The ground shook under Hercules' pounding feet as he lengthened his stride, forging straight across the wildflower field, not taking the time to follow the meandering path which took longer, but spared the flowers. Iolaus watched from behind, his own ribs heaving as her tried desperately to keep up. The scent of bruised greenery rose as the dust would have, had they stayed on the path. "Almost there," Iolaus thought gladly, his breath coming in hard spurts. His chest ached with the effort of keeping his breathing steady. His legs had long ago stopped burning and were in a state he could only describe as a moving cramp.
Hercules had traveled at a punishing pace.
Zeus' appearance in Corinth had stunned the demigod, who knew that this could mean no good. An already disastrous visit had turned even worse when Zeus told Hercules that Alcmene was ill. And no, she wouldn't let him intervene, insisting that her mortality was part of her strength. That Zeus was concerned was warning enough, but a note for the demigod from Jason had found its way to them even as they readied to leave, and since that moment the pace had been frantic.
Iolaus had seen the terror on his friend's face, the sweat that started before he even began running, as he realized that this was indeed a serious call for help, from Jason and for Alcmene.
Even now Iolaus fought to push the panic back down his throat, past his chest and into his muscles where he would have power, not helpless fear. He needed to reach her. Alcmene was family to him too, the mother he'd always wanted and one of the first people who'd ever accepted him exactly as he was, and loved him for it.
Iolaus felt the feathery heads of brilliant golden coreopsis reaching out and caressing his passing legs, stroking the leather of his pants and releasing their scent, comforting and refreshing. Achillea with its honeyed scent reached the tops of his boots, stretching out as if urging him to push harder. Bees buzzed in the meadow, busy at their jobs of pollinating and foraging, planning ahead to ensure food for the winter and a supply of nourishment for their offspring. Busy, as Alcmene had always been. Iolaus pushed himself harder.
He watched as Hercules forged with ease out of the meadow and onto Alcmene's yard, sprinting to his mother's home. He would arrive close behind, but winded and aching. So much for being mortal. Hercules was getting smaller as he sped ahead but Iolaus was undeterred. Their goal was in view and he wouldn't fail.
He took care not to trample the flowers which were so important to Alcmene. He might regret it later if he did. She loved these meadows and the ones further down the path to Corinth as well. Any new or unusual flower was subject to her scrutiny, and soon to be planted in her garden and propagated for friends' gardens as well. Alcemene's influence was wide spread.
Hercules slammed through the front door as Iolaus reached the first garden at the perimeter of her property, just inside the stone wall he and Hercules had labored on though the years. He pushed himself to run faster even though he was wet with sweat, could barely catch is breath. His side hurt and legs complained with each stride. No matter, the door was nearer with each step. His foot touched the porch and Iolaus knew he was home.
"Jason! Got here as fast as I could," Hercules panted.
Iolaus pushed through the door, stopped at Hercules' side. "What happened?"
Jason looked drawn, his posture slumped and defeated. "Oh, she said she was dizzy a few days ago. Thought it was nothing - - -until last night - - -when she complained of a head ache. Her speech was slurred. She went to hold my hand her hand but had no strength." Jason rubbed his forehead, closing his eyes as if something so serious could be blocked out so easily.
"Where is she?" Hercules asked, not bothering to hide the concern in his voice.
"Outside," Jason answered, gesturing with his head to the back garden area.
Hercules went out the back door; saw his mother pulling weeds from the vegetable garden. She was bent over on her knees covered with dirt, her dress soiled.
"Hello mother," Hercules intoned, trying to keep the anxiety out of his voice,
"Hercules!" Alcmene replied, her joy apparent. "And Iolaus," she added as she saw the diminutive blonde burst through the back door. She stood and Iolaus couldn't help but notice that she had to place a hand on the ground to steady herself. Her legs trembled as she worked to stand, but she held Hercules' gaze with a loving one of her own. Iolaus bit his lower lip.
"What are you doing?" Hercules asked as he reached out for her.
Alcmene chuckled and shook her head. "Don't look so surprised. I tend to the garden everyday."
Iolaus stepped up, placing his calloused hand on her sun browned arm. His lips were tight and Alcmene could see that this son of her heart could see with far clearer eyes than her blood son. She gave him a sad smile, and then turned her eyes to Hercules'.
"You should be in bed resting," Hercules chided, unable to keep the fear from his voice.
Alcmene took his hand and gave it a squeeze. "Oh stop it! I'm feeling much better. Besides, why would I want to be inside on a day like today?" She shook her head and turned to Iolaus, taking his hand in her other. Gently she led them both over to her garden bench.
"Here, sit with me and enjoy the day. Take the look off your face Hercules," she warned. "Iolaus tell me about your latest adventure."
Hercules sat heavily onto the bench. "You're so stubborn mother," he spoke softly.
Alcmene could hear his pain. She cupped his cheek in a dirt lined hand, turned his face to her and smiled impishly at him. "Where do you think you get it from?"
Hercules sighed, knowing he'd lost this round. He cast his eyes out onto the garden and Iolaus watched as his shoulders slumped and his back curved forward. His face had aged ten years in just a day.
The garden was mature and healthy, with plants that had tree trunks more than stems. The variety was astounding and when Iolaus really looked at it, he could see that Alcemene had done some remarkable cross breeding. Original strains of wildflowers stood in the center and in layers the blossoms became progressively more complex right out to the periphery. The garden was like a painter's pallet, or a scientist's lab, something that started with a small idea and expanded. It encompassed generations of thought and planning and foresight.
Iolaus squeezed Alcmene's hand. "The garden looks beautiful," he spoke sincerely.
"I started it the day I found out that Amphitron had died in the war. Bringing it to life somehow helped me to accept his death. See that row of burgundy Achillea? You helped me plant that when you were just three." She turned a soft and weary smile to Iolaus. "Hercules kept pulling up the plants and you kept putting them back. You never got mad at him either. Such patience and focus and caring in a child so young." She shook her head. "You were destined to be together. I knew it even then."
Hercules focused on the garden and Iolaus hoped he was looking at more than just an area full of sweet smelling plants.
"And when you two boys went off to fight in Parthus, I sat in this garden and prayed everyday that you'd be returned to me safely."
"That was the first war I ever fought in," Hercules mused, still not looking at his mother. Iolaus nodded, remembering the carnage and how ill prepared they were for the emotional aspects of watching friends die. No amount of Academy training could have ever hardened them to the pain of unwarranted death.
"I'm sorry I put you through that," Hercules turned to his mother speaking sincerely.
"No apologies, Hercules. You did what you had to do." Alcmene sighed and stared across, taking in the blooms. She took in a deep breath, inhaling the sweet scent of the flowers, so vital and important. "I just wish I could have protected you from what you boys saw."
"I was so eager to go off and fight, I had no idea," Hercules thought aloud.
"Well, you were young." Alcmene spoke knowingly and patted his hand.
"Yeah," Hercules conceded.
Iolaus turned a worried glance towards his friend. He'd never heard the demigod so subdued. He shifted uncomfortably, trusting Hercules senses, knowing that that divine blood that coursed through his veins sometimes gave him foresight that Iolaus lacked. This couldn't end up with a happy ending; he could feel it in his bones.
