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The two men walked in companionable silence along the worn path. Occasionally the taller of the two would cast a look at his much shorter companion, an affectionate smile playing on his lips.
It wasn’t often Iolaus was silent on a journey. He’d been known to talk nonstop from Thebes to Corinth. The silence was nice for a change, though he didn’t really mind the background noise of his friend’s chatter. Or his laugh.
As if on cue, Iolaus caught Hercules watching him and broke the silence. “A dinar for your thoughts, Herc.”
“You don’t have a dinar, Iolaus.” This was said with a small laugh.
“Well, if I did...”
“I was just thinking of how nice it was to be heading somewhere to visit for a change.”
“You mean you don’t enjoy running to every city, village and farm rescuing people?”
“Depends on the situation. But today, it’s just nice to be going to see a friend with my best friend.”
Iolaus nodded. “Hey, I wonder what Aspa had? The baby should have been born by now. Maybe we should have sent a message ahead. A new baby can be demanding. She might not be up for a visit.”
“A bit late to think of that now, but that’s why we’ll be staying at an inn.” It had been a year since they’d been this way with only enough time to stop and say a brief hello to Jaris and Aspa. As they crested the rise before the rutted road dipped down toward the small city, Hercules’ face grew thoughtful.
“Hey, none of that!” Iolaus lightly slapped his friend’s arm. “This is supposed to be a happy time. A fun visit.”
“I swear, Herc, if you were a god, you’d be the God of-of Guilt! Let it go. Jaris has.”
“Yes, you are. I know the look. It was a long time ago, you were young and still learning how to set limits on your strength. You made amends then and something good came out of it.”
“I still regret it.”
“And you always will. We all have regrets.” Iolaus rested his hand on Hercules’ arm. “But for now, let it go and enjoy the moment. Promise?”
Hercules laughed softly. “Promise. Come on, we need to get a room for the night.”
“I’ll do it. Why don’t you find Jaris and let him know we’re here.” Iolaus picked up speed, heading away from Hercules.
“Wait!” Hercules fumbled for his money pouch. “You’ll need some money.”
Iolaus waved him off. “Don’t worry about it. I know the woman who owns the tavern here. My credit is good.”
Hercules shook his head. “Are you going to be sharing the room with me tonight?”
“Not if I can help it!” With a wave, Iolaus disappeared between the city gates, melting in with the populace.
“There he is! He’s coming here now!”
Further into the center of Plataea, there was a crowd gathered about the city’s government buildings, noticeably in front of the Hall of Justice.
“Hurry! Let’s find out what’s happened!”
Tidus’ voice rose over the crowd’s. “He got off! Claxon got off again!”
Tidus spread his hands. “No witnesses! Judge let him go!”
Claxon, the town bully and full of himself, left the hall and clapped his hand companionably onto Tidus’ shoulder. “You see, Tidus? I knew, once you thought about it, you’d tell the judge it wasn’t me you saw strangling that little redhead. This is a fine-looking family you’ve got here.” The bully smiled and eyed Tidus’ wife and children. Tidus placed his arms around his family as if that alone could protect them, knowing full well it was an empty gesture. “Be a shame if something bad happened to them---wouldn’t it?” Claxon laughed softly. His attention was caught by the next man to leave the building. “Ooh--if it ain’t the long arm of the law. Guess you lose again, Jaris.”
“Don’t worry. I’m a patient man.” Jaris wasn’t a tall man. However, he more than made up for it in breadth of shoulder and determination. His close cropped hair framed a face that knew sorrow, most recently with the loss of his wife.
Claxon laughed. “You don’t get it, do you? Nobody’s gonna testify against me. And no judge would find me guilty if they did!” Unfortunately, they both knew this to be true. The latest accusations had died with the threat of vengeance against the witnesses should they be foolish enough to testify.
“All right, Claxon, take if off the street.” Jaris didn’t even try to hide the disgust in his voice.
“I’m tired of you in my face. You bother me. You’re like a bug---and bugs get squashed.” Emboldened by his recent success, Claxon decided to push at the only man with the balls to stand up to him. He didn’t want the sheep around them to get any ideas otherwise.
“You want to get into this in front of a town full of witnesses?” Jaris hoped Claxon would push. It would give him the justification to beat the man to death. Jaris wasn’t a violent man by nature, but he’d been pushed too far too many times by Claxon. Something was going to have to give.
Claxon sneered. “Nobody’s gonna see a thing.” Two of his followers grabbed Jaris’ arms and held him as Claxon took a swing at him. His fist didn’t meet Jaris’ flesh like he expected, but came to a painful stop in the palm of a large hand. Both Jaris and he looked at the owner of the fist in surprise, though within seconds’ Jaris face broke out in a grin.
A voice came from the fist’s owner. “Call me nobody---and I’ve already seen enough.” The large man elbowed one of the goons holding Jaris, allowing him to break free of the other one’s grip. Out of the corner of his eye, Jaris caught a glimpse of Claxon being hit by none other than Hercules, who sent the murderer skidding across the ground and right out of the square.
Hercules kicked back and caught one of Claxon’s goons trying to charge him from behind. At the same time, he brought up his left arm to slam another in the face with enough force to send him flying. A quick punch to the right, a knee to the left, and two more were out of the running. Soon it became a pattern of fist alternating with knee until he’d laid out a number of fools who’d thought him easy pickings.
Jaris had picked up his staff and was defending himself from one of Claxon’s men who was armed with a sword. He managed to disarm the swordsman only to end in a struggle with him for control of the staff. A few moves learned over the years and he was soon the sole owner of the length of wood which he then used to beat off his attacker. He swung around to help Hercules only to watch as the demigod finished off what was left of Claxon’s gang.
“Come on!” With that, Claxon’s followers picked up their fallen to limp and stagger off.
Hercules sighed. Some day he’d like to enter a town without a fight erupting within minutes.
“Hercules!” Jaris closed the gap between them to offer his arm.
As Hercules took it in a firm grip, he commented, “It’s a nice, quiet little town you got here, Jaris. We just thought we’d drop in.”
“Good timing. I’ve been trying to get rid of Claxon for years. It’s so good to see you.” He looked around expectantly
“You, too. Uh, Iolaus is off arranging for a room for us. We didn’t want to put you and Aspa out with the new baby to care for.”
“I guess you hadn’t heard about my wife.” Jaris’ smile faded away. “She died a few hours after our son was born. It was a hard delivery.”
“I’m sorry. Aspa was a wonderful woman.”
Jaris smiled again. “She was. And she would have made a wonderful mother to little Bartoc, too. At least she got to hold him before she died.”
“You named him after your brother,” Hercules observed.
“Yeah. You have to see him.”
