Zeus was watching. Yes Alcmene was slipping away, and that hurt, him as well as Hercules. But Hercules was striding to the barn with Iolaus at his side, right on time and ready to argue with him again.
Zeus sighed. This son was not so different from Ares, always ready for battle. Though the causes were different, often putting the brothers at odds, their hearts were both those of fighters, champions. But Hercules always had the edge, and Alcmene gave it to him. His fight was fueled by love, not hate or greed. That was the secret of Hercules' power. Zeus watched Hercules' haste. His son was also thick headed sometimes, again not so unlike Ares, but he was humble. He didn't realize that his mortality was actually his greatest strength. And Zeus meant to keep it that way. He was needed on Olympus, for more than Alcmene's thread.
That had been happenstance, something that was terrible, but could be used for his own agenda. His biggest job would be keeping Hercules in the dark so he could be of use. If his son even got so much as a whiff of what Zeus really wanted, then Alcmene was dead and Olympus was teetering. And Iolaus couldn't sway him.
Hercules bellowed like a wounded boar, his father thought. Why not just talk in a regular voice? For crying out loud, his father was GOD! Did Hercules actually think that he wouldn't be heard if he didn't shout?
"Yes, son?" Zeus materialized behind his son anad Iolaus, just because he wanted to be in control. He watched with an eyebrow arched as Hercules performed an awkward pirouette, coming around to face him.
"Mother isn't well. She's slipping away each second." The words came out choked as Hercules fought to remain calm.
Zeus could see the tension etched on his son's face, the pain tightening his jaw line and thinning his lips. The straw dust rose in a cloud around Hercules's feet making him appear to appear to be rising above the floor as he whirled around. Iolaus turned with a bit more grace, the pain etched on his face as well.
"Your mother was a good woman," Zeus moderated his voice, using the past tense deliberately. "She had a good life. But mortal life MUST end. It's part of living." He raised an eyebrow challengingly to his son, standing tall amidst the scent of farm animals and the lowing of a cow, the wafting of dung not yet removed as the events in the house took precedence over the barn activity.
Hercules stared coldly across at his father. "That sounds so empty coming from you."
Zeus shook his head and paced away from his son, then turned and wheeled back, His robes billowing regally. If Hercules came looking for a fight he'd find it. And it would work to his advantage, Zeus would see to that.
"I don't understand your attitude," he shook his head as he stared unwaveringly at Hercules. "I always tried not to interfere in her life, or in yours. That's what she wanted, you know?"
"You did succeed in that. Congratulations," Hercules snorted derisively, his eyes staring cold and hard into his fathers.
"What would you have me to do? Stop Atropos from cutting your mother's thread? When it unwinds to a simple, tiny, frayed bit and Alcmene lies as if dead, neither in your world or in Elysium, am I to stop this?
"YES!" Hercules roared. He could feel the blood rushing to his face, his fists clenched at his sides as he leaned forward involuntarily. Iolaus reached for him, tugging his arm.
"You need to stay in control to think clearly, Herc."
"Your mother's death was destined from the moment she was born," Zeus chided him. "Do you actually think she would want this?"
Hercules closed his eyes, took a deep breath and thought about everything he and his mother had discussed. "No.she wouldn't.she wouldn't want special treatment, though she treated everyone else that way." He stood silently for a moment, looked over at Iolaus for strength and then raised his eyes to meet his fathers.
"If everything is set, then why are you here now? This fraying is abnormal and wasn't foreseen by the gods. This is NOT the way she was meant to die."
Zeus drew in a deep breath. Hercules' logic was flawless. He couldn't afford to lose him now.
"You're at a turning point in your life. I want to help you." Zeus cajoled, stepping forward with a hand extended.
"Really?" Hercules tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "I don't have time to waste on petty talk. I can count on one hand the number of times you actually helped me, and I had to ask for those. No sudden appearance of the father to intervene, though he could see and knew everything. Did you actually care anything for my feelings?"
Zeus chose his words carefully. He needed as much as his son did right now, perhaps more.
"Let's put aside the past and decide what to do for your mother. It's what we both want, right?"
Iphicles paced next to Alcmene's bed as Jason knelt, holding her cold still hand. She was so pale and suddenly small. Not the woman she was before. He wondered when she had aged. She had always seemed so young. Yet now her stillness was so uncharacteristic that it left the two men decidedly ill at ease.
"Jason, how're you doing?" Iphicles questioned, knowing the answer, just hating the suffocating silence in the room.
Jason rested his head in his free hand. "It's tough," he answered. He couldn't find any other words and the room grew suffocatingly silent.
Iphicles stood restlessly and paced. Jason sat, head in hands and Alcmene lay silent and still, looking as if she'd already left for Elysium except for the ragged breaths she drew in.
Time seemed to freeze in the helplessness of the moment and in the cold depths of his pain. His vibrant wife was dying.
Jason looked up, seeing the pain etched into Iphicles'brow." The King of Corinth sighed with a shrug of his head and a twist of his stiff neck muscles. "I just wish I could help. I've never felt this helpless. I can command thousands of men to lay down their lives, but I can't make one small woman feel well."
Jason shook his head. "Alcmene had her own mind, and that's a good thing. SHe was more level headed than many men."
"Painfully so," Iphicles admittted, knowing his mother had given him up soley to keep him from being caught in a custody struggle that would only have played out to his detriment. She had suffered far more than he at their seperation. It had taken him until maturity to fully understand that and appreciate her pain and sacrifice.
Jason stood, stepping to Iphicles'side and gently placed an arm around the younger man's shoulders.
"If there was one thing I learned as a king, it was that a kind person follows his heart, an honest man keeps his soul clean and the rest of the world uses their heads."
Iphicles nodded. "I can only hope that Hercules convinces Zeus to do what's right.
"Me too," Jason admitted with a shake of his head. He stroked Alcmene's hand thoughtfully.
"Think we should look for him?" Iphicles asked hopefully, but knowing the answer before Jason even spoke it.
"I think he wants to be alone for a while."
Iphicles turned his face away from the window and stared down at Alcmene's silent stillness. "He must be hurting," his voice cracked. "We all are. I just wish I could help him."
Jason could feel Iphicles' pain acutely. He was losing the woman he considered his mother and the man he considered a brother. His whole life was in flux and he had no control over it.
Jason stood, moving to Iphicles'side decisively. He might not be able to help his mother, but he could help his step son and chosen successor. The two men sat silently, words wanting to pour out, but kept dammed in stoically.
Iphicles fists clenched and released with each deep breath he took.
