Crucible of Heroes part one: Before the Legend Began

by Melisande

It was a brilliant, beautiful afternoon in Greece, and the three heroes striding along together seemed to be making the most of it. Had there been a passerby on the trail, he would have seen three men loaded with carry sacks and fishing gear, walking and chatting with the amiable ease of long friendship. There were occasional jests and some laughter, and they bantered and even bickered companionably.

Jason, former King of Corinth, Iolaus of Thebes, and Hercules, son of Zeus, were off on vacation, and it was much needed.

“Hey, Herc, you’re falling behind again.” At Jason’s side, Iolaus turned to dance backwards for several steps, looking back at the demigod several yards behind them.

Don’t try quite so hard, Iolaus, Jason tried to communicate his thought with a glare, but the smaller man did not meet his eyes. This will be good for him, but you can’t force it.

“Yeah, well, is this a vacation or a race?” Hercules answered, with a brief smile, although that observer might notice that the emotion did not seem to lighten his eyes.

“Definitely a vacation,” Iolaus replied. His tone attempted gaiety but sounded somewhat forced. “And we’re almost there.”

Jason nodded, glancing around at the wild and beautiful scenery of this hidden mountain valley. “I’d recognize the place anywhere.” He glanced at Iolaus, as the blond pulled a couple of dried figs from his belt pouch and began to munch on them. “It always made me wonder how I could’ve been at the Academy for two years before you two rubes showed up, and yet you found the best fishing spot nearby.”

Hercules had lengthened his stride and caught them up. “Talent, my boy, talent! It can’t be taught.”

Iolaus, his mouth full, chuckled. He glanced up at Hercules searchingly, noting his smile but also the tight muscles around Hercules’ eyes.

“Hey - don’t be so quick to take the credit!” Iolaus swallowed his food, and threw a playful punch at Hercules’ bicep. “You happened to be with me, but I’m the one who found it.”

“Says you.”

“Yep, I do - and we’re here.”

They had just come around a bend in the trail, skirting an outcropping of rock, and a wondrous vista opened before them. A cobalt blue lake threaded through a narrow, curved mountain valley and reflected the brilliance of the sky above. Ancient trees, pushing up through rocky soil, kept undergrowth to a minimum, and large stones, like natural sculptures dotted the banks. Off in the distance, at one end of the small valley, a long waterfall cascaded from the mountain’s height above and fell into the depths below, feeding the lake and providing a muted, calming background thunder. At the other end, a forest of beeches stretched down to the mountain’s foot, where the Academy still stood.

“Still doesn’t look like anyone comes this way much,” Jason noted.

Iolaus shook his head. “Too hard to get to, villages too far away, and too rocky for good farmland. I guess the occasional hunter wanders through, but it looks to be pretty much like it was all those years ago.”

“So, let’s go.” Hercules led the way and the three friends threaded the steep trail single file down into the valley.

They set up camp in their favorite spot near where another small tributary fed into the lake, chuckling over stony shoals to lose itself in the larger body of water. Large boulders formed a campsite that was naturally protected from the cool mountain wind, but opened out into a view over the length of the lake. Long fingers of mossy rock like the ribs of Mother Gaia led out into the lake forming perfect places to stand or sit and throw in a line. The rocky bottom of the lake kept the water amazingly clear in the shallows.

The men set up their camp with the wordless ease of long practice together. Rather than be quite so much at the mercy of the elements, especially with the cool spring nights, they had brought blankets and supplies, as well as a few cooking utensils and their fishing gear.

After the long journey, and the work of gathering wood to burn, and stones to surround the fire, the men were hot and sweaty from the warm sun. They made their way down to the lake, shucked off their outer clothes and leaped in.

Iolaus came up, yelling and sputtering. “Gods! It’s colder than I remember!”

Jason ducked his head back to pull his wet hair from his eyes, and grinned, catching Hercules’ eye. “Well then, Iolaus, we need to help your memory, don’t we, Hercules?”

“What are friends for?” Hercules shot back, and both of them leaped on Iolaus.

The battle was spirited and loud, and their laughter and shouting filled the valley. Their horseplay warmed tired muscles in the chilly water, and, at least for a few moments, gave them a childlike respite from recent care and sorrow.

Half a sunwidth later, the three friends clambered out, pleasantly fatigued and cooled off from their exertions in the cold lake. They lay in the brilliant sunshine on the sun-warmed stones, drying themselves, almost dozing until Iolaus’ growling stomach and the westering sun could no longer be ignored.

“It sounds like there’s something alive in there,” Jason stated, as he laced his shirt.

“I can’t help it - I’m starving!” Iolaus replied, pulling his leather pants over his dried breechclout.

“Well, it’s no wonder.” Jason’s voice was concerned but his eyes danced. “It’s almost been a whole sunwidth since you’ve eaten anything.”

“Sure, laugh, mock my pain,” Iolaus replied, shaking his head with a sigh. He glanced over at Hercules surreptitiously as he busied himself with his laces. The demigod had not moved, and lay on the mossy rock with his face half-turned away, his sky-blue gaze distant and sad.

“Do you hear this guy, Herc?” Iolaus sat down to pull on his boots, close enough to nudge Hercules’ hip with his foot.

“Huh?” Hercules head turned quickly, and Iolaus saw what he’d lately begun thinking of as “the mask” slid down over his features. He smiled perfunctorily. “What’re you accusing Jason of this time, Iolaus?”

Iolaus thoughts were grim as he watched this performance once again, but his face didn’t show it. “He’s making a mockery of my low blood sugar problem,” he said, with a supposedly wounded look at Jason.

Hercules sat up, dusting himself off. “Heartless, that’s what he is,” the demigod pronounced. “I’m kinda hungry myself, buddy, so let’s do something about it. Maybe our friend over there will move his royal highness and help us catch some fish.”

“His royal former highness, don’t ya mean, Herc?”

Jason shrugged. “Well, you two amateurs will need my help, of course. But just remember -- you’re enabling him again, Hercules.”

Hercules rose fluidly, and gave Iolaus a hand up, with a brief grin. “The only way to shut him up is to fill him up.”

The son of Zeus batted Iolaus’ shoulder and threw a grin at Jason, then turned and walked toward the lake.

“Don’t you want some gear?” Jason asked.

Hercules shook his head, with a quick glance back. “Nah - I’m a bit hungry myself, so I’m taking the fast route. Besides - Iolaus’ stomach will turn on itself if we don’t hurry.”

Hercules, still only wearing his breechclout, waded hip-deep into a pool created by two out-thrust arms of rock and froze to watch for prey he could grab with his lightning-quick reflexes.

“Show-off!” Jason called.

“Hey, Herc - watch out for what those fish might take as bait,” Iolaus called, laughing.

Hercules raised a hand to acknowledge their taunts, but his eyes stayed on the water. Like lightning, his hands suddenly cut into the water and pulled out an enormous trout. He tossed it up onto the rocky shelf in a depression that it could not struggle out of.

“You were saying?” he called back to his friends with a grin and a wave, then went back to watching the clear water.

Iolaus, his eyes still on his demigod friend, suddenly wore a look of naked hope.

“Didya hear that, Jase? He said he was hungry!” he observed in an urgent whisper.

“I heard.” Jason replied, quietly, and glanced at Iolaus with bemused concern. “And that’s good. Just don’t hover too much, okay? He’ll be okay, but he just has to get through this grief over Serena.”

Iolaus met Jason’s glance with a conflicted frustration in his own. “I know, I know - I guess I should be glad that he’s not off alone to tear down all of Ares’ temples. It’s just … just hard, you know? Hard to see him like this.”

Jason clasped the smaller man’s shoulder briefly, and glanced back at Hercules’ still form. “Yeah, it is, but you can’t protect him from it.”

He shook Iolaus’ broad shoulder gently, and then turned and walked back toward their gear, leaving Iolaus to watch Hercules for a moment longer.

“I don’t know how not to try,” Iolaus murmured to the air. “S’Kinda a habit, after all this time.”

And his thoughts winged back over more than two decades of entwined lives …

…The short, golden-haired boy stomped along the riverbank, occasionally throwing a stone into the softly hushing waters with a angry whip of his arm, or ripping the leaves from an unfortunate branch that happened to reach toward the path.

“It’s not fair!” the boy muttered passionately. “He didn’t listen - he didn’t even watch me shoot my bow! All he can do is yammer about how small I am, and shout at mother like she doesn’t feed me enough. And if she can’t, whose fault is it?”

The boy stopped for a moment, tossing his blond curls out of his face, as his face grew pensive. “But what if he’s right? What if I’m just a runt, and not good enough for anything?”

The boy’s blue eyes gazed on the water curling around a large stone, but he didn’t see it. “If my own father thinks that - what do other people think?” he whispered.

The kids at that stupid grammarion in town laugh at my jokes, but they sure aren’t always that friendly, his thoughts flowed on, faster than the stream. They always want to see me irritate the teacher, but I don’t see them much after school. Father only settled us back here four seasons ago when the wars began, but I still don’t have a real friend.

He began to stride along the path again, his anger and hurt too great to contain in stillness. I can do things! he thought fiercely. Uncle said I’m a natural in the woods, and he’s never seen someone my age use the bow as well - and Klangitus the Smith and his son said I’m the quickest learner he’s ever had at the forge! I’ll show Father - I will!

The young boy’s attention was so caught up in his anger that he was almost at the river ford before he was aware of the sounds echoing from there. But suddenly, the shouting, swearing, splashing and jeering laughter penetrated his red mist of fury and hurt. Through the trees he could see a group of boys ahead at the ford, some in the shallows of the river, gathered in a rough circle around another boy. But the sounds were not those of good-natured play, and as the small boy crept closer, he knew these boys weren’t up to anything good, because he too had been their target.

The blond stepped slowly nearer, his feet making no sound in the brush as his Uncle had taught him. As he settled silently in the bushes that bordered the ford, he could now see that the leader of the bullies was Coryx, a tall boy a year older than his own ten years, facing another boy in the center of the circle. The other five boys, all around Coryx’s age prevented his escape, and were jeering and splashing water on him. Coryx had a wooden staff that he was tossing from hand to hand.

As the boy in the center of the circle glanced around, the blond recognized him as the son of Alcmene, who had a house on the road to Eleusis, way across Thebes from where his own family lived. But on two occasions, once long ago at the agora, and once when he had been hunting near her home, Alcmene had been kind to him. For some reason, she seemed to see him as someone … special.

This kid’s not even nine yet, even though he’s real big for his age, the watching boy fumed. Coryx and his gang just get worse all the time!

“I don’t want to fight you!” the tall boy said, glancing around at the others, and the watcher gave him credit for his voice not wavering much.

“Well, too bad,” Coryx sneered. “We’ve come to see if the rumors are true,” Here Coryx looked around at his gang, laughing. “Of course we know they’re not, but we’ve still got to prove that, don’t we, now? Especially since you took our friend’s dog.”

“I -- I don’t know what you mean about rumors,” the tall boy replied, with a desperate dignity that the watching boy admired. “But Nerios doesn’t own that dog - that little girl does. And Nerios was being mean to it.”

Another boy - and the watcher noticed his black eye -- spoke out. “Come on - I was just showin’ her how to have fun with it!”

The other boys laughed, but the tall boy called over their laugher, “Torturing it, you mean.”

“See, we got a problem, don’t we?” Coryx continued, striking his palm with the thick staff, as he stepped closer to his quarry. “You can’t do to all of us what you did to Nerios by himself, Hercules.”

Hercules! That’s it! I remember hearing Alcmene call him that! the watcher’s thoughts raced. Boy he’s gotten a lot bigger since that one time I saw him!

Hercules was glancing around at the ring of faces, a bit anxiously, the blond watcher thought. And he should be anxious - these guys are the meanest bullies in town.

The tall boy squared his shoulders, and he faced Coryx head on. “Maybe not, but I can try!”

The blond boy whistled soundlessly. Now - that’s courage! he thought. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

And he moved -

The short, blond boy jumped out of his hiding place and darted between two of the boys in the circle before anyone could blink.

“I’ll bet he can do it if he has a little help, Coryx!” he taunted them as he stepped up beside Hercules. “Like you with your five friends!”

The tall boy glanced at him in surprise, and Iolaus winked up at him. “Hiya - I’m Iolaus!”

Hercules grinned a bit shyly, his thick, dark-blond hair falling toward his face. He batted it back impatiently and replied, “I’m Hercules.”

Coryx’s furious voice reclaimed their attention. “Well, if it isn’t the shrimp! We’ve been looking for you, too, Iolaus!”

“Yeah? So you could have your goon squad here do to me what you couldn’t do by yourself?” Iolaus answered, sweetly. “Remember how long it took you to sit down after you and I met before?”

The other boys laughed without thinking at the discomfiture of their leader, until he shouted, “Shut up!”

Under cover of the brief row that followed, Hercules whispered to Iolaus. “Uh - thanks for helping me, but are you sure you want to do this?”

Iolaus grinned, his eyes still darting around at their squabbling foes. “I’ll fight with anybody who’s not on Coryx’s side. He’s a bully and a coward, and he pulls the wings off butterflies. But I like the way you’re standin’ up to him. Nobody else around here will.”

Hercules couldn’t help grinning back. “I think my Mom’s told me about you. She said she thought you’d be nice.”

“Let’s hope she still thinks so when this is over.”

“That’s enough!” Coryx brought his pack around with a ferocious shout. “It’s these goody-goodies we want! Get ’em!”

Despite their laughter at their leader’s expense, the others moved to obey. One of the boys reached out to grab Iolaus, but the small blond leaned back, caught one of the larger boys’ hands and twisted up and around behind him. The bigger boy screamed and Iolaus kicked him from behind into two others who were about to grab him.

Iolaus darted a glance at Hercules, and found that he had grabbed up one of the boys his size and easily lifted him over his head! As Iolaus watched in amazement, the son of Alcmene tossed the boy at Coryx, and both fell into the river shallows, shouting and cursing.

“Almighty Aphrodite!” Iolaus swore, dancing back and forth to watch their foes, but still glance up at Hercules. “How’d you do that?”

“Don’t know!” Hercules replied, panting, keeping his eyes on their foes with a natural fighter’s instinct. “Just happens!”

Iolaus whistled. “Cool! Here - you stay at my back, and I’ll stay at yours, and we can take ’em all!”

“Okay - sounds like a plan!”

As Iolaus faced Coryx and one of his mates coming up out of the stream, Coryx shouted, “Now you’re gonna get it, you little shrimp!”

“Well I’d rather be a shrimp with my brain than a big oaf with shrimp’s brains like you, Coryx!” Iolaus shouted back.

“Get him!” Coryx screamed, and pushed the boy at his side toward Iolaus. The boy ran yelling toward Iolaus who ducked under his wildly swinging fist. With a quick lunge upward with his whole body, he struck the bigger boy in the belly.

The boy’s breath whooshed out, and as he bent forward, clutching his stomach, Hercules’ arm swung around after striking the fighter in front of him, and whacked Iolaus’ foe in the face. The blow sent the boy flying back. He struck Coryx and they both landed in the water.

Iolaus, still crouching down, briefly met Hercules’ eyes with a shared wonder. “How’d that happen?” Hercules asked, looking forward again.

“Later -- but it was really cool, Herc!”

Herc’s head swiveled toward Iolaus. “What did you call me?”

“Watch out!” Iolaus cried, seeing from his position another attacker coming at Hercules. The small blond abruptly pivoted on his heels, kicked one leg up in front of Hercules, and struck the knee of his attacker. That boy howled in pain, falling backwards, clutching his knee.

Hercules’ head had snapped forward to follow the boy’s fall. “Wow, thanks, Iolaus!”

“Gotcha!” Iolaus leaped up from his kneeling position, and whipped around to face the stream again. He was just in time to see one of the boys helping another limp away down the trail. “Hoo-yah, Coryx - your troops are deserting!”

Coryx screamed, “Thoris - Echion! Come back, you chickens!”

But there was no reply as the pair disappeared down the path.

“Who’s the biggest chicken here, Coryx?” Iolaus shouted. “Is it the guys who fight for you - or you?”

Iolaus swerved from another boy’s mindless rush. The small boy kicked the attacker with a strong leg to push him into Hercules’ path. Hercules grabbed the unfortunate guy and swung him at his next foe.

As the attacker was knocked to the ground with a breath-stealing thump, Iolaus caught hold of the guy Hercules still held, and together they tossed him at the other two. Those three went down hard and lay still, groaning faintly.

The only attacker left standing was Coryx, and he was shouting for the others to get up.

Iolaus glanced at Hercules, and like a spark between them, it seemed to him he could read the taller boy’s thoughts in his eyes. “Let’s do it!” Iolaus urged, grinning.

They turned and strode towards Coryx, splashing into the shallows.

“Get away from me, you freaks!” the older boy shouted, turning and trying to run over the uneven, rocky bottom of the river. The footing was too treacherous for his headlong flight, and he fell to his hands and knees. Before he could rise, Hercules and Iolaus were on him.

“With pleasure, Coryx, as soon as we have a few things straight,” Iolaus replied, as he caught Hercules’ eye and nodded toward a deeper pool below the shoals.

They dragged Coryx toward the pool, with him kicking, screaming and crying between them. Iolaus was amazed at the strength of the eight-year-old boy beside him, and wondered, but only briefly.

When they got to the pool, Iolaus knelt and Hercules followed suit, still holding the struggling bully between them. “Now, Coryx - you’re not gonna bother me or Hercules again, are you?” he asked sweetly.

Coryx spat vitriolic curses at Iolaus, but only for a moment. Hercules and Iolaus grabbed the bully’s head by the hair and pushed it underwater. Bubbles and muffled screams rose in the water as Coryx thrashed helplessly.

Iolaus nodded, and they pulled the boy up. “Now, Coryx - one more time. Are you gonna leave me and my friend here alone?”

“Okay - okay!” the boy shouted, as they feinted to push his head back under.

“And are you gonna leave the other younger kids alone?”

Coryx began cursing again, and again he was dunked. When they pulled him up, Iolaus repeated the question.

“Yeah, yeah - okay!”

“And what about defenseless dogs and insects?” Iolaus continued.

“Okay, okay - just let me go, you jerks!”

“Just you remember this, Coryx!” Iolaus warned. He and Hercules stood and pulled the dripping, cursing boy up with them.

Iolaus let go, and bowed to Hercules. “Why don’t you do the honors, Hercules?”

Hercules grinned. “Sure!” And grasping Coryx by the collar of his tunic, Hercules kicked him back toward the bank.

The older boy landed with a curse on the rocky ground, and looked up as though expecting to see his friends, but they had all fled. He jumped up and went running toward town.

“Do ya think he’ll keep his promise?” Hercules asked, as they watched the boy disappear into the trees.

Iolaus shrugged. “I doubt it, but maybe he will for a while.” He turned toward Hercules with a grin. “Now, that was a lot of fun!” he added, his grin widening.

Hercules regarded the smaller boy with surprise, but then his topaz blue eyes lit with laughter. “Well, it was once you showed up!”

Iolaus wiped his hand on his pants and held out his arm and continued, “Oh, and since we weren’t formerly introduced -- my name is Iolaus, son of Skouros.”

“Thanks for helpin’ me, Iolaus.” The tall boy grinned. “I’m Hercules.”

They clasped arms in the warriors’ greeting, and Iolaus’ surprise at the lack of the usual patronymic was wiped away by the strength of the bigger boy’s grip. He whistled in awe.

“That’s some grip you have there, Hercules - and you’re - what? -- two years younger than me,” Iolaus marveled. “And you really tossed those guys around like they were nothin’! I bet you coulda held ’em off without me”

“Maybe, but it was better when you came. You’re fast, and you fight really good.”

Iolaus shrugged. Tersely, he replied, “I’ve had a lot of practice. Never mind that - how can you throw those guys around like that?”

Hercules turned away suddenly to wash his hands at the stream. “Ah - I don’t know. I’m just big and strong for my age, I guess.”

“Whew, I’ll say!” Iolaus knelt beside him. “I know your Mom, but who’s your Dad? You didn’t say your whole name.”

Hercules sighed, and sat back on the rocky bank, shaking his wet hands. He looked over at Iolaus. “You haven’t heard the rumors?”

Iolaus shrugged, and sat beside the taller boy. “You mean what Coryx the cowardly cur was talkin’ about?” At Hercules’ nod, he went on. “Seems like there was something about your Dad, Amphitryon, but if Coryx is spouting it off, I don’t give a damn.”

Hercules shook his head, and looked away, across the river. He was silent a moment, then glanced back at the smaller boy measuringly. He straightened, as though coming to a decision, and glanced away again. He began to speak quietly,

“Amphitryon is my brother Iphicles’ father, but he isn’t mine. My mother just told me about it a little while ago, just before … just before Amphitryon’s family took him back to live with them. My Mom had no choice to but to let him go, but it was real hard.”

Glancing out of the corner of his eye at Hercules’ sad face, Iolaus glimpsed a hurt to sore to touch. “Wow - that’s tough,” Iolaus replied, quietly and tossed a stone out into the river.

After a moment, Hercules glanced back at him curiously. “Aren’t you gonna ask me who my father is? Everyone else seems to want to know!”

Iolaus shrugged. “I only asked before becuz it’s the custom, I guess. If you wanna tell me you will,” he replied. He looked away. “I’m beginning to think it matters more who you are than who your dad is.”

“Well, that depends,” Hercules replied, grabbing a rock of his own to toss in the river. “What if I told you my father is … Zeus?”

“Zeus who?” Iolaus echoed, then turned his whole body to stare at Hercules in amazement. “You mean ‘lightning bolt Zeus’? ‘King of the Gods’ Zeus?”

“That’s him.”

“Hovering Hermes’ Helmet!” Iolaus swore. “That’s why you’re so strong - you’re part god!”

“Well, yeah, and my Mom said Zeus gifted me with extra strength, even beyond most gods,” Hercules said unhappily. “Sounds great, I guess, but every time I grow, my strength grows, and I hafta get used to it all over again. I’m always afraid I’ll hurt somebody without meaning to.” He tossed another rock, and muttered. “I just wish I was normal.”

“Don’t be too sure.” Iolaus shook his head skeptically. “Normal’s not too great from where I’m standin’. I’d just be glad to be as tall as you are.” He fiercely sent a stone streaking into the water, as his father’s words echoed in his mind. “Besides, you look normal enough to me.”

Hercules flushed gratefully. “Thanks.”

“So - what’s he like?”

“Who?”

“Well, your Dad, of course! What’s Zeus like?”

Hercules shrugged and looked away. “Don’t know. I’ve never seen him.”

“You’ve never seen your own father?” Iolaus stuttered. “Why?”

Hercules shook his head, and his face was stony. “I don’t know. My Mom says it’s somethin’ about him protecting me, but I don’t understand it. Seems like if he’s the King of the Gods, he could see me and protect me.”

Iolaus nodded. “Yeah but who knows? Adults are strange, and I guess gods must be stranger. Besides -- ” his laugh now held no joy - “if he’s anything like my Dad, you don’t want to know him.”