“I’d love to. Iolaus as well.”
Jaris directed Hercules away from the Hall of Justice’s steps. “Then let’s go find him and head to my home.” They hadn’t gotten far before they ran into a woman hugging a crying baby to her breast, a basket full of market goods in her other hand. Jaris stopped in his tracks and took the basket from the relieved woman. “Remember Aspa’s sister?”
Hercules offered the young woman a smile. “Sure. Hello, Kaia.”
“Nice to see you again, Hercules.” She adjusted her grip on the baby and started rocking him.
“And the little fuss-budget is Bartoc.”
Hercules felt his smile soften. Children had that effect on him. “He’s beautiful.”
Kaia laughed. “He needs a nap.”
“Sorry he’s in such a mood. He was sick all night with a fever.” Jaris touched his son’s face gently. “You better take him home, Kaia. I’ll walk you to the wagon. Hercules, I’ll catch up with you. You remember where I live.”
Hercules had caught unusual movement out of the corner of his eye. Distracted, he nodded and barely noticed Kaia’s comment to Jaris that they should have Hercules over for dinner.
“That’s a good idea. Iolaus is with him.”
“Then maybe I’d better go back to the market and get some more food.” Their laughter faded as they moved away, disappearing through an archway.
Hercules focused on what had caught his attention. A tall woman in white diaphanous robes seemed to float above the ground as she moved across the square. She incongruously carried a lit candle, the light of its flame somehow managing not to be swallowed up by the mid afternoon sun.
Heart in throat, Hercules called out to the apparition no one else appeared to notice. “Celesta. Celesta!”
The goddess’ progress halted and she turned to acknowledge the demigod. “Hello, Hercules.” Her smile was gentle, her face kindly. Among the gods, he’d always thought she had the most otherworldly demeanor, as if the concerns of man didn’t touch her in spite of her calling.
“Hi. I, uh, wish I could say I was happy to see you.”
“Mortals think I come to take life. I’m only here to guide them to the other side when it’s their time to go.”
“I-I know you’re a source of comfort on the journey, but the mortal half of me is always saddened to see a life end.” And panicked if it was someone he knew and loved.
“I’ve always admired your compassion for humans.” This said, she floated through the same archway that Kaia and Jaris had disappeared through bypassing a coughing, elderly man who seemed to be on his last legs.
Hercules held out a hand as if to stop the goddess from her rounds. “Celesta! Not the baby?”
“No, I’m not here for the baby.”
Hercules gave a sigh of relief that stuck in his throat at her next words.
“I’ve come for Jaris.”
“Jaris? Jaris is going to die? How?” The man had looked tired, but otherwise healthy.
“You can’t stop it. The Fates are ready to sever Jaris’ lifeline. It will be fast and painless.”
“But he’s so young,” Hercules protested, in spite of knowing that meant not a thing when one’s time came.
“There are things even you are powerless to change, Hercules.” While her voice was full of compassion, the words were meant to remind him of his place.
“W-wait-wait---don’t take him yet! Give him some more time, to--to get his life in order! Say his goodbyes.”
“You know I can’t do that.”
“You can’t tell me he’s going to die and expect me not to help him!”
Celesta looked in the direction Jaris had gone. “Hades will have my head.” She looked back at Hercules and sighed. “All right. A day, no longer. Death is never easy. It’s the survivors who have it the hardest. You found that out when you met Jaris’ brother,” she reminded him.
“Bartoc.” Hercules looked away from her too-knowing eyes. “It was the first time I ever met you. I’ll never forget what happened. I thought I really had put it behind me--until now.”
Cheiron, headmaster of Cheiron’s Academy, stopped his progress through the workout hall to call out to one of his pupils. “Hercules! Pick up the pace! You’re walking through this like it’s a drill!”
The lanky youth stopped what he was doing and called back, “But it is a drill.” It was a mistake as Iolaus took advantage of the distraction to swing his quarterstaff and sweep the legs out from under his partner and current opponent.
Cheiron repressed a smile. “Well done, Iolaus.”
Hercules glared at Iolaus, but spoke to their teacher. “Cheiron, I’ve done this so much, I could do it in my sleep.” He took his partner’s hand and rose to his feet.
“It’s not the moves that need work, it’s the attitude. You win or you lose here!” Cheiron’s finger touched the young demigod’s brow briefly.
Iolaus gave them a mock serious look. “Well, you know, Chieron, I try to tell him, but---ooh!” Hercules’ elbow accurately targeted Iolaus’ chest and nearly upended the shorter cadet.
Cheiron, obviously choosing to ignore their antics, continued. “You are my most promising student, Hercules. But lately, you’ve grown cocky and overconfident.”
“Well, it’s the training. I mean, day in, day out-it’s boring.”
Cheiron stared Hercules in the eye until the young man looked away. This was going to be one of those lessons that couldn’t be taught by words, but had to be experienced. Hercules wasn’t the first cadet to think he knew it all. Cheiron clapped his hands together loudly, his voice rising above the grunts, shouts, and groans of his students as they went through their paces. “That’s it! You have fourteen days to enjoy the festival and to visit with your families! When you come back, come back ready to work!”
As the cadets poured out of the academy and onto the rode that led to freedom and family, Iolaus paused to stretch. “Six weeks of up at dawn and drill till you drop--I am so ready for your mother’s cooking.” He leaned into his friend and grinned up at him.
Hercules shrugged him off good naturedly. “Maybe you should have continued a life of crime, Iolaus. Hard prison labor would be a breeze compared to life at Cheiron’s Academy.”
Further down the path and out of site, a group of rough-looking young men huddled together, glaring at the academy walls and cadets pouring forth.
Kenickus sneered. “Look at ‘em! All those goody-goody cadets, they make me wanna puke.”
Dageth grabbed the arm of a nervous young man who had hung back in the group. “Here he comes--hot-shot Hercules. Thinks he can stick his nose in and cost us a turf war. Now, it’s payback time. All right, Bartoc, kill Hercules and you’ll be one of us.”
The curly-haired youth stared at the knife the gang leader slapped into his hand. “You sure a knife will do it? He’s stronger than anyone. He’s never been beat.”
“Just do it! We’ll set him up.”
Hercules and Iolaus approached the fork in the path. The right path led toward Corinth, the left led to a footbridge that crossed a rushing stream before the path continued on toward Thebes. The fork made for a wider area cleared of brush and trees. They hadn’t stepped very far into it when they found themselves being ambushed by a gang of boys and young men their own age.
“Oh, for-Hercules-“ Whatever Iolaus had been about to say to him was cut off as the gang’s leader signaled his followers to grab Iolaus. Before either cadet could respond, Hercules found himself in a cleared space ringed by the other youths. The leader, a tall young man with cropped hair, shoved a lanky, curly-haired youth in the demigod’s direction.
