“It’s moving in awfully fast,” Hercules admitted. “We’d better find shelter.” He had to smile as his friend scampered ahead of him.
“Great idea. Don’t suppose there are any caves around here?” Iolaus sarcastically flung over his shoulder.
“Not that I know of,” the demigod ruefully admitted.
The sudden cold air swirled around him lifting his long hair and blowing it into his face. A flash of lightning lit up the sky and thunder crashed over their heads. “Iolaus! Better the trees than out in the open!”
Just as the deluge of rain cascaded down on them, they turned off the road and began running for the nearby trees. Hercules felt the hair on his neck stand up. ‘Something’s not right. This isn’t a normal storm.’ He opened his mouth to yell a warning when a bolt of lightning struck the ground between them.
Even as Hercules was thrown sideways he tried to spot Iolaus. He caught a glimpse of a familiar form lying on the ground smoke rising around him. Then he struck the ground with bone-jarring force. He struggled to get to his feet but fell back unconscious.
Slowly, Hercules opened his eyes. Confused, he looked around to find himself stretched out on the wet ground. Thunder rumbled in the distance as he struggled to sit up. Suddenly he looked to his right and saw Iolaus lying unconscious on the ground.
“No,” the demigod anxiously muttered scrambling to his feet. “Iolaus!” Falling to his knees next to his friend, he carefully rolled the hunter onto his back. He caught his breath in relief as Iolaus seemed to be breathing without hindrance. Running hands over his friend’s body, he smiled finding no wounds or broken bones.
“Iolaus,” he gently urged tapping his friend’s cheek. “C’mon, Iolaus. Wake up.”
With a moan, Iolaus opened his eyes. He dazedly stared up at the demigod. “Hercules?” he muttered.
“Take it easy,” Hercules urged helping his friend sit up. “Are you dizzy?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus muttered. “What happened?”
“Some kind of storm.” Hercules cautiously looked around even as he gently rubbed Iolaus’ back. “Lightning hit the ground between us. I think we’ve been unconscious for a while.” He glanced down at this partner. “You feel okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Iolaus blinked a couple of time. “The dizziness is going away.”
“Want to try and stand?” Hercules asked. When Iolaus nodded, he held onto his partner’s arm and gently pulled him up. He watched as Iolaus blinked a few more times then slowly looked around. “How do you feel?”
“I’m okay, Hercules. Really.” Iolaus pulled his arm away and took a deep breath. “I’m ready whenever you are.” Then he looked around in puzzlement. “Where’s my staff?”
“Staff?” Hercules’ eyebrows rose. “What staff?”
“The staff I carry with me,” Iolaus hesitantly answered. “And where’s my herbal pouch?”
“Iolaus, you don’t carry a staff or an herbal pouch,” Hercules gently answered.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Hercules,” Iolaus frowned. “How can I perform the ritual without the herbs? I mean, I can...but it’s hard to recover afterwards.”
“Ritual?” Hercules shook his head eyeing the blue sky above them. ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this.’ “What ritual is that, Iolaus?”
“To take your pain away,” Iolaus softly answered. “It’s alright, Hercules. I can do it without the herbs. I’ll just need a little longer to rest.” He tentatively smiled. “I guess that lightning affected you more than you thought? It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.”
‘He’s more like the jester Iolaus.’ Hercules stared at him in shock. ‘Ritual to take away my pain? What in Tartarus...’ Remembering the unnaturalness of the storm, the demigod frowned. “Iolaus, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course.” Iolaus answered in surprise.
“Who’s the King of the Gods?” Hercules asked in trepidation.
“Ares. Who else?” Iolaus answered with a frown.
“Iolaus, we’ve got to talk,” Hercules sighed.
“IOLAUS! WAKE UP!”
Iolaus groaned and opened his eyes. He blinked a few times before he made out the features of the demigod above him. “Herc?”
The demigod pulled Iolaus into a sitting position. “Take deep breaths. You’ll be okay.”
“What happened?” Iolaus mumbled running hands through his hair.
“Some kind of freak lightning.” Hercules eyed the clearing sky. “Looks like the storm’s gone.” He stood and walked several feet away to pick up a few items. “You’re lucky. If you’d been holding onto your staff when that lightning struck, you’d have been killed.”
“Yeah, lucky,” Iolaus nodded. Then he turned his head in surprise. “Staff?”
