THE LONG ROAD HOME





((This story takes place after Maze of the Minotaur and before The Wrong Path. In my own infinite wisdom, I’ve played a little with the timeline. If TPTB can do it, so can I. Thanks as always to Martha for her invaluable betaing & suggestions.))




The sun shone through the thick overhang of leaves as the two men walked along a well-worn path. Birds cheerfully chirped and flew overhead as though aware the two men posed no threat to them. All in all, it was a beautiful day.

Iolaus glanced up at his partner from the corner of his eyes. Hercules had been quieter than normal...much too quiet as far as Iolaus was concerned. Learning the monster, Minotaur, had been his half-brother was bad enough. But having to fight...and kill that same half-brother was a weight hard enough for anyone to shoulder. Even the son of Zeus.

‘Zeus.’ Iolaus almost choked on the word. ‘His fault the Minotaur was the way he was. Then he dumped it all on Herc’s shoulders knowing one of them was going to die in that fight.’

Hearing a slight sound from his partner, Hercules quickly glanced at the blonde. Iolaus had been quiet during their journey home. Too quiet as far as the demigod was concerned. Usually, the hunter would talk about anything and everything...making any journey, short or long, more enjoyable than expected.

‘What do you expect? Jokes? Songs? Bardic tales of epic proportions? The Minotaur wrapped him in that foul cocoon and nearly killed him.’ Flushed with guilt, Hercules laid a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You okay, Iolaus?”

The blonde quizzically looked up at his friend. “Sure. Why?”

Hercules shrugged, removing his hand. “You’re just awfully quiet.”

Iolaus smiled to himself. There were times the demigod was so transparent in his concern. “I was just thinking.” He adopted a serious expression. “You know, I gotta think about Philip’s future.”

Hercules frowned at the mention of Iolaus’ young son. “Philip’s only three. I think you have time to plan his future.”

“You can’t start too soon, Herc,” Iolaus disagreed. “After all, I’ve already got his bride selected.” He grinned to himself when the demigod almost choked.

“BRIDE?!”

“Yeah.” Iolaus nodded, ignoring his partner’s reaction. “She’s a sweetheart. A real beauty. Comes from good family, too.” ‘Poor Herc. He doesn’t know whether to lecture or throttle me.’ He edged closer to the demigod and elbowed him in the ribs. “So, what do you say, Herc? My son. Your daughter.”

Hercules shook his head and chuckled. “I don’t know, Iolaus. I’d have to know more about the boy’s prospects.” He critically eyed the blonde. “I hear his father isn’t the most serious person.”

“Baseless rumors,” Iolaus airily denied. “Besides, the girl’s grandmother would love it.”

“I bet she would,” Hercules laughed. “Aeson and Klonus might have some objections.” He laughed again. “Just how did Philip convince them to dig around in the pig pen for his lost ball?”

“Hey, they’re a lot older,” Iolaus cheerfully protested. “They probably just wanted to show off. You know...being older...bigger...stronger.”

“I’ll have to warn them about Philip’s ability to lead them into trouble,” Hercules sighed. “Speaking from personal experience, you understand.” He grinned when Iolaus giggled. “Besides, I think Ilea has a huge crush on her Uncle Eye-O-Lus.”

“She has good taste,” Iolaus grinned. “Takes after her mother in falling for good-looking men.” He managed not to laugh out loud when the demigod nearly blushed.

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It was mid-afternoon when they reached the crossroads. The two heroes paused then shook clasped arms.

“Come over tomorrow,” Hercules invited with a grin. “We’ll discuss Philip’s prospects.”

“Can’t. I really ought to spend some time with Chloe.” Iolaus shook his head, thinking of Ania’s sister. “Even though she was just visiting, she was good enough to stay longer and watch Philip for me.”

“Then whenever you want,” Hercules smiled. He squeezed Iolaus’ shoulder then watched as the hunter disappeared around the curve of the path. Then he turned and walked in the opposite direction towards his own home.

It was barely a half sunwidth’s later he saw a group of riders heading in his direction. He paused, surprised to see his mother on one of the horses. He was even more surprised to see Jason riding beside her.

“Hercules!” Jason called. The King of Corinth kicked his horse into a fast trot. Alcmene was close behind him.

“Mother? Jason, what’s wrong?” The demigod anxiously caught the bridle of his mother’s horse.

“Hercules, where’s Iolaus?” Alcmene demanded.

“He’s gone home. Why? What’s wrong?” Hercules demanded.

“Philip’s dead,” Alcmene half-sobbed.

“What? No, Mother, that’s...oh gods.” The demigod rested his forehead against his mother’s leg. He remembered the small laughing child who had called him “Unca Herkees” and wanted to scream in denial of that loss. Looking up in shock he murmured, “How?”

“There’s been almost an epidemic that’s affecting mostly children,” Jason grimly explained. “Some sort of fever. The only good thing about it is that it strikes quickly. Most are dead within hours.”

“Deianeira...the children...” Hercules gasped. His mind shrank from the horror his best friend was going to endure. He couldn’t conceive of the loss of his own family. He suddenly closed his eyes, again thinking of his friend’s child that he loved as much as his own.

“They’re fine,” Alcmene assured him. “Jason brought some healers from Corinth. They’ve almost got it stopped.”

“Where’s Philip?” Hercules muttered, forcing his eyes open.

Alcmene squeezed his shoulder. “He died this morning. So did Chloe.” She gazed into Hercules’ anguished blue eyes. “Chloe’s husband, Xanos, came the day before yesterday to bring her home. He was there when she and Philip died.” She hesitated. “I’d stopped by this morning to see how they were. I’d seen Chloe yesterday, and she wasn’t well.” She didn’t mention that Xanos had almost threatened her into leaving.

“Xanos has never liked Iolaus,” Hercules muttered with a glance at Jason. “You were heading to Iolaus’?”

