A Loss of Innocence

by Melinda

This is a dark and unhappy little story. Somewhat like Athena, it sprung almost complete from my warped little mind a couple of days ago while I was running errands. As always, no profit is made and we're all just having fun with the characters.

The Present

They'd stumbled onto the small village of Aedor by accident. If only the bridge hadn't been washed out, Hercules wearily thought. We'd never have been here...never have seen that statue.

It wasn't the greatest statue in the world. But it was a good likeness of the man it represented. The hero who'd saved Aedor with his courage and skill.

Skouros of Sparta.

It seemed the anniversary of his saving of their village was celebrated with a festival...which was in full swing when they arrived.

"You're Iolaus? Iolaus of Thebes?" Andros, the magistrate, asked.

Hercules smiled when Iolaus carefully nodded. It wasn't often the hunter gained the most attention. As far as the demigod was concerned, it was long overdue.

"You honor us with your presence!" Andros exclaimed. "Oh, of course, you as well, Hercules."

"Thank you," Hercules politely replied trying not to laugh at his partner's confused expression.

"Come, come, Iolaus! You must see the statue!" Andros pulled Iolaus towards the center of town. "Everyone! Everyone! This is Iolaus! Iolaus of Thebes!"

Several people in the crowd murmured. A few reached out almost reverently to touch Iolaus as Andros dragged him forward.

"Herc?" Iolaus threw a pleading look over his shoulder. He glared at the demigod silently threatening him with all sorts of mayhem should his partner begin laughing.

"Right behind you, Iolaus," Hercules assured him with a grin. "Umm...what statue are you talking about, Andros?"

"The statue of the hero who saved us years ago," Andros enthusiastically explained. "He left immediately afterwards. We learned all we could about him in the hope that one day he would return. When he heard he'd been killed, we erected the statue in his honor."

"That's very nice of you," Iolaus nodded. "But what does that have to...do...with...me?" He stopped in stunned shock. "Father?" he whispered.

"Yes," Andros happily nodded. "We are honored to have you, Skouros' son, as our honored guest!" He glanced at the statue then back at Iolaus. "Tell me, is it a good likeness? It was done from memory."

Hercules placed a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "From what I remember, it is," Hercules nodded.

Iolaus looked up at his friend in confusion. "When did you..." he began.

"In the Underworld...Hades' scrying screen," Hercules quietly answered. "Remember?" He stared down at Iolaus in concern.

"Oh. Yeah. I forgot." Iolaus nodded then took a deep breath. "I'm sure he would be pleased, Andros."

"Come, come. You have traveled far," Andros smiled. "There are many who wish to greet you."

Hercules remained by Iolaus' side for the rest of the day refusing to be separated from his friend. A few of the villagers gave him suspicious looks coupled with whispered mutterings and shakes of their heads. Let them think I'm jealous, Hercules irritably thought. Just as long as Iolaus doesn't believe it.

The demigod grew more and more worried as the day progressed. With each congratulation he received...with each villager telling him how honored he must be to be the son of the wonderful General Skouros...with each passing hour, Iolaus closed off more and more of himself.

The villagers thought the hunter was merely tired after a long day's journey.

Hercules knew his partner was boiling inside...and so was he.

So he wasn't surprised that Iolaus erupted once the door of their room at the inn had closed behind them...wasn't surprised that Iolaus finally lost his temper and would have trashed the room had not the demigod stopped him by simply wrapping his arms around his friend and holding him until the rage had passed.

"You can let me go now," Iolaus finally muttered.

They were sitting with Hercules' back against the wall and Iolaus held close to his chest.

Slowly Hercules released his friend who quickly sat up. He watched as Iolaus ran his hands through his tangled blonde curls.

"Sorry," Iolaus muttered.

"Why?" Hercules asked. "Iolaus, you have a right to be angry."

"Not at them." Iolaus ran his hands over his face. "He saved them. To them, he's a hero."

"You want to leave?" Hercules asked after a moment. "We'll go now if you want."

Iolaus harshly laughed and glanced out the window at the dark sky. "This is the first time in weeks that we've slept indoors...in a real bed, Herc. Don't be ridiculous." He gracefully got to his feet. "I'm tired. I'm going to sleep."

"I'm gonna take a walk." Hercules also got to his feet. "It was a little too crowded and noisy today."

"Yeah," Iolaus half-laughed. "They were pretty enthused, weren't they?"

"You okay?" Hercules quietly asked.

Iolaus slowly nodded then met his partner's eyes. "Yeah, Herc, I'm okay," he assured him with a slight smile.

Hercules found himself alone...in the dark...staring at the statue of General Skouros. Not for the first time, he felt rage against this man build inside him. It would be so easy to destroy their statue...to grind it into dust...to tell the villagers exactly what kind of a man they proclaimed as a hero...

Iolaus has his reasons for what he does.

The words, spoken years ago, echoed in the demigod's mind. Iolaus could have told the villagers about Skouros...but he didn't. He had his reasons.

"You have no idea how much you owe your son," Hercules said to the statue. "If not for him, I might have killed you back when we were kids. Back when you..." He shook his head to calm himself. "I wanted to kill you for what you'd done. You were the first person I really wanted to kill."

Hercules stared at the statue as though it were a living breathing man. "He forgave you. He FORGAVE you! How, I don't know. I certainly haven't...although I've tried for his sake. He has no idea I know what you did to him...and he'll never know. He still can't talk about it...about what you did to him. And I can't let him know any different."