Alcmene's chest rose and fell ever so slightly with each breath, barely moving the bed covers.
Iphicles sighed in resignation. He was helpess again, just as if he was a child. Dependant on the actions of others. At least this time Hercules could speak for all of them. But where the gods were concerned anything could happen.
"I cared for your mother a great deal," Zeus spoke carefully. "Her sweetness and goodness filled my heart." He thought for a moment, tried not to seem callous. "And.um.I loved her smile."
Hercules looked skeptically across at his father. Something wasn't adding up here, and had to be on Zeus' end. His father had the reputation of being a womanizer, and rightfully so. Yes, Alcmene was special, but this sudden gushing praise seemed out of place.
"You could have let us know that you cared, let her know when she worried whether Iolaus and I were okay."
"Oh she knew." Zeus dismissed Hercules' complaint with a wave of his hand. "And I was always a great deal closer than she thought. But I couldn't be father to you, that's why her being your mother was so important."
Hercules wouldn't dispute the importance of his mother. "This sudden sentimental streak is a little hard to believe, and a lot too late."
Zeus heard the accusation and knew his son could turn back easily. He needed to have the upper hand. Just as the father bird hops away from the nest appearing wounded simply to protect his young, Zeus decided to back off and lead Hercules another direction. "Look son, while you argue with me and find fault, your mother lies dying."
The words stung. Hercules had come to ensure his mother's life, but he'd let his emotions carry him off in another direction yet again. He needed to do what was right for his mother. Time was short, yet he stood arguing.
Hercules sighed and closed his eyes momentarily as he fought to control himself. He thought back to Jason's warning and realized the older man's wisdom. The answer was simple. Heartbreaking, but necessary.
"So explain how my being a god is going to help. You have a plan, right?" He felt Iolaus stiffen at his side, reach out guardingly to squeeze his arm.
Zeus remained cool as he reeled Hercules in with a little less resistance.
"No, But I know I need you. The Fates have made that perfectly clear. You are uniquely equipped to see this problem from a human angle as well as a god's angle. And you're strong enough to keep the thread from breaking."
"So I'm going into this blind?" Hercules sounded almost resigned.
"You'd better think about this," Iolaus warned, knowing his words fell on deaf ears and wondering if his time would have been better spent with Alcmene.
"Son, the world as you know it is under siege, even if no one realizes it yet. And you are the one who needs to save it."
Hercules stood silently, contemplating his lack of options, his eyes not leaving Zeus'. His pain was a gaping wound, raw and fresh, from which leaked the contents of his being, his common sense and moral strength. He wanted healing not just for himself, but also for his family. They were as mortally wounded as he was.
"Son, your sweet mother is being used. You can be a god, full and complete, save her and rule beside me. Imagine the good that you can do!" Zeus urged.
"And think what you give up!" Iolaus spoke softly but firmly, not wanting Hercules to swayed by his heart without using his head.
Hercules sighed and shook his head. He looked back at Iolaus with sorrow in his eyes. He didn't have a choice, but he wanted to try one more tact. "Father, you know that's not a good match. I've angered most of the gods on Olympus, Hera and Ares particularly. You know I don't exactly have a fan club up there."
Hercules," Zeus took a step closer.
Hercules smelled the scent of his father, spices and cedar, strong and comforting. He could feel his father's power and couldn't help but want to share in it if he could help mother and all mankind.
"Yes, this is about you , but in a bigger way it's about an offer I'm making that could help your mother and make you closer to the mortals you love and who need you. You are a champion of mankind. People know they can count on you. But now it's time for the next step. Your true destiny is on Olympus."
"But there are so many people who count on me down here." Hercules' turned to Iolaus, watching his friend's face harden with the knowledge that that the battle was already won, and he would be left behind.
"You'd still be their champion. And you could help them more than ever." Zeus could see his son wavering. The mortal Iolaus was the single greatest draw that stopped him. He glanced over to Hercules' heart brother trying to look compassionate. "You'd never be far from Iolaus, could walk at his side just like before. when everything settles down." Zeus hesitated and then threw in the bone he knew Hercules had searched for years. "Besides, we'll have a chance to get to know each other." He reached out and placed hand on his son's shoulder.
Hercules felt warmth where his father's hand rested. It seemed weightless yet stronger even than he was, trying to draw away the pain. He shook away his own comfort. It was mother he should be concerned with, not himself. He shook his head to clear it. The decision had been made when his mother had slipped into unconsciousness. No matter what he felt he needed to do in the future, what mattered most was mother.
"There was a time when that would have meant a lot to me," Hercules answered sadly, raising his eyes to meet his father's, his heart still not convinced. "But I'm not so sure anymore."
"Father, Olympus and I just aren't a match," Hercules warned, wanting to be reassured. Memories of a devastating time in his adolescence when he partook of ambrosia at Apollo's urging swam into his thoughts. He'd originally been heady with the new power, the adoration that came with it. But it didn't take long for him to see that he wouldn't be accepted, especially as long as Hera was involved. She had an overpowering control that extended to many of the major gods and almost all of the lesser ones. And even though his father was Zeus, he wasn't safe, or immune from their tortures. Zeus wasn't close to him, and the absent father routine extended to Olympus.
He had learned quickly that he could count only on himself as a god. On Earth he had his family, friends and Iolaus.
Iolaus. He was the person who would be hurt the most. Though his best friend wouldn't show it, Hercules knew his heart. This was the one thing which made the decision the hardest. Iolaus. Hercules was stronger now, not an impressionable teen with something to prove. He was a man who had proved enough and whose reputation had been gained over the years thanks to his working for justice.
Zeus was watching closely. He could see Hercules' uncertainty and didn't want it to solidify on the side of mortals, at least not now. He needed his son. A big job had to be done, bigger than even he could handle alone. If gods could sweat, Zeus knew he would be wringing wet right now. This was about Alcmene and the usuper who wanted to overtake the Greek Gods.
Hercules' eyes rose to meet his father.
"Last time I was on my own, in spite of having you as father." The accusation rolled easily off Hercules' tongue.
"You're right, the fault was mine," Zeus conceded, hoping it would appease his son. "But know this, that you weren't half the man you are now, and you won't be taken lightly again."
Hercules stood silently, weighing his options.
Zeus didn't want to lose his son. It was now or never. "This is your next step, your true destiny. And with more power you could truly champion the rights of mortals."
Hercules didn't like his father pressing him. It only made it seem more likely that his father was hiding something. Something important.
Iolaus knew in his heart that the battle was lost. He thought he should turn and walk out the door, yet he didn't want o abandon Hercules under any situation.
"Let me talk to Iolaus alone."