Jason silently nodded. Like Alcmene, he was loathe to mention Xanos’ actions towards her. Although it wouldn’t have bothered him in the slightest to knock of a few of the man’s teeth out if it hadn’t been he was probably grief-stricken.

“I’m cutting across country,” Hercules decided. “Get there as soon as you can.” Before anyone could say anything, the demigod was disappearing into the nearby trees.

Alcmene silently glanced at Jason then kicked her horse into a gallop.

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Whistling under his breath, Iolaus walked past the barn. Automatically glancing inside, he heard the cow restlessly moving around. ‘Probably needs to be milked. I’ll get Philip to help. He likes that.’

Grinning at the memory of Hercules’ face when he teased his friend about Philip and Ilea, he admitted the thought held a lot of appeal. For years he’d wondered if he was a good enough warrior to travel and partner with the favored son of Zeus. Those travels had been marked with perils not only thrown at them from the gods but at each other as they struggled to find their place in the world and with each other.

The idea that his son would be an acceptable husband for his best friend’s son was almost more than he could accept.

Rounding the corner to the front of his cottage, he suddenly stopped when he saw Chloe’s husband, Xanos, leaning against a wagon. “Xanos...when did you get here?” he asked. He frowned, suddenly realizing there were no sounds from the cottage...smells of cooking food...even the very air around him suddenly seemed oppressive.

“Two days ago. To bring my wife home. She was only supposed to be gone a week.” Xanos, a large dark-haired man, coldly stared at the hunter.

Never friends with his wife’s brother-by-marriage, Iolaus hesitated. “I had to...”

“Go play hero,” Xanos sneered. “Didn’t think a thing about leaving your son, did you?”

Iolaus flushed. “Chloe said it wasn’t a problem.”

“Well, it was a problem,” Xanos replied in a low, dangerous voice.

Iolaus’ eyes flickered to the half-open door of his cottage. Ignoring Xanos, he rushed into the house. “Philip! Philip! Daddy’s home!” He quickly noted the old ashes in the hearth and the cold air. In the back of his mind, he recognized a familiar frightening odor but refused to name it. Biting back a sudden wave of nausea, he tossed his sword and carrysack to one side and rushed back outside. “Where’s Philip?” he demanded.

“He got sick,” Xanos coldly answered. Crossing his arms, he leaned against the side of the wagon. “I left my own home...my own children to get my wife. To come back to HER family. When I got here, Chloe was tending to Philip...and sick herself.”

Iolaus grabbed Xanos by his tunic and pulled him close. “WHERE IS MY SON?” he screamed.

“In the Elysian Fields,” Xanos coldly answered. “With my wife.” He roughly shoved Iolaus away hard enough the blonde bounced off the wall of the cottage. “You killed her.”

Iolaus’ eyes widened in shock. “You’re lying,” he breathed.

“If you hadn’t gone off to play hero with that...HALF-GOD,” Xanos sneered. “If you’d been home with your son like you should have been, Chloe would have been safe at HER home. You killed her, Iolaus. Everyone around you dies. I never want to see you around my family again.” He grabbed Iolaus by the shoulders. “I’m taking my wife home to bury. I buried your son next to Ania.” Dragging the shocked blonde by the arms, he shoved Iolaus in the direction of the grove of trees a few hundred yards from the cottage.

Iolaus fell to his knees, still stunned by the words Xanos had thrown at him. “No,” he whispered. Closing his eyes, he sat on the ground. “No.”

“Yes,” Xanos hissed. “Damn you to Tartarus, Iolaus. You killed my wife...and I hope you burn for it. I hope you never forget. I pray no one ever cares for you again!” Angrily kicking Iolaus in the ribs, Xanos then turned and walked away.

Gasping in pain and fighting tears, Iolaus never heard Xanos drive away. He focused on the graves of his wife and son. Painfully, he began crawling towards them.

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“IOLAUS! IOLAUS!” The demigod skidded to a stop by the cottage door. Slamming the half-open door completely open, he ran inside. He saw Iolaus’ sword and carrysack lying on the floor. “IOLAUS! ANSWER ME!”

The shouted words bounced off the walls of the small cottage. In his mind’s eye, he saw Iolaus playing with his son before the hearth, both father and son laughing and happy.

‘Ania.’ With that thought, the demigod ran outside towards the grave of Iolaus’ wife. He immediately saw Iolaus kneeling over a second grave. His heart in his throat, Hercules ran towards his friend, startled to see dirt flying in all directions.

“Iolaus!” Hercules shouted. When he reached his friend, he was stunned to see that Iolaus was digging down through the small grave. “Iolaus! Stop that!”

“Philip’s down there. I gotta get him.”

Saddened, Hercules reached down. “Iolaus. Stop.”

“NO!” Iolaus pulled away from his friend’s grip. “I gotta save him. Herc...help me...please, Herc...help me..”

Hating himself, the demigod reached down and physically pulled Iolaus away from the grave. “He’s gone, Iolaus. Stop it.”

“NO! HERC! HELP ME!” The small hunter frantically tried to escape the demigod’s grasp.

Determined, Hercules held onto his friend, wrapping his arms around Iolaus and holding him close. “Stay with me, Iolaus. Stay with me,” he ordered. Frightened that Iolaus would find a way to get free, he used his leg muscles to launch them backwards from the graves. Turning as they rolled away, he got between Iolaus and the graves. “Look at me, Iolaus! Look at me!” he demanded.

Gasping, the pupils of his eyes almost turned black, Iolaus struggled to free himself.

Almost frantic in worry, Hercules roughly shook his friend. “Dammit, Iolaus! I said LOOK AT ME!”

The hunter’s head snapped back with an audible crack.

Frightened that he’d hurt his friend, Hercules loosened his grip. “Iolaus?”

The blonde blinked once...then again. “Herc?”

“Easy, Iolaus,” the demigod gently urged. “Breathe, okay? Look at me and breathe.” He heard nearby voices and took a deep breath. “Mother! Jason! Over here!”