His shoulders drooped with the weight of his memories. "How could you do that to him? To your own son? Did you ever understand what you nearly destroyed in him? Did you ever care?" He raised his eyes to stare at the face of Iolaus' father. "Did you ever even tell him you were sorry for what you did? Or did you just say ‘I'm sorry' and hope it would cover everything?" He took a deep breath. "You're lucky Hades controls the Underworld. If it had been up to me..."

Hercules took another deep breath. "You still own a piece of him...did you know that? He's never been able to put you to rest. Even after he forgave you. Even today...you're still inside him...a black rotting piece of slime that no one can take out of him. And I hope every day you spend in the Elysian Fields sticks in your throat because of it." He coldly smiled. "I hope my mother finds you. You'll wish you'd never raised a hand to Iolaus when she gets hold of you."

Hercules looked at the ground and shook his head. "How could you have done that to him? How could you?" he whispered.

The Past

Hercules scuffed his feet as he trod down the dusty road towards Iolaus' house. His friend had been absent from school for the past few days due to his father being home. Everyone knew General Skouros was a valued warrior sought by many as a leader of armies. Although Hercules and Iolaus had been friends for over two years, he'd never met the famous General. Whenever he visited, Iolaus didn't come to school or visit his friend.

Hercules sighed. He envied his friend. Although Iolaus didn't see his father often, the last visit having been almost three seasons earlier, at least he had his father's undivided attention when the warrior came home. At least he knows what his father looks like, Hercules irritably thought. I'm almost 13 summers old, and I don't know what Zeus really looks like.

The young demigod hoped Iolaus wouldn't be mad at seeing him. Even though his friend had never said for him not to come to his home, Hercules had the feeling Iolaus didn't want him visiting. The few times he'd seen Iolaus' mother in the marketplace, she didn't look like a well woman. Compared to the robust Alcmene, Erythia looked almost worn out by life.

Maybe she's just not well, Hercules pondered. He knew how loud he and Iolaus could get while playing. Sometimes they even got on Alcmene's nerves. I'll be real quiet, and then maybe I can come over more often.

Hercules started walking faster as he glanced at the afternoon sky. Their teacher had wanted Hercules to take Iolaus his schoolwork so he wouldn't be so far behind when he returned to class. Even though two years older, Iolaus was at the same level as Hercules and the younger children. That doesn't make sense either. Iolaus is smart even if he likes to pretend he isn't.

The young demigod's face brightened as he turned onto the path leading to Iolaus' cottage which lay just over the next hill. He had missed his friend although Iolaus had a knack for getting them into trouble sometimes.

Iolaus almost blanched when he opened the door and saw Hercules striding down the path towards the cottage. No! Not now! He quickly closed the door behind him and ran to meet his friend. Great Gods of Olympus! Why did he have to come now?

"Iolaus!" Hercules called out with a wide smile. He saw Iolaus wince as the loud voice and remembered his earlier promise to be quiet around Erythia. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell so loud."

"It's okay, Herc," Iolaus quickly assured him. "Look, I can't come with you now. So...you know, your mother's probably needing you for something. You need to leave." Despite himself, he looked away in embarrassment.

Hercules half-frowned. "Umm...I brought your schoolwork," he quietly replied. "The teacher didn't want you getting so far behind."

"Right! Can't let that happen! I'm already the dumbest kid in class!" Iolaus forced a grin as he took the parchments from his friend's hands.

"Iolaus, you're not dumb," Hercules protested. "Why do you keep saying stuff like that anyway?"

Iolaus shrugged. "Just do," he muttered. "Look, Herc, I really gotta go..and so do you."

Hercules felt a lump in his chest and wondered why it was hurting. "Sure," he muttered in return. "See you in school."

"Yeah, I'll see you," Iolaus hurriedly answered. By the Gods, Herc...just go!

Hercules slowly turned away and walked back down the path to the crest of the hill. He knew Iolaus was trying to get rid of him and that hurt. Iolaus is supposed to be my friend. Why is he doing this? He hesitated at the top of the hill and glanced back.

Iolaus had gone to the well and drawn water. He stood fidgeting with the well rope pretending to examine it all the while waiting to be sure his friend had gone. Go...go...go... He held his breath as Hercules stopped and looked back.

Hercules saw Iolaus idling by the well and frowned. He's making sure I leave! He doesn't trust me to go! Sudden anger welled up inside him. Some friend! He doesn't want me to meet his father! That's it! He's ashamed of me 'cause... He quickly turned and began running towards his home.

Iolaus let out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. He knew he'd hurt Hercules' feelings but knew it would have been worse if the demigod had stayed around. I'll make it up to him, he silently promised as he carried the bucket with one hand and the school parchments with the other. I'll be so good and not get him into any trouble. He'll understand...he's gotta understand.

He wasn't sure why Hercules even wanted to be friends with him. The young demigod was so much better. He could run faster and longer than anybody else. He was smart, too. And he had such a nice home... Iolaus mentally compared the ramshackle cottage before him with Alcmene's neat and tidy home. Herc'll understand. He always does.

Tucking the parchments under his chin, Iolaus carefully opened the door trying not to slosh the water from the bucket. He smiled in triumph as he closed the door and set the bucket on the floor without spilling a drop.