Hercules looked at Iolaus in surprise. “I thought your Dad was a famous general.”

Iolaus flung another stone with furious energy. “Oh, he’s a famous general - but that’s the only thing he’s famous for. He’s never home - well, almost never - and the prize money he leaves us from his campaigns runs out before he gets back. When he is here, he and my mother fight, and she cries, and he yells at me and says - well, mean stuff.”

Hercules eyes widened as he watched Iolaus’ face. “Wow, Iolaus, that’s bad. I’m sorry.”

Iolaus shrugged. “It’s not your fault.”

Hercules looked away for a moment, and then asked quietly “Hey, Iolaus - could you not tell anybody about who my Dad is?”

“Sure, but why? Seems like it would get guys like those off your back.” Iolaus pointed with his thumb over his shoulder in the direction the bullies had run.

“Maybe. But my Mom says it might not be safe for everyone to know, until I’m old enough to protect myself better.”

Iolaus chuckled. “Seems like you did pretty good to me.” But then confusion filled his sapphire eyes as he looked at Hercules. “So - why’d you tell me?”

Hercules glanced at him briefly, then away. “It … just felt right. Like I could trust you.”

It was now Iolaus’ face that flushed. “Yeah?” he asked in surprised gratification. “Well … well … thanks. You can.”

Uncomfortable with the closeness of the moment, Iolaus declared dramatically, “ Your secret’s safe with me, Hercules!”

And Iolaus pretended to lace up his lips, put his hand to his heart, and then held it out to Hercules. The young demigod laughed, and took his new friend’s hand.

“Hey - you wanna do something?” Iolaus stood, and pulled on Hercules’ hand to urge him to his feet.

“You mean - now - together?” Hercules asked hopefully.

“Yeah - now!” Iolaus laughed.

“Sure!”

“Well, listen - my mom told me you know Ceridian the Centaur. That must be really cool.”

Hercules grinned. “It is -- really great. He’s my teacher.”

“Wow -- that’s better than having to go to that stupid grammarion in town!” Iolaus voice was wistful. “D’you think he’d let me come and have lessons with you sometime?”

“ I don’t see why not. Would you like to meet him?”

“Sure, that would be terrific!” Iolaus replied, enthusiastically.

“Ceridian is really cool. He’s smart, and he knows about the stars, and a lot of scary stories, and he’s a great healer.”

“Really?” Iolaus looked up at Hercules seriously, but with wicked laughter in his blue eyes. “Can he make me taller?”

Iolaus watched Hercules’ face get red trying to think of something to say that would be polite but true to his new friend. Iolaus watched and then started to laugh.

“It’s okay, Hercules, don’t swallow your tongue! Just a joke!” Iolaus said, chuckling, his eyes bright with mischief. He punched Hercules’ arm, and the bigger boy winced and laughed.

“Ow - you got a real hard punch, there, Iolaus!”

Iolaus squared his shoulders and stared at Hercules challengingly. “You mean for a little guy?” he growled.

Rubbing his arm, Hercules replied with a grin, “I mean for anybody!”

Iolaus’ challenge melted into a grin. “Oh. Cool!”

Hercules pointed down the trail. “Come on, I think I’ll get Ceridian to check your sense of humor, too, Iolaus. It’s all goofed up.”

Iolaus grinned and bounced on his heels as Hercules started off. “Nothing wrong with mine, Herc! Hey -- race ya!”

“What did you call me?” Hercules was surprised enough to stop altogether which was exactly what Iolaus had intended. He sprinted past the young demigod like a hare, his laughter echoing a bright invitation.

Glancing back at Hercules, Iolaus saw him coming up fast, with a bright grin of joy on his face.

“I’m right behind you, Iolaus!” Hercules called, and it was like a promise of things to come.

“Cool!” Iolaus thought, and ran faster …

… The firelight filled Iolaus’ distracted gaze until he was abruptly pulled into the moment by a beechnut bouncing off his skull.

“Ow!” He rubbed his head, and glanced up at the amused faces of his friends. “What was that for?”

“Inattention,” Jason replied succinctly, popping an olive in his mouth.

Hercules was watching Iolaus with a small smile, “How far away were you?’

Iolaus tossed the nut back at Jason, who ducked it reflexively. “Close to thirty years or so, I guess.” He looked at Hercules. “I guess this place reminds me a little of the ford near Thebes where we first met.”

Hercules smiled, but Jason broke in with a dramatic sigh. “Oh, do we have to hear about that back-to-back heroes thing again?”

Iolaus grinned and tossed another nut at the former king of Corinth. “No, and that was much later, your ‘majesty’.” He rose, and gave Jason a mocking bow. “Can’t you keep our past history straight?”

“Not till I come into it,” Jason replied, unruffled by Iolaus’ jibe. Iolaus snorted, and kicked at Jason’s feet as he stepped by him to get to the remains of the cooked trout on a clay platter kept warm near the fire.

Iolaus cut another section of the succulent meat and placed it in his bowl. He looked up at Hercules. “More fish, Herc?” he offered, attempting nonchalance.

Hercules shook his head. “No, I’m good.” His distracted gaze did not take in Iolaus’ slightly crestfallen look nor Jason’s nudge at Iolaus’ backside. Iolaus turned to frown at Jason who glared back with a slight shake of his head.

Their attention was reclaimed by Hercules’ chuckle. “Back-to-back heroes,” he said. “That was about the best thing that came out of our lessons with that traveling Spartan arms master, you know?”

“Yeah,” Iolaus replied, as he filled his cup with warm ale from a waterskin. He resumed his place with a contented sigh. “ ‘Reckless lives, careful dies!’” he quoted nasally, shaking his head. “What was he thinking?”

Jason and Hercules also shook their heads. At the same time, all three of them intoned, “Spartans.”

After a moment, Iolaus strayed back to their original subject. “After all, Jase, there were quite a few years of history before you came along.”

“Yeah, you two just didn’t know what you were missing,” Jason replied, solemnly, and promptly was hit from two sides by beechnuts. “Okay, okay, amaze me. Even after all this time, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard exactly how you two went from ‘back-to-back’ to not exactly seeing eye-to-eye when you got to the Academy.”

“Oh, that’s easily explained,” Iolaus said airily. “We were pretty well inseparable until Herc was about twelve and began to go crazy.”

Hercules shook his head, regarding Iolaus with a pitying look. “Jason, it’s really sad, but he’s always gotten this part backwards. He’s the one who went crazy.”

“Hercules, Hercules,” Iolaus sighed. “Deluded again. I wasn’t the one who was hatching every harebrained scheme imaginable to get Zeus’ attention!”

“Maybe not Zeus’ attention,” Hercules replied, in the same vein. “But you can’t tell me that at least part of why you began to spend time away your home, hedge the law, and flout authority at every chance wasn’t to get your father’s attention!”

Iolaus started to speak, but stopped suddenly. His face grew thoughtful, and he replied in a very different voice. “H’m, I never thought about it like that, Herc. But at least at the time, I thought it was to escape his attention - or to do my damnedest not to be like him.”

Hercules looked taken aback. “Iolaus, I was just - ”

Iolaus waved away his concern. “Chill, Herc, it’s okay. I just hadn’t thought of it like that before. At the time, I mainly was thinking about surviving and having fun - not always in that order!”

“Okay, I definitely sense a story here - maybe a long one,” Jason observed. “So - Hercules, you tell it.”

“Hey!”

Jason held out a warning hand at Iolaus’ protest. “You’ll get your chance at rebuttal.”

Iolaus shook his head and looked at Hercules for support. “Would you listen to this guy? I think he still thinks he’s king!”

“Humor him,” Hercules suggested with a slight grin, but studied Iolaus’ face a bit intently.

“Sure, you can say that, you’re tellin’ the story,” Iolaus grumbled, but his eyes seemed to reflect only laughter to Hercules.

“So, let him tell it already!”

“Tyrant.”

“I heard that. Go on, Hercules.”

Hercules felt himself surrounded by the comforting warmth of his friends’ banter. He cast his mind back for a moment, and then began to speak.

“Iolaus is at least right about the time. I was about twelve and he had just turned fourteen when things began to get rocky between us. It was the day before Mother’s birthday when …”

…Hercules strode through the streets of Thebes with a face like a thundercloud. He pushed through the market-day crowd with ill-concealed impatience, obviously searching for something or someone, and only briefly acknowledging the greetings of friends and acquaintances. He caught a glimpse of a particular familiar face and wended his way through the busy, loud throng, clenching his teeth to try not to push anyone too hard.

“Thoris!” he called as he neared the older boy. “Hey, wait up!”

The auburn-haired boy, about to walk away from a sweet-seller’s stall, turned instead at the sound of his name being called. He saw Hercules striding toward him and waved. He and his friend Echion had long been on better terms with Hercules and Iolaus than they were at their first meeting.

“Hey, Hercules!” Thoris said, looking up at the taller, younger boy. Through a mouthful of honeycake, he asked, a bit indistinctly, “What’s goin’ on?”

“Have you seen Iolaus today?” Hercules demanded.

Thoris nodded, munching vigorously. “Only ’bout half a sunwidth ago, here in the agora. He was with a couple of those older guys that hang around here. Asked him if he wanted to get up a game later, but he said he had big things to do.”

“Where was he when you saw him?” Hercules asked, trying not to grind his teeth.

“By the jewelers’ stalls,” Thoris replied, pointing back over his shoulder.

Hercules frowned, looking off in the direction Thoris had indicated. “Iolaus!” he growled. He stepped past Thoris and began jogging in that direction.

“Hey -- you’re welcome!” he heard his friend call after him. “I guess this means that you don’t wanna play bagball either, huh, Hercules?”

A small voice beneath Hercules’ anger and impatience niggled at him that he hadn’t been very civil to Thoris, but the anger overwhelmed it, and he didn’t answer.

Iolaus knows how important this is, Hercules’ thoughts churned. It was his idea as much as mine. He was the one who noticed that Mother seems a little down about turning thirty, and we both decided on the special gift we’d make for her. And now this! What is up with him?

At that moment, Hercules rounded a corner into the jeweler’s lane, and ran full tilt into another boy with a carry sack hurrying in the opposite direction. They both fell, but the smaller boy landed much harder, knocked onto his back and skidding a couple of feet. His carry sack went flying, its contents spilling.

Hercules pushed himself up to a sitting position and looked up with an apology on his lips. Instead, his eyes narrowed and he growled, “Iolaus!”

Iolaus pushed himself to his elbows, shaking loose blond curls out of his eyes and wheezing to recapture his breath. “Herc? You gotta be more careful how you come around corners. Runnin’ into you is like runnin’ into a stone wall!”

Hercules had had a moment to study his friend without Iolaus’ hair over his face, and immediately noted a particularly colorful black-purple bruise around his left eye.

“Where’d you get the shiner?” Hercules asked challengingly. “Have you been in a fight again?”

Iolaus sat up a bit gingerly, but seemed more eager to grab up his small carry sack and quickly collect its cloth-wrapped contents than to answer his friend’s question. Hercules eyebrows went up at the sparkle of silver and the glint of jewel-tone blue.

“And how did you get that stuff?” he added, accusingly.

In a fierce undertone, Iolaus shot back, “Will you just shut up for a minute?” He stuffed the bundles back into his sack, and glanced around. None of the busy shoppers seemed to have paid the two dusty schoolboys much attention, however. “I’m not too happy with you right now either, but we can get out of the middle of the agora before we talk about it.”

Hercules stood up, and loomed over the smaller boy with a half-conscious defiance, hands on his hips. “What if I don’t want to?”

Iolaus glanced up at his taller, stronger friend, unimpressed. “Well, you’ll have to have the conversation with yourself, because I’m leaving.” He ducked nimbly under Hercules’ arm, and strode away, calling back tersely, “We’ve got work to do - or have you forgotten like you did yesterday? I waited for you for two sunwidths.”

Hercules ran after his older friend and caught his arm. “I don’t know what in Hades you’re talking about, Iolaus! I sent word to you to rearrange the time, and I’ve been waiting for you!”

Iolaus looked down pointedly at Hercules’ hand grasping his arm. “First of all, Herc, my hand is going numb.”

Hercules glanced down to see Iolaus’ wrist and hand turning an interesting shade of scarlet below where he gripped it. Flushing, he released it with a mumbled apology.

“Second of all, I didn’t get any message,” Iolaus said. “ How do I know you even sent one?”

Hercules’ apologetic look turned to anger again. “I wouldn’t lie - or blow you off without an excuse, like you’ve done to me lately.”

It was Iolaus’ turn to flush. “I don’t lie - to you. And I already told you I was sorry about those other times.”

“Yeah, well, you can be pretty choosy with the truth sometimes.” Hercules replied, “And I did send word to you!”

Iolaus, his eyes fiery, began to speak, but a voice shouting his name caught his attention before he could say anything. Iolaus glanced away down the lane; Hercules’ view was blocked by the corner of the stall next to which they stood, but he could hear running footsteps and the voice call Iolaus’ name again.

“Nerios?” Iolaus named the boy. “What’s up?”

“Hey, Iolaus - wow! Cool shiner! What’s the other guy look like?”

Iolaus couldn’t resist. “Horizontal. Never mind that. What’s going’ on?”

Nerios caught his breath, “ I’ve been trying to find you! I wanted you to know - I told Hercules I’d give you a message yesterday, but --”

At that moment, Nerios came close enough to where Iolaus stood to be able to see Hercules taller form at the corner.

“Never mind - tell you later --” Nerios stuttered and turned to flee, but two strong hands, one larger and one smaller, shot out to grab him by the arms. Hercules turned to Iolaus, triumphantly.

“See - I told you I sent word!”

“Yeah, but by Nerios?”

“Hey!” the boy protested.

“Come on, Iolaus, you know Nerios has been a good friend to us since he saw the light about Coryx and his suck-ups.”

“Okay, okay!” Iolaus said, with grumbling acceptance. He turned back to Nerios. “So what happened to you?”

“Well, great thanks to both of you for including me in this conversation!” Nerios said, sarcastically.

Hercules shook the boy’s arm slightly, and then released him. “Come on, Nerios, we just wanna know what happened.”

“Okay, okay - hey, big guy, thanks for the ‘good friend’ remark there --”

“Nerios!” two voices warned in unison.

“All right already,” Nerios huffed, but then looked at each of them contritely. “Sorry, guys, but I tried. I was on my way home with some stuff for my mom when Hercules gave me the message, Iolaus, and I thought if I didn’t see you on my way home, I’d find you around here. But then my old man caught me and said he needed my help in the woodshop, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Said I spent too much time off with my friends as it was, and I need to be learning more about the business. I racked my brains, but I couldn’t find a way to take care of it.”

Iolaus released the arm he held. “Well, yeah, I can understand that, I guess.”

“Yeah, me too,” Hercules agreed. “Thanks for trying, anyway, Nerios.”

Nerios nodded. “Sure, guys. Look - I gotta go. I was here to pick up an order for my dad, and he’s still harping on me. I’ll catch you guys later.”

With a wave, he was gone. Iolaus glanced at Hercules, still irritated. “Okay, so you sent a message. Do you wanna talk about it here, or on our way to the forge?”

Hercules shrugged, and held out his arm, wordlessly inviting Iolaus to precede him. They didn’t speak until they had wended their way through the milling throngs and the tight quarters of the market district. As they came out on the wider street leading to the north gate and Mantius’ forge beyond, Iolaus glanced up at Hercules.

“So what was the message?” he asked.

“There was something I needed to do yesterday, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet you at the forge. I wanted to put off our work there till this morning.”

“So I waited for you yesterday, and you waited for me today, because Nerios couldn’t deliver the message.” Iolaus summed things up.

“Yeah, I guess that’s right,” Hercules agreed. “Hey - you never told me who gave you the shiner!”

Iolaus looked away from Hercules toward the town gate that they were approaching. Hercules glanced at him to see a grim expression fleet over his features, but it was as quickly gone. He shrugged nonchalantly. “Just one of the agora sharks. We had a bit of a disagreement.” He grinned up at Hercules. “I won.”

Hercules watched him for a moment, thoughtfully. “You weren’t at home last night, were you?” When Iolaus shook his head, Hercules continued. “I know you and your Mom aren’t getting along too well right now --”

“Well, that’s not all. My Dad came in from the Macedonian campaign last night.”

Hercules whistled. “How’d it go?”

“How does it ever go?” Iolaus replied tersely. “I got him mad at me so he wouldn’t take it out on Mom, and then I got out of there.”

“He didn’t …” Hercules gestured at his friend’s bruised eye.

“What - do this?” Iolaus shook his head. “Nah -- he smacked me around a bit, but he’s never hit me like that. He hits hard enough with words.”

Hercules was silent, aching for his friend, marveling again at Iolaus’ strong spirit that bent but never broke in his unhappy home. After a moment, he said, quietly, “Why don’t you come out and stay with me and Mom more?”

Iolaus glanced up at his friend with a quick smile, their disagreements momentarily forgotten. “Well, you know,” he stuttered, uncertain, “I don’t know if you… uh … I don’t wanna wear out my welcome with Alcmene.”

“What about with me?” Hercules asked guilessly

Iolaus did a double take. “Herc - you made a joke!”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Hercules said, with an easy shove at the smaller boy’s shoulder. “Anyway - wear out your welcome?” Hercules shook his head. “C’mon, Iolaus, you know better than that. My Mom loves for you to be there. She says it makes her feel like she has two sons again.”

Iolaus flushed slightly beneath his tan. “Yeah? She said that?”

“I guess we both thought you knew that by now.”

Iolaus shook his head. “I just - I just don’t wanna mess it up, ya know? Like I have at home.”

Hercules began to protest again, but Iolaus broke in. “Hey - I appreciate it, and I will, okay? But listen - back to the original subject. What were you doing that was so important yesterday?” Iolaus asked as the city gate loomed above them.

“I was trying to get something I thought would go great on Mom’s present,” Hercules said, with a hint of defiance.

When he said nothing more, Iolaus gave him a searching look. “Okay - so, what was it?”

Hercules looked mulish. “Does it matter? It didn’t work.”

“I know that look!” Iolaus stopped in the middle of the gateway. “You don’t want to say any more ’cause I can always tell when you try to lie - and you don’t wanna tell me what you did!”

Hercules kept walking, his jaw muscles bunching. “That’s it, isn’t it?” Iolaus called after him.

Several pedestrians pushed around Iolaus with irritated remarks, and a man driving a cart yelled at him to get moving.

Hercules glanced back at him. “Better move, Iolaus, before you get run over!”

Iolaus fumed, and ran to catch up with the long-legged young demigod. “So, am I right or what? Herc?”

There was a long pause before Hercules could answer, as the boys threaded their way out of the more congested traffic of riders, pedestrians, and laden carts going into town for market. They quickly turned off the main road onto a quiet lane that led through a copse of ancient olive trees toward the forge of Klangitus and his son Mantius. They walked silently until they passed through the copse and the sounds of the main road faded behind them. Now beeches and poplars lined the road, and cooled them with dappled shade.

“Okay - that’s far enough!” Iolaus grabbed Hercules arm, and pulled him to a stop. “Come on, Hercules, talk to me!”

“Okay, you’re right - are you satisfied?” Hercules snapped. “I knew you’d say it was another one of the ‘hare-brained ideas’ I’ve had lately to try get Zeus’ attention, when that wasn’t it at --”

“Damn it, Hercules!” Iolaus’ voice was suddenly grim. “What in Hades name did you do?”

“Okay then - this belt that we’re making for Mother’s birthday … I wanted to do more than just braid the bronze strands into links. I wanted to do something that would make it more special - something shiny or glittery to use for the clasp, maybe. So I told Mom I was spending the day with you and climbed up to the cave on Mount Cithaeron above town to look for the small silver thunderbolts that Zeus was said to have left there.”

Iolaus regarded Hercules, dumbfounded. “You went up there all alone, without telling your mother or anyone that you were gone?” he asked, with a dangerous quiet.

“Look, Iolaus, don’t pull that ‘I’m two years older than you are’ crap on me!” Hercules replied, hotly. “Two years is not that much, and you run all over the countryside around Thebes, and you have since well before you were twelve --”

“Maybe so, but you’re not me, and that’s beside the point. What if you had fallen and broken your leg, or what if there was some kind of a monster?”

Hercules turned away slightly. “Well … there was.”

“WHAT?”

“There was a monster, but it wasn’t that bad. It was a spider.”

“A spider?” Iolaus sighed, relieved. “Well that doesn’t sound so bad.”

“It only stood about five feet tall --”

“Five feet --! Herc, you’re five feet eight -- it was almost as tall as you are! What happened?” Iolaus asked, trying not to show his excitement, in the midst of his fury at Hercules. “What did you do? Did it hurt you at all?”

Hercules shook his head. “No, it didn’t hurt me. It came out of a side entrance into the section of the cave I was in. It was on me so fast that I only had time to duck, and thrust out with the only thing I had in my hand - a torch. I was lucky, because I managed to hit the thing in the left eye, and blinded it on that side. It reared up and screamed so much, I knew I’d hurt it, so jumped over to the right and burned it in that eye. Then I ran, and made it out of there before it could follow.”

“What in Hades were you thinking?” Iolaus said through clenched teeth. “Anything could’ve happened, and nobody would’ve known, damn it, Herc!”

Hercules gritted his teeth and folded his arms. “I thought you’d think it was cool.”

“Yeah, it would’ve been if you’d had back-up!”

Hercules laughed suddenly, and started walking again. “You’re just mad because you weren’t there!”

Iolaus strode after his friend. “Yeah - and why wasn’t I?” he fumed. “Why’d you go off without me?”

Hercules laughter faded, and looked at Iolaus accusingly. “I knew you’d say I was just tryin’ to get Zeus’ attention for no reason. Besides, I hear you’ve been having a few adventures without me lately.”

Iolaus’ head jerked up, and he regarded Hercules piercingly. “Who’d you hear that from?”

“Thoris and Nerios,” Hercules shot back. “They said you’ve been on a few sprees with some of the guys in the Lowacks.”

They had reached the glade where the pathway to the blacksmiths’ forge and shop turned off from the lane. The sound of a hammer striking metal could be heard from the stone buildings not far away, just visible between the trees. Iolaus swung around and faced Hercules. A metal outline of a hammer and anvil hung on a post at the path, and just beyond, a stone bench in the cool shade of an ancient beech welcomed travelers.

“Well, those guys have big mouths!” Iolaus spat, striding down the path. “It’s just been a few larks, that’s all. Some of those guys have had some fun with those price-gougers at the agora. It’s nothing you need to be concerned about.”

“Yeah?” Hercules jogged after Iolaus and caught his arm, pulling him around with a jerk. The younger boy squared up to his friend, his big fists clenching. “So what happened to the whole ‘back-to-back’ heroes thing we promised each other, huh?”

“Nothing’s changed as far as I’m concerned, but you seem to be more interested in being a god with Daddy that being my friend!” Iolaus shouted, giving Hercules a sharp push.

