CRISIS OF FAITH





You'll understand this story much better if you read White Raven's excellent story "Broken Connections". Many many thanks to White Raven giving me her gracious permission to continue her story as well as her invaluable help on this one. Direct quotes and references from "Broken Connections" are in parenthesis.


Two weeks after "Broken Connections"

"I'm telling you, Herc, it's the absolute best fishing site in all Greece!" Iolaus laughed.

"Best, huh?" Hercules' blue eyes crinkled in amusement. "Seems I've heard that before."

"Yeah, but this time...it's true!" Iolaus assured him with a toss of his blonde head. "The fish are this big!" He held his hands apart about eighteen inches.

"That big?" Hercules asked.

"Well, not all of them," Iolaus admitted. "But close." He quickly glanced up at his friend. "And hunting! Great hunting all around!"

"Hunting and fishing?" Hercules considered. "Seems to me like a place we should visit."

"Great!" Iolaus laughed. And maybe you'll start to relax, he thought. Ever since he'd been accidentally injured by Hercules, Iolaus had noticed his friend was being even more over-protective than usual. Iolaus knew he could, and would, deal with that in his own good time and in his own way.

But there was something else that Iolaus couldn't figure out. There was something different about his friend. They'd had a huge argument after Hercules had left Iolaus. But, as far as Iolaus was concerned, it had been settled.

He studied his friend from the corner of his eyes. No, that wasn't it. Hercules wasn't someone who carried a grudge. They'd argued with each other, they'd listened to each other, and then it was done. Over. Finished.

Iolaus soon got his answer.

They were just ready to leave the main road to head towards the river and Iolaus' "best fishing site in all Greece" when a group of men suddenly appeared from the forest.

Bandits.

'Great', Iolaus thought in disgust. 'This is no way to start a vacation. Well, there are only three of them. This shouldn't take long.' He casually glanced at Hercules...a glance that had always passed between them as a signal of what was planned. But Hercules didn't look at him. In fact, Iolaus didn't like the look he saw on the demigod's face.

Hercules stared at the three bandits and felt his muscles suddenly lock. Unbidden, he remembered the last fight...sending four men plummeting through the roof of a house which threw Iolaus back onto a barbed spike nearly killing him. He felt his fists clench and forced them open.

"Get them!" the bandit leader suddenly shouted.

Iolaus saw the first man heading straight for Hercules...who stood there with a frozen look on his face. Iolaus jumped in front of his friend kicking the bandit under the chin. The man fell back dazed in the dirt.

Iolaus' action pushed Hercules into action. His muscles unlocked and he spun to catch the nearest man by the shoulder. As he lifted the man over his head, he again saw Hera's four soldiers falling through the roof. Instead of tossing the man aside as he'd always done, he simply put him back on his feet and held him.

Iolaus was circling the third man who had pulled a dirty knife from an equally dirty belt. Iolaus' eyes stared at the knife for a few seconds. Then he looked past the man, pointed, and giggled.

The bandit instinctively looked over his shoulder. Then sensing Iolaus moving closer, he turned back around just as Iolaus' heel caught him in the side of his jaw. As he fell to the ground, Hercules called, "Iolaus! Here's another one!"

Iolaus glanced up as his friend shoved the last bandit towards him. Iolaus grinned and hit the falling bandit with a wicked right hook to the jaw.

Stumbling, the three bandits stumbled into the forest.

"Shouldn't we go after them?" Iolaus asked.

Hercules shrugged. "If you want," he said.

Iolaus gave his friend a startled look.

"I think they've learned their lesson." Hercules leaned over to pick up Iolaus' carrysack.

Iolaus stood in the middle of the road staring at his friend in stunned silence.

"You okay?" Hercules suddenly asked seeing that Iolaus hadn't moved.

"Uh...sure," Iolaus quickly answered seeing the concern in his friend's eyes .

"Yeah, let's go." He automatically reached for the carrysack as he stepped off the road and into the woods.

"It's okay." Hercules easily shouldered the sack. "I'll carry it."

Iolaus led the way in silence. 'I think they've learned their lesson? What is he thinking? Oh, this isn't good.' He absently frowned glad his friend was behind him and not able to see his expression.

{{I've lost my edge. My confidence is gone. I don't know who I am anymore.}}

Iolaus almost stopped in shock as he remembered Hercules' words.

"Iolaus?" Hercules put a hand on his shoulder. "Are you feeling okay?"

"Yeah, just getting my bearings," Iolaus quickly answered. "This way." He quickly stepped forward leading Hercules deeper into the woods. He doesn't want to fight, Iolaus quickly reasoned. That's why he threw the last bandit towards me. "See, here we are," he spoke up as they stepped out of the woods onto a riverbank.

"It's beautiful," Hercules smiled. "Maybe you have found the best fishing site in all Greece," he teased.

Iolaus shrugged forcing a smile to his face. He watched as Hercules descended to the river. 'What in the name of Olympus do I do now?' he asked himself. 'How do I teach him to be Hercules again?'

---------------

Best fishing site in all Greece - Two days later

"Hey, Herc, how about we head to Corinth?" Iolaus asked as he put another fish onto the ground next to him.

"What for?" Hercules didn't even open his eyes.

Iolaus glanced at his friend. Even with closed eyes, Hercules had a disturbing way of seeing through some of Iolaus' schemes.

