Disclaimer: Hercules and it's character's aren't mine. That should be painfully obvious. From this fun little angst fest I make no money. So please, dahak, don't sue.
Posted with care and permission from the author.
Iolaus sat in the far corner of a small tavern, nursing a mug of ale. He was doing his best not to think, but the ale wasn't numbing his thoughts as he had hope it would. Downing the last of the bitter brew, he stood. He glanced around the dim interior, paid his tab, and walked through the maze of tables and left.
He never saw the hooded stranger with dark eyes that watched him. No one could see the solitary figure as he also stood and followed the retreating figure out of the tavern and into the still night. He observed Iolaus silently from a discrete distance, although he knew he was in no danger of being detected.
A small stream wound a path around one edge of the small village of Delius. The moon shone down, reflecting off the running water and the golden hair of the figure that sat beside it. After leaving the tavern, Iolaus sought to find a place to spend the night away from the pressing crowds of the tavern. For some time, he sat in the moonlight, unmoving, his gaze sweeping across the expanse of stars above.
Rubbing his hands over his face, he fought against the memories that taunted him. Standing, he struggled to shake off the dark thoughts, and searched the clearing for wood to build a fire. It took only a few minutes to collect the wood, and soon a blazing fire lit up the clearing. The crackling of the twigs broke the silence of the endless night, while smoke drifted up into the sky slowly.
An unnatural lack of hunger had plagued the hunter since he had separated from Hercules. He was relieved to have not run into anyone who knew him well, for they might see what he feared must show on his face. Even Iolaus recognized it took something remarkable to drive away not only his laughter, but his appetite as well.
Staring into the flames that flickered, bewitching, mere inches from his face, Iolaus was able to see the fight that had led to his flight from Hercules as if it were happening again right in front of him.
A small band led by a ruthless warlord had been terrorizing the village of Ampheria for weeks when a young boy escaped to seek the help of the legendary Hercules. Two days later, they arrived in the village, leaving their young guide far away and safe. Walking on the main street into town had been like entering a ghost town.
"Hello?" Iolaus called out, placing his hands on his hips and looking around the deserted street. His instincts were on alert, awaiting the first sign of a possible attack. Pulling his sword from it's sheath, he continued to scan the area.
Beside him, Hercules said "I think I know where someone is," motioning toward a building on the far side of the village. He began walking toward the healer's hut, however just before he reached the small building, a cry echoed through the village.
Both Hercules and Iolaus' attention snapped toward the direction of the noise. In the instant it would have taken to blink, the road filled with a score of rough looking men.
The one standing nearest Iolaus grinned, revealing several missing teeth. "Hey guys, look at the little pretty boy! Why, I'd say his sword was bigger than he was!" The thugs standing nearby joined in his laughter, the stale sound echoing as Iolaus rolled his eyes.
"Do all roughnecks read the same books, Herc?" he asked, glancing at his friend with a wry grin. "I mean, always with the same insults!" Throwing his hands up in mock exacerbation, he launched himself toward the two men closest to him. Fists and feet flying, the gap-tooth with the stale humor was the first to fall, senseless, to the street.
In the minutes that followed, Hercules and Iolaus fought against the steadily increasing odds. An exhilarated grin lit Iolaus' features as he matched sword strokes with one of the remaining fighters. A glance toward Hercules revealed the larger man's back as he tossed a scrawny mercenary across the open area.
They had defeated all but three of the men when their luck changed. The leader stepped out from a shadowed walkway where Iolaus couldn't see. Hercules, his attention focused on the fighter in front of him, was unable to warn the able warrior before the warlord grabbed him from behind. Iolaus reached for the arm that held a knife to his throat, but stilled when the blade tightened.
"I wouldn't do that little man, you're not the one I want." His foul breath whispered hot against Iolaus' ear, and Iolaus fought the urge to shudder in repulsion. "Hey, big guy," his captor called out, more loudly. "Look-y what I got here."
Dispatching the last man in the street, Hercules turned as he tossed the man aside, paying little attention as he dropped unconscious in the street. He paused, seeing the source of the voice that had called out to him, and not wanting to provoke him into action. The distraction worked, and Iolaus' suddenly widening eyes were Hercules' only warning before he felt a blossoming pain engulf his shoulder.
