Jane's answer to the "Responsibilities of Strength and the Second Maze Challenge

by Jane

"Hercules, I *distinctly* fail to see the humor in this."

These words were uttered by a very irritated, very wet hunter, standing waist-deep in a pond of water, his arms crossed over his bare chest as he glared daggers at his companion sitting--well, actually, rolling--on the bank of the pond.

Hercules couldn't control his laughter. This had to be the funniest thing he'd ever watched. His best buddy Iolaus had so carefully laid out his clothes to air while he took a quick dip to wash off the dust he'd collected that day on their journey to Alturia.

Hercules had already cleaned up and was gathering sticks for a fire, when he heard the commotion at the pond. He turned just in time to see a huge bird flying off with his friend's trousers. Iolaus was fit to be tied. He was jumping up and down in the pond, spraying water everywhere, screaming at the creature to bring his pants back. The bird was oblivious to all the ruckus he'd caused and simply kept flying toward the hills, gradually becoming just a speck in the sky.

Iolaus had continued to stomp and splash and sputter, muttering countless colorful oaths, until he finally noticed his best friend in hysterics. At first, he'd bowed up, preparing to be properly incensed, but now couldn't help but recognize the humor of his situation. He tried not to smile as he watched his tall friend wipe the tears of laughter from his eyes.

The two men faced each other, and then Hercules burst out laughing again.

Having a hard time stifling his own giggles, Iolaus continued to bluster. "Hercules, I'm serious! What am I going to do now? I can't go into Alturia without any pants!"

"Well, you still have these." The demigod gingerly held up the tiny blue garment his rather vain friend chose to wear underneath his trousers. Hercules' chuckling began again.

"Ha, ha, very funny." The wet hunter turned his back to his friend, and addressed the heavens. "You'd think, wouldn't you, that a guy could expect just a *little* sympathy from his supposedly best friend? I take time off from my busy farm and young children to help my buddy out battling a fearsome monster, and *this* is what I get as gratitude." Iolaus had to stop before he, too, began to laugh out loud.

"Sorry, buddy, it's not going to work. You said your crops were all planted and that the kids were driving you nuts, and you begged me to let you come along."

The hunter whirled back toward his friend, and put his hands on his hips. "I did NOT beg! I could see that pleading look in your eye, wanting me to come along and protect your sorry backside like all those times before. Why, like that time in Athens...."

Hercules, grinning ear to ear, threw the blue underwear at his friend and began to walk away. "You better get out of that water, Iolaus, before you shrivel up like a prune. Then we'll think of something to do about your pants..." a chuckle, "...or rather, your lack of pants."

The demigod wasn't quite fast enough to completely avoid the water splashed at him by his giggling best friend.

The fire was burning strongly when the damp Iolaus got there. Hercules turned away from his cooking to acknowledge his friend, and then had to turn back quickly before he started laughing again at the sight. Iolaus had bundled his heavy coat around himself, but there was still ample bare leg showing between the hem of his coat and the top of his boots.

"I'll probably catch my death of cold out here, with no pants," the hunter grumbled under his breath.

"Iolaus, it's not *that* cold."

"Yeah, sez you, Mr. Waffle Pants. Why don't *you* try sleeping without your pants tonight, and then tell me again how it's not cold out here?"

"Well, just pull your bedroll up closer to the fire, then. For now, sink your teeth into one of these quail I caught, and see if that doesn't warm you up."

"Quail? Cool!" The blond, perpetually hungry hunter sat down next to his friend and dove into the meal, all his earlier troubles completely forgotten. The two men laughed and visited as they enjoyed their fare. They lost track of the time, and the moon was high in the sky when they finally began to think about turning in for the night.

"Herc, I hate to be a wet blanket, but, really, what *am* I going to do about pants tomorrow?"

"Well, buddy, the only things I can think of are turning around and going back home to get you another pair, or stopping at a village between here and Alturia to buy a new pair, or trying to track that bird somehow."