"Just thought we should check on Jason, that's all. See how he's taking to married life." Iolaus shrugged in an unconcerned fashion. "I've got seven fish. Think that's enough?"

Hercules opened one eye. The last time he'd checked, Iolaus only had two and that had been...well, maybe he had fallen asleep. "Enough for you maybe," he grudgingly admitted. "For one meal."

"Hey!" Iolaus protested then grinned. "So I have a healthy appetite!"

'As long as you're healthy.' Hercules managed to stop the words from leaving his mouth. "Uh-huh," he quickly responded. "I think I'll go see if I can bag a rabbit or two just in case it's not enough."

Iolaus casually watched his friend disappear into the nearby forest. He unconsciously bit his lip in thought. 'Okay, that didn't seem to work. Now what else...'

--------------------

Hercules studied the sky as he slowly walked back to the campsite. Even though dark clouds had threatened earlier, the late afternoon sky had cleared to a brilliant shade of blue. He knew the night sky would be clear and dotted with stars. Usually, that thought was pleasing. But for the last couple of clear nights it had seemed the stars had turned into accusing eyes.

He shook his head. Iolaus was fine, he ruthlessly told himself. Even though he'd almost died from that barbed spike in his shoulder... almost died again ...the little voice in his head taunted... remember?...he'd survived. They had survived Hercules' descent into guilt...a descent that had pushed him away from a badly injured Iolaus and nearly cost his friend his life...again the voice reminded him...almost got him killed twice in one day...

"Shut up, Hera!" Hercules exploded looking up at the sky. He expected to see a green haze but saw only clear blue sky. He took a deep breath. Despite himself, he suddenly remembered the cold shock of seeing Iolaus impaled on the barbed spike...impaled because Hercules had used his strength to toss Hera's soldiers through the roof of the house where Iolaus was standing

{{'Do it fast, Herc.'}}

But no matter how fast he removed Iolaus from the spike, it was still slower than the time it took for his heart to crack.

{{'Here I've been trying to destroy the ones you love in order to make your life miserable and in the end your closest friend is dying due to something you did.'}} Damn you, Hera! Why pick on me?. Do you stalk any other of Zeus' bastards?. WHY ME?

{{'Look at me...Just look at me...Herc, help me...You know what you need to do.'}} He remembered the sickening sound of his fist hitting Iolaus' face knocking him into unconsciousness.

{{'When I'm stronger we have to talk.'}} That wasn't a conversation he had wanted to have...hoping with a newly found cowardice that Iolaus would miraculously forget.

{{'Leaving me to die alone was the answer?. You abandoned me, Hercules!'}} More than three weeks later the words still shot through him lodging in an already heavy heart.

{{'I'm not about to let almost thirty years of friendship go by the wayside...and if you are willing to let that happen, then you have to ask yourself, were we ever really friends?'}} Gods, that was Iolaus. There's no way he'll ever let me off the hook when I need to confront something.

Hercules took another deep breath and began walking again. He wondered if Iolaus knew how many times since they'd gotten back on the road that he'd awoken from the nightmare of Iolaus dying on that barbed spike...how many times he'd sat silently by the flickering campfire in the early hours of the morning just watching his friend sleep?

Iolaus probably did know, Hercules ruefully admitted to himself. He knew Iolaus wouldn't let him off that hook either if it was brought up. Which is probably why Iolaus suggested they visit Jason. It would be just like those two to double-team against him, he glumly guessed. He could just imagine what the leader of the Argonauts would have to say to him about his freezing up in a fight. Still, it would be a chance to visit his mother and see how she was taking being married to Jason. And he'd always valued her wisdom. He wouldn't for the world tell her about freezing in battle. It would worry her more than she normally worried about him. But maybe she could....

Hercules suddenly stopped. Some sound not of the forest had caught his attention. It sounded like...

----------------------

"Well, look what we got here."

Iolaus mentally cursed himself as he quickly got to his feet. He'd been so deep in thought he hadn't even sensed the three men who were swaggering towards him.

"Not you again." Iolaus cocked his head to one side recognizing the three bandits who'd accosted them a few days earlier. His sword and knife lay too far away to be of any use at this point. "You were supposed to have learned your lesson."

"He's a comedian." The largest man laughed. "Looks like we'll all enjoy this."

"Let me get this straight," Iolaus slightly frowned. "You're going to beat me up and take anything I have that even looks valuable?"

"Smart, too." The third man separated slightly from the others.

Iolaus suddenly smiled. The three men halted not sure what their victim could be smiling about.

"Yeah," Iolaus nodded. "This might actually work. 'Course, he's gonna be really mad when he figures it out..." He suddenly broke the piece of wood he was using as a fishing rod across his leg. He tossed the short piece to one side and used the other as staff. "Okay, guys...let's make this work."

"He's crazy." The largest man shook his head.

"I don't care!" The leader yelled. "Get him!"

As the three men charged, Iolaus did something he rarely ever did. He yelled at the top of his lungs for help.

---------------------

"Herc! Help!"

Iolaus.

Hercules took off at a dead run towards the river. His shoulder's fine...he's fine...he can handle it...Iolaus never yells for help like that. ..

Hercules determinedly ignored the sudden tightening around his heart as he ran faster.

