The demigod shaded his eyes from the bright sunlight. Any other day...any other time he’d be enjoying the beauty of the brilliant blue sky gently dotted with white fluffy clouds. Any other day...any other time and he’d be eager to return to Thebes.
Telling himself to keep his mind on what he was doing, he turned and began walking in the opposite direction towards the nearby woods.
Hercules whirled around looking for the source of the voice. Eyes narrowing, he used all his senses to scan the surrounding area.
Nothing. Just birds lazily flying overhead.
He slowly turned around to walk away.
“Show yourself!” Hercules demanded as he suspiciously looked around. He felt the breeze ruffle his hair. Somehow it felt...different as it brushed his skin.
‘Always stubborn. Go home.’
Hercules froze. “Hera?” he whispered.
Nothing. Just birds lazily flying overhead.
After a few moments of strained silence, Hercules turned towards Thebes and began to run.
Iolaus stood in the door of the forge watching as the sun slowly set. The colors of the sunset were a vivid red and violet streaked with orange and yellow. Subconsciously, Iolaus bit his lower lip. If the rumors were true and Zeus was dead, the vividly colored sunset seemed to herald change...change he wasn’t sure was going to be all that good.
‘Where are you, Herc?’ Iolaus silently demanded. His eyes strained as he stared at the nearby countryside as though willing his partner to suddenly appear. Determined, he walked into the cottage deciding to start out looking for Hercules. A sudden gust of wind slammed the door shut behind him.
All his senses alert, Iolaus spun around and stared at the door. He could hear the wind kicking up dirt and slamming it against the side of the cottage.
Iolaus spun around looking for the source of the voice. “Who’s there?” he called even as he reached for the sword propped by the fireplace. Gripping it comfortably in his hand, he turned to open the door.
Iolaus growled under his breath. “Why?” he demanded.
‘So stubborn. Stay inside.’
Iolaus took a couple of steps back from the door as the wind howled. The firm wooden door began to shake. “Not a problem,” he announced. “I’ll stay right here.” He frowned as he thought he heard a throaty chuckle.
The hunter uneasily glanced at the roof as the wind howled even louder. The little cottage wasn’t much, but it was all he had left to remind him of Ania and his infant son. Although he wasn’t home much any more, he didn’t want to see the cottage destroyed.
As the night wore on, the hunter kept telling himself it was just his overactive imagination. There was nothing outside except an unusually strong windstorm. But all his instincts told hm otherwise. Something was out there...waiting...wanting him to step outside.
Iolaus found himself crouched in one corner of the cottage across from the fireplace. He knelt there sword in hand, his senses alert for...something. ‘Wherever you are, Herc. Don’t pick tonight to show up.’
It was close to midday when Hercules paused at the top of the hill overlooking Iolaus’ forge. It looked like it had taken damage from some sort of storm. He pondered what kind of storm could have caused the damage to the cottage yet leave the surrounding area undisturbed. He’d traveled the entire night and hadn’t encountered any storm. After a moment’s consideration, the demigod didn’t like the answer he was coming up with.
Hercules could see Iolaus moving replacing parts of the thatched roof. He saw some recent repairs to one side of the cottage and frowned. The demigod shaded his eyes as the bright sunlight suddenly glinted off something metal by Iolaus’ side. ‘His sword? Why would Iolaus have his sword up there?’
Hercules frowned as he slowly walked down the hill. Despite his reluctance, Hercules knew his partner needed to know what was going on. He was just afraid something had already happened.
Iolaus glanced up seeing something move from the corner of his eyes. As he reached for his sword, he saw Hercules approaching and grinned. “Figures!” he shouted. “I just finished!”
Hercules wearily smiled. “What happened?”
Iolaus shrugged unsure of how to answer. “Had some sort of windstorm last night,” he finally replied as he climbed down.
“You always take your sword to work on the roof?” Hercules asked.
Iolaus frowned. “Herc, I swear something was prowling around outside during that storm,” he muttered as he laid the hammer on the ground by the ladder. “Nothing I could see. And I knew it wasn’t just the wind rattling the door.” He stopped as he turned and saw the expression on Hercules’ face. “Herc?”
The demigod stared at Iolaus for a few seconds then looked away. “I’m glad you stayed inside,” he said.
“Well, this voice kept telling me to stay inside,” his partner frowned. “Kind of a familiar voice, but I couldn’t place it.”
“Maybe the same voice that told me to come home,” Hercules muttered.
“Herc?” Iolaus put a hand on his partner’s arm. “Come on,” he suddenly decided. “You look like it’s been a while since you ate anything.”
“To be honest, Iolaus, I don’t remember the last time I ate,” Hercules ruefully admitted. He allowed the hunter to pull him into the cottage.
Wearily, the demigod sat on the floor by the fireplace then glanced around in confusion. “Iolaus? What happened to the chair?”
“Had to bust it up for firewood last night,” Iolaus called from the kitchen. “I wasn’t about to go outside for any.”