"Humph, some choices! Going home's out of the question. Can you see me trying to explain to a five year old how Daddy lost his pants? Not to mention the looks I'd get from Ania's sister and her husband. They already think I'm a few berries short of a whole pie, as it is. Nooo, I don't think I want them to ever learn of this little 'adventure.' And I'm not really sold on traipsing into a strange village in nothing but my boots and coat, either. People have been arrested for such!"

"So, how are you at tracking birds? Surely, you have an old hunter's trick tucked away somewhere for that situation." Hercules could feel a smile trying to break through his resolve again.

"Oh, you're a regular comedian today, aren't you? No, I don't know how to track a bird. I don't think you CAN track a bird! Unless he's had a very rich meal or is molting, I don't know how in Tartarus to figure out where he went. You're the half-god, don't you have some special power of divination that could tell us where he went?"

Hercules closed his eyes and put his hands to his temples. After a bit, he lowered his hands, opened his eyes, and shook his head. "Nope, sorry, no special bird tracking powers." This time he couldn't help but smile.

Iolaus rolled his eyes. "This is just great!" He got up and pulled his pallet closer to the campfire, then dropped down on it and started to remove his boots. "All I know is, it went *that* way," he motioned in the general direction of the mountains and Alturia, "and that he was a really BIG bird, so tomorrow we go hunting for really big nests." The hunter flounced around, pulling his coat tightly around himself, and then lay down with his back to the fire. "'Night, Herc."

"'Night, Iolaus," the demigod answered with a smile in his voice and on his face. He puttered around the fire a bit more, cleaning up after himself and his friend. When he finally did lie down, he glanced over at his friend, who was already softly snoring. Something like this could happen only to Iolaus, Hercules thought to himself, and chuckled to himself again.

As he was falling asleep, his face to his friend, he watched the light from the fire make shadows on Iolaus' bare legs. One shadow stood out from the rest. It was the mark of a long, jagged scar just a few inches above the back of the hunter's left knee. Seeing the scar sobered the demigod. He hadn't remembered that accident in years. Yes, things were always happening to Iolaus, but they weren't always comical. No, not comical at all....

"Momma! Momma! Help! I've killed Iolaus!"

Alcmene jerked her head around from her gardening. Running up the road was her dear young son Hercules, tears streaming down his face.

The woman jumped up to catch him in her arms as he rushed up to her. He was distraught. "I killed him! I killed him!" was all the terrified boy would say.

Alcmene knelt down and took the child's tear-stained face into her hands, making him look directly at her. "Calm down, Hercules. Take a deep breath, and tell me what's happened. I can't help if I don't know what's happened."

The boy began to hiccup as he tried to stop crying. "We were playing down at the quarry. We were trying to catch lizards. I threw a great big rock, and it hit the wall, and then a bunch of rocks came tumbling down and fell on Iolaus. Momma, he won't move or wake up or anything!" The tears started again in earnest. "I think he's dead. Please, Momma, make him be okay!"

Alcmene took her son into her arms and hugged him closely, as she tried to get her own heart to begin beating again. Please, gods, let this be just a simple little childhood accident, she prayed, for the sake of her son and his young best friend. She rose to her feet, told Hercules to wait there while she went into the house to get her first aid bag, and then hand in hand the two of them hurried down the road, heading toward the quarry.

Once there, Alcmene glanced quickly over the rough grounds, searching for the little boy who meant so much to her and her son. She heard him before she saw him.

"Hercules! Hercules, where are you?" The sobbed cries for help echoed among the tumbled rocks of the quarry.

"Iolaus!" Hercules looked up at his mother, joy showing through his tears. "Momma, he's alive!" The child took her hand and whispered, "Come on, Momma, we've got to hurry!" As he led the through the rocks, he yelled, "I'm coming, Iolaus, I'm coming.!"