The younger boy leaned in to get into Iolaus’ face. “Oh, you think so, huh?” he yelled back. “Well, I don’t think you’re so much interested in being a hero with me as being in that gang!”

Iolaus shoved Hercules again. “You take that back!”

Hercules pushed back, much harder. Iolaus tripped over a stone and stumbled backward. Hercules reached out and snatched away Iolaus’ carry sack. As the blond lost his footing and hit the ground, Hercules turned the sack over and dumped its contents in the path.

Among the leaf-wrapped remains of Iolaus’ lunch, a knife, and a few other odds and ends, were the two small, cloth-wrapped bundles that Hercules had noticed in the agora. Iolaus scrambled up, yelling, but Hercules quickly unwrapped them. In one he found two thin oval plates of shining silver metal, and in the other some small pieces of brilliantly blue lapis lazuli.

“Give me those!” Iolaus shouted, shoving Hercules and grabbing for the bundles.

“Where in all Gaia did you get these from, Iolaus?” Hercules yelled back, fending off Iolaus easily. “Maybe these had more to do with how you got your black eye!”

Iolaus went white with fury. “Shut up!” he gasped, hoarse with rage. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!”

Hercules went on, furious with disappointment. “Well, how the hell did you get enough money for silver and lapis? Or was this from one of your little ‘sprees’ with the Lowacks?”

“Take that back!” Iolaus yelled, and with a running start, bent and hit the taller demigod in the solar plexus, knocking his breath out and pushing him to the ground. Iolaus fell on top of the larger boy and grabbed for the items he clutched.

The two boys twisted and grappled in a red anger, shouting and rolling on the dusty, hard-packed earth of the pathway. Abruptly, a deep, stern voice penetrated the haze of mindless fury that surrounded them.

“Here now - what’s all this? Stop now, both of you!”

Two massive, beefy hands pulled Iolaus from atop Hercules, and tossed him away, then caught the growling demigod as he rose defiantly.

“That’s more than enough, from both of you!” Mantius the Smith boomed out. The twenty-eight year old son of Klangitus towered over both boys and held both combatants easily at arm’s length, even Hercules. “Don’t you know that you’re profaning ground sacred to Hephaestus? Cut it out - NOW!”

Both boys subsided at the authority of that thunderous tone. They shot murderous looks at each other, but stood still, panting.

“Now, whose things are these?” Mantius allowed his hands to drop, with warning looks at both erstwhile friends. He pointed at the torn apart pieces of cloth, laces, silver plates, and the hint of blue stones lying cast about in the dust.

“They’re mine!” Iolaus ground out defiantly, and he bent to collect and examine the items with furious motions.

“Yeah, well, he says they’re his!” Hercules challenged. “You might ask him how he came to have that silver and those stones - when he can’t afford any of them!” The fury and hurt that filled the demigod’s heart kept drowning the small voice kept reminding him that this was no way to speak of his best friend.

Mantius glanced at Hercules with a dampening frown on his craggy face, and then looked down at Iolaus, who was searching anxiously to locate all the blue stones.

“Are these the things you were telling me that you were going to trade your furs for, Iolaus?” Mantius asked, in a quiet rumble.

“Yes, they are,” Iolaus caught sight of a final piece of lapis almost hidden by a rock. He sighed with relief, and then glared up at Hercules as he rose. “And if certain half-gods that I won’t name hadn’t jumped to conclusions, I would’ve told him that. Of course, I probably wouldn’t’ve been believed!”

“Furs?” Hercules repeated through frozen lips, feeling the righteous anger seeping away into chagrin.

Iolaus carefully dusted off the silver plates and the blue stones, not replying until he had fully checked the precious items for damage. Then he looked up at Hercules with fierce sapphire eyes that pierced like daggers.

“You weren’t the only one who wanted to find something special for your Mom’s present, ya know, Herc,” Iolaus bit out brusquely. “She means a lot to me, too.”

Mantius nodded, recalling Hercules’ attention. “I … ah … met up with Iolaus yestereve in the agora, and he showed me a couple of lovely mink and deer pelts that he had been saving from his recent hunts. He asked if I thought they would earn enough in trade to provide his part of the belt you two are making for Alcmene, Hercules.”

Hercules swallowed. “He - he didn’t --?”

“No, I didn’t steal any of it!” Iolaus snapped, his anger barely hiding the hurt in his stormy eyes.

Mantius gave Hercules a moment to collect his scattered thoughts, and turned meditative black eyes on Iolaus. “And is there absolutely no justification for Hercules to jump to that conclusion about his best friend?” the big man asked, regarding Iolaus with a pointed stare.

Iolaus opened his mouth to protest, but suddenly the smith’s words hit home, and he caught his breath. He closed his mouth and looked down at the items he held with a distracted gaze.

“And you would be better off not to be wandering the agora so late, Iolaus,” Mantius warned, in a gentle rumble. “You’re much more likely to run into the kind of…customers who want to buy more than you’re willing to sell.”

Iolaus glanced up at Mantius with an expression that Hercules could not read. Before he could ask what it all meant, Mantius went on.

“So, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re lucky that I’m at a stopping point with my other work, since you’ve missed your earlier appointments to work here. I’m going to take these things on into the forge where the belt is waiting to be finished, and I’ll help you both make a clasp that will complete the belt beautifully.”

He regarded both boys seriously. “And while I get everything ready in the forge, you two knuckleheads are going to sit on this bench here in the shade, and straighten yourselves out. You’re doing a beautiful thing for a beautiful lady, and you can’t do justice to it with this kind of rage and hurt between you.”

Mantius watched the two blond heads, darker and lighter, duck with shame, remorse, and hurt. He saw each dart glances at his friend when the other was not looking, and it brought a smile to his face.

“I’ve known you two since you were knee-high, and just about all that time you’ve been forging a friendship that seems like it could carry you both far. But even the strongest metal can fracture if enough force is applied. So --” The big man held out his hands to Iolaus, and the boy gave him the supplies.

“When you’re ready to come in and work together as friends to create something for love, come then. But for now - sit!” Mantius gestured them to the bench. “Get this settled now, before any other cracks appear!”

He waited till the boys had shuffled to the bench and sat gingerly at either end, and then strode away down the path to the workshop just out of sight among the large Cyprus trees and tall, wild lilies.

There was silence in the glade for several moments, redolent with the scents of summer sage and the calls of birds, but neither boy noticed Mother Gaia’s beauty. After a several moments of shuffled feet and shifting positions, both boys spoke at once.

“Herc -”

“Iolaus -”

They laughed awkwardly, glancing at each other quickly. “Let me go first,” Hercules said, after a brief pause. Iolaus gestured for him to continue.

“Uh - okay,” Hercules began, embarrassment flushed his cheeks under his golden tan. “Iolaus - I - I don’t know what to say. I got it wrong in a real big way, and I’m sorry,” he said, quietly.

“Yeah, well,” Iolaus replied, a bit clumsily. “ I guess I can see why you thought what you did. But Herc, you gotta know this -- ” here he caught Hercules’ eyes with desperate seriousness. “I would never do anything to hurt you or Alcmene, not meaning to, anyway. You - you know -- you’re both way too important to me for that.”

Hercules nodded. “Yeah, I know that,” he said, softly. “Guess that’s why it felt like -- like a blow, I guess, that you would give her something stolen.” His cheeks flamed again, and his gaze dropped to his fisted hands. “I should’ve known you’d never do that.”

It was Iolaus’ turn to flush and look away. “Well, I - I can’t say I haven’t ever taken …okay … stolen something. Mostly because I had to, but not always. But,” he glanced up at Hercules earnestly again. “I would never, ever involve you and Alcmene in it.”

He shifted his position uncomfortably, but his discomfort was not physical. “That’s why I didn’t bring you in on those jaunts with those guys from the gang.”

“So, why do you do it? Why do you go?” Hercules asked, a bit plaintively.

Iolaus shrugged. “Because I’m accepted. Because its fun and I’m good at it. Because it’ll piss off my father if he finds out about it. I’m not really sure.”

Hercules looked away. “It kinda makes me feel like we’re not so much friends, like we have been,” he murmured.

“I’ll always be your friend, Herc - always!” Iolaus vowed, fiercely. “Nothin’ changes that!” He took a quick breath, and then grinned cheekily. “Doesn’t mean I won’t kick your ass if it needs it.”

He punched his friend’s arm, and Hercules grinned back. Iolaus grin faded a bit as he added, “I’m sorry it made you feel like that. I just don’t know if … if I’ll always deserve to be your friend.”

“Oh, yes, you will!” Hercules replied with his own quiet fierceness. “Don’t you ever think that, Iolaus!”

Another awkward pause ensued. Finally Hercules broke it by asking, “So, something Mantius said made me wonder - how’d you really get the shiner?”

Iolaus looked out at the woodland clearing sightlessly. “Well, pretty much like I told you, Herc. Some guy hanging around the agora late yesterday saw me make my trade. I guess he thought he could take advantage of my supposed youth and inexperience and end up with … uh … the goods, but he learned better. And Mantius helped me polish off the lesson.”

Hercules watched his friend with a troubled gaze, wondering what about the episode Iolaus wasn’t telling him, but decided not to push further.

After another pause, Iolaus met Hercules glance hopefully. “So,” he ventured, glancing up at Hercules with a smile, “are we good?”

Hercules nodded. “For my part, yeah,” he answered. “What do you think?”

Iolaus’ smile widened. “Yeah, I think so, too.”

He rose from the bench, but Hercules caught his arm. “Hey, and thanks for getting that stuff for my mom’s belt. It’ll make a great clasp! She’ll really love it.”

Iolaus appeared a bit uncomfortable with the praise. He nodded, with a grin, and turned his hand to clasp Hercules arm in a warrior’s grip. He tugged the larger boy to his feet. “Well, you know, Herc, I gotta pay her somehow for all the boar stew and baklava she feeds me!”

“Why don’t you come over when we’re done and stay tonight?” Hercules asked, clapping his friend’s shoulder. “We could make her day tomorrow by making her breakfast and giving her the gift!”

“That sounds like a plan to me, but why don’t we let your Mom fix breakfast?” Iolaus replied, leading the way toward the forge. “Remember the last time we tried? Your Mom wasn’t too happy -- the smoky smell didn’t go away for weeks.”

“Yeah, well, we were just kids then, you know. We could do better now,” Hercules replied confidently, as he caught up.

“Well, let’s get this done - I’m getting hungry already!”

And the fast friends jogged shoulder to shoulder into the forge …

Jason regarded his two friends thoughtfully. “I think you were both right. You both went crazy.”

Iolaus was staring into the fire. “Well, it wouldn’t be for the last time,” he muttered.

Hercules’ gaze had been distant, but he now glanced at Iolaus with puzzlement. “What was that?”

Iolaus took a quick breath, and started to speak. He stopped, and looked up at Hercules, then back at the fire. “Nothin’, just … nothin’.”

Before Hercules could reply, Iolaus had summoned a grin and looked at Jason. “Yeah, maybe we did go a bit crazy, but isn’t that the definition of being in your teens?” he commented, with a wry humor.

Jason regarded the blond hunter with a question in his eyes. Iolaus popped an olive in his mouth, and met Jason’s shrewd eyes levelly.

“So, you think you were any different, highness?”

Jason studied Iolaus’ face for a moment longer, but then answered lightly. “Absolutely. I was practically perfect in every way.”

Iolaus regarded the former king of Corinth with a kind of awe. “Jason, you lie like a rug,” he said shaking his head. He appealed to Hercules. “Herc - how old was he when we met?”

Hercules shrugged, his eyes a bit distant again. “Still in his teens, as I recall.”

“Yeah, older and supposedly wiser, but just as ready for trouble as either of us,” Iolaus taunted.

Jason shook his head. “I had to look out for you two. It was my duty as your drill instructor and your king.” Before Iolaus could protest again, he asked, “So tell me - did you get the belt made for Alcmene?”

Hercules nodded, his distraction chased away by a smile at the memory. “Yes, and she loved it. She still wears it from time to time. She said we made her birthday happy after all.”

Jason smiled, thinking of his wife and her beautiful spirit for a moment. Then looking back at Hercules and Iolaus, he inquired, “What about you two? I take it the cracks appeared in your friendship anyway?”

“Yeah,” Iolaus answered, and his expression was shuttered for a moment. He glanced back at Jason after a moment. “Eventually. At that point we stayed as close as we’d ever been, and I think we never really forgot what Mantius said to us, but a couple of years later I was pulled away by the Lowacks, and Hercules …”

He trailed off and glanced at the demigod, meeting Hercules eyes on him. “I was pretty much obsessed with getting Zeus’ attention,” Hercules supplied, “much as I denied it to everyone.”

Jason laughed. “That I remember, I think I still have a scar or two as a reminder.”

“Probably,” Hercules replied, smiling.

“You sure led us into a few scrapes doing that, Herc,” Iolaus added. “Remember the time later at the Academy when we went with you to get the Hera’s chalice from the cave of the Phoenix?”

“It was pretty unforgettable, especially Cheiron having to pull splinters out of my ass,” Hercules said drily.

“Yeah, that’ll stick in your …uh… mind,” Jason replied, with a chuckle. “Like Iolaus dropping out of the sky right on top of me.”

“Well, you were being all heroic and trying to catch me,” Iolaus replied. “Hey, what about the time …”

And the three friends talked long into the firelit night, finding solace from present discomfort in a past brotherhood …

The next couple of days continued beautiful, with warm, bright days and cool, crisp nights. The three friends fished and hunted, swam and wrestled, ran races and lay in the sun. Despite his participation in their company, Hercules often continued to be distant, quiet, and his laughter forced. Iolaus was growing more restive, wondering why the son of Zeus had not dropped the “mask” for his two closest friends.

Jason found himself more and more concerned for both his friends, worried for Hercules for similar reasons as Iolaus, but also beginning to be worried for Iolaus due to clues he wasn’t sure he understood. Besides the blonde’s poorly hidden anxiety for Hercules, Jason sensed a conflicted mass of fears, hurts and irritations just below Iolaus’ superficially sunny surface. He had been concerned about both men from the time he had learned about the tragedy of star-crossed love between Hercules and Serena, the Golden Hind. And the barebones account of the circumstances that Iolaus had briefly relayed had done little to ease his growing alarm.

His growing concern had even caused him to seek out Joxer, as tiresome as that experience had been. He had been willing to suffer through the would-be hero’s self-absorbed descriptions of his latest adventures with Xena in order to get his version of the events that had occurred in Ceryneia. Sifting through the distortions of Joxer’s account, Jason had realized that the advent of the Golden Hind into the lives of his friends had fractured their friendship and partnership. He also knew the two heroes quite well enough to know that with all the right intentions they probably had not addressed the difficult issues that still loomed between them, and the fractures might not be healed.

Alcmene, bless her loving, insightful heart, had obviously harbored similar concerns. He had said nothing of his fears to her, but she had observed the same signs and felt similar vibes. She had been ahead of Jason in the growing conviction that something needed to be done, and urged him to take action. Jason had a growing fear that unless the pain and fear was released and dealt with, Hercules’ and Iolaus’ legendary friendship could yet be torn apart.

So when Iolaus had come to him with the idea of a camping vacation, Jason had agreed heartily, but not just to help Hercules. Now having observed his friends for the last three days he was even more concerned about what might happen. And since, after three whole days, his friends still seemed “buttoned up”, each in his own way, the former king decided he might have to nudge things along.

Late in the afternoon of their third day, Jason and Iolaus stood out on the long piers of rock, casting their lines into the lake for a catch for supper. Hercules was back at camp making up the fire, boiling water, and preparing wild yams for roasting since it was his turn to cook.

Jason glanced over at Iolaus’ preoccupied face and decided it was time to begin nudging. “So - how do you think Hercules is doing?” he asked casually, gazing back at the bobbing cork at the end of his line.

There was no answer. “Hey, Iolaus!”

“What?” Iolaus asked, abruptly jerked away from the depth of his distraction.

Jason repeated his question, just as nonchalantly as before.

“How do I think he’s doing?” Iolaus repeated, looking at Jason a bit incredulously. “I think you should be able to answer that by now, Jase - what do you think?”

Jason sighed. “I don’t think he’s much better than just after Serena died,” he replied, quietly, “despite what he tries to make us think.”

Iolaus nodded, frowning grimly, “Yeah, Herc’s always sucked at lying.” He pulled his line out restlessly and tossed it back into a deeper pool.

Jason waited, as the blond sighed and gnawed at his lip. “And it’s not just that. There have been a lot of times lately that he’s seemed to … well, push me away. Not in so many words exactly, and not - not openly, but it’s been there. Kinda like a barrier. Oh, there have been things that we’ve done together, but there’s a - a distance there.”

Jason glanced at Iolaus’ worried frown and nodded. “That’s not like him at all.” He pondered for a moment. “You remember I wasn’t around much when Deianeira and the kids were killed,” he went on slowly.

Iolaus glanced up at his older friend with a bit of concern, since the situation that had kept Jason apart from them then was his conflict with Medea, his former wife, her murder of their children, and his growing dependence on wine.

Jason met Iolaus’ concerned glance with a small, reassuring smile. “It’s okay -- those ghosts are at peace.” At Iolaus’ nod, Jason continued. “But at that time, did Hercules grieve like this?”

Iolaus considered the question seriously. “Well, of course he was distraught. And he shut himself off for a while then, too, but he seemed to come back to himself faster. In some ways, of course, he’ll always grieve for them.”

“I wonder…” Jason pondered out loud. “Whatever’s bothering Hercules now… is it all grief?”

Iolaus looked up, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Well, with his family’s death, it was uncomplicated. Horrible, of course,” Jason added, with the deep empathy of one who had walked a similar dark path. “But it was Hera’s bolt from the blue, and except for being who he is, Hercules had nothing to do with it.”

Iolaus bristled. “It was the same with Serena, Jason - Hercules didn’t -“

Jason held up a hand. “I know he didn’t strike the blow or cause it in any way, Iolaus. I mean that Hercules may feel more guilty this time, because … well … maybe he thinks he should’ve known better than to have married her in the first place.”

“Yeah, well, maybe he thinks that and maybe he doesn’t,” Iolaus replied, brusquely. “I tried to tell him that at the time.”

“He obviously didn’t listen.”

Iolaus shook his head and gazed at the lake sightlessly. “No, he - ” Iolaus paused, and shrugged. “He thought he knew better, I guess.”

Jason had a sudden insight. “He thinks that a lot of times, doesn’t he?”

Iolaus’ jaw muscles bunched. “Yeah, and that’s part of … well, it doesn’t matter.”

The taller man glanced at his shorter friend. “Oh, it doesn’t?” he asked, quietly.

Iolaus shook his head, but said nothing. Jason paused for a moment, but then went on, just as softly.

“And how about you, Iolaus? How are you doing?”

Iolaus glanced at Jason. “What do you mean? This isn’t about me.”

“Isn’t it?” Jason persisted. “You were pretty much involved in all the conflict around Serena. You just said you warned Hercules about the dangers of marrying her, but he did it anyway - even though it nearly broke up your partnership. Seems to me you might have some pretty strong feelings about that.”

Iolaus shook his head. “You’re off base there, Jason,” he said, tersely. He suddenly pulled in his line and nimbly wrapped it around his fishing pole, securing the hook with care. “I think the fish we have already ought to give us enough. Why don’t we -”

Jason caught Iolaus’ arm as the blond began to turn. “Hold on a minute, Iolaus. I think this is too important to sweep under the rug. What makes you think I’m off base?”

Iolaus jerked his arm away, and glared at Jason. “There isn’t anything for me to be angry about, that’s why!” he said, through clenched teeth.

“I didn’t say you were angry,” Jason replied, gently, but with the quiet confidence of the master debater who has just scored his point. “I just said you must’ve had some strong feelings about it all. You’re the one who mentioned anger.”

“Okay!” Iolaus snapped, irritated at being trapped. He threw down his fishing pole and stalked back towards the lake, looking over the water with stormy indigo eyes. “I was angry, all right? So what?”

“So, you sound like you’re still angry about what happened with Serena,” Jason observed, his dark eyes compassionate.

“And again - so what if I am?” Iolaus tossed back over his shoulder. “What the hell do I have to be angry about?”

“I’d like to know that, too,” another deep voice inquired. “Why are you angry about what happened, Iolaus?”

Both Iolaus and Jason whipped around in shock and dismay. “Herc?” Iolaus whispered.

“Hercules -- Iolaus and I were -” Jason began.

“Taking forever to come back with the fish? Talking loud enough for even mortals to hear from camp?” Hercules suggested politely, but there was steel in his voice as he looked from Jason to Iolaus. “Discussing me behind my back?”

Iolaus swallowed, his eyes narrowed and fixed on his best friend’s face. “How much did you hear?”

“Enough,” the demigod answered shortly, angrily.

“Look, Hercules, Iolaus didn’t bring it all up, I did,” Jason said, hastily. “I think it’s very important to -”

“I think it’s pretty important, too, Jason,” Hercules answered, his icy blue gaze on Iolaus. “I’m still waiting for the answer to that question, Iolaus! Why should you be angry about anything?”

Iolaus’ dismay was quickly being replaced by anger again. “I wasn’t talking to you, Hercules,” he said with quiet intensity. He took a deep breath and his hands clenched into fists. “And since you were listening, you heard me ask the question in the first place.”

Hercules stepped closer to the hunter and clenched his own fists as well. “That’s not the point, and you know it!” he growled.

“Oh yeah? So what is?”

“The point is you’ve got nothing to be angry about! If anybody should be angry it should be me, with my two best friends talking behind my back!”

Iolaus gritted his teeth. “Damn it, Hercules, you’re way out of line!”

“Out of line? That’s a crock of --”

Jason held up his hands suddenly. “All right - stop it - both of you!”

The others looked at him with frowning surprise. Jason continued with all the authority at his command. “You both obviously need to have this … discussion. I knew it when I got things started.”

“You what?” Iolaus sputtered furiously.

“Quiet!” Jason ordered sternly. “So -- we might as well have supper, and get comfortable, because this could take awhile.”

He stopped their protests before either could get them out. “No! After supper. Till then no talky-talky - just walky-walky,” he ordered, using an old catchphrase from their Academy days. He waved them back toward camp. “Move it!”

Hercules and Iolaus both glared at Jason, and he could tell then weren’t sure whether that were angrier at him or at each other. But they obeyed him in stiff silence. They all returned to camp, cleaned the fish, completed the meal preparations, and ate in a silence that grew heavier and heavier with every passing moment. Late afternoon passed into twilight as they finished their repast, and Jason rose to build up the fire against the evening chill.

He observed his two friends surreptitiously as he worked. Their faces were both set and closed off, and they avoided looking at each other. Jason knew that this was the moment of truth - a pivotal time where Hercules and Iolaus could settle what was between them, or cause the rift that had begun with the tragic conflict centered in Serena to deepen into a gulf that could not be bridged.

