Beyond the Eastern Horizon

by Arianna

Kneeling on the soft earth, he carefully lifted the young wild violet plants he’d found in the forest that morning from the sacking beside him, and laid the tendrils of roots gently into the hollowed out shallow hole he’d dug in the rich loam, and then packed the dark earth back around them. Reaching for the water jug, he poured just enough to keep the roots wet, but not enough to drown them. Leaning back, he studied his handiwork, satisfied, and then looked up at the marker Hercules had carved, smiling sadly as he swallowed back the lump that tried to fill his throat.

The marker was beautiful, crafted with a patient love to represent all the little things that would capture a boy’s interest…snails, and a mouse, a puppy with floppy ears and gaping grin, a flower and a bird on the wing, a rabbit and a butterfly. Below the carved images was a single name, Telaus…and below that a representation of tears almost obscured by a rainbow. It had been painted with bright colours, and was perfect. Hercules wasn’t always good with words, not when there were so many that they filled his throat, choking him with emotion. But, he’d wanted to show how deeply he’d love the boy…and, he’d wanted to do this for the boy’s father.

Iolaus blinked and looked up into the trees that shaded this quiet place and the three plots that sheltered here behind his cottage. It was peaceful, almost serene. There was a view from this spot, down over the back of his land to the valley and the forest, the sparkle of the creek in the distance. Once upon a time, he’d had a swing for two standing on this spot, for his beloved wife, Ania and himself, and he’d dug a small box of earth out of the ground to fill with sand for a child’s play area.

Smiling to himself, Iolaus remembered how one evening as they’d sat here peacefully rocking in the swing, he’d teased Ania about his intention to name all his sons ‘Iolaus’. She’d giggled at his nonsense, but then had turned to him, love shining in her eyes as she’d told him there would only ever be one ‘Iolaus’ in her heart, so he’d best find another name for their soon to be born child. So they had chosen the name Telaus together, a strong name, but one that also held a sense of peace and compassion in its sound. It was here, to this spot, where they had all come when they were happiest, when Telaus was just learning how to stand and walk, and later, when Ania was gone, where he and Telaus planned out their days, and shared their stories, their thoughts and hopes, simple family times that had meant so much.

And, now, his family was all here, would forever be here, on the crest of the hill, in the shade of the old trees that rustled gently in the perpetual breeze that graced these heights.

Sniffing, he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, then rinsed the earth from his hands and standing, he picked up the sacking and the now empty chipped, clay jug to return to cottage. It was the silence that got to him the most. Silence…where not so long ago, a child’s riotous giggles and high pitched shouts had filled the air, where years before a gentle woman’s laugh and voice had called out to him, welcoming him home. But, Ania’d been gone almost two years now, dead in childbirth, their second son following her within minutes to the Other Side, leaving their first child in his care. Then, just a week ago, Telaus too had gone to join his mother.

The hunter paused as he reached the edge of the cottage and turned back, leaning on the wooden wall as he gazed at the three raised plots of earth, his mind drifting back a little more than a week in time. He and Hercules had just returned from a hunting trip to replenish their families’ stores of meat. They’d not been gone long, only a couple of days-great days so like the years of old when they’d traveled this land together, before both had settled down and had families. They’d laughed and reminisced, enjoying the time together, a rare pleasure for them to be on their own even if only for a little while. With an ache deep inside and a sudden thickness in his throat, Iolaus recalled how he’d even been happy that he’d decided to leave Telaus behind this time to visit with Alcmene and play with Herc’s lads. To have taken one boy would have meant taking them all…and a serious hunt was no place for a gaggle of laughing boys.

Telaus hadn’t minded, had in fact been excited, seeing it as an adventure of sorts for him, a time away from his father’s supervision, as indulgent as that had always been; a signal that he was growing up and could be trusted to behave himself, even to be of help to Alcmene who was in every respect, his beloved grandmother. He was ten, old enough to be left with Alcmene, who’d loved him like her own grandchildren and his father had not worried about him, knowing he’d be having the time of his life playing with Herc’s kids at their place near Alcmene’s home. No, Iolaus hadn’t worried at all, laughing as he’d hugged his son good-bye, ordering him to be good with mock sternness as he’d ruffled the lad’s dark hair and turning back once to wave before striding over the fields toward the forest with Hercules.

But, when they’d returned, Alcmene had greeted them with a pale, haunted face, her lips trembling and hands shaking as she wondered how to tell Iolaus how sick his son had fallen only hours after they’d left. Stricken with a terrible fear by the depth of ‘Mene’s distress, he’d pushed past her, and had raced to his son’s side, falling to his knees beside the small cot to pull the fevered child into his arms.

“Poppa,” Telaus had whispered, his fever-dulled eyes lighting up, “you’re home….”

“I’m here, kiddo, and everything’s going to fine,” Iolaus had murmured back, hugging the boy, kissing his hot, dry forehead before laying him back down to stroke his cheek and hold one of his small hands in his own.

But, everything hadn’t been fine. It had just gotten worse, until the fever had devoured the energy from that sturdy little body, leaving the boy wasted and weak, struggling just to breathe. And, then, that struggle, too, had ended. Iolaus had been numb; unable to believe he’d lost his son, that there was nothing he could do to change the devastating reality. Briefly, he’d blamed himself for not having been there when the child fell ill, and he knew Hercules was consumed with guilt as well, as if having been a party to the innocent hunting trip somehow made him culpable, too, though the hunt had been necessary and they both knew that.

Alcmene and Deianeara had whispered solace and reason, helping them both to understand there was nothing they could have done. Terrible things happened. Illnesses stole children away. It was tragic, heartbreaking, but, ultimately, out of their hands. The stark truth of that, however, helped not at all in easing the wretched grief of such a painful loss.

For nights on end during Telaus’ illness and after he had died, Iolaus had had terrible nightmares. He saw fractured images of himself and Hercules battling strange creatures, felt the terrible tearing pain in his gut, saw and felt himself die, only to then be laughing at a dinner table with Ania, Alcmene and Hercules. He heard a harsh, taunting voice, jeering at him, screaming at him, louder and louder … ‘dead men have no families’… and then he saw a peacock feather floating in the darkness.

At first, he didn’t tell anyone. What did a bad dream matter when life itself was a nightmare?

But, two days after they’d buried Telaus, Iolaus had been kneeling by his grave when Alcmene and Hercules had arrived, Herc bearing the marker. His best friend had affixed the wooden memorial in the earth and had stood back, squeezing his shoulder, then had walked away to lean on a tree, silent, unable to speak the words that clogged his throat and blurred his eyes. It had been Alcmene who had knelt by Iolaus and had put an arm around his shoulders, holding him quietly.

Though he didn’t know why, Iolaus found himself sharing the haunting, horrible dream with the mother of his heart. She’d started to quietly reassure him that it meant nothing, was just a dreadful dream, when he’d looked up and seen the horror on Hercules’ face, the stark, terrible awareness of the truth of it in his eyes.

“What?” Shaken by the look on his best friend’s face, Iolaus had interrupted the reassuring stream of words, cutting over Alcmene’s voice. “You know what it means, Herc,” he’d said, not a question because it was only too clear Hercules understood the message of the dream, “…gods, please tell me.”

Hercules had shaken his head, looking away over the valley, a tremor passing through his body and he crossed his arms as if trying to hold some terrible pain inside. Alcmene’s voice had died away, her face filled with confusion and anxiety as she and Iolaus knelt silently, watching Hercules struggle with what to say, whether to say anything at all. But, then, nodding a little as he decided Iolaus had the right to know, he’d looked back and in halting, barely audible words, had told Iolaus about Gargarencia, and all that had happened there. Alcmene had gasped, a hand going to her heart as her other arm tightened around his shoulders. Iolaus had just stared at Hercules for a long moment after his buddy had stopped speaking, the story tumbling over and over in his mind, matching up with scattered fragments of the dreams.

“That’s why you wouldn’t let me travel with you after that,” Iolaus murmured then, more to himself than to his friend, finally understanding. But, then, the greater understanding of what it all meant crashed over him, and he’d moaned with the pain of it, curling forward onto his knees, his arms wrapped around his body.

Hera hadn’t been able to stop Zeus from rolling back time to punish her for infringing on Artemis’ rights as the goddess of the Amazons, nor had she been able to stop Hercules from helping the village men find their own solution to the domination she’d held over those Amazons. But, she’d had her revenge, after all. ‘Dead men have no families,’ she’d crowed at him in the dream, exultant in her petty triumph. Iolaus had died. Therefore, he could have never married, never had sons. So, she’d taken his family; with brutal suddenness and no warning, she’d killed his wife and his children.

‘Ania, gentle, sweet, Ania…and our children…dead…because of me! Oh gods…oh gods! Nooo…’ Iolaus screamed in the silence of his mind, overwhelmed, horrified, shattered as he absorbed the meaning of the dream.

Utterly devastated, Iolaus understood that the curse would haunt him for the whole of his life. Hera would take anyone he married, any children he might have in the future. It was her promise to him, her curse upon him, and any he woman he might ever love, any children he might ever have.

A shudder ripped through his slight frame, and he gagged with sick revulsion at what she’d done, feeling as though he might be violently ill. Gods, they’d died because of him. He’d thought in those moments that he might well go mad. But, Alcmene had held tightly onto him, and Hercules had come to wrap his arms around the both of them, murmuring brokenly over and over, “I’m sorry, Iolaus…I never meant for this to happen. Oh gods, I’m sorry….”

In his pain and despair, he’d been unable to speak, just rocked back and forth, dimly aware of the keening sound of a soul in torment, rising on the wind around them. But, gradually, he’d realized the sound was coming from him, a lost, lonely wail of horror, and had silenced himself, choking it back. The sun had moved a hand span before he could actually make out their words as they held him, before he was once again aware of the world around him. Gradually, his rocking stilled and, finally, he sighed, a long breath of unutterable despair.

He hadn’t cried, his eyes were dry-the shock was too great, the pain too vast. Hercules’ agonized whispers penetrated the fog, the sound of Alcmene’s anguished sobs of grief…swallowing, Iolaus sighed again, knowing that he was not the only one here who was suffering. The two people with him were all he had left of those he had loved best in the world. He couldn’t bear the sound of their pain on his account.

Swallowing, he’d turned then to Hercules to break into his friend’s litany of sorrow, saying quietly, with unnatural calm, “No, Herc, none of this is your fault. Stop saying you’re sorry. Stop feeling so… responsible. Gods, you gave my life back to me. There is no way you could have known, could have anticipated this, anymore than I could have. She did this, out of malice and anger.”

Hercules bit his lip as he gazed into those incredible blue eyes, seeing the pain that Iolaus was trying so hard to keep inside, but no censure. He looked away, shaking his head a little, overwhelmed by the tragedy, sickened by what Hera had done to Iolaus. Iolaus didn’t blame him, but the demigod couldn’t help wondering if there had been something he could have done, should have realized….

Gods, this was a nightmare.

Iolaus touched Hercules on the shoulder, knowing that nothing he could say would ever make Herc believe that this wasn’t, somehow, his fault. He took a deep breath, steeling himself to face all that it meant…had meant already and would mean for him in the future. His family was gone because a goddess had decided he should be punished for being alive. His eyes turned to gaze on the graves, then lifted to the bright, clear sky, accepting there was nothing more he could ever do for them, filled with unfathomable sorrow that it had been his love that had sealed their fates. Ah gods, they’d been so gentle, so blameless and innocent. And, he’d loved them so much.

“Ania, the kids…Hera can’t hurt them anymore. Nor can she take away the happiness we had together, if only for a while. They are safe from her now. But…I can’t ever let her do this to anyone again. I…” Iolaus’ voice had cracked as he vowed, “I’ll never let Hera kill someone because of me again.”

“Iolaus!” Alcmene had cut in, recognizing what he was saying, that he would never allow himself love, or a family ever again. “You don’t know…you can’t mean….”

But, he’d turned to her, hugging her tightly, unconscious of the tears on his face, as he soothed her, knowing her heart was breaking for him because of her understanding of how much he’d always wanted a family of his own to cherish. “Shhh,” he’d murmured to her, wanting to be strong for them. “It’s all right. I have you, and Hercules, Deianeara and their children to love, and who love me. More family, better family, than many men are ever blessed with. And, I have my memories…she can’t take them from me. I’ll be all right, Alcmene.”

But, she shook her head, denying the brave words, knowing too well the heart of this sensitive, gentle, caring man, knowing the terrible price of loneliness he would pay because of Hera’s horrible curse. He didn’t want Hercules suffering for having saved his life. Didn’t want her or anyone else worrying about him, he never had. “Oh, child,” she whispered brokenly, “you have only ever deserved love…I hate what she’s done to you, and to them.” Alcmene’s eyes slid to the graves and then back to hold his. “I know how much this hurts you, Iolaus…I can’t stand it that I can’t take away the pain.”