Dageth shouted, “Now, Bartoc! Gut him!”
Hercules smirked at the quaking youth. “You know? It’s just like you to send a baby to do your work, Dageth.”
This insult stung Bartoc. He couldn’t let it go. “I’ll show you who’s a baby!” He charged the demigod only to have Hercules side step at the last minute. Adding insult to injury he felt the sting of the flat side of Hercule’s sword as it slapped his butt. The force of the blow caused him to stumble as he tried to turn, his foot catching on the root of a nearby tree. He fell to one knee and paused to catch his breath.
Dageth scowled at the fallen youth. “Get up! You wimp!”
Hercules laughed, his eyes sweeping the scattered gang members. He didn’t see Iolaus’ worried look, too busy taunting his opponent. Hercules gestured at Bartoc. “Come on. You know, I do have a tougher workout every day before breakfast.” As the boy knelt there, Hercules thought he saw a woman hovering by the bridge, hair as bright as Iolaus’. Another quick glance showed the area empty of all but the Lowack’s gang. He shook it off as a trick of the bright sun.
“Herc, be careful-!” Iolaus’ warning was cut off as one of the gang holding him back punched him in the gut.
Bartoc scrambled up and yelled as he charged the demigod once more. “Ah-h-h-h-h-h!” Hercules dodged out of the way at the last minute and swung his arm after Bartoc passed him, planning on simply shoving him to the ground. He misjudged the force of the blow as Bartoc tried to twist around to change direction. Hercules arm connected far sooner than he’d expected. Unable to avoid it, Bartoc met it head on. He stumbled back, his feet slipping in the muddy leaves that littered the ground, and his head connected with one of the footbridge’s anchor posts. There was an odd ‘snap’ and the boy fell bonelessly to the ground.
Dageth looked at his fallen flunky and backed up. He was no stranger to violence, but generally it was his followers doing the deed, not being victims of it. “Let’s get outta here!”
Hercules looked on with a smug smile as their enemies turned tail and disappeared into the surrounding woods. “Knock one of them off his feet and the rest turn yellow. Did you see the way...” His voice faded away at the look on Iolaus’ face as he knelt by Bartoc’s side, his fingers resting on the pulse point in the boy’s neck. “What?”
Iolaus swallowed and then whispered, “Herc-he’s dead.”
Cheiron stood over the body laying on the infirmary’s table. “Such a waste--and for nothing.”
Hercules couldn’t look at his teacher. “It’s my fault.” His voice cracked and he bit his trembling lower lip. He felt Iolaus’ fingers touch the back of his arm and then withdraw.
“Herc--he had a knife.”
“No, I didn’t take it seriously. I should have handled it better.”
Cheiron nodded. “Yes--you should have--but you didn’t. Next time, you will. It’s called learning.” The stern look on his face didn’t waver.
Iolaus informed their teacher, “Dageth called him Bartoc. The cook says his father’s a farmer, about half a day away.”
Cheiron sighed. “You know what you have to do, don’t you?” This was directed at the young demigod.
Hercules finally looked up. “Yes, I do.”
It was a sad scene, the lone young man leading a horse loaded with the body of a boy no older than himself. Hercules felt numb all over. While his eyes saw the path before him leading away from the Academy, his mind kept replaying the fight over and over, trying to find where it all went wrong. So it was that he didn’t initially hear his name called until his best friend was almost upon him.
“Hey! Yo, Herc! Wait up!”
“Iolaus.” Hercules looked blankly at the smaller cadet.
Iolaus, trying to get his breath, having run to catch up, gestured down the path. “Let’s get going!”
“No. No, this is something I’ve got to do by myself.”
He appreciated the effort, but shook his head. “Please, Iolaus.” He watched Iolaus frown at him as he ran a hand through his already tousled curls.
“Well, just don’t forget it was a gang who forced Bartoc into fighting you. You can’t take all the blame.”
“Yeah, I know. But this kid’s dead because of me. It’s nobody else’s fault. It’s up to me to take him home.” With that, Hercules clapped his hand briefly on Iolaus’ shoulder, acknowledging his friend’s offer of support, before he turned and headed down the path to Bartoc’s home.
Hercules hadn’t been long on the road, yet it seemed like forever as he reran the scene that had led to Bartoc’s death. His fault, his--“You, again.” Something had made him suddenly aware of his surroundings, and when he looked up, he found himself not alone. Gliding along by his side was the same woman he’d seen on the bridge just before he’d killed the other boy.
“Hello, Hercules. I’m Celesta.” Her smile was kind, her eyes ageless. At her name, the young demigod started.
“Messenger of Hades. That’s why you were there today. You came for the boy.” He hesitated and then went ahead and voiced his next thought. “You’re not what I would have expected.”
The goddess laughed softly. “I hear that a lot. What you’re doing--taking his body home to his family--is a very compassionate act. Most of us on Olympus are very proud of you, Hercules.”
“And my father, Zeus--is he proud of me, too?” How could any father be proud of a son who carelessly used his strength to kill someone, especially a kid no older than himself? He didn’t try to hide his bitter tone.
A look that might have been compassion passed over her features. “Of course.”
“The king of gods has enormous responsibility. Hercules, he thinks of you more than you know.”
Hercules looked away for a moment. “Yeah. Look--thanks for the nice words, but--if you really wanna help me--bring Bartoc back to life.”
Any remote hope that he had that the goddess would take pity on the dead mortal was squashed at her next words. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Then we have nothing to talk about.” Realizing how ungrateful he sounded, he tried to make amends. “No offense--I--I appreciate that the other gods realize that I exist--but it would be nice if my own father did--even if he does think of me more than I know. It was nice meeting you.”
Her words followed him down the lonely road as he took Bartoc’s body back to his family. “I hope you canhelp the boy’s family find peace, Hercules--and find some for yourself.”
Hercules only had to stop once to ask for directions in a small village not far from the Academy. The farm wasn’t far from the village itself and he had no trouble finding it. As he approached the buildings, he saw a young boy trying to heft a bag of seed nearly as big as himself. Hercules quickly tied the horse to the nearest tree and got to the boy’s side in time to catch the bag before it hit the ground. “Hey--let me give you a hand with that. This thing’s bigger than you are.”
“Thanks.” Large eyes framed by straight, light brown hair, gazed up at him in surprise. “Are you here to see my father?”
“Is his name Nehemiah?” The woman in the village who’d given him directions had supplied the name of Bartoc’s father as well. She hadn’t said anything about a younger brother. This just made what he had to do harder.
“That’s him. I’m Jaris.”