Jason knew that it had happened before with them, despite the long closeness and brotherhood of his two dearest friends. He had not been there to witness all of it, but he had learned enough from them and from Alcmene to be very familiar with the events, and not to want to see it repeated.

Looking from their faces into the fire, it was as though a window into the past had opened, and Jason looked in …

… It was another market day in Thebes, two years after Alcmene’s eventful thirtieth birthday. Sixteen-year-old Iolaus, the strap of a traveler’s satchel slung over his shoulder, strolled through the crowded agora like all the other shoppers. He studied the wares of the local merchants and greeted the shopkeepers he had known all his life. He seemed to be paying particular attention to the goods of the traveling traders, however. Had anyone been watching him closely, he would have noticed that the young man’s eyes darted occasionally to meet the gazes of several other boys at different points around the market. He caught the glance of Cleitus near the south entrance of the agora. He looked up to see Arion gazing down at him from the stairs that led up to the top of the wall. And he and Nemitor exchanged a quick look and a nod before the other boy turned away, but not before Iolaus saw him fingering his dagger.

Iolaus seemed to wander aimlessly, but his gaze seemed to stray often to the area where the traveling jewelers set up their stalls, and before long his perambulations took him there. He stopped before one particularly laden cart, and reached out to touch some of the richly encrusted necklaces and bracelets. He had just picked up a bronze bracelet set with sardonyx when the trader rounded the side of the cart and snatched it from his hand.

“No handling the merchandise, boy,” the scarred trader growled.

Iolaus looked at him guilelessly, his blue eyes filled with injured innocence. “How can I tell if I want to purchase some of your fine wares if I can’t examine them, sir?”

The trader barked with sardonic laughter. “You purchase something of mine, boy? I doubt you’ve got even half of the dinars it would take. In fact,” his one good eye raked Iolaus’ muscled but lean, compact frame and well-worn leathers. “I doubt you have a dinar to your name, boy!”

“Perhaps looks can be deceiving, sir,” Iolaus responded, sweetly. He studied the ugly little trader with long-lashed, deep-blue eyes and a kind expression on his handsome face. “You should hope so, anyway.”

Iolaus turned back to his perusal of the trays of jeweled items. There was a brief moment before the real content of the young man’s words penetrated. The man sputtered, but before he could speak, Nemitor stepped up to the cart, pushing him out of the way. The ugly trader gasped in stunned surprise as Nemitor thrust his dagger into Iolaus’ chest.

Iolaus screamed with his head thrown back, acting his part to the utmost. He fell against the trader’s stand, clutching his chest, as Nemitor melted into the crowd. The trader screamed, babbling almost incoherently.

“Someone - help! Get a doctor!” He grabbed Iolaus head by his thick golden curls and lifted the boy’s head.

Iolaus was ready for him. “Why?” he gasped, pitifully, and rolled his eyes up into his head, sagging against the man’s faltering grip. The ugly trader screamed again, and let Iolaus’ head fall back onto the stand.

“Get an undertaker! He’s bleeding all over my jewels!” a few heads turned but the trader was not getting the response he wanted. “Never mind! I’ll get ’em myself!”

With that, the man rushed off into the crowd. Iolaus’ eyes popped open as he heard the man’s cries receding. With his “bloody” hand, he started scooping up jeweled necklaces, bracelets, and other items, and dumping them quickly into his satchel, glancing around to make sure none of the busy passers-by noticed him. After emptying half the trays, Iolaus slipped away into the throng, and left nothing but a few dark red stains on the traders’ cart for him to find when he returned.

Iolaus was well hidden in an alleyway just off the agora when he could hear faintly over the bustle, “My jewels !! I’ve been robbed!!”

The blond boy leaned his head against the wall, and laughed, as he waited for the rest of his gang to arrive …

Meanwhile, Alcmene was walking toward the south gate of Thebes with her market basket over her arm when she heard her name called. She turned to see Ceridean the Centaur waving at her from the side of the road, She smiled and turned her steps toward him. A few of the travelers looked at the half-man, half-horse with some curiosity, but for all the locals, Ceridean was a well-known and well-respected figure.

“Lady Alcmene,” he greeted her warmly, taking her outstretched hand. “It is good to see you this day.”

“And I am glad to see you Master Ceridean. I’m very glad I changed my mind about coming into town today,” Alcmene replied, smiling up at him, her youthful face bright with welcome. “But you -- you come to town so rarely. Are you here for market?”

He returned her smile. “In a sense. There are such close quarters through most of the agora that I usually don’t try to navigate them. But I received word from Baretes the scroll merchant that he would be traveling to Thebes today, so we arranged to meet. He should be here any time now.”

Alcmene nodded. “Oh, so you must have dismissed the boys on time today, after all?”

Ceridean shook his head, puzzled, his long, silver shot hair waving gently like a mane. “No, in fact, I just told them yesterday they would have the day off today.” At Alcmene’s look of surprise, he asked, “Did Hercules not tell you of it?”

Alcmene frowned and looked away, her thoughts racing. “No indeed, he did not, Master Ceridean. Instead that son of mine said that you had asked them to come in early and stay late in order to observe the morning and twilight stars.”

The wise centaur appeared taken aback, but then comprehension dawned quickly. “Lady Alcmene, I do believe Hercules must have had some private plans of his own.”

Alcmene looked up at his kind, smiling eyes, her own torn between fury, frustration, and anxiety. “And that is a bit worrisome, considering his behavior recently. Tell me, have you spoken in class lately of anything to do with Zeus?”

Ceridean’s smile faded. “As a matter of fact, we have, lady. In one discourse, I referred to a legend that there was a cave not far from Thebes that supposedly contains some of the treasures that Ares has stolen from other gods.”

“Let me guess, “ Alcmene interjected, her eyes narrowing. “One of the treasures is something Ares took from Zeus.”

“Indeed. A crystal beaker with a bronze lid that reputedly contains a small sample of the power of Zeus - the legend is not exact as to what the power is, exactly.”

Alcmene shook her head, her eyes closing. “I knew it.” She opened her eyes and looked up at the teacher. “Master Ceridean, I know Zeus is rather hard to ignore, but could you please inform me ahead of time if you plan to speak of him?”

Ceridean nodded, and noticed the anxiety that filled her beautiful eyes. He pondered about how difficult it would be for a young woman alone to raise an active, rebellious teenage son. “Have you thought more on my suggestion about sending Hercules to the Warrior’s Academy of my friend Cheiron?”

Alcmene sighed. “Lately, especially, I have thought of little else.” She looked away, unwilling to let him see the full depth of her conflicting emotions. “My head tells me that all you say about this idea is sage advice, but my heart … my heart tells me otherwise. You know, my friend, that since Iphicles was taken to live in Tiryns, Hercules is all I have. It has seemed such a brief fourteen years, and another year will fleet in an instant, and then it will be time for him to go to the Academy. It is … very hard to lose him.”

Ceridean’s voice was gentle. “And yet, he will always be your son. It is not in Hercules’ nature for him not to remember that.”

“Yes, you’re right.” She nodded pensively. “I know that to keep a son happily it is best to let him go. But with Hercules it is even more difficult.” She spread her arms out. “I know that he has a special destiny, and I am fated to share him with the world. I am proud, my friend, but I worry.”

Ceridean smiled, a bit grimly. “Like now. You’re afraid he’s sought this thing of Zeus’?”

Alcmene nodded. “He …frets to begin seeking that destiny. He’s been trying to gain the notice of his father for some time now, so I have no doubt he has gone after this chalice. Do you think it is dangerous?”

Ceridean knew it could help nothing for Alcmene to hear of the hundred-foot drop that one would have to make to even enter the cave, or the fierce beast that was said to guard Ares’ treasures.

Instead, he took her hand again. “What I know is that Hercules is already stronger than I am, and that is truly amazing,” he replied gently. “I also know that he is very intelligent and thinks quickly and well in sudden emergencies. He also seems to have a kind of sixth sense, probably from both his godly inheritance and from your wisdom. I think it gives Hercules a stronger … understanding or intuition, if you will … of the right thing to do. Most of the time.”

Alcmene’s face lightened, but her voice was quite stern. “It is as you say - most of the time. But when he gets back, he will find that his little trip was not the right thing to do.”

“Of course, you know, Alcmene, we can only speculate that he has sought this treasure,” Ceridean observed, judiciously. “I have seen several of Hercules’ classmates going into town for market day. Perhaps you might speak with one of them, just to see if they may know more about his plans.”

Alcmene nodded. “I suppose it is worth a try, Master. Thank you for your help.”

She turned to walk away, but Ceridean’s voice stopped her. “He will be fine, lady. The stars show this to be a very promising day for Hercules, and they do not lie.”

“Unlike Hercules,” she said, with a relieved laugh, and bowed. “Thank you for that assurance! Good afternoon, Master.”

He nodded, and Alcmene went on her way into town with a more urgent purpose. Though she was not confident that Hercules would have shared his plans with his classmates, she had to find out. She knew he was not that close to them - not that close to any friend since -

Iolaus, she sighed, as her thoughts turned to the young man she loved as another son. If only you were with him, I would have no worry at all - well, not as much, perhaps.

And she hurried in through the south gate, to see what she could find out …

Meanwhile, Hercules entered the city through the north gate, with his rope coiled over his shoulder and the crystal chalice in his other hand. He was footsore and weary from his journey, but still filled with elation from his success in finding the treasure and escaping the giant snake that guarded it. Now he just needed to find his teacher, Ceridean, and get his advice on how he could go about getting the object to his father.

Good thing Mother didn’t need to go to the market today, he thought. I can keep her from knowing about it. Everything is working out perfectly! It won’t be long before I can return this thing to Zeus and really get his attention.

Hercules thoughts continued to occupy him as he entered the agora. Dwelling on the exciting image of standing before Zeus as a hero, Hercules did not notice that he was attracting quite a bit of attention at the present.

“HERCULES!”

The bellowing of his name from some distance pulled Hercules from his pleasant reverie with a jerk. He looked up to see Andreus the potter hurrying toward him and waving excitedly. Hercules also suddenly noticed several of the people around him pointing at the exquisitely carved crystal beaker he carried and chattering together animatedly.

The rotund tradesman reached him, panting like a bellows, and struggled to keep up with Hercules’ long-legged strides.

“My boy, where did you find that beautiful piece of craftsmanship?” he asked, his eyes fastened on the treasure.

Hercules shrugged. “I took it from the cave of Ares.”

“Oh, my, my!” Andreus replied in comical dismay. “You stole a treasure from the god of war? How very distressing!”

Hercules reined in his impatience, and replied respectfully. “No sir, I did not steal it - exactly. Ares stole it from Zeus and I’m just planning on returning it.”

Andreus’ eyes flew from the delicate vessel to the tall young man’s handsome face. Though there had never been any real confirmation of the rumor, it was sometimes whispered in Thebes that this boy was the son of Zeus. At one time, many felt it to be wishful thinking or outright lies by the lady Alcmene to claim that she conceived a bastard child due to Zeus’ trickery after her warrior husband had died. More recently, though, Hercules’ size, beauty, and supernatural strength had begun to make even malicious doubters wonder if Alcmene’s story was true and this boy’s father was indeed the Lord of Olympus.

“To Zeus, eh?” Andreus said, his expression brightening. “It’s a long journey to Olympus, my boy. Hadn’t you rather just sell the item to me? I could take it off your hands for a sum that you could spend quite happily.”

Hercules glanced down at the potter’s avid gaze on the crystal chalice, and shook his head. “No, sir, I wouldn’t. So if you’ll excuse me?”

He lengthened his stride and left the portly little man behind, but heard him call, “Don’t forget if you change your mind --”

Hercules shook his head, but heard several other similar offers before much longer. By the time he reached the center of the agora, the news of his exploit had swept the crowd like wildfire, and he had a number of curiosity seekers and traders following him, peppering him with questions.

Now that I think of it, Hercules thought impatiently, maybe coming through the agora was not such a good idea after all …

At that moment, Alcmene had neared the center of the agora, looking for any of Hercules’ classmates. She noticed an unusual bustle of activity across the square and asked of the closest merchant, “What’s going on?”

The ugly little man did not see her nod toward the chattering crowd on the other side of the square. Instead, he began grumbling, “Nothing - oh, well, I was robbed earlier -- little punk made off with half my inventory --”

“No - I mean over there.” Alcmene pointed to the milling throng moving through the center of the square.

“Oh - well, I just heard that some kid supposedly stole a great treasure from the temple of Ares. What is it with this town --?”

At that moment the crowd shifted and Alcmene could see the face of the tall young man in the center of the excited group.

“Hercules!” she exclaimed, and flew across the square. The jewel trader looked after her with irritation.

“Like I said - what is it with this town?” he yelled after her…

Jason shook his head to dislodge the brief blaze of memory that had flashed through his mind. He sighed and turned to study his two best friends.

“All right, you guys,” he began slowly. “It’s time to take the gloves off. Everyone around you has known for some time that the two of you are going though a very difficult time, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that there’s a hell of a lot between you that hasn’t been thrashed out. So - there’s no time like the present!”

Hercules regarded Jason, his ice-blue eyes at their frostiest. “I’m not some kind of performing bear, Jason. I’m not going to trot out my deepest feelings for show.”

Jason stared back at Hercules levelly, unintimidated by the Hercules’ cold anger. “What a surprise,” he remarked with an off hand sarcasm. “And it’s exactly why Iolaus and I were talking about you. We’re concerned about you.”

Hercules flushed and looked down. “I know that, and I appreciate it.” He looked up at Iolaus challengingly. “What I don’t understand is what you would have to be angry about in all this, Iolaus.”

Iolaus met the challenge of Hercules’ gaze with an equal challenge in his own. “And if you remember what you overheard, Hercules, you’ll remember that I asked that very question.” He looked over at Jason with the same intensity. “I don’t think I knew that I was angry until Jason cornered me.”

“So -- why are you angry?” Jason asked.

Iolaus looked at the fire. “I’m angry that it had to happen in the first place. I’m angry that the gods did what they did to you, Herc.” His eyes turned to Hercules, and some of the flame seemed to be lodged in them. “And I’m angry that you didn’t listen to me.”

Hercules frowned. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? When didn’t I listen?”

“I said everything I knew to say to warn you about Serena!” Iolaus retorted, his voice hardening. “She belonged to Ares, both as herself and in her incarnation as the Golden Hind! It was obvious it was a trap! Why couldn’t you see that?”

“Damn it, Iolaus - I did see it! I told you that!” Hercules seethed through gritted teeth.

“But you dismissed it, and my warning! You decided to marry her anyway - because you decided it was right, and that made it right! After everything that’s happened to us over the years, you still think you always know better than anybody else!”

And the memories that came rushing through Iolaus’ mind with that statement were much like Jason’s, though neither of them knew it …

In the shadow of a stack of crates near the mouth of the alley, Iolaus stood with his cohorts, ready to divvy up their spoils. While waiting for the others to meet him, he had regretfully tossed away the pig’s bladder that they had used successfully several times previously for this ruse, and washed the mixture of wine and chicken blood from his vest with water from a rain barrel and a scrap of linen he carried in his satchel.

Iolaus glanced around and began handing out the stolen merchandise. When he had completed the division, Cleitus and Arion pocketed their loot without murmur, but Nemitor grumbled.

“A couple of handfuls, Iolaus?” he said, gesturing with his hands quite full. “How is this fair?”

“Look, Nemitor, I died for this stuff - remember?” Iolaus joked in rejoinder.

The larger boy did not look impressed. “I shared the risk, ya know. If anybody from Thebes had been watching --”

“Well, they weren’t,” Iolaus replied, with eroding patience, “and that’s why we always con the traders from out of town. Besides which, you already got a bigger share than the others this time because you played the killer.”

“Yeah, Nemitor, chill out,” Arion said with a quick shake of his head. “You got your share. Hey, Iolaus - I wanna be the killer next --”

Nemitor interrupted heatedly, “Yeah, but Iolaus got the biggest share!”

Cleitus fixed the bigger boy with a hard look. “Lace it, Nemitor. It’s Iolaus’ ruse and it’s the best one we’ve played. Some of Kratus’ ideas nearly got us caught, remember? Iolaus should get the biggest share. You come up with one that works as well, and you’ll get the biggest percentage.”

“All right, all right. already,” Nemitor groused, stuffing his pockets and belt pouch with his share of the spoils. “Wouldn’t be so bad of you didn’t waste half of yours buying food and junk for the little street rats, Iolaus!”

But Iolaus’ attention had been pulled away by the commotion in the middle of the market square, and at that moment he caught sight of the tall boy in the center of it.

“There he is,” Iolaus heard a passer-by say to his companion. “That’s the guy who stole a fabulous treasure right from Zeus’ temple on Mount Olympus!”

Iolaus’ knew enough about rumors to discount a portion of what he heard, but the word treasure caught his interest quickly. And when the tall boy turned his head just so, Iolaus could hardly believe it.

“Hercules?” he muttered, “Stealing? This I gotta see!”

He pulled his satchel from his shoulder and tossed it to Cleitus. “Take this stuff and fence it and buy the kids some food, Cleitus. Do it right, and you’ll be the killer next time!”

“Iolaus, you can’t --”

“Later!” he called back, and threaded through the milling press of people to close in on Hercules.

Meanwhile, Alcmene had reached her tall son, and caught his arm. “Hercules!”

He swung around to face her, and gulped. “M-Mother?!”

“Have I heard correctly that you have robbed a temple of Ares?” she asked sternly.

“No, Mom, I didn’t go into any temple - let alone rob it,” Hercules replied, stung. “I rescued this chalice thingy of Zeus’ from a cave where Ares had hidden it.”

Alcmene folded her arms. “And lied to me in the process?”

“Um - uh - well --”

“Well, well, well -- what have we here?” a laughing voice interrupted. Hercules swung around to find Iolaus standing before him.

“Iolaus?” Hercules’ voice almost squeaked in his surprise.

“Seems I’ve heard you’ve joined the ranks of the beloved of Hermes, Herc!” Iolaus said with a smirk. “Welcome!”

Hercules shouted over the growing noise of the by-standers hovering around them. “I’m not a thief! I just took this back from Ares who stole it from Zeus in the first place!”

“So, this is what keeps you so busy these days!” Iolaus smiled and gestured at the chalice. Alcmene saw that the smile did not reach his eyes. “Still tryin’ to get your Dad’s attention no matter what anybody says!”

“I’m doing what I think is the right thing to do!” Hercules retorted, icily polite. “And you haven’t had much time for old friend lately either, Iolaus!”

Alcmene watched Iolaus intently and wondered about him appearing at this particular moment. She wanted so much to see the two boys back as friends, so she waited to see what would come of this confrontation.

“Well, come on, let’s see what you wanna impress Daddy with this time, Herc!” Iolaus said, with a fey grin. He caught hold of the chalice and began tugging.

“Stop it, Iolaus!” Hercules shouted, almost losing his grip in his surprise over Iolaus’s sudden grab. “That’s mine!”

“Thought you said it’s your Dad’s!” Iolaus kept struggling to get it away from the other boy. “Let’s see what’s so all-fired important that you go risking your life for it!”

At that moment both boys’ hands clasped the chalice near the top and pulled, which popped the bronze lid from the crystal vessel. They both gasped as the lid fell to the earth, and a sudden rumbling was heard and felt throughout the market. All at once, a whirl of sparkling motes came whirling out of the chalice and swirled around them

“Oops!” they said in unison. They stared at each other fearfully, still grasping the chalice between them, as the motes whirled up into the air. A sudden explosion rocked the agora and both boys were knocked down onto their backs, away from the chalice …

Iolaus’ brief flash of memory was interrupted by Hercules’ furious response.

“I think I know better than everybody else? Where the hell do you get that, Iolaus?”

“Happens all the time, Herc!” Iolaus replied, with rock-solid certainty. He uttered a brittle laugh that came as much out of frustration as humor, and went on passionately. “And the thing of it is, you usually do! But it’s a two-edged sword - because you still think you’re right even in that rare event that you get it really, really wrong!”

Hercules shook his head. “Damn it, Iolaus! What in all Gaia are you taking about?”

“Just think about it, Herc!” Iolaus retorted, torn between entreaty and exasperation. “Remember how you just knew that the arrows of Hera’s archers were the only weapons that could stop Echidna? Remember before that how you just knew that staunching the stumps of the Hydra’s neck with fire was the only way to stop them re-growing? And back when we were kids, remember how you just knew how to save me from that cyclone in the agora?”

And Hercules found himself caught in a quick whirlwind of remembrance …

The crystal vessel fell into the dust of the square as a raging swirl of fierce winds flew out of it. With the winds came a peal of scathing laughter. The whirling cyclone began to fill the air with a tremendous roar as the large crowd was blown in all directions.

Hercules scrambled up, and caught his mother in a tight clasp as the hurricane force gales began to smash through the marketplace. People, carts, wares of all kinds, and animals were blown higgledy-piggledy through the agora. Screams, shouts, curses and the rending of wood and metal filled the air around them, but could barely be heard over the screaming roar of the cyclone.

Iolaus scrambled up to take cover, but felt a blast buffer him so fiercely that he felt his feet leave the ground. He caught hold of a thick fence railing and held on for dear life. He was struck by all kinds of flying debris, and fought to hold on to his anchor.

Hercules, however, was less affected by the tempest’s force. He struggled to shield his mother from the myriad objects that were being picked up and flung about by the torrent. He managed to get Alcmene to the partial shelter of the roofed arcade edged the square of the agora.

Alcmene looked past her son’s strong shoulder, scanning for Iolaus. Suddenly she caught sight of him and gasped. Closest to the source of the whirlwind he was being buffeted unmercifully. Her heart jumped into her throat as she saw Iolaus’ body being pulled parallel to the ground.

“Hercules!” she screamed over the howling, and pointed. Hercules looked up just at the moment that an empty crate grazed the side of Iolaus’ left hip and pushed his body further into the air. They could hear his shouted curse torn from his lips by the gale, and then a louder cry.

“HERC!!”

Hercules felt his heart lurch, and all the issues that had driven him from Iolaus were pushed aside. He looked from Iolaus to his mother, not knowing whom to protect.

“Hercules - you’ve got to do something!” Alcmene shouted, making the decision for him. “I’ll be fine - you’ve got to save Iolaus!”

Hercules glanced down at her, and saw that she had hold of iron stanchions that had been driven into the thick pillars of the arcade to provide hooks for various temporary market stalls. The roof was strong and low over the arcade, the pillars were good shields, and the wind seemed a bit less powerful here.

“NOW!” she shouted, desperately, as she saw a large board narrowly miss Iolaus’ head. But as she glanced up, she saw that Hercules was already moving. He tucked the coil of rope more tightly about him as he struggled toward the wilder maelstrom at the center of the square.

Alcmene watched Hercules advance slowly against the lashing gales while other people were being blown off their feet and away. They had guessed for some time that one source of Hercules’ strength was an incredibly dense and heavy mass, despite his slender frame, as though Zeus had fashioned his bones and muscles from a mightier kind of flesh. His ability to walk through this battering tempest seemed to prove it.