It was her love that broke through the fragile barriers he’d hastily built, the walls to contain his own suffering, to hide it and keep it from hurting those who loved him; her love that freed him to grieve the tragedy of it all. A sob rose from the depths of his heart, shuddering through him, shattering him, and he had wept then, burying his face on her shoulder, being rocked in her arms. He wept, for all that was, and was gone, and all that could never be.

Hercules watched, tears streaming down his own face. There was nothing he could do, nothing he could say. Iolaus needed his, their, mother right then, needed to just let himself go. Silently, the big man pushed himself to his feet. He gripped Iolaus’ shoulder for a moment, then turned and walked away.

Shaking his head, Iolaus turned away from the graves, and put the sacking on a pile by the door, carrying the jug inside the cool, dim interior of his small, simple cottage. Leaving the jug on a worktable under a window, he restlessly turned and headed back into the sunlight to cross to the side of his hilltop property to look down the long hill. He could see the road that wound to Thebes in the west and Alcmene’s house, just visible beyond a rise, to the east. Slightly to the north, he could make out the roof of Hercules’ homestead. Leaning on a tree, he stared out across the land, his mind roaming back over the years.

As children, he and Hercules had played over these hills and in the forest beyond. They’d known every blade of grass, every secret hiding place and had shared them, playing, dreaming of the heroes they’d be when they grew up. It had been in that little house just over the rise, that Hercules and Alcmene had saved him with their love, healed wounds both physical and emotional that he’d won at home at the hands of his father. Saved him from becoming lost and bitter, from hating a world that an abused child could so easily only view with anger, could see only as a cold and cruel existence, believing life was a torment, people not to be trusted, afraid to risk love. He learned happiness there, and what it felt like to be safe. He’d found the unconditional love his child’s soul had needed to believe there could be something better in his future than what he’d known in his past. And, when he’d been on the edge, poised between crime and decency, they’d stood by him, rescued him, and set him on the road to the man he’d become. They would never know how much he loved them, or owed them. It was a debt that he’d carry to the grave, and gladly repay with every breath he ever took, knowing it could never be enough.

His eyes lifting to Herc’s homestead, he remembered, with a deep ache of loss, all that they had once shared. There had been a time when they’d been virtually inseparable…‘a time’? Gods, for most of their lives that had been true. Hercules had gifted him with absolute and unconditional trust, abiding and unshakable respect, honoured him with the gift of a friendship that had transformed his life-had in many ways given him a life, a purpose, a worth beyond anything he believed he had ever merited. He still could scarcely believe that Hercules could ever have cared for him so profoundly, but through his constant belief, and Alcmene’s, they had allowed Iolaus to feel some measure of self-respect, blasting away the self-loathing that had haunted his soul.

And, now, he knew that Herc had given him even more. He had been dead. But, Hercules had found a way to bring him back again. Begging his father for a favour he’d never ask for himself, getting Zeus to turn back time and erase the fact that Iolaus had been killed to give him another chance to share in the miracle of life. Hercules had given him the gift of life. Gods, how could he ever repay that, ever be worthy of such a miracle?

And, how had he repaid it?

Iolaus’ head bent and he studied the ground, lost in his thoughts. He and Hercules had been virtually inseparable until Iolaus had met Ania. That was when it had all changed between them. Swept away by something he’d not experienced before, lost in love with the woman with whom he wanted to share his life, Iolaus had thought he owed it to Ania to be faithful to her, and to be there for her. Oh, other men left their wives, their families, for long, even indefinite periods, to travel as merchants or warriors, but Iolaus had grown up in a house where the wife and children had come second and sometimes even seemed to be despised. He’d vowed to himself that his own family would never have cause to doubt his love or loyalty, his commitment to them. When he’d offered Ania his life, he’d meant it in every sense of the word. He didn’t intend to continue his almost constant ramblings with his best friend after he married.

Thinking back, he remembered now that, though he’d shared his decision with Hercules, it had never actually been discussed. Before his marriage, knowing what he knew now, he guessed he’d grabbed the last chance he thought they’d have for one last adventure and insisted on the opportunity of accompanying Hercules to Gargarencia, but, he hadn’t remembered that, not until now. So, so far as he had known, he’d accepted that things had changed and he hadn’t really thought about what his decision had meant to Hercules. After the marriage, Hercules had left, not even having time to say ‘good-bye’ when he’d headed out at dawn the day after, going to Mycenae in response to a summons for help. Iolaus had been oblivious at first, caught up in the euphoria of his love for Ania. But, after a time, while the love never died, he couldn’t help but become aware of how little he saw of Hercules anymore. The next time the demigod had come home, he’d tried to talk about it with his friend, but Herc had just waved the conversation off, laughing a little uneasily, protesting that Iolaus had better things to do now.

Finally, feeling guilty for having virtually abandoned his friend, Iolaus won a promise that Herc would let him know before heading out to something really dangerous, like taking on a bunch of monsters, (or even one), or trying to stop a war…something big like that. Though he’d never have left Ania on a regular basis, nor had he been comfortable with Hercules heading into truly dangerous situations without back up. But he hadn’t really been concerned, hadn’t really considered that Hercules had ever needed him, not really. Hercules had looked off to the horizon, and nodded quietly, agreeing finally. But, somehow, such a pressing need had never arisen, except that once, when they’d gone to face the Minotaur.

So far as Iolaus had ever known, he might have been the one who pulled back from their partnership first, but it hadn’t seemed to really faze Herc…his buddy had just carried blithely on without him. Now, Iolaus knew why Herc had never found a serious enough reason to warrant asking for his help…or at least, had never admitted to one, not only while Ania had lived, but also for many, many years after she’d died. Hercules had been protecting him, as always, refusing to risk Iolaus’ life, refusing to risk again what had happened in Gargarencia. Sighing, Iolaus shook his head as he looked across the fields. It had ever been so…Hercules protecting him, never really needing him.

About a year after Iolaus had married Ania, Hercules had met Deianeara, and had married her. Iolaus smiled a little to himself, profoundly glad his friend had found a woman worthy of his love. They shared a passion and a joy together that was palpable, and now they had three great kids, Klonus and Aeson, and his daughter Ilea who had been born the winter before. Iolaus was happy for Hercules, and begrudged him nothing. There was no room for jealousy in his soul, no resentment that Herc could have what he now knew was denied to himself. Love, a family. No room…all the space was already taken up and overflowing with the love that was there, always had been there, for the demigod.

But, there was no denying that Hercules’ marriage had created new boundaries between them. When Ania had died, leaving him with a child only just five years old, Iolaus had needed his friend badly. For comfort, for companionship. Just to have someone to laugh with. He’d felt an almost desperate need to reach out to Hercules, to be the partner he’d once been, sharing in the everyday aspects of life, needing to not feel so alone. But, Iolaus had never given any sign, never so much as a hint to his best friend of his feelings. Herc had his own family now, and Iolaus had no intention of intruding upon his life, asking for a return to the inseparable closeness they’d known in their childhood and youth.

Besides, Iolaus reflected sadly, he too had still had a family then. Telaus had been the centre of his world, the reason he got up in the morning, the reason he lived. Gods, he’d been such a great kid, so bright and funny, always wanting to help, always laughing. Such a scamp, getting into everything, endlessly curious and brave in the way of children who never consider the possibility of danger, only the possibility of adventure. He’d been dark, like Ania, and so beautiful, so innocent and trusting. Iolaus had been proud of him, had loved him so much, more than simple words could ever begin to convey, and he always would.

But, now, Telaus, too, was gone.

What did a man do who ached to give love when there was no one there to receive it? How could he live in a home populated only by ghosts and memories? It had been almost eight years since he’d felt loving hands touch him, eight years of devoting his life to his child, and trying to wrest a living for them from the unforgiving rocky hillside that was his allotment. Eight years…and now, how many more? How long was a life? He could have no family of his own. He hated farming. And, the life he’d known before, in his youthful journeys with Hercules, was no longer available to him. Taking a deep breath, lifting his head to look again across the valley to the distant roofline, Iolaus knew that he’d have to live with the loneliness, the emptiness. He couldn’t reach out to Hercules, couldn’t intrude upon his friend’s commitment to his own family just because his life was over and he needed to cling to what had been before…a partnership that had defined his life for so long. It wouldn’t be right, wouldn’t be decent. It would only be selfish.

Sighing heavily, Iolaus turned back to look at the cottage. He couldn’t bear to live this way, with ghosts on the hill, no hope of a family and the one person he would willingly devote his life to now committed to his own family, a different future. Life here, now, was a kind of torture and with the pain of Telaus’ loss so fresh, Iolaus didn’t think he had the strength to endure it. He’d give himself away…and only hurt Hercules in the process. Because, he had no expectation that Herc felt the same draw of their old, easy friendship, or hungered for the adventures they’d once shared. No, Hercules was more than content…he reveled in his family and his home. But, Iolaus knew Hercules would be devastated to think Iolaus needed something of him that he was no longer able, or wanting, to give.

The sun was setting, and the wind was whispering through the trees when Iolaus went back to the cottage, finally having decided what he had to do. He couldn’t bear to stay alone inside another night, so he dragged out his old bedroll and lay beside his family, sharing a last night with them under the stars. When the sun came up, he set about stuffing what he needed into his pack and secured the house, closing the door quietly behind him. Standing for a moment by the graves, he whispered a broken farewell, then hitched the pack over his shoulder, turning to head down the long hill, first to say good-bye to Alcmene, and then to head to Hercules’ place, to let him and Deianeara know that he’d be going away.

“What do you mean, you’re leaving? Why? Where are you going?” Hercules asked in a rush of words, his expression only too clearly revealing his stunned disbelief. As if he needed the support, the demigod leaned unconsciously on the pitchfork he’d been using to shift piles of straw in the barn, just one of the endless chores on a farm, slowly shaking his head in denial.

“Whoa!” Iolaus replied, trying to keep his voice steady, reaching for a reassuring smile, holding his hands up against the speed and number of questions being thrown at him. “It’s not like I’ll never be back. It’s just that…well I need a little space, Herc. The house feels too empty right now. So, I thought I’d travel a bit, head east maybe, see some places I’ve never been before. I remember meeting a traveler from the east once-you remember-the guy who showed me those fancy fighting moves. Anyway, I thought I’d like to see where he came from.”

Frowning, Hercules tossed the pitchfork away and moved closer to his friend, studying him, seeing past the strained smile to the pain in his buddy’s eyes. “Iolaus…I know it’s hard. But, you need to be around people who care about you right now. I’m not sure this is such a great idea,” he said thoughtfully, worried.

Iolaus’ eyes dropped and he chewed on his lip a bit before responding. Finally, looking up again, he replied quietly, as honestly as he could. “I’ll be all right, Herc…don’t worry. But, I,” his voice cracked a bit and he had to pause to regain control of it, once again looking away while he swallowed almost convulsively. “I need to do this. I need some time to think about who I am now.”

Hands on his hips, Hercules looked at the ground, then up and around as he tried to find the words to keep Iolaus from leaving. Wondering if he should, or if he was just being selfish. Though their relationship had changed over the years, Iolaus was still the anchor in his life, the foundation that held him secure, no matter what. Oh, he’d grown up, got married, had a family and was on the way to becoming a legend, much to his personal chagrin, and he was happy with his life. But somewhere deep inside, he knew he still needed Iolaus, counted on him always being there for him. It was the last thought that let the demigod know he was truly reacting out of his own needs, not really thinking about what Iolaus might need just then.

Sighing, Hercules looked back at his best friend. “How long will you be gone?” he asked quietly, hoping for an answer like a week or so…but, the east, places they’d never been…that could be a long way away.

Iolaus shook his head a little as he shrugged. “I don’t really know. As long as I need to be gone, I guess,” he said, his eyes asking for understanding.

Swallowing, Hercules pushed for the answer he needed to have, needed to hold onto. “But-you will be back, right?”

His buddy took a deep breath as he nodded, replying quietly, “Yeah.” Then, knowing Hercules needed it from him, he conjured up a reassuring grin as he added, “I promise.”

His chest aching, his throat too full to speak, Hercules just swallowed convulsively and nodded, grateful for the promise, knowing he’d cling to it until Iolaus came home again.

Feeling awkward in the silence, Iolaus scuffed a boot on the earth, then looked up and around as he asked, “Will you explain to Deianeara for me, and the kids…give ‘em a hug for me?”

