Iolaus had to think quickly as he didn't want to have to go into an explanation that would surely have had him driven out of town as a madman. However, the best he could come up with at the moment was, "My name is Leolaus, and it's always great to meet family...especially when one finds oneself in need of lodging for the night." He raised his eyebrows in a hopeful grin and relaxed noticeably when the grin was returned.

"Of course, what else is family for? I have a small place on the edge of town; it's really not much but it's comfortable enough. You're welcome to stay with us," Iolaus said.

"Leolaus" smiled broadly and nodded. This Other Iolaus pointed the way, and they walked through the streets in companionable silence. "One thing I have to warn you about is my wife's cooking. I really is better than when we first married; she certainly won't win any prizes at the local festivals,though," he giggled. "Still some things are more important than food, eh?"

Iolaus stopped square in the street and tried to stop the world from spinning, "Ania?"

"Whoa! Leolaus...I knew her cooking was bad, but I hadn't thought it had reached the legendary stage!" laughed the other. The Other steadied his "cousin" and asked, "Are you okay? You look pretty pale."

Leolaus said, "Yeah, I think, though, that the run-in we had must have left me a little woozy. I'll be all right. So, Iolaus, is your wife in good health?" He continued staring straight ahead as they returned to their journey. Ania! Ania had never died in childbirth. How could this have happened? Iolaus thought, "Only things having to do with Hercules changed...she died a natural...Hera...Hera was also known as the goddess of childbirth to some. Her jealousy of Hercules caused him to lose his wife and children. The children! Oh gods..could they be..?" Iolaus, trying to look nonchalant, took a deep breath and asked, "So, Iolaus, do you and Ania have any children?"

The Other laughed heartily and clapped Iolaus on the back, "Oh yes, she's quite healthy. Which may explain the answer to your next question. Any children? By Zeus! We have a houseful! Yessir, three boys and two little girls that will melt your heart when they turn those blue eyes to you. They love company, and I'm sure they'll think this is a real treat. Hey! Leolaus? Feel like stirring up a little mischief? I always feel like that..especially after a day like I've had. We're almost there...she'll be cooking dinner. All ya have to do is sneak up behind her and grab her by the waist. It'll be a great trick."

"I don't know, Iolaus. Sounds a little dangerous to me; I mean, won't she get mad?" Iolaus asked. He was desperately worried about his own reactions to her. How could he deal with seeing his love in the arms of another man...even if that other man would be him? His head seriously started to ache at the thought, but the ache in his heart was what overwhelmed him.

"Ah, come on, Leolaus....She'll love it! There's the place now; see, it's not very big, but my forge is right next door, and we have plenty of outdoor space for the kids to play. Now, all you have to do is sneak around back and slip in there. Oh, this is going to be good," he said rubbing his hands together.

"Leolaus," he said to himself, "You are going to be in trouble." While the Other had gone around the front to gather the kids together and let them in on the joke, Iolaus, slipped into the kitchen unobserved with hiis hunter instincts were in full blossom. His heart almost stopped at the familiarity he experienced when he walked into the kitchen. The smells of what would pass for food, the clean smell of the room she always took pride in, and the sweet jasmine was evident even from the opposite side of the room. He moved quietly, forgetting this was a joke, and slipped his hands around her waist and buried his face in her sweet smelling hair. Gently, he kissed the top of her head and whispered, "Oh Ania, my sweet Ania." Suddenly he felt a sharp blow to his diaphragm, and she turned around and slapped his face. She gasped as she saw him...Looking suspiciously around the room, she called out, "Iolaus, you'd better come in here this minute. This isn't funny at all!"

The Other Iolaus and the four little children spilled into the room laughing and rolling on the floor. "Oh Leolaus, you should have seen the look on your face...and you, my love, I saw how you leaned into his embrace. If I hadn't put him up to it, I believe I'd almost be jealous." He slipped behind her and put his hands around her waist in almost a mockery of Iolaus's former position. She still wasn't laughing, but Ania smiled and elbowed her husband as well.

"I'm Ania, and you must be one of the Cousins. He probably didn't tell you that he'd tried this same joke before on Orestes. I think it's more of a joke on the cousins than on me, don't you think?" she smiled and cut her eyes to the Other who was now looking at the floor and smiling. The children scrambled to meet the cousin.

Iolaus almost cried out as he lifted Telemachus in his arms. The boy must be five years old now. He remembered the last time he'd held his son; he'd rocked the dying child in his arms, cooing to him and assuring him that he'd soon be in his mother's loving arms. The other child, Michalous wanted attention as well, and he pulled insistently at this new relative's leg. Iolaus scooped him up as well and held him close. Michalous had died on one of Iolaus's trips with Hercules. The baby had succumbed to a mysterious plague that killed all children of the village under the age of 6 months. It had only been three months after he had lost Telemachus. It felt so good to hold his sons again.