"You know," Alcmene started, not looking at Hercules, speaking as if she was consoling herself. "All a mother wants to do is protect her children from all the pain in the world."
Iolaus felt Alcmene squeeze his hand with vigor, and knew she was doing the same to Hercules. She was the connection, the one who knew them both so well that she could know what they needed without even asking. And now she was showing them something else, that they were connected by more than her hands, but also a oneness of spirit and acceptance. Iolaus wondered if Hercules could see what she was telling them, but doubted it. His anxiety was too high.
Alcmene turned to Hercules first, then Iolaus. "Because you love them so much, you- - -hold onto the illusion that you can do that." She sat silently for minute and then in a small voice added, "I didn't."
"None of us can," Hercules answered with a squeeze to her hand. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself."
"I can't help it," Alcmene answered sadly. She sat in silence and Iolaus slid an arm around her shoulders.
"We know you've been felling ill," Iolaus spoke softly. "And we're worried. The best thing you can do for us is to talk."
"I think it would make us all feel better, "Hercules spoke tightly, trying to force back the emotion in his voice as he squeezed his mother's hand.
"It's nothing," she answered with a shake of her head and stood suddenly. To tell the boys her fears and weakness would make them even more real, and she wasn't ready to face them herself, if the truth was to be told.
Yes, her mortality was her strength. She had to accomplish so much knowing her time was short and every second unforgiving. But the thought of how her passing might make others suffer was the unbearable part of the ordeal. She didn't want to be remembered for her suffering or death, but for her life. She wasn't a young woman. Pestilence and hard times had claimed many of her peers, but Alcmene knew her herbs and she knew how to garden. Those two things alone had been so very important in her longevity.
No, not now, when she felt so close to these two dear men, her children, the pride of her life. She wouldn't concentrate on death, but on life. When the time was right she would know.
Alcmene stood. "It wouldn't make me feel better," she declared softly. "Let's go back to the house. I need to start preparing a meal."
Alcmene placed the fresh vegetables she carried in her apron on the table. She had planned for a nice stew for supper, but would have to go to the market for a few supplies. She glanced over at the men, huddled in front of the hearth.
"Have you sent word to Iphicles?" Iolaus asked Jason. "He and Rena would want to be here."
"Yes, I know. I sent a message at the same time I sent one to you two. I suspect that he needs to wrap up business and then he'll come." Jason spoke softly, not wanting to alarm his wife.
But Alcmene was only to painfully aware they were talking about her. True, she hadn't felt well, and her herbs didn't seem to be helping. But she didn't feel quite as bad as the men were making her out to be. She walked over to the group and slipped an arm around Iolaus' waist.
"I hope you brought your appetite."
"Far be it from me to pass up your cooking." Iolaus grinned at her. "Gods Alcmene, you have more talents, cooking, healing gardening, bringing up children, than I could ever hope to have." He felt a catch in his voice.
Alcemene noticed and squeezed him harder.
"Stop it Iolaus. "I'm fine, and I'll be cooking for you for a long time to come."
Iolaus nodded, meeting her eyes and not hiding the pain. From the corner of his eye he saw Hercules turn his own face away.
"Would you do me a favor?" she asked.
Iolaus quickly nodded. "Anything."
"Go hunt up a few rabbits and I'll make us the best stew ever." She reached for a clean pair of shoes, kicking off the old garden clogs.
"Where are you going?" Jason asked protectively.
"To the market," she answered simply.
"Is that a good idea?" Iolaus questioned.
"You just try and talk her out of something once she gets an idea in her head," Hercules answered with a roll of his eyes.
"He has a point," Jason admitted, staring assessingly across at Iolaus.
Alcmene turned, leaving the room to get the few dinars she kept hidden in her bedroom in other market bag.
Hercules turned to Jason in his mother's absence. "How are you holding up?"
"I don't know." Jason's shoulders slumped. "I'm tired of pretending that nothing's wrong. You should have seen her last night," he whispered, glancing furtively in the direction Alcemene had disappeared. "There's nothing worse than someone you love in pain."
Hercules clapped a hand onto Jason's shoulder. "Don't give up hope," he encouraged.
"I haven't, but I'd be foolish not to prepare myself." He spoke like the king he once was. "I've learned the hard way, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
"Jase, do you ever think back to when we were kids, when we went to fight the Parthans?"
"Sure I do," Jason seemed far away. I always felt responsible for the king's death."
"I remember how opposed mother was to Iolaus and I going off to fight with you. She was afraid we'd die." Hercules sighed, propping his head in his hands. "I never understood the panic in her voice. I was invincible, too young to understand mortality. The bad guys died and sometimes the good guys got caught in the cross fire."
Jason sat silently for a moment before finally speaking. "You had the edge on all of us with your strength and connections to the gods. You were cocky, Hercules," Jason spoke honestly knowing that Hercules was man enough to hear this now. "I worried about you then and I do now too. You are so quick to see good that often you misconstrue the power that evil has on us mortals. You see through the eyes of a demigod, but Iolaus and I see with all our mortality."
Hercules turned to Jason, eyes moist. "I understand. I now feel what Mother felt then."
Jason shook his head. "It's more than that which concerns me."
Hercules raised an eyebrow as he stared across at Jason. The sweet scent of Jasmine from his mother's garden was carried in by the soft breeze that entered the open window.
"Hercules," Jason began tentatively. "You're rational when you keep your emotions under control. But when you let them control you, you make some bad decisions." Jason held Hercules' eyes with this own. "And if the worst happens to your mother," he caught his breath, trying to swallow his own fear and sadness. "Then I'm afraid that you won't be thinking clearly."
Hercules nodded, wiping a hand across his mouth. He thought back to when Iolaus had died at the hands of the Amazons and how he'd been so easily captured. He thought about when Serena was killed, how quickly he'd believed that he had done it. And worst, when his family had died, he'd been so bent on revenge that he'd almost lost Iolaus yet again. Jason had a valid point. But how could he react differently? He shook his head.
"Jason," he began, but was cut off by the sound of Alcmene's bedroom door opening.
"Are you ready Hercules?"
Hercules walked slowly, letting his mother set the pace. There had been times when he'd had to hurry to keep up with her, but age and illness were taking their tolls. Today she had simply meandered, stopping at every garden to look at the flowers. Hercules never remembered the trip to town taking this long.
He felt her tug at his arm.
"Mm-hmm, would you mind if we stopped for a while? I'm just a little winded." She saw his concern etching itself ever deeper. She clicked her tongue. "Hercules, I'll be fine."
He helped her ease herself down onto a log, settling next to her. Reaching for her hand, he squeezed the nimble fingers gently in his palm. "Mother, why are you doing this?"
"What are you talking about?" she questioned back, unable to meet her son's eyes.
"Look, Jason told us about last night. You are NOT fine." He felt her sag against him, leaning into his hard chest, her head soft against his shoulder.
"I know you don't want us to worry about you, but we ARE going to," his voice was softer, more placating. "Please, you should be in bed. Let me take care of you."
Alcmene could hear her son's voice crack and it tore at her heart. She never wanted to cause pain or embarrassment to her children.