It was a frightening sight that met Alcmene's eyes. The small, tow-headed blond boy who was Iolaus was lying on his stomach among several large, rough rocks. As he heard his friends coming, he raised himself onto his elbows, and the scared look in his eyes grabbed at the woman's heart. A huge rock covered his legs. There was blood in his hair and on the side of his little face. The tracks of tears ran through the dust on his cheeks. He was so afraid.

"Hercules, where did you go? I thought you'd run away!" The child's voice quavered when he saw his best friend.

"No, Iolaus, I wouldn't run away from you! You wouldn't wake up. I was scared, so I went to get Mother to help." The distressed boy knelt beside his friend. "It was all I could think of to do. Are you all right?"

The blond boy gave a mighty sniffle as he wiped the tears from his eyes and strove to put up a brave front for his younger friend. "Yeah, I think so, but this darn rock is holding my legs down. It's too heavy. I can't get it off."

Alcmene also knelt down by the boy. She began to wipe his face with one of the towels she'd brought in her kit. "Just lie still, Iolaus. Hercules and I will move the rock and get you back home. You have a cut on the side of your head, and I'll take care of it properly when I get you back there. Are you hurt any place else?"

The boy looked into the eyes of the woman who was like a second mother to him. "This rock is real, real heavy, and it's squashing my legs. Please, can you get it off me?"

"Yes, dear. You just lie back down here. Put your head on this towel, and we'll roll the rock off of you." She gave the scared boy a smile, and he bravely tried to smile back at her. She patted him on his back as he lay his head down to wait for his friends to release him from the crushing rock.

Alcmene turned to the rock, and was appalled at its size. It was almost twice as big as Hercules. How in the world could her little boy have thrown something to dislodge a rock this size? Moreover, what had it done to the legs of the boy caught underneath it? She had to get this rock off of him.

She gave it a mighty shove, but the rock barely moved. Iolaus whimpered. "Momma!" Hercules cried. Alcmene looked to see Iolaus gritting his teeth and digging his hands into the dirt, to keep from sobbing. It must hurt terribly.

"I'm sorry, Iolaus," she told the trapped boy. "It's too heavy for me to move. We need to get help. Hercules, run to town and find some men...."

She barely had the words out of her mouth when Iolaus yelled, "No! Please don't leave me again! It hurts!" The child was about to panic.

"Momma, let me try." Hercules asked his mother. "I made it fall on Iolaus. Maybe I can make it roll off him."

Alcmene looked at her small son. There was such sorrow in his eyes. He needed to do something to help.

She reached out and tousled his golden brown hair. "Okay, Hercules, let's try this together. Maybe the two of us can move it." She put her hand on Iolaus' shoulder, to comfort him somewhat. She doubted she and her son could move the rock, but she knew Hercules needed to feel he was helping.

The little boy put his hands to the rock, and at Alcmene's word, the two of them gave it a mighty push. It began to roll. Iolaus moaned and dug his fingers into the dirt even more.

Hercules glanced at his friend and saw his distress. He heaved his shoulder into the rock, and it rolled farther, freeing one of Iolaus' legs. The little blond boy began to cry. "Please hurry. It hurts."

An angry, frustrated Hercules raised both his fists above his head. Yelling, "Move, you stupid rock!" he brought his little fists down onto the offending boulder. It shattered into three huge pieces.

Iolaus screamed as one of the heavy pieces sliced into the back of his leg. Blood instantly welled from the gash. Alcmene grabbed her medicine kit and hurriedly began to wrap towels around the wound. "Be still, Iolaus. It'll be okay," she encouraged the scared child.

"Oh, Iolaus, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I didn't know it would break!" Hercules stepped away, tears welling up in his eyes. He kept repeating, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Hercules," Alcmene hurriedly told her son. "Iolaus," she addressed the injured boy, "I'm going to carry you to our home. I'll take care of your leg there." She smiled at him. "Everything will be okay." He silently nodded at her, struggling to hold back his tears.

