By: White Wolf

The two friends sat in a clearing in the woods. They were totally relaxed, displaying the easy comfort of long association and mutual love and respect. The larger man sat leaning against a tree. The smaller one lay on his back and chewed on a long blade of grass as he watched the fluffy white clouds float lazily across the part of the azure sky that was visible through the canopy of trees.

“Why can’t we have more days like this?” the smaller man asked wistfully.

“I don’t know, Iolaus,” Hercules replied, having been thinking the exact same thing. “Too many people always needing our help,”

“Yeah, and it doesn’t seem to matter where we are. They always find us.” He cocked his head as if to listen for the sound of running footsteps. The only sounds that greeted his ears were birds high overhead and the occasional droning of an insect.

“Well, we’ve been here for almost three days,” his friend said. “That must be some kind of record. Even if someone showed up right now, we couldn‘t refuse them.”

“I know,” Iolaus said, thoughtfully. He knew and understood the nature of their work--help when and where they could and grab down time when and where they could.

Just then, a rabbit came bounding between the two men. Iolaus, startled, sat up abruptly. “Hey, did you see that? Maybe, he knows how hungry I am. Do you think he wants me to follow him?”

“To be your dinner? I doubt it,” Hercules laughed. There would have to be a whole parade of rabbits come by to satisfy the bottomless pit that was Iolaus’s stomach. Three things Iolaus was never short of: courage, energy and an extremely healthy appetite.

The hunter jumped up and grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows.

“Need any help?” Hercules asked casually. He knew the answer but felt obliged to offer.

“No thanks, Herc. This I can handle,” Iolaus said over his shoulder to the demigod as he ran off in the direction the rabbit had taken.

Hercules sighed. He hadn’t had the heart to remind his friend that they had eaten rabbit the whole time they had been there. “Oh, well. At least we won’t starve,” he sighed again. “We’ve certainly had worse.”

Hercules jerked awake. He blinked as a ray from the setting sun shone directly in his eyes. He hadn’t intended on falling asleep. He looked around him, fully expecting to see Iolaus by the campfire, cleaning the rabbit he had gone off to catch. There was no fire, no rabbit, and no Iolaus.

The demigod frowned. If the sun was this close to setting, it had been at least three hours since Iolaus had bounded off on the trail of the rabbit. Something must be wrong. Hercules swallowed hard, trying not to come to conclusions. ‘There are all kinds of reasons why he isn’t back yet, and it doesn’t mean something’s wrong,’ he chided himself.

He thought about how many times Iolaus had gone off and been late in returning, with a perfectly plausible reason for his delay. Then, he thought about how many times something had actually been wrong. Now, Hercules began to feel concern.

He decided to do a little scouting. He began searching in an ever-increasing circle around the camp. Every few minutes, he called Iolaus’s name. By the time the sun had completely set, Hercules’s concern had turned to worry.

This forest was not familiar to the demigod, so he knew the rational thing to do was go back to the camp and resume his search in the morning. However, when it came to Iolaus, Hercules was rarely rational. Ever since he had gotten his best friend back from The Light, he had tended to be a little over-protective.

Often in the past, the two friends had separated and each had taken care of some business on their own and then met up at a predetermined place and time. But, since the episode with Dahak, Hercules found it hard to let Iolaus out of his sight.

This vacation had not only been a way for the two men to get some much needed rest but also a way for Hercules to get his over-protective feelings under control.

Once or twice, Iolaus had made a comment about Hercules smothering him, though in deference to his friend’s feelings, he had never used that word. He just reminded Hercules that he didn’t have to be such a ‘mother hen’ as he had put it. Iolaus knew how the demigod felt.

Nothing bad had happened to the hunter during their recent adventures, so Hercules had finally allowed himself to relax. Since being here, Hercules had become comfortable again, not needing to keep constant contact with Iolaus. Letting his friend go after the rabbit hadn‘t even caused a ripple of concern in his mind. It had been so natural, like the old days. At the time, it had been just a simple hunting expedition with the quarry in plain sight. It should have been a snap for the experienced hunter.