"Hercules," she sighed. I don't know if I'm dying, but I do feel pretty bad, and I can't seem to find any herbs that work" - - -her voice trailed off.
"What's wrong mother?" Hercules entreated as he squeezed her closer to him, turning her face to his and forcing her to look into his eyes as he spoke.
"Headaches," she admitted, "but not just that, I can't seem to move my arm or leg sometimes when they come on. And lately I have periods of time that are just missing."
Hercules could see the concern in her eyes. "What does Jason say about those times?"
Alcmene shook her head. "He says I fall where I'm standing and seem to lose consciousness." She drew her lips tight and closed her eyes to keep the pain inside.
"Mother!" Hercules spoke softly. "Why?"
"I don't know," she answered simply. "But I do know this. I will NOT be a burden to my family. I'd rather die than be an invalid!" Her eyes raised both watery with tears yet fiery with emotion, meeting Hercules'.
"You will NEVER be a burden," Hercules whispered as he squeezed her tight. "Let's get you to a healer," he suggested.
"Hercules, I don't think I could take such a long trip."
"But here in town"--- Hercules started.
"Hercules," his mother admonished, "I do most of the healing for this town. I don't think you'll find someone else."
Had he been away so long he'd forgotten that?
"Iphicles! We can send for his healer," Hercules spoke the thought aloud. "The King of Corinth would have the finest healer!" He was getting excited.
Alcmene wanted to temper her son's excitement. "Hercules, let's just go into town. I've rested enough and we're almost there. There's supper to make, and I know how my men like to eat."
"Mother, I'm not going to let you go without a fight."
"I know Hercules," Alcmene sighed. "But don't worry. I'm not afraid. And I won't waste whatever time I have left sitting around feeling sorry for myself, so let's go! It's a beautiful day, and I want to spend it with my son."
She stood on wobbly legs, found her balance and took Hercules' arm.
The ground thundered with the force of the pounding hooves and dust swirled up in choking clouds as the horsemen approached Jason and Alcmene's home. The Achillea and Coreopsis bent low as if bowing while the wind the steeds stirred demanded obeisance.
Jason and Iolaus stepped out to the porch, swords at the ready. The arrival of horsemen could mean two things, trouble or Iphicles. They stood at the ready watching the dust billow into the clear blue sky, seeing the resting birds take flight, squawking in protest and circling the offenders with catcalls.
Around the bend charged three fine steeds, soaked with sweat and puffing great steamy breath through dilated nostrils. Their eyes rolled, ears dropped in exhaustion as the great muscles rippled under the horses' flesh yet they toiled on sensing instinctively that the end to their frantic journey was nearing.
Iolaus and Jason stood shoulder to shoulder, swords at the ready as they surveyed the road ahead with a careful eye on the three horsemen. Iolaus could see that the rider in the lead kept glancing back at the man in the middle while the end man watched ahead carefully.
"It's Iphicles," Iolaus declared. "The others are watching him too closely. If they were bandits they'd have a plan, all be coming straight at us."
Jason nodded. He let his sword drop, feeling Iolaus do the same.
Iolaus stared across at the three horsemen, noting as they neared that while the first and last man were wearing battle armor, Iphicles was wearing simple clothing, leather pants, riding boots and a soft shirt that Rena must have made, it fit him so perfectly. His hair hung loose and rose and fell with the stride of his mount.
Iolaus stepped off the porch, Jason right behind him. The horses pounded forward, stopping abruptly as they reached the garden area.
Iphicles jumped off. "Where's mother?"
Jason reached for his arm. "She went to town with Hercules."
Iphicles let a look of confusion pass across his rugged features. "But the letter" - - -
"You must know your mother," Jason sighed. "With her family home she had to go shop for supper."
Iphicles nodded and turned to the soldiers who had rode with him. "Take the horses to the barn and make sure they are fed and watered. Bathe them if necessary. I'll make sure you're fed and given blankets for the night. You can leave in the morning."
"But sire," one protested. "What if you need us?"
Iphicles waved a hand absently, his mind more on his mother than his own protection.
"My brother Hercules is more than adequate protection. You may return in a week to escort me home."
The soldiers nodded obediently, and as Iphicles jumped gracefully off his horse, one of his men moved to grab its reins.
"The barn is back there," Iolaus gestured behind the house as the soldiers nodded and led the tired beasts to a soft bed of straw and a meal of oats and hay.
Alcmene's oldest son turned back to Jason and Iolaus. "So how bad is she?"
Jason spoke through tight lips. "Bad enough."
Iphicles stared down at the ground for a moment, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath
"I haven't been the best son," Iphicles breathed out finally.
"She loved you unconditionally. And she understood," Iolaus offered putting a hand gently on Iphicles' back. "And none of it was ever your fault."
Iphicles nodded and stepped up onto the porch, remembering the happy times when he played in the fields catching toads, helped his mother gather huge bouquets of flowers, and watched the deliberate work of bees pollinating blooms. Those were times when he knew he was loved, times he felt the most secure. This was the house he'd always called home. He'd come a long way from a humble home in Thebes to a castle in Corinth.
And yet, he found himself hoping that he'd never lost his roots. All the servants in the world couldn't make him as happy as being with mother did, and memories of the happy times he'd had with her had sustained him through the many bad days when they were apart.
Iolaus put a reassuring hand on Iphicles' shoulder. The King had been through a lot lately with the return of the warriors to Corinth, his fracture and the loss of Rena's pregnancy. He looked beyond weary, his face grimy with dust and sweat that outlined every line on his careworn face. Iolaus couldn't remember when he'd ever seen Iphicles looking so bad, and found himself wishing there as some way to spare him even more pain, but knew in his heart that where mortals were involved, the fates cut their threads exactly where directed.
"Iphicles come in and rest. Jason can fill you in on what's been happening with your mom. And you'll need to relax and clean up. I'm sure Alcmene wouldn't want to see you looking quite as, uh, tense as you do now."
You're right of course," Iphicles conceded. And mother would want me cleaned up a bit before supper," he shot a sad smile at Iolaus.
"I think she'll be delighted to see you any way," Jason responded as he let Iphicles pass first into the house.
Alcmene was exhausted. But it wouldn't do to let Hercules know. He'd only try and make her rest, and if her end was truly near she'd soon get more than enough rest. She had her boys, men really and Jason to tend to now. They expected a meal and she would be honored to make it for them. She reached out to feel the eggplant, see if it was firm or had a little give to the skin.
Funny, her hand didn't seem to want to work; it felt as if it didn't even belong on her body. And her arm moved woodenly. She dropped her arm to her side, almost involuntarily hoping that Hercules wouldn't notice. Her legs seemed to be made of stone.
Alcmene could hear Hercules speak her name, but he seemed to be calling it from far away. With strength she didn't know she had, Alcmene turned, spotting a bench. It took tremendous effort, but she spoke softly, as if underwater.
"Hercules, help me sit down."
She felt him lift her, his arms gentle, practiced at lifting and in a second she was seated with her son's strong arms supporting her. She was weak, soft against his side and though she seemed so very far away, she could still feel the frantic pounding of his heart even through the ribs of his side.