The cyclone roared with such force now that Iolaus feet were swept up straight towards the sky. He was now stretched out in the wind’s grip, his body held to earth only by his desperate grip on the fence rail.

All at once, before Hercules could fight his way to his friend, the furious typhoon had ripped Iolaus’ hands from the fence railing. With an abrupt yelp, he was borne skyward like a leaf or a feather on the wind.

Hercules now reached the center of the square. He felt the increasing power of the cyclone so he worked quickly. He pulled the coil of rope from his shoulder and deftly lashed one end to the heavy fence railing. Though it was vibrating as though in an earthquake, the fence seemed to still be tight enough in the ground to provide a stable anchor for Hercules’ line.

The son of Zeus had just secured the other end of the rope to his waist when he felt the twister’s screaming power increase enough to pull even his feet from the earth. Though he soared upward more slowly than Iolaus, the winds were pushing him closer to the other boy.

“Hang on, Iolaus!” Hercules shouted above the wind’s thundering bellow.

“To what?!” Iolaus screamed, as he was tumbled around with bruising force.

“I’m coming!” Hercules tried a kind of swimming motion, but the wind resistance was not solid enough to push against. He caught a glimpse of streaking motion out of the corner of his and spun to look.

A large section of heavy wooden shelving had been ripped from one of the stalls below, and it came tumbling through the air. Hercules suddenly realized in horror that the structure was flying directly toward Iolaus.

“NO!!” he screamed. He twisted torturously to shift his body between Iolaus and the object.

“HERCULES - DON’T!” Iolaus bellowed, glimpsing his friend’s moves.

But Hercules had a plan, however sketchy. He maneuvered to get his feet turned toward the shelving. He was just in place when the heavy structure bounded toward them. With a powerful thrust of his strong thighs, Hercules kicked both feet out at the object.

Simultaneously, the wooden shelving was knocked away, and the force of the pushing motion flung Hercules higher in a rush.

“Grab my hand!” Hercules called as he neared Iolaus. Each caught the other by the wrist and held on like glue. Iolaus’ weight slowed Hercules’ ascent, and Hercules’ even denser weight kept Iolaus from soaring further away into the sky.

They were plunged up and down and whirled about like corks in a whirlpool. The raging gale tore at their hold on each other as though willfully attempting to separate them.

“Don’t let go!” Hercules cried out.

“Are you kidding?” Iolaus shouted back. “Don’t you let go!”

The chaotic maelstrom then flung them into each other with a breath-stealing thump.

“Herc, what the hell is this thing?” Iolaus asked, wheezing for air.

“How should I know?”

Before Iolaus could frame a retort they were ripped apart again, and barely retained the desperate clasp that kept them together. The cyclone seemed to be wrapping itself tighter and tighter around them with every second, and snapped them round and round drunkenly. Hercules was wildly wondering what they could do to get out of it.

Suddenly he heard his mother shouting from the ground. “HERCULES! Get down now!”

Iolaus, grunting from the battering, cried, “You heard your Mom!”

“Yeah, I heard her - you got any bright ideas?”

“Hey - I’m not the son of the storm god here!”

“WATCH OUT!”

Alcmene’s urgent call and pointing finger alerted them to the danger from below. The fence that had tethered them so far was being shaken from its moorings and had already been pulled half out of the ground.

“Hey, Herc - NOW would be good!!”

Hercules was barely aware of Iolaus’ urging. He had suddenly been struck by one of those flashes of insight that he vaguely attributed to “that demigod thing.”

“Iolaus - hang on!!”

Before Iolaus could respond, Hercules tightened his grip on his friend. With the other hand he gave a sharp pull to their tethering rope with all his great strength. Abruptly, with a screech of rending timbers, the fence ripped out of the ground and soared upward. The force that Hercules had used on the rope now rebounded against them.

The heavy-timbered fence flew into the air, along with many of the unsecured objects from the agora. The two boys were thrown to the ground heavily, landing in a heap of arms, legs, and long loops of rope.

But the looped line, till secured to the fence, was snatched upward at an alarming rate.

“Hercules - the rope!” Iolaus cried, indicating the line still secured to Hercules’ waist. The demigod sat up, pried his cramped fingers from Iolaus’ wrist, and scrabbled at the knot.

“It’s too tight!” Hercules shouted above the blasting tempest. “Can’t untie it!”

Iolaus shot a quick glance above, watching the long rope zooming upward. “C’mon, Herc - you don’t need to! Rip it apart!”

“Oh, yeah!” Hercules grabbed the rope at his waist and tugged, right hand against left hand. His biceps knotted and his long fingers whitened with strain, but after a muscle-popping moment, the rope tore in two.

And it was just in time. The line suddenly tautened and whipped around Hercules’ waist, burning as it went. Iolaus caught Hercules as he was jerked up with the scouring rope. They fell back down, staring up as the timbers were sucked higher and higher. They also saw the burning motes of light following in a tighter and tighter spiral. As all the motes suddenly rushed together, Hercules felt a sudden bolt of fear.

Shouting to be heard as far as possible, he yelled, “GET DOWN!”

He and Iolaus flattened themselves to the earth, arms entwined, and did their best to protect their heads, and each other.

High in the air over the agora, a ripping BOOM! filled the sky and sent echoes resounding to the hills around Thebes. A brilliant flash of light accompanied the blast, then slowly faded.

In the brief, blessed silence that followed, falling wreckage rained down with a hissing and crashing rattle. A few shouts of joy arose, and finally a cacophony of voices filled the peace with relieved babble.

Bits of splintered wood, pieces of metal, shredded baskets, and pottery shards continued to shower down on the tangled heap of arms and legs that was Hercules and Iolaus. As the debris fall lessened, Hercules opened his eyes to see two bright blue eyes in a dirty face regarding him hopefully.

“Is it over?”

Hercules suddenly remembered how they got into this mess. He fought down the jolt of relief that shot through him as he saw that Iolaus was - relatively - unharmed. He untangled himself from the other boy and shoved him away.

“Yeah, well, no thanks to you!” Hercules replied, angrily. He struggled to prop himself up on one elbow in the midst of the chaos around them.

“Ah, c’mon, Herc,” Iolaus taunted. He pushed himself up to the support of his forearms and the fey light returned to his eyes. “You like me - you really like me!”

“The hell I do!” Hercules growled. He raked dust, dirt, twigs and other from his hair, and wiped his hand across his face. “Did you turn the agora upside down just to try to prove that?”

Iolaus shook his head like a dog to dislodge the rubbish that clung to his long, loose curls. “Maybe I did - but I didn’t bring the ‘gale-in-a-goblet’ smack into the middle of the agora!”

“I didn’t know it was in there!” Hercules sputtered, livid with fury. “And nobody else would’ve either if you hadn’t come running up like a two-year-old and -“

Hercules broke off as the sunlight above them dimmed. The two boys looked up to see a group of very angry adults enclosing them in a circle.

“Thundering Zeus!” Iolaus whispered, as the ugly little trader stepped to the front of the crowd. “We’ve landed in the Minotaur droppings this time, Herc.”

Hercules gulped, as his Mother walked forward. Like all the others, her hair was a bird’s nest, her chiton bedraggled, and her jaw set with anger.

“Yeah,” he breathed, “big, deep Minotaur droppings …”

Hercules shook off the memories with an exasperated snort. “Okay, so maybe I have some kind of sixth sense about things. So what? This is pointless! What difference does it make? I thought we were talking about you being angry for no reason, Iolaus!”

“No reason? No reason?” Iolaus sputtered. “What the hell have I been saying?”

“Obviously you haven’t been saying it very well!”

Jason sat and watched both fuming men with a hawk-like intensity, but his dark eyes were desperately sad.

Iolaus growled in inarticulate fury, but retained enough self-control to take a breath and try to stay centered. “Okay, then. Let me see if I can explain it so you’ll understand, Hercules!”

The demigod began to sputter, but Iolaus overrode him. “You thought you were right to keep it a secret from me that Serena was the Golden Hind. You thought you were right to keep your romance secret, even though it was dangerous for all of us, and you knew it. You thought you were right to consider breaking up our partnership over her, even though she belonged to Ares --!”

“Stop it, right there!” Hercules cried. “I broke up the partnership? What the hell are you talking about? You were the one that broke up the partnership by leaving!”

“I was trying desperately to make you think, Herc, because you sure as hell weren’t listening to me!” Iolaus countered fiercely. “That was part of the reason anyway. I’d had a … a bad feeling about the whole situation from the time I woke up from the poison. Anything or anyone Ares had to do with is always dangerous - even when they don’t realize it! You ought to know that by now, Hercules! So don’t say I was the only one who broke up the partnership!”

Before Hercules could speak, Jason broke in. Studying Iolaus intently, he asked, “What do you mean ‘part of the reason’, Iolaus? What was the other part of the reason you left?”

Iolaus darted a glance at Jason and then at Hercules. Then his gaze flew to the fire, and the flickering light threw darkling shadows on his frowning features as he answered slowly.

“Okay … uh … when I was unconscious from the poison, I had … I don’t know … dreams? Visions? Whatever they were, they seemed to be prophecies, because they began happening just like the visions.”

“Oh, this is new!” Hercules snapped. “The way I remember it, you felt great when you woke up - after Serena healed you I might add -”

“And I was grateful!” Iolaus shot back.

Hercules went on inexorably. “ - and you didn’t say one word about any visions!”

“I didn’t think I had to!” Iolaus flung back. “At first, I was just so glad to know they were just dreams! But then, they began to come true. They all centered on your marriage to Serena, and I knew they only got worse. In the last one … well … I dreamed I hurt you, Herc … killed you, in fact.”

Iolaus voice faltered and he looked away. “I couldn’t let that happen. So besides trying to knock some sense into your head, I thought I had to get away.”

“Oh.” Hercules was a bit stunned. He thought about Iolaus’ words, fitting them into their conversation, and looked back at Iolaus with narrowed eyes.

“So, it sounds like we were both keeping secrets.”

Iolaus looked back at him warily. “Yeah, maybe but …”

“It wouldn’t be the first time you kept secrets that interfered with our friendship!” Hercules snapped, his thoughts winging back to the time that had been in the back of all their minds …

Hercules and Iolaus were thrown into a dimly lit cell in the citadel to await a hearing with the magistrate. They had been lucky to escape the worst attentions of the angry traders, shopkeepers, and townsmen, thanks to Alcmene and some of their friends. The guardsmen who put them in the cell seemed to find the situation funny, but did not seem to think the magistrate would do so.

Hercules stood at the door of the cell and watched the guard troop march away. Iolaus slouched down nonchalantly onto one of the musty cots, placed against the back wall of the cell.

“Well, this is just great!” the young demigod growled. “This is a great mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Iolaus sat up quickly, wincing as he did so. “Why do you keep sayin’ it was my fault? You’re the one who brought that stupid thing here!”

Hercules spun to face him, jaw clenched. “And you keep harping on that! The agora would still be okay if you hadn’t tried to grab the chalice!”

Iolaus stood and stepped closer to Hercules, his teeth gritted. “And if you weren’t so fixated on getting your Dad’s attention, we wouldn’t be having this conversation!”

Hercules took another step that brought him almost chest-to-chest with the shorter young man, and shoved him with sharp jabs to the shoulders. “Maybe if you hadn’t been in the market pulling off a heist with your new buddies we wouldn’t be in this cell!”

Iolaus pushed Hercules back, and abruptly they were grappling and shouting at each other. Before either could get the upper hand, the door at the end of the hall clanged open, and the captain of the guard looked in. The boys froze.

“Cut that out and keep it down in there, you two!” he snapped. “If the magistrate hears you weren’t model prisoners, he’s likely to put you under the jail! And that wouldn’t help a bit -- especially you, Iolaus - not after he finishes hearing all the complaints against you two!”

Iolaus realized how they were clutched together. He pushed out of Hercules’ hold impatiently.

“That’s just great, Seladon - thanks for the encouragement!” Iolaus shot back sardonically. “We could be here all afternoon!”

“And all night!” the guardsman laughed. “And believe me, His Honor is not happy with you making his day longer. Keep it down, Iolaus, or you get half rations for supper!” He went out chuckling and pulled the protesting door closed behind him.

“Friend of yours?” Hercules folded his arms and jerked his head toward the door.

Iolaus sat back down and leaned back against the wall with a sigh. “In a manner of speaking. We’ve met - uh - professionally a couple of times before.”

“So - that’s where you’ve been lately - in jail?” Hercules scoffed, but felt a weight of disappointment settle in his heart.

Iolaus looked haughty, but his eyes were fierce. “Never more than a few hours. I was too smart for ’em!”

Hercules regarded him frostily. “Is that what you call it?”

“I call it ‘getting by’.” Iolaus replied flatly. “Don’t judge me, Hercules.”

“Well, they’re going to judge us both pretty soon. What do you think’ll happen?”

Iolaus shrugged. “To you, not much. They’ll give you a warning. Maybe make you pay or work off your share of the damages.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.” A deep, gravelly voice came out of the shadows of the cell across from them. “I’ve heard this magistrate is a freakin’ harpy about boys feelin’ their oats and kickin’ up their heels.”

The two boys looked around at the sudden interruption. A tall, gangly man with long, greasy hair and a scarred face stepped up to the bars and into the light. He rested his arms on the crosspiece of the bars, and gave them a leering grin.

“Gorbus.” Iolaus identified the man, and his voice was suddenly harder and more dangerous sounding than Hercules had ever heard it. “What would you know about what we did?”

“Saw it all from this window, Yellowhead.” Gorbus laughed with a disgusting display of yellowed and rotting teeth. He gestured at the window high over the cot on the back wall of his cell where afternoon was moving into evening. “With old Aquilias on the bench, all bets are off. He’s as tough as old nails and not known for lettin’ anyone off easy!”

Hercules watched the man with a mixture of revulsion and fascination, as Iolaus answered sarcastically, “Oh, yeah, like you’d know anything at all about that, Greasepit. There’s never been a reason for any judge to let you off easy!”

Hercules glanced around at Iolaus. The blond boy had not stirred from his negligent pose leaning against the wall on the cot, but Hercules could tell that his body was vibrating with tension.

Gorbus chuckled. “Still as feisty as ever, eh, kid? You must remember how much I like that in a luscious little package like you. Didya get a good trade for your pelts that time?”

Hercules snapped his attention back to the man in shock, as Iolaus taunted in reply, “I think your memory must’ve been messed up by that kick to the balls I gave you back then.”

Gorbus still smiled, but his eyes were cold and menacing. “Oh, I’m very patient, boy. I’ve figured from the way you were going I’d meet you in prison one day and show you that you didn’t cause any permanent damage!”

He turned his dark, snake-like gaze to Hercules. “And that tall young sprout there, too. He’ll be a treat! You’re almost getting’ to be too old to be much fun, Yellowhead!”

Hercules stepped to the bars in fury and disgust. “I’d like to see you try it, you -”

Iolaus was suddenly at his side. He pushed Hercules bodily to the back of the cell hard enough to knock him down onto the cot. Iolaus stood in the front of the cell. “You won’t be getting anywhere near him, you slimy bastard,” Iolaus answered, his voice still taunting, but with a hard and brittle edge to it. “I know Aquilias, too, and I’ll bet he puts you someplace you’ll have only your hand for company!”

Gorbus laughed again. “And then again, maybe I’ll have both you morsels with me!”

Hercules pushed himself up again, but Iolaus whirled on him and pushed him back down. His voice quiet and furious, he leaned close and snapped, “Damn it, Herc, quit! The more you respond, the more power it gives him!”

“But, Iolaus, he -”

“Lace it!” Iolaus whispered urgently over Gorbus’ snide chuckles. “Would you just shut up? You used to think I knew just a bit more than you did about some stuff - can’t you trust me enough to believe that now?”

Hercules opened his mouth to protest, but the desperation in Iolaus’ eyes and beneath his anger suddenly caught his attention, and it robbed him of resistance. Angry and conflicted, he nodded briefly.

“Oh, that’s touching!” Gorbus sneered. “Taking care of your big, young thing, aren’t you, Iolaus?”

Hercules growled and nearly spoke, but Iolaus, still leaning close, made a slicing motion with his hand.

“Leave it alone, I said!” he growled low, through gritted teeth. “Don’t say anything else to him no matter what!”

With that, Iolaus turned and dropped down onto the other cot, leaned against the side wall, and closed his eyes. He appeared blissfully aware of Gorbus’ further laughter or filthy, jeering remarks.

Hercules sat fuming but silent, more protected from Gorbus’ further attentions in the dimness at the rear of the cell. He realized that he, too, was shaking with a mixture of anger, revulsion, and fear. It wasn’t easy, but he followed Iolaus’ example and did his best to ignore the man’s taunts.

After a few moments, the scarred man gave up his baiting of them and retired back to the shadows and his own cot. Hercules saw Iolaus’ eyes open slowly, but the older boy just gazed at the grimy wall opposite with fierce concentration and said nothing. The son of Zeus watched him, still angry, confused, and a bit scared, but said nothing since Gorbus would overhear.

About a sunwidth later, the jingling of keys and the squeal of hinges announced the guards’ return. Two of the men came to the boy’s cell with trays containing bowls of stew and cups of water. One unlocked the cell and stood there while the other handed the trays to Hercules and Iolaus. Then they exited, re-locked the cell and departed.

Seladon and two other guards had waited for the others to finish their task and leave before unlocking Gorbus’ cell. The three men worked together to place the scarred prisoner in shackles, hand and foot, and guard each other getting the task done. Then they swung the door open.

“Time to go, Gorbus,” Seladon stated, brusquely. “They’re waiting for you at the prison in Attica. Wouldn’t want to disappoint them now, would we?”

Gorbus said nothing to the guards, but as he was being led out, called out, “Be seeing you soon, Yellowhead! And you too, I hope, Sprout! Attica!”

“Burn in Tartarus, Gorbus,” Iolaus called back. His tone was conversational though his face was grim. He waited until the door had groaned shut, and then took a deep breath before applying himself to his stew.

Hercules stirred the lumpy mess with little appetite. “How can you eat this …stuff?” he asked.

Iolaus shrugged, and chewed for a moment. “It’s food. It’s here.”

Hercules glanced up at the older boy and watched him tuck into the meal with no apparent concerns. “So, that Gorbus guy …how did you know him?”

Iolaus glanced at Hercules enigmatically before taking a long drink from his tankard of water. Then he wiped his mouth and replied, carelessly, “He was one of the agora sharks that hung around a couple of years ago, before Aquilias became magistrate and cleaned things up. I had a few run-ins with him before he left town. I heard he was convicted for killing some kid in Mycenae and was in prison there. I guess he escaped and ended up back here.”

Hercules’ eyes widened as he realized they had been trading barbs with a killer. He watched Iolaus thoughtfully and considered the older boy’s efforts to keep him from Gorbus’ attention. He noticed Iolaus wince as he chewed and put his hand to his jaw where a bruise was forming.

“So -uh -- you okay?” Hercules asked off-handedly.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Iolaus seemed a bit defensive.

Hercules shrugged. “Well, excuse me for noticing, but it looked like you were knocked around quite a bit by that whirlwind.”

“Oh - that. A few bruises here and there, and I’ll probably be sore in the morning.” Iolaus looked Hercules over critically. “How about you?” he asked.

Hercules lifted his shirt to examine the abraded areas around his middle where the rope had scoured off the skin. As usual for him, the abrasions were already half healed.

“I’m okay.”

“I’ll bet,” Iolaus groused and shook his head, but without any real jealousy. He watched Hercules stir the stew and went on. “You may not like it much, but you better eat. No telling when we’ll get fed again.”

Hercules nodded, and managed a few mouthfuls, but he found he wasn’t that hungry. Silence reigned briefly as Iolaus ate and Hercules drank his water and pondered. After a few moments, Hercules voiced the direction of those thoughts.

“Something that Gorbus guy said made me remember when we made that belt for Mom a couple of years ago. Was he the one who gave you the black eye that time?”

Iolaus nodded, and around another mouthful, answered. “Sucker-punched me. Wanted those pelts.” He scraped up the last of the stew and put the bowl aside.

Hercules studied his erstwhile friend in a way he had never thought to before, noting the muscled compactness of Iolaus’ frame, the well-cut bone structure of his face, and the deep blue eyes fringed by long, dark blond lashes.

“Sounded like he wanted something else, too, I think,” Hercules said slowly. He dropped his gaze as Iolaus’ eyes flew to his face. Hercules wasn’t sure he could meet the expression there.

Iolaus answered belligerently, “Why do you think I kicked him where it hurts?”

Hercules eyes lifted, and he regarded Iolaus seriously. “So, why didn’t you tell me that then?”

“You didn’t need to know. Besides which, I was kinda trying to forget. If Mantius hadn’t come along …”

“Yeah.” Hercules took a deep breath. “ So, uh, thanks.”

“For what?”

Hercules didn’t meet the older boy’s eyes. “Watching out for me - then and now.”

Iolaus flushed, taken aback as ever by gratitude or praise. He shrugged. “Least I could do, after you kept me from being whirled away or having my head taken off by that cyclone,” he said. Iolaus shifted his position on the cot with a bit of a groan.

Hercules nodded. “Yeah, guess so.” As he considered the afternoon’s events, it now seemed he was beginning to see them in a different light. After another reflective pause, he asked, “So, why did you come after me in the agora, and try to take the chalice?”

Iolaus shrugged. “Partly curiosity, I guess. And partly … to get your attention, maybe.”

“What for?”

“Because … because I was still pretty angry from the last time we’d seen each other - that argument we had. So I guess I was trying to get you back a bit, too.”

“Well, you did, and in a big way, too,” Hercules answered, shortly. He remembered that argument, which had been about much the same things as they’d started to fight over when they’d first been thrown in this cell.

He put the tray down on the cot and pushed it away with a sigh. “I won’t be taking it to Zeus now, I guess. Probably a dumb plan anyway.”

“Probably.”

Hercules head came up and he began a quick retort until he saw Iolaus regarding him with an understanding grin. He shook his head, and reluctantly grinned back.

Hercules was about to speak when the door screeched open again. Seladon entered and came to their cell.

“Well, boys, it’s time to face the music,” the guard captain said, heartily, unlocking the door.

“Great,” Iolaus responded, drily, as he stood up. “I don’t suppose we could sit this one out, huh, Seladon?”

The man shook his head. “I’m afraid not, lad. Just hope you’re not going to be dancing to a tune you don’t enjoy too much, Iolaus.”

Iolaus gave the man a cheeky grin as he passed out of the cell. “Nah, not gonna happen!”

Seladon smiled, but as Hercules passed him, he realized the man was troubled for Iolaus. “You haven’t forgotten the last time you appeared before him, have you?”

“Ah, I don’t think he was serious about that at all,” Iolaus replied. He turned to look back over his shoulder at the guard captain as a waiting guardsman opened the outer door.