And now look--Iolaus was missing. But, was he really? Hercules, fighting against his rising fear, trudged back to the campsite. He stared hard into the dark trees, hoping with all his might that he would see his friend sitting there wondering where on earth Hercules had been because dinner was getting cold. No such luck.

Hercules sat up all night, constantly putting logs on the fire he had built. He wanted Iolaus to be able to see the flames from a distance if he had any doubts where the camp was. He knew his partner was the best tracker in all of Greece, but that didn’t soothe his fraying nerves any. The fire, at one point, almost reached the branches over Hercules’s head. He didn’t want to risk starting a forest fire, so he began paying more attention to what he was doing. The son of Zeus sat gazing into the flames, trying to keep his troubled thoughts at bay. They were threatening to go off on wild tangents in all directions.

Near midnight, Hercules couldn’t stand the wait any longer and had decided to get up and go searching again, dark or no dark. If Iolaus was out there, he was probably hurt and needed help.

Just as Hercules stood up, a figure clad in black leather appeared in a flash of light.

“Ares, I don’t have time for you right now,” Hercules said in a forcefully irritated voice. “Go away and bother somebody else.”

“Lose your little buddy?” Ares returned with raised eyebrows.

Hercules’s eyes narrowed as he regarded his godly half-brother. “What do you know about Iolaus?”

“I know he’s gone, and before you start accusing me of doing something with him, I’ll tell you I had nothing to do with it. Wish I did. It tickles me no end to see you get all wound up every time he’s out of your sight.”

Hercules hadn’t moved. His expression was pure suspicion.

Ares held his hands up in defense. “I don’t have him.” Then, with a mischievous grin, he said, “I’ll be glad to help you look, though.”

“Stay out of my way, Ares,” the demigod threatened.

“Oh, how did I know you were going to say that? I’m wounded.”

“Don‘t temp me,” Hercules grumbled as he took his boot and scraped dirt across the fire. He poured water on the smoldering embers to make sure he left no chance for it to start up again on its own. He walked by the God of War. “Goodbye, Ares. It’s been as pleasant as always.”

The God of War shrugged and vanished the way he had arrived.

Hercules headed off in the direction his partner had taken hours before. He knew the chances of finding Iolaus in the dark weren’t very good, but he had to try.

As he walked and, in some instances, stumbled, through the dark forest with the benefit of only minimal moonlight, he strained his eyes and ears to catch any sight or sound that might mean he had found his friend. He kept muttering, “Where are you, Iolaus? Give me a sign, so I can find you.”

There was nothing. Whatever secrets the forest had, it kept to itself. Iolaus was the one who could read the forest like a map. Hercules would have given anything right then, if he could have borrowed the hunter’s tracking skills.

The rising sun found the son of Zeus still moving through the trees. He came across a small stream and stopped long enough to take a long drink. It soothed his parched throat. His stomach reminded him he had missed dinner the night before. ‘Later,’ he inwardly told it.

Iolaus had run off after the rabbit, dodging around trees as he tried to keep the little animal in his sights. Once he almost bashed his head on a low branch. It whizzed over the top of his head, barely skimming his golden locks. He chuckled, thinking that if it had been Hercules, it would have smacked him right in the mouth.

The rabbit, as if knowing its pursuer was cursed with an insatiable appetite, seemed to redouble its efforts to escape. It bounded in a fury between the trees.

“Come on, little bunny,” Iolaus coaxed. He couldn’t stop to noch an arrow, or he would lose the rabbit all together. So, he continued to chase.

Just as he ran past a large tree on his right, he heard a loud click straight ahead of him. He knew exactly what it was--a trap that he had just sprung. He immediately dove for the ground. He wasn’t even close to making it before a large rope net slammed into him and in turn, slammed him against the tree. The force knocked him out cold.

Ropes extended out from the sides and at the corners of the net. On the end of each one was a piece of metal with pointed teeth. As Iolaus and the net hit the tree, the ’arms’ of the net were slung around to the opposite side, embedding the teeth deep into the solid trunk.