"Mother!" He spoke softly, not wanting to call attention to her frailty, knowing that she wouldn't want that, or the attention of the town's people. He held her erect even as he felt her leaning heavily against him. If her eyes weren't open and fighting to focus he would have thought her dead. Her skin was cool and moist and her color was ashen. She felt like Iolaus had when he'd cradled him in his arms for the trip to the Underworld and that frightened Hercules.
"Don't die!" he begged softly, turning to shelter her from the people. "I still need you, Iolaus and Jason need you." It sounded weak but Hercules didn't care. Without his mother he wouldn't have her moral strength to fall back on, her quiet and nonjudgmental guidance to lead him. It was his mortal half which made him stronger than the Gods and on which he relied more heavily. Hercules had always known that, and fear assailed him as he realized that his mother may soon have her thread snipped, he realized suddenly that he was threatened by decisions that he'd never steeled himself to make.
He wasn't ready. He hadn't thought about these things. When the unthinkable happened, he knew he often acted rashly. He never planned for the inevitable. Hercules tried to get hold of his panic, control of the situation.
Alcmene shook her head. She thought that Celesta was supposed to come to comfort the dying, but as she leaned against Hercules, slipping deeper into the darkness she felt nothing but cold and lost and overwhelmingly oppressed. There were no gods to comfort her. Perhaps she wasn't destined for Elysium!
Alcmene could feel her son's fear and it galvanized her. Hercules still needed her. He wasn't ready. She needed to rally. She willed herself to pull through. The other attacks had happened when she was alone, except the last which Jason had observed. Each time was worse, this she knew and soon there would be no escape. But just this once, she pleaded with Zeus, let me be there for Hercules. He shouldn't see me like this.
She felt the sensory isolation fading. The air was warm against her cool skin and the smell of honeysuckle invited a smile. Was it Zeus or her own will which tightened the slack thread which the muses wove? She wouldn't know. But she did feel the crushing sense of doom lifted.
Her arm seemed to be working again. She reached for Hercules, turning her face up to his and trying to keep her hands from shaking grabbed his arm. She forced a brave smile. She could see the relief on her son's face and knew she was right not to let him shoulder her burden.
"Mother!" Hercules sighed. "Stop trying to tell me you're all right."
"I will, if you stop treating me like your child," she responded. "To everything there is a season. A seed grows tall and strong, blooms, produces fruit or flowers and then whithers. The seed from the fruit or flower goes to soil and part of the old plant lives on, that's how it's meant to be."
"You're not old," Hercules answered fiercely, fighting back tears.
"Nor am I young. I've bloomed, produced seed and whether you see it or not, I've withered. I am part of you, Hercules and no matter what happens to my body, I'll never die as long as I live in you and Iphicles."
Hercules turned his face away, fighting for control. He couldn't do this! The loss was too great. He closed his eyes but he saw his mother there as well. He saw her grief at the loss of her husband Amphitron, the taking away of her son Iphicles, the loss of her daughter in law and grandchildren, the death of Iolaus at the hands of the Fire Enforcer. She had endured so much and her only support for much of it had been him. Hercules drew strength from his mother yet one more time.
"You're right," he answered though in his heart he felt only pain.
Alcmene wished that there was a way to spare him. But time always marched forward and she knew her time was short. Perhaps she would be wiser to prepare him for what was to come.
"Honestly Hercules, death would be welcome. I couldn't stand the thought of living with a lingering illness. I'd never want to be burden."
"You're not," he answered too quickly and his mother raised a finger to his lips.
"Not now, but I want you to remember my vitality, not my infirmity. When I need to be cared for by someone else, then that isn't life. It's living death."
Hercules cringed at his mother's words. She spoke in the past tense, as if she knew already what was to come. He didn't want to think that way.
"Mother," he protested, but there were no other words.
"Promise me that you will treat me with respect no matter what condition I'm in at the time." It pained Alcmene to even have to make this request, but she suspected that her idea of respect differed in some ways from Hercules'. He hadn't yet learned either the joy or pain of aging. Perhaps part of this was her fault. She had always protected him, never thinking this day would come, too secure in her home, surrounded by family.
She could see the concern and fear etched across her son's handsome face.
"I need you to be strong," she whispered and watched as he nodded mutely, unable to look her in the eyes struggling to maintain his composure. "Sometimes the hardest decisions are the most worthy."
She slipped her hand into his, not hearing the murmur of the crowd as the vendors in the busy marketplace hawked their wares, not seeing the occasional curious glance her way. Her eyes were on her son for this was the moment of truth.
"Hercules, I know this will be difficult for you, but I know that your strength is more than physical. When it is my time to pass into the Elysian Fields I want that release! There is nothing worse than laying in helpless wait as your loved ones mourn, leaving you helpless and needy while you whither away like a wilting plant. I never want to be more vegetable than human."
Hercules stared off into the clouds, watching as their shapes shifted, and they became nothing more than amorphous blobs and then dissipated. The sky was as blue as his mother's eyes, but he drew no comfort there. He felt the squeeze of her hand, the press of her body next to his and wished this moment was different and longer, one of happiness instead of longing. He would do anything for his mother.
"I'll make sure when the time comes that you don't suffer."
"That I don't linger," Alcmene added. "You need to know the difference. I don't want to live if I can't contribute." She saw her son's discomfort, knew he'd heard her message. She was feeling stronger now. "Let's finish shopping," she suggested. "I need to get supper ready."
Hercules carried his mother's purchases in the crook of one arm and felt her small hand grasping the bicep of his other arm. His mind slipped back to other losses, of questions he wished he'd asked and things he wished he'd said before it was too late. Now he was being given a chance. Death wouldn't come again with him unaware.
"Mother, there's something I always wanted to ask," he spoke without hesitation, knowing she would answer him freely, that they had come to a final understanding.
Alcmene smiled up at her son. There was much they'd never spoke of, things she held back so not to hurt him, parts of her past that she didn't know if he was ready for when he was younger, but the time had never seemed right to bring them up, as they both grew older.
"Do you resent Zeus for what he did to you?" Hercules asked, turning to meet his mother's eyes. He saw no anger there, only peaceful resignation.
"I admit I was angry when I found out Zeus came to me as Amphitron. But all that went away as I felt you growing inside me. I knew you were a gift. And I have Zeus to thank for blessing me with you."
"How did you reconcile that?" Hercules asked curiously, thinking he would have been pretty darn angry had a god interfered in his life to that extent.
His mother stopped, staring up into his face, a soft smile arcing across her lips. "Maybe we should sit so I can tell you about it."
Hercules looked at the field next to the path they traveled. Wild flowers were strewn in varying colors across a sea of waving grass. The sweet scent of the moist earth rose pungently and the beckoning fronds invited rest.
"That sounds wonderful," Hercules responded with a soft smile at his mother. Gods this couldn't be happening!
Alcmene settled herself gently onto the grass, and bent a stem of calendula to her, sniffing its earthy scent. She wondered if Elysium could possibly as beautiful as her home, as sweet as the fields of wild flowers that surrounded it or as comforting as Hercules' presence. She supposed she'd soon find out, but for now she took comfort in what she had.