The demigod walked out of the barn, Iolaus at his side. He stood awkwardly in the dark, shadowed by the swinging door. and scuffled a foot in the dirt nervously.
"Iolaus," he acknowledged.
"Herc." was the strangled reply.
"This is the worst day of my life."
"I've never felt so confused, so powerless. I never believed this day would come." The demigod stared off into the vast blackness, tracked the tiny orbs of twinkling stars.
"Herc," Iolaus sighed. "Welcome to mortality. We live and we die. Today you choose whether you want to live forever." The words sounded hollow. Iolaus meant so much more, but it seemed trapped in him.
"Iolaus, it's so hard!" Hercules' voice cracked. He wondered if food would taste the same, if the smell of spring soil, musty and alive would still put joy in his heart, if the teasing fingers of a gentle breeze would still make him smile. Or would he become bogged down with power and greed and vanity as the other gods had over their eternities? His last time on Olympus he'd been a god for a very short time and was so lonst in teenaged angst that he hadn't even tried to see if he could experience any of the mortal joys as a god. Would the joys of mortality fade over eternity?
"Herc," Iolaus wanted to tell his friend that he was making a mistake, that he needed to respect Alcmene's wishes, but yet he had to acknowledge that he too wanted Alcmene alive. It was complicated. His heart was breaking and the solution required that he lose some one close, his heart mother or his best friend.
Iolaus put his hand over his mouth and closed his eyes, wanting to keep the pain contained. He felt like a wineskin, overfilled and still fermenting, getting increasingly stretched to contain something that would inevitably spill out.
"Iolaus," Hercules responded tightly to his friend. "This isn't an easy decision." He closed his eyes, trying to block out all that had made him mortal, his home, and his mother's garden, that damned stone wall and even the scent of jasmine. The press of Iolaus' shoulder against his arm connected the two physically, though spiritually they were never really apart.
Iolaus stood silent and still, wishing he could enjoy this, the last moment of Herc's mortality, but instead he couldn't help but mourn. The gods were no friends of men, and the possibility that even Hercules could eventually be caught up in the drama of Olympus once the current threat was handled was not entirely unthinkable. That's just how life was, hills and valleys, excitement and boredom and the humdrum of everyday. Eventually life fell into patterns. Friends slipped away for long periods.
Iolaus stopped himself. He let his hand drop away from his mouth. He wouldn't let it happen. He wouldn't let the past end the future. Turning abruptly he flung his arms fully around Hercules and gripped him tightly, resting his head against his friend's chest.
"Whatever happens, promise me you'll think about us."
"Iolaus" The word slipped out painfully unbidden, like the soft breath of an early spring breeze against the gentle settling of fresh snow on crocuses.
Their silence wrapped them as tightly as a winding cloth, shrouding them from the rest of the world for a brief moment.
Jason held Alcmene's cold small hand in his, reflecting on the joy she'd brought to his life. Her strength had made him whole. If he could have died in her place he would have done it in the beat of a hummingbird's wing. He looked down on her face, the lines that accented her blue eyes when she smiled were barely noticeable, her skin was so slack. And her breath seemed to grow more ragged by the minute. Jason watched, horrified, as her chest failed to rise, and the covers stilled. What was happening to the woman who gave him his strength?
But then she gasped in a single breath before becoming silent and still once more. This was not his wife, it was simply the shell which held her incredible heart, mind and soul. And those parts, which he loved so much were slipping away even as he stayed in quiet vigil. This couldn't be allowed to continue.
Jason stood, rushing to the window.
Hercules turned back to the barn so suddenly that he almost threw Iolaus to the ground. Iolaus, catching himself rose to his feet as well.
Jason's pain was unmistakable. Hercules hoped he hadn't taken too much time.
"Iolaus," he called apologetically over his shoulder as he ran back into the barn.
"Go!" Iolaus responded, not wanting to hold Herc back, to be responsible for any more pain. He watched, arms hanging limply and shoulders stooped as Hercules turned panic stricken to his father.
In the distance a rabbit shrieked as a hawk swooped down to take it, digging it'd talons in and carrying it away.
Iolaus didn't notice.
Hercules turned, eyes as wild as a young colt's and breath ragged as he slipped on the loose straw that covered the floor.
"FATHER!" He screamed, fighting to regain his balance as the straw shifted beneath his feet.
Zeus stood calmly watching, arms crossed over his chest and an eyebrow rose. He knew enough not to speak.
"DO IT NOW!" Hercules roared, leaning forward to his father. His hands clenched and unclenched and his muscles trembled as he struggled to regain his balance and any respect he might have already lost.
Zeus knew when to act. Without hesitation, aware that this was Hercules' weakest moment, he raised his hands above his son, bathing him in a silver halo than emanated from his fingertips like icicles and reached down around Hercules, like encarcerating steel.
Hercules felt a sudden coolness seeping into his skin, worming its way deeper into his muscles and on to his very core as it cooled to an icy stillness. He was paralyzed, frozen in position, feeling as if even his heart had ceased its rhythmic beat, so cold and alone. He felt as if he was being drained of everything warm and comfortable as he continued to wonder if his decision was right. He dropped to his knees struck by a profound weakness which hit him faster than Iolaus in the Academy.
"Father!" He groaned as his forehead touched the floor.
Zeus could feel his son's discomfort. In truth the process of turning Hercules a god was more difficult than Zeus originally thought it would be. Alcmene had instilled so many mortal values into him that that finding a place to leave the vestiges of godhood was a challenge. He concentrated on Hercules godly powers and fought to place the necessary powers he was lacking with those, hoping desperately to squeeze Hercules' mortality tightly away from his godhood, nothing more than the skin that drapes the skeleton.
Hercules felt a sudden release from the frigid grip which held him and looked up to Zeus as he struggled upright, dropping his arms. The strain was evident on his father's face. Hercules continued rising and finally stood, his legs not weak, as he would have thought them to be, but stronger than even before. Every muscle fiber was more alive than ever.
He spun to face his father. "To the Fates, quickly."
Hercules had only to see the Fates in his mind and he was there, where the lives of mortals began, stretched on and ended. His eyes registered the young Clotho who spun the fibers that were each mortal, her fingers whirling and from their tips each strand appeared, not to stay single threads, but twining with the next and the next and joining others that had been formed ahead. Some threads were shiny and some were dull and every color that Hercules had ever thought of and even more were there.
