Taking the Blame

by Sierra

The sounds of swords clashing filled the late afternoon air.  The sweet spring breeze carried not only the scent of newly opened blossoms, but the tang of freshly spilled blood.  The valley reverberated with a cacophony of moans and groans, along with the occasional shriek of pain.

At the far end of the battlefield cowered Nassos, the man-boy who had thought he wanted this confrontation.  It was his encouraging and blood-thirsty speech that had convinced so many of the young men in his village to take up arms against Bastiaan.  His brother, Altair, had argued against going to war.  He had begged Nassos to approach Bastiaan to arrange a truce.

Altair now lay at the opposite end of the field, having been felled by the single slash of a sword.  Blood spilled from the wound to pool underneath the dying soldier.

In the middle of the fray stood two of Greece's greatest heroes.  Hercules and Iolaus were fighting back to back, the demigod towering over his mortal friend.  Not even they had been able to sway the young men who were so eager for this battle.  Resignedly, they had joined in when Bastiaan's men had proven to be more than Nassos and his friends had counted on.

"You know, Herc," panted Iolaus as he parried a blow, "This would have been a lot easier if they'd just listened to us in the first place."

Hercules grunted in agreement as he dodged the sword being swung at his belly.  "I thought you said this was going to be a fun trip."  He swatted the sword from his attacker's grasp, flinging it across the battlefield and into the fields beyond.

Iolaus tripped his opponent and knocked him unconscious with the hilt of his sword.  He turned to say something to Hercules but stopped, the words caught in his throat.  With a growl, the warrior dashed past Hercules.

"Iolaus?  Where are you going?  Stay at my back!"  Hercules' heart leapt into his throat.  The last time Iolaus had raced off like that, he had gotten himself killed by an Amazon warrior.  Then Hercules saw what had demanded Iolaus' attention.

It was Altair:  the newlywed, the ex-soldier, the one who had proposed a truce instead of a battle.  He lay on the ground, either dead or dying.  Iolaus dodged enemy soldiers to reach his fallen friend, dropping on his knees at the wounded man's side.

Only the week before, Iolaus and Hercules had celebrated with Altair and Kaethe as the couple exchanged their marriage vows.  In the very field that was now being nourished by Altair's blood, they had toasted the happy couple and wished them a long and prosperous future.

Iolaus had promised Kaethe that they would do their best to bring back her new husband, safe and sound.  Altair had joked that although he might be safe, he had never been entirely sound.  The worried new bride had hugged Altair as if she would never see her husband again.

It was supposed to have been easy.

Bastiaan's men had only totaled twenty when Nassos and his friends spied upon the enemy's camp.  They had reported that it would be a simple matter of frightening Bastiaan with their larger numbers.

The others had rallied around Nassos, encouraged by his findings.  It seemed as if the warlord who had been threatening them would be vanquished in one fell swoop. Hercules, Iolaus and Altair had tried to dissuade them.  The men of the village were farmers, not warriors.  Themistoklias had been at peace for over one hundred years.  

The only true warrior among them was Altair, who had returned to his birthplace to settle down and marry his young bride.  All he wanted was to find some peace after years of war.

Shortly before the nuptials, Bastiaan had come, threatening to burn down the village of Themistoklias if  his demands were not met.  Bastiaan's men were hungry, the messenger claimed.  They wanted more than half of the village's food stores.  The harvest had finally been completed and the people were getting ready to face another season of Demeter's sorrow.  The village had grown and they could not afford to give up so much.

The elders had gathered and decided what the town could give up without endangering the lives of the people.  But, before the messenger could be sent to Bastiaan, Nassos had already talked to most of the other young men into attacking Bastiaan first.

The wedding itself had gone smoothly, thoughts of battle put aside for the day's festivities.  By the next morning, however, the younger men were gearing up for war, gathering what weapons they could find, making what they couldn't.

Hercules and Iolaus had offered to talk to Bastiaan.  From what they knew of this particular warlord, he had an odd streak.  While plundering and pillaging the villages in their way was standard practice for most of the warlords the heroes had faced, Bastiaan refused to destroy villages needlessly.  His goal was to rule Greece.  However, he realized that once he achieved his goal of toppling the crown, it would be easier to control a populace that did not resent him.  Privately, the heroes planned on going after Bastiaan to retrieve whatever the townsfolk ended up giving to the warlord.  