Suddenly, he heard something quite musical lilting in the room. He put the boys down and knelt on the floor as two little blond girls scurried from behind their mother's skirt and ran right to his arms. He hugged his two would-be daughters and felt the ache of what should have been, but never could be. As tears threatened to spill, he began to tickle the little two-year-olds in his arms. Their laughter was like a balm to his heart, and he looked up at a confused Ania and his Other self. "I'm sorry, I had a family once, and well, these lovely children bring it all back to me. Iolaus, you said you had five, but I only count four of these rascals," he said as he gathered all in his arms and wrestled with them again. The kitchen erupted in more noise when the children's father joined the melee caused by "Leolaus". Ania smiled and rolled her eyes at the joy filling her kitchen. Suddenly a small cry was heard from the other room, and Ania left the room.

"Oops looks like we woke the little one. Now, Leolaus, you'll meet the real boss," The Other stood and moved to Ania who was gently cradling a tiny baby in her arms. He took the smallest babe in his arms, Iolaus blinked back the pain of seeing the special tenderness he witness of his Other self. Iolaus rose to look at the baby.

"May I?" he asked reaching out. Iolaus wondered at the intense protectiveness he sensed in his other self. The Other placed the baby in his arms, and Iolaus knew instantly why he was so protective.

"Yes, Leolaus, our little one is blind, " whispered Ania. The Other turned, and Iolaus could see the battle raging within. "You see, Iolaus is the master blacksmith for the Conqueror herself. One day, when she came by to check on a sword, Iolaus had our little one in the forge with him. For some reason she became incensed when Iolaus told her his name. She screamed at him, threatened the whole family, and threw flux into our baby's eyes. Little Solon screamed and even though Iolaus did his best to rinse out the dust from his eyes, it left him sightless. He can't see, but he can feel the love found within these walls." Ania turned to her husband and rested her cheek on his back, "It wasn't your fault, my love."

Iolaus blinked back the tears as he felt as responsible as the Other did. Did the Conqueror recognize this Iolaus as the one who tried to keep her from conquering Cirra? Is that why she was moved to violence against a baby less than 4 months old? He drew Solon even deeper into his embrace, and kissed the sweet babe's forehead.

The Other turned in time to see that gesture of compassion, and he blinked back the tears as he held his wife in his arms. "Come now, everyone out of the kitchen before your mother burns our supper," he said putting on a brave front.

Telemachus broke the tension as he innocently asked his father, "But Daddy, how will we know the difference?" The Other scooped his son into his arms and laughed mightily, and the other children danced around their father as he lead them into the common room. "Leolaus" lingered a little longer holding Solon and watching Ania move about the kitchen. He smiled as he recognized her struggle to remember whether to put in salt or sage. The hunter remembered their conversation once, "I'm sorry Iolaus...they sound so much alike, I can't remember which one I'm supposed to put in." He marveled at how an intelligent woman like Ania had difficulty with the simple things. He laughed when she chose the wrong thing and added way too much of it as well.

Ania quickly turned to see him watching her, "Leolaus! You startled me! I'm afraid I'm not much of a cook."

"That's okay, Ania. You're so good at other things, I'm sure Iolaus doesn't mind the cooking," The Golden Hunter said suddenly blushing. "I, you're such a good mother. See, the little one beckons to you now." Iolaus looked very sheepishly at this Other Ania.

Her smile soothed his frazzled nerves, and for a moment, holding "their" baby in his arms, he forgot all about Callisto, Hope, Ares, and his lost friend.

Somewhere in Oblivion, a darker version of Hercules laughed, "See...that's what friendship will get ya. That's why I never really did trust that Jester, Iolaus. I knew he'd turn his back on me if he had a chance. Looks like your Iolaus is just the same."

"Shut your mouth! You don't have any idea what you're talking about! Iolaus is brave and loyal. He'd never...DO YOU HEAR ME...never turn his back on me. Right now he thinks I'm dead. If he had any clue he'd.."

"Bring you back and kill his wife and children? Because if he does manage to bring you back, he'd kill them as much as if he'd held a knife to their throats. Oh yeah! This is great."

Iolaus walked back into the common room surrendered the baby to his father and sat at the table. Ania brought in something similar to boar stew, slightly burned bread, some cheese, and fruit. The children stopped their chatter for a moment and looked at the meal with silent smiles. Iolaus almost laughed as he thought that the Other had trained them well. When she sat down, the laughter and good natured conversation began again. Iolaus's heart ached as the familiarity of the banter between husband and wife touched him.

"I saw you were almost fooled by Cousin Leolaus,"teased the Other. "A lesser man would be stark raving jealous at the cuddle I witnessed." He grinned as he placed his right hand over hers and winked.

"I knew it wasn't you all along," she said screwing up her face to him.

"Well, Sweetness," he began as he raised her fingers to kiss them, "how did you know it wasn't, and why you let Leolaus, if you knew he wasn't me, hug you so long?"