--------------------

The fight wasn't as easy to coordinate as he'd thought. Iolaus certainly didn't want to let any of the men get to his weapons. So he not only had to concentrate on three men each trying to do him bodily harm, he also had to block them from getting to his weapons plus keep an eye out for Hercules. 'I should be a hydra', he thought. The idea tickled him and he began giggling.

From the corner of his eyes, he saw Hercules burst from the trees. Finally, he grunted. He saw one of the men diving towards him. This time, he allowed the man to knock him down. He groaned loudly as though hurt.

"IOLAUS!" Hercules screamed as he leapt for the nearest attacker. All three men, surprised at his arrival, turned to face him.

Iolaus watched through barely open eyes as Hercules used the two rabbits dangling from a length of string as a weapon. The man grunted as he was hit in the face by two dead rabbits.

'There go the rabbits for dinner,' Iolaus tried not to grin. The rabbits along with the half-conscious man fell to the dirt. The man who'd landed on him quickly got to his feet.

He saw Hercules braced as the third attacker started towards him. Hercules easily ducked the man's swing pivoting to keep himself between the attacker and Iolaus.

Iolaus glanced at the nearest man who had managed to grab Iolaus' knife. Iolaus jumped to his feet and easily disarmed the man. He smiled engagingly. "I think you'd better leave," he advised.

The man ran.

Iolaus casually turned around and watched as Hercules did nothing more than push his attacker away from him. He glanced at the other bandit who quickly followed his companion into the woods.

Hercules hesitated then spun around looking for Iolaus. He hesitated in his movements as he saw his friend standing apparently unharmed. "Are you hurt?" he asked.

"Me?" Iolaus grinned. "Nah, I'm fine." He saw something flash in Hercules' blue eyes. "Okay, I was napping and they snuck up on me. You're not gonna make a big deal out of this, are you?"

"Napping?" Hercules frowned. "Napping or not, they didn't look like the smartest bunch of bandits...or the quietest either."

Iolaus shrugged wilting a little under his friend's stare. "You are going to make a big deal out of this." He threw up his hands in defeat. "A guy goes to sleep and gets caught one time and..."

"You're a lousy liar, Iolaus," Hercules interrupted. "Always have been."

Iolaus glanced at his friend. This wasn't good. An angry Hercules wasn't going to listen to his reasons for this. He tried to think of a different explanation but quickly admitted Hercules was right. He wasn't a good liar.

"Did you know those guys?" Hercules demanded.

"No, I didn't know those guys!" Iolaus angrily replied. "I like to think I prefer the company of competent bandits!"

"Iolaus, what was going on here?" Hercules seethed. He didn't like the idea that was forming in his mind.

Iolaus' eyes nervously flickered away for a few seconds. "Getting attacked?" he quietly answered.

"Iolaus!" Hercules shouted. "Letting you see that you could use your strength without anybody getting hurt!" Iolaus shouted back. This wasn't the way he'd intended for this conversation to play out but...trust Hercules to not let him off the hook. He saw Hercules open his mouth and quickly interrupted. "Don't you think I haven't seen you hesitate? Consciously checking yourself? A good fight was what you needed!"

"A good fight?!" Hercules roared. He quickly closed the gap between them.

Iolaus' eyes widened as Hercules' hands gripped his vest and he found himself lifted off the ground. "Uh...Herc?"

"Do you have any idea..." Hercules shouted. He closed his eyes feeling his control beginning to slip. He honestly couldn't remember the last time he'd been this angry...yes he could...when Hera had destroyed his family...

"Herc...could you let me down now?" Iolaus softly asked. The expression on his friend's face was starting to really bother him.

"HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO ME!?" Hercules suddenly screamed. He pushed Iolaus away from him and turned away. "HOW COULD YOU?!"

Iolaus only had a split second to realize Hercules had tossed him away with all his strength. Then he struck a nearby tree and fell senseless to the ground.

Hercules had to get away. He stormed into the woods needing to put space between himself and Iolaus before....before what?...you hurt him again?...why should today be any different?...SHUT UP, HERA!

------------------

Iolaus slowly opened his eyes. His entire body screamed in agony. Dazedly he looked around. "Herc?" he croaked. All he heard were the sounds of the nearby forest coming alive with the onset of twilight. Grimly, Iolaus pushed himself to his feet ignoring the pain that shot down his left arm. "Herc!" he shouted.

Silence.

"Great. Really great idea, Iolaus," he muttered to himself as he quickly found his weapons and carrysack. He winced as he moved his arm. At least it wasn't broken. "When are you gonna learn not to think? Especially think crazy ideas?" A quick glance at the sky told him his friend had a couple of hours head start on him.

It didn't take long to find where Hercules had disappeared into the forest.

Even in the twilight, the demigod was leaving a trail a blind man could follow. With each step, Iolaus mentally berated himself. You should have known better...a fight yes, but not one that pushed him that way...sometimes you don't have the brain of a half-dead hydra...

Iolaus blinked as Hercules' trail ended at the well-traveled road. C'mon, Herc...don't tell me you took to the main road...please tell me you stayed in the forest...

An hour later, Iolaus reluctantly concluded Hercules had taken to the main road. There was no sign he'd gone back into the forest. There were too many tracks and trails where other hunters had left the main road and gone into the forest. There was no telling how far Hercules had traveled along the main road before turning back into the forest...assuming he had gone back into the forest in the first place. Frustrated, Iolaus spent the next minute shouting at the top of his lungs for his friend...apologizing with each shout.

