The pair disappeared from sight just as her last words breathed into the room.
Sometime later, Hercules was awakened from his fatigued sleep by a movement beneath his arm. He forced his eyes to focus and looked to see what had woke him up. His breath caught in his throat when he saw Iolaus’ chest rise ever so slightly. He reached out a shaking hand to feel Iolaus’ throat for a pulse.
He stifled a cry of exhilaration at finding a steady beat beneath his fingertips. He moved his hand from Iolaus’ throat, and pulled the smaller man to his chest in a crushing hug. Hercules didn’t let go until he heard a faint voice.
“Herc?” the question was more a breath of air than a voice, but as Hercules pulled back, it didn’t matter. Iolaus’ hazy blue eyes blinked slowly when he saw the tears that filled his best friend’s eyes. “Wha’ wrong?” Iolaus managed to rasp.
A large grin on his face, Hercules captured Iolaus in another hug. “Everything’s perfect,” he choked out.
“Oh, good,” Iolaus said, and then promptly passed out.
Hercules stiffened, scared for an instant he had lost Iolaus again. However, after he leaned him back down onto the bed, his fear abated when he saw the slow, steady breathing. “Go ahead and sleep, my friend.”
The next morning, Hercules awoke Alcmene and Jason with the good news. He laughed when his mother cried and gave him and excited hug. Jason smiled, but looked at Hercules and asked, “How did it happen?”
Hercules shook his head. “I’m not sure. Aphrodite said if the stone cracked, he would be lost forever. And, after Ares managed to crack it, the crystal’s glowing stopped. Then, late last night, he was breathing. I don’t understand it.”
“Aphrodite, maybe?” Jason asked.
“Nah, not her department. Besides, she likes to make herself known when she helps out.”
“What about Zeus?” Alcmene asked tentatively.
Again, Hercules shook his head. “Not a chance. He’s alive, that’s what counts!” The grin that filled Hercules features was contagious and soon each of the three was smiling joyfully, spinning his mother in his arms.
The rest of the day didn’t go as well. Just after noon, Jason left to fetch the healer. As the morning had progressed, Iolaus had developed a fever that continued to climb. His pale features only served to highlight the darkening rings under his eyes, and chills racked his frame. Iolaus’ pulse began to race, while his breathing slowed to a dangerous rate.
At first Hercules had paced, casting concerned looks in Iolaus’ direction. However, as his condition worsened, he resorted to pleading with his best friend.
“Come on, Iolaus. You’ve come so far. You can’t give up now.” He reached up and brushed a sweat soaked lock of hair away from Iolaus face, fighting the fear that surged within his heart. In such a short time he had lost Iolaus twice, he would go to Tartarus and back to keep from losing him again, he swore to himself silently.
“It won’t come to that, Hercules.”
Hercules jumped at the voice, and turned quickly to see his uncle standing in the room. “Hades. I won’t let you have him,” his voice was quiet, but spoke with a conviction of solid rock.
Hades sighed, “Don’t you ever listen? I just told you, it won’t come to that.”
Hercules sat back down, “Then why are you here?”
“Persephone asked me to come and speak to you.”
“Are you the one who saved him?” Hercules asked, uncertain.
Hades nodded, “That’s right. It wasn’t his time. Ares was in the wrong on this one.” He carefully avoided mentioning his disagreement with Persephone the night before. “His illness is a result of being locked in the crystal. The effects are made worse because of its being cracked.”
“Aphrodite said that if it was cracked Iolaus would be lost.”
Nodding, Hades continued, “Usually yes. In fact, this is a first.”
“Thank you,” Hercules breathed.
“Don’t thank me yet, Hercules. Your friend’s recovery will be a long one. He might live to regret it yet.”
Hercules shook his head while looking over at Iolaus flushed face. “Never.”
“As it is, he was strong before. There’s nothing to keep him from surviving the after effects. Just treat the symptoms as you would any other time. I do believe your friend, Jason is almost back with the healer.”
Hercules nodded. “Iolaus is strong. He’ll pull through.” After a pause he added to himself, “He has to.”
A few moments of silence later, Hades said, “I have to go. Take care of your friend, Hercules.” With a flash, the dark god was gone.
Through the following days, Iolaus’ fever raged. During one particularly bad spike, they resorted to immersing him in an ice water bath. Hercules lifted the shivering body of his friend from the water and carried him back into the bedroom. Placing his precious burden down onto the bed and pulling the covers up to his chin, he sat beside the bed and continued to wait.