Hercules gave a weak smile as he took the offered hand. “Hello, Jaris. I’m Hercules. I need to speak to your father. It’s about your brother.”
The boy’s face lit up. “Bartoc?! Great! Father will be happy to meet a friend of his! Wait here! Father! Father!” Hercules watched a much older version of Bartoc come out of the small house. He had the same curly hair as Bartoc, only shot with grey, his face bearing lines carved by hard work under the sun. Jaris grabbed his hand and tugged on it. “Come quick, Father! There’s a guy over there! He’s a friend of Bartoc’s!”
Nehemiah looked up, his face full of hope. “Well, let’s meet him.” He allowed Jaris to pull him toward Hercules.
“I’m Hercules. I knew Bartoc--just for a short time.” Hercules didn’t know where that came from. He hadn’t known Bartoc at all. Not as a person, anyway. He watched Nehemiah’s face go grey as he saw the burdened horse tied to a tree behind Hercules.
“Jaris--go to the house.”
“But why?” Jaris hadn’t recognized the large wrapped bundle on the horse for what it was.
“Do as I say--now.” Jaris scurried back to the house and disappeared inside. Once Nehemiah was sure he was out of earshot he nodded toward the horse. “That’s my boy, isn’t it?”
Hercules couldn’t meet his eyes. “I’m sorry, sir. It was an accident. I didn’t--” He didn’t get to finish his admission of guilt. Nehemiah placed a hand on his shoulder, his face suddenly aged far beyond his years.
“Thank you for bringing him home. You’re a good friend.”
“Who’re you talking to?”
Hercules shook the memories away and looked in the direction of the voice to find his partner leaning against a nearby building. Anyone else he would have tried to fob off their curiosity, but Iolaus was well used to his divine relatives’ quirks. “Celesta.”
Iolaus left the cool shade cast by the building and approached him. “Celesta?”
“Yeah. Not personally, it’s always been Thanatos for me, but-“ Iolaus stopped at Hercules’ pained expression. “You don’t want to hear this, do you.”
“Sorry.” An apologetic smile followed. “So-what did she want? Or is that who?”
“Iolaus’ jaw dropped in surprise. “But-“
“I know. Come on.” Hercules felt, rather than saw, Iolaus fall into step beside him.
“Herc, you aren’t thinking of trying to stop her are you?” Hercules could almost hear the protest in Iolaus’ voice.
“I-I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but she gave Jaris one more day. I can’t just-“
Hercules took comfort in Iolaus’ presence. No more words were spoken as they followed Jaris’ path.
They’d found Jaris’ house without problems. It seemed less cheery without Aspa’s humming in the background as she made them a meal or mended Jaris’ tunic. Hercules kept expecting to see her favorite spot, a chair by the window looking out onto their garden behind the house. Jaris must have expected it too. Hercules caught his eyes straying in that direction several times through the meal. He shared a look with Iolaus. They’d agreed that the subject needed to be broached.
When Iolaus eyed him again and nodded in Jaris’ direction, Hercules cleared his throat and began with a roundabout approach, ignoring Iolaus’ rolling eyes at not outright telling him he was going to die tomorrow. “Your father would be proud of you.”
“Well, I’m not a farmer like he was. But town constable is honest work. And with troublemakers like Claxon around, at least I’m never gonna be out of a job.”
“Jaris have you ever talked with Kaia about--you know, if something--were to happen to you-- what would happen--to little Bartoc?” He almost missed Jaris’ answer as Iolaus plopped his forehead down onto his arms, slowly shaking his head back and forth as if to say: no, no, Herc, use the direct approach. It’s quicker, and in this case, better that way.
Jaris looked at him in confusion. “Well--no.”
“Would she raise him? I mean--I can tell she loves him.”
Jaris smiled at this. “Yes, she does--she and her husband, both. Hercules, what are you getting at?”
Iolaus’ head came back up and he gave him a pointed look. Hercules glared back at him and then sighed, capitulating.
“I saw Celesta today--the Messenger of Death. She-uh, she came for you, Jaris.”
Jaris looked at Iolaus who was looking at him, apparently gaging his reaction. “But I’m still here-- and I feel fine. Is this a joke?”
Hercules shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. She’s giving you some extra time to make arrangements for your son.”
Hope sprang into their friend’s face. “Could it be a mistake?”
Hercules looked away. “No. I’m sorry.”
Jaris gave a strangled little laugh. “Always hoped I’d accomplish something before my time came.”
Hercules protested, “But you have. You’ve been someone your neighbors could turn to for help. You stood up for them.” Iolaus nodded his agreement as he laid a hand on Jaris’ shoulder in support.
Jaris shook his head. “I haven’t done enough! Decent people can’t even walk the streets. Claxon-- others like him. I’m leaving my son to grow up in a world full of vicious animals!”
Hercules laid his hand over the fist Jaris had slammed onto the table in emphasis. “He’ll grow up in a world with people who love him. That’s more important.”
Jaris pulled away from them as he abruptly stood up. “I -I have to think this through. I have things I’ve got to do. H-how much time? Did she say?”
Iolaus spoke for the first time since Jaris had heard the tragic news. “Not much--one day.”
Jaris confronted his father. “It’s all your fault! If he hadn’t run away, he’d still be alive!”
“Jaris--” Nehemiah watched his youngest son back away from any comfort he would have offered.
“I’m gonna run away myself! And don’t try to stop me!”
Nehemiah gave Hercules an apologetic look.
“I’ll talk to him.” The young demigod didn’t wait for a response, but took off after the younger boy, wondering what he was going to say to make things right again. He found him in a tree house built on the sturdy branches of an old tree not far from their barn. He climbed up after Jaris, settling down near the entrance in the floor.
“Wow! This is nice.”
Jaris glanced at him sullenly. “Bartoc built it.”
Taking encouragement from the neutral response, Hercules pressed his advantage. “You guys must have been pretty good pals, huh?”
“He was my brother. I always thought he’d come back for me someday--someday when things had cooled off between him and our father.”
“What was it about? The argument?”
Hercules watched the war on Jaris’ face as he decided whether or not to confide in a relative stranger. Finally, the need to reach out was greater than any anger and the words poured out in a rush. “Bartoc was hanging around some guys--my father didn’t like them. He said it was for his own good-Bartoc’s-and that he didn’t want to see them around here any more.”
“Well, at least he cared, right? My father didn’t care about me--still doesn’t. If I was in Bartoc’s place I’d never want to leave here.” That much was true. Hercules craved his father’s attention, sometimes to the point of taking foolish risks.
Jaris seemed to be warming up to the young cadet. He leaned forward eagerly and asked, “Did Bartoc ever talk about me?”