Silence.

Iolaus studied the road. Traveling south would eventually lead to Corinth.

Traveling north would lead Hercules away from home. Iolaus took a couple of steps north then hesitated. If Hercules was totally out of control, he'd instinctively head away from anyone he cared about. Iolaus turned his head and studied the south road. People were only sophisticated animals, he ruefully concluded. And any hurt animal is going to head for home.

Praying to whatever benevolent god might be listening, Iolaus resolutely began walking south hoping with all his heart he was guessing right.

-------------------

Hercules wondered where the Minotaur that had stomped on him for hours had gotten to. He owed the creature a rematch. Slowly he opened his eyes groaning despite himself. He looked around in confusion.

Okay, you're in the woods...now where in the woods?...and where was Iolaus?...IOLAUS!

Hercules jerked fully awake on his feet before he knew it. Memories flashed through his mind...screaming at Iolaus...pushing, no wait...shoving, no wait...oh gods no...THROWING him away...running blindly through the forest like some maddened wild beast...maddened wild beast?...that's a good comparison...instinctively turning north on the main road...away from home...away from anyone he loved that he could hurt...as though that would make a difference...

"Shut up, Hera," Hercules angrily muttered. He glanced at the sun peeking through the overhead leaves. East, he decided, he needed to head east to get back to the river. A coldness settled around his heart as he realized he must have collapsed and been unconscious the entire night...assuming the events he sickeningly remembered had happened only the day before.

If Iolaus had been able to get to his feet, the hunter would have been able to track him. Hercules knew he'd probably left more than a visible trail through the woods. The fact Iolaus wasn't with him meant...you've managed to hurt him again...otherwise he would be here...

Someone could have found Iolaus and taken him to a nearby village, Hercules reasoned. Or Iolaus had decided to let Hercules get himself under control and was waiting at the campsite for him. He'd be angry, of course, and with a perfect right to be angry. He'd make Hercules squirm for a while and then yell at him for what had happened.

There were a lot of reasons why Iolaus wasn't with him.

--------------------

"Iolaus!" Hercules yelled as he broke from the trees at a hard run. He slowly stopped. No one was there. Maybe this wasn't the right place.

Hercules' eyes spotted the rabbits he'd dropped during the fight yesterday.

The pile of fish Iolaus had caught the previous day lay stinking on the edge of the riverbank.

"Iolaus!" Hercules spun in a circle looking for his friend. He saw that Iolaus' equipment was gone. It didn't even look like anyone had camped there the previous night.

"C'mon, Iolaus! This isn't funny!" Hercules shouted his eyes scanning the opposite bank. He heard his words echoing around him.

"Iolaus! I'm sorry!" Hercules anxiously even walked back to the trees looking up into their branches hoping to see his friend grinning down at him.

Slowly Hercules walked back to the campsite. If Iolaus hadn't camped here...he froze wondering if the bandits had returned. If Iolaus had been...hurt, the word you're looking for is hurt...

Hercules angrily rubbed his eyes trying to drive the voice away. He carefully studied the campsite absurdly hoping to find some sort of evidence Iolaus had been attacked...because if he hadn't been attacked then he left on his own, didn't he?...

"I'm getting tired of this, Hera," Hercules mumbled. "GO AWAY!" He took a deep breath as he heard his voice echoing. After a few minutes study, he concluded Iolaus had walked away on his own. He stared at the forest with a heart that was slowly turning to lead.

If Iolaus didn't want to be found in the forest, he wouldn't be.

Iolaus had been well enough to leave the campsite on his own...but didn't come after you...Iolaus would have had no trouble following his trail...but didn't come after you...Iolaus would have left some sign, some clue...but didn't want you to come after him...congratulations, you've finally gotten what you wanted...NO!...never wanted...he's gone and it's for his own good...isn't it?...

Hercules finally acknowledged it wasn't Hera's voice taunting him. He'd really known it all along. It was his own voice. He felt his knees give away and he fell on them leaning back on his heels.

"Gods, Iolaus, I'm sorry," h e mumbled through his tears.

-------------------

Corinth - two weeks later

The guard at the palace of Corinth wondered what kind of idiot would be out in this kind of rain at this time of night. Just his luck. Whoever the idiot was, he was going to have to deal with him. Even in the dark and rain, he could see the golden color of the stranger's hair. The man trudged forward his shoulders bent as though carrying the weight of the world on them. As the man drew closer, the guard's eyes widened in surprise.

"Iolaus?"

Iolaus raised his head and automatically wiped the rain from his face. Not that he cared. In fact, he welcomed the rain even when it beat unmercifully across his back. It was difficult, especially in the dark, to tell raindrops from tears.

"Hello, Talis," Iolaus quietly greeted. He glanced at the closed palace doors. "I hope Jason is here. I stopped by the farm but..."

"He's here alright." Talis took Iolaus' arm and led him up the steps calling for the door to be opened. "The king sent for him over a week ago. All this rain has caused problems." He grinned. "I guess he figured Jason could work miracles. The gods know the king's done all he possibly could." He shrugged as they. "But what can be done when the gods themselves cry so much we get all their tears?"