“Herc?” Iolaus stared at his friend in confusion and agony. “Philip...”

“I know,” Hercules gently interrupted. He felt Iolaus stiffen in his grasp. “Iolaus. Just look at me and breathe.” Over Iolaus’ shoulder, he saw Alcmene and Jason running towards them. “Iolaus...I need you to go with mother. It’s important.”

“Alcmene?”

The demigod’s heart twisted at the lost look on his friend’s face. “Yes, I need you to go with mother,” he softly repeated. “I’m trusting her to you.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Dazed, the hunter nodded.

“Mother, Iolaus will see you home.” The demigod looked at his mother over his friend’s head. “He’ll protect you until we get back.”

Alcmene nodded in understanding. “I need you, Iolaus.”

“Iolaus, can you ride?” Jason asked in concern. “If so, take my horse.”

“You know I can ride, Jason.” The hunter stared at the King of Corinth, seemingly not surprised to see him there. “Herc, shouldn’t I stay with you?”

“No,” the demigod quickly answered. “I need you to protect mother. Using those Old Hunter’s Tricks.”

“Oh. Okay.” Iolaus unprotestingly allowed Alcmene to lead him away.

“Iolaus. Stay on the main road,” Hercules urged. “It’s safe.” He and Jason stood shoulder to shoulder to block Iolaus’ view of the graves in case he turned around.

“Sure, Herc. Main road. Don’t worry,” Iolaus nodded.

“Come, Iolaus.” Alcmene gently led him to the horses.

Silently, Hercules and Jason watched as they rode away. Then Jason sighed in relief. He glanced at the demigod then over his shoulder. “Great Gods,” he murmured.

“He thought Philip was trapped,” Hercules unevenly explained. “He was trying to rescue him.”

Remembering how proud Iolaus had been of his small son, Jason shook his head. “I can’t even imagine...Hercules, is he going to get through this?”

“He will,” the demigod grimly assured him. Resolutely, he turned and knelt by the grave.

Together the two friends replaced the mounds of dirt on Philip’s grave. Afterwards, they quietly sat in the sun each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Hercules looked at Jason. “You head back to mother’s. I have something I need to do.”

Jason sighed. “You’re not going after Xanos.”

Hercules’ blue eyes were cold. “He had to have been the one to tell Iolaus. I just need to have a quick talk with him.”

“You mean a quick fight,” Jason argued. “What good will that do?” When the demigod didn’t answer, Jason grabbed his friend’s wrist. “Well? What good will it do? The man lost his wife, remember? He was grief-stricken himself. Do you think that’s going to help Iolaus?”

The demigod finally sighed and relaxed. “No. Iolaus is more important.”

Jason got to his feet, brushing the dirt off his pants. He watched, from the corner of his eyes, as Hercules did the same.

“How bad is the epidemic?” Hercules asked.

Jason began walking towards the road. Relieved when the demigod followed, he answered. “Pretty bad. A lot of children were lost. Some adults. The healers have it almost whipped though. They’ll stay as long as they’re needed.”

Hercules silently nodded. “I suppose I should be grateful that Chloe and Deianeira didn’t get along.”

Jason easily nodded. “It kept your children away when Philip got sick.”

Hercules stopped and looked over his shoulder at the empty cottage. Without a word, he went inside and retrieved Iolaus’ sword and carrysack. Then, silently, the two friends slowly walked away.

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Alcmene frowned when she saw Hercules walking alone towards the house. She met her son at the door with a frown.

“Jason went to tell Deianeira,” Hercules quietly explained. Stepping past his mother, he placed Iolaus’ sword and carrysack by the door. “They’ll be here shortly.” He felt his mother’s arms slide around him and momentarily leaned against her. “Where’s Iolaus?” he mumbled.

“Upstairs.” Alcmene pulled away and wiped her eyes. “He never said one word on the way here. When we got here, he put the horses in the barn then went upstairs.” She worriedly look at her son. “I’ve never seen him this quiet.”

Hercules silently nodded. “I’ll go sit with him.” He kissed his mother on the forehead then quietly walked upstairs. He knew Iolaus would have gone to the bedroom that had been the demigod’s when they were children.

Quietly opening the door, he saw Iolaus lying face down on the huge bed, his hands tangled in his hair. Smiling despite himself, he saw Iolaus’ boots lying next to the bed. Long years of Alcmene berating them about putting their dirty boots on the bed must have still stayed with the hunter. Gently closing the door, Hercules sat on the floor next to the bed.

“Herc?”

Hercules turned his head towards the voice. “Yeah, it’s me.” When Iolaus didn’t reply, he leaned against the bed.

“Philip’s dead.”

Hercules winced at the dead tone of his friend’s voice. “I know, buddy,” he softly answered. He sat quietly in the oppressive silence not knowing what to say. Then he turned his head when he felt a touch on his shoulder.

“Philip’s dead.”

Hercules grabbed Iolaus’ hand this time more reassured at the emotion in his friend’s voice. “I know, buddy,” he repeated. Carefully moving to sit on the side of the bed, he gently pulled Iolaus against him. “I know.” Remembering the laughing child who’d brought so much happiness to his friend, he blinked back his own tears.

“They’re gone. Everybody.”

“I’m here,” Hercules softly answered. Keeping a tight grip on his friend’s hand, he hesitantly rubbed his friend’s shoulder. “Mother’s here. Jason’s here. Deianeira’s here.” He heard Iolaus sob and pulled him close. Sliding down on the bed next to his friend, he hugged Iolaus close to him. “We’re here, buddy. You’re not alone. Ever.”

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Alcmene nervously jumped when she heard the howl from upstairs. Wincing, she quickly walked outside. For some reason, she felt an intruder to Iolaus’ grief. Sitting on the porch, she shed her own tears.

