Guilt and Friendship

by Ziggy

Hercules' long stride carried him swiftly over the hilly countryside; the early evening breeze ruffled his long, light brown hair as he strode towards his best friend's house. Earlier in the day, having finished his chores, the son of Zeus had lamented to Deianeira how he hadn't seen Iolaus in a long while and wondered how he was faring with Ania and their son.

Knowing her husband would continue to reflect about the situation instead of actually doing anything about it, Deianeira had sent him on his way to visit Iolaus. Very pregnant with their third child, she didn't feel up to visiting herself, but had insisted their two boys, Klonus and Aeson, stay at home this one time and allow their father to enjoy some time alone with his oldest and closest friend.

As he crested a small rise about half a klick from Iolaus' property, Hercules noticed thick, black smoke reaching from the horizon a couple of hills beyond. Curiosity quickly became extreme concern as the demigod realized the only place the dangerous-looking smoke could be coming from was Iolaus' house.

Hercules broke into a run, his demigod strength allowing him a ground-eating stride surpassed byscant few full-mortals. As he reached the top of the last hill, Hercules felt fear clutch at his heart when he spotted the small house totally engulfed in flame. Panic ran his blood cold when he didn't see anybody outside the structure. As he quickly closed the distance between himself and the homestead, the half-god hoped that it meant Iolaus and his family were not at home.

That fleeting ray of hope was dashed when he heard Iolaus' frantic shout from inside the house. The yell was filled with more fear than Hercules had ever heard in his best friend's voice. "Ania! Andros!"

The demigod ripped the door from its hinges and tossed it aside. He paused just inside the doorway to access the situation. One of the main structural beams had fallen in the middle of the main living area; Ania and Andros lay pinned beneath the heavy beam as Iolaus, frantically tried to lift it clear. Iolaus was unaware in his current state of mind that the beam was too much for him to handle alone. Pieces of flaming thatch fell from the ceiling and wooden furniture burned around him, but Iolaus was oblivious to all but his trapped family, oblivious even to the fact that the entire roof was on the verge of crashing down on top of him.

All this Hercules registered in the split-second pause before he leapt into action. "Iolaus!" he shouted as he dodged the hot, licking tongues of fire. Acting instinctively, the bigger man grabbed his friend by the belt with one hand, tightened his other fist in the blue fabric of Iolaus' tunic, then swept him off his feet and tossed him out the open door. Secure in the knowledge that the blond was out of immediate danger, Hercules turned to his friend's wife and five-year-old son.

Quickly, he moved forward and reached for the fallen beam. "Ania!"

Holding her small, unconscious son to her, the dark-haired woman looked up at her husband's best friend. "Hercules?" She coughed, the fear in her eyes genuine. "Where's Iolaus?"

"He's safe, let's get you out of here, okay?" he smiled abit in reassurance. "I'm going to lift the beam."

She nodded, glancing at the heavy wood that lay across her back and Andros' legs. When she returned her gaze to the demigod, he saw complete trust in her brown eyes. Carefully, he grabbed the beam with both hands and effortlessly lifted it waist-high. Before he could toss it aside, he felt something within the wood give and his grip loosened suddenly.

Realizing the support beam had been weakened when it had fallen and he would not be able to hold it up much longer, much less toss it aside, he hollered, "Ania! Move! Now!"

Ania struggled. "I-I can't! My legs won't move! Hercules! Help us!"

Before Hercules could act or even speak, the beam snapped in two. The pieces fell from the demigod's hands; all Hercules could do was watch in horror as the section poised above Iolaus' family dropped back onto its helpless victims.

"Gods, no!" Hercules whispered to himself in dread. He reached down to remove the beam again, hesitating when he noticed the blood coming from Ania's nose and mouth, Andros' crushed skull. A quick touch revealed no sign of life from either and Hercules knew they were both dead. Tears sprang unheeded from the big man's eyes as he stared, dumbstruck, at the bodies of his best friend's wife and son.