“Yeah,” Hercules sighed, his voice low, almost flat as he tried desperately to contain his own emotion. Suddenly, he moved toward Iolaus to pull his friend into a tight hug, as he murmured huskily, his voice thick with unshed tears, “Just remember, you have a family who loves you…and we’ll be here, waiting for you, watching for your return. Okay?”

Iolaus pressed his eyes closed over the sudden wetness of tears in his own eyes, and nodded his head against Hercules shoulder as he hugged his best friend right back. “I’ll remember…I wouldn’t want to ever forget,” he whispered. “Thanks…for everything.”

Hercules gave a brief, tight nod, then stepped back, his hands still on Iolaus’ shoulders as he searched his friend’s eyes. “You be careful, and send word every once in a while, so we’ll know you’re alright?” he listed his demands, pleas as much as commands.

Unsure if he could trust his voice, Iolaus nodded, then stepped back out of Hercules’ grip. Taking a deep breath, he forced a small smile, lifted a hand to grip Herc’s arm and then turned away, hitching his pack more securely onto his shoulder as he strode down the lane without a backward glance.

Hercules stood silently, watching Iolaus until he was out of sight…watching the place he had last been until Deianeara called him for the mid-day meal. “I’ll miss you,” he whispered quietly to the air, and then turned disconsolately to tell his wife that their friend had gone away, perhaps for a very long time.

It was only later, when they each replayed the moments in their memories, that the heroes each realized that neither of them had actually been able to say ‘good-bye’.

Iolaus strode steadily over fields, across valleys, up through forests and along mountain passes, moving forward as quickly as he could lest what was behind overcome his determination to go, and pull him back. Leaving everything he knew, everyone he loved, was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. But, it was the right thing to do, and that thought kept him going.

He caught a ship at Piraeus and worked his way across the Aegean, spending the free time he had the first two days at sea leaning on the rail by the stern and looking back the way they’d come. But, then, he physically forced himself to move to the ship’s bow, to look forward, toward where he was going-somewhere different, new, unknown. Where no one knew him, or had any expectations of him. Where there’d be no memories everywhere he looked, tearing at him, pulling him apart.

It took Iolaus a long time to realize that memories were baggage he could never leave behind…nor, as he’d told Hercules, did he ever really want to. Because for all the fact that they hurt, those memories were all that he carried of those he had loved best-of the one who would somehow always mean more than his life to him.

Restless from endless days at sea by the time they hit port on the far eastern shores of the Mediterranean, he strode off the deck, glad to be back on solid ground. Ambling through the busy town, he soaked up the hot sun and the sound of different voices, absorbing the exotic smells, distracted by the colours, the architecture-everything was so different from what he had known back home.

But, he didn’t stop to tarry in this different place. He was only passing through.

Iolaus knew he was searching for something, though he didn’t know what it was. He hoped it was a kind of peace that was out there somewhere, if he could just find it. Gregarious by nature, even in these days of desolate grief, he chatted up local traders, using gestures, and drawing pictures, until he picked up enough of the local lingo to make himself understood for simple needs, like food and shelter, to learn something of the culture and to get information on the best route over the eastern horizon.

Tagging along with a caravan, Iolaus kept heading further east, across rolling hills of green, covered with goats and sheep, herded by a people called Bedouin. The camels stank, and were mean-tempered, but he learned quickly to stay upwind and well away from their jaws and hooves. Wistfully, he observed that the children were like children everywhere, some quiet and shy, some boisterous, all curious, all wide-eyed and essentially trusting given half a chance. So he laughed, and told them stories with his hands and expressions until he learned their words, teased and joked, making them laugh in their turn.

His name was strange to them, and they found the sound odd on their lips, though they learned to say it. But, they had their own names for him after a time…‘The Laughing One’, the children called him, giggling as they crowded around him and vied for his attention. ‘Golden Warrior’, the men chose, noting his sword, the way he moved and watched the horizon, respectful of his skill and daring courage when they’d had to fight off bandits on several occasions over the course of their long journey. ‘Touched by the Sun’, the women called him, finding his blond, sun-bronzed fair looks exotic and appealing, the name a hope as much as an appellation, though they hoped in vain. But, the wise old ones who watched him, and spoke of him, called him ‘Sad Eyes’, seeing the haunted shadows in the dark blue depths, and wondering about the grief he carried in his heart.

But, most often, they all simply called him ‘Friend’…and he was touched by the name, once he’d learned its meaning.

Weeks turned into months, and he learned they were traveling something called the Spice Route. Leaving the green, lightly forested, rolling hills behind, hills that in the centuries to come would erode into desert wastelands, they climbed up into high, austere, snow-capped mountains, journeying through narrow passes and across high, grassy, plateaus. And then they followed the ancient track back down through the forests, following rivers, to the strange, mystical land in the Far East. As they journeyed, Iolaus learned the taste of even stranger foods, and came to appreciate the sharp flavours, the mingling of scent and texture. He even learned to eat with sticks, though the children rolled over laughing the first few times he tried.

Finally, the caravan came to the end of its journey, exchanging gold and silver, carpets made by the women, spices of their own world, for the different treasures of the east. While the traders were making their deals, Iolaus wandered the strange city of yellow people with dark, slanted eyes, people who resembled the stranger he’d met years ago. Feeling for the first time in his life like a tall man, Iolaus wandered through crowded narrow streets, the language a high-pitched, melodious cacophony, or looked over crowded market squares, his view not blocked by others. The cadences of the language intrigued him…it sounded like a kind of music, as if they sang their words as loudly as they could manage. He strolled with no particular direction in mind, simply taking it all in, marveling at the infinite diversity of humanity, smiling unconsciously at it with a kind of wonder.

During his rambles on the second afternoon, he found what he’d been seeking. Coming upon a temple, he saw men engaged in ritual movements, slow and exact, practiced and beautiful, full of balance and poise, that were reminiscent of the way the stranger had moved when he’d taught Iolaus a few self-defence techniques. Stopping, enthralled, he crossed his arms as he leaned against a wall and watched for more than an hour, and then the exercises changed, as men engaged in a kind of combat he’d never seen before. Frowning, he tried to make it out, tried to figure out what was so different…and then it hit him. They did not oppose, they defended. They didn’t attack, or even resist, but flowed with the force, mastering it, never losing their balance or poise, a kind of dance with intricate, confusing steps and gestures.

Intrigued, Iolaus watched for the rest of the afternoon, and then returned the next day. He’d seen enough the first day to have noted that size or strength were not determining factors so much as assets that could be used to their own benefit and purpose. Big, small, it didn’t seem to matter; one didn’t have an advantage over the other. It was all about skill, balance and movement. Though the spoken words had been unintelligible to him, the language of the bodies he watched spoke volumes, and he wanted to learn more.

Unable to stay away, he returned again the third day, standing quietly, watching, frowning a little as he concentrated. He moved a little unconsciously as his body tried to assimilate what his eyes were observing, oblivious to all else around him. Consequently, he was unaware that he’d attracted attention in his own right until a voice spoke quietly beside him. “You seem fascinated, my son. Your strength of concentration is almost trance-like.”

“What?” Iolaus jerked, startled, as he turned to see a wizened old man peering up at him, but not particularly surprised that the man had addressed him in the language of the traders. He’d come to accept that people in areas of contact learned each other’s tongue…it was the same in Greece, and those they dealt with, the Minoans, Cretans, Macedonians, Egyptians and Romans. “Oh, sorry,” he explained quietly in their common language, looking back at the dance-like moves, “it’s just that I’ve never seen anything like this before… and, yes, I do find it fascinating.”

The old man nodded as he studied the golden stranger. “You are a warrior,” he observed mildly.

Iolaus grinned a little as he nodded, “Yeah, sometimes, when I have to be.”

“Only when you have to be?” the old man challenged, unconvinced. “To watch so intently, to be trying to learn with no guidance, a kind of desperation in itself, speaks of more than a casual or reluctant interest.”

Laughing lightly, his eyes dancing with appreciation of the old man’s assessment, Iolaus nodded, not offended by the challenge. “Alright, yes, I’ve been trained as a warrior…and, truthfully, I like to fight. But, I don’t look for fights…I, well, I have the skills that can sometimes help people who are in trouble. You know, vulnerable? Not able to defend themselves. I help when I can,” he explained, a little embarrassed. Somehow, in words, his actions sounded nobler than of how he thought of himself and it made him uncomfortable.

“I see,” reflected the old man placidly but there was a curious glint in his black eyes. “And, there is something here that you feel could help you? Something you are willing, even perhaps eager, to learn?”

“Yeah,” sighed Iolaus, turning back to watch. “Where I come from, I’m not a big man, and that can be a real disadvantage in battle. But, the way they move, size doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does absolute strength of body. It’s more, I don’t know…strength of purpose? A way of deflecting the strength of the other? No, that’s not it. A way of using the strength of the other, leveraging it somehow-a kind of flow. I don’t know,” he laughed again, throwing up his hands, “I feel like I should understand, but it’s so different from anything I’ve seen before, been taught before.”

His dark eyes once again inscrutable, the old one shook his head as he replied soberly, “Do not apologize for not yet grasping what you have no means of understanding, for you have not been taught. But, neither deny nor diminish the powers of your perception. You have already understood more than many see in a lifetime.”

Iolaus shrugged a little, and sighed, “Well, uh, thanks, I guess. It’s just that it’s frustrating, you know. I’ve no one to teach me any of this…so, I’ll leave, and always wonder what I might have been able to learn here.”

“Must you leave?” the man asked, looking away toward the temple.

Startled, Iolaus waved a careless hand as he answered, “Well, eventually. I promised my…family that I’d come home again.”

Nodding, the old man turned to gaze up at him silently for a moment, weighing something in his mind, wondering at the unexpected pull he felt toward this stranger, the unlooked for desire to be of assistance to him. Reflecting upon an old saying that taught that when the student was ready, the teacher would appear, in a way he didn’t quite understand, the senior priest of the Changchow Temple and master of all who lived within its walls felt as if he had found his newest student, and that it was important somehow to help him find his path. There was a quality in this strange, golden-haired man from the far western lands that intrigued him, more, that he felt was of great significance and that it was his duty to be of help.

Finally, the old man offered with quiet dignity, “If you can spare me three months, until the next caravan comes and is ready to depart to the west, I could perhaps teach you, if you wish.”

Iolaus tilted his head and crossed his arms as he turned to study this strange old guy, and the completely unexpected and unlooked for opportunity he was presenting for consideration. The warrior’s blue eyes grew thoughtful as he gazed at the man, absently noting his skin, the colour of old ivory, surprisingly smooth despite his evident great age, his still black hair, long and pulled tightly into a single braid at the back of his neck. The guy was tiny, and looked frail, bony and thin, his clothing faded, well worn and hanging loose around his body. But, there was something about his eyes, an intensity and a depth that spoke of hidden truths and great wisdom.

Iolaus’ face unconsciously emptied of expression as he considered the possibilities of what was being offered to him, and though he couldn’t have explained it if his life had depended upon it, he felt drawn toward the man, excited by the opportunity of learning from him. Though, with a slight flash of concern in his eyes, he worried he might hurt the old guy if they were to practice together the moves he’d been watching the others perform.

“Thank you,” Iolaus replied quietly, with a trace of wonder even humility, in his voice, touched by the generous offer. “I would be very grateful for that. But, I have no means of paying you…or for paying for a room or food for that matter. I’ve been working my way with the caravan.”

The old one’s face was austere, though there was a hint of a smile deep in his eyes, as he bowed his head solemnly. “My name is Yu-Lin, and I will be your teacher. Here,” he waved with a graceful gesture, “our learning and our work is the same. We seek balance and enlightenment. We seek not to prevail or resist, but to find a different place, a different way. We seek, finally, to accept what we cannot understand, but in accepting what is beyond our power we also commit to a greater awareness of being in the world, knowing that it is resistance that traps us and acceptance which sets us free.”

“I don’t understand,” Iolaus admitted ruefully, shaking his head, his hands on his hips.

“I know,” his teacher acknowledged, “but, in time, perhaps, you will.”

“He’s all right,” Deianeara murmured as she gently rubbed her husband’s back. Hercules was once again looking off down the lane, silent but with a tension she could not miss.

“There’s been no word,” Hercules replied quietly with a sigh. “I worry about him.”

“I know,” his wife acknowledged. “And, you miss him.”

“Yeah…I do,” he sighed, finally turning away from the empty view to take her into his arms. “I wish he’d come back.”