They're not the only ones crying, Iolaus numbly reminded himself. He washed the liquid from his face and took a deep breath.

"The guard'll take you to the king and Jason." Talis slapped Iolaus' back sending a spray of water over both of them. "I've got to get back on duty."

Iolaus nodded his thanks following the other guard through the palace halls. He idly wondered why he hadn't asked Talis if Hercules was in Corinth...except he didn't think he could stand to hear a negative answer...one he had the sneaking suspicion he was going to hear anyway. And he wasn't sure if he wanted to see Alcmene either. The severing of one friendship was heartbreaking enough. He didn't want to see the disillusionment in her eyes as well.

The guard gently rapped at the closed door. There must have been a reply even though Iolaus didn't hear one because the guard opened the door and stepped back for Iolaus to enter. He stepped forward feeling rather than hearing the door gently close behind him.

"Iolaus!" Jason's eyes widened as he stepped forward with a smile on his face.

"Hello, Jason. Iphicles." Iolaus gave a hollow laugh as Jason's arms enveloped him. "I'm dripping wet, Jason."

"What isn't around here these days?" Jason laughed. He pulled Iolaus over to the fire. "Gods, you ARE soaked!" He pushed the hunter to sit on the warm hearth.

Iphicles stepped forward with a goblet of warm wine. He didn't like the look on Iolaus' face. "Here, drink this," he offered.

"Thanks," Iolaus nodded trying not to shiver. He downed the liquid with one gulp.

Jason exchanged a quick look with Iphicles. "Iolaus, where's Hercules?" he finally asked.

They saw Iolaus' shoulders drop even further. "I was hoping he was here," he mumbled.

"Is he supposed to be?" Iphicles asked.

"It's the only other place I know to look," Iolaus shrugged. "I looked in Thebes...at my place...at the forge...I sat for two days by Deianeira's grave waiting...hoping..."

The two men exchanged worried looks as Iolaus' voice drifted off.

"Stay with him," Iphicles murmured. Even he could see that Iolaus was ill. He stepped into the hallway and softly ordered a guard to bring a healer to his private chambers.

"I stopped at the farm but you weren't there either, Jason." Iolaus took a deep breath as he shivered. He averted his face as Jason knelt by him. "Is..is Alcmene here?"

"No, fortunately, she went to visit friends in Athens," Jason quietly answered. "What's happened?" Jason noted the relieved look on Iolaus' face at the mention of Alcmene's visit to Athens.

"I never learned to think," Iolaus replied his eyes staring into the darkness at something only he could see. "All these years, Jason...I never learned to think."

Jason glanced up at a returning Iphicles. "Come on." Jason took Iolaus' arm. "You need a hot bath. You're shivering."

"When was the last time you were dry?" Iphicles took Iolaus' other arm as they led the hunter out of the room.

"How long has it been raining?" Iolaus tried to joke.

"When was the last time you ate?" Jason prodded.

Iolaus shrugged. "Probably the last time I was dry," he answered with another hollow laugh.

Jason started to ask more questions but Iphicles interrupted to shout orders to the nearby guards.

"I want a tub and plenty of hot water to my bedchambers now! Bring some hot soup as well! Plenty of it! And where's that healer?!"

Jason hid a smile that soon disappeared as Iolaus unprotestingly undressed lowered himself in a tub of hot water. He studied Iolaus as the hunter's body relaxed. He was suddenly reminded of the first time he'd seen Iolaus when he arrived at the Academy. He'd glanced inside the administrative office on his way to the kitchen. A young boy had been sitting in the office alone...waiting. Jason had been struck by the look of painful solitude on the boy's face...the same look he now saw on the man's.

Once Iolaus had been cleaned and fed, Iphicles pushed him towards his bed. "Get some sleep," the king advised.

"I'll leave in the morning," Iolaus mumbled gratefully falling onto the soft mattress.

"Why?" Jason asked with a frown.

"Hercules might come." Iolaus closed his eyes.

'Oh no, you don't', Jason thought. He wanted answers. "Why would that make any difference?"

Iolaus' eyes opened. "That's right, you don't know," he realized. He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. "We're...not traveling together anymore."

Had Iolaus said that Ares had taken a vow of non-violence, neither man could have been more shocked.

"What?!" Jason roared.

"What?" Iphicles asked in confusion.

Slowly, Iolaus explained how Hercules' mistake had caused him to be almost mortally wounded...how Hercules' guilt had come between them...how he'd tried to prove to Hercules that his strength wasn't a threat to him...how Iolaus had tricked Hercules into thinking he was injured so Hercules would have to use his strength in a fight...the words tumbled out at first the emotions clearly showing. But the further Iolaus got into his story, the less his emotions showed and the words became dull and lifeless.

"I didn't know where else to look," Iolaus admitted. "So I came here."

"Why come here if you don't want to be here if he comes?" Jason shook his head.

"I just...need to know he's okay," Iolaus mumbled. He gave another hollow laugh that brought a wince to Jason's face. "I betrayed him...again." He closed his eyes at the rising tide of pain. "If he knows I'm here..."

"Betrayed?" Iphicles half-whispered. "When..?"

"Xena," Iolaus flatly replied closing his eyes to avoid conversation.

"You can't leave, Iolaus," Iphicles interrupted. "I need every man I can get my hands on. We've got real problems because of these rains." He hesitated. "I promise. If Hercules arrives, I'll let you know before he sees you. But I really need your help."