There would be another day for defeating Bastiaan, Hercules had argued.  A battle might mean that the entire village would be destroyed.  He asked them what they would do then.  Iolaus had tried to explain how Bastiaan's threat was a mostly empty one.  With the elders willing to negotiate, there was little danger that Themistoklias would be destroyed, Iolaus reminded them.  

Their words fell on deaf ears.  Hercules and Iolaus spent the night at Altair's home.  Kaethe, barely more than a child herself and unused to such talk of fighting, had gone to bed early.  The three warriors tried not to hear as she cried herself to sleep.

Now, Hercules watched with trepidation as Iolaus placed his hand at Altair's throat.  The hunter's shoulders slumped when his fingers felt no movement of blood under the fragile skin.  Hercules closed his eyes in a brief moment of grief before he returned to the battle at hand.

Iolaus shot to his feet, anger pulsing through his body.  This was not how it was supposed to go!  Enraged, he swung his sword out at the closest of Bastiaan's men, taking the soldier down with one blow.

The fighting raged on around Iolaus, but he was lost to battle fury.  He was out to avenge Altair's untimely death.

Hercules soon lost sight of his partner, a situation he was decidedly uncomfortable with.  Every now and again, he would catch a glimpse of blonde hair moving through the fray, but even then he was unable to ascertain if it was Iolaus or one of the village men.  However, tried to keep Bastiaan's men from reaching the village prevented him from searching for the warrior.

The twenty-man troop Nassos had predicted had turned out to be over two hundred strong.  What he and his friends had spied upon had been merely a scouting party.  Between the heroes and the Themistoklians, though, Bastiaan's men had finally begun to retreat.  Hercules hoped it was for good, and not just a chance for them to regroup.

One brave fool attempted a final rush at the son of Zeus.  With a chuckle at the man's audacity, Hercules grabbed the soldier.  With a hand grasping the waist of the fool's pants and the other entwined in the man's shirt, Hercules spun in a circle.  He released his grip, sending his assailant flying.

Iolaus danced nimbly away from a knife blade as his leather-clad attacker slashed at him. Grinning, Iolaus held up his much larger sword, waving it in front of him.  His opponent began to back away warily when, without any warning, Iolaus was struck from behind by something large.  The force of the blow knocked him forward, sending the blade the retreating soldier held at the ready plunging into Iolaus' exposed abdomen.  Both men looked down at the blade in shock and then up at each other, eyes wide.  Hastily, Bastiaan's soldier pulled back, pushing Iolaus away with his free hand.

The hunter stumbled, clamping his hands against the wound.  Falling onto his back, he had one last thought before darkness claimed him: it was too beautiful a day for him to die.

Hercules finally spotted Iolaus, catching sight of him just as the blonde staggered.  Then, to the demigod's horror, he watched as his best friend fell on the battlefield.


He flew across the field, throwing the few remaining soldiers left and right, determined to reach Iolaus.  He slid to a stop on his knees, mimicking Iolaus' actions from only a short while before.  He allowed himself a short sigh of relief as he found what Iolaus had not: a pulse, fluttering underneath his fingertips.

Iolaus stirred at his friend's touch.  He managed to open his eyes and tried to smile up at Hercules' concerned gaze.  "Guess I should have ducked," he whispered painfully.

Hercules swallowed hard as he moved Iolaus' hands from the wound.  It was bleeding heavily, the wet, sticky substance already beginning to stain the ground underneath Iolaus.

"It's bad, isn't it?"

"What happened, Iolaus?"

Iolaus took a shuddering breath.  "Don't know.  Something hit me."

"Hit you?"

Exhausted, Iolaus closed his eyes.  "From behind."

Hercules leaned back to tear a piece of cloth from his shirt, intending to wrap it around Iolaus' abdomen.  If he could at least slow the flow of blood, he could cary the injured warrior back to Themistoklias.  As he moved, his gaze fell upon the prone body of the man he had tossed from the other side of the field.  A cold knot of horror settled in Hercules' stomach as the events leading to Iolaus' injury became clear.

"My fault," he gasped, feeling a tightness in his chest.