Next stood the motherly Lachesis who allotted the length of the threads. She stared intently at each strand, each coil and bunch measuring with a judgment that only she could make, an assessing of each life represented and a determination whether it should continue or end. She wove the threads further, watchful and alert, knowing where each should meet and each should separate. Her eyes were sharp, watching for flaws or snags, thinning of the thread, any indication that time was short. She never glanced away.
But Hercules stepped forward to Atropos who held the scissors that would snip the thread of any mortal whose time was finished. She stood with scissors poised near a bundle that held a thick cord of colors, including a golden thread with several knots and a silver thread that had untwisted and frayed almost to the point of snapping.
"NO!" He shouted, causing the elderly goddess to jump. Her scissors flew up and she jumped back as Hercules grabbed the bundle and with both hands and released the tension, holding it all with care, making sure that it wouldn't unwind further, ensuring that there would be no snapping.
"Zeus!" Atropos chided. "You would let a mortal here to interfere?"
Zeus shrugged and smiled self effacingly. Of all the gods, Atropos held a job most dear to him and he knew it wasn't in his best interest, particularly now, not to bother her.
"He is now a God," Zeus explained. "And he will help us to find out about the unexplained fraying of his mother's thread."
Atropos looked skeptical. "A god?"
"Yes." Zeus nodded solemnly. "It was his request and my gift. He is my son."
The silence hovered. Lachesis never took her eyes off the threads and Clothos glanced back, but kept her fingers spinning.
"So you know what to do?" Atropos spoke with both curiosity and disbelief.
"No," Zeus admitted. "But I do know that Hercules can stave off the breaking and together we can figure out a way to stop this."
"We've never lost control of the weaving."
"Yes, my dear Atropos, I'm well aware of that." Zeus soothed. "But this is not the usual and certainly not of Olympian doing. In times like these, one must think outside of the box."
"Atropos nodded, not looking entirely convinced. "What outside of the box plan have you derived?"
Zeus coughed. "Well nothing yet, other than that Hercules can prevent this outside influence from confounding Greece."
Atropos raised an eyebrow. "Right now he is simply putting the inevitable on hold."
"It's all in the way you view it," Zeus replied. "I see it as prevention. This is the only unexplained occurrence on Olympus. Hercules can keep things stable and you and I can try to figure out some strategy." Zeus stared assessingly at Atropos.
"And have you an idea?" Clothos met Zeus' eyes challengingly.
"An idea, yes my dear." Zeus reassured. "Perhaps we should talk about how to work it."
Jason watched as Alcmene's ragged breathing became regular and her face relaxed. She looked more like her old self, sleeping and not suffering. Something had happened; a corner had been turned. He wondered if she would wake.
Hercules! He had made a deal with Zeus.
Jason wanted to run out, thank him, yell at him for selling out, cry in happiness, and cry in loss. But he knew that what was done was done. Hercules could make his own decisions. But deep inside Jason felt worried.
He turned to Iphicles. "What do you think?"
The king of Corinth looked wary. "I don't know," he answered honestly. "I think we need to get a better grasp of the whole situation."
Jason nodded. Iphicles reached for his mother's shoulder, grasping it firmly and watching to see if there was any change in her countenance.
Jason turned back to Alcmene.
"Sweetheart," He whispered to her as he bent to her ear. "Wake up."
But Alcmene didn't stir.
He rubbed her shoulder, kissed her forehead. He squeezed her hand, gently at first, then harder.
She didn't move, didn't blink. Her skin stayed as cold as a February dawn and as pale and bloodless as a slaughtered lamb.
Hercules was supposed to save her.
Jason realized with a sudden urgency that Hercules had been tricked.
"NO!" he screamed as he rocked back and forth, finally putting his head onto Alcmene's chest and letting his tears flow.
He had lost them both.
Iphicles shook his head, lips tight. Hercules was supposed to save his mother. Alcmene should be sitting up right now. But that wasn't happening. His eyes stung with tears. First his child had died, now his mother was as good as dead, lying silent and still. Yes she breathed easily and seemed comfortable, but to what avail?
Yes his mother was alive, but not awake, not vital. Iphicles fought back his anger and despair. This wasn't Corinth. He had no power here. He had only memories and patched together desires for a normal life, a childhood that could be forgotten and forgiven.
That wouldn't happen he realized sadly. Hercules had given the ultimate gift, his life, and had been rewarded with Alcmene's life, but not her vitality. His brother had let his heart rule.
Iolaus stood, turning his back on the barn. Hercules wasn't there, at least the Hercules he knew. He'd made his choice, the only one that allowed him to save his mother and still help mortals. Or so the demigod thought. Iolaus shook his head, not so sure that everything would turn out as Hercules wished. The gods were fickle.
Never the less, he had no choice but to accept what had happened. Certainly it was too late to change it. If he could have offered his life for Alcmene he would have, so how could he fault Hercules? His heart was heavy, mourning the loss of their future as acutely as if Hercules had died. He'd be walking alone now, at least for most of the time. And probably more than that once Hercules settled in to Olympus. Hercules had his job with the Gods and a mortal partner wouldn't be welcome or needed there.
Iolaus turned towards the house, the cool night breeze lifting his golden curls off his shoulders. There was only one direction for him now. Better go check on Alcmene and Jason.
He picked up the pace, pushing through the door and was struck immediately by the profound silence. No moans from Alcmene. No soft soothing voice from Jason, no cries of joy or of sorrow. The silence of Iphicles' commanding tenor voice left him icy, making his skin crawl. Alcmene's home had never been silent or cold. Even the flowers which graced the table drooped scentless.
Iolaus paused uncertainly in the empty kitchen, afraid that the foreboding that clasped his heart would squeeze it shut, leaving him unable to love again. He'd been in worse spots with Hercules, but never had been as scared as he was now.
"Jason!" He called out as he moved swiftly to the bedroom. His heart beat ferociously in his chest, his breath seemed caught as wondered what had happened. "Iphicles!"
Jason was bent over Alcmene, his head on her chest and he was weeping softly. He looked old and worn and desperate. His arms were around her, though she lay limply on the bed. Iphicles sat numbly at the foot of the bed, his hand stretching to reach his mother's, but recoiled at the sudden cool claylike texture. He dropped his mother's hand and bringing his hands to his face began weeping silently.
"Hercules!" Iphicles bellowed, allowing his pain and betrayal to have full voice. He was a king. What he wanted was his. And his mother's life span shouldn't be up to some unknown being, unprotected by the revered gods of Greece. Hercules had said he'd help and must have truly believed that to have given up mortality. He had failed.
He had been king long enough to know that a promise made was a promise kept. Even if that promise was simply implied, Iphicles expected obeisance. But Hercules was above that now because Gods didn't bow to kings.