“I keep telling you to take that metal piece off,” Hercules grumbled. “It attracts lightning. I’m sure Hermes won’t mind under the circumstances.”
“Hermes?!” Iolaus quickly got to his feet. He automatically accepted the staff thrust at him.
Hercules quickly checked the pouch. “Looks like all your herbs are here. You’ll probably need a new pouch, though. This one’s almost worn out.”
Iolaus stared at the man in front of him. ‘OK, he looks like Herc...sorta. He looks younger, though.’
“C’mon, we’ll make camp. You look like you could use an early night,” Hercules decided. “I suppose you can perform the ritual tomorrow.”
“Ritual?” Iolaus shook his head. “Herc...”
“That’s the second time you’ve called me that,” Hercules frowned. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
“Ummm...actually...no,” Iolaus answered. “When the lightning struck...did you see a blue swirly thing that caused a lot of wind?”
“Blue swirly thing?” Hercules frowned. “You mean like the vortex that...” He stopped in sudden comprehension. “You’re a different Iolaus...from another world.” Then he quickly shook his head. “The vortex didn’t appear.”
“Well, something happened. Because I don’t use a staff. I don’t carry a pouch of herbs. And I don’t do rituals.”
“NO!” Hercules grabbed Iolaus by the arms and angrily lifted him off the ground. “YOU’RE MY IOLAUS! NOW STOP FOOLING AROUND!”
“Put me down!” Iolaus angrily yelled. He stared into the demigod’s eyes seeing more fear than anger.
Slowly the demigod released Iolaus who carefully backed off a few steps. “I’m sorry,” Hercules muttered. “It’s just...” He took a deep breath. “This isn’t good. I’ve got to get Iolaus back fast. I need him.”
“For this ritual?” Iolaus carefully asked.
Hercules curtly nodded and looked toward the sky. “HERMES! HERMES, COME TO ME!”
Iolaus automatically jumped when a flash of light heralded Hermes’ appearance. Dressed in a long flowing white toga, he was without his staff. His ever-present serpents, however, were wound around his neck forming a serpentine necklace.
To Iolaus’ his surprise, the god draped himself across Hercules’ shoulder and cooed. “You summoned me, my brother?”
Iolaus blinked in surprise as Hercules uneasily stepped away. “Hermes, stop it.”
The god pouted then smiled. “One day,” he sighed. “One day.”
“Get serious,” Hercules demanded. “Somehow, during that lightning storm, my Iolaus got sent to an alternate world and HE showed up.”
Iolaus bristled. “Hey! I’m not YOUR Iolaus but I AM somebody.”
“Don’t interrupt,” Hercules brusquely ordered. “Hermes, I’ve got to get my Iolaus back.”
“The vortex didn’t open?” Hermes asked in confusion.
“No,” Hercules confirmed. “I never lost consciousness. No vortex.”
“Then there’s no way to link this Iolaus with our Iolaus,” Hermes frowned. “The vortex is a direct link.”
Hercules began pacing. “Don’t tell me that, Hermes. You’re the God of Wisdom. Find a way!”
Hermes frowned and put a hand on the demigod’s shoulder. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough,” Hercules snapped.
“What’s going on?” Iolaus asked in concern. “Are you alright, Herc?”
“STOP IT!” Hercules raged. He raised his fist to strike Iolaus but a flash of light from Hermes’ hand stopped the demigod.
“I know you prefer to have Iolaus do this, but there’s no other choice,” Hermes gently spoke. “Iolaus, will you help me?”
Stunned, the hunter helped Hermes lay the demigod on the ground. Iolaus quickly pulled off his vest and rolled it into a pillow. Sliding it under the demigod’s head, he winced when Hercules grabbed his arm. “You’re really not my Iolaus, are you?”
“No,” Iolaus shook his head. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not gonna help. Just relax. Okay?” He glanced across the demigod to Hermes. “What’s wrong? What’s this ritual he keeps talking about?”
“I’ll explain later,” Hermes promised. “Right now...” He closed his eyes. “Ares. Hera. I need your help.”
Iolaus stiffened as the two gods materialized.
“Hera, you need to help Hercules,” Hermes quickly explained. “This is not the Iolaus of our world.”
Iolaus watched in stunned surprise as Hera softly smiled at Iolaus. She gathered her pale purple robes around her as she knelt and lifted the demigod’s head onto her lap. “All will be well,” she soothed.