But Hercules just glimpsed the flash of fear in Iolaus’s blue eyes as he turned around. The son of Zeus felt the butterflies in his stomach turn to dragons as he straightened his shoulders and followed the older boy out the door …

Hercules thoughts were pulled quickly back to the present by Iolaus’ angry retort.

“If the problem was keeping secrets, looks like we were both guilty!”

Hercules continued, his anger returning full force, “So maybe one of your secrets - maybe even from yourself -- was that you just didn’t like Serena!”

“WHAT?” Iolaus burst out, livid with fury. “How the hell can you say that? I didn’t even know her at first. You didn’t give me much of a chance to get to know her before you got married! And, on top of that -”

Iolaus broke off, appearing to stop his words with a major effort. Hercules, also pale and shaking with anger, wouldn’t accept the silence.

“Go on!” he snapped forcefully. “Don’t stop now!”

“Damn it, Deianeira wasn’t only your wife, she was my friend!” Iolaus shouted. “Maybe I still felt too loyal to her to be ready to accept Serena so fast!”

Hercules leaped up, with a roar, fists clenched. He loomed over Iolaus. “Oh, and I wasn’t loyal to Dei, is that it?”

Iolaus folded his arms stubbornly and stared up to meet Hercules’ fiery blue gaze straight on, just with a questioning lift of his eyebrows.

Hercules growled, “You don’t think I thought of her? Of course I did, just like I have every day since she and the kids died! I made my peace with her memory, Iolaus, damn you!”

Hercules went on in the white-hot blaze of fury. “Are you sure your feelings were so noble as all that, Iolaus? Maybe it wasn’t so much loyalty as jealousy! Maybe you were jealous of Serena’s place in my life! Maybe you just begrudged my happiness with her!”

“Shit!” Jason whispered. Fear for the future of a friendship like no other tore at his heart, as he watched Iolaus leap up. The smaller man stood toe-to-toe with Hercules, fierce with fury and hurt, unafraid to get in the face of the strongest man on Earth.

“You bastard!” Iolaus, his voice low and dangerous, flung back an epithet he had never used to his friend in any quarrel before. “And you wonder why I’m angry? How could you think for one moment I would ever begrudge you even a moment’s happiness? Do you think so little of me that you’d think I could ever be jealous of someone you could love? This has nothing to do with Serena as a person - but with what she was!”

Iolaus reached out in unthinking anger and jabbed a finger into Hercules’ chest as he went on. “It’s not the fact that you took a chance on love again that I call into question, Hercules - it’s your lack of judgment in choosing Serena over every warning! What the hell happened to your famous self-control?”

Iolaus was too enraged to see Hercules large fists tightening till his gauntlets strained, or his huge biceps bulging till the veins stood out. The hunter flew on in the passion of his fury and pain.

“Since Dei died, I’ve cheered the few times allowed yourself to find a moment’s release with a woman. I would’ve celebrated if you had fallen in love and married just about any of the hundreds of princesses, noblewomen, merchant’s daughters, or village women who have thrown themselves at you!”

Iolaus now jabbed the forefingers of both hands into Hercules’ chest in the heated thoughtlessness of hurt, anger and anguish.

“But what do you do? Ignore all of those perfectly safe, easy possibilities, and fall in love at first sight with the absolutely worst possible choice!” Iolaus raged. “From my visions and my gut, I was sick with fear that Ares would find a way to hurt you with Serena and - oh guess what? - he did, didn’t he? I tried my damnedest to make you see it - to really think through what it would mean to marry Serena of all people - an acolyte of Ares no less! And not only that, but the last Golden Hind, of all beings!”

Hercules growled with rage from Iolaus’ words and the irritation of his jabbing blows. He pushed Iolaus with the power of all his strength and the hunter flew backwards to hit the beech tree behind him.

“Damn you, Iolaus! Don’t you ever speak her name again!” Hercules roared.

Iolaus wheezed to catch his breath as it was knocked from him, and shook his head dazedly to clear it. But he pulled himself up with the force of his passionate anger and faced Hercules boldly as the demigod stepped toward him.

“You can’t face it, can you Herc? The whole mess shows you’re more like Zeus than you ever thought!” Iolaus said, hoarse with pain and unthinking fury. “Thinking with your balls instead of your brains!”

Jason swore, but before he could move, Hercules screamed in incandescent wrath and struck Iolaus across the face with a powerful backhand that slammed Iolaus’ head against the tree trunk again.

“Don’t you ever compare me to him!” Hercules shouted, his voice breaking with rage and heart-deep hurt. He pulled his arm back to strike again.

Jason leaped to his feet. “Hercules stop it, now!” he shouted.

Iolaus, as flippant as ever in the face of overwhelming pain, had pulled himself up again and now faced Hercules with a grim smile and eyes that glittered with more than anger.

“Go ahead, hit me again, son of Zeus!”

Jason caught Hercules’ arm, just as the demigod’s eyes met those of Iolaus, and saw one of the glittering tears overflow and course down his cheek.

“Hercules -no!” Jason commanded.

But the order was unnecessary. Hercules had suddenly seen Iolaus’ face - really seen it. His lip was bleeding and a red contusion was forming on his cheekbone. The demigod looked at his balled up fist. With a gasp, he loosened the fist, and dropped his arm.

Jason felt the fury drain from Hercules’ muscles as he heard the taller man whisper, “Iolaus!”

The blond hunter had lowered his eyes and wiped the blood from his mouth. Iolaus heard his friend’s whisper, but raised a hand to stop him. He turned and stumbled away into the darkness toward the lake before Hercules could move.

Hercules, totally aghast, sagged in Jason’s hold. The former king steered him to a seat on a stone and remarked dryly, “Well, that was pretty.”

“Oh, gods, Jason - what have I done?” Hercules said raggedly, hardly able to breathe.

“Let’s see,” Jason pretended to ponder. “Ah …smashed your best friend into a tree for telling you an unwelcome truth - would that be it?” he said, sarcastically. Jason looked off into the darkness in the direction Iolaus had gone. “Of course, he did his best to infuriate you, but that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you really forget your strength with Iolaus.”

Hercules leaped up. “I’ve got to --!”

Jason grabbed his arm again. “What? Go after him while you’re both still smarting from that round? Not a good idea, Hercules!”

Hercules swung around, his anger turning to Jason. “But he could be hurt!”

“Iolaus is tough - I think if he could walk, he’s okay,” Jason replied. Honesty compelled him to add, “Physically, anyway.”

“Damn it, Jason - he could try to leave, get away! And it’s too dark and late for him to be wandering around!” He looked away and went on, quietly, wretchedly. “And what if he walks away with this between us?”

Jason swung Hercules around, his hands on the demigod’s broad shoulders. “I won’t let him, okay?” he replied, giving the shoulders a shake. “But I think he needs some time, and so do you. Both of you made a lot of mistakes in the whole shambles in Ceryneia, but most of it was out of concern for each other - you’re both just too pig-headed to see it.”

Hercules broke Jason’s hold, but only turned away slightly. The former king went on urgently. “If you can’t stay here and rest, go think, but go that way.” He pointed back up the hill, away from the lake. “Give it some time, think it over. Or come back here and rest, and you two can hash it all out in the morning, when you’re cooler.”

Hercules nodded, heartsick. He turned and walked away, angling toward the path of the brook that chattered down the hill. He followed its course upstream until he came to a small grove of rowan trees through which the brook chattered. He sat down on a large stone still slightly warm from the sun’s heating, and let all that Iolaus said flow through his mind.

The events of the time that had been much in his thoughts began to unfold again, and he remembered again a time when his own assumptions about Iolaus’ actions had been proven wrong …

The reality of the hearing was ever so much worse than anything Hercules had feared.

Magistrate Aquilias was made Hercules think of a perching eagle. He was a tall, lean man with shock of thick, black hair shot with silver. He sat in the judge’s seat on the dais with the staff of his office across his lap and his loose black and white robe of office . Clear, sharp, tawny eyes studied them as though they were prey that he could carry off and rend limb from limb. A strong, bony nose, prominent cheekbones, and a thin-lipped aristocratic mouth completed the picture.

It did not help that there were so many people crowded into the judgment hall, most of whom were not at all happy with the two boys whose actions had released the cyclone. Most of them made fairly impassioned speeches to the magistrate as to the culpability, negligence, and downright vandalism of those actions. Of course, there were also those who had known both boys from childhood who testified on their behalf, but even some of them were obviously perturbed.

After hearing from the many angry citizens, Aquilias turned to the two boys and asked, tersely, “So what do you two have to say for yourselves?”

“Not much, your Honor,” Iolaus replied with a cheeky grin. “I’m sorry it was such a big wind, you know, ’cause I didn’t mean for anybody to get hurt or anything. But you have to admit it was pretty funny.”

“Funny, eh?” Aquilias echoed with quiet menace, as Hercules’ head whipped around. The demigod goggled at his friend in horror. “And what do you have to say about it - ah, Hercules, isn’t it?”

Hercules snapped his attention back to Aquilias, completely dumbfounded. He stammered, but before he could speak Iolaus answered.

“Yeah, you’re right, your honor, he’s Hercules,” Iolaus replied calmly. “But you know, he’s just a kid and didn’t know anything about that chalice thingy. I did, and I dared him to go get it. I knew he’d do it, just to show he is a son of Zeus.”

Many on the crowd gasped, not having known this fact before; others nodded, having their suspicions confirmed. Hercules might have been discomfited by the whispers and gestures towards him, but he was too busy fuming at Iolaus being so flippant to the judge. Iolaus had always had a problem with authority, this Hercules knew, but he had never seen it come out this much.

“Do I understand, Iolaus, that you’re saying it was your idea to send Hercules after the chalice and have him bring it to the agora and then set the whirlwind on the market?” Aquilias asked, in the same quiet voice, as he studied Iolaus intently.

“Oh, well, your Honor,” Iolaus replied. “Yeah, I dared him to do it, but I didn’t mean for it to go off in the agora. I wanted to set it off when my Dad got home next time.”

There were gasps and snickers in the crowd, since many there were acquainted with General Skouros, but many also knew that he and magistrate Aquilias were not the best of friends. One corner of the magistrate’s stern mouth twitched upward slightly as he regarded Iolaus, but that was his only reaction.

“It came out in the agora because Hercules had found out what I was gonna do with it, and was trying to get it back from me to take it back to Zeus.”

Hercules had finally located his voice in the midst of his anger and bewilderment. “But you Honor, I -”

Iolaus interrupted, stepping forward slightly and shouldering Hercules back a bit. “Oh, and you see, because he’s really honorable and loyal, Hercules here is gonna probably try to tell you now that I didn’t know what was in the chalice and that it was his idea to get it from the cave, so be aware, your Honor, okay?”

“My thanks for your instructions, Iolaus.” The magistrate’s voice was dry, but he regarded both boys with a keen scrutiny.

“But it was my idea!” Hercules burst out. “Iolaus didn’t know I was going to get the chalice and probably would’ve told me not to, and -”

He broke off as he became aware that Iolaus was holding one hand up as if it was a shield, pointing at him with the other hand, and rolling his eyes. But there was something in those eyes that made Hercules remember back to Iolaus’ behavior with Gorbus and -

Suddenly light broke for Hercules and he gasped. Iolaus glanced at him quickly, and turned back to Aquilias.

“So, your Honor, why don’t ya just let Herc go and I guess I’ll take my medicine, just like you’ve been promising me.”

Hercules burst out, “No, your Honor, you can’t! He didn’t know -”

Aquilias held up his hand, and the force of his gaze was such that Hercules broke off. “I believe I have heard and seen enough to rule in this matter.”

He gazed at both boys sternly, and their eyes dropped. “Whatever the truth of the reasons behind this … prank, I judge that both of you were culpable, but did not maliciously vandalize the agora with the magic cyclone of this object.”

He glanced around at the accusers. “Therefore, I order that all punitive damages are dropped.” He continued to speak over the mutter of discontent in the crowd. “However, both of you will work off the actual damages caused to the market, and you will help the traders recoup their losses up to fifty percent.”

He looked out on the crowd, and his eyes met those of Hercules’ mother. “Lady Alcmene, would you come forward, please.”

Alcmene had obviously found time to clean up and re-dress her hair. She swept forward and stood between both boys, placing a hand on the shoulder of each. Hercules met her eyes sheepishly and found both firmness and comfort there. Iolaus could only swallow hard at her touch; he kept his eyes on the floor.

“My lady, your son is remanded to your custody until all the damages have been met. There are no other charges against him.” Aquilias’ piercing gaze swept toward the shorter boy. “On the other hand, Iolaus will be kept here under guard as he works at the agora.”

“But, your Honor -” Hercules burst out.

Aquilias’ upheld hand, and the tightened pressure of Alcmene’s grip on his shoulder silenced Hercules, but he listened in growing anguish as the magistrate continued firmly.

“Iolaus is to stay here in the cells because he has other charges to answer. Mikales, step forward.”

The scarred little jewelry trader elbowed his way out of the crowd. “I’m here, your Honor.”

“Do you see the person who robbed you this afternoon?”

“Yes I do, sir,” Mikales growled.

“Point him out, please.”

Mikales pointed at Iolaus, and the crowd murmured like a restless wind. Iolaus was not smiling or easy now, but instead stood quietly and gazed at the floor.

“What was the value in dinars of the jewelry that Iolaus took, Mikales?”

The trader named a sum that made the crowd gasp. Iolaus looked up angrily, and Aquilias reply, in a dry voice, “Are you certain of that sum, sir?”

Mikales shuffled his feet, and grumbled, but revised the figure downward considerably.

Aquilias nodded, apparently satisfied and turned to Iolaus. “Can you compensate the trader Mikales with his merchandise or in dinars, Iolaus?”

Iolaus looked straight ahead, and in a quiet voice replied, “No, your Honor.”

“Where is the merchandise?”

Iolaus hesitated. “I divided most of it with … others, your Honor.”

Mikales wailed, “My jewels - gone! You nasty little -”

Aquilias silenced the merchant with a look.

“Will you give me those names?”

Iolaus shook his head, but did not speak.

“I see. And where is your share?”

Iolaus hesitated again, and replied, “I saw Hercules coming, and so I gave it to one of … the others to hold for me.”

“Isn’t that an unusual honor among thieves?” Aquilias pressed him.

Iolaus shrugged. “I can trust him, and -” Iolaus broke off, as if he had said more than he intended.

“And?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I’ll decide that, young man,” Aquilias’ voice rose ever so slightly.

Iolaus glanced at Aquilias briefly and replied. “It … was needed.”

“For what?”

Iolaus hesitated a bit longer, but finally answered. “Stuff for the street kids … the little ones.”

Another murmur went up from the crowd, and Mikales and several other merchants bewailed their profits going to street scum. Hercules caught his breath, and glanced past his mother at Iolaus, but the older boy would not meet his eyes. Hercules looked back at the magistrate, who regarded Iolaus searchingly, with a slight nod of his head.

Aquilias subdued the onlookers with a raised hand. There was a pause as he studied Iolaus in brooding silence. After a few long moments in which the gathered throng held its collective breath, he slowly spoke again.

“So, Iolaus, did you think you could come into this hearing and expect my lenience again?”

Iolaus’ eyes flicked toward Aquilias and away again. “Your Honor, I did not expect anything but your judgment,” he replied in a quiet voice.

“Very well, you shall have it,” Aquilias answered, and it seemed his voice bore a hint of regret as he replied, “Iolaus, you have been implicated in crimes like these before, but there was not enough evidence to convict you. There have been other … incidents in which you have also flouted authority. Since your thieving is a pattern of behavior, regretfully, I have no choice but to sentence you to two years in the prison of -”

Alcmene raised her hand from Hercules’ shoulder, but kept her supportive hold on Iolaus. She asked, “Your Honor?”

Aquilias stopped in some surprise, but answered her readily, “Lady Alcmene?”

“I would like to speak with you in your office, please, your Honor.”

Aquilias was about to answer when a deep voice spoke from the back of the audience hall. “I would like to join you, if I may.”

Heads turned, and the buzzing crowd made way for Mantius the Smith to walk forward. He strode to stand beside Alcmene.

“What is the nature of these requests?” Aquilias asked.

Alcmene and Mantius exchanged glances. “We wish to speak for Iolaus, your Honor.”

“You won’t go without me!” Mikales stated. “The way you Thebans do things, this young ne’er- do-well will skate by if no one represents the merchants!”

Iolaus looked at his supporters, and Hercules thought he’d never seen his friend’s face so hopeful or so despairing.

There was a growl of assent from some voices. Alcmene frowned, but said nothing. Aquilias surveyed the group thoughtfully.

“Very well. Guards, take Iolaus back to the cell. Hercules, you are free to go, but return here tomorrow for your work detail. Alcmene, Mantius, this way. This hearing is adjourned for two sunwidths.”

In the babble and bustle that followed, Seladon came for Iolaus, who finally met Hercules’ stricken gaze with a faint grin and a nod. He turned and preceded the man toward the hall that led to the cells. Hercules turned to his mother and caught her arm.

“Mother, I know you’re angry at me, and you have a right to be, and I’ll do whatever you say, but you’ve got to help Iolaus!” Hercules pleaded. “I guess he did steal that jewelry, but I took the chalice - he didn’t have anything to do with it!”

Alcmene smiled grimly. “It’s been quite a day’s work all around, Hercules, and you and I will discuss it later. But right now try not to worry about Iolaus. If there’s anything that can be done for him, Mantius and I will do it.” She sighed and her eyes followed Iolaus as he exited the room. “It may be difficult, because Aquilias is a stickler for the letter of the law, but Mantius and I have an idea to suggest to Aquilias. Don’t worry -- we’ll fight for --”

Hercules broke in urgently. “Make the judge understand, Mom, Iolaus said all that stuff about the chalice deliberately - to protect me! He took all the blame and acted the way he did on purpose!”

Alcmene nodded, pressed Hercules’ hand, and said, “See if you can go to him. I think he needs you right now.” She smiled and walked to where Mantius waited to usher her into the magistrate’s office.

Hercules pushed through the crowd to the quiet hallway and retraced their earlier footsteps back to the guardroom. At first the guards refused to let him through, but Seladon came out of the cellblock, and gave his permission for Hercules to go in …

As Hercules was lost in memories of the past, Jason was seeking Iolaus. He stepped carefully down over the rocky outcrop that thrust its way out to the lake. The moon would not be rising till later, but the clear night and brilliant stars gave enough light to see well enough. As he neared the lake’s edge, the starlight limned an edge of gold that he knew must be Iolaus’ hair.

“Iolaus?” Jason called softly.

There was silence for a moment, and the golden head did not turn, but then Iolaus answered, equally quietly, “Yeah, Jase?”

“You okay?”

Jason heard a soft laugh, and heard the wretchedness beneath it. “Yeah, I’ll live, I guess.”

As Jason approached, he could see now that Iolaus knelt at the water’s edge. The soft whisper of droplets accompanied Iolaus motions of scooping the cold water up to apply to his bruised face and lip.

“I knew you would. You’re a survivor.” He heard Iolaus’ snort of grim humor, and continued. “You know, Hercules was really upset about what happened. He wanted to come after you, but I thought you needed some time alone.”

Iolaus said nothing, and his motions stopped. He did not turn, but still knelt looking out over the reflected stars in the still waters.

After a moment, Jason could just hear Iolaus voice, aching with pathos. “What the hell happened to us back there, Jason? How could I say all those things to Herc?”

Jason sighed, and stepped closer. He sat down on a stone nearby. “Was any of it untrue?”

Iolaus shook his head. “No - at least I don’t think so -- but still -”

“Look, Iolaus, you’ve been carrying this stuff around since Serena died, and you were too anxious and upset for Hercules’ grief to talk to him about it. And Hercules has been lost in his grief and his guilt so deeply that he isn’t himself. Everything had just built up to the point that it exploded. It was inevitable. There’s probably more for you to talk about, but maybe now you both can talk without any more fireworks.”

“Herc’s not -- not going anywhere, is he?” Iolaus asked quietly.

Jason smiled in the darkness, even as his heart lurched. “No, he’s still here. He was afraid you might leave. He just went up the hill to think about things. Why don’t you come back to the fire now? Come back and get some rest. It’ll all look better in the morning.”

Iolaus laughed slightly, and even though Jason could hear the tears in it, he felt his fear ebb slightly. “You sure about that, Dad?”

“It always does, as long as you give it a chance.” Jason rose from the stone and stepped to Iolaus’ side, with his hand outstretched. “Come on. Let’s go get warmed up.”

Iolaus looked up at Jason, his face dim in the starlight. He said nothing but caught his friend’s hand and pulled himself up.

They walked quietly back to the fire, and bedded down. Iolaus lay facing the direction Jason said Hercules had gone, watching for him to return, but not sure what to do or say when he did. He was unprepared for the emotional cost of the day, however, and before he was aware of their heaviness, his eyes closed, and he fell into dreams of the past …

It was nearly twenty-five years earlier, and he was just about to be sentenced for his one conviction. He heard the cell door squeal open, and heard Seladon’s voice. Thinking the guard captain was returning, Iolaus lay on the bunk apathetically and wondered why.

“What’s the matter, Seladon? Forget something?” Iolaus asked with a jaunty laugh, and opened his eyes. When they fell on Hercules, the older boy was a bit surprised, but grinned. He pushed himself up, and leaned against the wall.

“Hey, Herc - what’s up? You don’t have to come back here, you know.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Hercules replied quietly, but his gritted teeth betrayed his anger. “I’m free because you lied to protect me.”

Iolaus’ smile dimmed, but he answered carelessly, “Not really. I just figured, why make it murky? They wouldn’t’ve charged you anyway, with this being your first offense and all. So why make Aquilias’ decision harder?”

Hercules folded his arms and spoke through gritted teeth. “Damn it, Iolaus! You deliberately made your situation worse so there would be no question of me going to jail if any of the merchants wanted to press it.”

Iolaus looked away, his face solemn but his voice resolutely light. “I’m in the deep Minotaur droppings already, Herc. No reason for you to have to join me. Besides, you’re right - if I hadn’t come after you, your Dad’s fancy jug wouldn’t have broken open and the market would still be okay.”

That’s Minotaur droppings, and you know it!” Hercules stepped to the bars and caught hold of them tightly. “I brought the thing here, smack into the middle of the agora! You were right - I’m more responsible.”

Iolaus glanced up at Hercules, and said, gently, “Herc - you’re bending the bars.”

Hercules looked down at his grip on the cell bars, and saw that indeed the pressure of his grip had pulled the bars outwards.

“Hey - that’s it!” Hercules cried. “I’ll bend the bars, you can get out, and we’ll get you out of here with some ruse or other -- ”

Iolaus shook his head. “No, I’m not doing that. I have at least that much honor left.” He grinned up at his friend. “Interesting that you would suggest it, though.”

Hercules closed his eyes and leaned his head against the bars. “It scares me to death to think of you going to prison.”