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Two days’ later, Jason stood next to his horse, talking quietly with Iolaus. His personal guard of a half-dozen soldiers, respectively waited some distance away. The two friends stood just outside Alcmene’s barn. They knew Hercules was watching from the house, having already said his farewell to Jason.

“Herc’s worried,” Iolaus mentioned.

“You think?” Jason answered with his own rueful smile. He hesitated then continued, “Iolaus, think about this, will you?”

“I have,” Iolaus quietly assured him.

“No, you haven’t.” Jason stubbornly looked at his friend. With his horse between them and the house, he knew Hercules couldn’t see their expressions.

“I can’t stay,” Iolaus muttered. He gently patted the horse.

“Yes, you can,” Jason firmly answered. When Iolaus refused to look at him, he sighed. “If you don’t want to stay here, then come to Corinth.”

Iolaus finally stared at his friend. “Thank you.”

Jason shook his head. “You’re still going to leave, aren’t you?”

“I have to.” Iolaus saw the frown on his friend’s face. “Jason...I pray you never go through this. But if you ever do...you’ll understand. I simply can’t stay.”

Jason’s dark eyes flickered towards then house then back at Iolaus. “You want me to stick around until you tell him?”

Iolaus shook his head. “You’ve done so much already, Jason. And you have a kingdom to think about.”

“I have friends to think about.” Jason lightly tapped the blonde on his arm. “Go ahead and do whatever you need to do, Iolaus.” He gave his friend a quick hug. “Let me know when you get back.”

Iolaus watched as his friend mounted his horse. “Jason...I...” He blinked when Jason leaned down and squeezed his shoulder.

“You’ll be back,” Jason quietly smiled. Before the blonde could answer, he wheeled his horse around and rode towards his escort.

“No, I won’t,” Iolaus whispered.

From the house, Hercules watched as Jason rode away. Then he saw Iolaus’ shoulders slump and the blonde walk away. He felt something cold and clammy run up his spine. ‘This doesn’t look good.’

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“I’m leaving, Hercules.”

The demigod looked at his friend in surprise. He’d been chopping wood while Iolaus drew water from the well. In the distance, he could hear his children happily playing with his wife and mother. “Are you sure? You know mother loves having you here.”

Iolaus raised his eyes to stare at his friend. “I mean..away from here. I’m going East.”

“East? East where?” Hercules frowned. Once again, he felt a cold clammy sensation run up his spine.

“Just...East,” Iolaus shrugged. “I can’t stay here any more, Hercules.” He shook his head. “I can’t.”

“Oh.” Hercules found himself staring at the chopped wood as though he’d never seen it before. “How long?” When Iolaus didn’t answer, he quickly looked up. “How long?”

“I don’t know,” Iolaus quietly admitted. “Maybe...” He shrugged. “I just don’t know.” He shrugged once more. “You know...I learned some of those Eastern fighting moves. I thought...maybe I’d go there and really study them.”

‘He’s already gone. I’ve lost him.’ Shaking off that thought, the demigod quickly spoke. “Are you sure? You know we...”

“I know, Hercules.” Iolaus smiled. “I know.”

“When...” Hercules took a deep breath to steady his voice. “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow.” Iolaus picked up the bucket and walked towards the house.

As the demigod watched his friend walk away, he gripped the axe handle so tightly it splintered.

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The sun had not yet risen when Iolaus quietly slipped down the steps. He hesitated, looking around the house that had been a home and refuge for him many times in his life. Memories of his younger self happily wrestling with Hercules mingled with memories of watching his son toddle across the floor to a smiling Alcmene.

“Iolaus.”

The blonde spun around, startled at the quiet voice behind him. “Alcmene? What are you doing up?”

Alcmene sadly smiled. “Did you think I’d let you leave without something to eat?” She held out a small bag.

Iolaus blinked. “You didn’t...”

“Of course I did,” Alcmene briskly interrupted. She pressed the bag into Iolaus’ hand. “Now put it away for later.”

Iolaus slightly smiled as he obeyed. Retying the carrysack, he hesitantly looked at the older woman. “I didn’t want to say goodbye like this. That’s why I said it last night.”

“I know,” Alcmene nodded. “But last night you wouldn’t have listened to what I want to say now.”

Iolaus sighed. “Please...this isn’t easy.”

“I know,” Alcmene softly answered. “And I know you don’t intend to return...no matter what Hercules thinks.”

“I didn’t...I couldn’t tell him that,” Iolaus miserably muttered. He almost wrung his hands. “I couldn’t...hurt him like that, Alcmene. I just couldn’t.”

“I know.” Alcmene gently took his hands in hers. “I’ve known you since you were a child, Iolaus. And you could never deliberately hurt someone like that.” She waited until he raised his eyes to hers. “But you know he’ll be hurt.”

“I know,” Iolaus whispered. “But I...I can’t stay.”

“Then you promise ME, Iolaus. You promise me here and now. No matter how long it takes. You promise me you’ll be back someday.” Alcmene squeezed his hands.

Iolaus stared at the woman he thought of as a second mother for a long time. Then he nodded. “I promise,” he whispered. “But I don’t know...”

“...when,” Alcmene finished with a sad smile. “I know. But your word is good enough for me.”

Shaking, Iolaus pulled her into his arms. “Good-bye,” he whispered. Before she could reply, he pulled away.

Alcmene silently watched as he shouldered his sword and carrysack. She smiled through her tears as he waved and walked away.

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The sun had barely risen over the horizon when Iolaus approached the crossroads. It was another beautiful day. A few whispy clouds floated overhead. But the natural beauty around him didn’t affect him the way it normally would. Deep in his heart, he knew this was the last time he would walk this road. Even as much as he wanted to imprint the surrounding scenery in his memory, the pain in his heart refused to grant him even that much relief.

He suddenly stopped in his tracks as he stared at the figure leaning against the crossroad marker. The man, with arms folded across his chest, looked up as though realizing he was being watched.