Iolaus picked himself up from where he'd been tossed out of the house. He shook his head slightly to clear it, then jumped quickly to his feet, preparing to race back inside to help rescue his family. The blond hesitated when he saw Hercules stumble out of the burning building. The adulation of loved ones having been saved a nasty death was swiftly replaced by stark terror when he realized the demigod had come out alone. Hercules placed his hands on his knees and gasped as he filled his burning lungs with fresh air. Before Iolaus could question his friend, however, the roof of the house collapsed, a shower of sparks, ash and flame puffing outward.

A loud, frantic scream rent the late afternoon air and Iolaus realized it was his own.

"ANIA!! ANDROS!!"

Quickly, Hercules lifted his head. He reacted swiftly, reaching out to grab his distraunt friend before he could rush back into what was left of the flame-gutted building. Despite his own injuries, Iolaus struggled against the stronger man's grasp.

"Iolaus, no!"

"Herc, let go! I have to save them!"

Hercules felt Iolaus fight even more strongly against in his grip, so he grabbed his friend by the collar of his tunic and shook him slightly. "NO, IOLAUS! You can't!" When the blond looked up to meet his gaze, the demigod had to swallow heavily before speaking. His friend's face was dirty and bore several burn marks. Blood oozed from a cut above his right eye. The blue eyes brimmed with unshed tears. Tears from the smoke and tears of worry. "They're gone. There's nothing you can do."

"Gone? But you--"

"I tried. I even lifted the beam with no problem, but Ania couldn't move and before I could do anything else, the beam broke and they..." Mournful, Hercules trailed off, unable to finish. "I'm sorry, Iolaus, I'm so sorry."

But Iolaus didn't appear to be listening. The blond just stared at the remains of his house. Slowly, he sunk to his knees, exhaustion and pain evident in his movements; however, his gaze never wavered from what was left of his life. The main blaze, having eaten most of what fueled it, left remnant fires here and there to digest the rest.

Unsure of what to do, Hercules walked towards the barn, too far away to have gotten caught in the blaze that had claimed the house. There he picked up an old horse blanket, some scraps of cloth, a bucket and dipper. Before he could fill the pail with water from the rain barrel, he heard an anguish-filled wail.

"NOOOO!!!"

Dropping the items, the demigod raced back outside. There he found Iolaus, head held back, screaming to the blue sky. The blond hunter continued to howl denials even when Hercules fell beside him and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. After several minutes, Iolaus finally stopped yelling and dropped his head, shifting slightly to bury his face into his best friend's shoulder.

Hercules held the smaller man as he sobbed. Minutes passed, but still Iolaus wept, the torrent of tears soaking through his friend's yellow tunic. Hercules spoke not a word, allowing his presence to be the balm that cradled the other's emotions as this first, intense wave of grief washed over him. As much as he fought to hold back for Iolaus' sake, the demigod felt his own tears of grief slip from his eyes and roll slowly down his face, only to disappear into the golden hair below his chin.

It was only when Helios' chariot began to near the horizon that the great heaving sobs slowed and, finally, stopped. Hercules allowed his physically and emotionally exhausted companion to rest against him awhile longer. He raised a gauntlet to wipe away the remaining wetness on his own face before saying softly, "I'm sorry, Iolaus."

Slowly, Iolaus lifted his head and gazed into the bigger man's face. Dried blood caked the cut above his eye; his cheeks were streaked with ash and tears, red burn marks marred his handsome face, but they were marks that would not scar and would heal with time. Anguished, cerulean, hunter eyes locked with sad, blue, demigod eyes.

Suddenly, fire appeared in those cerulean eyes and Hercules could have sworn he heard a low growl in his friend's throat. "You!"

"Iolaus?"

The full mortal pushed himself away from Hercules. He rose swiftly to his feet and glared down at the other. Iolaus' sorrow reflected through the anger etched on his face. "How could you?!"