Hercules smiled and tried to relax. “Hera,” he nodded.
“Come with us.” Hermes touched Iolaus’ shoulder.
‘This isn’t the Hera you know. She’s gonna help him.’ Reluctantly, Iolaus stood and walked with Hermes to where Ares waited arms folded across a green silk clad chest.
“So, another Iolaus. From another world.” Ares studied him with curious kindness.
“Yeah,” Iolaus glanced over his shoulder. “Why is Hera here? I mean, she likes Hercules. Right?”
“She’s Goddess of Healing,” Hermes gently explained. “I’m the God of Wisdom, and Ares is King of the Gods.”
“King? What about Zeus?” Iolaus exclaimed.
Ares sighed and exchange a sorrowful look with Hermes. “Driven insane years ago. By Aphrodite. Goddess of War. She would have killed him but for Hercules’ interference.”
“Aphrodite. Goddess of War?” Iolaus shook his head. “In my world, she’s Goddess of Love. And one of the few gods who look kindly on us.”
“I take it that your Hera and Ares aren’t one of those gods who look kindly on you,” Ares half-smiled.
“No. She’s Queen of the Gods and has been trying to kill Hercules since he was born,” Iolaus explained. “And you...I mean the Ares of my world is God of War. And he hates Herc’s guts.” He suddenly grinned. “Mine, too.”
Ares waved his hand and a campfire appeared. Sitting down, he motioned for Hermes and Iolaus to join him. “I take it you’ve had experience with other worlds.”
Sitting cross-legged, Iolaus shuddered. “One. Hercules was known as the Sovereign. He was a warlord.” He glanced at Ares and grinned. “You were the God of Love, and Hermes was Lord of the Underworld.”
Ares chuckled when Hermes shivered.
“What am I in your world?” Hermes asked.
“Zeus’ messenger,” Iolaus smiled.
“Ah, like Cupid,” Hermes nodded.
A low moan from Hercules caused Iolaus to worriedly look over his shoulder. “What’s wrong with him?”
Ares sighed. “When Aphrodite drove Zeus insane, she intended to kill him. Hercules fought to defend his father. He saved his life but not his sanity. So Aphrodite placed a curse of Hercules. For every time he uses his strength, he pays a price by suffering agonizing pain. Not physical pain...but mental pain. Every loss he’s suffered is magnified.”
Iolaus frowned. “You mean, if he helps someone against one of Aphrodite’s warlords and uses his strength, then...” He glanced over his shoulder at the demigod. “...then the suffering he felt when losing his children...”
“Is magnified a hundred fold,” Hermes finished. “Aphrodite can’t kill him. But, if she drives him insane...”
“She pretty much accomplishes the same thing.” Iolaus closed his eyes. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since the two of you attended Cheiron’s Academy,” Ares explained. “But it wasn’t until Hercules’ family died that Aphrodite had a weapon she could really use against him.”
“That’s when Hera gave Iolaus the power to perform the ritual to take away his pain,” Hermes continued. “Until then, Hercules could handle the pain and deal with it.”
“Wait a minute,” Iolaus frowned. “In my world, I...well, I died more than once.”
Ares frowned. “The Iolaus of our world only died once. He was in the Underworld for almost a year. We only recently got him back. And it wasn’t easy.” He sighed. “On our world, the gods are rapidly becoming divided. Until recently, Hesphaestus, our God of the Underworld, was neutral. So a deal could be struck to return you...Iolaus to the living.”
“Let me guess,” Iolaus grinned. “He’s now allied with Aphrodite.”
“An unholy alliance if there ever was one,” Hermes sighed. “They’re together in your world?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus fondly smiled. “The Goddess of Love and the God of the Forge.”
Hermes gently chewed on the tip of his forefinger. “How many times have you died?”
“Umm...four, I guess,” Iolaus shrugged.
“You guess?” Ares’ eyebrow rose in a familiar gesture.
“Well, I got turned to stone by a she-demon,” Iolaus frowned. “I saw Herc’s family in the Elysian Fields. But I’m not certain I was actually dead. Everyone the she-demon turned to stone came back okay.” He shrugged again. “Does it matter?”
“Only that the Iolaus of our world has only died once,” Hermes mused. “So there’s not as much of a direct link with the world of this Iolaus as with the other world we’ve encountered.”