Iolaus jumped dropping the parchments onto the floor. "Father?" he squeaked.

Alcmene stared at her approaching son in surprise. Hercules was running as fast as she'd ever seen him run. She anxiously looked behind him but saw nothing threatening. The only other reason Hercules ever ran that fast was when he was racing Iolaus. She fully expected to see the other boy appear behind her son wheezing and good-naturedly grumbling about Hercules having an unfair advantage.

But she saw only her son.

"Hercules! What's going on?" Alcmene asked when Hercules stumbled to a stop. She watched with concern as he bent over gulping air.

"Not...Noth...Nothing..." Hercules finally gasped. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and stood erect. "Nothing, Mother. I just realized I was late getting home."

"Not that late," Alcmene lightly replied. "I thought you'd been playing with Iolaus." She was surprised to see Hercules' expression harden.

"I took him his schoolwork, that's all," Hercules explained. "I'll changed and get started on my chores."

Alcmene studied her son as he went into the house...slamming the door a little more forcefully than usual. She'd seen the pain in her son's eyes and frowned. She had been so happy when Hercules and Iolaus had become friends. Hercules had been a solitary boy although not from choice.

Mother...I have a friend!

Alcmene smiled as the words echoed in her mind. Hercules had seen Iolaus' friendship as a precious gift. Her only concern had been that Hercules, wrapped in Iolaus' friendship, hadn't sought out any other friends. He didn't push others away, but it was well-known that Iolaus came first with Hercules. The two seemed complete unto themselves. Now it looked as though the two friends had suffered their first fight.

Alcmene brushed the dirt from her skirts and stood. She had more work to do in the garden, but this was more important. The garden could wait until tomorrow.

Inside, she saw Hercules coming down the stairs. He'd changed into more worn clothing for his chores. "Do you have much homework, dear?" she asked.

"Not much," Hercules admitted.

"Why don't you get it done first then?" Alcmene suggested. "Your chores can wait." She put a hand on his forehead. "Besides, you're still a little flushed."

Hercules half-frowned. "I'm fine, Mother," he muttered. "I just ran too hard." Then he ducked his head. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to talk like that."

Alcmene smiled. "I know." She hugged her son then steered him towards the table. "I'll fix you a snack."

"Don't 'Father?' me, boy!" Skouros roared. He angrily kicked the parchments out of his way as he advanced on his son.

Instinctively, Iolaus took a few steps away then caught himself.

"Coward! Stand still when I'm talking to you!" Skouros angrily ordered.

"Yes, sir," Iolaus quietly answered looking back down at the floor.

"Who was that outside?" Skouros demanded.

"Just a classmate," Iolaus quickly answered raising his eyes to his father's. "Bringing my schoolwork so..."

"Schoolwork! Bah!" Skouros kicked the parchments again. "You're old enough to be working and helping your mother! Wasting your time in that school!"

"But I do work," Iolaus protested. "Alexandros is letting me help in his forge. And I hunt...and fish...and help Mother..."

Skouros derisively snorted. "Help in the forge...hunt...fish... You call that WORK, boy?"

Iolaus almost answered then caught himself and lowered his eyes to the floor.

"I'm not used to asking twice for answers," Skourors warned. "Who was that outside?"

"Hercules," Iolaus almost whispered.

"At least you're not lying about it," Skouros grunted. "I told you to stay away from that bastard."

Iolaus flushed. "The teacher sent him." He hated the tone of his voice. Why does it feel like I'm betraying Herc?

"Then I'll have a talk with that teacher," Skouros angrily promised. "Assuming you go back to school." He paced the room not noticing how Iolaus' hands had clenched into fists. "I will not have my son...such as he is...associating with that bastard." He snorted. "Son of Zeus, my..."

"May I go, Father?" Iolaus quietly interrupted. "I have wood to chop for Mother."

Skouros whirled around and stared at Iolaus from across the room. "I ordered you to stay away from that bastard," he said. "Have you disobeyed me?"

"Sir?" Iolaus' blue eyes widened in fear. Oh, gods, please...let something happen to stop him...please...

"You heard me!" Skouros roared. "You were ordered to stay away from that bastard! If I were to ask around, would I be told you obeyed me? Or would I be told you disobeyed?" He closed the distance between them and grabbed Iolaus by his thin shoulders. "You disobeyed me!" he hissed.

"Please, Father..." Iolaus heard his voice trembling.

"You poor excuse for my son," Skouros angrily seethed. "You may not be much but, by the Gods, boy, I will be obeyed!" He roughly shoved Iolaus away.

Iolaus hit the wall and immediately stepped away not wanting to be caught against the wall.

Seeing his actions, Skouros advanced trapping Iolaus between the wall and himself. He sneered when Iolaus' eyes flickered from side to side looking for an escape...like an animal in a trap.

"You've been associating with that bastard, haven't you?" Skouros demanded. "You've even been to that whore's house!"

"Alcmene's not a whore!" Iolaus screamed suddenly losing his temper. "She's a good and kind woman! And Hercules isn't a bastard!"

Skouros swung his arm so fast Iolaus hardly saw it coming. The blow caught him on the side of his face. He fell sideways to his knees then groaned as his father pulled him to his feet.

"You don't talk like that to me, boy!" Skouros yelled. "I say she's a whore! Everybody knows that's why her other son was taken away!"