Iolaus glanced up at Hercules, and felt heartened by the real concern in his friend’s face. “Yeah, well, it’s not my favorite thought either, but I’ll be okay.” He studied the demigod for a moment. “Look, why don’t you fix those bars back and get that stool over there and bring it over? You shoulda eaten more - you look like you might fall down.”

Hercules glanced around and saw the stool against the wall at the end of the cellblock. He pushed the bars back into shape, then trudged over and retrieved it, brought it over to the bars where he had been standing, and sat down with a sigh.

“Been a long day, I guess.” He looked up at Iolaus. “You did what you did because of Gorbus, didn’t you?”

Iolaus looked away and shrugged. “Gorbus and quite a few like him.”

“Will - will Aquilias put you in Attica, like him?”

“Nah.” Iolaus shook his head. “Attica is for hard core criminals. I’m pretty sure Aquilias won’t put me there, not for a first conviction.” He laughed slightly. “Besides, remember - I’m a survivor. I’ll be okay.”

Hercules frowned. “I came back here to support you - seems like I’m getting it backwards.”

Iolaus met his eyes. “You’re doin’ okay.”

Hercules broke their gaze and looked down at his hands clasped in his lap. “So - how much of this kinda stuff have you had to deal with?” He gestured towards the now empty cell across the center hall.

“What? Like Gorbus? Not that much, really.”

Hercules waited, but Iolaus did not add more. “You’re still protecting me,” he said, his tone accusing. “I’m not a kid anymore, Iolaus, and we’re barely two years apart! Why won’t you share this stuff with me?”

“Because I didn’t want you to have to go through it!” Iolaus shot back, stung. “Because I felt I owed it to Alcmene! And because we’re brothers, and nobody would bring his younger brother into the streets if he had a choice.”

“That’s why you’ve pushed me away lately, isn’t it?”

Iolaus shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Well, if we’re really back-to-back sword brothers then you shouldn’t have done that!” Hercules snapped, but Iolaus could read the disappointment and hurt in his friend’s eyes.

Iolaus glanced at Hercules pensively, frowning thoughtfully. “Yeah,” he said slowly, reluctantly. “Maybe you’re right about that.”

“You’ve always known you had a place with Mom and me. You’ve stayed with us often enough before. Why not now?”

“I guess I wasn’t sure you’d both want me hangin’ around so much,” Iolaus replied, with an awkward laugh. “It’d be like you and Alcmene to be too nice to tell me when I wore out my welcome.”

“Not givin’ us too much credit, are ya?” Hercules replied wryly. “I guess I can see why you might feel that way, especially since I’ve been a bit … preoccupied recently ---”

Iolaus grinned back. “Preoccupied? I think you mean obsessed!”

“Yeah, okay, whatever!”

The older boy looked away, and his grin faded slightly. “Look, Herc, whatever happens, I want ya to know I’m mostly glad about it, ’cause, well, at least it made us talk about --”

“Stop it, Iolaus!” Hercules replied furiously. He leapt up to pace back and forth in front of the cell. “Don’t you dare talk about it like that - like it’s a good thing that you might go to jail and I’m set free! We might not have been the best of friends lately, damn it, Iolaus, but it isn’t right!”

Iolaus shook his head, bemusedly, watching Hercules pace. “With the chalice, you were guilty of bad judgment, Herc, and so was I. But I stole the jewelry, and that’s a crime. Aquilias has given me the benefit of the doubt a time or two, when there wasn’t enough evidence, but this time he’s got me. You know it and I know it - it is right.”

Hercules stopped and stared at Iolaus for a moment. The older boy watched as the anger drained from him, leaving a bit of bitterness and a lot of fear. The son of Zeus dropped back onto the stool.

“Well, you’ve still got my Mom and Mantius on your side. Maybe between the two of them, they can still get you off. I hope they do, so I can get the chance to beat your ass again for this stupid stuff you’ve done with the Lowacks!”

Iolaus illogically felt his heart lift. Hercules seemed to still feel enough friendship to be angry with him. “Yeah, I hope you get the chance to try. Anyway, thanks, okay?”

“Thanks - for what?”

Iolaus shrugged. “I don’t know. Bothering enough to want to kick my ass?”

As he had hoped, the mild humor brought a brief reluctant grin to Hercules’ lips. The son of Skouros went on with a smile of his own. “And then there’s that little matter of saving me from being sucked up into an exploding cyclone.”

Hercules laughed. “I might’ve let you go, but I wanted the chance to take it out of your hide personally.”

The laugh faded and he reached through the bars, holding out his arm to his friend. “On top of that, I guess I should thank you for protecting me - today and those other times I don’t even know about.”

Iolaus laughed and caught Hercules’ forearm in the warrior’s clasp, but before he could speak Hercules tightened his grip and pulled Iolaus closer to the bars. “But try to get it through your head, Iolaus - I’m not a kid anymore! I really will beat your ass if you pull this protection stuff again, you understand me?”

Iolaus was shocked by the depth of both anger and concern in his friend’s eyes, and the fierceness of the feeling in his words. He suddenly felt caught in a mixture of feelings himself, and felt them all lodge in his throat. It felt really good to be reassured that Hercules still cared enough to be so angry at him.

“Yeah, I understand. I’ll try - if you will,” Iolaus replied with a strangled laugh, holding the clasp and Hercules’ eyes tightly. “Herc - you know …”

When Iolaus trailed off with the words clotting in his throat, Hercules nodded tightly, gripping Iolaus’ arm even tighter. “Yeah, I do.”

It wasn’t until the screeching of the door hinges broke the silence long moments later that they released their grip. Hercules stood up quickly and moved away as Seladon came in for Iolaus.

Iolaus felt his anxiety rise high enough so that the next few moments were just bits and snatches of awareness, but that exchange with Hercules seemed to instill a calm and warming center in the midst of the confusion.

All too soon he was standing alone before Aquilias. Hercules had wanted to stand with him, but his mother and Seladon pulled him to the side to stand with her and Mantius. Iolaus felt his heart beat in his ears as the magistrate studied him in silence for long moments. Iolaus had met his gaze briefly, but then had dropped his eyes to the floor.

“Iolaus of Thebes, son of Skouros, you are a source of some concern to this court,” Aquilias began slowly. “You are the son of a high ranking soldier, but for the last several years you have lived as much on the streets as off them. I have my own suspicions about that, but since you have not seen fit to confide in me, they remain unconfirmed. You have been associated with one of the most dangerous street gangs of the area, but you have care and concern for the youngest unfortunates. You have little association with your family, and yet you have some of the finest citizens of Thebes who will speak for you as though you were a family member.”

Iolaus had by now raised his eyes to meet those of the magistrate. Though his face was solemn and impassive, he knew Hercules could read both the naked hope and the naked fear in his eyes and stance. The young hunter gulped as Aquilias went on.

“Because of your record, I cannot longer pardon your offenses, but I can only think that prison would only confirm you in a life of crime. I also have a strange feeling that, could you have a second chance, your gifts and abilities could possibly make a positive difference in this land.”

Aquilias watched Iolaus’ face, and appeared to approve of what he saw there. “Your supporters have pointed out a possible third choice that may satisfy these concerns, giving you purpose and discipline, and keeping your attention away from more … nefarious pursuits.” Aquilias flicked a glance to where Mikales stood with arms folded, obviously not totally pleased, but accepting. “The merchant representative also gave approval to this option.”

Mikales sighed, shrugged, and could be heard to mutter, “Thebans!”

“Iolaus of Thebes, hear now your sentence.”

Iolaus caught his breath and held it, and behind him he could hear Hercules doing the same.

“You are hereby sentenced to two years in the prison of Attica on the island of Samos, to be spent at hard labor in the marble quarry.”

Through the roaring in his ears, Iolaus could dimly hear Hercules shouting, “NO! Please your Honor! Don’t -!” He also heard Alcmene and Mantius urging him to wait.

Aquilias rapped on the floor with his staff of office and regained the attention of the court. Iolaus suddenly remembered to breathe.

“Any further such outbursts will not be tolerated,” he said, sternly to Hercules. “You will be silent and listen to the rest of the sentencing, and then decide on your reaction.”

Iolaus saw both of the adults by Hercules holding him and speaking to him urgently. The son of Skouros mused absurdly that it was well they were there, because Mantius and Alcmene were probably the only persons who could hold Hercules in check.

“As I mentioned, interested parties offered and the person offended by Iolaus’ actions agreed to a third option,” Aquilias continued. “Iolaus, instead of the two years of hard labor, you can choose probation for four years to be supervised by the lady Alcmene and Mantius the Smith.” As Aquilias watched Iolaus’ incredulous smile dawn, he added quickly. “Wait - and hear the terms before you choose.”

He shifted in his chair and leaned forward to Iolaus intently. “Your probation has several provisions that you must meet. First, you will spend those four years attending Cheiron’s Warrior Academy, with the term beginning now.”

Iolaus felt his eyes widen as the idea washed over him. He had heard Alcmene talk of Hercules about attending the Academy, but he had never considered it for himself, knowing no one would ever recommend him.

“Second, you will be responsible for paying your tuition at the Academy, working to meet this obligation in any honest pursuit..”

Iolaus swallowed convulsively, and he saw Hercules fists clench.

“Finally, you must complete the rigorous course of study, both academic and practical, with a satisfactory rating, as evaluated by Cheiron and his instructors there. Any failure on your part to abide by these terms will entail your immediate incarceration at that time in the Attica prison. Do you understand these provisions?”

“I do,” Iolaus said hoarsely, and cleared his throat.

“What is your choice, then, Iolaus?”

Iolaus took a deep breath, and his face was as open and serious as he knew how to make it. “Your Honor, I am grateful to you for offering the option and to the people who suggested it or --” here he flicked a quick glance and nod to Mikales the trader, “-- agreed to it.”

He glanced over at Hercules to see the hope and anguish in his friend’s eyes. “I choose the Academy, sir,” he said, his eyes locked with Hercules’ gaze. Hercules sighed with relief and nodded ever so slightly; Iolaus returned the nod infinitesimally and looked back at the magistrate. “And … thank you.”

“Very well,” Aquilias nodded. “You will complete the work in the agora first, and then you will begin the term at Cheiron’s Academy. This case is completed.”

Aquilias thumped his staff of office on the floor, and the room erupted in a babble of voices. Seladon stepped to Iolaus’ side, but the young man said something to him quickly. The guard captain nodded and brought him to where Alcmene, Mantius and Hercules stood.

“I just - I just had to say … thanks,” Iolaus stammered, looking from Hercules’ mother to the tall smith. “Thank you so much for … for standing up for me. I … uh … I’ll do my best to make it worth your belief in me.”

Alcmene hugged Iolaus gently. “I know you will, Iolaus,” she said as she pulled back from the embrace. “I’ve never doubted you. I just want you to believe in yourself.”

Iolaus nodded. His eyes spoke volumes to her, but his heart was too full to speak it aloud.

He turned to Mantius. He held out his arm, and the big man clasped his forearm firmly. “If you decide the warrior life is not for you after those four years, come back here, lad. I’ll be needing a good journeyman.”

“Thanks, Mantius - for everything,” Iolaus said, quietly.

He turned to Hercules. “Hey, Herc, walk me back?”

“Yeah, sure.”

The two young men walked through the thinning crowd to the hallway that led into the cellblock. Mantius fell into step with Seladon, chatting with him about an order of helmets for new guard recruits. They stood at the doorway talking as Hercules and Iolaus entered the cellblock area and the door closed behind them.

“Hey, I guess we’ll still see each other for a while,” Iolaus said, as they slowly walked back to the cell. “It’s gonna take a lotta work to get the market cleaned up and everything repaired.

“Yeah, I guess it will,” Hercules replied with a smile. “You know, since nobody got hurt, I guess it was pretty funny to see some of those traders blown around, especially since some of them are such price gougers.”

Iolaus chuckled. “Yeah, I guess so.”

They had now reached the cell door. “Well, this is my little home away from home for a while.”

“Yeah. Good thing you can eat that cooking okay,” Hercules shuddered. “Hey - if we really work hard and get the agora cleaned up before the Academy’s term starts, maybe they’ll let you come home with us for a bit and stay. Maybe you can get a few decent meals before you go.”

“Cool!” Iolaus replied. “And when I go to the Academy, I’ll get to know all the ropes, so maybe I can beat your butt for a while when you get there!”

“Not gonna happen! Too bad I can’t go now, but I’m not fifteen yet.”

“Yeah, well, it’s just another six months until you are.”

The door screeched open and Seladon looked in. “Hercules, time to go.” And he closed the door behind him again.

“Okay, well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Hercules said, a bit awkwardly.

“Yeah, see you then.”

Hercules held his arm out and Iolaus clasped it. Their eyes met, and Hercules pulled Iolaus into a quick boyish hug. “It won’t be the same here without you,” he whispered.

As Hercules pulled away, Iolaus couldn’t resist asking seriously, “So - is that a good thing?”

Hercules’ solemn face was transfigured. He laughed and pushed Iolaus away with a gentle shove, then turned and walked down the hall without looking back. Iolaus watched him go with a slight smile, but decided the smoke from the lamps must be making his eyes water …

While Iolaus dreamed, Hercules pondered everything that he had said, and realized that Iolaus had a lot of truth in his arguments. The son of Zeus stared at the brilliant stars that shone down in the circle created by rowan branches, and put everything that he and Iolaus had done in the crucible of their history, and he knew that Iolaus had done all he had done, and said all he had said out of love and loyalty alone.

He thought of his great love for Serena, and how right it seemed, how much he was ready to sacrifice for it, and he heard Cheiron’s voice from years before …

Selfish desires sometimes mask themselves as good intentions …

He remembered the pain in his Iolaus’ clear blue eyes as he told Hercules that he could not be his best man, and then heard that very voice from years earlier …

Sometimes it’s not that easy to be your friend …

So many remembrances came into his mind, and fell into place with the present, but one special one kept returning …

It was a night before a holiday at the Academy, and that alone was reason enough for an impromptu party. But there was also more cause for celebration, because one of their own had returned from the dead. Despite Hercules’ embarrassed protests, he was amazed and shyly pleased that the cadets were ready to party on his behalf.

His friends, of course, always helped put things in perspective. Lilith stated kindly but truthfully, “Of course everyone’s glad you’re safe, Hercules. But they’re also really ready for a party!”

Since there was no time to rent out Kora’s place, Jason went over and “sweet-talked” her out of birch beer and half-and-half ale, as well as sweets and fruit, to add to the cheese, olives, and figs they could get from the larder. Iolaus, helping the prince and Hercules unload baskets of tart apples, sweet oranges, dates, dried figs, and trays of baklava and cinnamon cakes, said irritably that his success probably had less to do with his sweet-talking ability than his princely gold. Jason just laughed and told him to go make sure it was okay with Cheiron.

When Iolaus protested that he would be the last person Cheiron would give permission to hold a party, Jason had stopped, looked at him thoughtfully, and replied, “I think he’ll make an exception for you today.” Hercules didn’t understand the look that passed between them, but before he could inquire further, Iolaus shrugged and agreed. Not long afterward, he could be heard whooping from down the hall, calling everyone to the celebration.

Because the cadets were not permitted to leave for their holiday until the morning, everyone was present and ready for fun. Several of the cadets pulled out their musical instruments and had the music going strong quickly. Otus and Hercules were challenging all comers to wrestling matches. Castor and three more cadets were demonstrating killer tumbling moves. Jason had taken the mantle of host, and was keeping the refreshments flowing and getting everyone involved. He even made Archivus put down what he called “that infernal, eternal journal” and just enjoy himself.

“We don’t need anything written down about tonight!” Jason decreed, slapping the slightly sorrowful author on the back.

But Jason’s greatest accomplishment came a little later in the party, not long after Cheiron had taken his last look-in, and was assured that everything was going smoothly. Soon after Cheiron had clopped away to his quarters, a knock came on the back doors of the great practice hall, and a number of the village girls came in, giggling and saucer-eyed. The party kicked up several notches in festivity as they chose dance partners and the floor filled with joyous movement.

Hercules was cheered and toasted as the special guest. He protested at first when Iolaus and Jason pushed him into telling about his adventures of the day. But he soon got over the last remnants of his shyness as groups of the cadets hung on every word about his battle with the supposed Ares and the godly trial that followed.

Iolaus was all over the place, and was generally the life of the party. He seemed to absolutely revel in every activity. His jokes were an absolute hit, his tumbling routine-- in which both Otus and Hercules tossed him and supported him in amazing stunts - drew shouts from the guys and gasps from the girls, the sword drill that he and Hercules performed was proclaimed “totally awesome”, and he drew sighs from the girls and applause from the guys as he rocked the house as front man for the band.

“I didn’t know he had it in him!” Jason shouted to Hercules over the band’s final chords and the crowd’s cheering.

Hercules laughed, glad that his best friend and practice partner was able to show his abilities and be appreciated more.

“A lot of people never look beyond the fact he was a thief,” Hercules replied, watching Iolaus’ unruly loose curls fly as he bowed with grateful pleasure. “But one reason he was so good at it was because he’s really smart and talented. Hey, but just don’t tell him I said that!”

Jason laughed and shook his head. “He really hides his abilities well a lot of the time!”

“Well, he’s talented that way, too!” Hercules’ laughter joined Jason’s.

The two boys parted and enjoyed their friends. A little while later, however, Hercules found Jason in spirited conversation with Lycenus and Castor and a circle of admiring girls about the possibility of a voyage of adventure and discovery that he wanted to make before becoming king. Hercules was able to catch Jason’s eye and pull him from the group.

“Hey, Jase - have you seen Iolaus?” Hercules asked, as his sharp gaze continued to scan the loud and busy throng.

Jason shook his head. “Not since that last song. He looked like he was going to the refreshment table after that.”

Hercules shook his head. “Nope - he’s nowhere around there now.”

“Well, there’s such a crowd in here, Hercules! He could be anywhere.”

“I know, but I’ve been looking. I even had Otus look around, and then put Lycenus up on his shoulders,” Hercules fretted. “They couldn’t see him.”

Jason frowned suddenly. “He better not be somewhere with one of the girls! I had to promise their parents that they wouldn’t leave this room, and if he’s -”

“No - that’s not a problem - I checked! All the girls are present and accounted for,” Hercules stated.

“And he’s not with the band?”

“No - they’re all over there taking a break.”

Jason frowned. “Well, he was the life of the party just a few sunwidths ago! Where could he be?”

The two friends made a circuit of the room, and then decided to check the kitchens to see if he’d gone for extra supplies. As they left the practice hall and turned down the hallway to the kitchens, they found the back door cracked open.

Hercules glanced at Jason, who shrugged and followed him as he stepped to the door to look out.

The moonlight was brilliant enough to light the entire expanse of the rear of the Academy compound. The barn and pens were desolate and the back gate was closed and barred. However as they looked down the wall that separated the pathway from the pens, there was a flash of movement, and they realized Iolaus was sitting on the wall, partially turned away from them, and easily seen in the brilliant moonlight.

Hercules stared out at the blond cadet. “Iolaus leave a party? That’s weird!”

“Especially when he planned it and was enjoying every minute,” Jason added. But there was something about his position on the wall that made Jason pause in thought.

“Wait a minute, Hercules!” Jason said slowly. “I don’t know for sure, but I wonder… what did Iolaus say to you when we were starting to think of this party?”

Hercules shook his head. “I don’t really remember - something about a good night for it and a good reason - that’s all I can remember. Why?”

“A good reason,” Jason mused, his eyes not leaving Iolaus’ still figure. “He told me that a party would be a good way to forget everything that happened.”

“You mean about today? Strife attacking me as Ares?”

Jason nodded. “And then your disappearance while Iolaus and I were knocked out.” He looked at Hercules. “What did Iolaus say to you - about today?”

Hercules shook his head. “No more than what you heard out there when I got back, and then only about the party to celebrate me getting back.”

Jason gazed back out at Iolaus. “So, you don’t know what went on here today.”

Hercules followed Jason’s gaze out to Iolaus. He looked back at the prince with a worried frown. “What do you mean? What did happen here today?”

“I don’t know how Iolaus will feel about me telling you -“

“C’mon, Jason - spill it!”

Jason sighed as he studied the adamant demigod. “All right, then. You see, Hercules, when Iolaus and I woke up from being knocked out - all we could see were just pieces of our boat and our fishing stuff floating in the lake. All that wreckage, and you were nowhere to be seen!”

Hercules was startled and silent as Jason shook his head and continued. “That was a pretty bad feeling. We both panicked. I started toward the lake shouting to Iolaus that we had to find you. Iolaus caught my arm and shouted - didn’t I remember? He couldn’t swim! So I yelled at him to look around the lake and I dove in the water, searching.”

He sighed, and ran a hand through his thick brown hair. “We couldn’t find anything but more of the wreckage. We ran back to the Academy and told Cheiron. He summoned some of the watch who know how to dive, but they found nothing as well. Cheiron tried to comfort us, saying that since we didn’t find … well, any sign of you, that you could be anywhere.”

Jason shook his head. “I kept hoping that you would turn up anytime, but Iolaus … well, I’ve never seen him like that, Hercules. He was devastated. He was sure that Ares had killed you this time, and he hadn’t been able to do anything to help you. I found him later in the day out here on the outer wall, swinging a sword to the sky, and screaming to the gods that they were cowards, and why didn’t they come down and fight him?”

Hercules swallowed and looked out at the silent figure. “Iolaus did that?”

Jason nodded. “Cheiron told me later that he had found Iolaus with a carry sack at the gate not long after that. He was ready to leave, to break his probation, because he couldn’t stand staying here, and being reminded of you and his failure to save you. And just before you came back, Iolaus had come out here where I was cleaning my sword. He said he’d decided to stay, because he knew that would be what you wanted, but I’ve never, ever seen Iolaus look like he did then. You could just tell that the idea that you were dead was … was tearing him up inside.”

After a moment, Jason smiled gently. “When I saw you coming in the gate, and told Iolaus to look, you wouldn’t’ve have believed his face. Well … maybe you would, because you saw what he was like when he rushed up to you. But all that, and what he said about this party … I don’t know, but I think maybe he’s having a hard time getting over it.”

Hercules watched Iolaus lean his head back as if stretching tired neck muscles. “But he looked like he was having so much fun earlier!”

Jason shook his head. “I think the whole idea of the party - and the way he was throwing himself into everything - was a way for him not only to celebrate his joy that you were alive, but …I don’t know … maybe forget that you’d almost died in the first place?”

“Wow,” Hercules said, slowly. “I hadn’t really thought about it like that - I guess because I didn’t realize what it looked like to you guys.”

Jason looked at Hercules. “I think you should go talk to him.”

Hercules met Jason’s gaze with a worried frown. “You don’t think I’ll … like …embarrass him or anything?”

Jason shook his head. “Anyone else, maybe. But - look how long you’ve known each other. And from what I know about Iolaus - who else does he have but you?”