She gave Hercules her bag to carry. He kept his eyes downcast. Gently, she took Iolaus into her arms and carefully stood up. She tried to keep from jostling him as she hurried back to her home. He never uttered a sound.

When the quiet little group reached the home place, they went immediately to Hercules' room, where Alcmene lay the dirty, injured Iolaus on her son's bed. "Hercules, keep him still," the woman said over her shoulder as she left for her kitchen to get a basin of water and more supplies. When she returned, she noticed the two boys were very quiet, and were each looking away from the other.

"Hercules, hold this," she said, giving the full basin to her son. He stood quietly as she washed Iolaus' face and arms. The cut on his head had quit bleeding, and was smaller then she'd first thought. It would heal easily on its own.

After hastily checking for broken bones and happily finding none, she then gently turned the boy over and unwrapped the wound on his leg. She found it still bleeding and quite deep. It would have to be stitched up. Alcmene sighed. She didn't want to cause him more pain, but it had to be done.

As she rewrapped the wound, she looked at her son. "Hercules, help Iolaus get out of his dirty clothes, and give him one of your nightshirts to wear. I need to get a needle and thread." The blond boy whimpered. Alcmene put her arms around him. "Iolaus, I know it'll hurt, but it's the only way to make the cut stop bleeding. Just three little stitches is all I'll do, and I'll give you something to drink to help make the hurting stop. It'll be over in just a jif." She smiled as he turned to look at her, and bravely nodded his head.

As she rose to leave the room, she looked at her son. The sadness in his eyes tore at her heart. She pulled him into her arms and held him tightly, combing her fingers through his hair. Then, she took his face in her hands and made him look up at her. "Hercules, everything will be all right. It'll all be over soon, sweetheart. I promise." She gave him a little smile, but he was unable to smile back.

When Alcmene returned with her supplies and a pain potion for Iolaus, she found the two silent little boys ready for her. Iolaus' clothes were in a heap on the floor, and he was in a clean gown, lying on his stomach, facing the wall. Hercules sat quietly in a chair by the bed, watching his friend. Alcmene made sure Iolaus was ready, and then made quick work of re-cleaning and stitching the wound. Iolaus never uttered a sound. When she was finished, she turned him over to face her, and gave him the medicine to drink. As she took the empty glass from him, she turned to her son. "See, Hercules, I told you everything would be fine." But , the boy's chair was empty. He'd left the room so quietly, she'd never heard him.

"Where'd he go?" asked a small, worried voice beside her.

Alcmene turned to face her patient. "I don't know, Iolaus. He just must have had to step out of the room for a minute. I'll go find him and tell him you're doing fine." She smiled and smoothed the hair out of his eyes. It seemed Iolaus' hair was always in his eyes.

"I think he hates me," the boy said sadly.

"Hates you? Of course he doesn't hate you! Why in the world do you think that, Iolaus?"

"Because I got hurt. I didn't mean to. We were just playing. I'm afraid he thinks I'm mad or something, and he won't ever want to play with me again." The boy paused, then softly added, "I'm really sorry."

"Iolaus, it's not your fault. It was an accident. Hercules doesn't blame you, and he certainly doesn't hate you. I think he's just feeling really bad because you got hurt. I'll go find him and talk to him. Everything will be fine. You'll see. This has just been real scary for both of you." She gave the boy a smile and a hug, then got up to find her son. As she reached the room's door, she heard, "‘Mene?"

"Yes, dear?"

"Please tell him he'll always be my very best friend."

"I will, sweetheart. Then, you can tell him yourself."

She found her son in the garden. He was on the wooden bench, sobbing his heart out. She sat beside him and put her hand on his shoulder, and he turned to her and buried his head in her arms and continued to cry. She held him tightly, and wept a little herself. When his tears began to subside, she pulled him away just enough to look into his eyes.