Several minutes passed before Iolaus began to come to. He opened his eyes and waited for them to focus. He tried to reach up to rub the back of his head, which inexplicably ached. He couldn’t move. He looked down to see why his arms were not obeying his command to move. He saw the net surrounding his body, and everything came back to him in a rush. ‘Nice going, Iolaus,’ he muttered disgustedly. He had been so engrossed in the rabbit chase; he had made the worst mistake any hunter could commit: he had set off a trap and been caught in it.

Iolaus tried to take several deep breaths to calm his emotions so he could take stock of his predicament, but he was so tightly pressed against the rough bark, he could hardly breathe. The only things he could move were his head and his feet. Every other part of his body was in a vice-like grip. Both arms were tight against his sides. He wiggled his fingers but there was nothing within their range for him to grasp.

The hunter looked down and saw his bow and arrows lying a few feet away. They definitely wouldn’t be figuring in his escape plans. He thought of his knife. He saw the hilt sticking out between the ropes. If he could just turn his hand and inch his fingers forward, he could reach it. He worked and worked at it but made little progress. He knew that even if he managed to actually touch the knife, there wasn’t going to be any way he could pull it out of its sheath. Another lost cause.

Frustration threatened to overwhelm the hunter. “Iolaus, how do you manage to get yourself into these situations?” he asked out loud. Nobody answered him. But, there was a familiar laugh. When he looked to his left, there stood Ares. The hunter rolled his eyes.

“I can help you get out of that mess you’ve gotten yourself into,” Ares offered with a fake expression of concern.

“Go away, Ares,” Iolaus said with exasperation. “I don’t need your help.”

“Oh, really. Looks to me like you need a great deal of help.”

Iolaus eyed the God of War. “Are you responsible for this?”

“I’m really hurt that you would think so. I don’t need to set traps for you. You seem to find real ones all by yourself. Sure you don’t want my help?”

“I’m sure.”

“All right, then,” Ares said as he turned to go. He turned back and held his hand up. “I bet in a few days, you’ll be willing to change your mind.”

“Never. I don’t want to be in your debt.”

“We’ll see. Oh, by the way, if you’re counting on Hercules to rescue you, forget it. He is out looking, of course, but....”

Iolaus smiled at the thought, knowing his friend would soon be there to get him loose and tease him in the process. His smile turned to a frown at Aires's next words.

“It seems poor Hercules is so frantic to find you; he isn’t paying as much attention to the trail as he should. It seems he’s following a false one. Too bad. By the time he does make it here, you’ll have... Well, let’s just say there won’t be much left.” Ares gave a little wave and disappeared in a flash.

Iolaus closed his eyes and shook his head. He had no doubt that Ares had seen to it Hercules was being led in the exact opposite direction. He also had no doubt that his buddy would eventually get here. Would it be in time? Iolaus chided himself. Of course, it’ll be in time. There was no way the son of Zeus was going to let him die out here. There was just no way.

The night was a long one for Iolaus. He had tried and tried to work the net loose enough to allow him to move. He had to grit his teeth against the pain caused by the rough rope scraping the skin raw on the back of his left hand. He had to stop over and over to calm himself and let the pain subside before trying again. He was sure if he could get just a bit of play in the ropes, he could reach his knife and get it out. Cutting the ropes would be easy, and he would be free.

It wasn’t happening. Hour after hour went by, and he was no closer to getting loose than when the net had first trapped him. He softly cursed the man who had devised this trap. But, being the hunter he was, he had to admit, begrudgingly, that it was a good one. He would have been even more appreciative, if he had been looking at this from the other side.

The hunter finally gave up, at least for the time being. He decided to try and get some sleep and wait for Hercules to find him. It took a long time to still his mind, but a couple of hours before dawn, he fell into a dreamless sleep.

Hercules’s stomach reached the point that it wouldn’t be stilled. He was hungry. In an attempt to quiet it so he could spend all his thoughts on the search for his partner, the demigod found a bush loaded with berries and grabbed several handfuls. He stuffed them in his mouth, not willing to spend a moment more than necessary eating. He did take a second to snap a branch holding a more of the berries and carry them with him. He ate as he walked.