Alcmene made numerous herbal teas that both she and Hercules struggled to make Iolaus drink. The days drug out into a week and Hercules was beginning to fear that Hades had been wrong. Each time his fever would spike, Hercules would want to hold his breath. Pleading both silently and aloud with his dearest friend to not leave him.
Hercules turned from where he was looking out the window at the sound of Iolaus’ scratchy voice. “Iolaus?”
The blonde hunter managed a half grin and whispered, “I feel awful, Herc.”
“Well, you don’t look so good either, buddy,” Hercules ribbed.
“Gee, thanks, buddy,” Iolaus stressed the last word and rolled his fever-glazed eyes.
Hercules tore his eyes away from the sight of Iolaus awake to reach of a mug of tea that sat on the table next to the bed. “Here, drink this.” He held the glass up to Iolaus’ lips and waited for him to drink.
After taking a sip, Iolaus whined, “Ah, yuck, Herc. What’s in that anyway?” But in the end, a look from Hercules convinced him to finish the stout medicine.
Worn out from the effort to sit up to drink the tea, Iolaus slumped back onto the bed. “I hope the hydra that did this is in a lot of pain right about now.”
Hercules smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah, something like that,” he whispered. His thoughts, while elated at Iolaus’ recovery, were concentrated on his conversation with his mother and then later Aphrodite.
Hercules knew that he would have to speak with Iolaus about what had happened. But for the moment, he was content with knowing that his brother was safe. Looking into Iolaus' eyes, which were heavy with sleep, he smiled, this one reaching his eyes.
Iolaus was home where he belonged.
Over the next few days, Iolaus continued to recover slowly. His fever had stopped spiking, and he was able to stay awake for longer and longer periods of time. During that time, it was rare for Hercules to be more than a room away. He brought Iolaus' meals, and forced what to Iolaus felt like several gallons of medicine down his throat.
As time went on, Iolaus began to grow restless. He was never a good patient, but the extended time in bed was beginning to drive him slowly mad.
"Herc! Hey, Herc!" Iolaus was sitting up in the bed, several pillows piled up behind him.
Hercules ducked his head into the room. "Yes, master?"
Iolaus put on his best pitiful face. "I'm bored, and you keep mothering me. Come on, mom. Can I go out and play?"
Hercules crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorway. "So you're bored. Tell me something new. And as for my mothering you. That's what you get for how you acted in Ampheria."
A flash of guilt flared in Iolaus' eyes, and Hercules immediately regretted his words. Covering for his mistake, he added. "I mean, after I woke up you drove me crazy for days mothering me." Iolaus nodded, but some of the initial doubt remained. "Iolaus . . ."
Shaking his head, Iolaus did his best to change the subject. "So, has your mom been working you hard?"
Hercules nodded his head, not missing Iolaus' ploy to distraction. "Not too hard," he replied.
The conversation continued for a little while, but Hercules noted that Iolaus' heart didn't seem to be in it. The spark had faded in his eyes earlier and not returned. For his part, Iolaus' mind was reflecting back onto what had occurred in Ampheria. The doubts that had led to his departure, and subsequent death burned in his heart. The memory of Hercules collapsing to the ground had yet to fade.
He had stayed silent as Hercules related what happened after Iolaus had accepted Hades offer that evening. He couldn't help but feel like a fool for falling into Ares' trap. As a result, Iolaus found himself still wondering if he hadn't been right to leave in the first place. No matter how upset Hercules might be.
One morning, when Iolaus was well on the road to recovery, he pulled on his purple vest and leather pants and slowly made his way out to Alcmene's gardens. Taking a seat on a bench, he closed his eyes, enjoying the feeling of the sun on his face and the fresh air being outdoors provided. He knew the time to decide on his future had come. He could stay, and continue on with Hercules, with all the threats that might bring. Or he could leave and protect Hercules, although he would be alone.
His heart breaking, he stood, having made his decision. Enough of his doubt remained to make his choice for him. Pausing to take a deep breath, he walked slowly out of the garden and down the road away from Alcmene's. Away from Hercules and the life he had known. All the while, working to convince himself it was for the best, not letting himself look back.
