Return of a Hero

by Ziggy

A FEW DAYS AFTER IOLAUS WENT INTO THE LIGHT

Hercules stared at the large, pink rose that was cradled in the palm of his right hand. He sighed heavily, hoping the action would hold back the tears. Not that he had any more to shed. Even though he had been pretty certain that saving Iolaus' soul from Dahak didn't necessarily mean his best friend would be restored to life, a part of him had hoped that it would have meant just that-the restoration of his lifelong companion to his side.

As he glanced around his mother's vast array of flowers, he couldn't help thinking how unfair it was. *No, that isn't right,* Hercules berated himself harshly. *Of all people, Iolaus deserves to finally be at peace. He's earned his place in the Light. He's fought the good fight all his life. I'm glad They didn't allow this thing with Dahak to stain his good name.* Though Hercules wasn't sure who "They" were or what "the Light" actually entailed, he knew it had to be something wonderful and Iolaus deserved to be in its midst.

"Hercules."

The gentle voice broke through the demigod's reverie. He turned, only slightly, to regard the black-clad, dark-skinned woman who had dared intrude on his privacy. He smiled. "Nebula."

"How are you doing?"

Hercules took a quiet moment to ask himself the same question. How *was he doing? "Better, thanks," he answered. It was the truth; he was doing better, but he knew he would never be his best. Not with Iolaus gone forever from his side.

Nebula approached the tall Greek. She glimpsed the colorful flowers and, for some odd reason, thought it fitting that they would be discussing Iolaus amongst the beauty that surrounded them. "It was like losing him twice."

"No," the demigod answered, "this time we saved his soul. He's at peace, Nebula. He's earned it."

"Yes." Silence reigned between them for a few moments, then, "I think it's time for me to go. It's time for the Queen to return to her throne."

Hercules smiled down at her. "Like I said before, it suits you."

Nebula made a face. "Sometimes, we don't have a choice." She held out her hand. "Here, I think this belongs with you."

When Hercules put his hand out, palm up, the former pirate let a green object slip from her fingers. She held onto the cord holding half of Iolaus' precious medallion for a second before allowing it to drop into the demigod's grasp. He stared at it a second, then raised his gaze to her face.

"Nebula, I didn't ask for this back."

"I know, but you should have it. No," she waved off his protests, "you should have it. Hercules, when you gave me this, you were in the throes of major grief. You had lost your focus and had no intention of returning to your former life, here in Greece. That's understandable. You'd just lost the best friend you'd ever had and everything you tried couldn't change that fact. You've since had time to come to grips with what happened and, like you said, you saved his soul. I think it's time now for you to carry it."

Hercules wrapped his fingers gently around the amulet. The other half had been mummified with Iolaus' body and was now physically lost forever. "I'm sorry, Nebula, I know you loved him, too."

The Sumerian queen's eyes misted with unshed tears. "Yes, but even had Iolaus been allowed to return to this life, I still wouldn't have him. His place would always be at your side. Even if he'd chosen to stay with me, I don't think it would have taken long for court life to bore him." She smiled. "It does me."

Hercules pulled Nebula into a hug. "Be well, Nebula. You'll make a great queen now that all this Dahak business is over with."

As they separated, she remarked, "Don't you be a stranger! I expect to see you again!"

"I'd be honored, Your Majesty." The Greek bowed slightly at the hip.

"Not you, too!" Smiling sadly, she said simply, "Good-bye, Hercules."

"Good-bye, Nebula."

He watched the ex-pirate's back until she left the garden, then redirected his attention to the broken amulet in his palm. Softly, he murmured, "Good-bye, my friend."

HEADING TOWARDS CORINTH, AFTER IOLAUS' RETURN FROM THE LIGHT

"So Jason's heading up the Academy now?" Iolaus queried, incredulous, as he placed kindling in a pile for a campfire as Hercules skinned the rabbit his newly returned partner had caught. The demigod had delighted in teasing his friend about him losing his hunting skills while in the Light when his first couple of attempts to bag game since his return had resulted in failure. Iolaus had taken the ribbing good-naturedly, though not without some remarks of his own about Hercules' cooking skills. Some things, Iolaus had joked, one just never forgot.