She grinned slyly and reached for his other hand. Pulling it up for full view, she said, "Well, to answer your first question....Leolaus has all of his fingers." Iolaus looked quickly to the Other and noticed his pinkie finger was indeed missing. Then without missing a beat she continued, "And to answer your other question, I was in need of a GOOD hug." She collapsed into giggles and the Other joined right in.

Her laughter pierced Iolaus's soul. This was harder than he thought it would be. He wanted to be the author of that delight...He wanted to be the father at the table...He wanted to be the one to hold her in the night. He longed to be this Iolaus.

He felt a little tug at his sleeve as Michalous tried to get his attention. He looked down lovingly at the boy as the child informed him, "Daddy used to be a thief. That's why he doesn't have the little finger 'coz they chopped it off 'coz he stole. But Mommy made him quit it. Now Daddy says we should all tell the truth and not take stuff that doesn't belong to us."

"Your Dad is a smart man to listen to your Mommy," he grinned.

"Yeah, Daddy says so too, but sometimes Telemachus doesn't listen. He took the knife Daddy was working on for the Conqueror."

"Did not!" erupted from one end of the table.

"Did too!" echoed the reply.

"Telemachus! Did you take it?" asked his father very seriously handing over Solon to Ania.

Telemachus lowered his eyes, and his bottom lip started trembling.

"Did you, Son?" asked his mother

Iolaus felt his heart clinch as tears started flooding down the little one's face. "I didn't steal it, Daddy. I promise I didn't...I just wanted to look at the dragon. I couldn't figure out how you put the jewel in it, and I just wanted...I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Daddy," Telemachus confessed.

Ania gasped holding Solon close to her, "Telemachus! Do you have any idea what the Conqueror would have done to your father if it was missing when she stopped by?" She looked frantically to the Other. This Iolaus laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and stood up.

"Son, come with me," he said quite sternly.

The little boy rose, and Iolaus hoped that he wasn't about to administer to his child the punishment doled out by HIS father. The father and son retreated to another room where Iolaus could hear great sobs echoing down the hallway. Michalous looked down at his plate and started crying himself, "Mommy, I didn't want to get Tele in trouble...I was just ascaird of the Conqueror." Ania rose with the baby in her arms and went to her other son to comfort him as well. Delia and Hela started wailing too. Ania looked pleadingly to "Leolaus", and taking her cue scooped Solon from her arms and whispered to the little girls that he knew a story they would love.

They wiped away their tears and lead him into their small room. Sitting there in the darkening room, Iolaus began to spin tales he knew little ones would love; however, unintentionally, he began listening to the conversation next door.

"Oh Daddy, I'm sorry," sobbed Tele as he stood trembling before his father. The Other knelt on the floor next to him.

"Son, I know you are. I know you're just curious...I was the same way when I was a little boy."

"You were?" he asked through his tears.

"Yes, and that's why I'm so worried about you, Tele. I made some huge mistakes when I was growing up, and it just hurts me to see you making them too. I don't want you to end up like me, Son," said the Other through his own tears.

Iolaus heard the exchange through the thin walls and almost lost his place in the story when he heard Telemachus's little voice say, "But Daddy, I want to be like you when I grow up." The little girls pulled at his vest to continue the story of a giant who had a giant heart. Iolaus continued the story with a lump in his throat when Ania appeared at the door with Michalous.

She state simply, "It's time for bed little ones." They protested, but Delia and Hela knew they could never overturn their Mommy's decisions. Iolaus was still holding Solon, and Ania quickly transferred Michalous to his keeping whilst dealing with the girls.

"Cousin Leolaus, do you think Tele will be mad at me?" the child asked looking up to the familiar stranger holding his brother.

The Other walked out of the room with Telemachus in his arms and reached out to take Michalous in them as well. Both boys laid their heads on his great shoulders and hugged their father. Iolaus was glad that he didn't hear the crack of a belt when the father and son were alone. In fact, he was quite proud of "himself" for the way he'd handled the problem.

"I'm sorry I told, Tele," said Michalous looking across their father.

"It's okay, Michalous. I shouldn't have taken it," Telemachus whispered penitently.

"I have a terrific couple of boys, don't you agree, Leolaus?" asked the Other.

"Oh yes, Iolaus. Any man would be proud to have a family like yours. Any man...," he said wistfully looking into the unseeing eyes of the baby.

The Other hugged the two boys tightly and said, "I understand your Mother said something about bedtime. Scoot you two," he said as he placed them on the ground. With one last hug they raced each other to their room. "Ha, they know there's a story coming for them both. Perhaps you could do the honors tonight, Cousin?" Iolaus nodded and followed the two. Meeting Ania in the hallway, Iolaus noticed that Solon was starting to grunt and squirm.