Iolaus opened his eyes and stared at Iphicles. "Sure, I'll help," he wearily promised. "I don't know what I can do but..."

"Don't worry." This time Jason interrupted with a grin. "Iphicles won't have any trouble finding something." He automatically tucked the blanket around Iolaus. "Now get some sleep." He waited until Iolaus' eyes closed in exhaustion before following Iphicles from the room.

"Why did you bring him to your chambers?" Jason asked gently closing the door behind him.

Iphicles shrugged. "If he's worried about Hercules finding him, it's better he stay here," he reasoned. "Very few people know he's here. I'll make sure the word doesn't spread for a while."

Jason's eyebrows rose. "You're planning to keep Iolaus prisoner?" he joked.

Iphicles' eyes narrowed. "No, but I doubt he'll be going anywhere soon," he judged. "We have a few days of peace from that quarter." He started towards the door. "Why don't you stay here tonight and keep an eye on him?"

"Where are you going?" Jason asked.

Iphicles paused at the door. "First, to find out what's keeping that healer," he explained. "I want to make sure all Iolaus is suffering from is exposure and exhaustion." His dark eyes glittered. "Then I'm sending riders out to find my brother. I want to hear from Hercules what's been going on.'

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Corinth - one week later

Finally, the rains had stopped. Corinth's long dock was a wreck. The nearby fields were flooded. The prospect of famine was a very real one.

Any reservations Jason might ever have had about Iphicles' ability to lead Corinth had disappeared along with the rains. He doubted the king had gotten more than two or three hours' sleep a night since the rains had become deadly torrents. Even before the rains had stopped, Iphicles had begun negotiations for grain and supplies and put as many men to work as possible in repairing the docks.

Jason had worked alongside Iolaus. His friend worked until, like everyone else, he almost dropped from exhaustion. But he didn't smile and certainly didn't talk. What worried Jason the most was that he almost had to force Iolaus to eat.

Today had been no exception. He and Iolaus walked back to the palace tired, dirty, and in silence. Iolaus had finally questioned why he was lodged in Iphicles' own chambers. To Jason's dismay, he'd accepted the king's simple explanation of wanting to keep his promise to let Iolaus know if Hercules arrived. If Iolaus were lodged somewhere else, he might not be able to get word to him quickly enough.

This evening, Jason caught the look Iphicles threw him as they walked into his council chamber. "I really need to discuss this with you, Jason," Iphicles began. "You know I trust your judgement, but..." He glanced at Iolaus. "I'm sorry. You're both exhausted. It can wait."

"No, go ahead." Iolaus' eyes held only a ghost of the amusement that once would have been there. "I'll get cleaned." He glanced down at himself. "Never realized that much rain meant that much mud," he murmured. Shaking his head, he wandered down the corridor.

Jason quickly closed the door behind him. "Hercules is here?" he asked.

Iphicles shook his head. "No, but I know where he is," he grimly answered. "Two days ago, I got word he'd been in Galiki. He helped destroy some sort of monster that was terrorizing the countryside. From the report, he helped them with his usual competency but without any...feeling." Iphicles glanced at Jason to see if he understood. "Also gave them a lecture about waiting for somebody else to solve their problems."

Jason nodded. "I've seen the same lack of feeling in Iolaus," he admitted. "You think he's still in Galiki?" He gave Iphicles a sharp look. "A lecture?" He shook his head. "Iolaus would never have let him get away with that."

Iphicles nodded. "I just received a report he was seen at Mother's." He glanced out the window. "He's either still there or on his way here. I should be able to intercept him."

"You?" Jason asked in surprise. "I'll go. He's used to getting mad at me," he grinned.

"Iolaus will listen to you before he'll listen to me," Iphicles pointed out. "You need to keep any news of Hercules' whereabouts from getting to him. And if he does hear about it, you've got to keep him here somehow. If Iolaus leaves Corinth, I doubt even the gods would be able to find him."

"What are you planning?" Jason asked crossing his arms across his chest.

Iphicles shrugged. "That depends on Hercules."

-------------------

The full moon easily illuminated the countryside. Iphicles just hoped his brother didn't see him coming. It wouldn't help if Hercules saw him before he was ready to be seen. He'd used every bit of his royal authority to keep his escort from following him to the farm itself. He'd ordered them to remain a short distance away. He'd dismounted and left his horse at the top of the hill. The animal was well trained and would stay. He'd complete the rest of the journey on foot.

Iphicles had thought about what to say to his brother. He'd toyed with the idea of letting Hercules believe Iolaus had died. He wanted to see if there was any friendship left in his brother for Iolaus or if the hunter right in believing that friendship had been destroyed?

But every plan Iphicles had disappeared when he turned the corner of his mother's house and saw his brother kneeling in the garden...

-------------------

Hercules stared at the flowers that were his mother's pride and joy. All the heavy rains had beaten the flowers down almost into the mud.

He didn't know what he'd expected to find here. He'd returned seeking his mother almost as a hurt child would run seeing safety and comfort in his mother's arms. In one way, he was grateful for their absence. That meant he didn't have to explain the unexplainable to either his mother or Jason. But the silence of the house was almost more than he could bear. Deep down, he knew Alcmene wouldn't be any more pleased than Jason by his actions. She'd considered Iolaus to be as much her son as he and Iphicles were.