Iolaus mentally shook his head. ‘Hermes...God of Wisdom. This world’s really in trouble.’ He stared at Hermes. “What do I...does Iolaus do in this ritual?”
“Hera gave you the gift to go into Hercules’ mind and take his pain away,” Hermes gently explained. “You take it into your own soul and feel it.”
‘Gods know I’ve often wanted to do that for him.’ Iolaus slowly nodded. “The Iolaus of this world isn’t a warrior, is he?”
Ares smiled. “He’s a poet and healer. It’s only because Hercules recognizes the need to have Iolaus by his side that he allows your counterpart to travel with him.”
“And the staff?” Iolaus glanced at Hermes.
“I couldn’t let you go with him completely unprotected.” Hermes shrugged in embarrassment. “I’m afraid you’re not really good with the staff either.”
‘And this Hercules hates it. Hates being dependent on Iolaus. Hates watching out for him. Hates needing him.’ Iolaus frowned remembering the demigod’s abrupt actions when he’d regained consciousness. “Hercules...he’s not handling this well anymore, is he?”
“No,” Ares agreed. “The time was, he almost had to be on his knees in pain before he would allow Iolaus to help him. Now...the least little bit of pain and...”
“And Aphrodite’s throwing more and more at him,” Iolaus grimly continued. “I hope the Ares of my world never gets this devious.”
Hermes exchanged a quick look with Ares then cleared his throat. “I believe Aphrodite tried to seduce Hercules. Years ago. He turned her down.”
“Hades hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Ares sighed. He looked up as Hera approached. “How is he, Mother?”
Iolaus automatically stood looking past the goddess to the sleeping demigod.
“I’ve done the best I could,” Hera sighed. “He wouldn’t open up as much to me as to Iolaus, of course. But he should be fine once he’s had a good night’s sleep.”
On his feet, Ares waved his hand and a campfire appeared close to his sleeping half-brother. “This meadow is now secluded,” he offered. “That should hide you both from Aphrodite for a little while.” He suddenly gave Iolaus a smile that reminded the hunter of the Ares of his world. “Maybe we can get her attention on something else for a while.”
“The problem is to recreate the lightning so we can exchange this Iolaus for the Iolaus of our world,” Hermes pointed out.
“I’ll leave you boys to it,” Hera wearily smiled. “I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Ares smiled. He turned to Hermes “You concentrate on recreating whatever lightning struck here. I’ll try to misdirect Aphrodite.”
Hermes nodded and disappeared.
“Uh...Ares? What were you before you took over for Zeus?” Iolaus hesitantly asked.
Ares grinned. He waved a hand and a pot of simmering stew appeared over the fire. Warm bread and a basket of fresh fruit sat to one side of the fire. “God of the Harvest,” he answered before disappearing.
“Oh, great. The former God of the Harvest is going to try to outwit the Goddess of War,” Iolaus mumbled as he walked to the campfire. “And Hermes is God of Wisdom. I better come up with an alternate plan.”
“You take his pain into yourself?” Hercules eyed the man sitting across the campfire in confusion.
“Yes,” Iolaus nodded. “Otherwise, he’d go insane.”
Hercules frowned remembering the dark days after Iolaus had died in Sumeria. “The Iolaus in my world...”
“Must have died when I did,” the blonde poet nodded. “Fortunately, Hesphaestus hadn’t allied himself with Aphrodite yet. So, Hercules was able to bring me back.”
“And that won’t work anymore,” Hercules guessed.
“No.” Iolaus looked down at the staff in his hands then smiled. “Thank you for the staff. I feel more...comfortable now.”
Hercules smiled back. He’d listened to the blonde’s explanation of his world in silence. To be truthful, the melodic tones of Iolaus’ voice had relaxed him. ‘Iolaus...a poet...a bard...a healer.’ He absently shook his head. “There have been times I know Iolaus has wanted to take my pain. As I’ve wanted to take his.” He eyed the other man. “But after hearing what you’ve told me, I don’t think your way is very good.”
“How do you mean?” Iolaus asked.
“Iolaus, grief and pain is a part of us,” Hercules explained. “By taking your Hercules’ pain and grief, you never give him a chance to deal with it. Every time he feels it now, it’s new and fresh.”
“It’s also magnified,” Iolaus stressed. “No one can withstand that sort of pain.”
“You do,” Hercules gently pointed out.