She smiled sweetly as she held out her arms for the baby. Iolaus reluctantly gave the restless babe over and smiled as Solon quickly nuzzled into her breast. "Looks like we forgot Solon's dinner time. He smiled and turned away to return to the little boys.

Once Iolaus and "Leolaus" put the boys to bed and checked on the softly snoring little girls, they returned to the common room. Iolaus winced to see his "wife" rocking and singing softly to Solon as she nursed him. Ania covered herself and the feeding babe and grinned at them both.

"It really is amazing how much alike you two look. I don't think even Orestes looked as much as you guys. In fact, if it weren't for the finger and the scar on Leolaus, I wouldn't be able to tell you apart" she laughed.

Iolaus unconsciously touched the scar he received as a young boy when trying to get Hercules up a tree. He smiled when he remembered how agonizingly clumsy Herc was. Herc was... Iolaus was suddenly filled with anguish. Ania recognized it immediately. "Leolaus? Are you all right?"she asked tenderly.

"I was just remembering someone I lost recently who was very close to me."

"I'm sorry, Cousin. Was this the family you lost?" asked the Other sympathetically.

"Yes, yes,he was. He was my brother, and I miss him terribly. It was Hercules who helped me through losing my wife and children," he answered. They remained quiet for a while. The only sound was the soft grunts and succling noises made by Solon. "Iolaus, you're an honest man..."

"Yes, I'd like to think so," the Other answered.

"Well, forgive me for asking, but just how did such a noble soul end up working for..?" Iolaus found he couldn't finish the question.

"The Conqueror, the murderous harlot? It's not something I'm proud of, actually, but.." The Other looked to Ania. She smiled understandingly and urged him to go on. "Leolaus, it was many years ago, and I had finished my thieving career with the loss of my finger. I'd thought about continuing; after all, it was all I knew in this world. My father abandoned us, and originally, I'd gone into it to help feed Mom and us kids. Well, it got so I was causing her and the rest of the family so much grief; so...I took off. Anyway, I got caught one day.."

"It was my fault, actually, Leolaus," Ania said with a sad smile.

The Other laughed softly, "Well, she was so pretty and ..well...clumsy; I'm sorry, Love, but you were. Well, I was distracted and was caught. The magistrate didn't even hold a trial; the Conqueror did away with all those niceties. Anyway, just as he was about to cut my whole hand off, the Conqueror rode by. She looked kind of startled to see me. Though I don't ever remember meeting her before, she had a look of recognition on her face. She stopped the punishment and told then to only take my little finger." He stopped and rubbed unconsciously at the nub left behind. "At first, I didn't know what to think. Then she sent for me and set me up as a blacksmith even though I knew very little of that particular trade. I was pretty good for a beginner."

"Unfortunately, that wasn't the only skills the Conqueror surmised my husband came naturally to," added Ania as she was gently patting Solon on the back.

"Ahem...well, you see, Leolaus, as brutal as the Conqueror might be, she still holds a certain fascination...and a...," the Other looked hesitantly over to his wife.

"Don't worry, I'll leave you to tell the rest of the story on your own, my love," she whispered as she stooped to kiss him on the cheek. He reached up and place his hand on the back of the baby's head and kissed the sofly snoring child. Iolaus could see the same love that once flooded his heart spilling from the Other as she left the room.

"As I was saying, she was exotic, and the authority she commanded was intoxicating. Here I was just a common thief, and she was the most powerful woman on earth interested in me. She drew me in before I even knew it. At first she would come around and watch me work. Said my metal working was a thing of beauty. Before I knew it we," he searched for a more delicate word not wanting to stir up past pain for his dear wife who might still hear him.

Iolaus spoke up, "involved?"

"Yeah! That's it. We were involved. When I was with her, my world spun completely out of control. And everytime we were together, she would ask the strangest questions. She seemed to think I could tell her future, and even after I reassured her that I had no connection with the Fates, she still asked me in a sort of pathetic way when would she reach her pinacle. She was like that drug she brought with her from Chin...comes from a flower; anyway, the problem was that when I was away from her, the cruelties she enjoyed sickened me. That's when my sweet Ania came into my life. The Conqueror reformed my profession, but Ania reformed my heart," the Other smiled as he unconsciously placed his hand over his heart and closed his eyes.

"How did you break away from X..The Conqueror's hands? She doesn't seem to be one who'd gracefully bow out of a relationship," Iolaus asked cautiously.

"I told the Conqueror it was over...that she could find another toy. She flew into this uncontrollable rage and threatened to have both my hands cut off along with another ...part of my anatomy! She has this quiet menace about her, but when she loses it...the Conqueror is terrifying. I had no doubt that my time on earth as a man was about to be over when Ania stepped into the forge. Ah! Leolaus, you should have seen her. She took on this incredible defensive I haven't seen since The Conqueror killed off all the Amazons... and moved between us. This seemed to be something the Conqueror understood because she regained control. Ania spoke first in the most chilling voice I'd ever heard her use. She told the Conqueror if anything happened to me, the world would know how this great leader...consort to Ares himself, couldn't keep a simple blacksmith as her lover. I'll never forget that night I saw the Conqueror become Xena, a frightened little warlord concerned with her reputation. She backed down but vowed that I would still be in service to her for my smithing. I agreed, and she left. Ania says the Conqueror blinked. She came around from time to time, but essentially, when we married...she left us alone. That was before Solon was born," he said sadly.

