(I don't own these characters. I wish I did. No profit, just enterainment.)


by White Wolf

"Hercules, listen to me. Ares didn't hurt me. Just a couple of bruises on my arm. That's all. You've apologized a dozen times already. I don't blame you for what Ares or any of the other members of your crazy family does," Iolaus said, trying hard not to sound exasperated, even though that was exactly the way he was feeling. "So, why are you moping around and acting like he killed me or something?"

"Guilt," was Hercules's simple reply. All the raw emotion that was tearing at his heart was expressed in that one word. He was sitting on the ground, and he looked up at Iolaus and said, "My fault."

Iolaus shook his head. He walked several feet toward the shade of a huge tree, stopped and then turned around to face his best friend. "I know you always feel guilty whenever anything happens to me. What you never seem to get through your head is that being with you is my choice. Do you ever even stop to think about what my life would've been like if I'd never met you?"

Hercules wanted to say something, but he didn't know what he could say that wouldn't make matters worse, so he remained silent. He waited for Iolaus to continue.

"I probably would never have made it out of my teens. I ran the streets with a gang, stealing and getting by the best I could. My mother loved me, I know. But, she was afraid of my father. And, the great General Skouros was disappointed in me. I could never be the chip off the old block he desperately wanted. I was small and stubborn and hot-tempered. My emotions were always right there on the surface for all to see. He called me a crybaby and...he beat me." Iolaus paused. The memory was still painful even after all these years. His voice held a bitter edge. His demeanor changed as he visibly shook off his cloudy past. "All this you know. I was headed down a one-way road to self-destruction.

"When we met as children, we were both outcasts to a certain extent. You didn't have any real friends, because being a half-god made other kids afraid of you, and those that weren't afraid, taunted you. We bonded, first because of our circumstances and then because we reallly grew to like each other. You remember all the great times we had hunting, fishing, just talking and being together. We shared everything. Your mother took me into her home and made me one of her own. I could never begin to express how that made me feel. I had a real, loving home for the first time that I could remember. I never had to worry that whoever walked in the front door might be someone to fear. I know I never told Alcmene often enough how grateful I was and how loved and secure she made me feel. I'm sure I've never told you often enough, either.

"I didn't change at first, something you used to chide me about. Remember? It took time. But, when we got older, and I realized just what your destiny was, I made up my mind that's what I wanted, too. It was mostly because I wanted to be with you. I also believed in what you were trying to do. A little of it was for the pure enjoyment of the adventures. It's all come together as a pretty terrific life. I couldn't have asked for better. It's all been worth it, Hercules, including the bad times. And, there've been some really bad times."

"I know what you're saying, Iolaus," Hercules said, finally able to express his feelings. "I'm happy you wanted to be my friend. I'm happy you found a home with us. I've never felt that I forced you to come with me. It always has been your choice what you do with your life. Knowing all that still doesn't change the fact that most of the bad things that happen to you, happen because you're with me." Hercules's voice was as somber as he felt. It was backed up by the fact that he knew every word he said was the truth. "It'll keep happening as long as we're together. And next time, Ares or Hera or whoever could kill you!"

The two pair of eyes locked intently, blue on blue. The friends knew each other so well that all the words that had just passed between them were reflected in those gazes.

"I want to stay with you as long as I'm able to, and it seems that now you don't want me to."

"No! Iolaus, you're wrong. I not only want you with me, I need you with me. I couldn't function as a whole person if you aren't at my side. Don't you realize that? Through all the people I've lost in my life, Daieneira, my children, Serena, my mother, all of them, you've always been there. Always. You're my anchor. Without you I'd just..." Hercules paused, trying to find the right word he needed to convey his meaning. "drown," he finished. "You're the guardian of my soul, my other half. You keep me grounded. My physical strength may have come from Zeus, but whatever strength of heart I have, I owe to my mother and to you. Why do you think I got you back from the other side so many times? Why do you think I lost my way when you died in Sumeria? Even when you went to The Light, and I knew you were happy, it nearly killed me, thinking you were lost to me forever. Knowing all of that, feeling as I do, it's still because of me you suffer the way you do."