"I'm sorry, Iolaus," he said to his now-unconscious friend.  He lifted Iolaus into his arms, repeating those three words over and over as he sped towards the village.  The healer, an old woman named Elina, lived in a modest dwelling alongside the village square.  He prayed he would be able to reach her in time to save his friend.

Before the remainder of the men had reached the village's outer perimeter, Hercules was barreling through the doorway of the healer's neat home.  Elina jumped as the door banged open.  She had prepared herself beforehand as best as she could, knowing that battles brought casualties.  What she had not expected was the sight before her.  In all of her years as the village healer, nothing had chilled her blood like this did.

Hercules' chest was covered in blood.  Cradled in his arms was none other than the fearless mortal he claimed as his best friend.  Elina froze for a moment.  She had never expected to see these two wounded in what Nassos had claimed would be a quick and easy skirmish.

Moving forward, Hercules went to lay Iolaus on one of the beds Elina had set up the night before.  He turned grief-stricken eyes to her.  "He's been stabbed."

She began gathering the supplies she would need to treat the wound.  Meanwhile, Hercules gently removed Iolaus' blood soaked vest.  Slipping off the medallion that hung around the hunter's neck, Hercules tucked it inside his own shirt.  Elina pushed the demigod aside, clucking softly to herself as she took stock of the injury.

Hercules watched in a stunned daze as Elina cleaned and treated the wound and then dressed it.  Although it seemed like hours to the worried man, it was only a short while before the healer turned to address him.  "I've done all I can.  The rest is up to Iolaus."

Elina went into the other room, intending to make tea for herself and Hercules.  The pot on the fire in the outer room she left simmering with healing herbs, so that she could change the dressing on Iolaus' wound.  She said a silent prayer to Zeus, hoping against all logic that no one else had been wounded in the battle.  She thought about asking Hercules, but the demigod's focus was on the still form in the bed.  He had not said anything since telling Elina that Iolaus had been hurt.

Hercules did not move as the door flew open and Kaethe rushed in.  She stopped short when she saw Iolaus lying on the bed.  "Hercules?" she asked in a small voice.  "Where's Altair?"

The son of Zeus looked up, sorrow written across his handsome features.  Kaethe took one look at him and backed away, a trembling hand going to her mouth.  "No.  No!  You promised he'd come home.  You promised!"  The young woman shook her head in denial.  "You promised!"

The woman's cry brought Elina running into the outer room.  "Kaethe?" She crossed over quickly to the young girl.  "What is it?  What's happened?"

Kaethe fell into the older woman's arms, sobbing.  "Altair," she managed to say through her tears.

The healer stroked the young woman's back.  Elina looked over at Hercules and saw the truth in his eyes.  "I'm sorry," she murmured to Kaethe.  Leading the distraught widow into the other room, Elina turned in time to see a single tear track down the demigod's cheek. Then the door closed gently behind the two women, leaving Hercules alone with Iolaus once more.

A sparkle of light announced the presence of Aphrodite.  Hercules glanced up at his sister and then silently turned his attention back to Iolaus.

"How is he?" the goddess asked quietly.  She came up behind Hercules and laid a manicured hand on his shoulder.

"Not good," her brother replied.  "This is my doing, Aphrodite.  If I hadn't thrown that guy..." He paused.  "Will Asclepius help?"

"That's kind of what I needed to talk to you about, big brother."

He didn't care for the look on Aphrodite's face.  The Goddess of Love looked positively glum.  "What is it?"

"Well, see, there's this big thing on Olympus right now. Hera says none of us cane help you.  Step-meanie said that you got yourself into this."  Aphrodite stroked back a golden curl from Iolaus' forehead.  "Most of the gods are on her side this time and Zeus had to go by their ruling.  I volunteered to come tell you their decision."

Hercules felt a sharp pang of disappointment.  Of all of his relatives, he had thought that he would be able to count on Aphrodite.  For her to be the one to gloat over Hera's victory was painful.

The goddess did not miss the look on her brother's face.  "It's not like that!" she protested.  "Look, if Ares had been the one to tell you, what do you think he would have done?"

He had to concede her point.  The God of War would have taken this opportunity to revel in the mortal's flirtation with death.  "But this has nothing to do with Iolaus!  I was the one who wasn't looking.  Why should he have to suffer?"