"She's not," Iolaus argued. He tried to raise a hand to his throbbing face. "And Hercules is the son..."

"It doesn't matter who his father is!" Skourors yelled as he hit Iolaus once again. "He's still a bastard!"

Iolaus felt his left eye beginning to swell shut. He dropped to his knees when Skouros released him.

Furious, Skorous began kicking his son...each kick slamming the boy hard against the wall. When Iolaus tried to curl into a ball to protect himself, Skouros grabbed his shoulders and jerked him to his feet. He began hitting him in the stomach and ribs.

"Say it!" Skouros finally demanded as he pinned Iolaus against the wall. "Alcmene's a whore! Hercules is a bastard! Say it!"

"No," Ioluas shook his head even as he spit out blood along with the words.

"Damn you, boy! I won't be disobeyed!" Skouros shouted. He threw Iolaus to the floor and began kicking the boy even more violently.

Iolaus lay on the floor trying to protect himself but failing as each kick moved him across the room. Just say it! It doesn't mean anything! They're just words! You don't believe it anyway! Iolaus openly sobbed as he fought a bitter war within himself. I can't say it...I won't...I can't...oh gods please make him stop...it hurts...it hurts so much...

Skouros stared at the bloody mess that was his son. Breathing heavily, he reached down and dragged the sobbing boy to his feet. "One last time," he warned. "Say it."

Iolaus could barely see through the blood in his eyes. He's gonna kill me. The thought of death didn't bother him half as much as the memory of the pain in Hercules' eyes when he'd sent him away. Death wasn't as scary as the thought of losing Hercules' friendship. I'm sorry, Herc...but I had to... Iolaus took a deep breath that shot fire through his chest. "No," he hoarsely whispered. "I'll...I'll never say it."

Skouros stared at his bloodied son with a mixture of surprise and anger. "How dare you, you miserable whelp?" he hissed. He dragged Iolaus across the room ignoring his son's cries of pain. Opening the door, he dragged Iolaus outside. "Worthless little crybaby! You're no good to anyone, you hear me?!"

Skouros threw Iolaus over a tree stump and stalked to the barn.

Iolaus felt the blood gushing from his mouth as he tried to breathe. He coughed to clear his throat and tried to get to his feet. Dimly, he heard his mother pleading with Skouros.

"Please, Skouros, he's your son...you can't do this!" Erythia pleaded as she held onto her husband's arm. She desperately tried to pull the whip from his other hand.

"Don't tell me what I can or can't do, woman!" Skouros angrily shouted. He easily threw her aside. "Unless you'd like a taste of this!"

Erythia put her hands over her face and sobbed. "Please, Skouros, I'll do better raising him," she agonized. "He's not a bad boy!"

Skouros stared down at her in contempt. "It's no wonder I only have that measly runt for a son," he hissed. He looked over at his shoulder to see Iolaus trying to get to his feet only to fall into the dirt. "This is no longer your home, boy. Get out."

"Skouros, please..." Erythia begged.

Skouros reached down and dragged his wife to her feet. "Don't argue with me," he angrily warned. He shoved her towards the house. "Now get in there!" He turned to watch Iolaus stagger to his feet. "Go on! Get out of here! Go to that whore and bastard you think so highly of! But you don't come back here!"

Iolaus saw his mother hesitate at the door. The message in her eyes was as clear as if she'd screamed it at him. He turned and stumbled away.

"I can't do this!" Hercules cried out in frustration as he snapped the quill between his fingers.

"Hercules, what's wrong?" Alcmene looked at her son is surprise. She walked to him as he crossed his arms on the table and put his head down. She gently squeezed his shoulders. "Hercules?"

"I can't do numbers, Mother! I can't!" Hercules shook his head. "They don't make sense!"

Alcmene tried not to smile. "I'm not good with numbers, either," she admitted. "But you've done them before."

"Iolaus helped," Hercules miserably admitted. "He explains them so I can understand." His shoulders shook. "I can't do it without him."

"Of course you can," Alcmene soothed her son. "It's harder, but you can do it."

"Mother, why didn't Iolaus want me to stay when I took him his schoolwork?" Hercules turned and looked up at his mother with more anguish than she'd seen in him since Iphicles had gone away. "Why?"

Alcmene pulled a chair next to her son and wiped his face. "What did Iolaus say?" she asked.

"Nothing," Hercules admitted with a deep breath. "He just wanted me gone...and fast." He stared at the floor. "Like...he was ashamed of me or something."

"Oh, Hercules, he's not ashamed of you," Alcmene protested. "You're his best friend."

"Then why?" Hercules irritably wiped his eyes. "He never wants me to go to his home. He's never introduced me to his mother." He hung his head. "Why?"

Alcmene felt her heart twist at the hurt emanating from her son. "I can't answer that, Hercules," she gently replied. "But I do know this. Iolaus is your friend, and he's not ashamed of you." I could make a very good guess about why he doesn't want you there, she grimly thought. "Sometimes, dear, you have to just stop asking ‘why' and trust your friends...have faith in them."

Hercules frowned in thought. "You mean, I gotta trust that Iolaus he has his reasons," he pondered.

"Yes," Alcmene smiled. "Just like he trusts that you have your reasons for what you do."

Hercules took a deep breath. "I'll try, Mother, I promise." He sat straighter in his chair. "I don't want to lose Iolaus as a friend."