Time slowed as Iolaus watched in horror as his friend's knees gave was and he slid bonelessly to the ground. Uncaring of anything other than reaching his fallen comrade's side, Iolaus turned on his would be captor. A moment later, the man lay unconscious and his remaining able-bodied followers fled the village.
Outrage and adrenaline faded, and shock and concern took their place as Iolaus ran over to Hercules' side. "Herc?" he asked, his voice broken. Dropping onto his knees, he placed a hesitant hand to his throat scared as to what he might find. He nearly sobbed with relief when he felt a steady rhythm beneath his fingers.
"Come on, buddy. Give me a sign here," he said to himself, before shifting to look at his back. What color remained on his features fled when he saw where the arrow had torn into Hercules' back. The wound was red and swollen, leaving no question that the arrow had been poisoned.
It wasn't long after the bandits fled that the villagers slowly began to emerge from their hiding places. In just a few moments, the street was bustling with activity. From the crowds a tall gray haired man walked hesitantly over to the fallen demigod.
Uneasy, Iolaus looked worriedly at the man, and placed himself between him and Hercules. Seeing Iolaus' reaction, he explained, "My name is Tarkus, I'm a healer."
Iolaus nodded shortly, and moved aside enough to allow Tarkus to quickly examine Hercules. By the time Tarkus assembled a small group of men to move Hercules into the healer's hut, Iolaus was in a daze, and merely followed closely behind.
Once inside, Tarkus instructed the men to place Hercules on a cot in the back room, and dismissed them. Positioning him on his good side, facing the wall, he set to work removing the arrow. Iolaus, concern etched on his face, stood at the foot of the bed and watched as Tarkus extracted the arrow as gently as possible.
Even though Hercules was unconscious, Iolaus could see the pain that was drawn onto his features. With Hercules' every involuntary flinch, a flare of guilt shone in Iolaus' soft blue eyes.
While the healer worked to make a poultice for the wound, Iolaus began to pace around the cramped back room. He only stilled his restless movements when they earned him an annoyed look from Tarkus. Running his fingers through his tangled locks, he mumbled an incoherent apology and dropped into a nearby chair.
Iolaus hadn't realized he had fallen asleep until Tarkus shook him awake. He jumped up at the insistent shanking on his shoulder. "Your friend sleeps," he whispered, looking into the weary blue eyes that met his gaze.
Iolaus glanced over at the cot where Hercules lay, suddenly completely awake, Iolaus asked "Will he be okay?"
He didn't realize he was holding his breath, anticipating Tarkus' response, until the older man answered him. "Yes, I believe so. Plenty of rest and the right medicines and he'll be fine." Iolaus' eyes brightened at the words, and Tarkus found himself regarding the young man before him. Yes, he will be fine. You, you I'm not so sure about he added silently.
"What kind of poison was it?"
Iolaus' question shook Tarkus from his observation. "Something quite similar to morphia, only much more potent and faster acting. He was lucky, the regular antidote, in a larger amount, worked well."
Iolaus nodded, thankful for the positive news. "Can I see him?"
Tarkus nodded and stood. Reaching for a curtain, he pulled on the material that divided the room. "I'll leave you alone. Call me if anything changes." With that, Tarkus disappeared into the outer room.
Iolaus' tired muscles protested the move, but he ignored the pains in his haste to check on his best friend. He needed to know that Hercules was truly on the way to recovery. Settling down on the floor next to Hercules, he looked at the paled features and couldn't help the pang of responsibility he felt.
Closing his eyes, he sighed, "I'm sorry, Herc." Iolaus opened his eyes, searching Hercules' face for any sign of movement. "This is all my fault." Laying his head down on the edge of the cot, Iolaus sought to bury the surge of emotion that filled his heart. Pushing it away to be dealt with at another time, he closed his eyes and was soon fast asleep.
This time, instead of Tarkus insistent shaking, Iolaus was awakened by a large hand on top of his head, tangling in his curls. Managing to sit up straight, his bleary eyes managed to focus on Hercules' half opened eyes. "Herc?"