Refusing to meet Hercules' eyes, Aphrodite fiddled with the edge of her barely-there pink gown.


"She said it's his fault, too.  For being your friend."  She finally met her brother's angry glare.  "Hey, I'm just repeating what she said.  Don't look at me like that!"

Stepping closer to the bed, Aphrodite gently tucked the covers in around Iolaus.  She placed a light kiss on his forehead.  "You'll make it Sweetcheeks.  You just have to be strong."  She glanced at her brother before murmuring under her breath, "For both of you."

With a sad wave at Hercules, Aphrodite returned to Olympus in a glimmer of light. Hercules dropped his head into his hands.  "I'm sorry, Iolaus.  If I had been paying attention, this wouldn't have happened," he berated himself.  "We've always been lucky before, haven't we?"

In the silence of the sickroom, Hercules quietly cursed himself.  How many times had he done something like this?  How many times had he thrown people or objects, only vaguely aware of where they landed?  How many times had he counted on Iolaus to make sure that no one was in harm's way?  The questions echoed in his mind.

Iolaus always seemed to know just what it was that Hercules planned to do.  When Hera had sent firebolts at Thebes, it had been the warrior who had rushed the townspeople out of the way when Hercules toppled the watertower.  Hercules had not said a word, Iolaus had just known what to do and when to do it.

A low sound outside heralded the return of Themistoklias' troops.  Passing by Elina's open window, the men dragged their tired and aching bodies home.  The townsfolk rushed out to greet them and the air rang with exclamations of joy and relief as loved ones returned.  Trailing the column were three horses.  As they passed, the crowd fell silent.  Across the saddle of each animal was draped the body of a man killed in the skirmish.

Kaethe heard the racket and rushed through the outer room and onto the street, followed closely by Elina.  As they stepped through the doorway, the horses came into view.  Seconds later, the girl let out an ear-piercing wail as her eyes told her what her heart already knew.  Hercules flinched as Kaethe gave voice to her grief.

Elina had managed to get Kaethe to rest, aided by a sleeping draught she had slipped into the young widow's tea.  Glancing across the room, she noted unhappily that Hercules had left his drink as yet untasted.

Perhaps the demigod knew she had added a few herbs to his cup, as well, she thought.  Absentmindedly, she pushed a stray strand of grey hair back from her face as she watched Hercules watching Iolaus.  Elina had tried to convince the larger man of the necessity of rest, but her warnings went unheeded.  Hercules had politely disagreed with her and returned to his silent vigil.

With the last bandage change, Elina had been relieved to find a lessening of the angry red color surrounding Iolaus' wound.  Other than that, however, the warrior remained in his unnatural sleep.

Hercules scrubbed his hands over his face tiredly.  He appreciated Elina's attempts to get him to rest, but he would not sleep until he knew that Iolaus was going to be alright.  Hercules placed a hand on Iolaus' chest, to feel the reassuring thumping of the warrior's heart.  Elina had warned him that the damage was severe and Iolaus could still be in danger of meeting Charon.

He never thought that he would be the one to speed Iolaus on that final journey.

Inwardly, Hercules raged.  At his strength, at his inattention.  Even, briefly, at Iolaus for being in the way.  He kicked himself mentally for that thought.  Iolaus had done nothing wrong.  Hercules crossed his arms on the bed and lay his head down.  If he was getting that irrational, Elina was right.  He needed to rest, but he was not going to leave his friend's side to do it.

Elina smiled as she watched the demigod succumb to his body's need for rest.  Anxiety and grief had taken a larger toll on his body then Hercules would have thought possible.  Iolaus did not need Hercules to be exhausted.  When the warrior finally did awaken, he would need his best friend in top form to help him fight his way back to health.

Hercules' sleep was anything but restful.

He dreamed.  In his dream, he watched as the man he had sent flying across the field slammed into Iolaus' back.  As the sights and the sounds of the battle faded, Hercules watched in horror as the dagger pierced his best friend's skin.  Instead of falling, the dream-Iolaus turned to face Hercules, the unspoken accusation clearly visible on Iolaus' face.  Blood poured from the wound, running in  a steady stream to pool at the injured man's feet.   Hercules was suddenly away that he was standing above Iolaus, watching as the crimson liquid slowly engulfed the hunter's form.