"Yes," the taller man agreed. "I think he needed something to do and this will give him a chance to pass on all the skills and knowledge he gained over the years."

"He'll do Cheiron proud," Iolaus remarked. He was still trying to play "catch-up" on all the things that had changed during his short tenure as a Guardian of the Light.

"That's not all that happened while we were there." The demigod added as he set aside the rabbit skin and spitted the carcass.

"You told me about the other Iolaus teaching those kids." The hunter shook his head, trying to picture the Iolaus from the other side of the portal handling a bunch of toddlers.

Hercules smiled in fond remembrance. "Yes, but we also ran into an old friend."

"Oh?"

"Lilith."

"Lilith!" Iolaus lowered the larger piece of wood he held. "Whoa, does *that* bring back memories!" Grinning, he gave his friend a sly look. "She had a thing for me, you know."

"I doubt that," Hercules answered casually.

"Now, how can you say a thing like that?"

"If that's true, then I guess Lilith lied and Seska isn't Jason's daughter."

Iolaus nearly choked. "*Daughter?!* Jason and Lilith have a daughter?"

"Yep." Hercules, spitted rabbit held ready, knelt by his friend's side. He glanced at the dumbfounded expression on the smaller man's face and laughed before gesturing to the stack of firewood. "Do you mind?"

"Huh?" Iolaus mentally shook himself then, realizing to what the other was referring, said, "Oh, right!" He picked up the flint on the ground beside him and struck a spark onto the kindling. When a small flame was going, he rocked back on his heels. "Jason has a full-grown daughter! Kewl!"

Before long, a larger fire was blazing and the rabbit was roasting above it. Hercules finished placing the leaf-wrapped tubers near the flames and sat back beside his friend to await their meal. Iolaus, a faraway expression on his face, was staring into the fire's depths. It was an action the warrior had engaged in often since his return.

"Hard to phantom, isn't it?"

Iolaus jerked his head to regard the son of Zeus. His mind had obviously been elsewhere, but he answered as if nothing was amiss. "Yeah, it is. I'm happy for him." He glanced down. Picking up the half-amulet that hung around his neck, he stared at it quietly for a long time.

Seeing what his partner was doing, Hercules suddenly remembered something. He reached into the pouch on his belt and extracted the half of Iolaus' medallion that Nebula had given him, a lifetime ago, it seemed. Hercules had since removed the cord; he had preferred to store it in his pouch for safekeeping. He held it out and, waiting until the blond noticed what he was holding, remarked, "I believe this is yours."

Eyebrows raised in question, Iolaus slowly reached out and took the item. He turned the piece over in his hands as he examined it, slowly running his finger down the rough-cut edge where Gilgamesh's dagger had split the stone. Picking up the half dangling around his neck, he gently nestled the two sections together in a perfect fit, making the amulet whole.

"Now that's interesting." Hercules remarked as he watched Iolaus separate the halves, then fit them together again like the pieces of a puzzle. "You've had that almost all your life, why do you suppose you went into the Light with just the one half?"

Iolaus seemed to contemplate the question for a quiet moment. "When Dahak resurrected himself and took over my body, I guess only this half" he held up the corded piece "was with my body."

"Yes," Hercules confirmed. "Nebula found the other half after your body had been mummified." The demigod shuddered slightly. He'd been so out of it during that time that he'd preferred running away from his problems instead of returning Iolaus' body to Greece and a hero's funeral pyre. Giving Iolaus a proper Greek funeral probably wouldn't have stopped Dahak from returning, but he would have fulfilled a promise made to Iolaus years before to see to it the blond warrior got laid to rest properly. "I gave it to her, but she returned it to me after you'd gone into the Light."