Deianeara smiled softly as she leaned against the man she loved with her whole heart, and understood better than he seemed to understand himself. Had she been a less confident woman, both in herself, and in his love for her, she might have been threatened, even jealous, of the unusual depth of feeling Hercules had for the man who’d been his closest friend since they’d been children. Though she didn’t fully understand all that Iolaus meant to her husband, she did know that in some profound way, an inseparable bond linked Iolaus and Hercules. When Iolaus was absent, part of Hercules was missing, too. “He will. He promised.”

Iolaus scribbled off a quick note to Hercules, wondering if it would ever get to his friend, and entrusted it to the head driver of the caravan. Bidding a hasty, but heartfelt, farewell to his friends, he hitched his pack over his shoulder and made his way to his new residence in the temple, a small cell furnished only with a grass mat. He had no idea what he was doing, really, but couldn’t deny the odd compulsion inside that made him certain that this was right, that somehow he’d been meant to find his way here.

The first month, Iolaus wasn’t sure he’d ever understand the old man’s strange way of ‘being’, as he called it. Nor, as the warrior rubbed aching muscles and bruises at night, was he at all certain he’d ever learn how not to be thrown ignominiously time after time into the dirt, by a guy more than twice his age and half his size. His teacher was amazing, endlessly patient, endlessly calm…and endlessly relentless. Iolaus had to unlearn almost everything he had ever learned about how to fight. Cheiron had given him some very useful tips on how to use his size to advantage, but that had still been in the context of being the aggressor, or of resisting aggression. His ‘resistance’ was reflexive, ingrained and completely unconscious. So, he had to learn new habits, a different way of standing and moving, of assessing threat and opportunity.

But, while Iolaus was sometimes discouraged, Yu-Lin was vastly encouraged. For where Iolaus saw his own resistance getting in his way, the Master saw his acceptance and submission to the idea that there was a different way…and saw Iolaus’ determination to learn, even if it killed him. While Iolaus felt awkward and off balance, juvenile, even, in his inability to succeed, Yu-Lin saw him explore new moves and positions, repeating them endlessly, patiently, until he had mastered them. Iolaus felt stupid and slow, frustrated by his inability to understand, but Yu-Lin recognized strength of character and commitment… and the courage to fail without being defeated.

Early in the second month, Iolaus caught the feel of the flow, going with the force, absorbing it, manipulating it rather than resisting it, and he laughed in the sheer exhilaration of the moment. Yu-Lin couldn’t resist a dry chuckle in response. The sound of Iolaus’ laughter was warm and infectious, bubbling and effervescent like a child’s giggles, and the Master had heard it too little so far. Though Iolaus never complained, and rarely did he raise his voice, except when cursing himself, and while he’d chuckle quietly with amusement, usually at his own expense, until now the joyful and unselfconscious laughter had been absent. Wise before he’d become old, Yu-Lin had seen the shadows deep in his student’s eyes, though they were well masked. There was tremendous pain within the soul of this man, pain and a frightening depth of rage, though he carried it well, never burdening others.

The pain and the rage would have to be addressed, the teacher thought silently as they continued working through the second month, until Iolaus had attained a certain mastery of a new, physical way of being in the world. But, despite the truly amazing progress his student was making, the teacher knew the pain and the tightly controlled fury were at the heart of the resistance that Iolaus had to overcome if he was to master this new way of ‘being’ in a more complete way…if he was to find his way along the path Yu-Lin was trying to illuminate for him.

On the third day of the third month, Yu-Lin led Iolaus to a walled garden instead of to the exercise square at the front of the temple. Gesturing, he indicated his student was to sit on a stone bench in the shade of a flowering magnolia tree, its scent lightly perfuming the warm air, the only sound the humming of the bees and the quiet song of some far off birds. Yu-Lin sat beside Iolaus, not looking at him, quiet and serene.

The silence grew, persisted, until Iolaus became restless, his eyes darting around the garden, his lips curling into a soft smile at the beauty of it and of the birdsong. It was restful, nice. But, he wondered what they were doing there.

“What do you hear?” Yu-Lin finally asked, very aware and not a little amused by the twitching of the man beside him. Iolaus, for all his maturity and strength, shared many characteristics with children, including an inability to keep still for any length of time and a seemingly endless fascination with the world around him.

“Birds, bees…the wind,” Iolaus replied, having long ago learned his teacher preferred direct and specific responses.

“Ah…yes,” Yu-Lin nodded. “Listen more closely, my son. Let me know when you hear the sound of your heart over the sound of your breathing,” his teacher directed, and then lapsed back into serene silence.

Iolaus’ brows rose in surprise, wondering what this was all about, but dutifully, he sat back, trying to get comfortable and concentrated on paying attention to the sound of his own breathing…trying to hear the sound of his own heartbeat. The day grew warm, and though he tried to remain still, having noticed that such capacity for tranquility was highly prized here, he twitched again, ever restless. Yu-Lin laid a quiet, yet strong, hand on his leg, just above his knee, settling him.

Chastened, Iolaus closed his eyes, lightly clasped his hands, his feet resting squarely on the ground. Holding his head steady, he listened, but the birds distracted him and a bee buzzed near his ear, causing him to wave it away.

“You’re not listening,” Yu-Lin chided him gently.

Sighing, Iolaus murmured, trying to make a joke of it, “I’m trying, Master, but I can’t hear my heart. Maybe I don’t have one.”

His teacher turned to him then, black eyes penetrating, probing the blue. “Oh, you have a heart, my son-it is what defines your being, what most see when they look at you. It cannot be hidden. But, it is heavy and it fights itself, holding its sound tightly within out of compassion for others, lest its screaming deafen them, its pain crush them.”

Shocked by the unexpected and far too perceptive words, Iolaus looked away, his head shaking unconsciously. Swallowing to moisten a mouth and throat suddenly dry, he stammered, “How do you see…? I can’t…”

“You’ve learned much, my son and if you left today, you would take skills and awareness with you that you did not have when you came here. But, if you left today, you would also still be carrying that burden that is weighing you down…and which I believe will kill you one day, if not your body, then your soul. You have learned not to resist the world, and that is good. But, now, you need to learn how not to resist yourself, what you feel, or it will defeat and destroy you.”

Silently, his head bowed, Iolaus shook his head. He hadn’t expected this, didn’t know how to respond. Shutting pain away, denying it, ignoring it, pretending it wasn’t there-these were the lessons he’d learned as a child, and relied upon as a man, to survive. He didn’t know another way.

“Do you trust me?” Yu-Lin asked. “Completely, without reservation?”

Sighing, Iolaus looked up and turned toward the old man who saw more than he ever wanted anyone to see. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I do.”

“Tell me your story,” Yu-Lin directed, again sitting back, his head turned aside, patient, listening.

Swallowing, taking a deep breath, Iolaus launched into the facts of his life story. Because he was an honest man and did trust his teacher without reservation, he told him everything of what he’d done in his life, of what had happened to him, and of the people who had shaped who he was.

When he’d fallen silent, sitting tensely waiting for his teacher’s reaction, Yu-Lin nodded quietly to himself, his eyes closed. “Now,” the teacher said, “tell me your story again…but, this time, tell me what you have felt, what you still feel.”

So, Iolaus launched into a more colourful version of the tale, wryly recounting some of the less wonderful events and experiences of his youth, masking the pain with humour and bravado. When it came to those he loved, he was gentler, giving them full credit for having the depth and capacity to love even someone as hopeless as himself. Hercules, well, he found himself talking about how much he admired his friend, trusted him, respected him above all others. Alcmene he described as an angel, one of those mythical beings of consummate gentleness and light. When he spoke of Ania, and his children, he spoke lightly of the good times, how grateful he was that they’d been in his life. And, then, again, he waited.

“Better,” Yu-Lin murmured quietly, not yet satisfied, “but, now I want to hear the pain of what your past and these people mean to you, the full measure of what you feel.”

Iolaus stared at the man, his mouth a little agape as the request sank in. Turning aside, he looked up into the clear cloudless sky, numbly shaking his head, searching for the words and coming up against waves of anguish and fury that he fought to force away, back and down. Fighting not to drown, he felt choked, unable to respond.

Because, even the good things, the good memories carried such pain.

The anger and pain of betrayal and rejection he’d felt from his parents. The horror of what Hera had done to his family, his impotent rage and guilt, the fury of knowing he could never exact vengeance on a goddess. The emptiness of knowing he had to fear and avoid ever having another family lest he bring yet more death to those for whom he only felt love. The longing he felt for Hercules, and the life they’d shared in their youth, and could never acknowledge because if he did, he didn’t think he could live with the rejection he knew he’d see in Herc’s eyes or the despair and loneliness such rejection would engender. Even thoughts of Alcmene carried the burden of never allowing her to know how rotten he was inside, the terrible things he’d done, and the memories that he carried that festered like some foul growth.

Finally, he choked out quietly, “I can’t.”

“You can,” Yu-Lin said relentlessly. “You must if you are to do more than merely survive.”

Turning on his teacher, Iolaus cried out, his voice ragged with anger, anguish and helplessness, “You don’t know-my father beat me. And, my mother never defended me. I must have deserved it. I must be something wretched deep down to deserve that…and I hate them for hating me. I know children don’t ever deserve that, but I feel as if I’m some kind of disgusting creature, that doesn’t deserve to live. Doesn’t deserve love. So-when others, so good, and pure-care about me, it scares me. I’m afraid I’ll hurt them. And…I’m afraid someday to see in their eyes, what I saw in my father’s eyes when he looked at me. And, the worst of it is, he was right. I am good for nothing. Worse. My life cost my wife’s life, and my children’s lives. Their deaths were the price that had to be paid because I’m still breathing. Do you have any idea how that feels?

Iolaus turned away, hotly aware of the tears that had begun to stream down his face as he brusquely, impatiently, wiped them away, hearing the echo of his father’s voice. Crybaby. What right did he have to cry when it was others who had been so badly hurt, killed? He sat there, trembling in the sunlight, no longer feeling its warmth. “Hera, the Queen of the Greek Gods, decreed that price must be paid,” he continued bitterly, his voice tight with the impotent fury that ate at his soul. “Decreed that I am a ‘dead man’ and dead men have no families. So, I can never risk other lives again, by loving them. I HATE her, what she’s done to them, to me. And, there’s nothing I can do about it. Except endure it. And go on. Or give up and die. Lately,” he added bitterly, “I’ve wondered why I bother trying to stay alive.”

He sniffed, panting hard, shaking now, and fighting the sobs that clogged his throat.

When he remained silent, Yu-Lin waited. But, after a long pause, he probed, “And, Hercules? His mother, Alcmene? What of them?”

Iolaus shuddered, biting back a moan of despair. “Alcmene loves me, has always loved me. But, I don’t know why, except maybe for Herc’s sake, because I’m his friend. She’s always let me know that she thinks I’m special, but I’m not. So, I live my life trying to prove her belief in me is right, trying never to disappoint her.” He sniffed again, and rubbed his face with his hands, pushing them back through his hair. “I’m so afraid of letting her down, and I know I will-I’m not the wonderful, good person she sees. I’m…not good, far from it. I’ve been a thief, I’ve done terrible things,” he said bluntly, sparing himself nothing. Sighing, he continued wearily, “She deserves better than that for what she gives, what she’s done for me all my life. I’m so afraid of hurting her, disappointing her.”

“And Hercules?” Yu-Lin prompted, relentless when Iolaus again fell silent.

Iolaus curled forward, his arms wrapped around himself as if he could hold the pain inside, trap it there if he tried hard enough. Shaking his head, his voice tight with desperation, he whispered, “I…can’t.”

“Let it go, Iolaus,” Yu-Lin counseled quietly. “Stop resisting it. Release the pain, so that it can release its hold on you.”

“No,” whispered Iolaus, not wanting to talk about this, wanting distance, finally slipping from the bench to sit curled tightly on the ground, his knees pulled up, arms wrapped around them, head down, blinded by tears he tried to blink back, clenching his jaw against the truth of what he felt, what could destroy him if he faced it.

“Tell me,” Yu-Lin persisted, his voice still calm, even remote.

Shuddering, Iolaus bit his lip, shook his head but forced himself to continue, driven by the trust he felt for this old man, his teacher’s belief that somehow this mattered. “I loved Ania, she was sweet, and gentle and so very kind. She deserved so much better than to die for the likes of me,” he murmured, guilt heavy in his voice, for her death, for not having loved her as completely as he believed he should have. “But she was never a part of me. When she died, and the years after, I…felt so guilty. I can’t explain it even to myself, but I never missed her as much as I should have. Never as much as I missed Hercules, being with him, traveling with him, helping people, backing him up. I don’t understand it but…I feel…I feel as if Hercules is my soul. I love him so much. I can’t…there aren’t words for what I feel. Herc…he doesn’t…I…” his voice broke, caught in the grip of the aching, gnawing, empty grief that was all consuming.