Jason raised his head slowly, reluctantly. He didn't want to break away from Alcmene, the woman he had given up his kingdom for, his bride who believed he would come back from the sea serpent's belly, who'd fought against prejudice and strove to empower people in their mortal roles and increase their self sufficiency against the gods. She had been more a queen than he had ever been a king and Jason felt lost without her.
"Iolaus," he spoke softly as the golden hunter stepped up to Alcmene.
"Is she dead?" Iolaus reached to take her hand, felt the icy chill and despaired in the lack of movement, the stillness of her form.
He put his head to her chest and heard the heart beat, faint but present, that announced Alcmene's spirit hadn't yet fled to Elysium.
"She's alive," he whispered, his eyes rising to meet Jason's.
"But at what cost?" Jason questioned. His voice was strong in spite of his pain.
"I don't know," Iolaus responded honestly.
"She didn't want to live like this," Jason started.
"I know," Iolaus answered, falling silent, knowing at that very instant that he had been right, and Hercules was once again a pawn of his father
Iphicles stalked around the bed, every muscle tight and his fists clenching and unclenching as he inspected his mother carefully. Alcmene looked sunken. Her small frame seemed diminished even more, powerless and swallowed up by the bed.
"How can Hercules not see this?" he groaned in pain. "He's a god now! They see everything?'
Jason shook his head. "You know Hercules, charges in to save the world, thinks later."
Iphicles snorted. Hercules had failed and robbed him of more time with his mother, whom he'd lost too many years with as it was.
Iolaus knew that Hercules would eventually see what was happening, He had to, unless Zeus somehow prevented it. Hercules was working on things, Iolaus was sure of that. Other wise, Alcmene would have already died.
Iolaus dropped to his knees and reached out for Alcmene's bony hand, placing his calloused palm on it.
"Forgive me," he whispered, "for not being a better son."
But she never answered, the one partly open eye stared up at the ceiling lifelessly.
"What are we going to do?" Jason asked his voice empty and his eyes haunted.
Iphicles stood, moving toward the top of the bed and staring down at his mother. He put a hand comfortingly on Jason's shoulder. This wasn't easy on any of them.
"I truly don't know," Iolaus answered.
"Fix this!" Hercules demanded of young Clothos as he struggled to maintain the slack in his mother's thread. He could feel the power that was trying desperately to unravel it and his arms strained to counter it.
"I simply spin the threads," the young goddess answered.
"Bullshit!" Hercules roared. "Someone mended Iolaus' thread, and more than once. Do it for mother!"
Zeus raised an eyebrow wondering how the goddesses would take Hercules' outburst.
"True,"' answered Lachesis. "Atropos and I worked together and it wasn't easy. And," she continued, "There wasn't an outside influence to overcome."
"Do it!" Hercules roared his face reddening as he struggled to keep his mother's thread from snapping.
Atropos stared across at Zeus while Lachesis watched Hercules' effort and wondered how she could measure this thread. Mending the thread was certainly possible, but how long it would last in an unwound state was another story. It was already so thin that she had been sure it needed to be snipped right now. After all, that was more merciful than letting it snap.
Zeus nodded sharply and Atropos cocked her head and responded with a small nod of her own.
Atropos and Lachesis moved as one towards the thread.
"This will simply buy you time," they intoned together. "And how much, we don't know. Iolaus' thread was cut justly under the Greek tradition. Alcmene's is unraveling under the hand of a powerful foreign influence. There is a difference here. We can prevent the snapping, but not reweave its intricate twists"
"I don't care," Hercules growled, his eyes never leaving the Fates. "Just do it!"
Atropos raised an eyebrow with a skeptical wisdom, clearly questioning Hercules' judgment. But she also saw the slow, solemn nod of Zeus' head telling her to listen to his son. She turned away from the Gods and back to the tapestry.
"Lachesis," She spoke the word simply and the younger goddess moved to her side. The two huddled close to the tapestry, their hands moving in unison with practiced deftness over the now slack thread.
"Be careful Hercules," Lachesis intoned softly. You are holding the threads of others as well and you must not damage them."
Hercules took a deep breath, afraid to loosen his grip, yet torn, not wanting to hurt anyone else. Who knew whose threads he was holding? Definitely Iolaus, he couldn't fail to see the golden thread with the added knots and probably Jason, Iphicles, so many people whose lives were intertwined with his mother's.
"Work faster," he spoke between clenched teeth, hoping he wasn't making enemies in the process.
Clothos glanced over her shoulder at Hercules, noting the trembling of his muscles and hard grip of his hands. She may be a child, but she could understand his stress. To be responsible for the lives of many wasn't easy, and it carried a lot of responsibility. Sometimes hard decisions had to be made, and results had to be lived with, even if some were errors. Clothos slowed the movement of her hands, letting the threads appear much slower, allowing her sisters a little more time to do their work without interrupting the flow of the tapestry.
Behind her Lachesis and Atropos were hunched over, pressing against Hercules',all three sets of arms intertwined like a living, undulating tapestry of their own. Clothos had been a fate for eons, but this was a new sight for her. She slowed a bit more, not wanting to make a mistake, but not wanting to turn away either.
Zeus stood watching and looked decidedly ill at ease. His eyes were glued to his son and the other fates, his hands clasped with fingers restlessly intertwining. The King of Gods moved from foot to foot and young Clothos realized that what was happening before her eyes was not only unprecedented, but of such importance that the great Zeus was actually nervous.
Time seemed to pass slowly in the cloistered room, even for immortals used to eternity. Finally Atropos and Lachesis moved away.
"You can release the tapestry," Atropos directed Hercules.
Hercules stood, afraid. Would the weaving hold? Was he a pawn and when he let go, would it all fall apart, leaving his mother, Jason, Iolaus and all his friends at the ultimate risk? Hercules wished he'd been a god long enough to divine the answers, but he guessed that there was still plenty that he had to learn. The Fates had done what was right at each time, even if they later had to repair that. He needed to trust someone. In the absence of Iolaus, it would have to be the Fates.
He let loose his grip on the tapestry.
Iolaus and Jason became immediately aware of a change in Alcmene. She didn't look peaceful. Her breathing was again ragged. What small amount of peace appeared on her face before was gone. She looked suddenly old.
Iolaus frowned. He had assumed Alcmene's improvement meant that Hercules was at work, but if this was the result, then things weren't as good as Hercules expected. Alcmene looked like she might possibly hold her own, but without a lot of improvement. How long she could stay like this was the question.