Hercules plopped down next to his mother, trying not to look too concerned. He wondered whether his mother was tired or simply giving him a little extra time to talk to her alone. Either way, he was grateful for the quiet time with her.
Alcmene smiled across at Hercules. "There is a story that I have kept in my heart for many years. It's the story about how I reconciled my feelings for Zeus and accepted his gift of you so fully. But it involves, um" she hesitated choosing her words carefully, "for you to suspend your disbelief and listen quietly to the full story before you speak. Can you do that Hercules?"
Hercules had the feeling that this was going to be interesting. He raised an eyebrow questioningly.
"So do you?" his mother questioned.
Hercules nodded silently, meeting his mother's solemn stare with one of his own.
"Then I'll tell all." She smiled slightly and leaned back on her arms, letting her hair fall in loose ringlets melding with the grasses and flowers. Her mind wandered back to a time when she was young and pretty and vibrant. She closed her eyes and let her thoughts transport her back to that time, both amazing and terrifying when she rarely tired and had no thoughts to her own mortality.
"I thought for sure that Amphitryon was your father, that the gods had taken pity on us and allowed him the one last visit. Perhaps he had died valiantly fighting and Ares had rewarded him, or Aphrodite could feel my longing for him. The townspeople whispered when I passed through with my swollen belly and I tried to make myself think they were jealous about how a god would have rewarded my love, or Amphitryon's valor."
Alcmene sighed and a soft smile crossed her lips.
Hercules stared down at her thinking that the pleasant memories seemed to make her look younger, healthier.
"That was what got me through every day as I gardened for vegetables and grains to eat and sell, fed the chickens and goat so I would have eggs and cheese and milk to help you grow. Let me tell you, it wasn't easy as I grew bigger. I would as soon as sat with my feet up but Iphicles was too small to be much help then, and Amphitryon's family was threatening to take him from me. So you see, I couldn't appear sad or weak or tired. I relied on these beliefs to buoy me, keep me going."
A shadow of pain crossed Hercules' face as he listened to his mother's words.
"It was a hard time for me both emotionally and physically. I missed Amphitryon so very much, and you, Hercules, were a very large baby. I knew what I wanted, a healthy baby, a brother for Iphicles, a last chance for Amphitryon to live on"- - -
Hercules wanted to reach out for his mother, but instead she opened her eyes and reached a small hand out to his. Her eyes were opened, so incredibly blue.
"But then, on a day I'll never forget, everything changed. I was gardening, tired but happy and a strange blonde man came running up my path. He was dirty and sweaty, out of breath and his eyes rolled like worried colt's when he saw me, giving me pause. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him and the whole situation left me unsettled."
Hercules smiled, remembering how he had watched this same scene from the scrying pool while trapped with the Sovereign in a vortex. He had seen it from the viewpoint of an anguished son, but now he would hear what his mother's thoughts were.
Alcmene looked far away, a small smile on her lips. "I tried not to show my fear. He told me such an incredible tale! Why in the world would a fire goddess want to kill a pregnant widow?" Alcmene shook her head. "But Hercules, I listened to what he had to say. He was very convincing and when the Fire Goddess actually came as he predicted I realized that he knew what he was saying.
"He said he was Iolaus and I immediately made the connection. He didn't look so very much different, just bigger. And when he told me how special you would be, my heart leaped for joy. Amphitryon would be so proud! But then he told me something else, something harder to absorb. He told me that you were the son of Zeus."
Alcmene paused and Hercules could feel his mother's pain and disbelief.
"All he had told me before was true. I wanted to doubt him but deep down I could see his earnest truth. He had put himself in harm's way for my baby and me. His eyes were honest and though the thought that Amphitryon wasn't your father stung his word were strong with encouragement and love. I could see that you meant so much to him that he would die for you. He seemed so strong and kind and honest that I took courage in his words. He meant me no harm."
Hercules thought back, knowing that his mother was unaware of her death in the fiery barn, of Iolaus' determination to save her and her unborn son so fierce that he went to extremes to change what the fates had determined. Alcmene, and Hercules, had lived.
"Mother," Hercules spoke softly, knowing the time was right. "We died at the hands of the Fire Goddess, Callisto. But Iolaus wouldn't accept it and kept searching through time until he was able to change our fate."
"He was always an exceptional person," Alcmene murmured with a knowing nod of her head. "You chose your friends well, or perhaps they chose you."
Hercules nodded, meeting his mother's eyes.
Alcmene sighed. "I must say I was disappointed to find out that you weren't Amphitryon's son. I was shocked, disbelieving when Iolaus told me. So the whispers and snickers that followed me were not wrong. I was a widow pregnant with the child of another. And who would believe that a god would do this to me, a quiet housewife and gardener? That was the part that was had to reconcile. Iolaus had saved me physically, but emotionally I was torn.
There were many long nights when I lay awake listening to the sound of Iphicles' soft breathing on the bed next to me wondering if the two of you would look even a little alike, or whether instead your parentage would be obvious. I wasn't so much afraid that life would be harder, I knew that was a given, but I struggled with how I would raise the son of the King of Gods.
Slowly I began to see the wisdom in Iolaus' words, understand they were meant for more than praise, but guidance as swell. I should have been concentrating not on whom your father was, but who YOU would someday become! I was being given the singular chance to mold you into a force for good or a selfish, spoiled child of a god. I could give you a choice of worlds. You could know the best and worst of mankind and see the actions and effects of the gods on the people of Greece. I was in a unique position. The gods can be heartless, but in you I had a chance to place a love for humanity. And it was Iolaus' revelation that made it all possible."
Alcmene reached for Hercules' hand and squeezed it. "Imagine if I never knew, if I didn't teach you to control your power. I'd like to think that you would have used them for good regardless, but your father was awfully impulsive."
She smiled up at her son, and Hercules could see the sadness in her eyes.
"Mother, you did a great job," he reassured her.
"I hope so," she sighed. Alcmene rested her head against Hercules' shoulder.
"You have an impulsive streak like your father," she observed. "Tell me you will think things out carefully when I die and not just jump into anything that takes your mind off me."
Hercules sighed and closed his eyes against the pain he felt at her words.when I die.not if I die. A fist closed around his heart and in his mind he asked his father one last favor.
Zeus paced across the marble floor in his great temple on the very top of Mount Olympus. He'd been watching her for years through the scrying glass, visiting when he could slip past Hera's notice. She had always been a singular mortal and now he was losing her. And too soon at that. The Fates had noticed the fraying of Alcmene's thread and though they had tried to mend it, it continued to untwist and each day a tiny strand broke. It had never happened like this before, out of the control of the Fates.
Zeus had been alarmed when it had been brought to his attention. There was another force at work here, one stronger than the Greek Gods, toying with them. Zeus could feel the presence, the intense need to dominate and control that this entity exuded. He had battled his share of powerful beings, but this force he sensed was far beyond anything he had previously encountered. That Alcmene's thread was being unraveled was more than coincidence. This foreign power was involved, of that he was sure. And what ever it was wanted to start at the top.
Zeus wouldn't have it. HE was King of the gods. It was his job to maintain the integrity of his kingdom. What to do? He paced faster. He could ask Ares for help, but as serious as the God of War was, dealing with this new entity required a fine touch, a thinker, someone who planned for the period that lay ahead so many years in the future. Ares was linear. He needed someone who was always on his toes, someone who could see beyond the next battle or two.