“Yeah, really just me and my Mom,” Hercules answered, quietly. “Yeah, okay.” He looked back at Jason. “Go on back to the party - you’ve got to keep an eye on things.”

Jason nodded, but looked back out at Iolaus. “Get him to come back with you, okay? Party’s not the same without the crazy kid!”

“Yeah,” Hercules replied with a small smile. Jason clapped him on the back softly and cast one more glance out at Iolaus before slipping away. Hercules quietly edged through the narrow opening to avoid the squeaking hinges, and walked slowly down the path toward Iolaus’ position.

Iolaus’ head shot up not long after Hercules stepped out of the door, and the blond locks whipped around to see who was coming. Hercules could see the tension lessen as Iolaus realized who approached. The blond cadet shifted position, let go of his knees, dropped his legs to the ground, and ran his hands over his face and back into his unruly shock of curls.

By that time, Hercules had strolled casually to his position. Iolaus smiled at him. “Hey, Herc! How’s the celebration goin’?”

“Well, it’s going great, but everyone’s asking what happened to the life of the party!” Hercules answered. He grinned and punched his friend playfully in the bicep, then sat down shoulder-to-shoulder with him on the low wall.

Iolaus laughed quickly. “Oh, I was just takin’ a breather,” he replied, nonchalantly. “Kinda close in there, ya know?”

“Yeah, that’s for sure.” Hercules shot him a searching glance disguised with a grin. “So - quite a day, huh?”

“You got that right!” Iolaus responded, brightly, but the brightness had a false ring to it, and he looked away quickly.

“Yeah,” Hercules went on, easily. “From a test this morning to our fishing trip to Strife’s little game to Mount Olympus and now a party - wow! It’s been wild!”

Iolaus nodded, but Hercules could see his smile was more strained. As if searching for some reply, Iolaus chattered, “Yeah, that’s for sure, Herc, that’s for sure … ah… I …”

When Hercules just gazed at him expectantly, Iolaus floundered a moment longer, then said, “Oh, yeah - you didn’t tell us earlier - what happened to Strife and Discord? Surely the other gods did something to punish them for tryin’ the kill you. Or did they just give ’em to Ares?”

Hercules laughed and launched into an abbreviated story of the sentencing of the two errant minor deities. Iolaus seemed preoccupied at first, but Hercules could tell he grew more and more engaged in the story. When he realized that Strife and Discord might not be coming after Hercules for a while at least, Iolaus burst out with a loud, “YES!” along with a pumping motion of his clenched right fist.

Hercules looked surprised at his intensity, and Iolaus stopped. “Well, it’s good we don’t have to worry about those weasels, isn’t it?”

Hercules nodded and began to speak, but Iolaus looked away and the words began to pour out of him.

“I mean, there we were, just minding our own business, fishing, not even looking in a treasure cave or going after some beast, and Ares - or Strife or whoever - appears out of nowhere and attacks you, knocks me and Jason out, beats the hell out of you, takes you away just like that, leaves us with a wrecked boat and no way to know what the hell happened - whether you’ve been taken or hurt or drop-kicked to Thessaly or - or -”

Iolaus paused and leaned forward, clutching the edge of the wall with tight hands, and his long hair fell toward his face. When he didn’t continue speaking, Hercules added gently, “Or killed?”

Iolaus nodded and there was another pause before he replied, hoarsely, “Yeah. Or killed.” He took a deep breath. “Damn, Herc, it scared me … really scared me. It all happened so - so fast!”

Hercules glanced at Iolaus’ face, nearly hidden by the thick locks. “Yeah,” he said, gently. “It was sudden. Sorry I couldn’t get back faster.”

Iolaus shook his head, vehemently. “No - no! You’ve got no reason to apologize! I’m the one who should be sayin’ I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Hercules asked, quietly. “For doing your best to come after Ares, you and Jason both? For getting knocked ass over amphora and still coming after him? For getting zapped by those bolts and knocked out? Listen - I was scared for you guys, too. What else could you do?”

“I could’ve gone in with Jason to try to find you in the lake, but stupid me can’t swim!”

Hercules could barely hear the words, uttered through gritted teeth and dripping with self-reproach and disgust. He bumped Iolaus’ shoulder with his own to bring his attention back.

“So what? I wasn’t in the lake -- remember? And you know I know why you’ve avoided the water and swimming.” Hercules replied, remembering the callous way Skouros had tried to teach a very young Iolaus to swim, by throwing him in a dangerously deep and rapid river near Thebes. Iolaus had barely made it out alive with the help of an alert fisherman downstream, and had come, drenched, cold, and sick, to stay with Hercules and Alcmene until his father had returned to the wars.

“You gotta teach me, Herc. One way or another I’ve got to learn!” Iolaus said, his voice low and fierce. “I can’t stand by on the bank like that again and feel useless!”

“Anytime you’re ready - we can start when we get home for the holiday tomorrow if you want.”

“Yeah, I do.” Iolaus took a breath and brought the heels of his hands up to press against his eyes. “But I don’t know if it’s enough.”

“What do you mean, Iolaus?”

He brought his hands away, looked at Hercules quickly with an awkward grin, and then focused his gaze on the moon. Hercules could see that his long eyelashes were still jeweled with tears.

In a voice harsh with emotion, Iolaus said, “You’re a demigod, Herc. I’m just a mortal, and not the strongest or smartest or fastest. How can I be your partner? Yeah, it’s one thing to be your partner here, but out there -” Iolaus gestured toward the gates, “- out there in the great, big world facing who knows what kind of monsters or warlords or evil gods - how can I measure up?”

Hercules turned a serious, earnest gaze on his friend, and replied, with an absolute bedrock certainty, “You measure up better than anybody, Iolaus! You’re my best friend! You know me better than anybody. You know how I think and move in a fight like no one else in the whole world, even other guys here. Even Jason.”

Hercules looked away briefly. “But it’s more than that. You … you always tell me the truth. You don’t say something to me because I’m the son of Zeus, or because of what I can do. You keep me honest - you tell me the truth even when I don’t want to hear it.”

Iolaus’ laugh was brittle. “You’re asking a thief - okay, a former thief -- to tell you the truth?”

Hercules turned to him with an angry frown. “You may have been a thief, Iolaus, but you’ve never lied - not to me. You lied to Aquilias the magistrate for me, and you might again to protect me, but I know you Iolaus - you don’t lie!”

Iolaus glanced at Hercules with a pleased and solemn shyness, as the young demigod continued, fiercely, “All of that makes you my partner. There’s just no other possibility! Well, I mean …” Hercules colored faintly, “…if - if you want to be, that is.”

“If I wanna be…! Of course I do, Herc!” Iolaus answered, fiercely. “Absolutely. I - I don’t know where else I would be.” He looked away, his face somehow appearing older. “But well, it really hit me hard today that - well - damn, this partner thing is great, but it’s gonna be hard sometimes.”

“Hard to be my partner?” Hercules teased him gently, but with a bit of concern.

“No - not like that!” Iolaus said quickly. “It’s just …when we were little and taking lessons from that Kretinus the Spartan, or killing imaginary invaders in our tree fort, it seemed like we were invincible, you know? Later when I was with the Lowacks, everything was a game, and nothing really mattered, and I didn’t care what happened. Even when we first came here, and started to really learn to be warriors, it felt like nothing could stop us. But today -”

Iolaus stopped, and swallowed, and continued even more quietly. “Today it felt like it all suddenly became real, and anything could happen, to any of us! Especially when it comes to the gods. Even you, as strong and invincible as you are, look what happened today, or nearly happened! And I …just can’t get it outta my head.”

Hercules nodded, and replied seriously. “Yeah, it’s tough, isn’t it? I think I felt that way when that Phoenix came after us for stealing Hera’s chalice and snatched you up before we could turn around.”

Iolaus smiled and glanced at Hercules. “That was a wild ride.”

“That’s for sure!” Hercules agreed. “So …that’s what the party was about?”

“Well, not totally,” Iolaus said, his dimples appearing. “It was mostly about getting you back.” His smile faded, and he looked away again. “But it was also because I was suddenly so relieved, and so scared of what might happen one day, and I just .. I don’t know … I couldn’t keep still.”

“Yeah, I can imagine what it would be like if …” Hercules broke off and slung an arm around Iolaus’ broad shoulders. He swallowed convulsively. “But I don’t want to. We just have to do the best we can to put those fears in the back of our minds, and live each day as fully as we can, Iolaus. I guess we’ve got to face the fact that we can get hurt or killed, and then we’ve got to let it go.”

Iolaus brought his hand up to clasp wrists with Hercules, glad of the darkness that could screen his need to be close to his best friend and his adolescent embarrassment at needing it. “So …” he mused, after a moment, “you think you can accept that, Herc?”

Hercules began, “Well, yeah, I …” and then caught Iolaus’ intense gaze and uplifted eyebrows. He laughed sheepishly, “Okay, I guess I’m relying on my strength, and your speed, and Jason’s steadiness - and maybe my Dad’s protection - to keep us from having to face … that.”

Iolaus shook his head with a grin. “You can’t even say it, can you?”

Hercules’ flush was visible in the moonlight. “Well, anyway, we can stay focused on the present!” He tightened his arm around Iolaus’ neck into a headlock, and scrubbed his knuckles across his friend’s head

Iolaus joined Hercules’ laughter as he struggled to push away his irritating actions. “Come on, Herc, stop already!”

“You see, Iolaus?” Hercules crowed, “We’re tough and we’re smart and we’re getting the best training around. We’ve got the future covered!”

“Okay, okay, I got it!” Iolaus succeeded in pushing his pal’s hands away, and got a blow or two in under his guard. “ ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst!’”

“Yeah, that’s it - Feducious!” Hercules taunted, with a grin. He fended off another blow from Iolaus, and went on, “The Romans have an even better saying about this whole idea - one of the few things they haven’t stolen from us!”

Iolaus shook his head and sighed. “Right, okay -- what is it -- Cheiron?”

Hercules did his best imitation of Cheiron’s voice. “I’m ignoring your immaturity, Iolaus, for the young sapling must be free to bend.”

Iolaus chuckled. “You’ve been around Cheiron way too long, Herc. That doesn’t sound like any Roman saying!”

Hercules shoved his friend’s shoulder. “ That’s not the Roman saying, satyr-brain! That’s me being mystical! The saying goes, ‘Dum vivimus vivamus!’” the demigod intoned. “‘While we live, let us live!’”

Iolaus started into another verbal jab, but then stopped as he considered Hercules’ words. He whispered the Latin and its translation to himself, and grinned. “Cool - I like it!”

“Yeah, me too. So -- we make every day count! We do what we can to make things better, and fight for what’s right!”

Iolaus nodded, and then with a wicked grin added, “And enjoy the hell out of it!”

Hercules grinned back. “Back-to-back heroes, right, Iolaus?”

Iolaus echoed their childhood pledge. “Back-to-back heroes, Herc!”

Hercules jumped off the wall, and Iolaus followed. They caught forearms in the warrior’s clasp, and then, laughing, pulled each other into a longer hug than they had exchanged earlier that day, but it was no less exuberant.

“Hey, why are we hanging around outside?” Iolaus said as he pulled away. “There’s a party goin’ on around here!”

“Let’s go!” Hercules cried.

And the two friends raced to the door and toward their future, laughing in the face of doom, to truly live while they lived …

The years flowed back into place, and Hercules slipped back into camp as the bright moon was rising. Jason and Iolaus were bedded down on opposite sides of the fire. Hercules crept to Iolaus’ side and knelt beside him, for just a moment watching the unusual picture of his friend in total stillness. The son of Zeus also noted with a lurch of guilt the swelling, purpling bruise on Iolaus’ cheekbone, and the cut on his lip.

As if Hercules’ gaze could penetrate his dreams, Iolaus gave a small start and slowly opened his eyes. Their drowsiness faded quickly as he perceived Hercules regarding him.

“Herc?” Iolaus whispered. The hunter glanced around warily, suddenly tense, as though expecting danger. He relaxed, however, as he noticed Jason peacefully sleeping and the moonlit glade quiet around them. “What?”

“We need to talk,” Hercules said, quietly.

Iolaus rubbed a hand quickly over his face, and as the dregs of sleep flowed from his mind, memory of their dispute returned. The mortal regarded the demigod steadily, and answered, “You’re sure we’re just talking, right?”

Hercules frowned. “I guess I deserved that.”

“So … talk.” Iolaus’ voice was soft, but uncompromising.

“Not here - we’ll wake Jason. Come with me?”

Hercules rose and offered Iolaus a hand up. Iolaus looked up at his friend for a still moment, and then slowly raised his hand. Hercules gripped it, and pulled the smaller man up with ease. He then led the way toward the lake, and Iolaus followed. As they softly slipped away from camp, Jason’s eyes slowly opened, gazing up at the brilliant sky with a mixture of worry and hope in his dark eyes.

Meanwhile, Iolaus followed Hercules down to the water’s edge, near where the small brook glided into the lake with a hushed gurgle. The son of Zeus leaned a hip against a rounded stone, half turned from Iolaus as he watched the moon-sparkled water slip by.

Iolaus stopped a few feet away, watching Hercules with a jumble of hope, despair, anger and hurt roiling in his heart. He said nothing and waited for the big man to begin.

“Iolaus, I - I don’t even have enough words to tell you how sorry I am for striking out at you.” Hercules began slowly, but his words began to flow faster and faster. “It wasn’t you, really, although that’s no excuse. It was the truth you were telling me … and it felt like it was hitting me in the face.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Your voice was like the voice of my conscience - everything I’ve been pushing away since I married Serena, and she died.”

“Don’t say that as though it’s cause and effect, Hercules,” Iolaus interceded, quickly, with a frown.

“Isn’t it?”

“No!” Iolaus shook his head, and replied with a quiet passion. “You loving Serena didn’t cause her death. Ares and Strife did that. She would’ve come into Ares’ twisted plans at some point in time, regardless of whether you’d ever loved her or not. She was his, and as the Hind her blood could kill gods. He’s been trying to kill you just about all your life, so of course he was going to use Serena somehow.”

Hercules’ voice was threadlike and tinged with pathos. “I thought I could make it work. I heard your warnings, but I really thought I could find a way to have Serena and keep her safe. I … I just loved her so much, Iolaus.”

Iolaus closed his eyes briefly. “I know you did, Herc,” he whispered in a strangled voice. After a brief pause, he opened his eyes and continued, hoarsely, “And you so often find a way to make things work, and to save people. But … you don’t always know the right thing to do, and you can’t save everyone.”

“I just … have so much trouble accepting that, Iolaus.”

“You wouldn’t be Hercules if you didn’t,” Iolaus replied, with a brief laugh, the kind that substitutes for tears. He breathed in slowly, as if nerving himself for what he needed to say. “I have to apologize, too, you know.”

Hercules turned to look back at Iolaus, but the smaller man did not glance up. “Why?”

Iolaus sighed. “I think at first I didn’t like Serena very much, even though I couldn’t even admit that to myself. She shot me with that poisoned arrow, after all. And, yeah, I know she healed me, but I could only see her as a danger. Your love for her was blinding you to the danger you were in from Ares, and it scared me. I guess part of me took that out on her, at least in my head.”

The smaller man walked forward to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his taller friend, but couldn’t look up at the crystal blue gaze, afraid of what he might see. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t help more. And I’m sorry I even tried to leave. I was just - I think I was just trying to jolt you - to get your attention. To get you to listen to how deeply concerned I was for your safety.”

Iolaus shook his head. “It was stupid, and I realized it on my way out of town. Joxer showed me how stupid I was.” He glanced up at Hercules, then, with a choked laugh, and Hercules could see the sparkle of jeweled tears in the laugh lines around his friend’s azure eyes. “You know you’re really stupid when Joxer points it out to you!”

Hercules laughed briefly, and clapped a hand to Iolaus’ shoulder and left it there, silently, encouraging him to continue.

Iolaus’ laughter faded quickly, and his gaze wavered. Looking out over the lake, he continued, his soft voice faltering, “I’ve tried to talk to you about it since then, but I never could get it out. You’ve been so … so closed off. I’ve been afraid that, on top of your grief for Serena, you were hurt and angry with me for leaving, and we’ve never talked about it-”

“Stop it, Iolaus.” Hercules tightened his grip slightly, and shook Iolaus’ shoulder gently. “That’s my fault. I know I’ve pushed you away lately.”

There was a long silence, in which neither man could look at each other, but Hercules could somehow sense the emotions washing over his friend through his grip on his shoulder.

Finally Iolaus whispered, “Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

Another silence ensued, and Iolaus felt Hercules’ grip tighten, almost to the edge of pain. Hercules tried to speak once, but found he had to stop and take a breath, and then begin again.

“It wasn’t because of anything you did, Iolaus,” Hercules said in a voice almost softer than silence. “Or rather, it was because of everything you’ve done, as long as we’ve known each other.”

Iolaus looked at Hercules, concerned and bewildered. But before he could speak, Hercules continued. “Wait - wait, I know that sounds confusing. Let me start over.”

He ran his other hand through his long, brown hair, and sighed. “Remember, in Ceryneia, after Ares took my power, when I tried to hold up the cistern after Joxer nearly destroyed the water tower?”

At Iolaus’ nod, Hercules continued, slowly, “When I couldn’t hold it up, and you and the others came to help me, I suddenly realized two things. First thing was just what it meant not to have the strength I was accustomed to. I had no idea what it really meant to be mortal.”

He glanced down at Iolaus. “And then I realized what it really means for you to do what we do. To fight the kind of odds we fight. I … I thought I knew what mortal strength was, but I felt so weak, and so vulnerable.”

“Well, thanks a lot, Herc!” Iolaus huffed. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“No - wait, Iolaus!” Hercules turned and caught both his friend’s shoulders. “I know I’m not saying this right! Hang in there, okay? You know I don’t do this too well.”

The demigod took a breath and tried again. “You see, it made me realize just how incredibly strong you are, physically and mentally. In a lot of ways as a mortal, I was a lot weaker than you are, because I’ve always had the godly strength to depend on for everything.”

Hercules looked away and sighed again. He let one arm drop, but kept one hand on his friend’s broad shoulder.

“It really scared me, though,” the demigod continued. “And as much as I thought I knew before, I finally, truly realized just what a hero you are, Iolaus. It’s one thing to do what we do with the strength of a hundred men, but it’s totally amazing to do it with the strength of matchless courage and a loyal heart.”

“Well … I’m just doing what I know how to do, Herc,” Iolaus replied, flushed and, as ever, uncomfortable with praise. “I’m used to my level of strength, and I think it serves me pretty well.”

Hercules replied, hurriedly. “My head knows that, Iolaus. It’s just that, my heart didn’t. I was really scared, and I started to push you away, because it just seemed like to much for you to bear, and I couldn’t bear to hurt you or see you d-die again.”

Iolaus shook off his friend’s hand, folded his arms, and regarded the demigod with a fiery expression. “Damn it, Herc! Can’t you get it through your head that you can’t save everyone - not even me? Haven’t we gone through enough that you know that I choose to be here, with you? Is this ringing any bells? And here I was thinking you didn’t want me around any more --”

“Never!” Hercules interjected quickly. “Don’t ever think that, Iolaus!” He looked at Iolaus’ folded arms and mutinous expression hopefully. “So, am I forgiven?”

Iolaus’ expression was unrelenting for a few moments, and then slowly he unfolded his arms, thrust a hand quickly through his hair, and blew out a long breath. “Forgiven. Forgotten. How about you?”

“What - forgive you?” Hercules shook his head. “I don’t think there’s anything to forgive, but, yeah, if it makes you feel better, I forgive you.”

Iolaus reached out an arm to Hercules, who caught it in the warrior’s grip. Then with their clasped arms, and again grasping Iolaus’ shoulder, he pulled the smaller man into a tight hug.

They stood, locked together for a long moment, savoring the connection, sensing the golden cord of their friendship being repaired and re-woven.

As that moment passed, Iolaus pulled away and looked up at his friend suspiciously. “You know, we got most of this straightened out, but I haven’t noticed you saying that you’ve changed your mind about feeling like you have to save everyone.”

Hercules shrugged and grinned down at his best friend. “Yeah, well, I am trying, Iolaus.”

Iolaus grinned back and shook his head. “I guess that’s where you’re too much of a god, Herc. You just can’t help being a control freak.”

“Oh yeah? Well, I can control throwing you into this lake again, buddy!” Hercules cried, and began grappling with his laughing friend.

And the moon smiled down to seal a friendship renewed …

The next morning, Jason awoke just as the sun rose over the gap in the eastern ridge. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he sat up with a start as he realized he was still alone in camp. Pulling on his boots, he hurried towards the lake in the direction in which he had seen Hercules and Iolaus leave last night.

He walked along the water’s edge until he approached the small glade where the brook tumbled into the waters of the lake. Rounding the curve in the path, he stopped suddenly. The worried expression on his face fled, a small smile curved his lips, and gentle amusement lightened his dark eyes.

Hercules sat, deeply asleep, leaning against a mossy stone; his long legs were sprawled out before him, cushioned by the deep moss. Iolaus, just as somnolent, leaned against his side, his head pillowed in the hollow of Hercules’ shoulder. It appeared he had burrowed there for warmth in his sleep, for Hercules arm was thrown bonelessly over Iolaus’ shoulder. Hercules’ head had no doubt drooped down to be pillowed on Iolaus’ bright hair after Morpheus had led them into sleep.

Jason chuckled. “Back-to-back heroes indeed!” he said aloud.

Perhaps it was his words, or the sun’s rays sending rousing bars of light onto the friend’s faces, or their general stiffness, but both Hercules’ and Iolaus’ eyes opened at that moment.

“’Morning, Hercules, Iolaus,” Jason greeted them, with an innocent tone, but a wicked laughter in his eyes. “Sleep well?”

The two men stretched, yawned, and glanced at each other.

“Did you hear something, Herc?” Iolaus asked, puzzled.

“I thought I did, Iolaus - was it a gnat?”

“A gadfly maybe?”

“Some might call it a snake in the grass,” Hercules said, rising and pulling the smaller man up. They advanced on Jason with menacing grins.

“Hey, now, that’s not fair!” Jason protested. “We were - I mean I was just trying to get you two to talk to each other! And it obviously worked, because you both look a lot better -”

“Do you hear this, Iolaus? First, he commits conspiracy against us, and then says we haven’t looked too good!”

“Hey, c’mon now, I didn’t - maybe I shouldn’t have gotten you two talking!”

“Listen, Herc, he admits his guilt!”

“Right! Get him!”

Jason had turned to run too late as the others pounced. “Not the lake, guys! C’mon! It’s gonna be way too cold! No!”

Laughing and grappling the struggling Jason, Hercules looked at Iolaus with a fey joy in his crystal blue eyes.

“Ready, Iolaus?” he cried. “Together!”

Iolaus’ sapphire eyes mirrored the joy and the thousand other emotions between them. “Together, Herc!”

“One, two -”

And the rising sun smiled down on a new day for old friends.

-- End part one --

Melisande
April 29, 2005



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