Iolaus sighed. “Okay, Hercules. How did you know I’d be coming this way?” he called out as he approached.

The demigod slightly shrugged. “Maybe...after all these years...I just know you?” He eyed the carrysack his friend over Iolaus’ shoulder. “Got everything you need? I know mother didn’t let you out of the house without food.”

Iolaus half smiled. “Met me at the front door with it,” he admitted.

Hercules silently nodded. “I was thinking...I could come with you,” he suggested. “You know...for a while.”

“No, you can’t,” Iolaus quietly answered.

Hercules sighed. “Yeah, I kinda thought you’d say that.” He threw his friend a rueful smile. “Had to try.”

“Yeah. You had to try,” Iolaus nodded.

“I’ll keep an eye on your...place,” Hercules said. “Make sure...I’ll take care of it.”

Iolaus held out his hand. “Thanks, Hercules. For everything.”

Pushing himself away from the crossroad marker, Hercules took his friend’s arm in a warrior’s clasp.

To Iolaus’ surprise, the demigod pulled him into a tight embrace. “Travel safely, my friend. Please. And know that you’re not alone. We all love you. And we’re with you in spirit. You’ll always be in our hearts.”

Before Iolaus could answer, the demigod pushed himself away from his friend and walked away. The hunter stood, shocked into silence, watching as the demigod disappeared around the bend in the road. It would be so easy to walk after his friend...to stay there...cocooned in the safety and warmth of their love and protection. Or go to Corinth where Jason would...’Would what? Protect me?’

With a sigh, Iolaus looked East. The rising sun shone warmly on his face. A cool breeze lifted the hair from his neck. Slowly he began walking East.

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Deianeira wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. She shivered in the cool night air as she walked from the house towards the barn. She saw her husband leaning against the barn, staring towards the East.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Hercules quietly said as she approached.

“I know,” Deianeira smiled. “You were tossing and turning.”

“Sorry,” the demigod apologized. He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close.

“You’re cold,” his wife mentioned.

“I’m fine,” Hercules denied.

‘I doubt that.’ Deianeira snuggled against him. “He’ll be back.”

“He never promised that,” Hercules quietly argued.

“He never said he wouldn’t,” his wife pointed out.

Hercules stared up at the full moon. “I can’t help...worrying about him.” He sighed. “When we were kids we promised...each other to fight at each other’s backs. To always be together. To watch out for each other.” He looked down at his wife in hurt confusion. “Why wouldn’t he let me do that for him now? Why would he leave?”

“Because he felt he needed to get away.” Deianeira shook her head. “I don’t understand it either. But it’s important to him, Hercules. You have to trust him.” She hesitated. “And it’s that promise that will bring him home.” ‘I hope,’ she silently added.

“He wasn’t here when Philip died...because of me,” Hercules quietly agonized. “Maybe he blames me for that. And that’s more important than any promise.”

“No!” Deianeira frowned as she gently shook him. “That’s not true. And you know it.”

Slowly Hercules hugged her close to him. “I hope so,” he whispered. He looked back up at the full moon. “I just wish I knew he’s okay.”

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TWO YEARS LATER

The old man leaned on his walking stick. The sun was a fiery orange ball in the sky as it sank in the Western sky. Not for the first time, he found the blonde Greek staring off into the distance, a slight frown on his face. At his approach, the Greek turned and smiled. “A beautiful sunset, Master,” he greeted.

The old man calmly stared at the gently rolling countryside. The setting sun turned the nearby fields golden with their promise of the coming harvest. A gentle breeze from the South caught the tall grasses, causing them to sway in their own silent rhythm.

“Is it the beauty of the setting sun that keeps attracting you or the direction, Iolaus?” Tao Li calmly asked. The gentle breeze caught his saffron-colored robes, billowing them out from his small frame. When he didn’t receive an answer, the old man silently nodded. “It’s time for you to leave.” His slight frail form leaned heavily on his walking stick. His shrewd dark eyes glanced at the blonde-haired man before turning away.

Iolaus frowned as he watched the old man carefully pick his way across the stone walkway. “Are you saying I have nothing more to learn?”

“Only if you intend on dropping dead,” Tao Li scornfully replied. “Walk with me.”

Iolaus silently followed his mentor. He’d spent well over a year at the small village at first studying unarmed fighting techniques from the soldiers stationed nearby. The commander, Ki Zin, had methodically beaten Iolaus from sunup to sunset for almost two weeks before realizing the Greek was stubborn enough to stay. Then he’d taken Iolaus to the village elder.

Iolaus’ first impression of Tao Li was that he reminded him of Cheiron. But the thin old man was not a warrior...he was a philosopher. Iolaus had found himself remembering almost forgotten teachings from Cheiron as the old man taught Iolaus disciplines of the mind. “Conquer the mind and then you will conquer the body,” he’d repeatedly told his student. Often times, the words were emphasized with a sharp rap of his walking stick against Iolaus’ ankles.

To Iolaus’ surprise, he followed his mentor to a small garden. This was Tao Li’s private place. Very few were invited to join him in this spot. The old man gracefully sat on a stone bench, spreading his robes around him. With his stick, he indicated for Iolaus to sit on the ground next to a small pool of water.

Iolaus unconsciously breathed in the sweet scene of the flowers as he sat cross-legged on the ground. Not for the first time, he silently admitted how much Alcmene would love this garden. As always, the memory of his life in Greece pained him although he allowed nothing of his inner turmoil to show on his face.

Tao Li studied his pupil for several moments. At first, he’d done this to simply see how long it would take Iolaus to start fidgeting. Soon, the young blonde Greek had realized what the old man was doing. His innate stubbornness pushed him to try to outwait the old man. So far, he hadn’t done it. But Iolaus felt some measure of satisfaction that he could wait longer than he’d ever thought possible.