Just as he finished the last berry and threw the branch aside, he stopped and looked around him. There was something very familiar about the area where he was. Then it hit him. He had passed the same twisted old tree before. A closer inspection of the trail showed that his own footprints were there. “Damn.”

How long had be been going in a circle? How much time had he wasted? The obvious answer was that he had been going in one huge circle almost the whole time. So, the whole time had been a waste.

Hercules bent down and ran his hand over the dirt. “Damn!” he said again, this time louder and much more vehemently. He thought of Iolaus, out there alone, probably hurt, probably looking for his friend to rescue him. Time could be of the essence, and here he was going in circles.

He wasn’t the tracker Iolaus was, but he wasn’t the worst one around, either. How could he have been fooled so badly? He finally decided he just hadn’t been paying enough attention. His fear and worry had dulled his senses. “I’m sorry, Iolaus.”

Hercules looked at the sky and calculated which direction the hunter had gone in the day before. He headed that way, hoping his friend hadn’t let the rabbit take him too far. With his stomach somewhat satisfied, he trained every ounce of his concentration on the task at hand. “I’ll find you, Iolaus. I promise.” Now, all he had to do was keep that promise.

Iolaus woke up slowly. The first thing he became aware of was the throbbing in his head. The second thing he became aware of was a rabbit sitting several feet in front of him. Iolaus blinked several times. The rabbit was still there. Iolaus’s eyes got wide in disbelief. ’Is that my rabbit?’ he asked himself. He stared at the furry little creature and became convinced it was laughing at him. He half expected it to start laughing out loud.

It was Iolaus that started laughing, when he realized the incongruity of the situation. In total desperation, he attempted to make a deal with the rabbit. ‘I won’t eat you or any of your family for a whole year, if you come gnaw on these ropes.” He shook his head. “Iolaus, you’re really babbling this time. Hercules will have you put away.”

The rabbit continued to stare at him as if knowing he couldn’t hurt it. It seemed to be saying, “Chase me for dinner, will you.”

The humor vanished when Iolaus realized how thirsty he was. His mouth was dry, and his tongue felt like it was getting thicker by the minute. He told himself that he had gone a lot longer without water before. He shouldn’t be this thirsty this soon. “Something’s not right.”

As soon as he uttered the words, the ‘rabbit’ turned into Ares.

“I might have known,” Iolaus said exasperated.

“Getting thirsty, are we?” the God of War asked.

“I told you to go away.”

“You don’t want any water?” Ares asked as a large mug of water appeared in his hand. He poured some of it out on the ground.

“There’s plenty more just for you.”

“Even if I consented to drink your water, I doubt I could live with the price you’d ask.”

“Oh, it’s free.”

“Nothing with you is ever free, Ares. Just go away. I‘ll do fine until Hercules comes.”

Ares gave an exaggerated sigh. “Still waiting for your buddy? Don’t you think he should have been here by now? He must have given up looking.”

“If there’s one thing in this world I’m sure of, it’s that Hercules will never give up on me. You ought to know that by now.”

Ares did. He knew it all too well. Look what had happened with that whole Dahak thing. Ares didn’t want to dwell on that idea too long. He had not acquitted himself very well then. It was even worse later when he had tried to deal with Michael.

The leather-clad god visibly shook as he banished the memories. He then poured all the contents of the mug on the ground. “Your choice. The next animal that shows up might be a bit more fearsome than a little bunny rabbit.”

The evil laugh that remained behind the god as he vanished in a flash of light left Iolaus with a crawly feeling running down his back. He tried hard not to think of what might show up.

If something mean and toothy appeared and looked at him for dinner the way he had looked at that rabbit, he was doomed.

Iolaus was dozing, when a sound brought him alert with a start. It was a growl. A large black leopard stood twenty feet away and regarded him with fierce yellow eyes. It licked its lips. Dinner. It didn’t look as if it was going to wait too long to begin dining.