"I wish you were here anyway," Hercules whispered. "I'd forgotten how lonely it is without Iolaus." He closed his eyes against the tears that had formed. "Gods, Mother, I've really messed things up this time." As though seeking a connection with Alcmene, his fingers gently caressed the drooping flowers.

Iphicles heard his brother murmuring some words but couldn't make them out. It didn't matter, he decided. It was time he did something he'd wanted to do from the time they were children.

Hercules was so wrapped up in his own misery, he didn't even sense Iphicles behind him.

Iphicles drew back his right foot and kicked his brother squarely in the rear end sending him sprawling into the grass.

Hercules instinctively rolled coming to his feet facing his attacker. "Iphicles?" he asked. When his brother didn't answer, he stepped closer. "What was that for?"

Iphicles' answer was at the end of his fist...the fist that struck Hercules in the cheekbone sending him staggering backwards.

"Hey!" Hercules angrily shouted. He shook his head to clear it. He instinctively closed his fists then forced them open. "What's going on?"

"So it is true." Iphicles' voice was lightly mocking. "The great Hercules won't fight a mortal?"

"Where did you hear that?" Hercules demanded.

Iphicles ignored him. "You don't look well, brother," he finally remarked.

"You look tired," Hercules shot back.

"That's because I am," Iphicles admitted. "Right now I should be in bed...sleeping."

"So why aren't you?" Hercules growled.

"Because I'm doing something much more pleasurable," Iphicles coldly smiled. "I'm going to finally win a fight against the Son of Zeus."

"What are you talking about?" Hercules shook his head. "You know I'm not going to fight you."

Iphicles shrugged. "Anyway, my bed's in use to someone else." He waited a few seconds to be sure he had Hercules' attention. "Iolaus."

"Iolaus?" Hercules looked stunned. "Iolaus is in Corinth? Is he alright? Why is he..."

"BE QUIET!" Iphicles half-shouted. "It's only as a favor to Jason that I'm even talking to you right now!"

"Iolaus is hurt," Hercules said in a dull voice.

"Hurt as bad as anyone can be and still breathe," Iphicles nodded.

"Did he..." Hercules' voice drifted off.

"Tell me what happened?" Iphicles finished the sentence. "He told both Jason and me. Now I want to hear..." He took a deep breath to control his anger. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Never mind," Hercules wearily advised. "Just take care of Iolaus."

"Oh, I intend to," Iphicles coldly answered.

Something in his brother's voice caused Hercules to give him a serious look. "What are you up to?" he finally asked.

"You always thought I was jealous of Iolaus because you cared more for him than for me?" Iphicles laughed. "You know, Hercules, if nothing else, you certainly inherited Zeus' arrogance."

Hercules angrily took a step forward.

"You never realized how much I envied you your friendship with Iolaus, did you?" Iphicles seemed to ignore Hercules' movements.

"Envied?" Hercules frowned.

"You had a friend who looked up to you like you were Zeus himself!" Iphicles spat. "I thought he'd grow out of it once he passed the age of fourteen or so. But apparently he didn't." Seeing Hercules' stunned look, he paced in front of his brother. "You had NO idea, did you? No matter what you wanted to do, Iolaus was right there with you. No matter where you went, he traveled with you." He stopped and glared at his brother in the moonlight. "Do you have any idea what I would give for such a friend?"

Hercules started to say something but merely shook his head.

"And then you made a mistake?" Iphicles' voice dripped with sarcasm. "Well, welcome to the mortal world, brother!" He studied Hercules' face for a moment. "Sometimes, I think you protest too much that you don't like the godly side of your heritage. Certainly, the problems we mere mortals face seem to just fly right over your head! Problems like dealing with the mistakes we make...and their repercussions." He stared at Hercules his dark eyes glittering in the moonlight. "You're so used to cleaning up other people's mistakes that you haven't got a clue on how to clean up your own." To Hercules' surprise, Iphicles looked almost sorry for him.

"What do you want me to say, Iphicles?" Hercules quietly asked. "What do you want to hear?"

"It's not a matter of what I want you to say or what I want to hear!" Iphicles snapped. "If you want to spend the rest of your life wrapped up in self-pity, be my guest! But don't worry about Iolaus." He saw something flicker in Hercules' eyes and shrugged. "I plan on being Iolaus' friend," he confided. "Even though I know I'll always be his second-choice. But rest assured, Hercules, I won't be so stupid as to push a good friend away."

"What do you know about it, Iphicles?!" Hercules suddenly exploded.

"I know that Iolaus is barely alive...inside!" Iphicles shouted back. "Despite everything that's happened, he came back looking for you! He went to Thebes...even sat in the pouring rain for two days by Deianaira's grave waiting for you...just so he could see if you were okay. Not that he expects you to forgive him!"

"Forgive him?" Hercules looked at his brother with considerable surprise. "Why would he...for what..?"

"He thinks he betrayed you," Iphicles quietly explained. "Tricking you into believing he was hurt."

"Forgive him?" Hercules shook his head. "I'm the one who needs to beg his forgiveness."