Confused, Hercules got to his feet. He stepped towards Iolaus, but the blond backed, as if the very thought of being close to the bigger man revolted him. "How could I what?"

"You had to act the big hero, didn't you? Had to take all the glory for yourself! You tossed me aside like a worthless *sidekick*" Iolaus spat the word out like it tasted awful "then tried to rescue Ania and Andros on your own! Only this time, it was too much for even the mighty son of Zeus to handle by himself! That damn beam *broke* and crushed my family!"

Hercules, reeling from the accusations being hurled at him, finally recovered enough to begin, "Iolaus, I..."

"No!" The blond growled, fresh tears streaking his dirty face. "I don't want to hear your lame excuses! My family's dead because you had to show-off, had to lift that beam all by yourself, instead of finding another way, a more *mortal* way of getting that beam off them! Save your excuses! Tell 'em to Ania and Andros on the Other Side!"

Whirling, Iolaus stalked off towards the barn, stumbling slightly as he forced exhausted muscles to work. Still unsure what had set off his best friend, Hercules followed, closing the distance with a few long strides. "Iolaus, please, I didn't-"

The blond continued walking. "Leave me alone!"

Hercules reached out and gripped Iolaus' shoulder gently. "Iolaus-"

Iolaus spun, shrugging off the hand offered in comfort. He planted himself before the son of Zeus: a compact, defiant figure. "Ania and Andros are dead, what more do you want?"

"And you almost with them," the demigod replied, trying to remain calm. Iolaus' lack of understanding was frustrating; Hercules tried to remember Iolaus was in the throes of grief and didn't mean what he said. "You were too caught up trying to rescue them to realize the danger *you* were in, my friend!"

"It doesn't matter any more! Everything that meant anything to me is gone!" The hunter shouted in anguish. He retreated a couple of steps, throwing up his hands in a 'stay back' gesture. "Just-go away!"

Hercules grabbed his friend's wrists, holding them up. Iolaus' hands were red and blistered from the fire. "Let me take care of your hands for you."

Iolaus twisted roughly out of the hold. "No! Read my lips, Hercules." He pronounced the words carefully, voice trembling. "Leave. Me. Alone." Before anything else could be said, he pivoted on a boot heel and walked away.

This time Hercules did not pursue, only watched his friend retreat into the barn. He remained where he was, uncertain how to proceed, hoping the blond would reemerge. After a few minutes, it became apparent Iolaus had no intention of returning. Hercules glanced at the swiftly darkening sky, the gutted-out remains of Iolaus' house, then back at the barn entrance. Knowing it would do no good to go after the hunter at this time, he sighed then whispered, "I'm here if you need me, my friend" before turning slowly and heading towards his own home.

Tears rolling down his face, Iolaus watched Hercules walk away. His gaze shifted to take in what was left of his home then, dropping his head, he briskly turned away from the wide barn entrance, plodded over to the horse's stall and fell into the fresh straw. Straw he'd been laying in the empty stall just before the fire had broken out.

The fire. Ania's screams. Andros' crying. The vision swam before Iolaus' closed eyes. He couldn't get the sounds of their desperate cries out of his mind. They were looking up at him with pleading eyes. 'Help us, Iolaus!' 'Help us, Daddy!' But he couldn't move the beam... maybe he could have, given time, but he wasn't given that time. Hercules had come; Hercules had tossed him aside as if he were inconsequential; Hercules had to prove, once again, what a big hero he was; Ania and Andros had died because the mighty son of Zeus had to prove himself once more...

"Damn you, Hercules!" Iolaus screamed. He rolled over, his stomach on the straw. Once again, hot tears spilled from his eyes and he sobbed, tucking his head into the crook of his right arm as he pounded the hay with his left fist. He ignored the pain in his further abused, burned hands. Not long afterwards, the sound of his own weeping lulled him into an exhausted sleep.