"When Dahak was using me, this was the only half still with my body, so my body was revived with only this part," the blond explained. "The same when I went into the Light. It took me as I was, with just the one half." He let the corded piece fall back into place, to rest on his chest. He flipped the other part in his hand. "I didn't realize part was missing until I was in the Light, but figured it was kind of fitting." He stilled his hands and gazed into his friend's blue eyes. "No matter what, half my soul was still here with you. I knew it always would be."

Hercules swallowed heavily. "Things were never the same without you, Iolaus."

"Thanks, Hercules." Iolaus held up the unbound part of his amulet. "Here," he flipped it over to his partner, who deftly caught it midair. "You keep it."

The demigod closed his hand gently around the section. "I will. Thanks."

Iolaus smiled then, sniffing the air, reached for the main course of their dinner. "I think it's done." As he plucked the spit from the fire, he saw Hercules tuck the greenstone safely away in his pouch. When the demigod looked up and met his gaze, the blond hunter remarked, "You know something, Hercules?"

"What, my friend?"

"It's great to be back."

"It's great to have you back," the son of Zeus agreed, "but you won't think so if you don't hand over that rabbit!"

"But I'm starving!"

"You're *always* starving!"

"Some things never change," Iolaus commented, grinning. Hercules chuckled at his best friend's incorrigible nature, then snatched the spit out of his the other's hand, gently shoved him aside and took charge of doling out the food.

Late the following afternoon, they stood gazing up at the hero's memorial Hercules and Jason had erected in Iolaus' honor. At first, when they'd approached the area, Hercules had been uncertain about taking Iolaus past the spot. This road, however, was the quickest way to Corinth and, if they'd gone another route, Iolaus would have questioned the reason. Iolaus had remained strangely quiet at they drew near, so the demigod was unsure of his partner's reaction.

Finally, the hunter shifted his gaze from the marker to his tall companion. Hercules could see...was that gratitude shining in those blue eyes bright with unshed tears? The son of Zeus wasn't quite sure what to make of the look. "Iolaus?" he queried uncertainly.

Iolaus suddenly found the surrounding hillside much more interesting.

"Jason and I," Hercules confessed softly, "we knew how much you wanted to be remembered. We knew you could have made a name for yourself, but instead chose to fight by my side or as one of the Argonauts or in countless battles where names mean nothing except as a statistic. We wanted you to be remembered as the hero you were, how you fought the good fight all your life and died protecting the world from evil."

"And get them to forget I allowed Dahak to use me?" Iolaus remarked bitterly.

"That was not your fault, Iolaus!" Hercules growled. He stepped up to his best friend and grabbed him by the shoulders. It was all he could do to stop himself from shaking some sense in to the blond warrior. "It could have been any of us! It was almost Nebula. If it had been her, or anybody else, Dahak would have won. Yes, he tricked you, but he underestimated the friendship we share. It was that strong bond that allowed us to defeat Dahak! *Together.* Think about it!"

Iolaus dropped his gaze as his friend loosened his hold. After a long moment, he looked up. "You're right." He smiled. "Again."

Hercules returned the smile with one of his own. "Of course," he teased. He sobered. "Iolaus, stop blaming yourself. If I can forgive you and those in the Light can forgive you, can't you find it in yourself to forgive you?"

Iolaus nodded. He glanced at the memorial, then back at his best friend. "If all those people who came to the dedication found it in themselves to forgive me, I guess I can, too."

"What?" Hercules asked, confused. "What are you talking about? You knew about this?" He gestured towards the stone monument. "How?"

The former Guardian smiled. He lowered himself onto the grass at the base of the memorial. He waited until his tall companion did the same then, after a quiet second gathering his thoughts, he replied, "Yes, I saw the whole thing. When I first went into the Light, it was overwhelming. Like I said, bliss. It took me a while to get used to it, but I wasn't there long when I started to doubt myself. Afterall, I'd betrayed everybody. My countrymen. My friends. You. I started to think They'd made a mistake, that I didn't belong." Seeing Hercules about to protest, he held up a hand. "Hear me out, Herc." The demigod closed his mouth and listened. "Michael came to me and opened a window. You know, like Hades does. He showed me the dedication." Iolaus shook his head in amazement. "Even now, I can't believe the outpouring of love and friendship I felt from everybody who was there. I must admit, I was a little surprised to see Autolycus there," he laughed, "but it seemed like half of Corinth was there, too."