"I can't take this," he intoned quietly as he sunk to his knees next to his wife's bed and let his head fall onto the blanket that covered her. The night air wafted through the open window and the peepers rehearsed a chorus worthy of a Queen. Jasmine scented the room as tree leaves whispered condolences.
"It's not over yet, Jason," Iolaus consoled, feeling the ache in his own heart.
Jason simply shook his head.
"We can only wait and see. Hercules has a pretty good track record when it comes to righting wrongs, look at me."
Jason took a deep breath and nodded. "It doesn't seem like there's much we can do." His voice cracked. He stood, staring softly down on his bride. "What are we going to do?" he whispered as much to himself as to Iolaus.
"I don't know," Iolaus responded honestly. "That's hard to answer without knowing what Hercules is doing."
"Perhaps we'd better find out," Jason suggested with a wistful glace at Alcmene.
Iphicles turned away, powerless and slumped against the bedside table, head in hands, feeling like apowerless child again.
Hercules paced as the Fates went back to their work. He stared at Zeus finally and demanded, "So?"
Zeus waved an arm, opening a window to world below, moved his hand to focus it on Alcmene's bedroom.
Hercules stared down in wonder and surprise. It was so easy to see what was happening, to keep track of loved ones. But deep in side he heeded the little voice that told him a scrying glass wasn't a substitution for actually visiting. There was his mother, still alive, but looking poorly. He swung around to his father.
"You lied!" he roared, fists clenched.
"No son," Zeus answered silkily. "I said we could stave off the breaking, which is what we've done. I never said that returning her to health would be easy."
"It was what you lead me to believe.
Zeus cut him off. "You believed what you wanted to hear, simply that. I offered you a way to help and you accepted."
"I should have listened to Iolaus.
Zeus waved a hand dismissively. "Don't second guess yourself, son. We're not done yet. You've staved off your mother's death, now we need to figure out the next step, what to do about this newcomer, how to handle his meddling. How he managed to do this. Look at the whole picture, Hercules."
"I see more than I want to!" Hercules spat angrily. "I see a frightened King of the Gods, who wants help to find an interloper. I see a liar who thinks more of himself than his family! And I see a father willing to use his own family to strengthen his power and standing." Hercules' eyes glared fiery with rage.
"So what are we going to do," he spoke between clenched teeth, "about mother?" He crossed his arms on his chest, jaw jutting. "To me at least, she comes before the interloper."
Zeus still needed Hercules. He had no plan, a meddlesome foreign god with formidable powers and an inside person, a god who knew his weak spot and told the interloper where to hit him. There was no one on Olympus he could trust, at least not until he brought Hercules here.
"Let's talk. We can put our heads together and make a plan," Zeus answered meeting Hercules anger with a steely stare of his own. "And as you have no friends up here but me, I'd advise you to stop being so petulant. We'll get through this, together."
Hercules snorted and turned away. His mother could remain in this unconscious state if he didn't follow through, and she had adamantly made him promise that he wouldn't let that happen. His work wasn't done. He'd stopped her death and now it would be up to him to find a way to bring her back to health.
Hercules whirled back around to his father. "I'll help you, but have no illusions that it's out of loyalty or love for you. I'm doing this for mother."
Zeus shrugged. In truth, it was most important that Hercules stay on Olympus, motive didn't matter. The usurper god needed to see that the Olympians weren't afraid.
"As am I," Zeus answered.
"Father, you forget, I'm a god now. I can see the lie in you. You're doing this for yourself."
"You don't know how to use your powers yet," Zeus reprimanded. "When you can use them fully you will truly see. Right now you only focus on what you want to see, one small part of what's in front of you. In time you'll be able to process everything and all will be clear."
"I've seen what I need to know," Hercules retorted. "I'm going back to see Iolaus, Iphicles and Jason. When I'm done I'll be back. I intend to see this through, for mother's sake, not yours."
Zeus shrugged and gestured widely. "As you see fit, but use your time wisely as we have no idea how long Alcmene can be sustained."
Hercules didn't answer. He simply thought about the scene he'd witnessed with Iolaus and Jason at his mother's bedside and Iphicles slumped defeated on the table, head cradled in his arms.
In that instant he was gone, and Zeus hoped that between the two of them, they could work everything out. All of Olympus depended on it.
Iphicles sat dejectedly in the bedroom, his head down and his folded arms supporting it. Too much death lately, too much tragedy. He needed to say goodbye to his mother. Or hello, just not this.
Just as Iphicles rose to move closer to Alcmene, Hercules appeared with a stumble, still unsure of his footing between worlds.
"Herc!" Iolaus breathed a sigh of relief and moved to his friend's side. "Tell us you have good news, because what we're looking at here isn't great."
Hercules shook his head. "I may have made a mistake".
Iphicles looked down, biting his lip and scuffing his foot. "You need to explain," He spoke with barely contained anger.
Hercules stood head down and shoulders slumped. "I wish I could, but". He took a deep breath. "I'll try. It's why I'm here after all."
Iolaus put a hand comfortingly on Hercules' shoulder.
"I stopped the unraveling, but I don't know how to repair what has already happened."
"Zeus said it took the strength of two immortals who loved her," Iolaus spoke softly.
"And Zeus didn't clarify that this wasn't all it took." Hercules clenched his fists. "I did what he asked and all that happened was that mother was spared, not healed."
Jason rubbed his face. "Hercules what can we do?"
"Yes brother, what's the plan," Iphicles spoke tersely.
"I don't know for sure. But I'll be working on it. And I don't now how long it will take either, but I won't stop trying until I've found the answer."
"And until then?" Jason stared intently at Hercules, looking for a more hopeful response.
"Jason," Hercules' voice cracked in pain. "I will do everything I can. Someone in Olympus is most likely involved and I'm going to find out."
Iphicles snorted and turned away.
Iolaus shook his head. "Could be a number of gods, you don't have many friends up there and there is always competition for power."
"That's a problem," Iphicles finally choked.
Hercules moved to his brother. "I know you want more time with mother. We all do. I'll do everything in my power except make a promise I don't know if I can keep."
Iphicles nodded lips tight and eyes watery, thinking about the time he'd lost being away from Alcmene.
He turned to Jason.
"She didn't want to be like this," Jason warned, half relieved that Alcmene hadn't died, half angry and completely confused.
"I know," Hercules replied. "And it's going to be tough for you while I sort this out, I know. It's killing me."
"Well it would if you were mortal." Iphicles interjected and stopped himself short.
His face sank and Jason couldn't help but feel bad that Hercules had sacrificed so much. "Just know we all want the same thing."
Iphicles nodded, and placed a hand to his face to cover his pain.