"Hercules, Iolaus will be just fine. I told you he would be."

"I'm glad, Momma. But, he'll never want to look at me again."

"That's not true, Hercules. Why do you say that?"

"Because I hurt him. I hurt him bad."

"Hercules, Iolaus was hurt, but he doesn't blame you."

"He should. It was my fault."

"Maybe you should tell me exactly what happened. Why did you throw that rock, Hercules?"

He looked out at the flowers on his mother's garden. "We were trying to catch lizards, and they kept getting away in this crack in the rocks. Iolaus had found a great big, striped one, and it was about to get away, too. He hollered for me to help him, and I threw the rock to block off the crack. But, I threw it too hard. It crashed into the wall above the crack, and then a bunch of rocks came falling down. Iolaus couldn't get out of their way.

"Momma, I never meant to throw it that hard! I didn't know I could throw that hard. And then, I hit that rock that was crushing Iolaus, and it broke!" The saddest eyes looked up at Alcmene. "Momma, I'm scared. How did that happen? What's going on? I don't want to hurt people."

Alcmene had to close her eyes for a minute to think of the right words to say. She knew a day like this would come, and she'd thought often of how to handle it, but now, it was so hard. "Please, gods; please, Zeus," she prayed, "may I handle it the right way."

She opened her eyes and gazed at her beloved, beautiful son. She took his hands into her own. "Hercules, we've talked about your father, who he is and why he doesn't live with us, remember?"

"Yes. He's Zeus, a god, and has to live on Mt. Olympus with all the other gods, because he's their king." Hercules' eyes shown with pride for the father he'd never known, for reasons he was still too young to understand. Alcmene felt her heart break a little.

"Hercules, do you know what a god is?"

The little boy screwed his face into a puzzled look. "I know they're different from us, but I don't know just how."

Alcmene lovingly squeezed her son's hands. "They're very, very powerful. They can do amazing things that humans just can't do. They can make the rain fall, the crops grow, the sun shine. They make the lightning flash, and the thunder boom. They put the stars and clouds in the sky. And, Hercules, since your father is a god, you may have inherited some powers, too, that other boys won't have. We just don't know what these powers might be. Do you remember my telling you about how you killed a snake when you were just a tiny baby?"

The boy nodded his head.

"You saw the snake was a danger, so you choked it to keep it from hurting anyone. No other baby could do that, could they?"

Hercules slowly shook his head.

"You've always been able to do some things other children can't do, haven't you? You can run so fast, and throw things so far, and tire less easily. You can lift such heavy loads, too. Dear, I think these things are your inheritance from your father. These are special things you can do, and as you grow, you will be able to do more and more. We don't yet know just what all you may have gotten from your father. It's a gift, but one you will have to learn to control. You must always remember that you have this extra strength, and learn to temper it in everything you do. Even when you're playing, you need to remember your special gifts."

There was sadness in Hercules' eyes again. "This means I'll always be different from everyone else, doesn't it?"

Alcmene stroked her son's cheek. "Yes, a little."

"But I don't want to be different! I want to play and have friends just like everyone else!"

"Oh, sweetheart, you can play and have friends like everyone else. Being different is not a bad thing. All of us are different from each other, in one way or another. Look how Iolaus and you are different. You're taller than he is, and he's older than you are. You have straight hair, and his is curly. He can talk a blue streak, and you love to just sit quietly and listen to him. He'll eat anything I put on his plate, while you're very picky." Hercules smiled at that. "But still, you're the best friend he's ever had. He told me so."

"He did? Even now?" A light began to glimmer in Hercules' eyes.

"Yes, dear. While you're out here afraid he's angry with you, he's in your room thinking you're mad at him and don't want to be friends any more."

"Why does he think that? I'm the one who hurt him."

"Hercules, he knows you didn't do it on purpose. It was an accident. He feels bad because he knows you feel bad. And that's because you're his friend. His best friend. Differences and all."

"And he's my best friend."