Hercules! Zeus heard the supplication from the scrying glass. Don't let my mother die! Zeus felt the same way. It wasn't her time. This new power was a usurper. He was using Alcmene because he knew she was the hub from which the single best of the gods sprung, the one he most cared about. But the new one's strength was far superior to his. Zeus knew he couldn't fight it alone. With Hercules at his side, well perhaps he stood a chance. He listened to the supplication in the scrying glass. Yes, he could use this.
Hercules paced in the barn as his mother rested, exhausted from her trip to market. "Father!" He called out not trying to hide his anger and impotence. He felt the straw crushing beneath his relentless steps to nowhere, as he circled like a hungry bird of prey.
"Father!" He demanded the presence of the top god.
And he was rewarded.
"Hercules," Zeus spoke grimly, causing the demigod to spin around and face him.
"It's not as easy as you think" - - -
"Oh yeah, I've heard THAT one before!" Hercules leaned forward into his father's face, but the god merely frowned back at him. "This time father, you ARE going to do something."
Zeus noted Hercules' clenched fists, his muscles trembling like a chained guard dog straining to free itself.
"This is bigger than you could ever realize," Zeus sighed.
"I don't care how big you think it is, you are WRONG to just sit back and let mother die!"
"Do you think Alcmene's death doesn't grieve me?" Zeus snapped back. "I loved her! But Hera was unforgiving and the only way to keep your mother safe was to stay away. That was a truce hard won," Zeus snorted. He turned away, wondering how much he should tell his son.
"You can't just let her die!" Hercules both demanded and pleaded. "You've turned back time before".
Zeus shook his head. "It's not that simple this time."
"Maybe you'd better start explaining then." Hercules' voice was moderated, but the emotions were poorly hidden.
Zeus moved to a hay bale, his robe billowing out behind him, and Hercules could see that his steps faltered slightly. He frowned, wondering if in fact his father also truly grieved, or if this was simply another act designed to get his own way.
"Father!" Hercules demanded.
Zeus stared at his favorite son. He knew what he needed in the long term. And he also knew what would be required to get it. Maybe not the whole truth, but enough to ensure Hercules' cooperation.
"The Fates have told me her threads are unwinding and snapping, no longer under their control."
Hercules cocked his head. This was unusual.
'Something is afoot, Hercules, something more powerful than me." Zeus paused and turned away from his son. Hercules would need persuasion, and yet he needed protection as well. Zeus weighed his words carefully.
"I may be able to help her, son, but it comes with a cost."
Hercules sucked in a deep breath, steeling himself for Zeus' next words. If it was going to cost anyone, it would be him, of that Hercules was sure.
"The unraveling of the thread MAY be stopped, but it requires more strength than I alone can provide. And I have no takers to help me."
Hercules snorted in anger and turned away. Of course Ares wouldn't help; he'd grow more powerful for every suffering soul that died. And Hades had already forewarned Hercules that he wasn't going to do ANY more favors. Even if the God of the Underworld could be persuaded, it would take more time than Alcmene had.
"What about Aphrodite?" Hercules tried not to let his despair rule his thoughts.
Zeus shook his head. "Her powers don't lend themselves to this task. The Goddess of Love's powers are strongest in matters of the heart."
"Then Aesclepius"- - - Hercules tried to keep the desperation out of his voice, knowing it would give his father the edge.
Again Zeus looked solemnly across at him with a shake of his head. "I asked son, but with the plague in the southern regions he had to refuse. The good of the many"- - - His voice trailed off and Zeus turned his eyes away from Hercules.
Hercules could hear the finality in his father's voice and dropped his head in his hands. He'd never considered his mother's mortality. Mothers never got sick, never wore out. They were always there for their children, waiting patiently. And he had never stopped to consider that his own mother aged as he was away, suffered when he was out of sight, and had troubles she would never tell him. Even though he thought of his mother often, he hadn't been there for her. Now he would, at any cost.
"What is the cost you mentioned, the one that might help mother?"
Zeus stared assessingly across at his son. His next words would be crucial. "There is only one person who could help me save your mother's life."
Hercules' eyes locked onto his fathers.
"You, son." He reached a hand over to his favorite son's shoulder. "I need you."
"How?" Hercules responded, wanting to help but knowing that there were strings attached.
Zeus chose his words carefully. There were things that Hercules wouldn't do, such as align himself with the gods, yet that was exactly what Zeus knew he must convince his son to do.
"I've tried to stop the thread from unraveling myself, but my efforts," he coughed, his eyes darting to the floor then back up to Hercules' weren't quite enough."
"But you're the king of the Gods," Hercules protested. "There's no one more powerful than you."
"True," Zeus responded, "but that's in Greece. This thread problem is not being caused by one of our gods, or I would be able to straighten it out. There is an outside force involved."
Hercules momentarily forgot his troubles. This was an interesting turn of events. "Who or what?" he questioned, peering over to his fathers steely face.
"I don't know," Zeus admitted, though it rubbed him the wrong way to do so. "But the Fates tell me that the power of two immortals who love her may be enough to drive away the force that is attacking."
"Can they mend her thread when it's freed?"
"They seem to think so, but this is all new, it's never been tried before, experimental treatment so to speak." Zeus coughed again and tried to avoid looking away.
"There's a hitch here, I'm not a god, but you need me."
"That's the cost," Zeus spoke with urgency. "I need to make you a god for this to work."
Hercules sat silently with a grim tightness around his mouth the only display of his turmoil. He ticked through the names of the gods, trying to find one who might care enough about his mother to help, but came up empty. He was holding a losing hand.
"How long do I have to make this decision?" Hercules asked, thinking that there was much to consider, and people to speak with before this decision was made, and in the back of his mind he had to entertain the thought that his father wasn't above trickery. His stomach lurched. His life for his mother's. Go against all that he'd disdained; leave his friends, his family, Iolaus all on a risky venture with no guarantees with Gods who didn't care about him. What would he tell Iolaus if it was his friend proposing this?
Hercules held his head in his hands. He'd tell Iolaus not to be impulsive, to think with his head and not his heart. He'd tell him that any decision as important as this needed consideration. And he'd be angry if Iolaus did the same thing without as much as a discussion of it with him.
"I have to take some time," he answered abruptly, standing up and brushing some stray hay off his braided leather pants. "Mother is okay now and I need to make sure that this whole idea is going to work."
Zeus shrugged, secretly disappointed that Hercules hadn't jumped at the offer. "As you desire," he tried to be nonchalant, but knew he needed a last attempt to convince his son. "But I have no idea when the thread will snap, and at that point it will be too late."
Hercules flinched. "I'll call for you soon. Be listening."
Iolaus fidgeted in his seat, his eyes darting between Iphicles and Jason. Alcmene never napped in the daytime, especially when there was company to feed. Yet she was so exhausted on coming home today she had fallen into her bed and within minutes was fast asleep. Jason stared glumly at the door to their bedroom while Iphicles bit a cuticle and winced as it pulled away from the tender skin at the edge of his finger nail. None of them had any idea what to do.