"And Iolaus," Hercules moved to his friend, enveloping him in a huge hug.
"Herc," Iolaus interrupted. Remember last time you tried this god thing,"
Hercules heard the urgency in Iolaus' voice and thought back to a time he'd tried desperately to forget.
Apollo was handsome, no doubt about it. And when he actually paid attention to Hercules, the teenager was thrilled. Apollo had girls fighting to be seen with him while Hercules was shy and still a bit gawky. To be noticed by the young God was shocking enough, but to be invited to party with him was even more surprising. Hercules knew he should be more cautious, but he didn't have the maturity to see that NO would have been the appropriate answer.
And the party had been disastrous. Hercules had partaken of ambrosia and temporarily developed godly powers. None of his mother's warnings or Chiron's teachings had prepared him for this. To a teenager, struggling to find an identity and worried about the acceptance of his peers, this had seemed to be the ideal way to fit in with the crowd. He was popular, not just some super strong freak from a broken home trying to prove himself.
Apollo had seemed like the big brother he was missing. He had all the answers, the beautiful girls, the confidence, and he was willing to share this with Hercules. But it hadn't taken Hercules long to see that Apollo wasn't really so cool after all. He was god, driven by narcissism and unable to truly love any one but himself.
And Hercules remembered how Apollo had used the love of a mortal girl for his own entertainment, never meaning to return it in any way. That had been the turning point for him, and had become a thorn in Apollo's side. Hercules had brought the young woman to her senses and away from Apollo, and she in turn had warned her friends of the dangers of fraternizing with the gods.
Apollo had been livid, and was to this day no friend of Hercules'. In fact, he was definitely a power on Hera's side of the equation, and while he had pretty much left Hercules alone over the ensuing years, Hercules knew Apollo wasn't to be trusted. He was a god who had never matured into a man, at heart simply a teenager full of his own strength, his immortality and his power and influence. No, Apollo was no friend or big brother.
He had realized then what was now driven home to him. Immortality brought with it complications. Never aging meant outliving any mortal you might care about, so maybe it was easier to not care for them. The alternative was to have your heart broken infinite times. Perhaps it was self preservation that made the gods so egocentric.
Yes, Hercules could admit he had enjoyed part of it back then, but when he wised up and saw how much he was hurting his friends, he knew had to make a choice. This was what Iolaus was reminding him of, the truth. Who he really was in his heart.
He was older now, more mature and aware of what he was stepping into, or at least he hoped so. No more air surfing. No partying high on ambrosia. He would have to accept his fate and make the best of it. He had to try and stay true to himself and fight for the rights of mortals. He would become their champion.
Hercules turned back to Iolaus and wrapped his arms around his friend. "I'm going to miss you most of all," he whispered softly.
"Feeling's mutual." Iolaus choked back his reply through tight lips, relishing the feeling of Hercules' care. Would he be a bigger target without his friend or would the Gods leave him alone to concentrate on Hercules? Iolaus couldn't know the answer, and neither one was acceptable.
Hercules pulled away. "Let's go see mother."
The four men walked back to Alcmene's room, feet leaden and shoulders stooped. The air in the house seemed stale, thicker and the rooms darker without Alcmene bringing them to life.
Hercules approached the bed and let out a breath of pain, shutting out her image for a moment. He didn't want to remember her like this, old and still and gray.
Jason felt Hercules agony, reached out to grip his arm. "Whatever you did up there a little while back, well it helped some. She was taking her last breath then she seemed better. Her breathing eased, her face looked so peaceful. But now".
"I held her thread in my hands, took off the slack while the Fates repaired it as best as they could."
Jason nodded. "Just in time." He stood in silent pain, and then asked, "And can you finish the job?"
Hercules sighed and dropped his head for a moment. Then raising it he met the eyes staring hopefully his way.
"I thought I could, but now," he shook his head. "I don't know."
Iolaus nodded. "Well, do the best you can. We'll take of things down here."
Hercules and Iolaus watched as Jason took one of his wife's hands and Iphicles the other. They kneeled silently for a few moments then stood and stepped back.
Iolaus moved to Alcmene, and Hercules stepped to the other side.
Hercules was suddenly aware of how small his mother really was. Her build so slight and frame so lean she seemed swallowed up in the bed and covers. He had always seen her through a child's eyes, strong, beautiful, never aging or weakening. But now he saw that even as she had aged, he'd idealized her, giving her power and knowledge and ability far beyond that of an elderly mortal.
Hercules fought back tears. His mother had been no ordinary mortal even Zeus knew that. Why else would Hera have been so jealous? It was simply that he was unused to seeing her so still. When had he last watched her sleep?
Iolaus looked upon his heart mother and saw her quiet strength and dignity that even suffering and death couldn't take away. She had always known what was right, pushed herself beyond ordinary limits. This silent woman wasn't all that Alcmene was, she was simply the embodiment of mortality as time slowed one down. Her spirit was resting, perhaps waiting for the body to heal and rise up or else to pass to Elysium where she would be reunited with her daughter in law and grandchildren, Ania and the children, her own parents and everyone she had held dear that had passed before her.
To Iolaus, she was no less strong or beautiful, only still finally.
"I love you mother," the two men murmured together unplanned and in unison dropped their heads to her chest. Hercules' shoulders shook at the realization that he had given up his mortality, his mother's greatest gift and not succeeded. Iolaus let his tears fall silently as he squeezed Alcmene's tiny hand, thanking her silently for all that was, had been and meant to him.
Jason's jaw dropped as Alcmene reached an arm toward Hercules. Iolaus felt his hand being squeezed and Iphicles gasped as he saw his mother stir. Only Hercules was too absorbed to see what was happening.
But he heard. And an instant later he felt the gentle touch of his mother's fingers on his shoulder.
His mother had called his name!
Iolaus squeezed Alcmene's hand back, lifted his head and turned his face to look at her as her eyes opened.
"Iolaus!" she whispered.
"Mother!" The four men spoke in stunned surprise. They crowded her bed, all of them peering down in concern and hope. Jason kissed her forehead, stroking her golden curls as Iphicles reached for her arm, massaging gently, wanting to push the others aside.
"Give me room to sit," she spoke quietly.
"But how?" Iphicles asked as he raised his head, meeting Hercules eyes dead on.
Hercules turned to him, eyes wide open. "Zeus said it would take the love of two immortals to heal mother. I assumed that he meant gods."
He turned to Iolaus, stunned. "You must be the second immortal."
Iolaus shook his head. "I don't think so. I've died before. Immortals don't do that."