Trapped by his own lies, Hercules found himself adding to the myth of Bartoc that he’d created. “Yeah--of course. All the time.”
“Tell me about him--these last few months.” Jaris, an expectant look on his face, settled closer to the cadet, eager to hear about his brother.
Digging the well of lies deeper, Hercules stuttered a bit as he began. “Well--he--you ever hear of Cheiron’s Academy?”
“He went there? That’s gotta be tough.”
“Uh--it ain’t no picnic. You see, Cheiron’s a Centaur-and he’s a great warrior. He doesn’t put up with anything. You learn how to handle yourself. You learn how to look out for each other.”
“You and Bartoc-- that’s great!” The well got deeper and deeper.
Hercules and Iolaus sat at the table, nursing mugs of ale as Jaris left to take care of business, including arranging for his son’s welfare once he was gone. It had been quiet as Hercules remembered the events that led up to his first meeting with Jaris and his father. It had been a relationship started on lies, but luckily for all concerned, it had withstood the truth. He looked across the table at his partner and friend. “You know, you never did tell me what happened.”
“Huh?” Iolaus gave him a confused look.
“Sorry. I mean after I left you at the Academy to take Bartoc’s body back. You arrived at the farm worse for the wear.”
“Oh. That.” Iolaus waved it off as having no consequence.
“I’d like to know.” Hercules remembered being so focused on himself then and what he’d done, that he’d ignored his friend.
“You aren’t going to let me rest until I tell you, are you?”
Iolaus watched his friend slowly leave academy grounds. The normally straight, proud back looked more like an old man shouldering the burdens of grief. This wasn’t right. It was an accident! Hercules was being harder on himself than anyone else was, Cheiron included.
“I know what you said, Herc, but I’m your partner, and it’s my job to watch your back.” He took off after his friend, using his hunting skills to prevent the demigod from realizing he was being followed. He did such a good job that the young gang member following Hercules didn’t notice him either until Iolaus snuck up behind him.
“This how you tail a guy, huh? A blind Cyclops attracts less attention.” He grabbed the gang member, trying to subdue him without getting sliced by the knife that appeared in the other young man’s hand. This wasn’t one who’d been a member when he’d run with the Lowacks.
“Let me go. I’ll cut you!”
A few moments later Iolaus knocked the knife out of his opponent’s hand. “Little kids shouldn’t play with knives.” He was surprised to see that not only did the gang member stop resisting, but he was starting to grin. That never boded well.
“No, it’s chumps like you we oughtta play with.” Iolaus didn’t get to hear those words as he was falling bonelessly to the ground, his head having met suddenly with the hilt of a knife.
Dageth, leader of the Lowacks, smiled maliciously from his seat on the knife-scarred chair that acted as his thrown as his men slung a groggy Iolaus at his feet. Iolaus was the only gang member to have defied him and left the gang. “Well if it isn’t Mr. ‘Look-at-me-I’m-in-the-academy-now’. What’s your job? Shooing flies off the Centaur?”
Iolaus tried to stagger to his feet. Unable to help himself, he said the first thing that came to his spinning head. “Well, it sure beats this lame excuse for a crew.” Defiance wasn’t well tolerated in the gang, especially when directed at the Lowack’s leader. Someone’s boot connected with his belly and he found himself once again on his hands and knees. “Ahh!”
Dageth leaned forward. “So--Hercules has taken our dead buddy back to the farm. It makes things simple. Him and the old man are both responsible for putting that poor kid in the ground!” His men shouted their agreement, fists pumping angrily in the air.
“Yeah, right--blame everybody but yourself,” Iolaus wheezed out. The last was muttered with contempt. “Big man.”
“Word is out--from here to Corinth. As soon as a few more crews get here--Hercules and the old man are dead meat.” Dageth sat back, satisfied he’d put Iolaus in his place.
The cadet’s face had paled at those words, yet he straightened and defiantly challenged Dageth. “You know? This has nothing to do with settling things. This is all about you trying to look tough.”
Kenickus, Dageth’s second, got in Iolaus’ face, mocking him. “Check it--I float like a Harpy-- and sting like a Stymphalian bird!” He didn’t see the fist coming.
“And drop like a rock!” Those words were Iolaus’ last as he broke away from the gang and made for the exit to the shouts of the Lowacks.
Dageth waved his men off of pursuit, shouting after the fleeing blond, “Hey! You tell your buddy, Hercules, we’ll be coming for him and the old man!”
It took Iolaus longer than he liked to find the farm. He’d had to stop twice to rest, fearing that last kick had broken a rib or two. Certainly he sported a good-sized bruise over them now. Eventually he sighted the top of the house through the trees. Within minutes he caught sight of Hercules standing with an older man and a young boy before a newly dug grave.
He hurried over, suddenly energized at sight of his friend, thanking the gods that Hercules was there and safe. “Herc!” At his shout, all three turned and stared at him. He made quite the vision, bruised face and cut lip.
The older man, no doubt Bartoc’s father, spoke first. “You’re another of Bartoc’s friends. Thank you for being here.”
Hiding his confusion, he went with the flow. “Well--I had to come.” He gave Hercules a look, but other than being surprised at Iolaus’ appearance, he didn’t respond.
Nehemiah turned to the taller cadet and asked, “Hercules, would you mind saying a few words?”
“Um--I’m not family.”
Jaris added his plea to the request. “Please, Hercules? You were his friend.”
Neither of them noticed the look that Iolaus shot at Hercules. He bit his lip and kept quiet, wondering how Hercules had gone from being Bartoc’s would-be victim to his friend in less than a day.
Nehemiah nodded. “In some ways, you may have known him better than we did.”
Iolaus watched Hercules flush a little and look down at the grave before clearing his throat and finally speaking. “Bartoc--was trying to find his way--he was, uh--trying to find who he--he really was.” Finally settling on a theme, Hercules appeared to relax a little. “That’s not always easy. It can be tough--opening up--talking about how you feel, or admitting that you feel--lost-- or--forgotten. Bartoc will always be with you. He’ll be in your hearts. And he’ll hear _your_ thoughts when you think of him--and he’ll hear mine, too.” This seemed to satisfy Nehemiah and Jaris as they laid a handful of wildflowers on the grave. As the two walked toward the house, Hercules seemed to suddenly realized that Iolaus wasn’t a figment of his imagination. He grabbed his friend’s arm and pulled him out of hearing of the other two.
“Wh-wh-what happened? What are you-what are you doing here?!”
Iolaus exploded. “What am _I_ doing here? Herc--I don’t know _what_ is going on, but Dageth is coming after you. He’s bringing his own gang, and a bunch of others.”
Hercules looked around as if he expected them to be there already. “We need to leave. I-I--I can draw them away.”