"Then why don't you go tell him that? It'll help you both feel better."

Hercules jumped up and started to run toward the house, but stopped suddenly and ran back to his mother, embracing her in a great bear hug. "I love you, Momma."

"I love you, too, Hercules," the woman said as she watched her son run toward their home and their friend. She continued to sit in her garden a few minutes more, thinking of all that had happened that day, and giving thanks it had been no worse. Finally, she rose and slowly returned to the house.

As she entered, she heard two boyish voices coming from the bedroom.

"Wow, she said that! That you'll get stronger and bigger as you grow up? Hercules, that's really neat! Think of all the cool stuff you'll be able to do. Why, you might be able to jump all the way across the river some day. Boy, I wish I could do that."

"But, Iolaus, I have to be really careful, so I won't hurt anybody ever again."

There was silence. Then, Iolaus excitedly spoke. "But, Herc, that won't be a problem! I'll always be there with you, to help remind you. Why, you might have to throw another big rock someday, to stop a monster or something, and I'll be there to make sure nobody gets in the way. We'll be a team! Oh, wow, Herc, just think! Hercules and Iolaus, the friends who save Greece from monsters! It'll be fun!"

"Yeah, you and me, Iolaus. It will be fun." Then, the boys dissolved into giggles as their imaginations began to run away with them.

Alcmene just smiled to herself as she began to fix a meal for two hungry little boys she loved with all her heart and soul. Everything really would be all right, now.

"Oh, great Hera's hangnails! Herc, what are we gonna do now?"

"I don't know, Iolaus. Let me think for a minute."

The two friends were in a very tall tree, where they'd spent most of the afternoon, observing the activities in another huge tree a bit farther down the slope. It had actually come as quite a surprise to the demigod that they'd found the nest they'd been looking for. However, there never had been a way to deter Iolaus from his course once he had an idea to do something, no matter how impossible that something might seem.

They'd spent all morning walking back and forth through the forest, constantly looking upwards. Hercules had gotten a crick in his neck, and tried to convince his determined partner that the quest to find one particular nest in a whole forest of trees was impossible. Iolaus just ignored him, and said he would not go any further without his pants, whether or not Hercules wanted to help him search for them, and that two pairs of eyes were better than one and they'd get this done faster if Herc would stop griping and continue searching.

The demigod had finally given up trying to reason with his headstrong friend. He remembered being partially daydreaming and had jumped when Iolaus grabbed his arm and gave him the sign to be quiet. The small man pointed up through the foliage of the woods, and Hercules caught sight of the large bird circling around above them. They stood very still, watching the bird as it soared leisurely on the air currents. When it did finally fly back toward the east, Iolaus had shinnied up the nearest tree to try to see where the bird was going. He was excited when he came back down, scraped legs and all. He'd seen the bird alight in a tree about a mile or so down-slope. Hercules had had to hurry to keep up with the hunter now that he'd spied his prey.

When they'd gotten close enough to the bird's tree to be able to watch without startling him, the two men had quietly climbed the tree where they now found themselves. They'd about given up hope that the giant bird would ever leave his nest. Then, just a minute ago, he'd stood and stretched his wings, and gracefully flown off.

Well, as they'd hoped, there were Iolaus' trousers in the nest, looking none the worse for wear. However, they weren't all that was in that nest. Apparently, the bird they'd been watching all afternoon was female. There in her carefully constructed aerie were many articles, including a pair of leather pants, that would make a soft bed for the three eggs she'd just laid there. Laid exactly in the center of said soft, supple, well-worn trousers, to be precise.

"Well, my friend, I guess we just go down there and take them, and hope she doesn't come back anytime soon," Hercules finally answered his fussing companion.

"Yeah, right," answered the disgruntled Iolaus. "She just laid those eggs. She'll be watching them like a hawk...er, eagle...harpie...oh, whatever! If she sees us climbing her tree, she'll be on us in a minute. Did you see the talons on that bird? She'll rip us to shreds."