Iolaus ducked his head. “It’s what I do,” he mumbled. “And the ritual gives me the strength to do it.”
“The physical strength,” Hercules pointed out. “But what about the emotional drain?” When the blonde didn’t look up, Hercules sighed. “He’s using your gift more and more, isn’t he?”
Iolaus hesitated. “When I died, I was gone so long,” he half-whispered. “Aphrodite was trying to get Hesphaestus to keep me in the Underworld. If Ares and Hera hadn’t called in a lot of favors, he wouldn’t have given me back.”
“Your Hercules went crazy, didn’t he?” the demigod quietly asked. He winced remembering his own grief.
“The pain was so bad,” Iolaus nodded. “We didn’t think he would come back.”
‘And now he’s scared.’ The demigod took a deep breath. “Iolaus, the best thing you can do to help him...and fight Aphrodite...is to help him channel his grief and pain. Take away the edge of it, if you have to. But once he finds his way through that grief and pain, I don’t think Aphrodite will be able to hurt him as much.”
Iolaus hesitated. “I’ll think about what you’ve said, Hercules.” He smiled and stood. “I really should practice with the staff. I try to do it everything night.”
Hercules watched as the blonde poet awkwardly stood and began clumsily twirling the staff. He was reminded of the jester’s first attempts at learning to fight. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
“Sure,” Iolaus nodded.
“Who was your father?”
Iolaus gave him a puzzled look. “Well, technically speaking, his name was Skouros. But he was a general and wasn’t around much.” He gave a sheepish grin. “I last remember seeing him when I was about five. He’d come home angry because he’d lost some battle. I was trying to show him how well I could write my name. He backhanded me and knocked me across the room.”
Hercules looked away. “Sounds like the childhood of my Iolaus. There wasn’t anything I could do to stop it...or help him.”
The blonde poet sat next to the demigod. “When my mother saw what had happened she hit Skouros with a metal pan.” He grinned at Hercules’ expression. “Knocked him out cold. When he came to, she made him leave and told him never to come back. He didn’t.”
“Erythia?!” Hercules’ astonishment caused Iolaus to collapse into giggles. “I’m sorry. The Erythia I know...” He shook his head.
“A couple of years later, she met Pandion. A poet from Athens.” Iolaus fondly smiled. “He moved in although I sometimes think he’s still not sure how THAT happened. When we got word that Skouros had been killed in some battle, they got married.” He shrugged. “I think of Pandion as my father.”
Hercules smiled. “I’ve wondered more than once what Iolaus would have been like if Pandion had been his father,” he admitted. “Now I know. He’d be a fine man...and a good friend.”
Hercules slowly opened his eyes. Turning his head, he saw Iolaus sitting on the other side of the campfire. “Iolaus?” he half-whispered.
“Hey, welcome back,” Iolaus gently smiled. “Hungry?”
Hercules groaned. “Wrong Iolaus,” he muttered trying to sit up.
“Hermes is working on that.” Iolaus’ smile dimmed. “Ares left the stew. It’s pretty good.” Without waiting for an answer, he dipped the stew into a bowl. Stepping to the other side of the campfire, he gave the bowl to the demigod then pulled a blanket around him. Then he crossed back to the other side of the campfire and sat down.
Hercules cautiously sipped the stew’s broth. “So...what are you in your world?” he asked.
Iolaus glanced up from where he was feeding the fire. “Hercules’ partner. Warrior. Best buddy. General all-around pain in the ass when I need to be.”
Hercules uncomfortably looked away. It had been a long time since Iolaus had given him THAT look. “So who performs the...”
“Nobody does any ritual,” Iolaus angrily interrupted. “We help each other with the pain we feel. But not like it’s done here!”
Hercules angrily tossed the stew into the campfire then threw the bowl to one side. “You don’t know anything about this!”
“I know what Ares and Hermes told me!” Iolaus shot back.
“And you wouldn’t make that sacrifice for the Hercules in your world?” the demigod shouted.
“No!” Iolaus shouted back. “Not like that! I’d help him ride out his grief and pain...like I’ve always tried to do. But I wouldn’t do this!”
“Why not?” Hercules challenged.
Iolaus stared across the fire at him for a few seconds. “Because I’d never want Hercules to wind up resenting me...or hating himself.”
Hercules looked away then laid down and stared up at the night sky. “I’m so tired of all this,” he muttered.