Panting hard, shaking with it, he whispered his loss, “Hercules doesn’t either need…or want…want the life we used to have. He doesn’t need me, never needed me, the way I need him. But, I can’t imagine any life without him in it. Sometimes I think that he is my life. As if I don’t really exist without him. What scares me is that I don’t want to….”

Iolaus shifted restlessly, honestly trying to convey what he felt while not really understanding it himself. Continuing softly, hesitantly, he said, “I’m not sure I can be near him anymore, and not let him know I want it all back. It’s not right…I don’t have that right, that call on his life, his time. I feel weak, dependent, unable to make my own way. But, I don’t know what else to do with my life. I can’t imagine…I want to help people, but I don’t want to be a mercenary and I’m not the one people come to for help, anyway. They come to him. But, even when he has to go, he doesn’t want me with him, too afraid I’ll get hurt, as if I’d care if…” Iolaus bit his lip, then continued, “He’s learned to handle things completely on his own. Gods, he might not even trust me to back him up anymore, I don’t know…it’s been so many years. I’m afraid, I guess…that if I do ask, he’ll actually say he doesn’t-I can see the look in his eyes-he won’t want to hurt me. I’ll have nothing left…no reason to…live. So, basically, I ran away. But, I can’t stay away because I can’t bear to even imagine a life without him in it. I can’t live like this, torn apart, belonging nowhere, having no one, no one needing me, having no purpose. I didn’t know what else to do when I left-I still don’t.”

Finally, weak with the force of the pain, the self-disgust, the loneliness and the great gaping emptiness that loomed in front of him, unable to imagine any kind of future, any kind of life, exhausted, Iolaus admitted the final wretched truth he’d tried to hide, even from himself, almost choking on the words. “I’m such a coward. If I’m really honest…I want to die, but I don’t even have the courage to kill myself.”

Yu-Lin rested his hand on the top of the weeping man’s head and left it there, letting his own sense of peace flow through him and wash over Iolaus, until his student calmed, and the tears finally dried on his cheeks.

“You have done well, today, my son. You opened the darkest corners of your heart, and by facing that darkness, acknowledging the truth of your pain, you have begun to bring light upon that darkness. But, we have only begun. Rest now for you are very tired. Tomorrow, we will begin the healing.”

Rising, Yu-Lin paused before he walked silently away. “Do not confuse the natural desire for death when you feel trapped, suffering with unbearable anguish and can see no way out, with the courage to resist the simple solution, to strive nonetheless. You may be many things, my son. But, you are not a coward.”

A few moments later, Iolaus struggled to his feet, his body aching with fatigue, needing desperately to sleep, to lose himself in blessed, if temporary, oblivion.

For the next two weeks, they met in the garden and, at first Iolaus dreaded the sessions as he’d dreaded little else in his life before then. Yu-Lin began slowly, as if drawing his student up through the various layers of his pain, teaching him one lesson at a time. He showed Iolaus another way to see his childhood by having Iolaus play out the roles of his mother and father, imagining the world and what had occurred from their eyes, their perspective. Gradually, the warrior came to understand that there were other ways of seeing what had happened; ways that often had little, if anything, to actually do with him. His father, abandoned as a child, raised in loveless orphanages, had had no idea how to love anyone. All that he had known was the rough, rigorous, discipline of the military and the constant anger of an empty heart. His mother had been terrified of his father, beaten physically and emotionally, and had felt a failure in every way. She had been so traumatized she had nothing left to give, no strength left to protect anyone else from his fury.

Iolaus was learning that different perspectives could change the way he looked at the world and what occurred within it. One day, Iolaus realized the hate was gone, and with it went the deep-seated belief that he’d always been at fault, had deserved what had happened. Instead, he felt a deep sadness for the pain his parents had suffered and taken out on him, but not because of him.

Releasing the guilt about his family’s deaths, and his rage at Hera, was a lot harder. But, finally, he came to understand that it was about control-his guilt and anger were about not being able to control what was beyond his power. He’d not been to blame for what had happened to them, he couldn’t have known or prevented it. So guilt muted to sorrow and he found he could remember their faces without the pain of feeling he’d killed them. Found he could genuinely remember the good times, and rejoice in the life he’d shared with them, however short it was, unable to hold any vestige of regret despite what had happened. Telaus, in particular, became a poignant memory. Though his boy had not lived long, he had lived and with joy. Iolaus could not find it in himself to wish his son had never been born, which would have been the only way the child could have avoided death at Hera’s hand. Nevertheless, Iolaus remained convinced that it was his responsibility to never put other loved ones, no wife, no possible children of the future, at such risk.

As for Hera, he came to understand that he was incidental to her war against Zeus and Hercules. A pawn, no more. She’d acted in accordance with her nature, and though he despised her, he could no more rage against her than he could rage against the ravaging of a rabid beast that had no control over itself. Quietly, he acknowledged in his soul that though he might one day kill her if he could, it would be more in mercy to release her from such a twisted, wretched existence, to protect others from her depredations, than out of rage or revenge for what she’d done to his family, to him. She was a monster, but like any monster, she could not help what she was, not really. It wasn’t a matter of forgiveness, because forgiveness implied something personal between them. And there wasn’t. None of it had been personal, just instinctive.

It was harder still to come to grips with the complexity of his feelings about Alcmene because it meant finally having to accept that perhaps her perceptions of him were every bit as valid, every bit as possibly true, as his own perceptions about himself. In these discussions, he had to struggle with what he understood to be ‘truth’ and come to understand it was only ‘belief’, neither true nor false, simply perception. As a child on the streets, he’d done what he’d had to do to survive. He could not ever be proud of it, but neither could he condemn himself as inherently evil either. Finally, almost grudgingly, when Yu-Lin pushed him, he allowed that he was a decent person, tried his best, and tried not to hurt others.

But, he knew in his heart that though his life would always be guided by a commitment to be the best he could ever possibly be, to fulfill her belief in him, he’d never be as good as she hoped. What finally gave him some sense of peace was when he came to accept that no matter what ever happened, he couldn’t actually ever fail in her eyes. Yu-Lin helped him to understand that because she saw the greatness that was possible within him, would always be possible whether he saw it or not, he could not disappoint her somehow by not yet having achieved it. He came to fully understand the concept of unconditional love, and to finally accept it as something another could give to him, not simply as it applied to the love he offered others. Finally, he was able to be grateful for her gift of love, no longer afraid of not being worthy of it.

But, if all that had been a hard, wrenching struggle, the discussions about his feelings about Hercules verged on devastating before Yu-Lin was done with him.

“You love Hercules,” Yu-Lin observed the day they began that discussion, his voice neutral.

“Yes,” Iolaus responded.

“In what way?” the Master probed.

Iolaus searched the sky, seeking the words to express was so profoundly a part of everything he was that it seemed too big, too vast, too all-encompassing to describe. Finally, he sighed, “In every way.”

“Tell me, describe to me what it is that you love in him,” Yu-Lin persisted.

Iolaus frowned thoughtfully, wondering where to begin. “Well, Hercules is the best person I’ve ever known. He’s kind, and for all his strength, and willingness to use it if forced, he’s gentle. There’s an innocence about him as if he believes only the best about everyone he meets, and something inside of him is hurt when he’s betrayed-not because of the betrayal, but because they’ve been less somehow than they could have been, and they’re hurting themselves. He’s unselfish and decent. Honest. And, well, he really cares about what happens to people…he feels guilty when his relatives act irresponsibly or maliciously and end up hurting people, as if it’s his responsibility to fix it, to make it better.”

“His relatives?” Yu-Lin asked, puzzled, having only heard about the gentle Alcmene.

“Yeah,” Iolaus sighed. “I guess I haven’t told you. Hercules’ father is Zeus, King of the Grecian Gods. Herc’s a demigod, and he’s never been comfortable within himself, that he’s different. Gods, different… as if that was a bad thing. The world would be a far better place if we could all be like him.”

“A demigod?” Yu-Lin mused, startled by the unexpected revelation. “Do you worship him, then?”

“NO!” Iolaus replied, amused, shaking his head. “No, not like a deity, anyway. For one thing, if I ever tried, he’d turn me upside down and shake me silly until I unaddled my brain. No, Herc’s my friend, and I guess, in a lot of ways, he’s my hero. Ever since we were kids. I…well, I’m older than he is and, if anything, I guess I feel responsible for taking care of him. But, I know that’s crazy-I’ve always known he doesn’t really need me.”

“So, you love him as a brother, a good friend?” his teacher asked, seeking precision.

“Yes…” his student nodded, still feeling that those words didn’t capture the depth of what he felt.

“More?” Yu-Lin persisted, sensing the hesitation.

Iolaus rolled his shoulders a little, and then swallowed. “I…we were more than just friends. I have other friends, good friends, but…it’s not the same. And, Herc has a brother, Iphicles, but they’ve never been as close as Herc and I used to be. I can’t explain it. It’s like he’s under my skin, a part of me.”

“Were you lovers?” the teacher again sought precision. “Or wish you were?”

Shaking his head vigorously, Iolaus replied, “No, it’s not like that-was never like that. I can’t describe…there aren’t words. His trust in me, the love that he gave me so completely, without reserve, when, well, at the time, I didn’t think anyone could ever really love me, honour me in that way. Gods, I was nobody, going nowhere, nothing but trouble…but I’ve always been ‘somebody’ to him, somebody who mattered.” Iolaus smiled unconsciously in memory. “He always only ever wanted me to be happy. No one has ever loved me the way that Hercules loved me. I’d do anything for him.”

“And this relationship ended when you married? He ended it?” Yu-Lin asked.

“No, I did. I owed Ania loyalty as well as love if she was going to share a life with me,” Iolaus replied, his voice a little tight.

“What did Hercules say when you told him you no longer wanted the same things, the same kind of life?” Yu-Lin prompted.

Looking away, speaking very softly, regretfully, Iolaus replied, “I told him things had changed just before I married Ania, but we never talked about it, not really. I just…pulled away.”

“You have said he no longer wants, needs or even trusts you as he once did,” Yu-Lin recalled Iolaus’ words from days ago. “How do you know how he feels if you’ve never spoken of it?”

Frowning, Iolaus looked at his teacher, not ever having considered the question before. “I guess because he just got on with his life, refusing to even consider letting me travel with him when he did go to face danger, knowing how vulnerable I could be…I didn’t tell you-the reason Hera cursed me was because Hercules got Zeus to turn back time, to bring me back to life after I’d been killed by Amazons. I guess, in a way, Herc might even consider me a burden now if I was to travel with him. And, he has his own family. It’s all so long ago; he has a different life now. It’s wrong of me to intrude, to want more.”

“You have said he is your ‘life’? What does that mean, exactly?” Yu-Lin asked, strenuously restraining his own sense of wonder at what he’d just been told. He didn’t doubt that a god had restored Iolaus’ life-gods were unfathomable, unknowable, did amazing things. But, he remembered his first reaction to this man, that there was something about him, a destiny of some kind that held importance. Frowning imperceptibly, he wondered if the King of the Greek gods had sensed something similar in this man and if that’s why he had allowed himself to be persuaded to such an astonishing deed as to turn back the whole of time, simply to restore this man’s life. Or, perhaps, it was as Iolaus believed, that the god had simply loved his son too much to refuse him-but that implied that the god knew Iolaus was of such import to his son that Hercules needed him-more than Iolaus seemed to realize.

Iolaus’ eyes roamed the garden as he thought about the question his Master had posed. Quietly, he replied, “Without him, there is no purpose in my life, no reason to live. He gives me meaning, makes my life worthy. Oh, I guess I could be a blacksmith forever, or even a mercenary, but it wouldn’t be the same as helping people the way we used to do. And-I don’t really want to move on or live a life he isn’t part of. I can’t explain it exactly, but it’s almost like I was born when I met him, like I found myself when I didn’t even know I was lost. I can’t imagine the world without him in it…can’t stand to even think of anything so empty. I would follow him anywhere, gladly face any danger without fear if I could somehow help him, guard him, and keep him safe. I would die for him, in a heartbeat, with no hesitation and no regret, if it meant I could save his life. The love I feel for him is…everything, boundless, endless. It’s who I am. I’m nothing without him.”

In the silence that followed, Iolaus was struck by what he’d just said. Months ago, he’d said to Hercules, ‘I have to find out who I am now.’ It seemed he’d just found his answer.