"Yes! Don't you see? How could I have been so blind! The gods always speak in riddles, why would this foreign entity be any different? You've been dead three times, yet still live. In his eyes you are the second immortal. And no immortal on Olympus loves mother like we do."
"But I can still die," Iolaus interjected.
"Maybe," Hercules conceded, but who knows? It seems you can't stay dead."
Iolaus grinned. "You have a point. But only thanks to your intervention."
"Boys, Alcmene interrupted. "I'm thirsty. Could you move so that I can get some water?"
"I'll get you some," Iphicles quickly answered.
"Nonsense. I'm perfectly capable of waiting on myself," she brushed an astonished group of men away from her bedside. She stood on legs that were a little wobbly, accepting Jason's arm as she quietly left the room.
Iolaus looked at Hercules, a hand covering his mouth as he shook his head and pondered the events of the moment. "You know Herc, there might be more than the new god involved in this. He didn't stick around to see what happened. He picked you and Zeus as targets, and don't forget he used Alcmene. And why would he leave a clue?"
"Good point," Hercules agreed.
"Do you think that the Olympians weren't involved?" Iphicles asked as if weighing his options for war.
"Zeus seems not to," Hercules answered with a shrug.
"Well, he's lied more than once." Iolaus shook his head and brought his hand back to his mouth, staring at the floor deep in thought. "You know, I have to think that maybe the Olympian gods used him as much as he used them."
"Iolaus, are you serious?" Hercules didn't even try to hide his surprise.
"It just doesn't add up," the golden warrior replied, tapping a finger to his lips. "This new force's pretty nasty all right, and it doesn't seem like the kind of god with even a smidgen of good. I mean, why would it give a hint of how to undo the spell? And why would it be in Olympus and no one seemed to know it was there?"
"Another good point," Hercules mused.
Iolaus was on a roll. "It seems more likely that SOMEONE approached HIM."
"It would take a powerful god to manipulate an entity with the strength to undo the work of the fates," Iphicles mused. "Someone pretty self assured with a grudge against both you and mother."
"Someone like Hera," Hercules leaped to the conclusion.
"Could be, but you don't have a lot of friends up there and the gods have a history of overthrowing their own. I mean, look at Zeus and the Titans. Clearly this has to do with Zeus as much as you, maybe more," Iolaus warned.
"So you think that Zeus is at risk?" Hercules didn't want harm to come to his father, even though they weren't close. After all it was Zeus he had to thank for Iolaus first return from death.
"Could be, and maybe that's why he wants you on Olympus. Maybe he doesn't really know the truth and needs to be sure that there is someone there on his side."
Hercules nodded. "You may be right. I have no choice now though." He heard the small familiar steps of his mother, the ones he'd heard coming to check on him at night as a child, the ones which skipped through the house playing hide and seek with him, the ones that echoed through the halls of the Academy looking for Chiron during open house.
Iolaus' azure eyes met Hercules' "You have to tell her," he spoke sadly.
"I know." Hercules's voice caught and he kept his eyes on Iolaus' for support.
Iolaus nodded and gripped his friend's forearm warmly. "She can't feel any worse than I do buddy, and I'm still there for you."
Iphicles wrapped his little brother in a firm hug. He'd come through for them all, and paid the price. He was more than a god; he was a champion of mortality, someone who put the good of others above his own. He was his brother.
"Thank you," Iphicles spoke softly into Hercules ear. "That took a lot of courage."
He sat across the table from her, his two big hands enveloping one of hers. Iolaus sat to Hercules right, Iphicles to his left. Jason sat next to his wife with an arm looped protectively around her shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Hercules stammered. "I don't want you to be angry. It was the only thing I could have done,"
"I understand," his mother answered, trying to keep the pain from her voice. "Sometimes emotions rule the heart."
Hercules nodded and dropped his head. "I don't want to be a god. Being immortal is worse than death."
Alcmene covered her mouth and dropped her face so that her son wouldn't see her pain. She wanted only good for her son, and this was terrible.
"He did it because he loves you," Iolaus interjected. "He couldn't live knowing you were a pawn of the gods."
"I know Iolaus," Alcmene answered as she raised her soft blue eyes to his own. "I feel responsible for putting him in such a position."
"No, Hercules. I've never been afraid of death. I've lived a good life, a just life. My most fervent hope has been that you would continue to be champion for mortals."
"I will!" Hercules promised. "And if there is any way that I can regain my mortality, you know I will. I'm not a god, not in my heart or my mind." He felt Iolaus reach for his shoulder and grip it hard. "Mother, I'll make you proud."
"I know Hercules. You made the choice that you thought was best. And I appreciate it, though I don't necessarily agree with it." Alcmene reached her free hand to her son's face to push the loose hair away from his eyes. "I don't like what you did, but I understand it. I would have done the same for you."
Hercules nodded. His mother's words justified his actions, but didn't make him feel any better. He was a god now, immortal. Everyone he loved would die and he would live on, through all the changes both good and bad, and continue even when no one even cared any more. He had hoped to end up in Elysium with Deineira and the boys, but even that had been taken from him.
Words weren't there anymore. If he spoke his voice would crack and his soul would break with it.
"It's all right," Alcmene soothed, though she knew it wasn't. "Everything happens for a reason. Your work on Olympus isn't done, of that you can be sure." She stroked his forehead with the back of his hand soothingly. "Let's just take this a day at a time."
Hercules nodded mutely, eyes still cast down on the table wondering if he had made a mistake. No, Mother was alive and he would find someway to work everything out. He lifted his eyes, turned them to Iolaus.
"How will I do it without you?" His voice was hoarse with the harshness of swallowed emotion.
"I could ask the same question," Iolaus answered, a sad smile in his eyes that his voice didn't echo.
"You boys will manage, you always have," Jason interjected. "Hercules will know when you need him and you will feel his presence. It's always been that way, even if neither of you recognized it. I envied you in Academy, your relationship, and even when you went your separate ways you were never really apart. That won't change."
Iolaus nodded numbly as Hercules gazed upward, fighting back tears. This was different.
"I'll be there for you both," Iphicles offered.
Iolaus nodded. Hercules reached for his heart brother, gripping his hand hard.
"Spend one last night," Alcmene requested and Hercules nodded wishing she hadn't used the word last.
"Iphicles can have my room. Iolaus and I will sleep in the hayloft." Hercules knew there would be much to talk about and that neither of them would get much sleep. In truth neither wanted to sleep. There was too much to say in too little time.
"Hercules, thank you." Her eyes were sad and her heart heavy, but she knew that she would always see her son.
Hercules nodded mutely and stood. "Come on Iolaus."
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