“So’s Iolaus!” the hunter charged. “Did you ever thing about that?”
“Yes,” the demigod quietly answered. “But I can’t let Aphrodite win. She’s already too powerful.”
“She’s winning already,” Iolaus pointed out. “By constantly pushing you to use Iolaus the way you do, all she has to do is wait. She’ll win the war by attrition.”
“I hate this,” Hercules muttered. “Iolaus is a poet. He used to write the most beautiful poetry. Now...I can’t remember the last time he wrote anything.” He blinked away sudden tears. “And I can’t remember the last time he called me ‘Herc’.”
Iolaus stretched out on the ground on the opposite side of the fire. “Maybe it was the last time he felt you were really his friend.”
“Iolaus has started to use herbs to help him recover,” Hercules quietly said after a few minutes of silence. “He didn’t used to need them. One of these days...he won’t recover. And, since Hephaestus is now working with Aphrodite, I’ll never get him back.” He glanced across the fire. “How do you help your Hercules?
Iolaus shrugged. “I’m just there,” he admitted. “Most times he wants to go off by himself to deal with it alone. Sometimes I let him...for a while. Sometimes I don’t. That’s when he yells or gets scared he’s gonna get me killed. That’s when he tries to push me away.” He hesitated. “Sometimes I get mad enough and let him. But not for long. Then I start yelling back. Or just listen while he gets it out of his system.”
“You make it sound easy,” Hercules commented.
“It’s not,” Iolaus sadly admitted. “I hate to see him hurt. Just like the Iolaus of your world hates to see you hurt. And, yes, I’d take his pain if I could, I admit it. But...only to help him deal with it.”
“And that’s been Aphrodite’s weapon,” Hercules mused. “She’s almost succeeded in driving us apart.”
“The Hercules of my world always said we were better together than apart. I remind him of that when he tries to send me away supposedly for my own good.” Iolaus giggled.
Hercules suddenly turned away. He tried very hard to remember the last time he’d heard Iolaus laugh. “I should send him away,” he muttered. “Gods know he’d be far happier away from me.”
Iolaus shook his head. “He won’t go,” he guessed. “From what I’ve heard about him, he’s dedicated himself to you. You’re going to have to be the strong one...so he can learn to be strong again.”
Hercules eyed the blonde from the corner of his eyes. “You drive your Hercules crazy, don’t you?”
Iolaus smiled and closed his eyes. “Yep.”
“Any ideas on how we’re going to make the switch?” Iolaus asked the next morning. “I’m really worried about Hercules. If no one performed the ritual...”
“I’m sure he’s okay,” Hercules soothed. “From what you say, once he realized Iolaus wasn’t the Iolaus of his world, he would have called on the gods for help.”
Iolaus nodded. “I’m just worried about him.”
‘And I’m worried about Iolaus.’ Hercules finished kicking dirt onto the campfire when a flash of light appeared to his left. He spun around and stiffened. “Hera.”
“Hercules.” Hera coolly inclined her head in his direction. Her eyes flickered towards Iolaus then back at the demigod. Then she glanced down at the boy next to her.
“Hi, Uncle Hercules.”
“Hello, Evander.” Hercules smiled at Nemesis’ son. Despite the uneasy truce that lay between he and Hera, he knew she genuinely cared for the boy. ‘She won’t cause trouble if Evander’s here.’
There was another flash of light and Zeus appeared. “Really, Hera, there’s no need...”
“Evander must learn responsibility,” Hera interrupted. “And that includes apologizing when he’s done something wrong.”
Hercules raised an eyebrow in his father’s direction.
“It was really quite brilliant on the boy’s part,” Zeus offered.
Hercules glanced at Iolaus who edged closer to him. “I’m sure this is all very interesting, but I have a bit of a problem,” he began.
“Yes, the lightning,” Hera nodded. She looked down at the boy. “Evander...”
“I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.” Evander studied the ground in front of him. “I was just trying to help Hermes.”
“Help Hermes?” Hercules asked.
“He works so hard...taking messages for everybody to everywhere,” Evander explained. He finally looked at the demigod. “So I thought if he could use lightning to carry the messages, it would help him.”
“So you sent the lightning,” Hercules guessed.
“I was trying to send you and Uncle Iolaus a message,” Evander confessed.
“Brilliant application of theory,” Zeus beamed.
“Father! That lightning could have killed us!” Hercules exploded. “As it was...”