A faint smile touched Hercules' lips, as he managed to rasp out, "You okay?"
A million comebacks sprang into Iolaus' mind, but instead he settled on "Yeah, I'm fine. You were the one who was shot."
Hercules' grin grew. "Oh. Oh yeah." Even with his friend in a weakened state, Iolaus didn't miss the mischievous glint in Hercules' eyes. "So, does this mean I get to have you wait on me?"
"Just you wait, buddy. I'll have you begging for me to leave you alone," Iolaus responded dryly, humor glinting in his eyes.
Hercules closed his eyes, muttering, "Somehow I doubt it."
By the time Hercules was well enough for the two of them to leave Ampheria, Hercules had in fact grown tired of Iolaus constantly playing the mother hen, and in the end told him so.
"Herc, you need the help. So stop complaining and let me help you," the smaller man countered. "Its payback time for every time you acted liked this when I was hurt," he added, managing a cocky grin. Even though he felt anything but cocky. In fact, the fight had again put a chink in the armor he had spent years constructing around the insecurities he carried within his heart.
Hercules saw the shadow that passed through Iolaus' azure eyes, the long looks had been growing more and more noticeable. As a result, he didn't argue as he might have. "Okay, I give up. However, we need to get started if we're going to make it to Mother's before dark."
Iolaus nodded, but when they reached the crossroads before Alcmene's house, he had begged off continuing on with Hercules. Saying something about checking on his house, he headed off in the opposite direction. Eventually, he recalled, the road had led him here to Delius.
Tossing restlessly, Iolaus shivered despite the warmth of the fire. After leaving Hercules at the crossroads, he had walked endlessly seeking space, even though he hated the solitude.
His hunter's instincts alerted him to something, although when he glanced around he didn't see anything. He had just stood up when a brilliant flash of light nearly blinded him.
"Hades," he gasped.
"Hello, Iolaus. It's been a while," Hades responded, lowering the hood of his cloak as he spoke.
Iolaus shook his head as if to clear it. "I'm not dead, so . . . What do you want with me?"
Hades smiled. "I've come to offer you a deal, Iolaus."
"Deal?" he questioned, uncertain of the god that stood before him. "What kind of deal?"
"Just something Zeus and I worked out. You're life, for Hercules' guaranteed safety." The pale god took a step toward Iolaus, who in turn backed away, eyeing Hades warily.
Iolaus, his mouth hanging open, paused to stare at the god in shock, the magnitude of the deal finally sinking in. "Why?" he asked, the word more a breath of air than an actual word.
Laughing coldly, Hades commented, "How often do we give reasons?" When Iolaus remained silent, Hades pressed on. "Right. So? Are you the big-hearted mortal you claim to be? Is Hercules worth it?"
"Well, yeah. Of course . . ."
"Exactly," Hades agreed. "And after that last stunt . . . Don't you think this deal works out well both ways? Good ole Herc is safe from the world, and," Hades stressed, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "he's safe from you as well."
Iolaus' eyes widened, and he wearily dropped onto the ground next to the fire. "Safe from me," he repeated softly. Again memories of their last fight came to mind. "Won't Herc wonder?"
Hades shook his head, looking down at the seated mortal. "Zeus is going to explain it to him. He'll be grateful."
Iolaus looked up and met Hades gaze. "He'll be angry," Iolaus countered, his voice strong.
Kneeling in front of Iolaus, Hades disagreed. "Hercules will understand."
Still not convinced, but with the memories still burning in his eyes, he looked at Hades closely. "You swear?" Hades nodded shortly. "Okay," Iolaus whispered. "For his safety, I'll do it."
Hades smiled. "I knew you would understand reason."
"Go ahead, do it. But tell Hercules that I'm sorry. That I hope he forgives me."
"Sure, I'll make sure he finds out you're sorry, but I can't do it. You have to."
Iolaus paled, "I do?" Hades again merely nodded, not saying anything. "How?"
Reaching forward, Hades pulled Iolaus' dagger from its sheath, and presented the handle to Iolaus. "Plunge this into your chest."