The hunter was often described as fearless. That wasn’t true. He just had to work hard at overcoming his fears. Dying didn’t frighten him. He certainly had enough experience in that department. As a warrior, he was always prepared for it. He wanted to go out for the final time in battle, preferably with Hercules at his side. But, being torn apart by this cat scared him beyond words. If he could do battle with it, he might not win, but he would at least have a fighting chance, even if he had to do it without a weapon.

“Nice kitty,” Iolaus said and then rolled his eyes. “He doesn’t understand you, Iolaus,” the hunter admonished himself. Then, a thought came to him. Maybe, this one was also Ares, trying to scare him. He looked into the cat’s eyes. “Very good, Ares. This is definitely more fearsome than a rabbit.”

A growl answered him. The leopard walked several feet closer. “Listen cat. I’m too tough for you. You wouldn’t really enjoy having me for dinner. Go away!”

The leopard regarded the blond hunter and licked his lips again. He showed no signs of doing as he was told.

“Stay calm,” came a familiar voice from behind him on the right.

“Hercules!” The relief at the sound of the demigod’s voice rushed out of every pore in Iolaus’s body. “I’m calm. I’m calm.” He knew, though, that the tight net was the only thing keeping his knees from giving way.

The leopard looked at Hercules as he entered Iolaus’s field of vision. It turned to face the demigod. When it leapt, Hercules balled his fist and punched it in the jaw. The big cat dropped like a stone and lay crumpled on the ground.

Hercules walked over to his partner. He regarded the hunter’s predicament and smiled. The fear and then relief in his eyes belied the humor reflected on his face.

Iolaus decided to keep the tone light to spare them both an overly emotional scene. He knew as well as anything what Hercules had just gone through. “Don’t you dare laugh at me. I never saw it coming.”

“Would I laugh at you?” the demigod asked with raised eyebrows.

“In an instant. Cut me loose, please. I’ve been trussed up like this since right after I left camp.”

Hercules walked around to the back of the tree and looked at the embedded metal teeth. “Nice trap,” he admired.

That’s easy for you to say,” Iolaus grumbled. He refrained from expressing any more negative feelings. Truth was he was too overjoyed to spend time fussing.

In less than a minute, the net fell away and Iolaus took a step forward. He swayed, almost losing his balance, and was caught in the strong arms of his best friend. For just a second, Hercules squeezed him tighter, holding Iolaus next to his heart. Then, he released his grip. He continued to hold Iolaus’s arm for support.

Iolaus looked up into the all-too-familiar blue eyes. The look that passed between the two men spoke volumes--of deep friendship, of love, of loyalty, of the sharing of two souls and two hearts. Still, the hunter felt the need to say, “Thank you, Herc. I knew you’d come.”

“Always,” Hercules whispered, his heart as full of joy as the day Michael had sent Iolaus back from The Light to be by his side.

Iolaus straightened up and took a deep breath. With an almost imperceptible nod, he indicated he could stand on his own. Hercules released his hold. For just a second, the hunter wasn’t sure if he could really stand unaided. He did and nodded again.

He walked over to the leopard. The end of his bow was lying under the big cat. He bent down and pulled it out cautiously. “You should have left when I told you to go,” he said sternly to the unconscious creature.

When he looked at Hercules, the demigod was laughing.

Iolaus couldn’t help but laugh, too. “Boy, I bet he’ll be mad when he wakes up.”

“Yeah,” Hercules agreed. “He missed his meal.”

Iolaus looked at his friend wide-eyed as his words sank in. Then, he giggled. “I’ve missed a few of my own. I’m starved.”

“And, thirsty, too, I bet. There’s a small river near here. The meal will take a little longer, unless, of course, you caught that rabbit.” Hercules pretended to look around for the animal.

Iolaus stared at his friend for just a second and then shook his head. “No,” he admitted in a small voice.

“Don’t worry, we’ll scare up something. How about some fish?”

With a shared laugh, the two friends started off in the direction of the river. “You won’t believe it, Herc. I was chasing the rabbit and then...”

The End

Disclaimer: I wish I owned these characters, but I don’t. I just borrowed them. No profit, just entertainment.

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