Hercules nodded. "And those who couldn't make it, sent word. Of course, we couldn't contact everybody. You've affected a lot of people during your life, Iolaus."

"Yeah, I think Michael managed to convey that to me. It made accepting my position as a Guardian a lot easier after that. It didn't mean I missed you any less, buddy."

Hercules swallowed the lump in his throat as he thought back to the dedication ceremony. He, too, had been overwhelmed by the good thoughts and feelings he'd sensed in the crowd that had gathered. Afterwards, many people had approached him individually and discussed how Iolaus had affected them. The biggest surprise had been when Queen Niobe of Attica, along with Hector and Linus, recalled how Iolaus had twice taken the crown when Orestes had been unable to do so. Iolaus, for all his embellished storytelling of their battles with monsters and warlords, never once said anything about doing something so important it saved a kingdom ...even to his best friend!

"I know," the demigod finally answered, "and I never missed you any less." He glanced at the marker, then confessed, "I spent a lot of time here."

"I know," Iolaus admitted. "I heard some of the things you said."

"Everything?"

"No, I doubt I heard everything, but when you *really* needed me to hear you, I did. The hardest thing was not being able to answer you; at least, so that you could hear me." Iolaus gazed at his friend. "I heard everything Iolaus said." He smiled. "I guess he really needed me to hear what he had to say, too."

The half-mortal looked at his partner. "He was having a little trouble adjusting. I guess I didn't help matters any; I kept trying to find you in him and that wasn't fair. It took a lot of courage for him to give up all he knew and come here to travel with a man who reminded him of somebody who treated him badly." *Masterpiece of understatement!* he thought to himself. Suddenly, he wondered what his old friend thought of his bringing his other self into this realm. "I wasn't trying to replace you, Iolaus, I hope you know that. It's just when he asked to come--"

"I know, Herc," Iolaus interrupted gently. "I'm glad you took him under your wing and gave him a chance to start over again. He deserved that." He smiled. "I knew it was just a matter of time before you got onto the business at hand and started helping people again."

"I know that's what you would have wanted."

"No, Herc, you didn't do it because of me. You did it because it's you. No matter what happens, that'll always be in you. You can't help it."

"You make it sound like a bad thing," Hercules retorted.

"Nah, just irritating sometimes." Iolaus grinned. "I wouldn't have you any other way, my friend."

"I may be irritating, but you're incorrigible!"

"You wouldn't have *me* any other way." The blond giggled.

The long-missed giggle made Hercules smile fondly at his friend. "I guess not," he admitted. He got to his feet and looked at the monument. He felt Iolaus rise, then move to his side. "What should we do with your memorial?"

"Keep it?" Eyebrows raised in question, Iolaus met the other's gaze.

"But you're back."

"Yeah, but I'll die again sometime. This way, you won't have worry about putting it back up."

The demigod smiled mischievously at the hunter. "By then, I may have changed my mind about wanting people to remember you."

"Not!" Iolaus grinned impishly.

Hercules chuckled. "Yeah," he agreed. "And I forbid you to die. At least, anytime soon. Let's see if we can get you to make it one hundred,

okay?"

"I'll do my best," Iolaus promised. "Hey, isn't Jason expecting us by nightfall? We'd better pick up the pace, huh?"

"Yeah."

Walking at a comfortable pace, they started down the long road. As they left the memorial behind them, Hercules stated, "I wonder if Lilith is at the Academy visiting Jason. Won't she be surprised to see you?"

"Hey, did I tell you she had a thing for me when we were cadets?" Iolaus giggled at the exasperated look his demigod companion shot him.

Yeah, it was great to be back...

12/11/99

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