“I’m sorry,” Evander sniffed.
Hercules felt the anger drain from him. “Come here, Evander,” he gently urged. When the boy approached, he gave him a hug. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt anyone. But lightning is very powerful. It’s not something you should play with. The next time you get an idea like that, why don’t you go to your Aunt Athena and discuss it with her first?”
“I will,” Evander nodded. “I promise.”
“Come, Evander.” Hera held out her hand. When the boy took it, she stared at Hercules with an almost detached smile. “Evander was afraid he’d hurt you and Iolaus. It took us a while to find him. He was hiding in one of Cupid’s temples. Now Cupid is going to go with Evander to Nemesis and answer certain questions Evander has about what he saw.”
‘Poor Cupid.’ Hercules saw from Zeus’ expression he pitied the God of Love as well. When Hera and Evander disappeared, he looked at this father. “Can you recreate Evander’s lightning?”
“It’s taken me a little while, but I DO have a certain...affinity for lightning,” Zeus smiled. He turned and pointed away from the trees. Blue bolts of lightning shot out from his hand. After a few seconds, the familiar vortex opened.
Iolaus’ eyes widened in surprise. “I’ve never gone through one,” he yelled. “The inhabitants of the other world showed up on my world. What do I do?”
“Hang on to me!” Hercules yelled. “Keep the vortex open, Father!”
Zeus calmly waved and watched as the two men disappeared into the vortex. “I’d rather be doing this than facing Nemesis,” he muttered.
“We’ll keep heading towards Hera’s temple,” Hercules decided as he smothered the campfire. “We were heading there so Iolaus could replenish his stock of herbs.” He automatically handed the staff to Iolaus. He carefully packed the herbal pouch in the carrysack. “You’re right. I’m going to have to regain my strength so I can get Iolaus back.” He glanced up at the blonde. “I want him back the way we used to be.”
Iolaus grinned. “Well, if you’re as stubborn as MY Hercules, you’ll make it.”
“Awww, how sweet. You didn’t tell me you got a new playmate, brother.”
Iolaus whirled around to see a blonde goddess clad in black and red leather armor.
“Aphrodite.” Hercules grimly rose to his feet.
“One and the same,” Aphrodite smiled. She gave Iolaus a quick look. “And this one looks like he knows how to rumble.”
“You know, Aphrodite, black really isn’t your color,” Iolaus advised. “It makes you look really old.”
The goddess screeched and fire shot from her outstretched arm.
“Iolaus!” Hercules yelled in fear. Then he watched in stunned amazement as the blonde hunter ducked under the sheet of fire and rolled in a ball towards the Goddess of War. He came out of the roll and used his staff to strike her in the back of her knees sending her falling into the dirt. Agilely, the hunter got to his feet and moved away.
As the goddess angrily got to her feet, the vortex suddenly opened. Surprised, they all turned to see Hercules and Iolaus tumbling out of the whirlwind.
“Hey, Herc! Welcome to the party!” Iolaus yelled.
“This one I know I can kill!” Aphrodite yelled. She sent a burst of flame towards the blonde poet.
“Iolaus!” Aphrodite’s half-brother screamed and launched himself to protect his friend.
Iolaus used his staff to knock Aphrodite to her knees. His partner immediately kicked her in the jaw.
Aphrodite’s eyes rolled back in her head as she fell backwards unconscious to the ground.
“That felt really...weird,” Hercules muttered. He turned to see the blonde poet smacking out flames on the demigod’s back. He held out his hand to stop his partner when the hunter started forward.
“Hercules. It’s okay. I’ll take care of it,” Iolaus quickly promised. He placed his hands on either side of the demigod’s head.
“No!” Hercules jerked away. He took his friend’s hands within his own.
“I hope they work it out,” the hunter sighed.
“Perhaps now they can.”
The two heroes turned to see Ares behind them. The King of the Gods put his hands on his hips and stared down at Aphrodite. “Too bad I can’t keep her this way,” he sighed. He glanced up with a smile. “You’d better get going. That vortex won’t stay open forever.” He looked past them to see the blonde poet nodding at something the demigod was saying. When Hercules and Iolaus turned, they saw the poet give his friend a tight hug and a look of peace on the demigod’s face.
“I’ll get them to Hera’s temple,” Ares assured them. “Aphrodite won’t be able to bother them there.”