Iolaus let out a long sigh. He knew Hercules understood how he felt, and he certainly understood how this son of Zeus felt. Hercules needed him by his side, but being there caused him untold grief whenever something happened to the hunter. The solution was like trying to find the end of a circle. There just wasn't one.

Iolaus expressed those feelings when he said, "I stay because we both want it, and then when I get hurt again, and I will, you'll eat yourself up with guilt. Somehow that doesn't seem the way to conduct our lives." He paused, then added, "So, now what?"

"I don't know, Iolaus. I only know I can't help it. I've tried not to feel this way. But, seeing you covered in blood, or broken, or...whatever, tears me apart. Knowing my family on Olympus is always after you to get to me, makes me furious."

"We really are at an impasse then, aren't we?" Iolaus questioned flatly.

"I'd rather see you leave and be safe than stay with me and suffer." Hercules finally said the words he had been dreading having to utter, because saying those words was like taking a knife and cutting out a large piece of his heart. Seeing the look in Iolaus's eyes was worse.

The hunter suddenly blurted out, "I feel guilty, too, you know!"

"You? About what?"

"Well, think about it. By staying with you, I leave myself open to injuries and all that other stuff, and I feel guilty about making you feel guilty, which makes me feel even more guilty." He twirled his hand around several times as he lifted his arm and said, "And so on and so on."

The demigod just stared at the hunter in disbelief. He had never considered that before. It really never occurred to him that Iolaus had a reason to feel guilty about the things that happened to him because of their friendship. Instead, he had always been amazed that the hunter hadn't ended up hating him for it. Yet, thinking about it now, he could see how the hunter might also feel guilt. "I never knew. So, that's even more of a reason to separate."

"All right, Hercules, I'll go!" Iolaus almost yelled. "I'll just go on with my life the best I can--by myself--if that's what you really want!"

"No, it isn't what I want!" Hercules yelled back. "It's what needs to be." The demigod calmed down but couldn't look his partner in the eye.

The easy, happy camaraderie that usually existed between the two friends suddenly became awkward. Both men were hurting, yet neither could find a way to stop what was happening. It was, indeed, an impasse.

Without another word, Iolaus began gathering his few possessions that were scattered about the camp, roughly stuffing them in his pack. Every movement was forecful. The last thing he did was belt his sword at his side. When he was ready, he turned to Hercules. "I guess this is it, then."

"Iolaus, I'm sorry. I'll miss you terribly, but this really is for..."

"...my own good, ...the best, etc., etc. Yeah, I know." There was pure sarcasm in Iolaus's voice. He looked down at the ground at his feet as if trying to make up his mind about something. "This is crazy," he said finally. "I'm not leaving!" He threw his pack down and unbuckled is sword belt, tossing it on top of the bundle.

The two men stared at each other, and then Iolaus suddenly extended his hand. The look on his face softened, and his eyes no longer flashed the angry fire of a moment ago.

For just a second, Hercules hesitated. He stared at the offered hand, and the anger left his face as well. He grabbed Iolaus's hand and pulled his best friend to him. He held the blond hunter in a tight embrace. When he let go, both men were misty-eyed.

Hercules didn't know whether to be upset or elated. Both of those emotions semed to be battling for dominance. Elation won out.

Iolaus turned his dazzling smile on his best friend. "Let's make a deal. You live with the quilt, and I'll live with the pain."

"That's not funny, you know," Hercules remarked as he tried desperately to suppress his own smile. He wasn't entirely successful, though in truth, he meant what he said. It's just that the hunter's famous smile was too contagious, and Hercules's heart was too full of joy.

Seriously, Iolaus said, "Ignore what I said earlier. I don't want you feeling guilty about me. It's not good for your mental health. It makes you old before your time. Of course, in your case, that might not matter."

Hercules sighed. He ignored the last remark and said, "All I can do is try, Iolaus."

"That's all any of us can do, Hercules. One other thing, though."

"And, that would be?"

"Let's not ever have this conversation again. It's too hard."

The demigod nodded, and he and the hunter shook hands again. They shared the strong feeling that things would continue on much as they had been doing for years. Each would pay a price for their friendship. And, if they had to admit it, they would say that being together was worth all of the pain and all of the guilt they would have to endure.