The tears had started again. Iolaus tried dashing them away, but more always spilled over to replace the previous ones. Except for the crumbled remains of the stone fireplace, a couple pieces of iron cookware and Iolaus' now-ruined sword, the rest of the house and their possessions was now no more than ashes. Iolaus kicked aside some of the larger, charred pieces with a booted foot. The awkward bandages wrapped around the palms of his hands made shifting things by hand difficult. His hands throbbed dully from the previous day's abuses, but he ignored the pain, figuring it was barely just punishment for his being unable to rescue the two people who depended on him for protection.

Near the ruined fireplace, Iolaus' investigations had turned up a small, wooden carving of a sheep. The now-blackened toy had been a solstice gift, hand-carved by Iolaus (a major accomplishment, since Iolaus never considered his whittling skills to be worth much), and had been one of Andros' favorites. Iolaus cradled the toy to him as he thought of his son's expressive face, his bright blue eyes, his sun-kissed hair and his sheer joy with life. Ania always said Andros was the spitting image of his father; Iolaus had vowed to give him all the happiness he himself had lacked as a child.

The grieving warrior finally approached the center of the living area. He had intentionally avoided the spot, for this was where his family had died and still lay. Blinking back his tears, he gently lifted the incinerated remnants of the beam and tossed it aside. The burned remains of Ania and Andros now lay fully exposed. Iolaus quickly turned away. He fell to his knees and promptly lost what little breakfast he'd eaten.

"Iolaus!"

Lifting his head, the blond saw Hercules swiftly approaching. Concern etched the demigod's face as he knelt beside the smaller man.

Iolaus sprang to his feet and backed a few steps. "What do *you* want?"

Hercules stood slowly. The anger in his friend's voice was so thick it was practically a tangible thing. Hesitantly, he replied, "I came to help."

"I don't need or want *your* help!"

"Iolaus, let me help! Let me be here for you!"

"Let you be here for me?" The hunter's voice dripped sarcasm. "Like you helped Ania and Andros? You want to take me out, too, huh?"

"No, I just want to help."

"Fine! You can help by leaving me alone! Go home to *your* wife, *your* kids! *They're* still alive! Let me bury *mine* in peace!"

"Iolaus-" Hercules entreated, the pain and anger in his friend's eyes hurting worse than any words spoken.

"Go on! Get out of my sight, you...murderer!"

*That* word struck Hercules like a knife to his heart. He'd spent most of the previous night lying awake, worried about Iolaus and wondering if he *could* have done anything different that might have saved Ania and Andros' lives instead of ending them. Shocked, he stared at the fierce sparks flashing in Iolaus' blue eyes and abruptly wondered if this was the end of their friendship. It was a revelation that hurt the demigod more than any thing the gods had thrown at him so far.

Lowering his eyes, Hercules slowly backed away. He turned and walked off, moisture collecting in his own eyes. He had saved Iolaus' life, but his friend had still been taken from him. Maybe forever.

Later that day, Hercules sat on the small rise overlooking Iolaus' property. Near a small grove of trees by a meandering stream, Iolaus had dug two graves. Now the blond was on his knees beside them and, even from this distance apart, Hercules' keen eyes could see his shoulders shaking as he wept.

There was nothing more Hercules wanted to do than be there for Iolaus, to let his presence help the smaller man through this rough tract in his road of life. The son of Zeus and Alcmene knew, however, that Iolaus would just angrily send him away. His grief and anger were overwhelming any other feelings and thoughts, so all Hercules could do was watch from a distance and hope that, somehow, Iolaus sensed his childhood friend's presence and knew he cared.

Tears coursed down Hercules' face. He'd loved Iolaus' wife and son, too, and felt their loss. Not as much as Iolaus, of course. Nobody could ever match the intensity with which Iolaus experienced emotions-- joy, love, sorrow, anger. Anything Iolaus felt, he felt with his whole being. It was just the passionate way the man was. Hercules just never expected that intensity to be directed negatively towards him.