Iolaus' gaze glanced back and forth between the knife and Hades' expectant face. Taking the handle, he nodded. His gaze leaving Hades' face for the last time, he missed the sadistic, triumphant grin that erupted there as he stabbed himself with the very blade that he and Hercules had forged in friendship.
As his dark life's blood flowed out, mixing with the stream and tainting it pink, Hades pulled a dark blue opaque stone from his robes. As he held it over the dying man, it began to glow with a steady hum.
Minutes later, Iolaus lay completely still and the tall god stood and began to laugh evilly. If Iolaus had been able to look up, he would have not seen the solemn features of the god of the underworld looking at him. Instead, he would have seen Ares' dark hate-filled gaze.
Helios' chariot was high in a cerulean blue sky as Alcmene approached where Hercules was working. It had been two days since he and Iolaus had separated at the crossroads, and Hercules had spent much of his time working on several of the chores Jason hadn't finished.
Hearing his mother's quiet approach, he stopped what he was doing and turned. "Thought you might like something to drink," she said with a warm smile. Smiling in return, he took the offered glass of lemonade. "I really do wish you wouldn't work so hard, Hercules."
"Mother, I told you, I'm fine. I like to help out when I'm home, give you and Jason a hand. He may have been a fine king, but his fence work needs help," he added with a laugh.
"Hercules," she admonished with a laugh. "Well, then again," she snuck a look at the fence, "you might be onto something there." Hercules finished the lemonade and handed her the glass. After a pause, Alcmene continued, softly, "Well. Either way, I am your mother, Hercules. And with that comes worrying about you. I've seen your back. That was quite recent, wasn't it?"
"Yes," he nodded. "Not long before Iolaus and I split up, actually."
Alcmene took a seat on a nearby bench. Piles of flower bulbs needing to be planted lay at her feet, and she began to sort through the colorful bulbs. "That's another thing I wanted to talk to you about." She looked up and saw the confusion on Hercules' face, and she motioned for him to take a seat next to her.
Hercules walked across the garden, and took the seat next to his mother. Still curious about her comment, he asked, "Why is that, Mother?"
Alcmene's expressive blue eyes searched those of her son's. "It's not something I can explain, Hercules. It's just a feeling I have. About Iolaus."
A half smile broke on Hercules' face, and he placed a hand on Alcmene's arm. "Iolaus is fine," he said comfortingly. He laughed, adding, "He's probably found some young woman that struck his eye. Nothing worth worrying over. He'll be back when he's ready."
Alcmene laughed softly, the musical notes carrying on the wind. "You're probably right. However, he's as much my son as you are. So my right to worry still applies."
"I'm sure he's fine."
"I hope so," she said. Hercules stood, and smiled, giving Alcmene a kiss on the cheek. "Now, about these chores you seem to like so much," she smiled, a mischievous glint in her eyes.
"The things I volunteer for," he muttered under his breath.
Playing along, she asked, "What was that, Hercules?"
"Oh, nothing. I live but to serve. Now, show me these chores."
Over the next few days, Alcmene's unease continued to grow, instead of abating. Several times she had caught herself looking down the road toward Iolaus' house. However, not once did she see the object of her search. Every once in a while, she would ask Hercules about Iolaus' continued absence.
Alcmene stood in the kitchen, flour wafting through the air as she readied a loaf of bread for the oven. Wiping her hands on her apron, Alcmene turned to look out the window. In the time since she had spoken to Hercules about her concerns, she had found herself often standing at the kitchen window.
Seeing Hercules watching her, she turned back to the dough on the table. She had just placed it on to cook when Hercules walked into the house. "Mother, what were you looking for just now?"
Alcmene took off her apron, and laid it on the counter. Checking on the stew, she paused before answering Hercules' question. She turned to look up at her tall son, "Not what, Hercules. Who. I know you're not concerned about Iolaus, but I am. And, I can tell by the how you're acting that something's happened."
"Mother . . ."
Alcmene raised her hand, wanting Hercules to hear her out. "That's not what matter's right now. Something's not right, I can feel it. I think you should go find him."
"I can't," he almost whispered.