Iolaus felt tremendously guilty. The Conqueror obviously thought she was dealing with him and his foreknowlege. When the Other told her the child's name was Solon, the Conqueror must have thought it was done to spite her, the way Hera felt when Alcmene gave Herc a name that meant "The Glory of Hera".

"Iolaus, you know she won't ever leave you and your family alone. Why don't you leave this place. Take your blessed family and run. I'd be willing to help to get out of her reach," he said.

The Other looked at him incredulously and wondered if there was a place on earth that fit THAT description.

In Oblivion, the Sovereign laughed. "Oh..stop me now. Just wait until Xena hears she's the little Jester's lover. Hooboy! Will she get a laugh out of that one or what?!" He dropped to the ground and rolled. "Can you imagine blondie there and Xena... Oh it's too much."

" my world, Iolaus is quite the lady's man, and well...Xena and Iolaus were lovers... for a time," he said with a smirk. He was glad to be able to give a dig to the Sov's psyche for a change. "Guess that means..."

"DON'T SAY IT!!!!!!!!!"

Now it was Hercules' turn to roll.

Iolaus stared at the ceiling on the small cot the Other found in the forge. Ania busied herself, after placing Solon in his small cradle, in making "Leolaus" comfortable. She pulled out soft lamb's wool blankets, and a plump pillow for his head. Iolaus's heart broke as he watched her skitter in and out of the room with her sweet smile and that same mole that danced everytime she smiled at him. He ached to pull her into his arms and just hold her. He had to keep reminding himself that this wasn't "his" Ania.

Later that night, as he heard soft giggling floating through the house from the happy couple's bedroom, Iolaus fought a battle within himself. How could he possibly end this happiness? The children and Ania will cease to exist except in Elysian Fields. Even so, where would the twins and Solon...children who were never born to him, be delegated if he succeeded in returning time back to normal. Could he do it? Could he sacrifice "his family"? Or would he sacrifice the world as he had known it? He sighed at his deep loneliness and forced himself into the realm of dreams.

The next morning, Iolaus rose before the rest and softly padded outside and walked into the forge. He smiled as he picked up tool after tool and tested their balance in his hands. "Looks like you know your way around a forge. Ever do a little smithing?" the Other asked. Iolaus jumped when he heard his voice. "Sorry there, Leolaus. I'm somehow able to slip up on people like this," he said with a grin. "It annoys Ania to pieces. Well, have you?"

"Um...have I what?" countered Iolaus

"Worked as a blacksmith?"

"Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did. Used to be pretty good at it too," Iolaus admitted.

"Okay, how about I man the bellows, and let's see what you can do with this shield I was working on?" the Other challenged.

Iolaus went straight ot work heating then beating out the metal until it was one thickness. The Other was transfixed to watch "Leolaus" work. It amazed him that his cousin was shaping it just as he would have. When it came to the fine detailed work, "Leolaus" beat small patterns into the metal.

"If I didn't know better, Leolaus, I'd have sworn you're a mind reader as well. I was planning on using that hammer to create that very same design!" he exclaimed.

The two men laughed and discussed the finer points of smithing when they heard a small voice. Telemachus stood at the door and announced that breakfast was ready. The Other scooped his son in his arms, and Iolaus was proud of the father his Other self had become. He knew that he'd always have the specter of Skouros hanging over him. The hunter had always promised himself that he would be a better father to his children, and it was great comfort to see that promise come to fruition of sorts.

"Hey, Leolaus! Don't stand just stand there. If you think my lovely wife's cooking is 'unique' when it's hot, you sure don't want the experience of tasting it when it's cold!" the Other laughed. It didn't take much for that infectious giggle to spread to the boy and Iolaus. The three strolled good naturedly into the house.

Ania smiled then shook her head, "If you men expect breakfast, then I suggest you go wash up. I have a rule in my house, Leolaus...Sweaty, smelly men are not allowed at my table."

The Other scooped Ania up after setting Tele down and swung her around the room. She squealed as he twirled her around nuzzling at her neck. The house erupted with laughter and general pandemonium as Iolaus turned to the little ones and began to tickle them all. Their revelry ended abruptly when an insistent knock pounded at the front door. Ania pulled away first and smiled gently as Iolaus heard the Other whisper, "We'll talk about this sweaty man rule of yours later." Then he walked to the door. Taking a deep breath, he opened it only to find his neighbor, Octus, standing before him and sobbing frantically.