He sighed. "Goodbye, Ania. Goodbye, Andros. I'll look after Iolaus for you."

Silently, he added, *If he'll let me.*

Several weeks and just as many rebuffs from Iolaus later, Hercules finished brushing down his draft horse for the night and put away his tools. Scooting Aeson and Klonus on their way to the house, he paused at the gate and looked up at the threatening storm clouds that were blowing in from the west. The dark, roiling clouds reminded him of Iolaus' mood of late. Uncertain. Volatile. Unforgiving.

"Hercules?"

The demigod turned slightly as Deianeira approached. Deianeira: his calm port in the wildly blowing sea that was Iolaus' current mood. He reached out to her, pulling her close.

"Dinner's ready." She gazed into his troubled eyes. "It's Iolaus," she stated, as if reading his mind. "You're worried about him."

"Yes," the son of Zeus agreed. He traced a finger the length of her bare arm. "I don't know what to do. He won't talk to me, won't listen. He's always been stubborn, but this is the worst I've ever seen him. I want to help," Hercules sighed, frustrated, "but he won't let me!"

Deianeira ran her hand lightly across his shoulder. "He's grieving, darling. We all grieve in our own way. He always did try to work things out by himself."

"He blames me."

A look of confusion crossed Deianeira's beautiful face. "Blames you?"

"Yes, for Ania and Andros' deaths." Hercules stared at the dark, menacing clouds. "Maybe he's right. Maybe if I hadn't tried to act the 'big hero' and not picked up that beam all by myself, they'd still be alive."

"You did what you could, Hercules. If you hadn't tried, Iolaus would be dead right now, too. Iolaus will come to see that with time. Right now, he's just trying to understand it all."

"I know, but all I want to do is knock some sense into him!"

"Give him some time."

Hercules shifted his gaze back to his wife. "And if that doesn't work?"

Deianeira smiled. "Then you can knock some sense into him."

Deianeira stopped in front of the small nondescript building. She'd heard rumors during the last week that Iolaus had sold his land and most of his livestock, then bought the old rundown forge, with its attached living quarters, from its previous owner. It had been many weeks since either she or Hercules had seen the blond. The last time Hercules had ventured out to see how his friend was faring, he was met with such hostility he came home totally devoid of any hope of getting through to Iolaus. Between chores, fussing over Deianeira now close to term with the baby and the couple instances that required the kind of help only Hercules could provide, the couple's only news of Iolaus had been whatever gossip was making the rounds in the marketplace.

Clutching the small basket laden with fresh food, Deianeira approached the forge's outside door and paused to peek inside. Iolaus was scrutinizing some tools of the blacksmith trade, muttering to himself as he evaluated their condition.

"Are you the man we see if we need a new plow?" she queried, keeping her voice light.

Iolaus whirled, nearly dropping the heavy hammer on his foot. He leapt aside before it connected, then quickly regained his composure. "Deianeira! What are you doing here? Should you be out in your condition?"

"I'm fine, Iolaus! By the gods, you fuss as badly as Hercules!" The teasing words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. She kicked herself mentally when she glimpsed the flash of pain that crossed his face. Quickly, she remarked as she gestured to the basket, "I brought you some fresh vegetables, fruit and bread."

"You didn't have to do that," he said.

"I wanted to."

"Oh! Here! Let's sit down!" Iolaus hustled her through a small door into the living area. The room was small with a small fireplace by one wall, a large bed near it taking up one corner, a table and some chairs in another corner. Wooden shelves with few items on them bracketed the walls. Iolaus' larger weapons--a new sword, his bow and a quiver of arrows--were leaning against another corner.

Quickly, Iolaus swept the leftover remains of his lunch off the table; he stacked them on another, smaller table before offering her a seat. He took the basket from her as she sat down and peeked under the linen cloth covering the food.