“You did not come here to learn,” Tao Li finally pronounced. “You came here to hide.” He saw Iolaus’ blue eyes flicker away momentarily. “The time for hiding is over.”

“I was talking with Ki Zin,” Iolaus admitted. “I was thinking about traveling further East. He’s told me stories about the Samurai.” After only a few seconds, he shifted uncomfortably under the old man’s intense gaze.

“I said the time for hiding is over.” Tao Li solemnly repeated. “In the early mornings when you meditate, you look Westward. In the evenings, you stare Westward. Why is that?”

Iolaus hesitated. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.

The old man sighed. “A wise man allows his heart and spirit to guide him. If you have not learned this, you have learned nothing.”

Iolaus finally stared at the ground. “Years ago, I swore an oath with my best friend. To always fight by each other’s side...to watch each other’s back...to die together in battle.”

“And this oath means nothing to you.” Tao Li evenly stated.

Iolaus’s head snapped up, and he stared at his mentor with anger in his blue eyes. “That’s not true!” he sharply denied.

“Explain why you speak of traveling East yet you stare towards the West,” Tao Li demanded.

Iolaus closed his eyes. His shoulders momentarily slumped. “I can’t, Master.”

“You have learned much,” Tao Li admitted. “More than...some believed possible.” He saw the flicker of a smile on the blonde’s face. “The choice you make now will determine your destiny.”

“Do not all choices affect our destinies, Master?” Iolaus asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

“Some more than others.” Tao Li sternly replied. “This oath you speak of...you must decide how important it is.”

“To me, it’s very important,” Iolaus softly answered after a moment. “But...my friend is the son of a God...son of Zeus, the King of our Gods. As children, he had need of me. I never looked at him as...different. Bigger and stronger...but just another kid.” He shook his head. “I...can’t imagine he would have need of me now.”

“This...half-god. He is arrogant then?” Tao Li asked. “To demean you in this fashion?”

“Herc?! He’s the LEAST arrogant person you’d ever meet!” Iolaus exclaimed with a scowl. “And he’s never demeaned anyone, least of all me!”

“Then you demean yourself,” Tao Li pronounced. “And that is unworthy of you and what you have learned.” Solemnly, he rose to his feet. “Tonight, you will stay within the temple. You will meditate and think. You will choose.”

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

The first time Iolaus had stayed in the temple, he’d been excited...certain he was to learn answers to great mysteries. He’d been disappointed the only thing he’d learned was that it was impossible to stay awake while breathing the sweet incense and listening to the low melodic chants of those who had dedicated their lives to the temple. He’d received a couple of Tao Li’s infamous raps against his ankles with his walking stick the next morning when he grumbled his disappointment.

Now he found the shadows created by the burning braziers comforting. The smell of sweet incense calmed his thoughts. The melodic chants reached into his breast and echoed the gentle thudding of his heart.

If he wanted, he could dedicate himself to the temple...stay there for the rest of his life to learn about himself and the world both around and within him. If he chose this path, he knew Tao Li would not refuse him.

‘The time for hiding is over.’

Automatically relaxing the muscles of his curled body, Iolaus closed his eyes and began sinking into a meditative state. As tempting as it might be at times, he knew his place was not within the temple. His spirit would not allow itself to be restrained.

' I was thinking about traveling further East. He’s told me stories about the Samurai.’

Ki Zin’s stories had been about the fabled warriors of an Eastern island. Warriors who lived and died by a strict code of honor. The tall warrior had warned him the Samurai were hostile to those not of their island. Yet Iolaus believed he could prove his worth to them...learn from them.

The incense seemed to thicken around him, hanging heavy in the air as he breathed. He heard the thudding of his heart grow louder.

‘Years ago, I swore an oath with my best friend. To always fight by each other’s side...to watch each other’s back...to die together in battle.’

Drowsily, Iolaus smiled remembering the intensity of the moment when the two boys had sworn their oath. No matter where he traveled or how long he lived, he knew he would forever remember the exact moment their blood mingled.

‘But...my friend is the son of a god...son of Zeus, the King of our Gods. As children, he had need of me. I never looked at him as anything but another kid. Bigger and stronger...but just another kid. I...can’t imagine he would have need of me now.’

Iolaus felt his spirit soaring...flying...he almost gasped at the feeling of pure freedom. The sound of battle drew his spirit farther and farther from the temple. Before he realized it, he was watching Hercules fight a half-dozen warriors...all of whom bore Ares’ mark. He happily grinned as the demigod easily shrugged two of the warriors from his back. The two men flew through the air to slam against a stone wall.

Looking around, Iolaus recognized the building as a temple dedicated to Ares. Frowning, he concentrated on his friend, suddenly seeing a highly polished shield lying at the demigod’s feet. He heard a startled yelp as Hercules head-butted another attacker, sending him staggering backwards against another dark-clad warrior. The two went down, then slowly crawled away with muffled groans of pain.

Something drew Iolaus’ attention away from his friend. He saw Ares appear behind the demigod who was concentrating on the other two warriors. Iolaus suddenly wondered if the dark God of War could hear the loud thumping of his heart. Then he saw Ares triumphantly smile as he raised his hand.

“Herc! Behind you!”

Hearing that cry, the demigod spun around. He instinctively reached for the shield and raised it protectively in front of him.

Ares’ energy blast deflected from the shield and raced back towards the god. As it struck Ares, the God of War howled then quickly disappeared.

Almost casually, Hercules reversed the shield and slammed it into the faces of the two final warriors who were approaching from behind him. He silently stared down at their unconscious bodies for a few seconds. Then he looked around, almost in confusion. “Iolaus?”

The sound of his name sent Iolaus’ spirit shooting back to his body. With a gasp, the blonde opened his eyes. Drenched in sweat with his locked muscles protesting in agony, he rapidly filled his lungs with air. Then slowly running his hands through his sweat-soaked hair, he rocked back and forth.

‘The time for hiding is over.’