Iolaus walked towards them as the poet and demigod got to their feet. He saw the strain in the demigod’s eyes and realized their struggle would be a long and hard one. “I think this belongs to you.” He held the staff out to the poet.
“Thank you.” Iolaus stared at his twin noticing more the differences in the their faces than the similarities. He noted the lines around the corner of the mouth and eyes. He also noted the aura of inner peace and stability surrounding the hunter. Impulsively, he hugged his twin. “Thank you for watching out for Hercules,” he whispered.
“Hey, it’s what we do. Right?” Iolaus murmured.
The two demigods eyes each other almost warily...each instinctively standing close to his friend and partner. Finally, the hunter’s partner extended a hand to his twin. “Good luck,” he offered.
The poet’s partner grasped his twin’s forearm. “You let him get killed again and I lose my Iolaus...I’ll come looking for you,” he quietly warned. Before the hunter’s partner could reply, he stepped back.
“You need to go now!” Ares warned. “The vortex is starting to collapse and Aphrodite...” He looked down as the Goddess of War moaned. Ares shrugged and waved his hands. Sturdy vines emerged from the ground and securely wrapped themselves around the goddess. He looked at the others and angelically smiled. “Never mind about her. But the vortex is still closing.”
“Come on, Iolaus!” Hercules pulled his partner towards the vortex.
Iolaus hesitated. “You’ll both be okay,” he grinned. “If you don’t kill each other first!”
The blonde poet giggled as the demigod wryly nodded.
Hercules reached out and grabbed his partner by the vest. Taking a deep breath, he leaped into the vortex pulling the hunter with him.
Ares watched as the vortex suddenly collapsed. “I hope you both made it home,” he murmured. He glanced down at a struggling Aphrodite. With a resigned sigh, he waved his hand and she disappeared.
Hercules fell to his knees grabbing his head. “Deianeira...” he moaned.
Iolaus immediately dropped to his knees next to his friend. He instinctively put his hands to either side of the demigod’s head then hesitated. Instead, he slowly wrapped his arms around the demigod’s shoulders and tightly hugged him. “I’m here,” he crooned as he rocked the demigod. “I’m not leaving. It’s okay. I’ll be okay.”
Ares saw the tears in Iolaus’ eyes and wondered how long the poet could refrain from trying to take the pain away. ‘Sometimes a gentle heart is not a good thing.’ With a silent wave of his hand, he sent his brother and friend to the safety of Hera’s temple.
“It’s about time!” Zeus snapped when his son and partner appeared from the collapsing vortex.
“Zeus?” Iolaus glanced at the demigod in surprise.
“It’s a long story,” Hercules admitted.
“Now that everything here is settled...and I presume that it IS settled?” Zeus asked.
“Yes...it’s settled,” Hercules admitted with a slight smile.
“Good. Then I’ll go rescue Cupid.” Zeus’ eyes twinkled. “I imagine by now Nemesis has him backed in to a corner.”
“Nemesis?” Iolaus stared at his partner as Zeus disappeared. “Just what’s been going on around here?”
“Evander caused the lightning,” Hercules quickly explained. “He thought he’d hurt us so he hid out in Cupid’s temple. And, from what I gather, Evander saw some things that...Cupid’s having to explain.”
Iolaus snickered. “Nemesis will kill him.”
“At least damage him a little,” Hercules ruefully admitted. He hesitated for a moment. Feeling Iolaus’ eyes on him, he smiled. “How about we pay Nemesis a visit? I’d like to make sure Evander’s okay.”
“Sure,” Iolaus grinned. “While you and Nemesis decide how to get even with Cupid, I can take the kid fishing.”
“Yeah...right.” Hercules nodded.
They walked for a few minutes in silence. Iolaus glanced a couple of times at his friend. “They’ll be okay, Herc.”
Hercules half-smiled. “I hope so, Iolaus. It won’t be easy. For either of them.”
The hunter nodded. “They’ll be okay,” he repeated. He watched his friend from the corner of his eyes. “And, no...you don’t use me the way the other Hercules used the other Iolaus. So don’t even start thinking like that.”
Hercules briefly closed his eyes and silently thanked Michael once more for his friend’s return. “I hate it when you do that,” he good-naturedly grumbled. “You know...sometimes you drive me crazy.”
Iolaus widely grinned. “Yep. And I do it well, don’t I?”
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