"Hercules?" she asked, walking toward him.
He held his hand up, and Alcmene paused. "I'll tell you about it sometime, okay?" Alcmene nodded, and Hercules walked back outside into the darkening night.
Nothing was mentioned of their conversation again until late the next evening. Alcmene found Hercules' sitting on her bench in the garden, looking across the moonlit blossoms. Sitting next to him, she looked at his face with concern. "Want to talk about it?"
Hercules started, glancing down at his mother with a small grin. Rubbing a large hand across his handsome features, he sighed. "I think he just needs some space."
Alcmene remained silent, waiting for Hercules' to open up to her as he always did. She wasn't surprised when he continued. "We were in a fight with some bandits. Nothing out of the ordinary. Iolaus was grabbed from behind. The leader used him as bait to distract me. That's when I was shot, when I was paying attention to them. I don't know how he got away, but when I woke up he was asleep beside me."
Alcmene's soft features had grown pale, her eyes sad. "And poor Iolaus feels guilty."
Hercules' gaze shot to meet his mother's. "Guilty? What in Tartarus for? He's the reason I made it at all."
Softly, Alcmene tried to explain how Iolaus was bound to see it. "That's not what he'll remember, Hercules. Try and see it from his point of view. In his mind, he was the reason you were hit in the first place."
"How . . ."
"He was, as you put it," she concluded, "the bait."
Realization began to dawn in Hercules' eyes, and as Alcmene watched, she could see his concern grow. "You don't think . . ." he said, his voice rough.
"Go find him, Hercules." Placing her hand on his arm, she gave it a reassuring squeeze. "Make sure he knows how much we all need him. If I know him, he needs a friend more than he realizes."
Nodding, he replied, "I'll check his house first, maybe there'll be a clue there."
Alcmene smiled, "In the morning."
"But . . ."
She shook her head, "You'll need the light. I'll fix you a carry sack."
Hercules smiled at his mother warmly. "Thank you."
Early the next morning, the first rays of sunlight were beginning to flicker into Alcmene's home when Hercules was readying to leave. They had just walked into the sitting room when the front door was pushed open suddenly.
"Alc . . ." Jason, having just rushed in the room, stopped in mid word. He paled at seeing Hercules, and paused as if unsure what to say. "Hercules . . . What are you doing here? I thought you would be in Delius."
"Jason, I . . ."
"Haven't you heard?"
Hercules froze, every instinct screaming that he didn't want to know. His eyes grew large, his nervousness showing. "Heard what?" he asked, his voice almost cracking.
Jason watched the emotions that played across Hercules' features. He was suddenly aware that Hercules didn't know. "I'm sorry, Hercules."
Alcmene paled, and Hercules tightened his grip on the carry sack that was in his hand. "Word reached the palace in the middle of the night. I rushed here after I heard. Iolaus was found dead outside of Delius."
His eyes widened as the color drained from Hercules face. "No, there's some mistake," he said, his voice hard as steel.
"Hercules . . ." Alcmene tried to comfort him.
Lost in his shock, he shook off her offered touch. "No. Not Iolaus. It's not fair. I should have been there . . ." Shaking his head, his unbelieving eyes sought out Jason. "Where is he?"
"Still in Delius," Jason replied. His dark eyes softened at seeing Hercules so upset.
In an instant, Hercules was walking through the door "I'm going after him. I have to bring him home," he added the latter more as an afterthought.
"I'll go with you," Jason said, walking toward Hercules.
"No," he replied, "you stay here with Mother." He turned in the doorway, walking away, he added over his shoulder, "This is something I have to do alone."
Along the road to Delius, Hercules paid little mind to the few travelers he met on the way. He felt as if his heart had grown still, and his mind was lost in thought far away. He was brought out of one stream of thought when he nearly collided with an older woman.
"Excuse me," he muttered absently, continuing on his way.
The woman, however, stopped where she was. "You're Hercules," she said, pointing a frail finger toward his back.
He paused and looked over his shoulder. "Yeah, I'm Hercules."
"You have to help my village." She grabbed onto his tunic, excitedly. "Bandits kept attacking. Many of us were forced to leave!"