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

ONE YEAR LATER

The warm summer breeze ruffled his sweat-dampened curls. His feet automatically followed the barely visible path through the trees. He’d trod this path more times than he could remember. So his mind wandered even as his feet brought him closer to...

Could he even call it home anymore? The house that had once held so much love and laughter might not even be standing. And he wasn’t sure after the pain and sorrow he’d suffered within its walls that he even wanted to call it home.

Even three years, Iolaus wasn’t sure if he could stay now that he had returned. And he wasn’t sure why he’d returned except that he prided himself on keeping his promises. Both the verbal promise he’d made to Alcmene and the unspoken one to Hercules drew him back.

He paused at the top of the small hill and almost fearfully gazed down at the small cottage below. He unconsciously wiped the thin film of sweat from his forehead. The mid-summer day’s heat was more oppressive than he was used to. He felt the dull ache of fatigue that comes with long hours of steady walking.

The gentle wind stirred the leaves of the nearby trees. Big fluffy clouds gently moved overhead. ‘Just the sort of day Ania loved.’

His heart twisted at the memory of the woman who’d stolen his heart with her gentle charm and whimsical ways. She couldn’t cook and didn’t get along with farm animals. But she’d gazed at him as though he were the greatest man in the world...and he’d loved her more than he’d thought possible. And her death had almost devastated him.

But their newborn son had demanded his attention. And in trying to raise their son, he’d buried his grief and thought it contained. He’d adored his child...Philip with his father’s blonde curls and his mother’s dark eyes...and an infectious giggle that echoed his father’s. Philip, with his mother’s sweet smile...a smile stilled only by a deathly illness that claimed him after only three summers of life.

As Iolaus slowly started down the hillside to the empty cottage, he automatically noted the building was in good shape. Far too good shape to have been left abandoned. He suddenly wondered if someone was living there. Not that he really minded...or perhaps he did.

Iolaus took a quick peek inside the barn. It was unoccupied and didn’t look as though anyone had used it for a long time. The forge sat silent and cold. As he silently walked towards the house, the answer came to him. ‘Hercules.’

He’d bet his last dinar his best friend had been keeping the place in shape. That is, if he had a last dinar to bet. ‘Well, he said he’d look after the place,’ Iolaus silently remembered.

Maybe a promise that had been kept. Maybe a silent statement of faith.

Iolaus turned the corner of the cottage and hesitantly knocked on the door. It silently swung partially open. He started to go inside when he saw it from the corner of his eyes.

He actually put a hand against the side of the house for balance. He took a deep breath then slowly walked towards the two well-tended graves lying close to the nearby grove of trees. Half-way to them, he suddenly stopped. He put his hand to his chest feeling as though his heart would leap from his breast. He almost choked as he tried to breathe past the lump in his throat.

Backing away, Iolaus then turn and ran into the woods.

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

Hercules happily glanced at the afternoon sun. He’d be home in barely more than a sunwidth. Helping an old friend rebuild a house destroyed by a wildfire wasn’t as heroic as slaying a hydra...but it was more rewarding. Not to mention a lot safer.

As always, he detoured just enough to walk past Iolaus’ old cottage. If he was home, hardly more than a couple of days went by without checking on the place. He told everyone it was because he’d promised Iolaus he’d keep an eye on it. He told himself that one day he’d find Iolaus standing in the doorway with a wide grin on his face.

As the months turned into years, he kept telling himself Iolaus would soon be back. Each visit was a mixture of hope that Iolaus would greet him...and disappointment to find the cottage uninhabited.

The demigod stopped a few feet away from Iolaus’ cottage. He caught his breath as he noticed the door slightly ajar. He quickly glanced around but saw no one. Cautiously, Hercules pushed the door open further. Even a cursory glance, told him no one had been inside.

He winced at the dust on the floor. He’d done a good job at keeping the cottage dry and secure. But he didn’t pay much attention to housekeeping details. He grinned, thinking of the last time he’d mentioned how much dust had accumulated inside the cottage.

The very next day Alcmene and Deianeira had dragged not only the demigod but the children as well to the cottage to make it habitable. Even his sons had somewhat willingly helped because it was for their “Uncle Iolaus”. Ilea, who could barely remember Iolaus, had picked wildflowers which Alcmene had placed in a cracked vase and set on the fireplace mantle.

Hercules had the feeling they had done it only out of respect for his continuing belief that Iolaus would be back soon. Although his mother always seemed certain Iolaus would return, he knew Deianeira kept her own counsel.

Gently closing the door, Hercules walked towards the barn but saw no evidence of intruders. Sighing, he slowly walked away.

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

Alcmene winced at how far down the bucket fell before hitting the water. She reluctantly admitted she would have to ask Hercules to dig a new well. He wouldn’t mind and she knew he’d prefer to be busy than idle. Sometimes, she and Deianeira engaged in a silent conspiracy to keep him busy when they saw a familiar distant look in his eyes.

“Need some help with that?”

With a small scream of fright, Alcmene turned and half-stumbled to the ground.

“Alcmene! I’m sorry!” Concerned, Iolaus grabbed her arm to steady her. “It’s me!”

“Iolaus?” The older woman stared at him with a mixture of surprise and fright. Her hand shaking, she reached out to touch his vest. “Oh, Iolaus. Is that really you?”

“I promise I’d come back. Remember?” Iolaus gently answered.

With a sob, Alcmene threw herself into his arms. Holding him tightly, she rubbed his back.

“Alcmene...please...don’t cry.” Concerned, Iolaus rocked her back and forth. “C’mon. Herc’ll kill me if he finds out I made you cry.”

“No, he won’t.” Laughing, Alcmene pulled away and wiped her eyes. “It’s just...so good to see you.” She studied him, noticing the calm look in his eyes. “You are back, aren’t you?”

Iolaus smiled. “Yeah, Alcmene. I’m back.”

“Good.” Alcmene suddenly smacked him on the arm.