"Okay, so I'll climb up first and catch her when she attacks, and then, gods willing, I'll hold her while you come up afterwards and get your pants. Surely, after she sees we're not after her eggs, she'll let us be and we can be on our way. There's no telling what's happened Alturia while we've been stalking *your* wayward pants."

"Don't start, Herc. You wanted to stop and eat, remember. I just wanted to be nice and fresh for the monster we're gonna hafta battle."

"Yeah, nice and fresh...but not for any monster, my friend. It's the ladies in Alturia that you've got your sights set on. Granted it's been awhile, but remember, I've been on *lots* of trips with you, Iolaus." The edges of Hercules' mouth quivered as he tried to suppress a smile.

"Oh, good grief!" was all the answer the blond hunter gave his friend as he rolled his eyes and began to descend the tree. The demigod could hear Iolaus muttering under his breath as they made their way to the ground. Hercules didn't even try to keep back the smile this time. This reminded him again how much he'd been missing his travels with his incorrigible best friend. Iolaus always made life fun.

Quietly, they made their way to the base of the nesting tree. Iolaus had been uncharacteristically silent, the closer they got to the tree. Hercules gave the smaller man a nod as he stretched his arms up to grasp a branch and begin his climb to rescue the missing pants.

"Wait, Herc." Iolaus reached out and grabbed his friend's shirt, pulling him back down from the tree.

"What's the matter, Iolaus? Have you got a better idea?"

"No, I don't have a better idea. I just know we can't do this."

"What do you mean, we can't do this? It's no big deal–we climb up there, I grab the bird, and you grab the pants. I don't see a problem."

"Yeah, well, there *is* a problem. It's those eggs. If we go charging up there, whether or not the bird attacks us, she'll still abandon her eggs when she returns and finds her nest disturbed. I don't want to be the cause of that."

Hercules put his hands on his hips. "You don't want to get your pants, now that we've achieved a minor miracle by finding them in the first place, because you don't want to disturb three bird eggs. Why, you phoney, you."

"Phoney! Whaddaya mean by ‘phoney'?"

"I mean here you are, the greatest hunter of all time according to none other than yourself, passing up a chance to go against what may be the biggest bird we've ever seen, all because you don't want to disturb some unhatched eggs. Iolaus, you're just an old softie!" Hercules was grinning from one ear to the other.

Iolaus looked down at the ground to hide his own grin, and scuffed his boot toe in the dirt. "Yeah, well, don't let it get around. It'd be Tartarus on my reputation."

The demigod put his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Buddy, there's *nothing* in this world that can damage YOUR reputation."

"Hey!" the hunter retorted, and grinned up at his best friend. Then, his face became serious again. "But, we still have the problem that I'm half naked and need a pair of pants." He gave a mighty sigh. "I guess the only thing to do is go into the next town we pass, and hope I don't get thrown in jail before I can find some new trousers. If that happens, Herc, you will bail me out, won't you? Maybe we can make up a good story to tell to keep me from getting arrested, you think?"

Hercules put his hands on his hips again, and scrutinized his partner closely. "Yeah, I think we can make up a pretty good story. The way your legs are scratched and scraped, you look like you've already gone up against at least one monster."

Iolaus looked down at his legs. "Yeah, they do look pretty rugged." His eyes twinkled. "Hey, maybe I can get some young saleslady to take pity on me, and get a really good deal. Girls love wounded warriors. Maybe Kaemarteus'll have one of his stores there. He always hires pretty young girls to run his places. I might just be able to get some pants for free, if I do this right...."

Hercules groaned as he turned from his friend and started back on their trek to Alturia. But, the smile on his face only widened as he was quickly rejoined by his forever energetic partner. Iolaus' story was getting better with every step he took. The ladies of the next town didn't have a prayer.

Yes, it was like old times again, and it was so good.

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