“Good plan,” Hercules muttered. He stretched out on the floor and tried to relax. “Any idea what was outside last night?”
“Nope,” Iolaus cheerfully replied. “I’d made up my mind to start out looking for you. All these crazy rumors about Zeus being dead has made things seem kinda weird, you know? Like that sunset last night. Anyway, this voice kept telling me to stay inside. And, Herc, I swear there was something out there. You know, you must have gotten part of that storm wherever you were last...” The hunter halted seeing the demigod asleep in front of the fireplace. He glanced at the plate of food and shrugged.
Chewing some bread and cheese, he walked into the bedroom and came back with a pillow and blanket. Kneeling next to his partner, he carefully eased the pillow under the demigod’s head then covered him with the brightly-colored blanket. He grinned as Hercules barely moved. “You must be exhausted, buddy,” he mumbled. He anxiously studied his friend’s face for a few moments. He’d seen Hercules frown in his sleep before but never like this. Whatever was going on wasn’t good.
A sudden gust of wind against the door brought the hunter to his feet. ‘I’m not busting up any more chairs’. Leaving the plate of food next to his sleeping partner, Iolaus grabbed his sword and headed outside for wood and water.
Hercules awoke to feel a hand on his shoulder. He stiffened and quickly sat up.
“Easy, Herc. It’s me,” Ioluas quietly assured him.
Hercules looked around. A fire was burning in the fireplace beside him, and it was dark outside. “How long have I been asleep?” he asked.
Iolaus shrugged. “It’s an hour past sundown,” he acknowledged with a slight grin. “You looked like you could use the sleep. But I think you need to eat something now.”
Hercules ran a hand through his hair as he sat in a more comforable position. He took the plate and mug Iolaus handed him. He sat the mug on the floor and began eating as the hunter sat across from him with his own plate.
“You want to tell me about that?” Iolaus asked with a curious look.
“About what?” Hercules frowned.
“The hair.” Iolaus tried not to smile. “I haven’t seen it that short since the Academy.”
“Oh.” Hercules slightly flushed as he shrugged. “I was in Plinth. There was a fire at the school. The wall collapsed as I was getting the last of the kids out.”
Iolaus’ blue eyes quickly scanned his partner’s body. “How badly were you hurt?” he demanded.
“Not that bad,” Hercules evaded. “But my hair was pretty scraggly looking. So I cut it.”
“Anybody hurt in the fire?” Iolaus asked taking a drink from his mug.
“Not seriously,” Hercules answered concentrating on his food.
‘Okay, it’s not the fire that’s bothering him.’ Iolaus studied the demigod closely for several minutes. “Herc?”
Hercules slowly raised his eyes to stare at his partner. He knew that tone of voice.
“Talk to me,” Iolaus quietly ordered.
Hercules stared into the calm eyes of his partner and slowly set his plate aside. “Zeus is dead,” he flatly replied as he stared into the fire.
Iolaus looked shocked. “There’ve been rumors about it,” he mused staring at the demigod. “Are you sure?”
“Oh yeah,” Hercules nodded with a grim expression. “I was the one who killed him.” After a moment’s silence, he forced himself to stare at his partner. The sympathy he saw in Iolaus’ eyes caused tears to well in his own. He quickly looked back into the fire. “It all had to do with Xena’s baby,” he began.
“Xena’s baby?” Iolaus interrupted. “Xena’s pregnant?”
Hercules nodded with a slight smile. “She’s had the baby,” he explained. “A beautiful little girl she named Eve.”
Iolaus grinned. “That’s great,” he beamed. “Maybe she and Gabrielle can bring the baby here. I know Xena’s tough and wouldn’t need the rest but...” His voice trailed off when Hercules frowned.
“Xena won’t be coming,” Hercules sighed. “We agreed I should separate from them to try and draw the attention of...the gods or Zeus’ followers away from them.”
Iolaus frowned. “What am I missing?” he asked. “What does Zeus’ death have to do with Xena’s baby?”
“The Fates foretold Xena’s baby would be the destruction of the Olympian gods,” Hercules carefully explained. “I didn’t know that when I met up with them just before the baby was born.” He glanced at Iolaus. “Zeus was determined to kill Xena’s baby.”
Iolaus sat back in stunned silence. “Then you had no choice,” he finally answered. He met Hercules’ eyes. “No choice at all.”
Hercules looked away. “I tried to talk with him,” he stressed. “But Zeus was adamant.” He gave a harsh laugh. “Hera sided with me.”
“WHAT?” Iolaus held up his hands. “Wait a minute.”
Hercules watched in confusion as Iolaus scrambled to his feet and disappeared into the kitchen. He returned in a few moments carrying a wineskin. “I need something stronger than water for this,” he muttered as he sat back down. He uncorked the wineskin and looked at his partner. “Let me get this straight. Xena’s pregnant with a child the Fates say is the downfall of the Olympian gods. Zeus wants to kill the baby. And Hera sides with you.” When the demigod nodded, Iolaus took a deep breath. “Hera sided with you?!” His blue eyes widened. “Hera,” he breathed. “That was her voice last night...telling me to stay inside.”