Iphicles suddenly grinned. "And so you will. Most lavishly, I assure you," he grimly promised. "Come on. I promised Iolaus I would give him advance warning if you arrived. I just didn't promise how much warning" He glanced over his shoulder as he walked back towards his horse. "He has the idea you don't want to be anywhere near him and plans on leaving Corinth if you arrive."

"You've kept him in Corinth waiting for me, haven't you?" Hercules quietly asked.

Iphicles stopped and studied his brother. "I've had riders out searching for you ever since Iolaus arrived," he explained. "Their orders were to get you to Corinth even if they had to tell you both Jason and I were dying."

Hercules grinned. "You're getting pretty good at this king stuff, aren't you?" he teased.

Iphicles snorted. "Jason's a good teacher." He frowned at the sound of riders approaching. "I told them...." He waited until his guards came to a halt. "I ordered you..."

"Pardon, your Majesty." The guard took a deep breath. "But we've received word the southern dam is breaking."

Iphicles swore softly under his breath. He glanced at Hercules. "If that dam goes, the last chance Corinth has of providing any sort of feed and grain is gone. Things are already bad enough, but without those fields, we'll be completely without." He turned back to the guard. "Ride with someone else," he ordered. "Hercules, take his horse." He looked at the approaching riders. "Someone bring me my horse!"

At any other time, Hercules would have been highly amused to see the guards scurrying to obey his brothers' commands. This time, however, he warily eyed the horse. "I'll cut across country," he began.

"You'll ride." Iphicles grabbed his brother's arm in a hard embrace and stared into Hercules' eyes. "I need you and your strength to help shore up that dam. Half the country-side is flooded and, frankly, I can't spare any time looking for you if you don't show up. Now get on that horse and ride or I'll tie to you to it." He dropped Hercules' arm and spun away to mount his own horse.

"Yes, your Majesty," Hercules sarcastically muttered under his breath.

---------------------
They were fighting a losing battle, Jason wearily conceded. Iphicles would have a fit, but he'd ordered a second dam system constructed of sandbags and rocks a half-mile from the other dam rather than trying to shore up the disintegrating dam. They'd lose some of the countryside but maybe they'd save even more. The problem was, when the other dam burst as he knew would soon happen, would their second system be strong enough to hold the oncoming flood of water?

Jason caught a glimpse of Iolaus' exhausted face as he stacked more and more rocks and sandbags in a never-ending cycle of lift, place, shove, stack, shove, lift, place, shove, stack, shove, lift...

"Jason!"

Jason quickly turned to see Iphicles throwing himself off his horse. Jason wearily trudged up the bank. "Iphicles, I had no choice..." he began. Then he saw the man standing next to the Corinthian king. "Hercules!"

"Jason," Hercules smiled. "You look exhausted."

"I'm not the only one." Jason gave Iphicles a quick look.

"The dam's not going to hold, is it?" Iphicles asked as he studied the workers below.

"No," Jason admitted. "But hopefully this one will." He pointed out into the darkness. "You can't see it too well in the darkness, but there are two dams. The first one is further out. It may not may not hold. If it doesn't, it might slow down the water enough that the pressure won't knock this one down."

Iphicles slowly nodded. "A good idea, Jason," he admitted.

"Iolaus and I came up with it," Jason shrugged. He glanced at Hercules who listened quietly even as his eyes scanned the men below for Iolaus.

"There's the fire!"

The cry came from below. They immediately spotted it.

"That's the signal," Jason muttered. He raised his voice. "The dam's gone! Everybody up here! NOW!"

Men immediately began sliding in the mud as they scrambled up the slope.

Iolaus glanced around. They needed another couple of bags at the top of the dam. "Get going!" he ordered the men around him. One man hesitated then followed the others. Iolaus grabbed the bags and began pulling himself upwards to the top of the makeshift dam.

"Iolaus!" Hercules saw what his friend was doing and immediately slid down the muddy slope towards him.

"Hercules!" Jason started to follow but Iphicles grabbed his arm. He glanced at the king whose eyes were fixed on the scene below.

"No, Jason," Iphicles softly advised. "Let them try."

Jason hesitated then realized Iphicles wasn't talking about the dam. "Idiots," he mumbled.

Iphicles gave him a knowing smile. "Agreed."

Just a little further...a little further...Iolaus heard the rush of water as it barreled towards the outer dam. Let it hold. Zeus, let it hold! He gasped as he felt someone below boosting him higher. He quickly slammed the sandbags into the dam bracing them with the rocks. "Let me down!" he yelled as he gave the bags a last shove.

Iolaus felt himself sliding down someone's body then caught in strong arms as he was gently lowered to the ground. He glanced up to see Hercules staring down at him with a worried exasperated expression.

"Are you crazy?" Hercules yelled even as he shoved his friend towards the bank. "Another couple of bags isn't going to make a difference!"

"They might!" Iolaus argued as he scrambled up the bank. He glanced over his shoulder to be sure Hercules was following him.

Jason and Iphicles grabbed their hands to pull them to the top of the bank. They sat in silence as the dark swirling waters struck the first dam. They held their breath for several long moments as the water splashed again and again at the rock and sandbags.

"The outer dam's holding!" Jason yelled.

Cheers went up around them as Iolaus slid onto his back and stared up at the sky. "Thank the gods," he muttered. He glanced over at Hercules who was sitting next to him...staring at him. "Where have you been?" he whispered.

Hercules gently smiled. "In Tartarus."

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