"The Wrong Path Challenge

by Ziggy

"Revenge is all that's left, Hercules." Iolaus remarked when he heard what Hera had done to his best friend's family. "We wage a war against Hera: you and me. We'll turn everything she ever touched into rubble."

"That's for me to do, no one else."

The sharp words confused Iolaus. What was Hercules saying? "I've always helped you before, why not now?"

"It's not your fight, Iolaus. Go home."

"I can't just walk away from you!" he insisted. Why couldn't Hercules see that he *wanted* to be at his side, helping him destroy Hera?

"You can if I ask you to, and that's what I'm doing. Please, just go."

"You're my friend," the blond hunter stated softly as he tried to hold back the tears that threatened to spill.

"And you're mine. The best one I've ever had. That's why I'm asking you to understand."

"All right," Iolaus finally conceded, "but if you ever need me..."

Hercules nodded slightly. "Stay well, Iolaus."

Iolaus nodded dumbly then, head hung, he started to walk away from his best friend. He wasn't even a few meters away when he stopped, turned to look at Hercules. The half-god everybody touted as the strongest man in the known world was rooted in place, staring at his house. His whole being screamed of his grief. Overwhelming, heart-shattering grief.

There was nothing more Iolaus wanted to do at that moment than race back to his friend's side and help him through his pain. But the son of Zeus wished to be alone, so all the blond warrior could do was watch from the sidelines and hope Hercules would take up his offer and come to him.

"Please, Hercules," Iolaus pleaded silently, "I know what you're going through. I can help you through this, if you'll let me. Don't shut me out!"

Hercules, however continued to stand and stare into space, as if he'd closed out the entire world. All Iolaus could do was grant his companion's wish and leave him alone.

The trek back to town was a long one, filled with silence. Not even the birds were singing, as if they, too, were mourning the loss of Hercules' family. Greetings from fellow townsfolk were left unanswered as Iolaus plodded back to his small home and the forge from which he now made a living.

Mechanically, Iolaus tried to continue on with his work, but after a short while, he realized he could do no more. Welling tears blurred his vision before trickling down his cheeks. Swiping them away with his hand only left room for more.

"Why, Zeus? Why?" Iolaus queried aloud. He wasn't really surprised when he didn't get an answer. If he were Zeus, he wouldn't be able to show himself to Hercules, either.

He remembered the first time he met Deianeira, not long after he had wed Ania. Unimpressed with Hercules' fame or kinship to many of the gods, she was the perfect match for the son of Zeus. Iolaus had just been happy that his best friend had finally found somebody to share his life with, even if he *had* ribbed the demigod mercilessly about it for a couple of weeks.

"So now we know what it takes to bring down the mighty Hercules!" he had teased. "The love of a good woman!"

Ania and Deianeira had become close friends which, Iolaus chuckled ruefully at the thought, had been a good thing since they saw each other so much because of their husbands' friendship. The women's relationship turned out to be a gift from the gods when both couples started families.

It was Deianeira's strength that had helped Ania through the grief of loss of their first two children...the first, a daughter, was stillborn; Ania had miscarried halfway through the second pregnancy. Though Iolaus had been there and done his best to console his wife, it was Deianeira's presence that really helped her get through the tough times. Being a woman, she understood what Ania was going through more than Iolaus could.

Even when Ania managed to go full term with the third pregnancy (during which Iolaus treated Ania with so much gentleness that she finally yelled at him that she wasn't going to break) and delivered a healthy son, Hercules and Deianeira, who'd only had the two boys at the time, insisted they were still a part of *their* family. Iolaus had been grateful because Ania had so wanted to give Iolaus many children, but the hunter had insisted they would remain a single-child couple, as he would not endanger his pretty wife just to prove himself. So, when Ilea was born, she was doted on by two sets of guardians.

After the deaths of Ania and Andros, Iolaus became even more close to his friend's family. He treated the demigod's trio of offspring like his own. Klonus, in particular, seemed to have the knack for hunting and tracking that Iolaus had hoped Andros might have had if he'd lived long enough to join his father in those activities.

And now, his surrogate family was gone as well, destroyed by Hera in her war against Hercules. Damn the witch to Tartarus! Why did she insist on harming Hercules every time the demigod turned around? Didn't she have better things to do with her immortal life?

To top it all off, Hercules insisted on handling his revenge against the Queen of the gods alone. Though he understood Hercules' reason for not allowing him to help him in getting revenge on Hera, the rejection still hurt. The demigod didn't understand Iolaus' own need for vengeance; how he, too, felt the need to get back at Hera.

Iolaus realized tears were flowing unheeded down his face. Abruptly, he tossed aside the weapon he'd been forging. The half-finished sword clattered loudly against the far wall before dropping to the dirt floor. The hunter ran a shaky hand through his sweat-dampened blond locks as he tried to get his emotions under control.

He needed something to help calm him down.

He needed a drink.

After a quick clean-up, he slipped on his blue vest and clipped his belt around his waist, then headed over to the tavern where he and Hercules had defeated the bandits...was it just last night? The owner/barkeep greeted him warmly, even offered him a free tankard of ale for his help the night before. Iolaus accepted with a silent nod as he eased into an open place by the bar.

He was on his second refill, lost in reflections of the past few years, when he heard the barkeep say, "Hercules? You better watch what you say, friend. He's a hero!"

Another, more bitter, male voice answered, "How can you call this Hercules a hero? He's too busy ravaging his own home to help anybody! Must be crazy! You people think it doesn't matter because the blood of Zeus runs in his veins..."

As the man spoke, Iolaus felt all his grief and rage well up inside him like a volcano ready to erupt. Angrily, he slammed down his tankard. "Hey!" he growled, then slowly turned to face the person who dared to bad-mouth his best friend. "Why don't you pipe down 'til you know what you're talking about!"

As his conversation with Lycus of Ister continued, Iolaus realized he was given the chance not only to help Hercules but, by taking down the She-Demon, he would find a way to get back at Hera, as well...

9/25/99

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