“Ow!” Startled, Iolaus grabbed his arm and stared at her in surprise.

“You could have sent messages, Iolaus!” Alcmene sternly lectured. “You could have let us know you were alive! Do you know how many times Hercules sat wondering if you were hurt? Even alive? How many times Deianeira...or Jason...or I talked him out of going East to look for you?”

“He...what?” Iolaus’ blue eyes widened.

“He talked about doing that for a long time,” Alcmene admitted. She watched as Iolaus began drawing the bucket from the well. “Then...about a year ago...after he’d returned from one of his journeys, he said he’d had this feeling you were alright.” She saw the surprised look on Iolaus’ face and put a hand on his arm. “He just worried so that you were hurt...and he wasn’t there to help.”

Iolaus stared at the bucket resting on the stone well. He idly scuffed one boot in the dirt. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“You’d better be,” Alcmene half-smiled. “Don’t you ever do that again? You understand me?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Iolaus promised. He peeked at her from under his eyelashes. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

Alcmene leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “You’re forgiven.” She gave him a hug. “Hercules is due home today. They’ll be over for dinner tonight.” She saw the hesitant look in the hunter’s blue eyes. “He’ll be thrilled to see you. You know that.”

“Even...after being away so long and not sending messages?” Iolaus half-smiled.

“Well...I didn’t say he wouldn’t toss you around a little,” Alcmene teased.

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

“Ganny! Ganny! Daddy’s home!”

Alcmene laughed as Ilea ran towards her. “So I see.” She hugged her granddaughter even as he smiled at her son. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

Hercules bent to kiss his mother’s cheek. “Is something wrong?”

“Well...I’m going to need a new well dug,” his mother admitted. “Actually, a young man came by earlier today. I arranged for him to do it...not knowing when you’d be back. But...well, now I’m not sure about it. He’s in the barn.”

Hercules’ blue eyes narrowed. “I’ll be right back.”

His sons eagerly watched their father walk towards the barn. “Is Dad gonna toss the guy out?” Aeson asked with a wicked grin.

“Of course not.” Alcmene winked at Deianeira. “Well...maybe a little.”

Hercules’ wife frowned then glanced uncertainly towards the barn.

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

Hercules carefully entered the barn. He saw hay flying from one of the stalls. “Hello.” He frowned at the answering grunt. “My mother says she arranged for you to help with the well.” There was silence as the hay continued to fly. The demigod frowned. “Actually, since I’m home your help won’t be necessary.”

“Herc, I’ve seen you dig a well. Trust me. You need help.”

Hercules stood in stunned silence as Iolaus stuck his head around the stall door. He continued to stare as the hunter moved out of the stall and faced him.

“Herc? Herc?” Iolaus waved his hand in front of the demigod’s face.

“Iolaus?” Hercules whispered. “IOLAUS?!”

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

Deianeira jumped at the sound of her husband’s bellow. She looked at a smiling Alcmene. “Iolaus? He’s back?”

“Uncle Iolaus!” Klonus shouted. Together, he and his brother ran towards the barn. “Uncle Iolaus!”

Alcmene nodded at her son’s wife. “He showed up earlier today.”

Ilea tugged on her mother’s hand. “Uncle Eye-o-lus?”

“Yes, baby.” Deianeira happily sighed. “He’s home.” She picked up her daughter and walked towards the barn with Alcmene.

They saw Iolaus run from the barn, giggling as he looked over his shoulder. He was so intent on evading the demigod, he didn’t see Klonus and Aeson heading in his direction. With wild whoops, the two boys tackled the blonde.

“Hey!” With a grunt, Iolaus fell backwards. “Gods! You boys have grown!”

Squealing with laughter, the two boys wrestled with the hunter.

“Herc! Help me!” Iolaus giggled. “They’re too much for me!”

“Oh, no, buddy. You’re on your own.” Hercules happily leaned against the side of the barn.

“Argghhhh.” Iolaus looked over the boys’ shoulders. “Deianeira! Call ‘em off!”

“Boys...”

The two boys stopped and looked up at their mother.

The red-head smiled. “I think your Uncle Iolaus...”

Hercules grinned, seeing the twinkle in his wife’s eyes.

“...is ticklish around the ribs,” she finished, settling Ilea on the ground.

“NOOOO!” Iolaus gasped as both boys began to tickle him. “Not fair!”

After a few moments, Alcmene stopped laughing. “Boys! Enough!”

Laughing, both boys rolled away from Iolaus who looked up at her in relief.

“There’ll be time for more of that later.” Alcmene smiled at Iolaus’ groan.

Iolaus sat up and ran a hand through his hair. He saw Ilea slowly walking towards him. “Hi, Ilea. I know you don’t remember me.” He tentatively held out his hand to her.

“I ‘member, Uncle Eye-o-lus.” The little girl shyly hugged him. “Missed you.”

Closing his eyes, Iolaus hugged her in return. “I missed you too, sweetheart,” he murmured.

“Well, if we’re going to have dinner on time...” Alcmene cleared her throat. “Aeson, I need water. Klonus, I need some wood.” The boys got to their feet with matching grins and ran to quickly finish their chores.

Deianeira leaned down and kissed Iolaus on the cheek. “Welcome home,” she whispered. Taking her daughter by the hand, she added, “Come on, Ilea. I’m sure Daddy and Uncle Iolaus have a lot to talk about. We’ll fix them something special to eat.”

The little girl nodded. She waved over her shoulder as she followed her mother to the house.

Iolaus leaned back on his elbows and looked up at Hercules who was still leaning against the side of the barn. “Cute kids,” he grinned.

Hercules took a deep breath and pushed himself away from the barn. He held out a hand to his friend. “Are you really back?” he asked.

Iolaus grabbed his friend’s arm and got to his feet. “Yeah, Herc. I’m back.” He found himself wrapped within a tight hug.

“Welcome home, buddy.”



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