"Somehow I don't think you ever will," Alcmene said with a firm smile. "Now, why don't you go see to your chores? After dinner, we'll see if I can explain the numbers."

Hercules smiled and hugged his mother. "Thank you, Mother," he mumbled. "I think you're wiser than Athena."

Alcmene chuckled. "I doubt that," she answered. "Go on, now." She watched as her son ran outside. Once she was sure he was gone, she frowned. Damn you, Skouros. I won't let you warp and twist that boy...either of my boys.

Iolaus staggered across the countryside until he couldn't stand. Then he crawled on his hands and knees until the pain in his chest and the blood flowing from his mouth dropped him to the ground. Iolaus lay sobbing in the dirt. Just let me die...please...he hates me...hates me...and I hurt Herc...he hates me too now...please...I can't do this...

Sometime later, Iolaus managed to raise his head. It was late afternoon. Soon it would be dark, and hungry animals would be out to hunt. The scent of his blood would draw them. Calling on reserves of strength and determination he didn't know he possessed, Iolaus pushed himself to his feet and staggered forward.

He didn't realize where he'd been heading until he saw the house in the waning light of the setting sun...the one place he somehow knew where he'd be safe...even from his father.

"Alcmene," he moaned as he stumbled forward. She'll take care of me...she won't turn me away...oh gods...Herc...he won't want me there...after what I did...what I said... Iolaus leaned against the side of the barn doubled over in pain. I can't face him...I can't...

Say it boy...SAY IT!!

Gritting his teeth, Iolaus stumbled inside the barn. He fell to his knees on the straw and curled into a tight ball. I'll just stay here tonight...be gone before the sun comes up...I can't stay outside bleeding like this...they'll never know I'm here...Father won't punish them if they don't know I'm here... With a muffled groan, Iolaus closed his eyes and sobbed into the straw.

Hercules softly whistled as he carried tools back to the barn. He smiled remembering the tune as a song Iolaus had taught him soon after they'd met. Whistling it made him feel as though his friend was closeby. Mother's right. I trust Iolaus in other things so I have to trust him with this. He's got his reasons, and I have to respect that. I'll just do better...be better so he won't have reasons.

With a satisfied smile, he swung the barn door open. He'd taken two steps inside before he spotted the crumpled figure lying in the straw.

"Iolaus?" he whispered. He dropped the tools and knelt by his friend. "Iolaus?" He gently touched his friend then gasped when he saw his fingers covered in blood. Jumping to his feet, he ran towards the house.

"Mother! Mother!"

Alcmene dropped the warm bread on to the table and ran outside. "What is it?" she demanded.

Hercules grabbed his mother's arm and pulled her towards the barn. "It's Iolaus! He's in the barn...hurt...Mother, he's covered in blood!"

For once, Alcmene outran her son. By the time Hercules entered the barn, she was kneeling next to Iolaus gently running her hands over his body. The boy moaned, and she tenderly soothed him. She turned to her son. "Gently pick him up and take him upstairs," she ordered. "I'll put some water on to heat." She saw Hercules hesitate. "Go on. You won't hurt him. Just be careful."

More careful than he'd ever been in his life, Hercules knelt and gently picked up his friend. Settling Iolaus next to his chest, he quickly walked back to the house. For the first time, he was struck at how small and vulnerable Iolaus seemed.

When he lay his friend on the bed, he was stunned to see how much of Iolaus' blood covered his arms and chest. He turned as Alcmene entered the room. "Mother?" he whispered in fear.

"He's going to be fine," Alcmene automatically soothed in a practical tone of voice. "You go wash that blood off. Then bring up the water that's heating and put more on the fire."

"Yes, Mother," Hercules automatically obeyed. Mother says he'll be fine. He will. He will.

Alcmene smiled to herself as she opened her medicine box. Iolaus looked like a toddler lying in the middle of Hercules' large bed. Sitting on the side of the bed, she began inventorying the boy's injuries.

Hercules quickly returned with the water. He stood by his mother's shoulder as she began washing the blood from Iolaus' body.

"What happened to him, Mother?" Hercules finally asked in a hushed voice.

"I'm not sure," Alcmene answered. She was glad Hercules was behind her and couldn't see the anger in her eyes. "But he'll be fine." She felt Hercules relax and knew the words were helping him even if she wasn't so sure.

Iolaus heard the words as though they were coming from a great distance. He knew he was safe. Alcmene would take care of him. And Herc would never let anybody hurt him...Oh gods NO!

Iolaus stunned both Alcmene and Hercules by suddenly sitting up.

Alcmene saw the wild look in the boy's eyes and gently pushed him back onto the bed. "Iolaus, don't move," she briskly ordered.

"Alc...Alcmene?" Iolaus stared up at her through swollen eyes.

"You're safe," Alcmene gently told him. "You're safe."

Iolaus stared at her but didn't reply.

"Hercules, I need more water," Alcmene told her son. "Bring it up as soon as it's hot."

"You'll be okay, Iolaus," Hercules tried to smile in reassurance. "What happened to you?"

"A wild horse knocked me down...ran over me." Iolaus closed his eyes. He hated lying to his friend.

"Hercules, you can ask Iolaus questions later," Alcmene sternly interrupted. "Now go."

"Sorry," Hercules muttered as he left.