Alcmene was cooking in the kitchen when she glance up to look out the window. From where she stood she could see someone walking down the dirt path that led to the house. A closer look revealed that it wasn't someone walking toward the house, but away. Realization brought panic as she yelled for Hercules.
"Mother?" he asked, running into the room, alert for danger. "What's wrong?"
Alcmene pointed out the window. "I think Iolaus is leaving."
"That's not possible. He just walked outside for a little while."
Hercules walked over to the window, while Alcmene said, "Something must have changed his mind, Hercules. Because he's walking down the road as we speak." Looking from the retreating figure on the road to his mother, Alcmene made his decision for him. "Go after him, Hercules."
He nodded, "I'm already on my way." Running from the room, he slammed the front door open and ran after his still sluggish best friend.
Minutes later, he reached Iolaus. "Where do you think you're going?" he asked, moving to stand in front of Iolaus.
Looking up into his friend's eyes, Iolaus did his best to put forward an uncaring attitude. "Just away for a while."
Hercules placed a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. Lowering his voice, he asked, "What are you running away from?" Iolaus lowered his eyes, but didn't say anything in response. "Iolaus, talk to me. Something's changed. What happened?"
"Ampheria happened, Hercules."
Iolaus' words drove home what Hercules had feared. "That wasn't your fault, Iolaus."
Iolaus risked a glance up at Hercules' face. "Sure it was. You got shot, end of story. Now can I go?" He tried to push past Hercules, but the large demigod kept him from moving.
"Then Aphrodite was right?"
Lost, and wanting to leave, Iolaus asked, "Right about what?"
"You believed what Ares' told you. That you were a threat to me." Hercules had paled, each word bringing a new depth to his realization.
Iolaus sighed, "So what if I did? What about that, Hercules?"
Hercules dropped his hands, "Why, Iolaus? Why do it?" His voice was barely above a whisper.
Iolaus moved to the side of the road and sat on a large rock. "How many times have you gotten in trouble because of me?"
"No more than you've died because of me," he stated simply. "Can't you understand that without you, my life would be that much emptier?"
"That's not true, Herc."
Iolaus looked up at his friend as if the demigod had finally lost all of his sense. "Exactly, what? You're not making sense."
"You're the only one who calls me Herc, Iolaus," he explained, as if that made everything suddenly fall into place. When Iolaus continued to simply stare at him, he tried a different tack. "Don't you know what losing you did to me? What I went through trying to bring you back? I didn't want to lose you."
"Herc . . ."
Hercules interrupted him, "I still don't. Why can't you understand that?"
"You have your family. They've never hurt you . . ." Iolaus attempted to reason.
Hercules threw up his hands. "No one could have been more a part of my family than you. You stubborn, irrepressible, thickheaded . . . You're my brother, Iolaus." He paused, hoping his words would break though Iolaus thick skull. "AND," he stressed, "you've never hurt me. The only way you could do that would be to leave voluntarily or sacrifice yourself for me."
Iolaus coked his head to one side, hearing Hercules' heartfelt words, but doing his best not to hear them. The last thing he wanted was to hear the distressed that laced the demigod's voice as he spoke of losing him. Only it was the one thing he couldn't tune out. "I don't know . . ." he started, turning so that Hercules couldn't see his eyes.
"Iolaus, I swear. If you . . ."
He was interrupted by Iolaus continuing to speak. "I mean, what a way to try and convince me to stay. Calling me stubborn and thickheaded." He tilted his head, looking up at Hercules. "Is that what passes for concern in your world, Herc?" he asked with a giggle.
Hercules felt his jaw drop open. "You won't leave?" he asked, his rough voice revealing his uncertainty.
Iolaus stood, his blue eyes sparkling, but serious. He placed a hand on Hercules' shoulder, "I guess in the end, I'm where I belong, Hercules."
Hercules smiled, the despair lifting from his shoulders. "That's what I've been trying to tell you," he said with a grin.
Grinning, Iolaus replied, "Oh, stop it." Turning to face toward Alcmene's house, he asked, "Is that lunch I smell?"
Hercules nodded, glancing up at the sky. "It's almost lunchtime, and since Mother knows how you hate to miss a meal . . ."
Iolaus began to walk down the road back to the house. "You don't really think you're funny, do ya, Herc? 'Cause I hate to be the one to break it to you that you're not."
Hercules laughed and jogged to catch up to Iolaus. Ruffling the wild blonde locks, he smiled. "Good to have you back, Iolaus."
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