Iolaus shook his head. “No, no. No. It won’t work. He’s got a grudge againstBartoc’s father, too. You’re both on his hit list-“ Iolaus broke off as Nehemiah returned.
“Hercules--I’d like you to stay on awhile-your friend, too.”
“Iolaus.” He held out his hand and took the farmer’s in greeting.
Nehemiah nodded to Iolaus. “Iolaus, I’m Nehemiah. It’d be good for, uh--Jaris to have someone to talk to--who was close to Bartoc.” This last was directed to Hercules.
“W-we’d be glad to--Nehemiah.”
Iolaus looked at Hercules in dismay as the farmer returned to the house. “Close to Bartoc? You didn’t _tell_ him, did you?!”
Hercules, a guilty look on his face, looked away. “No.”
Iolaus rolled his eyes. His friend didn’t like to hurt people’s feelings, but this was too much. “For the love of--do you want me to tell him?”
Hercules looked up, desperation in his eyes. “No! I don’t want you to--”
“I can tell him!” He had an uneasy feeling about Hercules’ reasons for remaining silent on the matter. The way the older man had been so deferential to him, the way the young boy had looked at Hercules with near hero worship in his eyes, none of it boded well.
“Iolaus, I don’t want you to say _anything_! That man’s son and that boy’s brother is _dead_ because of me. Any trouble that they’re in is my fault. I’ll handle it.” He walked off after Nehemiah, leaving Iolaus with the dead and a bad feeling about Hercules’ motives.
Tidus cowered with his family before the bully he’d help free from justice. Claxon had showed up outside their modest home and was in the process of threatening them. “Claxon, why?! I kept quiet! You got off!”
The bully grinned as he fingered Tidus’ wife’s hair. “Yeah--this is just a reminder--in case you change your mind.” Whatever he’d decided to do was left undone as a hand came down and clamped around his wrist, dragging it away from the frightened woman.
Claxon looked over in surprise, quickly recovering by plastering a sneer on his face. “Huh? Jaris? What a surprise. You caught me stepping on a bug. I guess that’s some kind of violation. Go ahead and take me to court, but I gotta tell ya’--I’m getting tired of you wasting my time.”
“I haven’t got time to waste either, Claxon.”
Claxon laughed, mistaking the meaning of the words. “Smart man. Oh--just between us--I strangled that redhead--choked the life right out of her,” he bragged. He’d won. Jaris had finally given up. They were all alike. A bunch of frightened sheep. “And Tidus, there? He saw it all.” His current victim had the grace to look ashamed through the fear. “She was frisky, though--put up a real good fight. I’m thinking of looking up her sister.” He laughed again, as if threats were the finest of jokes.
The bully didn’t see what happened next. Jaris moved quickly and jammed the butt of his staff up into the man’s chin. Claxon’s head snapped back and he slumped to the ground. Jaris reversed the staff so that it’s bladed end hovered over Claxon’s belly. Tidus gave a frightened squeak as he backed up, pushing his wife behind him.
Jaris looked up to see the horrified look on Hercules’ and Iolaus’ faces. “I should have done that a long time ago,” he growled.
Hercules motioned Iolaus to stay back as he approached. “Why?!”
The answer he got wasn’t an answer at all. Jaris spun on his heel and took off, his words floating back to his friends. “No time. If I gotta go, I’m taking as many like him with me as I can.”
Hercules and Iolaus had left Jaris’ home in search of him, concerned about how long it was taking him. Their fears had been justified when they’d come upon the scene of the fallen bully about to be gutted by their friend. As Iolaus checked on Claxon’s condition, Hercules found he wasn’t alone in his worry. A shadow next to him made him look to his right. Celesta hovered in the air, her large eyes sad, the light on her candled small and subdued as if it sensed her emotions.
Low and soft, her voice echoed in his ear. “This didn’t have to happen, Hercules. I broke the rule. I gave him extra time.”
“No, I’m the one who’s responsible.” Iolaus looked up as Hercules spoke, noting that no one was near him. He gave a cursory glance around the area, shrugged and turned back to trussing up Claxon so he couldn’t make more trouble and instructing Tidus to get the watch to pick him up. “I should have stayed with him. He’s afraid of facing death. That’s why he’s doing this instead of taking care of his son.”
“You’d better stop him soon. If this keeps up, all the evil he does will outweigh all the good he’s already done in his life. Hades won’t permit him into the Elysian Fields.”
Hercules nodded. “I won’t let that happen. I owe it to his father--and his brother.” He didn’t miss the look Iolaus threw him that plainly said ‘I thought you were over that’. He just chose to ignore it.
Nehemiah smiled at Hercules as the cadet helped him with the chores.“You’re not afraid to get your hands calloused. Bartoc-“ He paused, voice nearly cracking, then finished what he’d started to say. “--never had a taste for it.”
Hercules looked down at the grain sack in his arms. “You’ve been doing this all your life. I’m just catching up.”
Nehemiah nodded at the darkening sky. “Storm’s comin’. You better hurry, son.”
He turned away before he saw the effect of that one word on Hercules. ‘Son’. Only his mother had ever called him that. He was pulled out of his reverie by Iolaus practically plowing into him in his haste.
“Herc, they’re here.”
“I know. I saw ‘em. About thirty by my count.”
“Yeah, well maybe we could have headed them off if we left before,” Iolaus pointed out, “but now they’ve got us boxed in.”
“Nehemiah wouldn’t have stood a chance, you know that. What’s on your mind, Iolaus?” A part of him really didn’t want to hear it, but he’d learned that listening to his partner sometimes was the wisest course, especially when his own emotions were engaged and he didn’t know what end was up. This farm, this family, it could have been his. One parent gone, the other making due as best as he-or she-could...
Iolaus licked his lips, nodded to himself and spoke.“Okay, you asked for it. No matter how hard you try, you’re _never_ gonna take that dead kid’s place! So the old man called you ‘Son’-- so what?! You’re not really his son! You can’t make up for killing that kid by stepping into his life!”
Hercules protested, even though the words had a ring of truth to them that he wanted to deny. “That’s not what I’m doing!”
Giving him a skeptical look, Iolaus countered, “Oh, really? Well, you could have fooled me--and maybe yourself.” Their discussion-fast becoming an argument-was interrupted by Jaris.
“Hercules, you better come outside!”
The two cadets followed the young boy out of the barn to find that the Lowacks were occupying the clearing between them and the house. Dageth, their leader, was looking around, a sneer on his lips.
“Now, this is _really_ nowhere. No wonder Bartoc couldn’t wait to get away from here--the place stinks.”