Yu-Lin turned to study the man sitting quietly beside him, struck by the quiet passion and conviction in Iolaus’ voice, his unshakeable commitment to this other being in his life. Perhaps, if he had an eternity, the Master could bring his student to understand and accept that he had worth in his own right. But, he only had days. Again, he was struck by that sense he’d had the first day he’d met this strange man, a sense that Iolaus held within him something incredible, something amazing-some extraordinary destiny. Perhaps, in a way Yu-Lin could not understand, Iolaus and the demigod he loved were indeed bound together, souls entwined, fates and destinies blended until one was indeed incomplete without the other. Perhaps, in some fundamental and profound way, Hercules was Iolaus’ life, just as his student asserted.

But, if that was so, the Master mused, could it be true for only one half of that entwined soul? Or, if he could meet Hercules, speak with him, would the demigod say that in some way he didn’t understand, he was incomplete without Iolaus? Frowning, Yu-Lin pondered this thought, nodding a little to himself, certain that it must be so-hadn’t Hercules demanded the greatest of the Greek gods roll back time for the whole of the world simply so that this modest and humble man might live?

“Thank you for helping me to understand,” Yu-Lin said in his measured, remote way. “Tomorrow, we will talk about love”

The next day, the discussion of the most profound power of life, the power that was life, began. Together, they explored the fundamentals of what it meant to love without expectation…and that led to discussions about the different natures of love, the mysteries and wonder of it. Despite much effort, the teacher was unable to sway Iolaus from his conviction that Hercules no longer felt the same way he’d felt in his youth or in any way significantly needed Iolaus in his life. So, Yu-Lin instead concentrated on helping Iolaus accept that this did not mean his friend did not love him still, though perhaps in a different way. To get his student beyond his conviction that he could not reveal the continuing depth of his own need for the friendship they’d once shared, Yu-Lin worked Iolaus through all the possibilities the warrior could imagine about how he could live with reality as he defined it-a hopeless reality of being forever in the shadows, of perhaps never sharing the closeness with Hercules they had once known. In doing so, Yu-Lin sought to reveal to Iolaus that he could not hide what was so intrinsically a part of himself, for to do so would only be to live a lie that could not be sustained without denying and destroying his own soul.

So, the teacher had Iolaus imagine and work through all the possible scenarios of how he could behave within the friendship that defined his being.

Imagining never seeing Hercules again, and rejecting it as inconceivable.

Seeing Herc and not letting the depth of his own commitment show, feeling the impossibility and dishonesty of that.

Relinquishing his secret hope that Hercules might someday desire a return to the partnership of their youth, and coming to grips with that, living with that, accepting that the friendship they shared could be enough.

Letting his love shine forth, being clear that all he really wanted was to back his buddy up, be there if needed, share what he could-finally understanding that everyone only really sees what they expect to see. Iolaus could safely let his love blaze forth because Hercules would only see it as the longstanding, familiar, friendship he expected, nothing more.

And, finally, that whether Hercules needed him or not, Iolaus could accept his own need and, in his heart, he made a commitment to follow Hercules if he could persuade his friend to allow it, whenever Herc set out on missions to help others. And even if Hercules didn’t ‘allow it’, Iolaus determined that he would follow anyway. He might not be essential, but he could help-and in helping, could bring meaning to his own life. Iolaus felt a sudden peace at that thought, sighing with the relief of the knowledge that he didn’t have to hide what he felt anymore.

As the days progressed, Iolaus came to understand he could not run away from his life, and that was what Hercules was, his life. For even when they were apart, Hercules haunted his thoughts, defined his reality. Hercules was the meaning for why he’d been born, his destiny. And, he came to understand he could not deny his own soul, or the love that dwelled within it. Accepted it was neither wrong nor right, simply who he was, would always be.

In the end, he knew he could return home feeling only joy at seeing his best friend again. That he could let the love shine from his eyes, echo from his voice, be reflected in his actions, without it being a demand, or even a request, for anything more than Hercules was able to give. Could accept the casual touch of an arm around his shoulders without wishing to regain the past, but with gratitude for the steadfast friendship and lifelong commitment the two comrades shared for one another, however they might express it or feel it in different ways.

Love, however it was expressed, was love, precious, to be cherished.

And, whether Hercules really needed him or not, he could devote himself to looking out for his friend, backing him up…like he had in his youth. Herc might not need his friendship, but he’d always appreciated it. Somehow, Iolaus vowed he’d find a way to…what? At the very least, let Hercules know he didn’t have to always face things alone. More, he would find a way to be there just in case his buddy ever would need Iolaus to save his life, even if it cost Iolaus his own. Herc wasn’t invincible, though he acted as if he was. There might come a time when he’d really need a friend watching his back.

Somewhere in the midst of those discussions, without noticing exactly when, Iolaus stopped wishing he could die and reawakened to the joy of being alive.

If Yu-Lin had had a lifetime, he might have chased all the shadows away from those bright blue eyes. But, he only had three months. So, there were still echoes of sadness there, and loss. Still knowledge of pain. But, the raw pain itself was gone and the fury, the rage, had been quenched. Iolaus had let it go. The eyes danced now with honest laughter, alive with energy and enthusiasm, ready to take whatever life held in store for him. There was an exhilaration that radiated from his student now that had not been visible when Yu-Lin had first observed the stranger at the edge of the temple square.

In the final two weeks, Yu-Lin introduced his student to the mysteries and power of meditation. He taught Iolaus how by accepting, not resisting, flowing, not fighting, he could master his body at least for a time so, for example, Iolaus found he could exist at the bottom of a tank of water for up to half an hour without drowning. The Master taught his student the principles and practices of how to use meditation to seek balance and harmony, peace in the midst of chaos, exhorting Iolaus to practice meditation daily, that he might some day find strength and tranquility within the altered state of being. However, the state of meditation and its transcendent powers was hard to convey in that it had to be experienced. There was a mystical reality of experience that Iolaus would only know if he did, indeed, practice it for a lifetime. Certainly, in the mere days remaining to them, there was no time for mastery. In his wisdom, Yu-Lin knew there would be times when Iolaus would slip, many times when he would fall back into old pain and regret. But, the Master had helped guide his student to his centre, so that Iolaus could find it and recognize it when the world threatened to overwhelm him-so that Iolaus could at some level know that there was no reality, simply perceptions, that he could surrender and yet be victorious.

It would have to be enough.

One day, Yu-Lin came to the garden bearing Iolaus’ pack. When his student looked at it and then up at him, he explained, “The caravan is leaving today. Your lessons here are done. It is time for you to return to your life, to your home.”

Thoughtfully, Iolaus took the pack as he stood to face his teacher, wondering what words could ever express his gratitude for the gifts of skill, insight and perception, of perspective, he’d been given here-in the exercise square, but more, in this garden. Finally, he bowed deeply in respect, murmuring, “Yu-Lin, you will always be my teacher…your words and wisdom will guide my steps. I thank you, Master, for having found me, and finding me, having helped me find myself…my purpose of being and my path.”

Yu-Lin bowed back, just as deeply, conveying profound and sincere respect for his student. “You, Iolaus, have been my student, but I have also learned from you. I have seen your courage and integrity, your compassion and strength. You say Hercules is your life, part of your soul. I say that your soul is love and that the two of you share a life, a destiny. You are a humble and modest man but in making you the gods, whoever they are, gave a wondrous gift to this world, and I am grateful to them. I thank you for your trust in allowing me to be your teacher. I, too, will always remember you and I will be inspired by the memory of a man who faces life unflinchingly, lives it fully and rejoices it in. I am grateful you found your way here and I will miss you when you are gone.”

Iolaus looked up, startled by the words, astonished by them. But then he smiled, with gratitude and love for this amazingly gentle, wise, wonderful human being. Unable to stop himself, Iolaus reached out and hugged his teacher to his heart, holding him tightly for a long moment. “Thank you,” he murmured once more, reverently kissing the old man’s cheek.

Then, he turned and walked out of the garden…back to his life, his destiny.

At least three times every week since Iolaus had left, Hercules had gone alone to the cottage on the hill, to make sure it stayed in good repair, to tend to the graves, the flowers. To ensure it was ready for Iolaus, should he return that day or the next.

Deianeara had been wonderful, never complaining when she caught him moping around, staring endlessly down that empty lane, never resenting or questioning the hours he spent alone up at the empty cottage. She knew he missed Iolaus like he’d miss a part of himself…because Iolaus was so fundamentally part of who he was. Often as he puttered around Iolaus’ cottage, impatient with the endless waiting, Hercules would rake fingers through his hair, amazed that she seemed so easily to understand and accept what he didn’t really understand himself. Gods, he missed Iolaus, with an ever-present ache that gnawed at his heart.

Once the chores were done, the cottage as ready and welcoming as he could keep it, Hercules would sit on the crest of the hill looking out over the valley to his mother’s home, remembering and trying to find comfort in the memories. But, then he’d sigh, and stand, knowing it was time to head back home, uncomforted-the memories only leaving him feeling more bereft, lonelier than ever.

In some ways, Hercules had never found a way to fully accept how Iolaus had so quickly, so easily, turned away from him when he’d met Ania. Oh, intellectually the demigod could understand it well enough. He knew what the idea of family meant to Iolaus. And, he’d set it up himself, in some ways, taking off without even saying good-bye after his friend had married, though he knew Iolaus hadn’t known why at the time. But, he’d sensed that Iolaus hadn’t even noticed, not for the longest time anyway. It had ended so suddenly, with no warning, no time to prepare-the easy, always there, partnership Hercules had relied upon for virtually the whole of his life had just vanished…and that had left him feeling more than a little lost.

So, to give himself time to come to grips with the rejection he’d felt, he’d wandered…and, in wandering, had found Deianeara, and a better understanding of why Iolaus had pulled back from the life they had shared. Hercules loved his wife profoundly and could not imagine not having her, or their children, in his life. The emptiness and hurt he’d felt over Iolaus’ rejection had been muted by this understanding of what love of a wife and family could mean. And so, over the years, in his mind and heart, their friendship had remained strong. And now when Iolaus was gone, deep down inside, there was an emptiness that even his abiding, passionate love for Deianeara could not completely fill.

But, before he’d met Deianeara, before even Iolaus had married Ania, there’d been that disastrous journey to Gargarencia. Gods, Hercules still felt sick every time he remembered holding Iolaus in his arms, watching him die. To know he was losing part of what they had to Ania was one thing-to lose Iolaus completely, irrevocably, had been shattering. He’d gone a little crazy, he thought now, remembering. Drowning in the depth of his loss, he’d reached out for something, anything, to vent his fury and rage-and he’d immersed himself in the battle to free Hippolyta and her Amazons from Hera’s sick control. It had been a distraction; a way of exacting vengeance against the goddess, for Hercules blamed her for Iolaus’ death. But even winning that battle had brought no comfort, no solace.

Iolaus was still dead.

Overwhelmed, shattered by that loss, by his inability to countenance it, Hercules had begged his father as he had never begged before. Begged Zeus to restore Iolaus to him. Begged him to undo what had been done-erase all that had happened, so that Iolaus might again live.

And Zeus had rolled back time.

When Hercules had found himself back in Ania’s home, he’d thought he’d burst with the sheer joy and gratitude that swamped him, that his father had granted his wish. Whatever resentment Hercules had felt for his father in the past, whatever he might again feel in the future, the Son of Zeus knew he would always be profoundly, forever, grateful to his father for that amazing gift.

Iolaus was alive. Hercules had gotten his best friend back…and he wasn’t ever going to risk losing Iolaus again.

Nor had he, for a very long time.

Hercules remembered when Ania had died, how lost Iolaus had seemed then, how wounded. Gods, how he’d wanted to reach out and offer to fill that emptiness, offer a return to their old ways so that Iolaus wouldn’t be so alone, so evidently lost. But, that time, their time, had passed. It wouldn’t have been right-not for Iolaus, nor for Deianeara. For Hercules was an honest man, and he knew having committed himself to Deianeara, to his love for her, to the family they planned to have together, to the life they would share so long as they lived, he couldn’t betray her, to wander as he had in his youth.

And, besides, his heart had quailed with the old fear. Even if he took Iolaus with him on those rare occasions when people still sought out his help, what if Iolaus got killed again? What then? No, better to just carry on with the lives they had. Iolaus had his son, had a safe life, commitments…and so did he.

Finally the day came when Iolaus had wanted so badly to go with him to confront the Minotaur, and Hercules hadn’t the heart any longer to say no. He’d missed his friend in so many ways. Missed the fun and laughter when they traveled. Missed the security of knowing Iolaus was at his back. Missed the unconditional confidence Iolaus had always had in him, and which sustained him when he went up against danger he couldn’t imagine or assess in advance. Missed just being with Iolaus, alone, to enjoy the time together. So, he’d relented in his vow to not put Iolaus at risk again-and had almost lost him again.