"I have to leave," Iolaus whispered minutes later.

"You're not going anywhere, Iolaus," Alcmene firmly answered.

"It's not safe," Iolaus whispered with tears in his eyes.

"Yes, it is," Alcmene gently smiled as she washed the last of the blood from his face. "This is always a safe place for you, Iolaus. Nothing and no one will ever harm you here." She brushed her fingers through his bloodied blonde curls. "I swear."

"It's not safe for you," Iolaus tearfully admitted. "I don't want you hurt...or Herc."

"No one's going to hurt us," Alcmene assured him.

"He will." Iolaus began shivering. "He wanted me to say things...bad things...'bout you and Herc...and I wouldn't...he didn't want me to be friends with Herc."

"Shhh...don't talk," Alcmene soothed him.

"I didn't say those things, Alcmene," Iolaus babbled. "I couldn't say bad things ‘bout you and Herc. He's my best friend. I know he's mad at me but..."

"No, he's not," Alcmene assured him as she washed his arm. She caught her breath seeing the deep dark bruishes on his upper arms.

"He kept hitting and kicking me, and I can't go home anymore," Iolaus sobbed. "He wouldn't stop ‘cause I wouldn't say Herc's not my friend even if he's not anymore..."

"Iolaus. Hush." Alcmene gently kissed his forehead. "You're safe. I'm safe. Hercules is safe. No one is coming to hurt any of us. Hercules is your friend." She saw the look of hopeful anxiety in Iolaus' bloody eyes and silently damned Skouros to Tartarus. "Now you lay quiet, and let me take care of you."

Iolaus gratefully closed his eyes and passed out.

Outside in the hallway, Hercules stood frozen. The bucket of water hung heavy in his hand, but it was a weight he ignored. It wasn't a wild horse...Iolaus lied to me...somebody hurt him...deliberately...DELIBERATELY!!! He heard Iolaus moan from the room and took a deep breath before entering. "Here's the water, Mother."

"Good," Alcmene nodded. She caught a look at her son's face. "Did you finish chopping wood?" At her son's nod, she continued. "Bring some up here and start a fire. It's warm tonight, but I don't want Iolaus getting chilled. Then start a fire downstairs in case we need it. And bring in more water and heat it."

"Anything else?" Hercules asked his eyes fixed on Iolaus' unconscious body.

"I may need you to help with bandaging Iolaus," Alcmene quickly added. "I'm not sure yet." She smiled at her son. "Go on. He's going to be fine."

Hercules silently nodded and left.

Alcmene released the breath she'd been holding. She carefully continued washing the blood from Iolaus. You won't win, Skouros, she silently promised. You don't know who you're dealing with now. You've hurt both my boys.

Hours later, Alcmene came downstairs to find Hercules curled up on the longseat. He raised his head when she ran a hand through his hair. She saw the tears in his eyes and sat next to him pulling him into her arms.

"It wasn't a horse," Hercules quietly said against her chest. "Somebody hurt him. Somebody hurt Iolaus. Hurt him bad."

Alcmene felt the shudders going through her son's rigid body. "Yes," she quietly admitted. "Someone did."

"Who?" Hercules demanded pulling back. "Who did this to my friend?" He paused. "Why did Iolaus lie about the horse?"

"If you knew who did this, Hercules, what would you do?" Alcmene asked after a few seconds.

"I'd...I'd..." Hercules' eyes widened as he felt rage shoot through him. He was surprised to find his hands clenched into fists. "Whoever did this needs to be punished," he finally answered.

"And you want to do the punishing," Alcmene added. When Hercules' eyes dropped, she pulled him back into her arms. "That's a natural reaction, dear. Iolaus is your friend...and someone hurt him."

"Why?" Hercules asked as the tears began to fall. "Why would anybody want to hurt him like that? He's not a bad person."

Alcmene gently rubbed her son's back. "I know...I know..." she soothed. "It's hard when something bad happens to someone we care about."

"Why wouldn't he tell me?" Hercules mumbled. "We're friends. Why wouldn't he tell me?"

"Maybe because he was afraid you'd give in to the impulse to punish someone," Alcmene gently answered. She hugged her son reassuringly. "You heard Iolaus talking to me, didn't you?"

"I didn't mean to listen," Hercules miserably answered. "I just...heard him." He raised his head. "Is whoever did this to Iolaus coming here?"

Not if he knows what's good for him, Alcmene grimly thought. "No, dear, I really doubt he will," she answered.

"Somebody doesn't like it that Iolaus and I are friends." Hercules sat up wiping his face. "But why? Who would want him to say bad things about me...or you?"

"Hercules..." Alcmene hesitated. Damn you, Skouros. It's not enough you try to destroy Iolaus...do you have to take both boys' innocence? "Hercules, I know this is hard for you to understand. But you have to try...for Iolaus' sake."

Hercules silently nodded and sat up straighter.

"You asked me if Iolaus was ashamed of you because he never took you home," Alcmene began. "It's not that. His father, Skouros, doesn't think Iolaus should be friends with you."

"Why?" Hercules frowned. "I've never met him."

"I think it's because of who your father is," Alcmene carefully answered.

Hercules stared at his mother for a moment then his features darkened. "The bad things...he wanted Iolaus to call me a bastard," he reasoned. Then his eyes widened in shock. "Skouros? He did this?"