When the blood reached Iolaus' shoulders, the dream image spoke.  In the light, happy tone that Hercules was so familiar with, Iolaus said, "Thanks, buddy."  Then Iolaus' blue eyes rolled back into his head and the blood closed around him, obscuring the figure for good.


Hercules jerked awake, snapping his head upright.  Panicking, he sought out Iolaus.  The warrior still lay peacefully, his chest rising and falling with each breath. Elina hurried to the demigod's side, placing a hand on his arm.  "Shhhh," she admonished.  "Take it easy."

He blinked up at her, still confused and feeling the lingering terror from the dream.  It took him a moment longer before he became completely aware of his surroundings.

"I -"

"You had a nightmare, didn't you?"

Hercules nodded miserably as he recalled the accusing look in Iolaus' eyes in the dream.

"Tell me about it."

It took some coaxing on Elina's part before Hercules would tell the grandmotherly woman his dream.  When he did, it was with halting words, full of self-recrimination.  Staring at the hand he had placed on Iolaus' chest once more, he would not look up at her when he finished.

"Would Iolaus blame you?" asked Elina gently when the recital was complete.

"Of course he would!" barked Hercules, looking up at her in disbelief.  "I might as well have been holding the dagger myself."

The healer could see Hercules' inner turmoil reflected in his eyes.  She longed to find the worlds that would comfort him and put his heart and mind at ease.  Alas, she had nothing to say.  Her tongue lay heavy in her mouth, stilled by his outburst.

As Hercules bowed his head once more over the still form of his friend, Elina placed a pale hand on his head.  She could give him little comfort, but she could pray.

The few soldiers who had been injured had been taken care of and sent home with their families. None had required Elina's extensive attention.  Kaethe's family had come to collect her.  Her father had gathered his daughter tenderly in his arms as if she were still a child.  Only Hercules and Iolaus remained in the front room of Elina's home.

The older woman placed a light kiss on top of Hercules' head before she left the house. Asclepius' temple was not that far.

Hercules took one of Iolaus' limp hands in his own.  Studying it carefully, he noted the scars from the many battles the warrior had fought. Some of the scars had been caused in battles with enemy soldiers and some - Hercules let a small smile flit across his face - had been earned doing battle with recalcitrant farming implements.

The gods knew he would never intentionally harm Iolaus.  Even when they had fought each other, goaded on by Xena so long ago, Hercules had refused to draw blood on the man he considered his brother.

Perhaps that was it, Hercules mused.  His family always seemed to be the ones who paid for who he was.

Alcmene rarely saw her youngest son.  The few times he had recently, it was because Hera or someone else with a grudge against Hercules was trying to get back at the demigod through her.

Iphicles and Hercules had never been close.  Even as small children, the blood of Zeus that ran through Hercules' veins had come between the brothers.  The rift was being healed, but at what cost?  He shuddered, remembering the damage Callisto had caused at the surprise party his family had tried to give him.  Iphicles, Jason, Alcmene, Iolaus and even Falafel  had all been put in harm's way that time.

This - this was the worst.  No warlord, evil goddess or monster had caused Iolaus' injury.  No, Hercules was solely to blame.  Had he the strength of an ordinary mortal, his assailant would have landed only a few feet away.  Instead, the soldier had been thrown across the entire length of the battlefield, right into Iolaus' unprotected back.

Hercules' mind had been on Altair's death and on finding Iolaus.  Well, he noted with sad irony, he had definitely located his best friend.

Three days passed, with Hercules sinking deeper and deeper into his guilt.  Iolaus had not moved in all that time.

The slain warriors were being laid to rest, their bodies burned in a fire bright enough to light their way into the afterworld.  Hercules watched from the window of Elina's cottage, unwilling to leave Iolaus' side.  He listened to the crackle of the tinder and the sobbing of the bereaved.  Kaethe's wail of anguish as her husband's body was consumed by the flames would echo in the memories of many for a long time after the funeral.

Firelight danced across Hercules' somber features as he stood watch.  The people of Themistoklias clung to each other for comfort.  Nassos stood a slight distance away from the rest of the townsfolk.  Anger washed over Hercules as his gaze fell upon the young man.  If Nassos had not been so headstrong, if he had listened to Altair in the first place, none of this would have happened.  It was with difficulty that Hercules quelled his rising anger.  The elders were dealing with the young man, it was none of his concern.  As Elina had told him the day before, his only job was to care for Iolaus and see that the warrior healed.