Iolaus drummed his fingers absently on the table. Alcmene was the healer, yet she saw no cure for her own illness, not a good sign. All hope lay in Herc getting through to Zeus, finding out what was happening and convincing his father to heal her. Iolaus hated the helpless feeling of sitting at a table and simply waiting for Hercules. He was Herc's friend, heart brother, and partner.
Iolaus stood. "I'm going to out to see Hercules," he declared as Iphicles and Jason shot each other glances. "I can't just wait here."
Jason nodded, feeling jumpy and uncertain. "I'll wait here in case Alcmene needs anything."
"I'll come if you want," Iphicles spoke without hesitation, feeling as powerless as a small child does.
"You're more than welcome," Iolaus offered. He turned and headed for the door, hearing the scratch of Iphicles' chair on the floor as he stood to follow.
Iolaus pushed open the barn door and saw Hercules sitting on a bale of hay, head in hands. He walked over to his friend and sat next to him as Iphicles padded over to face the two friends.
"Not good I guess," Iolaus frowned and laid a hand on Hercules' gauntlet. "Can we do anything?"
Hercules sighed and lifted his head, his searching eyes meeting Iolaus'.
"Maybe," he spoke with hesitation.
Iolaus shook his head in surprise. A light in the darkness? What could they do?
"And?" he questioned.
"It's something so big it's going to affect all of us in ways we never imagined. Alcmene is only the starting point." Hercules shifted his eyes between Iphicles and Iolaus.
"It's mother, Hercules," Iphicles spoke commandingly. "The decision should be simple.'
"It is and it isn't," Hercules responded a bit too quickly, hearing the judgment in his brother's voice.
"Tell us," Iolaus urged, patting his friend on the shoulder.
And so Hercules related the specifics of Zeus' visit, the untwisting of Alcmene's thread and the powerlessness of the gods to stop it.
"Zeus thinks that my becoming a full god will provide what is required to stop the thread from unraveling. The combined powers of our strength and love for Mother should be able to undo the damage."
"But you have to be a god." Iolaus spoke, the pain etched in his face. "And can this godhood be reversed?
"I don't know," Hercules admitted.
"The gods are fickle and the people need you," Iphicles pondered out loud. "And mother will die if choose to remain as you are." Iphicles rubbed a hand over the stubble of a beard that was reappearing as the day moved into night.
"That's about the size of it," Hercules nodded.
"You have a lot to lose," Iolaus commented, staring off through the barn doors over to the house. "And yet the price is high. I don't envy your decision." In truth his heart sank. There was only one true decision to make. Was Alcmene worth throwing all that he had worked for aside and aligning him self with the gods? Iolaus knew in his heart what Hercules' decision would be, and it hurt. But another part knew that it was the same decision he would have mad, had he been put in the same position.
"Iolaus," Hercules spoke softly.
"I know," Iolaus answered, not even letting Hercules finish.
Hercules nodded as Iphicles stood shifting from foot to foot, looking as if he'd rather be anywhere but here at the moment.
"Maybe we should go see Alcmene. You can make your decision after you talk to her." Iolaus kept his eyes locked on Hercules. "Things might be clearer; she could help you make the decision."
Hercules nodded. Iphicles shifted, casting his eyes down to the straw and dirt floor of the barn. The path Hercules must travel was clear to him; the good of the many out weighed the good of the few. Perhaps he would see that as a god, and a benevolent one, he would be able to help even more people. Iphicles understood Hercules' hesitation. Jumping from simple king of Phlegra to King of united Phlegra and Corinth had been monumental. But then he realized, not eternal.
When Hercules went back to the house, Jason was kneeling next to Alcmene's bed. His mother looked exhausted and pale and even the act of raising her hand to him seemed to sap the strength out of her.
"Hercules, would you give us a moment alone please?" she asked as she held Jason's hand.
The look in her eyes told Hercules that his mother had given up. He nodded and turned away, trying not to hear the words she spoke to Jason. He moved to the kitchen where Iolaus waited.
"I don't know what to say," Jason began awkwardly, the words catching in his throat. He could see the finality in Alcmene's eyes, yet in his heart he saw her as a blushing bride, felt the soft brush of her lips against his on their wedding day, knowing that it was worth giving up his kingdom for that one simple moment. He squeezed her hand and fought back the knot that rose in his chest, threatening to burst forth from his mouth as a sob.
Alcmene could see his pain and it hurt her just as much, though she knew she shouldn't let him know. She felt strangely weak, almost drifting and a sense of foreboding had gripped her heart like a fist. How many years had she and Jason hidden their love for each other, wasted years! And now she lay dying, leaving Jason to fend for himself after he had given up everything for her. Alcmene chastised her poor judgment. She should have married him sooner or not at all, given him many happy years or let him rule Corinth and find a younger healthier wife.
But second thoughts wouldn't do, Jason needed comfort. Alcmene would just speak the words her heart knew had to be said.
"Do you know why I love you so much?" She spoke softly and stared into her husband's eyes. "It's because we've already said everything we'd ever want to say to each other." She coughed and drew in hard for breath, feeling her time nearing. "How many people are that blessed.
Jason put his head down on her chest and wept.
Hercules paced outside his mother's room as Iolaus watched with concern. This wasn't easy on any of them, but Hercules had personally lost so much already that Iolaus couldn't help but wonder if this was the loss that would hurt the deepest.
"I feel so useless," Hercules threw his hands in the air. "She's the one doing all the comforting."
"That's her strength," Iolaus consoled. "You may have the blood of a god, but your real strength comes from her, the ability to know what people REALLY need and provide it."
"I can't just stand by and do nothing," Hercules protested.
Iolaus thought about Zeus, about Hercules accepting the terms of his offer, about the danger, both real and perceived in Hercules accepting Zeus' terms.
"Hercules, you know I'm your best friend, and you do things that I thought were impossible. But you need to consider Zeus' offer carefully. The gods have never looked after you, but your mother has, which makes this a harder choice. I know you see your options as limited, but take a moment to think about everything your father said."
"I know Iolaus," Hercules sighed as he threw an arm around his best friend's shoulder. "But it's hard where mother is concerned."
"I hear you,"Iolaus acknowledged, his heart heavy on two counts.
"I haven't much time to make this decision," Hercules acknowledged.
Iolaus drew his lips tight.
"But you'll make the right one, as always," Iolaus spoke softly.
Hercules simply nodded, not sure that his heart was right, but knowing that he needed to follow the path which gave him peace.
Iolaus knelt next to Alcmene's bed as she clutched his hand. This was wrong; he felt it in his heart. Alcmene was dying before her time. Whatever power it was that was robbing her of her life, torturing Hercules and using her as a lever against the gods needed to be dealt with. And Iolaus wished that it could be him that did this. He had no one other than Hercules and Alcmene. Sure there were more than a sufficient number of superficial friends, but the only two who truly cared on a daily basis, and they were the ones involved in this.
Alcmene seemed distant. Her eyes were unfocused, but when he squeezed her hand they came to focus with his own. She smiled and squeezed back.
"I have known you since you were a boy, and it has been a joy watching you grow into the man you have become." Alcmene reached a hand up to touch his cheek.