"I think so," Alcmene slowly nodded. She watched her son carefully. "Iolaus didn't say for sure but..."

"The times his father's been home...when Iolaus had bruises...cuts...even that broken arm..." Hercules stared at his mother in shock. "Mother, why?"

"I don't know, Hercules," Alcmene sorrowfully admitted. "I doubt even Skouros knows why."

"But Ioluas' mother..." Hercules shook his head in confusion.

"I doubt Skouros treats her much better," Alcmene quickly answered.

Hercules curled up on the longseat resting his head on his mother's lap. "Why didn't Iolaus tell me?" he whispered in agony. "Doesn't he trust me?"

"Of course he does," Alcmene assured him. "It's not that he didn't trust you, Hercules. I think he was trying to protect you."

"Protect...ME?" Hercules stared up at his mother in confusion.

Alcmene slowly nodded. "Protect you from his father's words and actions if he saw you," she reasoned. She brushed her son's hair back from his eyes. "Protect you from you perhaps losing your temper and hurting someone seeking revenge."

Hercules curled into a tighter ball and squeezed his eyes shut.

Alcmene gently hugged him. "Sometimes we have to step aside and let our friends make their own choices." She saw the confusion in her son's blue eyes and sighed. "Is Iolaus your friend?"

"Of course," Hercules frowned.

"And you're Iolaus' friend?" Alcmene continued.

"Yes," Hercules nodded.

"Then you must respect one another," Alcmene slowly explained. "And respect each other's decisions. It's hard to stand aside and watch a friend make a decision that brings them pain or causes them hurt." She hugged Hercules close to her. "We can advise our friends, try to help them, stand with them...but if we try to keep them from making their own decisions, they're not our friends any longer...they're our pets." She brushed Hercules' hair away from his face. "Do you understand?"

"I think so," Hercules frowned. "It's just hard...I hate it when he's hurt."

"I know." Alcmene gently kissed his forehead.

"I just gotta trust he has his reasons. Right?" Hercules stared up at his mother.

"Right," Alcmene smiled. She hugged her son again. "I'm so proud of you," she whispered.

Hercules flushed. "Can I sit with Ioluas? In case he wakes up?"

"He won't wake up," Alcmene assured him. She saw the disappointment in his eyes. "But if you're very quiet and wrap a blanket around you, then yes...you may sit up with him."

Sitting in a chair next to his bed, Hercules stared down at his sleeping friend. Although not cold, he shivered and pulled the blanket closer around him. Wiggling in the chair until he found a comfortable position, he rested his head back against the pillow.

I know you took that beating for me, Iolaus. You may never tell me that you did...but I know better. I promise I'll be better...stronger...smarter...so you won't ever have to take a beating for me again. I promise.

He closed his eyes hoping he'd never meet General Skouros. He was afraid he'd kill the man.

Two days later, Iolaus was well enough Alcmene felt she could leave him in Hercules' care long enough to go to the village market. She'd smiled at Iolaus' small grin of pleasure when she promised to bring him back some plums if they were available. "But you'll get them only if Hercules tells me you've behaved and stayed quiet," Alcmene warned.

"I'll behave," Iolaus promised. "I always behave."

"Iolaus!" Hercules hissed half in horror at the falsehood. Then he flushed when Iolaus giggled.

Alcmene ruffled her son's hair. "Both of you behave," she warned as she left the room.

It took a while, but Alcmene finally found plums for Iolaus. She hesitated then splurged on some peaches for Hercules. They both deserve a treat, she told herself.

She was on her way home when she saw a rider pause at the crossroads then turn in the direction of her home. Alcmene shaded her eyes then gasped. "Skouros!" she yelled.

Skouros looked over his shoulder and grimly smiled. He waited as she approached. "You saved me the trouble of going to your place," he growled. "I'm taking Iolaus home."

"You most certainly are NOT!" Alcmene replied. "He'll go home when he's able...or after you've left. I'm not sending him back with you."

"What?!" Skouros stared down at her as though she'd lost her mind. "You don't have anything to say about..."

"Oh yes, I do!" Alcmene angrily interrupted. "I've seen what you did to him. You're not doing it again."

"I figured he'd come whining and bawling to you." Skouros shook his head in disgust. "He's my son, and you can't stop me from taking him home or doing whatever I want with him!"

"Yes, I will," Alcmene firmly argued. "You're not hurting him any more."

"Iolaus isn't much of a son," Skouros snarled. "But I'm not letting a whore tell me..."

There was a sudden flash of lightning, and thunder threateningly rumbled over their heads.

Alcmene slowly smiled. "I'd be very careful what you call me," she suggested. "Or my son."

Skouros' eyes narrowed. "I don't believe those stories about you and Zeus," he scoffed. "You probably just..."

This time lightning struck the ground a few hundred yards away. Skouros' horse reared in fear almost throwing his rider. Even Alcmene shook her head to clear the ringing in her ears as a result of the accompanying boom of thunder. When Skouros had his horse under control, Alcmene was calmly staring at him.

"I can't stop you from hitting Iolaus," she quietly admitted. "But don't you ever dare keep him from coming to me...or to Hercules. And you stay away from us."

Without another word, she walked around the General and his horse and proceeded on her way home.

Skouros angrily stared at her. He wanted nothing more than to put that obstinate woman in her proper place. He glanced at the nearby smoking ground, however, and turned and rode in the opposite direction.