Iolaus crossed his arm, his whole demeanor going from concerned friend to cocky street punk. “Yeah, talk about stinks...you guys mind standing downwind a bit? I just had lunch.”
Hercules interrupted the posturing. “Cut to the chase, Dageth.”
The Lowack’s leader glanced at his backup and then turned his attention to Hercules. “Thought you might wanna know I got rival crews behind me, guys who would’ve cut each other’s hearts out a few days ago. But you’re our common cause, Hercules. Thanks to you we’re too big to stop.” He had the satisfaction of seeing Iolaus and Hercules glance at each other. One gang would be hard enough to stop, but multiple gangs would be impossible even for hardened warriors. The numbers would simply mow them down.
Jaris, forgotten in the moment, tugged at Hercules’ arm. “What’s going on, Hercules? You know who these guys are, don’t you?”
Dageth laughed. “You’d be Jaris, huh? Knew your brother, and just to show I’m righteous, I’m willing to cut you a break. Join up now and you won’t be hurt. You could even take your brother’s place with us.”
Jaris looked at Dageth, and then back at his new hero. “What’s he talking about, Hercules? You never saidanything about Bartoc being in a gang!”
Hercules placed a hand on the younger boy and gently pushed him in the direction of the barn. “Jaris, go to the barn-_now_.”
“What’s up, Hercules?” Dageth wasn’t willing to let a potential follower go so easily. “Don’t you think the kid has a right to hear this? Especially considering what you did to his big brother!” There was a rumbling of encouragement from the other Lowacks. Smelling blood, they suddenly were more vocal, more sure of themselves.
Dageth knew he’d scored a hit from the expression on Hercules’ face. “The way I see it you’re either with us or against us. Come sundown everyone against us dies.” He smiled, satisfied he’d made an impression on them. He turned and left, his gang on his heels like the good dogs they were.
Iolaus looked up at his friend. “As soon as it get’s dark, maybe we should try and sneak Jaris and his dad out of here.”
His expression a thundercloud ready to let loose, Hercules shook his head. “No. They’re safer here where we can watch out for them.”
“Hey! Hey!” Hercules had returned to the barn to see if Jaris was all right. He’d found the boy trying to heft a pitchfork bigger than himself. Hercules grabbed it before the boy could skewer himself and deftly twisted it out of his hands even as he grabbed Jaris around the waist to stop his head long charge out the doors.
“Let go of me!”
“Jaris-hey!” Hercules ducked a swinging fist. “What are you doing?!”
“They’re those guys my father ran off of the farm before! I heard what they said! They’re coming for us! I’m not a kid, anymore! I can help fight ‘em! It’s what Bartoc would have done!”
Hercules dropped the pitchfork and turned Jaris around so they were eye to eye. “Jaris, sometimes you have to fight, but you have to pick your time--and you’ve got to pick your place. You can’t be forced into it. Bartoc forgot that. That’s what got him killed.”
“So how did he really die? In a gang fight? Did Dageth do it?”
Hercules couldn’t look into those trusting eyes. “Jaris, go find your father. There’s some things I need to tell him.” He looked up to see that Iolaus had joined them.
“Um, Herc, maybe now’s not the time, huh?”
“No, I should have been honest from the start. I need to tell him what really happened.”
Hercules caught up to Jaris as he was beating two nefarious looking men with his staff. They weren’t putting up much of a fight by this time and were simply trying to block the blows and beg for mercy.
“Please! Don’t kill me! Look! I confess! Uh! I-I-I’m sorry! It was an accident!”
Jaris snarled and landed another blow. “Shut up! At least die like a man!” He pulled out a knife, once for eating, now ready to put it to another use.
Hercules shouted at him before he could strike. “Jaris! Put the knife down. Let him go!”
“Get out of here, Hercules! This has nothing to do with you!”
“Put the knife down.” Hercules grabbed Jaris’ wrist and wrested the knife from his grip. His friend’s next words caused him to let go and let Jaris escape.
“You’ll have to kill me to stop me. Wouldn’t that be funny? If that was the way it was supposed to happen all along?”
Hercules caught up with Jaris not long after that, determined to stop him no matter what memories Jaris’ words might conjure up. He found him in a deserted narrow street, not much wider than an alley way. Jaris sat on an upended barrel, cradling his head in his hands. He didn’t look up as the demigod approached, but simply gave a strangled laugh before he spoke.
“You should have thrown that knife through my heart.”
Hercules sighed. “No.You should listen to your heart. Listen to your brother, Bartoc. He’d tell you that killing isn’t the answer.”
Jaris looked up, his face streaked with tears. “Don’t you get it? There _is_ no answer. I’m a walking dead man!”
Hercules crouched in front of Jaris. “But you’re not dead yet. Every moment of life is precious. Spend it with your son. Spend it with the people who love you. Because of me, your brother never had that chance--but you have.”
Jaris looked away, one hand scrubbing at his wet face. “I’m afraid to die, Hercules.”
“We all are.”
“I can’t fight it, can I?”
“None of us can. Once we realize that--the hard part is over.” He ignored the fact that he fought it every time Iolaus had died. He didn’t have anything to hold over Hades that would force the god to release Jaris’ soul from death. His goal for now was to simply ease Jaris’ passing and make sure he ended up in the Elysian Fields and not Tartarus.
Jaris reached out tentatively and touched Hercules shoulder. “Will you tell my son about me, someday? And tell him his father loved him?”
“I will, my friend. I promise.”
Nehemia approached Hercules. “What’s the matter? Jaris said you wanted to see me.”
Hercules cleared his throat before speaking. While he normally could hem and haw with the best of them, he could on occasion be brutally abrupt, especially when there was little time to break the news gently. “Nehemiah, there’s a gang here. Bartoc was one of them. They attacked me. I was fighting them off. Bartoc died because I killed him. It-it was an accident.”
Nehemia sucked in air as if breaking the water’s surface at long last. “Ah-h! Ah-h-h-h! I-I trusted you! Took you under my roof! I treated you like family!”
Hercules wanted to look away, but forced himself to face the bereaved father like a man. “You have every right to be angry. I can’t bring Bartoc back. I’m sorry. But I need to get this out in the open--in case we don’t get through this one alive.”
Their conversation was interrupted by Iolaus, returning from his own spying mission on the enemy.“Herc! They’re coming.”
“Keep your eyes open! Don’t give ‘em a chance to slip through!”
“Torch this place and everyone in it! Make them beg for mercy!”
Hercules could hear the gang as they approached. Iolaus and Jaris were in the house, but Nehemia had insisted on remaining outside with the cadet to defend his home and family. The way he was wielding the pitchfork made Hercules suspect there was more to Nehemia’s past than that of a simple farmer.