Iolaus blinked back a tear.
"You remember when I came to save you?" His voice was tight as he fought back the tears.
"I do," she answered simply. "I've never forgotten. It gave me strength when I was flagging." She stroked Iolaus' cheek. "I know you love him, that you've loved him for years.
Iolaus nodded, knowing that to speak would be difficult as his emotion poured up from the tight fist that gripped his heart and forced its way into his throat. He felt her light stroke on his cheek and suddenly she seemed older, so frail and tired. He'd never seen her like this. It had always seemed to him that she never aged, that she had been the same since he was a child.
"You made me feel like part of the family Alcmene," he fought to keep control. "Thank you."
"No Iolaus, thank you- - - for coming into my life at just the right time and staying there. And thank you for being the best friend my son could ever have had."
"Mother," he spoke the words of his heart and it came out as a soft moan. He let his head fall to the bed against her arm.
"I've always been proud to have been called that by you, but you need to realize that your birth mother must miss you terribly." Her voice was consoling. "I haven't seen Erythia for years, but I'll bet she still asks about you," her voice trailed off and she placed a cool hand on Iolaus' bowed head.
"I never thought"- - - Iolaus voice trailed away as he raised his head and let his eyes fall on Alcmene's ice blue eyes.
"That she could forgive you for running away, for being so angry with your father?" Alcmene shook her head. "Iolaus, she is your mother. She loves you unconditionally."
"Maybe it was just me," Iolaus admitted for the first time. "I wasn't old enough to understand a complex situation, and placed blame where it would hurt me the least." He stopped not willing to revisit old wounds but knowing that it was important to do right now. "It was easier to take the blame than to admit the frailties of my own parents."
It was a hard admission but Iolaus kept his eyes on Alcmene. She was a woman who knew about disappointment, loss and despair. But she also knew how to rise above it all. And she was right. His mother deserved an answer for his absence.
"It's never easy to admit a wrong," Alcmene soothed. "But your mother will forgive you and understand quicker than you think. "She loves you Iolaus, and pines for you even now. I know this in my heart, because if I was she, I would feel that very way."
Iolaus nodded. "You know a lot about people Alcmene, and I trust your instincts. I'll go home to my mother and make things right," he watched Alcmene's eyes drop, heavy lidded and weary.
"I love you mother," he spoke softly. "I'll send Hercules in next."
Hercules didn't want to go in. It meant facing yet another loss, a triumph of some power hungry force who had nothing better to do than meddle in the business of mortals. He hadn't prepared himself for the eventuality of his mother's death. He hadn't been given enough time to weigh the options of how to fight for her. He'd been given only one option, by a father who may love his mother, but hadn't always been there for him.
His mother wasn't weak or sickly. She wouldn't be lying in bed in the middle of the day. She would be going about the business of life. His mind was telling him that Alcmene's illness couldn't be true, but his heart was telling him that it certainly was, and the conflict hurt. Bad.
He kneeled next to his mother's bed, making sure that their faces were close, that she could see him and he her.
"Mother," he spoke by his vice cracked unwillingly
"Shhh," she whispered. "I know what you are going to say. I've known you so long" - - -.
Hercules nodded, knowing that speaking would be difficult with his heart in his throat. This was way too difficult. Without his mother he'd be a ship adrift, with Iolaus to steer him but no place to land. He couldn't do this, just couldn't.
"Mother, don't die!" he finally croaked. He stood. I'll be back before you know." The words came out roughly, as he fought for control.
His mother closed her eyes and let her breathing grow softer.
He turned and walked out the door.
Iolaus followed as Hercules pushed his way roughly out the front and onto the porch.
"Hercules!" He rushed to his heart brother's side and slipped a hand up to the bigger man's shoulder comfortingly, feeling the shudder of Hercules' desperate attempt to keep himself controlled.
"It's too much. I can't watch her die!" He slammed a hand down on the rail splintering it.
Iolaus wrapped his arms around Hercules, drawing him into a bear hug.
"I wish there was another way," Hercules mumbled into Iolaus' shoulder.
"If this was a natural death, I'd fight your decision," Iolaus admitted. "But it seems like this is personal, and if this new being wants a fight, you are the man to do it."
"I don't want to fight, that's the whole problem Iolaus. I only want to save mother. If it means holding her thread so it doesn't unravel, then that's what I will do for all eternity. But if it means more I'll have to face it."
"I know," Iolaus breathed out in a heavy sigh. "And it frightens me." He stepped back, releasing Hercules. "I wish I could still be at your side, back to back helping you."
"Me too buddy," Hercules admitted pulling away and meeting Iolaus's eyes. "I don't want to do this, but Zeus leaves me no other choice." He saw the pain in Iolaus' eyes and added, "I need you here to keep an eye on mother,"
Iolaus turned away, rifling his hand through his hair and choosing his words carefully. He turned back. "Iph and Jason are more than capable of doing that. I'm sure Jason won't leave her side and Iph certainly has the resources to insure her protection."
"I'm sorry Iolaus," Hercules answered plaintively. "You're right. I shouldn't patronize you."
"What will I do without you?"
Hercules could hear the pain in his partner's voice.
"What you always do. Keep helping others. Maybe have a normal life, find a wife, and raise a family. You shouldn't be a target with me as a god. You would have my protection."
"I'd rather have you," Iolaus breathed, knowing that this was the truth.
"And I would far rather have you," Hercules spoke sincerely. "But I can't. Mother shouldn't die a meaningless death at the hands of a foreign power, especially if I have the means to stop it,"
"She would be appalled that you would choose to align yourself with the gods. She's mortal and all mortals die. Your mother isn't afraid. Elysium awaits her. She will see her grandchildren, and before you know it, Jason and myself as well. Life is fleeting and your mother has done much with hers."
"It's not her time," Hercules responded stubbornly.
"Don't get me wrong," Iolaus answered. I agree with you there. But your mother has taught you to respond as a mortal and you've learned to see the gods for their true selves, not as a worshipper. What if you continue your work helping mortals and temples start being set up to you? How are you going to feel? Will your mother be able to live a normal life?" Iolaus hesitated.
"And what if you can't save her, even with Zeus? Are you stuck with godhood then?"
Hercules paused, looking beyond Iolaus. The coolness of the air brushed against his skin and he wondered if he'd feel this as a god. Would he smell the surf and the pines, or simply ignore them over time?
"It's a risk I have to take," he answered simply." I would do no different for you."
"I know," Iolaus answered wearily.
"I'm going to get Zeus," Hercules spoke, placing a hand on Iolaus' shoulder. "Do you want to come with me or not?"
"Zeus!" Hercules demanded loudly from the ground level of his mother's barn. "Show yourself! I have a decision!"
Iolaus stood at his side, wondering if this would be the last time he was able to do this.
Iolaus saw the shimmer in the air, the distortion in the background that could only mean the appearance of a god. This couldn't be happening.
The air in front of him solidified, taking the shape of a benevolent old man with a soft smile and sharp eyes, hawk like nose, thick and powerful figure.
"Hercules," the voice spoke with authority, assurance that his demands were going to be met.
"Father, I've made my decision."
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