Hercules looked down at the much-too-still form on the bed.  Only that morning, Elina had expressed her concern to Hercules over Iolaus.  It was unusual, she had told him, for someone to remain unconscious for that long.  

He turned from the window and sat next to Iolaus with a heart-heavy sigh.  Elina said that the wound itself was healing nicely, something they could all be thankful for.  It was the warrior's deep slumber that worried her now.

Leaning over to rest against the bed, Hercules pillowed his head on his arms and slept.

The sunlight streaming in through the window woke him the next morning.  Squinting against the glare, Hercules stretched and yawned loudly.  The noise disturbed the sleeping patient and Iolaus turned in his sleep with a mutter.

Hercules froze in mid-stretch, staring at Iolaus.  "Elina!" he yelled.

Elina rushed in, pulling her robe tight against her, fearing the worst.  "What is it, Hercules?"

The younger man's beaming grin dispelled any fears she had entered the room with.  "He moved!"

A smile lit Elina's face as she hurried over to Iolaus' side.  The hunter was still muttering softly in his sleep, apparently bothered by the noise.

"Wake him up, gently."

Hercules reached out to touch his slumbering friend's shoulder.   "Iolaus? Can you hear me, Iolaus?"  He shrugged at Elina as he received no response.  "C'mon, Iolaus.  You've got to wake up now."

Bleary eyes blinked open as Iolaus rolled over.  He started to stretch, hissing in pain as his injury made itself known.  Hercules grasped Iolaus' shoulder more firmly, forcing the hunter to lie still.

A kindly face appeared over Iolaus.  "You're going to be just fine," Elina assured him.  "Especially now that you're finally awake."

Iolaus made a face.  He didn't feel just fine.  Then he realized what the healer had said.  "Finally? How long have I been out of it?"

"Three and a half days," answered Hercules.  "You were starting to get me worried, buddy."

"What happened?"  

Elina started to unwrap the wounded man's bandages, assisted by Hercules.  The old woman's touch was soft, but sure.  She swiftly had a new dressing in place.

Meanwhile, Iolaus waited patiently for his friend's answer.  He didn't miss the look that passed between Hercules and Elina.  The demigod's careworn face was long past the point of being able to hide anything.

"There." Elina patted the bandage lightly.  "That will do just fine.  I'll leave you two alone for now."  She smiled reassuringly at the hunter.  "And I'm sure you could use something a little more substantial than the broths we've been giving you."

The low growl from Iolaus' stomach agreed with the healer.  Elina chuckled, winking at him before she left the room.

Hercules waited until the door closed behind Elina.  Iolaus pushed himself into a sitting position, wondering what was so horrible that it would make his best friend stall for time.

The demigod cleared his throat.  "It was my fault, Iolaus."  He closed his eyes and bowed his head, as if preparing himself for a physical blow in retaliation.

"You want to explain that?"

So Hercules did, recounting just how he had been the one at fault for Iolaus injury.

"If I hadn't thrown that guy...if I wasn't so damn strong..."

Iolaus held up his hand.  "Hold it right there.  If you hadn't been there, Nassos' fool plan would have gotten this entire village destroyed."

"I'm leaving."


"Now that you're going to be okay, I've got to go, Iolaus. I can't keep putting people in danger."  Hercules hadn't realized how hard this was going to be.  "I can't keep putting *you* in danger."

Iolaus made a small sound of disbelief and tried to push himself up.  Groaning, he fell back against the pillows. "If I was able to, I'd get out of this bed and pummel some sense into you.

"You're Hercules.  You aren't ever going to be able to change that, no matter where you go or what you do.  You tried that once before and it didn't work, remember?" Iolaus smiled, even chuckling would have hurt too much.  "Besides, without you here, who'd keep me out of trouble?"  He turned serious, seeing the morose look on Hercules' face.

"Okay, so you messed up. It happens, Herc.  Even to you.  You'll just have to be more careful next time."

Hercules didn't look quite convinced, but at least he was listening.  Elina decided to return at that point to shoo Hercules from the room.  "He's had enough for now.  Let Iolaus get some rest."