"Thanks, Deianeira. This was really nice of you." Noticing her giving his new home the once-over, he added, "It's not much, needs a lot of fixing up, but I figured it's time I used some of my other skills. Well, you know how bad I was at farming. I never could get anything to grow." His voice softened abit. "Besides, I couldn't stay there any longer. Too many memories."

Deianeira smiled sadly. "It's okay, Iolaus," she stated as she took one of his hands in her own. "You loved Ania and Andros very much. They would want you to be happy. I'm sure you'll do well as a blacksmith." When Iolaus only nodded, she took the opportunity presented to her. "We've been worried about you."

"I just needed some time to myself," the hunter stated, trying to sound as if they'd had nothing to be concerned about. He paced a few steps away, then turned and looked at her. "Time to think about... things."

"We understand. Hercules feels really bad about what happened. He wishes he could change things."

"I-I know it wasn't Hercules' fault they died," Iolaus remarked, blue eyes bright with welling tears. "I guess I was just so angry that I blamed their deaths on the first thing I could think of and that was Hercules telling me the beam he'd lifted had broken and fallen on them."

"He knows that, Iolaus," Deianeira answered softly, "but he also knew you needed some time to work things out for yourself."

The hunter laughed bitterly. "I didn't give him much choice. The couple times he came around to help, I let him have it verbally. I came so close to hitting him, Deianeira, I just wanted to lash out at somebody, *anybody,* and Hercules made the mistake of being there." He paused, turning away from his best friend's wife. "It wasn't Hercules' fault. He was only trying to help. I know that."

Deianeira cocked her head as she regarded the blond. There was something in his voice, something that suggested that there was more than just what Iolaus was saying. She patted the chair next to her. "Iolaus, come, sit."

He shifted to gaze at her. Slowly, he obeyed, but he studied his fingers, unable to look into her face. "Ania wasn't feeling well that day, so when she put Andros down for a nap, she took one, too. I started up a fire and put water on to heat, planning on making a cup of tea for her after I finished doing my chores in the barn. I left the flint on the floor instead of putting it back on the mantle. When I realized the house was on fire, I rushed in to save them. The flint-" Iolaus paused as salty tears coursed slowly down his face. "The flint was in Andros' h-hand. He must have woken up while Ania was still sleeping, f-found it and used it." Iolaus raised his head, finally meeting Deianeira's gaze. "*I* killed Ania and Andros. Because I didn't put the flint out of Andros' reach. It was *me,*, and I blamed my best friend!"

Deianeira reached out with a hand and cupped Iolaus' face. "It was an accident! It wasn't your fault, anymore than it was Hercules'." When Iolaus started to pull away, she tightened her grip marginally, just enough to hold his attention. "Are you listening to me, Iolaus?" She punctuated the next words very precisely. "It. Wasn't. Your. Fault."

"But-"

"No 'buts'!"

Iolaus held her gaze for a long moment, then he smiled slightly. "I understand now why Hercules married you."

Deianeira caught the lightness to the tone of his voice. She returned the smile. Yes, Iolaus was going to be just fine. She leaned forward and pecked his cheek. "I figure if I can handle him, I can handle you."

Iolaus gently grasped her hand, then kissed it. "Thanks."

"Why don't you come for dinner?"

"I-I can't, Deianeira. There's no way I can face Hercules after the way I treated him," he ducked his head in shame.

"Iolaus, he understands. He cares about you."

The hunter rose to his feet, pacing away from his friend's wife. "I know, but I'm not ready to face him yet. Besides, I have a lot of cleaning up to do here." He gestured about him, his movements as weak as his excuse. "Thanks for the invite. Maybe someday I'll come, but not now." *Maybe not ever,* he thought. *How can I look at Herc after the Tartarus I put him through? After all those nasty things I said to him?*

Deianeira stood awkwardly. She hadn't missed the flash of distress that crossed the warrior's face. She'd grant the wish he thought he wanted and leave him alone. For now. But this was far from over.