Gods what a horror that whole experience had been. He’d been so glad when it was finally over, and they were home safe, at his mother’s place. He’d vowed he’d take no more risks with Iolaus’ life. From then on, Hercules limited their ‘adventures’ to occasional fishing trips with the boys, until one day Iolaus persuaded him to go off hunting, just the two of them, like old times.

Only to return and find that Iolaus’ son was dying.

Iolaus had been frantic, had tried everything to keep his boy alive, to hold onto him. When Telaus had sighed and gone still, Hercules had watched Iolaus tenderly lift the child to his heart, holding him, the two so silent, so pale and still they both seemed to have been turned to stone. When the shudder had rippled through Iolaus’ body, when he was wracked by the silent sobs of an anguish that could not be assuaged, Hercules had ached with sorrow that there was nothing he could do to alleviate his friend’s pain except be there to hold him while he cried.

And then Hercules had learned that the bargain he’d made so long ago for Iolaus’ life had ultimately cost his best friend his family and the possibility of ever having a family of his own. The knowledge tore Hercules apart. He couldn’t regret getting Iolaus back, but nor could he forgive himself for what it had cost. He raged at Hera, and at his father for not being able to control his spouse, for not having intervened to forbid such obscenity. Iolaus had suffered so much in life, had endured so much. But, despite all the cruelties of what had happened to him in his life, Hercules knew how much love Iolaus had in his heart, how much he needed to give love-and now, Hera had imprisoned Iolaus in a future of loneliness. The demigod had ached for his friend, had struggled about how to give him comfort …had wondered how Iolaus could bear it, could bear the loneliness.

But, he’d never imagined that Iolaus would leave, would just walk away unable to endure the emptiness of his cottage. Alone. Vulnerable. Trying to be strong when he felt so lost. For the thousandth time, Hercules wondered if he should have forced him to stay…but, knew he couldn’t have, that he didn’t have the right to demand Iolaus stay and face the ghosts everyday just because Hercules couldn’t imagine life without him there.

Once over the course of the first year, he’d found himself asking Aphrodite if she knew anything about where Iolaus was, what he was doing. It had just been a whisper on the night wind, as he’d roamed restless across the fields and up to Iolaus’ cottage. But she’d appeared immediately, subdued for Aphrodite, shaking her head with regret. No, she knew nothing…Iolaus had wandered too far past her usual boundaries of interest or influence into the shadows of distant lands.

And, now, it was late afternoon, and Hercules had once again lapsed into his reverie, watching the lane that led down to the road that led to the east. It had been almost two achingly long years since he’d watched Iolaus stride away along that track, disappearing around the curve in the road. He’d heard nothing for so long, and felt so…lost somehow, like his foundation had shifted and the world was uncertain, off balance. Time after time, he’d imagined seeing Iolaus striding along, a grin lighting his face as he retraced his steps, finally coming home, only to sigh in disappointment and frustration when the image evaporated like mist under the heat of the sun.

But, then a little more than a week ago, a tattered, filthy note, the writing barely still legible, had found its way into his hands, letting him know that Iolaus had taken a caravan to the far east, and had decided to stay on there for a few months. Hercules had sighed as he’d smoothed out the wrinkled parchment, and then folded it carefully, securing it in his belt. The demigod carried that note with him everywhere, forcing himself not to touch it, or read it over and over, less the ragged thing disintegrate completely.

How long ago had Iolaus sent it? How much longer would he be gone?

Finally, blowing out a breath of frustration, Hercules accepted that the empty lane was going to stay empty for another day. Pushing his fingers through his hair, he turned to head back up to the barn, to finish the chores of the day. He’d just straightened from picking up the pitchfork when…

Yo! Hey, Herc!”

The sound of that jubilant voice ignited a blaze of happiness so fierce that at first Hercules couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move-and then he was whirling, throwing the tool away, to see Iolaus loping up the lane, grinning from ear to ear.

The next thing he knew, the demigod was halfway down the lane, lifting his partner into a tight hug, swinging him around in a kind of dance of unrestrained joy. “Oh gods, you’re home!” he cried with vast relief. “You’re finally home!”

Iolaus was hugging him right back, laughing even as he tried to breathe despite the death-lock Hercules had on him. “Hey, anyone would think you missed me!” he teased, delighted by the welcome.

Smiling blissfully, Hercules finally set him back down, only to loop an arm around his best friend’s shoulders as he drawled, “Missed you? Nah, whatever gave you that idea? It’s not like you were gone for more than a year or anything! Gods, Iolaus, I was beginning to wonder if you were ever coming back.”

Iolaus heard the ache despite the teasing, and was warmed by it. Smiling up at his tall friend, his eyes filled with the pleasure of seeing Hercules again, he said quietly, “I told you I’d be back…gods, Herc, you gotta know I’d never leave for good. I couldn’t.”

“I know,” the demigod replied, reassured by the words, “but, I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Iolaus assured him, sincerity ringing in his voice.

Hercules found himself studying his friend…there was something different. The hair was the same, maybe a bit longer, and the clothes were the same, but it was if a fog had cleared and the sun was shining through. Hercules realized then how long it had been, far more than the twenty-two months his friend had been gone, since he’d seen that clear look in Iolaus’ eyes, the sunny brightness of his expression, open, full of warmth, no constraints. “You’ve found yourself,” Hercules said then, a kind of wonder in his voice.

“Yeah,” Iolaus confirmed, not questioning the odd words, understanding them. He’d been lost for a long time, not quite himself, living but not thriving, enjoying but not reveling in life. But, he’d finally come to accept that Hercules was his life, even if his friend would never know how deeply he felt, how profoundly Hercules was still, and would always be, a part of Iolaus’ own identity. It didn’t matter. Not so long as he could share something of Herc’s life, and be there if he was ever needed. “Yeah,” he said again, turning with his friend to head up to the house. “I feel…younger somehow. I learned how to let the pain and the anger go.”

Nodding thoughtfully as he continued to gaze at his friend, Hercules replied quietly, “I’m glad Iolaus. Really glad.”

Deianeara took one look at Iolaus when Hercules pulled him through the door, both of their faces alight with joy, and then she raced across the kitchen, throwing her arms around him, hugging him without restraint, so very glad he had finally, finally returned safe and well. The boys raced in, to see what all the laughing and excitement was about, Ilea toddling at their heels, and then they too were jumping around their Uncle Iolaus, vying for his attention.

“Aeson,” Herc directed with a wide grin, “run over to your grandmother’s place and tell her we have a surprise here for her. DON’T tell her Uncle Iolaus is back, just bring her, okay?”

Aeson nodded eagerly and skipped out the door, running flat out to Alcmene’s place, so excited he could scarcely make himself understood when he arrived there, just that there was a “REALLY GREAT SURPRISE,” and she had to come “RIGHT AWAY!” He pulled on her arm, impatient as she stopped to take off her apron, and then practically hauled her back across the fields.

Bemused, laughing, wondering what could have gotten the boy so excited, Alcmene followed him into the house, looked up, saw Iolaus-and burst into tears.

“Ah, don’t cry,” Iolaus pleaded as he moved to take her into his arms, hugging her tight. “Come on, don’t….”

Pulling a little away from him, sniffing, wiping her eyes so that she could see him clearly, she smiled tremulously as she shook her head, trying to regain control. Reaching up to cup his cheek with her hand, she was finally able to say, “I’ve been so worried about you, Iolaus…and I’ve missed you so much. Oh, I’m so very glad to have you home.” Then, she wrapped her arms around him, hugging him as if unwilling to ever let him go.

Moved beyond words, Iolaus just held her for a long moment, basking in her love. Then, he too, sniffed and pulled himself away, surreptitiously wiping his own eyes. “I missed you, too, Alcmene, and thought about you a lot. Hey, look,” he said, turning to pick up the very stuffed pack he’d carried in with him, “I brought you something-you, too, Deianeara, everybody!”

Rummaging about in the pack, he brought out several small objects wrapped carefully in clean rags. Sorting them on the table, he moved one small pile to each woman, and handed somewhat larger wrapped objects to the two little boys and the tiny little girl, and a small package to Hercules. Standing back, he waved his arms expectantly at them, to signal they should open their gifts.

Delighted, the children tore into their presents, eager to see what Uncle Iolaus had brought them. The boys, eyes wide with anticipation, ripped the bindings from their gifts, one a wooden carving of a camel, the other of an elephant. Ilea fumbled a bit with the bindings, but wouldn’t let anyone help her, determined to master it on her own. Finally, she extracted a delicate wooden carving of an ancient Chinese man. “Oooo,” she cooed, stroking the smooth, glossy surface. “What’s his name?” she asked ingenuously, wide blue eyes lifting to gaze at Iolaus, an uncle she’d heard so many stories about and was finally meeting for herself.

“His name is Yu-Lin,” Iolaus replied, a look of serenity on his face as he gazed at the carving he’d whittled himself. “He’s a wise, very wonderful, man who became my teacher and my friend.” Ilea smiled softly, nodding as if she understood how special this gift was.

For each of the women, he’d brought rare spices from the east and delicate bottles of scent. For Deianeara, there was also a finely wrought, filigree silver bracelet with tiny charms, and for Alcmene, a chain of woven strands of gold that glittered in the light.

Hercules had watched the others unwrap their treasures, smiling with delight as each was revealed, dutifully smelling both the spices and the scent, admiring the animals, wondering a little at the carving of the old man. Laughing, he listened happily as Iolaus described the live versions of the animals for the boys, reducing them all to giggles when he physically acted out how they moved and the defining characteristics of their personalities.

Then when Iolaus turned to him with a look of expectation, Hercules opened his own gift, wondering what Iolaus would have brought for him…a man of simple tastes who carried nothing with him, wanted for nothing, he couldn’t imagine what his imaginative buddy would have come up with. Inside the binding was a small, engraved, teak box, beautiful in itself. Inside the box were two matching ovals of turquoise set in elegantly plain steel bands.

When Hercules looked up at his friend, Iolaus shrugged as he explained the purpose of the bracelets he’d designed, forged and crafted himself, “You’re not the easiest guy to shop for, Herc. I thought those gauntlets Heph gave you, as indestructible and utilitarian as they are, could stand a little dressing up. They’re designed to just slip on over top and the next time we see Heph, we can get him to set them in permanently.”

Hercules smiled at him and immediately set the bands in place on his gauntlets, where they would remain a daily reminder of his friend’s thoughtfulness for the rest of his life. “Thanks, Iolaus, they’re great,” he said, the simple words coloured by the pleasure in his eyes.

“Iolaus, it’s all too much!” Alcmene protested as she slipped the chain around her throat, liking the feel of it against her skin. She’d never had anything so fine, so beautiful. “Thank you, son…everything’s perfect.”

Deianeara rose from the table to hug him in gratitude, kissing his cheek as she said, “Alcmene’s right, it is too much, and it’s all wonderful. You’re too generous by half. Thank you.” Standing back, looking at the small cask of strange spice in her hand she continued thoughtfully, teasing him, “But you may have to do some of the cooking, to show us how to use these new ingredients.”

Iolaus laughed, as he agreed, “Okay, but then you’ll have to eat what I make with these.” Once more delving into his pack, he pulled out a pair of beautifully carved chopsticks for everyone. Examining them, they all looked at him with questions in their eyes. “I’ll show you how to eat with them, and believe me, it’s not as easy as it looks, but if I could learn, so can all of you.”

“Oh, and last but not least, given the scrapes little boys, or even big boys, can get,” Iolaus said with a meaningful look at Hercules, “here are some medicines and salves from the far east that are almost as good as anything Aesclepius can cook up.” He placed several sealed small bottles and enameled pots on the table.

Nothing in his manner revealed how hard he’d had to work to earn the silver to buy these small treasures of his travels, tangible evidence that they’d been in his thoughts and in heart while he’d been away. But, that too had had unlooked for benefits. The smith traveling with the caravan had been glad of an assistant who knew at least some of the rudimentaries of working with fire and steel. Iolaus had always liked those kinds of chores when he’d been at the Academy long years ago. In return, the smith had not only paid him for his labour, but had also taught him how to fashion lumps of metal into swords and spears, knives and other more domestic utensils. Looking around now, seeing the faces of his family, their eyes aglow with happiness, Iolaus smiled with quiet joy, glad to have brought the gifts to share with each of them.

But there’d been enough fuss made of him. It was time to allow life to resume its natural rhythms.

Setting his pack aside, Iolaus pulled up a chair at the table and looked around expectantly. “So, when do we eat…I’m starving!”