"Iolaus! Iolaus! You've got to help me! I know you have some influence...some contact with her. Help me, please!" he babbled incoherently.

The Other placed his hand on his friend's shoulder and said, "Calm down, Octus. What happened?" He led his friend to a seat and knelt before him.

"The Conqueror! O gods, the Conqueror took Selaise and the baby!" Octus sobbed.

"Slow down, Octus. What happened? Where did she take them?" he asked.

"Oh, Iolaus! I warned Selaise. I told her the Conqueror would find out...that she'd be unmerciful when she did. Selaise said that she just couldn't bear to see Gabrielle suffer like that. So when the Conqueror broke her legs and had her staked to the murder tree in the groves, Selaise brought her water laced with hemlock. She allowed Gabrielle a death with dignity. But Gabrielle begged Selaise before she died to keep up the struggle for freedom. And she agreed. Iolaus, you know the Conqueror...She has spies everywhere," Octus took a ragged breath. "She heard of the vow. The soldiers came in the middle of the night to take her away. Then that witch stood at my doorway and ordered them to take Cylius as well. He's just a baby. Why would she want to hurt just a baby?"

Ania saw the children standing wide eyed, and Telemachus had huge tears in his eyes. She gathered her little ones together and said, "Come on, darlings. Let's go get Solon and eat breakfast before it gets cold." The Other nodded to the children and they walked with her out of the room.

The big hulking man sobbed uncontrollably then jerked his head up to look into the tear- filled eyes of his friend. "Iolaus! I'm sorry; I'd forgotten what she did to Solon...I just don't know what to do. I followed them to the courtyard. They had to hold me back as she beat Selaise herself. When I tried to appeal to her, she laughed. Then, she pronounced sentence on Selaise and Cylius."

"The baby? How could she pronounce judgment on a baby?" Iolaus interrupted.

"That's how she's punishing and making an example of her. She's sending Selaise to the Celts and Cylius to the Chin. They're both slaves now. Cylius isn't even weaned yet. He'll die," Octus cried.

The Other looked sadly at his friend and shook his head. "No Octus, the Conqueror will ensure Cylius lives. She'll find some way to let Selaise know how cruelly he's to be brought up. She wouldn't even listen to your appeal?" he asked again.

"No. After she pulled Cylius from her arms, I begged her to change her mind. She just laughed again and said that it never hurts for mothers to be separated from their young. It makes them stronger. Iolaus, you used to be 'close' to her. Please, you've got to go to the Conqueror and convince her not to do this cruel thing," he begged.

"Octus, I don't know. What you're thinking of happened a long time ago. I'm not sure how well she'd listen to me..," the Other stopped and looked into the despair in his friend's eyes and then to his cousin to see concern there. "I'll try." Octus breathed a sigh of relief through his tears, and even though his friend tried to get him to stay with them, Octus said that he had to stand outside the jail so he could spend what little time was left next to his wife.

As soon as he'd left, Iolaus looked to the Other and said, "Iolaus, do you realize how dangerous this could be?"

"I know, Leolaus. But if I don't do something, how could I ever close my eyes at night and not see them. I've got to try. What if that had been Ania? What if there was no one to help her or at least speak on her behalf?" he asked.

"And who needs to speak on my behalf?" asked Ania softly. They filled her in on the details, and Ania turned pale. She looked to her husband, put her arms around him, and held him tightly. "You've got to help them, My Love."

The Other smiled proudly at her and said, "See, Leolaus. I knew she'd say that. Though her cooking may not be legendary, her heart certainly is heroic."

"Surely you both must know the danger involved here," stated Iolaus.

"I'll be careful, Cousin."

"You'll be having company because I'm going with you," replied Iolaus seriously.

Ania pulled from her husband's embrace and walked to Iolaus. "Dear Leolaus, we've only just met, but somehow, I feel I can trust you with him. I feel like I can trust you with our whole family," she whispered. Grabbing his hands, she continued, "Leolaus, promise me if anything should happen to Iolaus and me, you'll look after the children. I swear I've never seen them so open to someone as they are to you."

"Stop, Ania. You don't even have to ask. I'll try and keep Iolaus out of trouble. Zeus knows, I've been trying to do that all my life," the hunter muttered.

"What?" asked the Other.

"I said that I'll try to protect you with my life," he squirmed. Ania pulled him to her, and Iolaus held his breath at the love he felt from her. It wasn't "their" love, but it was the compassion she'd always possessed that filled his heart with a sweet ache.

"Thank you," she whispered in his ear. Tears formed in his eyes, and he wondered if something happened, could he really do this.

"Okay, Leolaus. I don't allow too many hugs with other men, family or not. She might forget which is which. Come on, Leolaus. You've had your time with paradise; now it's time to visit Tartarus's chief demon," the Other said placing a hand on his shoulder. Ania reached for her husband one more time and clung to him.