She tucked the covers firmly around the hunter and smoothed back his golden curls. "Sleep now, Iolaus.  I'll wake you when it's time to eat."

Grabbing Hercules by the arm, she tugged him into the kitchen.  "Sit."

Elina bustled about, putting a kettle of water on for tea before taking out vegetables for stew.  Hercules could smell the stew meat boiling in a miniature vat over the fire.  Gesturing with her knife at the demigod before setting herself to her task, Elina commented, "He's right, you know.  You aren't perfect."

Hercules lifted blue eyes to her.  "I know."

She snorted.  "A perfect man would be offering to help with dinner."

He jumped up from the table and took the knife from her hand.  Wiping her hands on her apron, Elina continued, "And you'll never be perfect, Hercules. No one is. Not even the gods."

There was no response but the rhythmic sound of the knife slicing though the various root vegetables Elina had placed on the counter.  The healer shrugged.  Hercules had to work this out on his own.

Later that afternoon, after the three had enjoyed bowls of the hearty stew, Elina left to check on the other soldiers. She also wanted to stop by and visit with Kaethe, she had told the men before she left.  

The cottage was quiet.  Iolaus was watching Hercules as Hercules stared out the window.  

"I know I'm not perfect."

It was a start, thought Iolaus as he waited for more.

"But I hurt you, Iolaus!  Anything else, I could take.  If you had died - " The words caught in his throat as tears brightened Hercules' eyes.

"If I had died, you would have continued to be Hercules, son of Zeus, hero of Greece."  Iolaus grabbed roughly at Hercules' arm.  "Listen to me!  You can't let this change anything."  He pulled until his best friend turned to face him.  

"Well, maybe you can let it change one thing."  At Hercules' questioning glance, he continued. "Next time you'll look before you make someone leap."

A feminine giggle caused both men to start with surprise.  "Aphrodite?" called Iolaus.  "Is that you?"

A shower of pink sparkles coalesced into the form of the Goddess of Love.  "The one and only, Curly.  Glad to see you're feeling better."  She turned to Hercules with a grin. "Hera's having a major hissy fit, of course."

"Over what this time?"

She giggled again.  "See, Iolaus is kind of known for being a really bad patient, right? So, Morpheus put him into a majorly deep sleep so Iolaus wouldn't be any problem for Elina to deal with.  You know, so he'd take his medicines and all and not fuss.  Dad said that since Morpheus was helping Elina and not Iolaus or you, no rules were broken."

It was clear that the goddess was taking a fair amount of pleasure in the way the rules had been circumvented.  Hercules suspected that it was his sister who had persuaded Morpheus to help out.

"Thanks, Aphrodite."  He meant it.  Hercules walked over and gave his sister a hug.

"Yeah. Thanks, Aphrodite," echoed Iolaus as he watched the two siblings.  "And thank Morpheus for me, would you?"

"Of course, I will.  Now, I've got to get going.  Places to go, offerings to gather and all that.  Toodles!"  With a flash of light, she was gone again.  Only her voice remained to admonish, "And Herc, you've gotta stop beating yourself up over this."

As her words faded, Iolaus turned serious.  "Can you stop beating yourself up over this, Herc?"

"I don't know, Iolaus."

"Will you at least try?"

Hercules sat down on Iolaus' bed.  "I'll try. But what happens the next time?"

"Like I said, the next time you'll look.  Learn from this and move on."

"You're beginning to sound like Cheiron," accused Hercules lightly.  

"You'll let me know if I sprout a tail and four legs, won't you?"  Iolaus tossed back with a yawn.  He snuggled down into the covers and was soon fast asleep.

Hercules sat there a while longer, contemplating all that had transpired over the past few days. They had been extremely lucky this time, he was sure of that. He vowed silently that nothing like this would ever happen again.  Hercules patted Iolaus' shoulder before he stood up to leave. The hunter needed peace and quiet to heal up before their next adventure.  Learn from this and move on, he repeated Iolaus' words in his head.

Before stepping out into the golden glow of the late afternoon sun, Hercules paused with his hand on the door. He looked back at the slumbering form, grateful that the brother of his heart was going to be okay.  The pain in his heart remained, however.

Iolaus had forgiven him, but it would take a while longer for Hercules to forgive himself.  


Go on to the next story in the challenge.

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