Laughing, the women rose and, after hugging him again, went to prepare the evening meal, while the two men and the children played with the wooden animals, making up wild and wondrous adventures about distant lands. Over dinner, Iolaus regaled them with stories of the people he’d met, the sights he’d seen, and the stories went on long into the evening. He had them in stitches with his descriptions of how the tiny Yu-Lin, a man who had been already old when Iolaus had been born, had tossed the warrior into the dirt with relentless and patient vigour.

“But, just wait, Hercules,” Iolaus chuckled, “until I show you what I eventually learned! You will be eating dust, my friend!”

Finally, it was late. Rising, Iolaus bowed to Alcmene as he said, “Now, if I might have the honour of escorting the lady home?” Delighted, she rose to take the arm he held out to walk with him to the door. Hercules saw them out while Deianeara shooed the children to bed, long after their normal bedtime, but they’d been too excited by their uncle’s return, too enthralled by his tales of wonder, to be banished earlier.

Outside, as they said their goodnights, Hercules again embraced Iolaus, holding him tightly as he said, “I’m really glad you’re back, buddy.”

“I am, too,” Iolaus replied quietly, before turning to walk with Alcmene across the dark fields.

Hercules watched until they’d disappeared into the darkness, and then headed back into the house, feeling a sense of peace he hadn’t known for too many long months.

They walked silently, enjoying the balmy evening air. Iolaus gazed up at the stars, and over toward the dark hill where his own cottage sat, not really looking forward to returning to its silence, but knowing he couldn’t avoid it. It was where he lived, after all.

Alcmene took his arm, ambling along thoughtfully while her mind played over the evening. When they reached her cottage, Iolaus paused at the door, to hug her ‘good night’ before heading up the hill.

But, she held onto his arm, drawing him inside, as she said, “Oh no, young man, you’re not leaving yet. Come inside for a cup of tea.”

Relieved, in no hurry to go back to the silent emptiness, Iolaus grinned and agreed.

He built up the fire in her hearth while she bustled around lighting candles and putting the tea in the pot, filling the kettle with water to boil. She pushed Iolaus into a chair by the table, and sat down with him to wait for the water, laying a hand over his. “We missed you, more than I think you’d ever believe,” she said simply. “You were gone so very long.”

Looking down, covering her hand with his own, he nodded, “I know…I didn’t think it would be so long when I left. I’m sorry if you were worried.”

“Well, you’re home now, and that’s what counts,” she said as she rose to lift the whistling kettle from the fire and pour the steaming water into the pot. Settling again at the table, she looked at him, studying him, wondering what had really happened to him while he’d been away.

“The time you spent in the temple…it’s changed you,” she observed. “You seem more at ease, almost at peace…happy. Tell me more about it, about what happened there.”

Taking a deep breath, Iolaus shook his head, as he replied, “It’s a long story, but, basically, I met a very wise man who helped me come to grips with things-with everything that’s happened in my life, and what I feel. He taught me how to see things differently, and,” Iolaus shrugged, “he helped me find a way to let go of the pain, accept what is and how to be really, really grateful for what I have…for you, Hercules and his family, for my own family, for my life. And, he taught me some really great moves,” Iolaus went on, his face lighting with laughter. “Wait’ll I flip Herc over my shoulder! I can’t wait to see his face!” Iolaus giggled at the thought as he took a sip of the steaming tea.

“I’m glad,” she said quietly as she poured her own tea. “You…you were locked inside for a very long time, not letting how you feel shine through. When I saw you today, you were glowing-you still are. Like you used to…before Ania….”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know how to deal with it all, and you know me, push it down, pretend everything’s all right and keep going,” Iolaus replied. “I didn’t know myself how much I had locked myself away.”

“Hmm,” she murmured, taking a sip of the tea, still studying him thoughtfully, a small crease between her brows. “Iolaus, I’m glad, really glad, more than you know, to have you home, to see you so happy. But,” she hesitated, then set down the mug, reaching again to put her hand over his, “I’m afraid for you, afraid for your heart. I don’t want you hurt….”

Puzzled, Iolaus studied her. “Hurt? I don’t understand…?”

Looking away for a moment, she took a deep breath, plunging right in, “He doesn’t understand, doesn’t see how you feel…”

Gazing at her, wondering at her concern for him, he asked quietly, “What do you see, Alcmene?”

“Love…” she replied simply, gazing at him with a slight frown between her brows. “I see the love you have for him, how much he matters to you. Iolaus, you know him as well, better maybe even than I do. You know there’s no hope that he’ll ever go back to the way it was before. You were always so close when the two of you were younger…inseparable. But that time is past. You deserve your own life, not just a life lived in the shadow of his…”

Wiping his hand over his mouth, Iolaus shook his head, not wanting her to be worried about him. “Alcmene, you know as well as I do that there’s no question of me ever having a family of my own again,” he said quietly, not looking at her. “I tried to find my own way…that’s why I went east. But, I finally came to understand that what really matters to me most is being here for him, and for you. Being here in case either of you ever needs me. Crazy, I guess, but well, it’s who I am. The fact is, I can’t imagine not being some part of his life. And, I guess old habits die hard…you used to trust me to look after him and I’ve always felt the need to watch over him, ever since we were little kids.”

“Yes, I have trusted you to look after him…and you have, so far as he’s ever let you. I never stopped trusting you, Iolaus…I never will,” Alcmene replied firmly. “But, I wonder sometimes, who looks after you?”

Iolaus laughed a little mirthlessly at that. “He does,” he replied, shaking his head. “That’s why he stopped letting me travel with him years ago. He’s protecting me. I have to try to find some way to show him he doesn’t have to do that-that’s if he even would consider me tagging along should the need arise…if he even still trusts me to watch his back.”

“Trusts you?” Alcmene exclaimed, drawing his eyes back to her, holding them, “There’s no one he’s ever trusted more. Iolaus, you have no idea how much he missed you, how much he relies on you to be there, a constant in his life. I know you have always loved Hercules every bit as much as I have. That love, the depth and strength of it is a miracle…you ground him, you were always there for him. So long as he was with you, I knew I didn’t need to worry that he’d ever be alone. But, that’s not the point. You can’t just live your life for him. You deserve better than that.”

He gazed into her eyes and saw that she was, indeed, worried about him, concerned about how he would live his life, where he would find worth and meaning…and love. He smiled as he said softly, taking her hand this time, holding it gently, “Alcmene, I swear, as long as I’ve known you, you never cease to amaze me. Thank you for being worried about me. He’s your son, and lots of mothers wouldn’t care what his friend might need or want in their lives, would only feel the devotion was his due, be reassured that given the dangers he still faces too often that such a friend might be helpful to have around.”

She pulled her hand away and swatted him. Flinching, he raised his hands, fending her off, “What?” he exclaimed, now thoroughly confused.

“‘My son’? Iolaus, when will you ever believe that as far as I’m concerned, you are my son, too? I love you, you’re so much more to me than just ‘my son’s friend’,” she scolded him, but her voice cracked with emotion. All these years, and still he set himself apart, as if he didn’t belong. She wanted to shake him.

“Oh,” he giggled a little then, “for a minute there, I thought I was in real trouble!” Sobering, he again took her hand and held it firmly as he said, “I know you love me, and believe me, Alcmene, that means more to me than you will ever know. It was your love that let me begin to believe that life could be good, that it was safe to love, to trust, other people. And, I hope you know I love you, too, and in my heart, you are my mother.”

“Well, fine then,” she replied acerbically, “at least we have finally gotten that settled.” But, then, her expression softened and she shook her head. “What am I ever going to do with you, Iolaus? You love with everything that you are, you don’t know how to protect yourself…I’m beginning to think you never will. You’ll stay here, living your life for him, in his shadow and he won’t even realize it. That can never be enough for you.”

Iolaus smiled then, warmly, with confidence, as he assured her, “Yes, it can. The only thing that could ever hurt me anymore is not having the two of you in my life. I loved my family, you know that. And, I miss them…wish what happened hadn’t happened. But, so long as I have the two of you, I can survive anything. With Herc, well, I just want to be a part of his life-to be there if he ever needs me and I can help. I know he loves me, too, in his own way, and that’s enough…more than enough. So, don’t worry about me. I’m fine with this, better than fine, Alcmene. I’m happy.”

She searched his eyes, and saw the truth of his words glowing there. Finally, nodding, she murmured, “You are such a good man. We are so lucky you came into our family, Iolaus. You don’t know how grateful I am, have always been, to have you.”

He laughed at that, shaking his head. He’d never understand it, but then, he didn’t have to. He had only to be grateful and accept the love she so freely gave him. “Thanks, Alcmene. But, it works both ways, you know. I’m lucky, too.”

They sat quietly for a moment then he again pushed back the chair and stood, hiding his reluctance to leave. “Well, it’s late. I’d better be going.”

“No, Iolaus…not tonight. Tonight, you’ve come home from a long journey. And you’re going to sleep here, in your home-in the bed that has always been yours. Tomorrow is time enough to climb that hill,” she said firmly, also standing and taking his arm to pull him toward the old room he’d shared with Hercules for so many nights of his childhood and youth.

The emotion swept over and through him, and he pulled her back into a hug, just holding her for a long moment, before he could whisper, not trusting his voice to speak more clearly, “Thank you, Alcmene…I really need to be home tonight.”

The next morning, Iolaus climbed the long hill back up to his cottage. Dropping his pack at the door, he circled around to the back, pausing a moment to smile with gratitude to Hercules for the flowers that grew upon the well-maintained graves.

Then he moved to sit down beside them, and look out over the valley to the forest beyond. He let the peace and the quiet surround and fill him as he listened to the rustling leaves murmuring their welcome to him. After a moment, his gaze turned to each of the graves and he smiled softly, and still with a tinge of wistful sorrow.

“I love you, all of you,” he whispered. “I will always love you and be grateful to have had you in my life. I remember the laughter we shared and the joy. Ah, Ania, you were so very beautiful. So gentle. I’ll never understand how I was lucky enough to win your heart. No more than I’ll ever understand why you scared the dickens out of every animal you ever met.” He smiled with the endearing memories, and he felt the peace and joy of their love fill his heart. “I miss you, sweetheart.” Looking at the smallest grave, he sighed. “Aeacus, I so wish I could have known you. I remember your golden curls and huge blue eyes, and your sweet, little smile. I only got to hold you for a few days, but I loved you so much. I always will.”

Turning at last to the final grave, Iolaus reached out to touch the violets that grew in profusion upon it. “Telaus, you brought such light to my life. I was so proud of you-you were so smart, you know? And such a good kid. You were always trying to help…and you always made me laugh with your antics. If I had a wish, I would wish I’d taken you hunting, son. That I’d not missed even those two days with you. I thank the Fates for allowing me to know the joy of having a son like you, even if only for too short a time. I love you, son, and I miss you every day.”

Looking back over the valley, Iolaus told them, “I’m sorry I had to go away and leave you for so long. Sorry that the pain of losing you made it impossible for me to stay, made me blind to the good memories-made me forget to just be grateful to have known your love. But I learned so much while I was away. And I’m glad now to be home, to remember all of you and be here with you again. I’ll likely travel again, maybe for long periods of time, or I will if Herc lets me go with him when he’s called by those who need his help. But I won’t be running away from you the next time. I’ll be carrying you in my heart. You are my family.”

Sighing, Iolaus sat in silence for a long time, just remembering, often smiling with the memories. But at last, he stood and went back, to enter his cottage and to reflect again with no little amazement how well Hercules had taken care of things for him. There was scarcely any dust, as if it had been recently cleaned in expectation of his homecoming. There was fresh water in the barrel, and logs had been laid in the hearth. There was even a small bowl of fruit on the table, and a slab of cheese wrapped in the cupboard with a loaf of bread that couldn’t be more than a couple of days old. There was a jar of honey and a packet of tea, its scent still fresh.

For the first time, deeply moved, Iolaus realized how much Herc must have really missed him. To have done this every few days, bringing new supplies, cleaning the place of dust, for weeks and months, for almost two years, without ever knowing when he’d return, said more than words could ever convey. Iolaus felt a tightness in his chest, and his eyes burned as he bit his lip. These small signs of care were worth more than all the gold in the world and were far more than he ever would have expected.

“Thanks, Herc,” he whispered, his voice tight with emotion. “Thanks for never giving up on me.”

Drifting back outside, he wandered to the hill that overlooked Alcmene’s place and Hercules’ home in the distance.

And he grinned with a light heart, glad to be home, glad to have found his way back from his journey beyond the eastern horizon.

“I’m back, buddy,” he murmured with a peaceful smile. “So long as I live, I won’t ever leave you again. I promise.”


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