"Iolaus, My Love. Watch out..she'll try to..," she choked.

"Sweetheart, there's no way I'd trade what we have for her," he reassured her in his arms. "Now, I feel like hugging the kids. I'll be right back, Leolaus. Try and remember she's MY wife." He chuckled as he left the room, but his last remark clenched Iolaus's heart.

Iolaus saw Ania slump slightly against the weight of all that had happened. Iolaus said, "He'll be okay, Ania. I'll watch his back for you." She smiled weakly and nodded.

Iolaus and the Other slowly made their way to the palace discussing strategy. Just before they came to the courtyard, the Other stopped and warned, "It might be better, Leolaus, if you stay out here. She might be distracted to see us both. Wouldn't want to give her any more ideas now, would we?" Iolaus argued briefly, but he recognized the stubborness in the Other's eyes and knew he'd never win against himself. He clasped the Other's hand and wished him luck.

Iolaus knew he'd need it up against what Xena had become, and it wasn't long before he could hear her screeching all the way in the courtyard. Suddenly, the Other emerged from her palace pale and shaken. With dazed eyes, he reached out to his cousin for support. "We've gotta get out of here! We've gotta get back to Ania NOW!" he gasped. The hunter recognized the frantic look on his face; he'd seen it not long ago mirrored in Octus's face.

As they traveled quickly through the village taking shortcuts to his home, the Other told Iolaus of their meeting. The conqueror was happy at first to see him. She obviously had reckoned that he'd come crawling back to her. When it dawned on her his real reason to come to her, she was livid. He recalled how her anger blossomed into something so evil his blood froze in his veins. "Leolaus, " he gasped, "I can't believe I was ever with that monster. She's going to take all of the children under the age of three in the village away from their mothers. She said it would be a warning to any woman who would side with her enemies. Leolaus, she's going to take Delia, Hela and Solon from us. Quickly, Leolaus, we've got to get there before her goons do." And with that, the two men rushed home.

Ania knew the minute she saw them that they brought news of disaster. Iolaus went to the back of the house to collect the children when he heard a wail that tore through his heart. With Telemachus, Michalous, and the twins in tow, he dashed into the house. The Other was holding Solon and comforting his wife. "Iolaus, Ania, we don't have time for comfort yet. I know a cave nearby where they'll never find us," the hunter volunteered. The couple looked to each other in shock then stared in his direction.

"It's getting dark, Leolaus. I don't know if I can find that cave in the dark," said the Other.

"People have always called me the Golden Hunter, it's for a reason...well, a couple of reasons, but anyway, I've always had a natural ability to find my way in the forest. Call it bushcraft, if you want, but it has never failed me yet. And I don't intend to let it fail me now. Come on, grab only what you need, and let's go," Iolaus ordered.

Ania quickly delegated some fruits and vegetables for the children to carry. The Other and Iolaus grabbed some blankets, and Ania held Solon securely in her arms. "Please, let him be right," she whispered to no one in particular. Iolaus led his would-be family through the woods. The Other followed behind the rest of them covering their tracks. When they reached the cave all of them felt exhausted, the children were crying, cold, hungry, and scared, but their mother set about correcting what she could. "I wish it could be more filling than just these vegetables, but it will have to do my darlings," Ania said sadly. It was then that Iolaus proved his name correct as he left the cave in darkness empty handed and returned shortly with a rabbit. The Other started the fire, and in no time the children were well fed and tucked into their little pallets sound asleep.

The three adults had been huddled at the entrance of the cave. Iolaus had put out the cooking fire because he didn't want to take a chance that the Conqueror's guards could find them out. "We can't stay here long. I'm sure she'll get her hunting dogs, bounty hunters, and scouts out looking for us," sighed the Other.

"Leolaus," Ania said gently, "how did you know about this cave? It's been Iolaus and my secret for years. No one knows about this place; I'm sure of it. How did you know?"

Iolaus cleared his throat and looked uncertainly at the two. He knew the time had come for the truth. "Because, I used to bring you here, Ania, before we were married."

She felt dizzy and held onto the wall in order to steady herself. The Other stood between his wife and his cousin in a threatening manner. He growled, "Look, Leolaus, I know you just saved our lives; in fact it's the only reason your heart is still beating in your chest at the moment. But if you even begin to say what I think you're going to say, I'll forget you're family, forget your heroism, and tear you limb from limb." Ania reached out and held onto his arm peering around his shoulder to look at this man.

"I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but if you'll stop your posturing for a minute, I'll explain. You see, my name isn't really Leolaus," the hunter began. The Other narrowed his eyes at him and clenched his fist. "My name is Iolaus. and I was Ania's husband." He quickly explained the chain of events that led him to where they were, and why their reality was only possible because of Callisto murdering Alcmene and Hercules.

