Iolaus backed fearfully around the corner into the courtyard, fleeing fearsome specter of his decrepit, drooling self. He yelped and spun at the sound of a voice speaking his name, and his heart nearly burst with relief when he saw Hercules, smiling down at him.
"Herc! Thank the gods you got here! Watch out, though; he'll kill us!"
"Who'll kill us?" Hercules' voice was warm and calm, his smile gentle.
"Me! Well, it's not really me, but, it's going to be me."
"Iolaus. You're babbling."
"No! I'm not! He'll kill us!"
"Iolaus, listen to me. None of that matters any longer," Hercules caught his terrified gaze and held it with his own soft eyes, "I'm here to tell you that I've passed over to the Other Side. No one can hurt me, not any longer."
"You ... you're dead?"
"No! Hercules, no! You can't be dead!" Iolaus shook his head vehemently, tears starting in his eyes, "Dead? How? When?" He began to tremble visibly, his face blanching, and his voice lowered to a shaken, disbelieving whisper, "Dead. What will I ..."
Then, his expression changed, and he grinned uncertainly.
"Wait a minute. If you're dead, how come you're here? I can see you, hear you. You aren't dead. You shouldn't scare me like that!"
He reached out to clap his friend on the shoulder, and cried out in horror as his hand passed right through him, like a sword through smoke. He jumped backward, awkwardly, almost losing his footing.
"I am dead, my friend," Hercules' deep tones were soothing, "I'm here because I asked Hades for another favor. He let me come back, to get you. If you're willing to join me. Will you come with me, Iolaus? To the Other Side?"
Iolaus stared at him silently for a moment, his wild eyes searching Hercules' face as though imprinting his departed friend's image onto his heart.
"You can do that? Take me with you?" His voice was barely a whisper. "Yes. If you want to come with me. You'll have to give up your life, though."
Iolaus laughed, a joyous, dancing note, despite the tears which had begun to stream down his cheeks.
"Give up my life? Done! Let's go!"
"You're sure? You are willing to die?"
"What kind of a question is that? Come on, let's get it over with," Iolaus cocked his head to one side, giving Hercules a look from the corner of his eye, "Wow. I bet Hades is gonna be grumpy; he keeps having to add me in to inventory, then take me back out. Now he has to add me in again. We'd better stay out of his way for a while. Uh, Herc?"
"Just how am I supposed to do this, anyway?"
Hercules smiled warmly.
"Come with me," He beckoned, leading the way up the stony stairs to the battlements, far above.
"Hercules! Where have you been? I've been worried sick!"
Hercules sighed with relief; his mother was definitely fine. He turned to the others.
"Have any of you seen Iolaus?"
"He and I were searching for you together, but, we got separated. Unless ... Oh, Gods, I hope not," Jason's face reflected his dawning horror.
"Jason, what?" Hercules' voice was strained.
"I, uh, imagined that I found an intruder. I was attacking him; I'm fairly certain that I got in a couple of clean hits. I didn't recognize him, but, what if it was Iolaus?"
Hercules started forward.
"You wounded him? Do you remember where you were? Quickly, take me there."
As it turned out, little searching was required; when they entered the passageway, they found a blood trail, leading outside. Hercules turned to Jason.
"Stay here, with the others, and search the house, in case we're wrong. I don't know what state of mind Iolaus will be in, but, it probably won't be good. If he knows that you were the one who was attacking him .... Shout for me if any of you locates him; if we don't find him soon, he'll go mad. Unless he's already ..." Unable to finish that thought, even silently, Hercules turned and hurried outside.
As soon as Hercules reached the courtyard, led by the crimson droplets, his eye was caught by movement, high up on the walls. He straightened and shaded his eyes against the fiery, setting sun. A compact, defiant figure, mounting the battlements. Iolaus. The sun's rays made a blinding nimbus of his disheveled hair as he stared at the courtyard, far below.
"Iolaus! Iolaus, wait!" Hercules flew to the steps, mounting them three at a time, launching himself toward his friend, his lips moving in a soundless plea to any god who might hear him.
Iolaus turned to the man at his side.
"Look, it's you!"
'Hercules' looked down at the figure rushing furiously toward them.
"No, Iolaus. I'm right here. Step off. Step into the Other Side."
Iolaus blinked back hot tears, watching the man mounting the steps.
"He looks so much like you. So strong, so sure. He looks like he's bent on rescuing someone. As usual. I know; I'm seeing a memory! So, this is what they mean by your life flashing before your eyes when you die. Funny, nothing like this happened the other times; I just died. Hey, this is so real! I can hear him breathing."