“And her voice telling me to come home,” Hercules quietly nodded.
Iolaus looked longingly at the wineskin then recorked it without drinking. “What happened to Hera?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Hercules admitted. “She helped me find Cronos’ rib. It could be used as a weapon against Zeus...to kill him if necessary.” He suddenly gave a harsh laugh that caused Iolaus to frown. “Ares tried to stop me. Hera showed up and attacked Ares.” He stared into the fire shaking his head again. “She confronted Zeus when I got Cronos’ rib. Gave me time to get back to Xena who was under attack and giving birth.”
Iolaus shook his head as though to clear it. “But Zeus showed up anyway?” When Hercules nodded, he frowned. “Did Zeus kill Hera?”
Hercules shrugged. “He was ready to kill anyone who stood in his path. Including me. I figure he killed her to get to me.”
Iolaus ran a hand through his curly hair. “What about the rest of the gods?” he quietly asked.
“Hades sided with Zeus,” Hercules recounted. “Since Ares attacked me, I figure he was on Zeus’ side as well. I don’t know about the others.”
“Herc, who takes Zeus’ place now?” Iolaus quietly asked. “Ares?”
Hercules shrugged and took a deep breath. “That’s one reason I figured it would be better to separate from Xena. There’ll be enough people looking to blame her. But I’m the one who...killed Zeus. I wouldn’t be surprised if all the Gods came after me.”
“Well, something was outside last night,” Iolaus grunted. “We gotta warn Jason and Iphicles just in case.”
“I’m so glad Mother is dead,” Hercules mumbled.
Iolaus stared at him in shock.
“I killed him, Iolaus,” Hercules whispered closing his eyes against the tears. “I killed my father. How can I ever explain that to Mother?”
“Herc...” Iolaus took a deep breath. “Do you honestly think Alcmene would have sided with Zeus? Not the Alcmene I knew! She would have been right there with you throwing whatever she could lay her hands on at Zeus! And probably hitting him with whatever she threw! There’s no way she would have let him kill a newborn child without going through her first!”
Hercules opened his eyes and took a deep ragged breath. “I’m leaving in the morning,” he quietly said. “You warn Iphicles and Jason.”
Iolaus stared at his partner in silence. “Herc, you’ve never won this argument before,” he pointed out. “What makes you think you’re going to win it now?”
“Because I’m not going to argue with you about it,” Hercules answered still staring into the fire. “I killed the King of the Gods. I killed my own father!” The words came through gritted teeth. “Whatever payment the Fates or Furies demand, I won’t have anyone else endangered by it.”
“Too late for that,” Iolaus lightly argued. “Herc, it’s no secret we’re partners. Whatever was outside last night wasn’t waiting for you. It was there for me. If you go off without me, I’m coming after you just as soon as I warn Jason and Iphicles. But I’d feel a lot better if you were by my side covering my back. And I know I’d feel a lot better if I was by your side covering your back.”
Hercules uncurled his legs and buried his face against his raised knees his arms holding his bent legs close to his body. The emotions he’d held in since Zeus’ death slowly escaped him, and he began rocking back and forth in grief. “There are no friends for us on Olympus,” he muttered through the tears. “Don’t you understand, Iolaus? If you come with me and you...die...Hades isn’t going to let you come back. He sided with Zeus! I won’t get you back! And I won’t lose you again! I can’t go through that another time!” He tried to catch his breath. “I doubt even Aphrodite would lift a finger to help us now.”
Slowly Iolaus pulled the blanket around his friend’s shoulders and pulled him close. He wrapped his arms around Hercules and rocked with him. “I think we’ve done fine without their help before,” he quietly pointed out. “Sure, their help’s been useful sometimes.” He gently smiled. “But we’ve always relied on each other first and foremost anyway.” He waited for a moment. “Right?” He felt Hercules’ head move against his shoulder.
The hunter took a deep breath. “If I die, Hercules, then I die,” he quietly continued. “I get the feeling the next time is for keeps anyway. So whether I’m fighting by your side or fall off the roof, it’s not going to matter.” He quickly hugged his best friend. “So we’re in this together. Back-to-back just like always. Just like we promised.”
Hercules nodded. He felt the tight knot in his chest slowly beginning to dissolve. Slowly the warmth of his friend’s love and concern began to melt the chill around his heart. “Thank you, Iolaus,” he whispered. “I really am worried about you coming with me. But I’m glad you’re doing it anyway. It...makes things a lot easier to bear.”
“Not a problem, buddy.” Iolaus hugged his partner closer allowing him to draw strength from the hunter’s solid body.
‘I don’t know why you did it, Hera. But thanks for sending him home.’ Iolaus hoped wherever she was, Hera heard his silent gratitude. It felt strange, being grateful to Hera. But he accepted it with no further question.
Outside the cottage, the wind stirred the nearby trees as order strugged to form from chaos.
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