The Other looked unconvinced, but Iolaus saw almost a look of recognition from Ania. "This is crazy!" the Other said raising his voice. Ania reminded him of the sleeping children, and through clenched teeth he said, "You've got a really wild story there. What proof do you have? Why should I believe you...this is impossible. If you're me, then tell me something only I would know."

Iolaus took a deep breath, "Skouros beat, neglected, and abandoned you when you were eight years old."

"Ancient history; everyone knows what a jerk my father was. It came from his Spartan training and his own abandonment as a child, I suppose. What else have you got?" he sneered.

"I know about this cave and the first time I brought Ania here. I know about her attempts to be a better cook, but I didn't marry her for her to be my servant. I loved her, she has the cutest mole in a very private place that mirrors the one on her cheek," he said tears gathering in his eyes, " And in our most intimate moments, she always called me her Sweetcheeks." Ania gasped, and the Other clung to her. Iolaus continued, "A goddess calls me that now; I think because she knew. Anyway, not even Aphrodite could take your place after..." He couldn't continue. Iolaus was busy wiping the tears that fell rapidly down his cheeks.

Ania stepped forward and touched his shoulder, "Leolaus...may I still call you that, Iolaus. Otherwise it could get confusing." Iolaus nodded and grinned painfully through his tears. The Other leaned against the cave wall as he watch his lovely wife offer comfort. "Leolaus, what happened to your Ania in your world."

Iolaus was dreading this question, "My Ania died giving birth to Michalous. We never had the chance to have the girls or Solon. We wanted a huge family, but because of Hera... Telemachus died from a snake bite when he was two. I still remember holding his little body in my arms thinking he'd be with you...or with my Ania soon. Then Michalous died of a plague when he was just a baby, not much older than Solon." Iolaus sobbed in earnest now. Ania held him in her arms comforting him, and it was almost like being with her again.

Iolaus dried his tears, took a deep breath, and whispered, "Thank you, Ania. I know you're not my Ania...but...You'll never know how much comfort you've given me.

The Other choked back his own tears and grunted, "And THIS is the reality you want to go back to...want us all to go back to?"

Iolaus straightened up and walked over to face himself. "Part of me screams, 'NO!' I'd love to know that I have a lovely wife and beautiful family in this world. There's nothing more I'd love to do than to just disappear and let you go happily along with your lives. But, Iolaus...that's just it. You won't go happily along with your life. No one will if the Conqueror has her way. How many people have been killed? How many families split apart? How many people have to be tortured so I can live happily ever after? That's the dilemma, isn't it? But then again, I don't even know if I can get back or if I can save Alcmene and Hercules."

Ania looked at her husband and saw his conflict. "Leolaus, you have to try."

The Other walked over and grabbed her by the shoulders. "Do you realize what you're saying, Ania? If he goes and the kids are dead. How can that be..."

She laid a finger on his lips, "I know it's a shock, my love, but suppose you had a way of stopping the Conqueror forever. I know would try. Leolaus, I assume we're in Elysian Fields?" He nodded sadly. "Well, that wouldn't be so bad now, my love. In a way, we'd be together someday."

"But what about the girls? And what about Solon? They weren't even born according to him. Our little ones banished to oblivion, is that what you want?" he asked bitterly.

She struggled with this and then replied, "Love, would it be better to have never been born or to be condemned, tortured, and forced into some kind of hideous slavery. You know they'll eventually find us, and that's what is in store for them. And because we ran, she'll separate us like she did Selaise and Octus." The Other held her tightly and released his own tears. She wept along with him as their decision of sacrifice was made. "Who knows, love, perhaps the girls and Solon will live as children Leolaus is yet to have."

"Leolaus," the Other said holding out his hand. As they clasped hands, he said, "Who is the god that allowed you to travel through time?"

"Ares," he whispered.

"Then go to him. He has a large temple in the village. Get him to send you back again, and maybe this time you'll be able to get it right," he smiled.

Iolaus smiled and hugged the two together. He then went to each child, gently touched their faces and whispered his good byes to them. Telemachus's eyes flickered for a moment, and Iolaus said softly, "Go back to sleep, Telemachus. Things will be back to normal soon, and I want you to know your daddy's very proud of you." The child grinned broadly and rolled back to sleep. He allowed the tears to drop softly down his cheek as he whispered, "I'm proud of you too, Michalous." Touching the child's curls, he turned away and looked at those children to come. Perhaps he would see them again some day.

The Other spoke of going with him, but Iolaus told him to stay with his family. "They need you now. Spend the time saying good bye to Ania. It's the one thing I regret never having done." Iolaus walked slowly through the dawn to the Temple of Ares hoping to set the world right and regretting the personal consequences of doing so.

From Oblivion, Hercules's tears distorted the vision he'd seen in the pool. The Sovereign walked away saying, "DISGUSTED!"

Hercules whispered, "I'm proud of Iolaus in any reality."

Go on to the next story in the challenge.

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