Ah, Alcmene...you always did have spirit and courage, an unseen form chuckled to himself.

Iolaus never spoke about what happened to him. As far as he knew, Hercules believed he'd been thrown and trampled by a wild horse he'd tried to ride. He'd spun a great story about the entire adventure. Hercules had listened with wide eyes then asked his friend to be more careful.

Hercules never told his friend he knew the truth about what happened. He didn't quite understand, but it seemed very important to Iolaus that he believe the story about the wild horse. He was just glad to know Iolaus wasn't ashamed of him.

Alcmene never told either boy about her confrontation with Skouros. It would only have upset Iolaus and angered Hercules. A great deal of their innocence had been taken away by Skouros, and she didn't want to make it worse.

Three weeks later, Iolaus was well enough that Alcmene permitted the boys to go on an overnight fishing trip. Iolaus only had a few bruises remaining from his father's beating but still limped when tired. He'd stayed with Alcmene and Hercules as Skouros remained at home waiting to be called back to war.

The two boys lay on either side of the campfire. Iolaus lay with his hands tucked under his head staring up at the stars. Hercules, lay on one side, staring across the fire at his friend.

"You're really gonna go to that academy, huh, Herc?" Iolaus quietly asked.

"Looks like," Hercules admitted. "Mother wants me to go. She says I'll get the training I need." He idly tossed a small twig into the fire. "I wish you were going with me."

"Me?" Iolaus laughed. "In a fancy academy? You've got to be kidding. Herc, the Prince of Corinth is at that academy!"

"I don't care!" Hercules irritably replied. "I don't care about any Prince of Corinth. He's not going to help me with my numbers, now is he?"

"He might," Iolaus encouraged. "You'll be okay."

"What are you gonna do?" Hercules cautiously asked.

Iolaus shrugged. "I'll do some hunting or fishing." He grinned. "I owe your mother a lot of venison."

"You know she doesn't care about that," Hercules grumbled as he sat up. "Maybe I won't go to the academy."

"Herc! You gotta go!" Iolaus sat up facing his friend. "You'll get all sorts of training you can't get here. All sorts of stuff you can't learn here."

"Then I'll come home and teach you what I've learned." Hercules suddenly smiled.

"Yeah, sure." Iolaus forced a smile in return. "We'll learn together." But it'll be different. You won't need me then.

Hercules frowned as he saw the shadows in his friend's eyes. His eyes lit on the dagger lying by his pack. His eyes widened as an idea took root. Without a word, he grabbed the knife and crossed to the other side of the fire.

Iolaus stared in confusion as the young demigod sat next to him. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"We'll swear a blood oath, " Hercules eagerly explained. "To always be friends. To fight back-to-back...as heroes...to die in battle together. It's the strongest oath you can take, Iolaus. It's a bond that can't be broken. We'll never be..." He stopped as he saw Iolaus' stunned expression.

You have to let your friends make their own decisions.

His mother's words ringing in his ears, Hercules looked down at the dagger in his lap. "I mean...if you want to be my blood brother, that is. You don't have to be if you don't want to."

"Of course I want to." Iolaus took a deep breath. "I mean, if you want to."

"Sure I want to," Hercules grinned with relief. "I said it, didn't I?"

Iolaus nodded and held out his arm. It may not mean anything to him in a few months when he's away and with others...but I don't care...it means something to him now...and it'll mean something to me when he's gone.

Hercules took a deep breath then drew the blade across his forearm. "I, Hercules, son of...Alcmene, swear to be blood brother to Iolaus...to be at his back forever...to always fight at his side." I'll learn everything at the academy...learn to be better and stronger and smarter...whatever I can learn so you'll never have to take a beating for me or anybody else ever again.

Iolaus took the dagger from Hercules and slashed his own forearm. Ow..ow...owwww...that hurts...that hurts. He took a deep breath. "I, Iolaus, son of...I, Iolaus of Thebes, swear to be blood brother to Hercules...to be at his back forever...to always fight at his side." It'll always mean something to me, Herc.

Solemnly, they clasped their arms together.

Hercules grinned. "We'll be great warriors, Iolaus," he foretold. "And we'll die like heroes...back-to-back in battle."

Iolaus caught his breath. For a moment, it seemed a wonderous future opened up for him...a future where he was respected and fought against evil at the side of the son of Zeus. Then he gasped when Hecules squeezed his arm. "Owwww."

Hercules looked down at Iolaus' bloody arm. "Iolaus! You were just supposed to cut your arm! Not slash it open almost to the bone!"

"Now you tell me," Iolaus groaned.

The Present

"I wonder if you ever did really understand Iolaus' worth?" Hercules mused. "Did you? I told Iolaus you must have. It made him feel better. I'm just glad I didn't meet you...either in this world or the next. I probably would've..."

"Herc? Who are you talking to?"

Hercules guiltily looked over his shoulder to see Iolaus staring at him with concern. "Nobody," he answered with a smile. "Just...talking to myself."

Iolaus studied him for a few minutes than walked closer to look at the statue.

"You okay, Iolaus?" Hercules gently asked.

Iolaus shrugged. "I suppose. It was a long time ago anyway."

Hercules slowly nodded. He put his hands on Iolaus' shoulders and gently squeezed. "Yeah," he gently agreed. "It was a long time ago."

Melinda Holley
March 2000

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