Hercules reached the battlement and looked up at his friend, feeling the icy claws of fear sinking into his spine. A bloody cut had stained Iolaus' right arm crimson, and another gleamed redly through the slashed leather covering his thigh. His pupils were so enlarged that only a thin rim of blue remained to line the desolate blackness of his gaze, and his face was tearstained.
"Iolaus. Iolaus, come down."
"What ... Oh, you mean step off. I'm going to. You know, Herc; life has been great to me. I've had so many adventures, so much joy. But, I'm glad to be leaving it behind. I couldn't bear to be left to wander in this world, without you. Gods. Listen to me. What does it matter; one more step, and we'll be together forever, right?"
His glowing smile struck straight to Hercules' heart. The demigod mustered all of his strength, all of his wits, forcing himself to remain calm, stretching his hand up beseechingly.
"Iolaus. Please, reach down and take my hand."
"Why? I'm ready. If we don't hurry, Hades might change his mind. You know how he gets. What he needs is a little sunshine. Some exercise, fresh air. Remind me to tell him. Hey, wait a minute. Where's the other you?" Iolaus looked around him, confused, then turned his dark gaze back to Hercules' pale face.
"Iolaus. I don't want you to go. I want you to stay here."
Iolaus swayed, his face stricken.
"You don't want me with you? Hercules, don't say that. You can't leave me here. Not alone. Please."
"Iolaus. You must listen to me. I'm here, I'm alive. It's you who will be leaving, if you step off. It's me who would be left alone," Hercules' voice broke on the word, and he swallowed past his fear, "Don't do that to me. If you do, my body will join yours on the courtyard tiles before your soul has even had time to rise. My heart to yours; I promise you," His own tears began flowing freely, as the realization struck him full force. He had spoken nothing but the truth; Iolaus' death was a loss which he could not, would not bear.
Iolaus studied the beloved features staring up at him, then looked down at the courtyard again. He shifted, and Hercules tensed. Then, Iolaus turned back to take the upraised hand in a strong grasp. He jumped down, landing lightly at Hercules' side. Before he could draw a breath, he was caught up in a hug so tight that he felt as though his ribs would crack, his head resting against Hercules' hammering heart. He returned the embrace with interest, savoring the living warmth of his friend. He began struggling after a few moments, though, and Hercules released him with obvious reluctance.
"Whew! Let me catch my breath. You know, you are a demigod; show some compassion for a poor mortal, would you? Does the phrase 'strength of ten' mean anything to you?"
Hercules laughed gleefully, then reached into his shirt and pulled out the golden bit of apple, handing it to Iolaus.
"Here. This is for you."
"Herc. You want me to eat a piece of apple that you've been carrying around in your shirt? Are you nuts?"
"Iolaus. Just eat the damned apple."
"OK, OK. Testy, aren't we?" Iolaus popped the glittering fruit into his mouth and chewed it with gusto.
Gradually, his eyes cleared, impossible blue overtaking inky black, and he stood, staring up at Hercules. Then, he turned, and looked down at the courtyard. Hercules rested his hands on Iolaus' broad shoulders in a warm, supportive grasp. For a long, silent moment, he was tense beneath Hercules' hands. Slowly, he relaxed, then turned back to meet his friend's concerned eyes.
"I thought ... You were here. You told me that you were dead," for a moment, Hercules feared that Iolaus would fall; he was trembling slightly, and his face was stricken, "I wanted to join you."
"You did join me, my friend. Thank you," Hercules smiled down at him, his eyes still bright with tears, but, this time they were tears of joy.
They stood silently, gathering strength from one another, then turned to head down the stairs, one of Hercules' hands still riding a vest-clad shoulder.
Iolaus shook his head.
"You know, Herc, maybe you're right about birthdays. Maybe we should just leave well enough alone."
Hercules laughed, giddy with relief.
"No, Iolaus; you were right. We need to celebrate with the ones we love. Being another year older, in the company of family and friends, should be a cause for joy. Besides, I realized something very important today."
Guileless blue eyes met his questioningly.
"I'm really not all that old. Compared to some," Hercules grinned.
Iolaus sputtered indignantly as they entered the house.
"Just for that, I'm taking my present back, bud."
"Would you believe me if I told you that you'd already given me the best gift that I could ever have?"
Iolaus attempted, with laudable success, to look disgusted rather than misty.
"Do you have any of that apple left in your shirt? I think you could do with a slice."
And they lived happily ever after ...
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