Iolaus pushed one last time, the anvil moving just slightly. He paused, wiping his sweaty brow with the back of his right hand. If there was *ever* a time he could use Hercules' strength...

"Need a hand?"

Iolaus whirled at the familiar voice. "Herc! What are you-" Realizing what he was about to say, he quickly corrected, "I mean, how are you?"

Hercules was leaning against the door that led directly outside. "I was just in the area..." he stopped, then continued, "Well, actually, Deianeira said you could use some help getting the place organized." He stepped inside, making a show of checking the forge over with a critical eye. He made a face. "A little cleaning, some rearranging, yeah, it'll be do-able." His gaze fell on his friend. "Especially if you put as much enthusiasm into it as you do everything else."

"Well, I figured it was time I put those blacksmithing skills I learned at the Academy to use." Iolaus stepped forward. "It's great to see you again, Hercules," he said sincerely as he held out his hand.

Smiling, Hercules clasped his hand about Iolaus' forearm as his friend returned the gesture. "It's great to be on speaking terms with you again, my friend."

Iolaus' eyes clouded over. He quickly bowed his head to hide the pain. "Yeah, I, um, I owe you a big apology, Hercules. I shouldn't have blamed you for what happened, you were only trying to save them and me. I didn't mean all those things I'd said." He grimaced again as he recalled some of the very mean words he'd thrown at his oldest friend. "I'm sorry."

"You were grieving, Iolaus. You were angry and confused. I understand." The demigod laid an arm around the smaller man's shoulders. "If I hadn't acted so hastily, there may have been another way and we could have-"

"No," Iolaus lifted his head, "don't. Don't knock yourself out with 'what ifs,' Herc. It won't change what happened, it won't bring Ania and Andros back. They'd want me to continue living. I know that now."

"Yeah, they would," Hercules agreed.

"They also wouldn't want me blaming you for what happened. You weren't at fault, ever. Don't blame yourself, my friend, because these things happen. You tried, that's all anybody can do."

The demigod nodded slightly. "You're right."

Iolaus could see by the look in the bigger man's eyes that Hercules would always hold himself somewhat at fault for the death of Ania and Andros. Before he could say anything to lighten the mood, a boy's voice interrupted.

"Dad!"

Hercules caught his son as he stumbled into the forge. "Aeson? What is it?"

The boy gasped for breath a moment, then announced, "Alcmene sent me to find you! Mom's having the baby!"

An uncertain look crossed the big man's handsome features. "Now?"

"Yes!"

"I-" Looking up, Hercules met Iolaus' bemused expression. "Iolaus!"

"Hercules!" The blond matched his friend's half-frantic tone of voice, then encouraged, "Go on! It's not like you haven't been through this before!"

"You're coming?"

The simple question touched Iolaus deeply. He opened his mouth, closed it against the smart-aleck remark he was going to make, then said simply, "Go. This is your time to be with your family. I'll be by later." When his friend nodded, he added mischievously, "When all the screaming's over!"

Hercules paused, then chuckled. "Coward. I'll see you later!"

"You bet, buddy!"

Iolaus stepped into the doorway, sighing as he watched Hercules leave, the demigod practically dragging his excited son by the arm in his rush to get home. Silently, he vowed never to mention his wife or son's names when in the presence of this son of Zeus. For although he had finally forgiven his lifelong friend for the deaths of Ania and Andros, he knew, however, the bigger man would never forgive himself for what happened. And Iolaus cared for Hercules too much to want to cause him more pain than he already felt.

With one final glance at his friend's retreating back, Iolaus turned to enter the forge and the beginning of the next stage in his life...

7/17/99

Special thanks to Adrianne Dailey, who helped me with the idea for this story and tied it to why we never hear Iolaus speak of Ania or his family in the series. I only hope I did her suggestions justice!

Go on to the next story in the challenge.


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