Hercules looked at the woman sadly. On the surface, he was torn, but in his heart there was only one true course for him. Finding Iolaus was the only thing that mattered. Not meeting her eyes, he mumbled an apology and continued on his way.
Left standing alone in the middle of the road, the woman reached out as if to stop him, but dropped her hand. Reaching inside her coat, she pulled out a glowing blue crystal. The blue glow cast an eerie light on her face as she began to laugh maniacally just as Hercules walked out of hearing distance.
Suddenly a brilliant white flash filled the road, and in the place of the old rag worn woman stood the leather clad god of war. Still holding the stone, he gazed down at it. "So, dear brother, you've heard about Blondie's little accident, have you?" Ares looked down the road in the direction Hercules' had just traveled. "Go ahead, run along to Delius. You won't find what you want."
With a flash of light, Ares disappeared and the road was again empty.
Meanwhile, Hercules had long forgotten the woman who had cost him precious moments in his quest to reach Iolaus. Instead, he found himself thinking about the time after the last fight with the bandits in Ampheria. Closing his eyes briefly, he could see the look on Iolaus' face when the leader held the blade against his throat.
In the clear blue eyes that found his after he turned, Hercules could read the acceptance that Iolaus found in his own fate. It was also where he saw the utter horror at the opportunity provided for the archer to strike out at Hercules. After a lifetime, he had seen every expression imaginable in those eyes. He could just never imagine them emotionless and dead. Not Iolaus, whose eyes shone with light and laughter.
Hercules placed a hand to his eyes, fighting down the surge of emotion he felt burning behind his eyes. Dropping his hand, he scanned the area around him and pressed onward, eager to reach Darius by nightfall.
The last streaks of pink were fading in the west when Hercules' tired form walked up the road and into Darius. Looking around, he decided that the healer's hut would be the best place to ask about the whereabouts of his friend.
Switching his carry sack over to his left shoulder, he knocked solidly on the door and waited. Moments later, a portly, balding man pulled the door open. "Yea'?"
Hercules went to speak, but found his voice not wanting to cooperate. Forcing the words past a lump in his throat, he managed to say "I'm looking for a friend."
The man pulled the door open a bit and allowed Hercules inside. "Come in out of the cold, son." Once Hercules was in the small hut, the man continued. "So, what is the name of this friend of yours? Why do you think he might be here?"
Hercules sighed, his voice a mere whisper that mingled with the crackling of the wood in the fire. "His name's Iolaus."
The man paled a bit, "Are you Hercules?" When he nodded, the man pulled on a crude pair of glasses and continued. "I'm sorry, son. We found him yesterday morning, out by the river."
"Can I see him?" Hercules voice rasped.
Nodding, the man replied, "Right this way. Name's Quantos, by the way. I'm the healer around this area." He motioned toward the back room, and walked as Hercules followed closely behind.
"Thank you," his face pale, Hercules added, "Quantos. I appreciate your keeping the, uh . . ." Reaching the curtained doorway, he paused, not wanting to see beyond the curtain. Shaking his head, he forced the words from his lips. "The body. I appreciate your letting me come and take him home."
Quantos smiled sadly. "It was the least I could do, Hercules." Holding the curtain out of the way, he pointed. "He's right in there. I'll be out in the main room. Let me know when you're ready to go. If you'd like, I'll bring a cot for you to sleep on."
Hercules looked at Quantos. He longed to be ignorant of the reality in the next room. Vaguely he nodded. "Thanks," he managed a hoarse whisper.
Hercules blinked, and the next thing he knew, Quantos was gone. Suddenly a day's worth of doubts crashed down around him. The end of his quest, the last of his false hope was in the next room. Taking a deep breath, he held the curtain aside and ducked into the room.
What he saw before him caused his knees to buckle. On a cot in the very back of the room was Iolaus, looking as though he was merely sleeping. With a strength barely known to the demigod, Hercules managed to take the few steps that led him to the bedside of his dearest friend.
Hercules cringed at seeing the hasty bandage that covered the livid wound in Iolaus' chest. He could tell it was a simple act of dignity provided by the small village's healer.