The arrival of the small army Dageth had gathered was signaled by one of the members setting fire to a cart laden with hay. Kenickus pumped his arms into the air as if celebrating an early victory. “Burn, baby--burn!”
The sudden whoosh of flames into the night sky lit up the scene in garish red and orange light, making the moving forms seem sent straight from Tartarus. There was the sound of bowstrings and several arrows arced toward the house, fire blazing from their tips.
Hercules could hear Iolaus shouting inside to Jaris. “Jaris! Grab the bucket!” He almost broke for the house, instinct driving him to protect his best friend, but Chieron’s training held and he stayed with Nehemia, meeting the first of their attackers head on.
Asked later about the fight, Hercules would be hard put to remember what had exactly happened. Months of training took over, his moves now second nature. Always in the background though, was the reminder to pull his punches. He wanted to stop the gang members, not kill them.
It was Jaris who changed the game when he left the protection of Iolaus’ side and ran out of the house with a large knife, wanting revenge for his brother’s death on the gang who’d stolen Bartoc from them. He ended soon in the hands of Dageth, who easily knocked the knife from the boy’s hand.
“You had your chance with us, kid.”
Jaris struggled, but couldn’t free himself. “Father!”
Nehemia took a step toward his captured son, but stopped as the gang leader held a knife to the boy’s throat. “Jar-i-i-i-is! No-o-o-o!”
Hercules tossed the hoodlum he’d been swinging around to the side, effectively taking out the three goons the gang member landed on. “Come and pick on somebody your own size, Dageth.”
Dageth snarled at his hated enemy. Eager to end Hercules’ life, he shoved Jaris aside. “You’re dead meat!”
Kenickus started to join Dageth as he stalked towards the demigod. “Rip his heart out!”
Iolaus had joined the group in pursuit of Jaris. Forgotten by the other gang members, he stepped forward and grabbed their second in command. “Hey, Kenickus! Play nice.” He followed his words with two quick jabs with his fists that sent the taller man to his knees, gasping for breath.
Hercules took note in the back of his mind that his partner was fine and still on his feet even as he adjusted his balance to be ready for the Lowack leader’s charge. The first strike was easily evaded. “Come on, Dageth! Is that all you got?! Come on!” He goaded the gang leader as he had Bartoc, but this time it wasn’t a game. There was no doubt Dageth was going to try to kill him, and no doubt in Hercules’ mind that he was going to stop him.
“Get him, Herc!” Iolaus’ encouragement rang in his ears as the two fainted and danced around each other until finally Dageth’s over confidence got the better of him. He swung too wide and Hercules was there inside his guard, too close for him to get the demigod on a back swing.
Hercules’ hands closed on his arm and there was a sickening crack as bones were broken. Dageth cried out in pain and went to his knees.
“You’re finished, Dageth!” A knee met Dageth’s jaw and he slumped to the ground, all the fight truly knocked out of him. As if on cue, the other members began to fade back into the night, only a few bothering to take the fallen with them. Hercules began to truss up the ones left behind for the magistrate to take care of when morning came. Soon Nehemia and Iolaus were joining him, working in silence.
A day later found Hercules finishing up the repairs to Jaris’ tree house. A fire arrow had hit the wood and it had nearly destroyed one wall before they could get the flames out. He looked at the mismatched wood and then at Jaris. “It won’t be the same.”
“It looks good to me. Thanks, Hercules.”
They both looked up as Nehemiah and Iolaus joined them. Iolaus was carrying a small sack filled with some bread and cheese that the farmer had insisted they take on their trip to Hercules’ home. “Time to hit the road, Herc.”
Hercules nodded. Turning to Jaris, he offered his hand. “Goodbye, Jaris.”
As the boy took it, he told his father, “Tell him.”
Nehemiah looked at his feet, then finally nodded to himself and looked up at the cadet. “Hercules, I just want to thank you for-for saving Jaris from the gang. And, uh--maybe I can be a better father to him than I was to Bartoc.”
Hercules nodded, then held out his hand. Nehemiah took it in a warrior’s grip, confirming Hercules’ speculations that the farmer had been a warrior in his youth. Without a word, Hercules turned and began his journey home, Iolaus falling in step beside him.
Kaia stood next to Hercules, holding Jaris’ son as she looked down on the wooden carved grave marker. “Goodbye, Jaris.”
Hercules took a big breath and let it out, muttering a platitude that did little to end the ache in his heart over another lost friend. “He’s with his brother and his father now.” He felt Iolaus’ hand on his arm, a comforting presence at his side.
Kaia smiled. “I know. Come in, both of you. Have something to eat with us, Hercules.”
“No, no, thank you. We need to get going. But maybe if you could spare something for the road, we’d, uh, appreciate it.You, uh--you go on. I’ll--I’ll be along.” He gently pushed Iolaus after Kaia, watching the two disappear inside the house, but not before Iolaus looked back, clearly warning him that he’d better not stay too long. He looked down at the newly turned earth. He cleared his throat as if to say something, but the words died before they could be spoken.
“What’s wrong, Herc?” Hercules started and looked about, deja vu setting in. He remembered sitting on that limb hanging over where Jaris and his family were buried. He could almost see a much younger version of himself there. The boy who’d come to bring a man his dead son’s body and left a man himself, having learned the price of his strength and the responsibility that went with it.
Hercules looked down at the graves. “This makes two people I’ve buried here--both too young.”
He could almost hear his younger self answer. “But you were there for Jaris when he needed you. You have nothing to blame yourself for this time.”
Hercules gave a bitter smile. “I still can’t help feeling guilty.”
“With time and understanding those feelings will fade.”
Hercules nodded, adding, “But never completely. We have both learned a lot along the way.”
“Well, ya’ gotta live and learn.”
“Yeah. It’s too bad--some of the biggest lessons we learn involve losing people we love.” He looked back up at the tree, the image of his younger self wavering in his sight. And he heard the echo of those words he’d spoken to Iolaus on the road back to the Academy that day, long ago.
“They’re never really gone, right? ‘Cause they’re part of us--always.”
Hercules nodded. “Hmm. Always.”
He looked up at the touch on his shoulder. Iolaus had returned, his carry sack bulging with supplies Kaia had given him. He was eying Hercules with concern. “Hey-you know, Jaris isn’t really gone. He’s still a part of us.”
“Well, I can’t take credit for them. I seem to remember being told the same thing by a much younger you. You just looked like you needed to be reminded.”
“You believe that, don’t you-that they’re still with us? Everyone...?“ Hercules’ voice trailed off. He was remembering more than just Jaris now.
“I don’t just believe it, buddy. I know it.” Iolaus clapped him on the arm and moved off down the road away from Jaris’ home, stopping only long enough for Hercules to catch up.
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