“How much further to this cave?” Iphicles demanded with a shout.
“Not far!” Iolaus called back over his shoulder.
“That’s what you said two miles ago!” Iphicles complained.
Hercules uncomfortably patted his horse as it shied from the lightning. He saw Iolaus’ shoulders tense, but the hunter kept his attention on the path in front of him. Riding behind Iolaus, neither he nor Iphicles could see the path.
“I think he’s lost,” Iphicles muttered.
“Iolaus doesn’t get lost,” Hercules assured him. “If he says there’s a cave at the end of this path, then there’s a cave.”
Iphicles snorted but put his attention on controlling his horse. He noted with grim amusement the demigod was having a hard time controlling his mount.
Iphicles followed Iolaus’ arm as he pointed to the right. Barely visible in the flickering lightning was the dim outline of a cave.
“It’s big enough we can shelter the horses as well!” Iolaus glanced over his shoulder.
Iphicles grunted as he saw the look of pride on his brother’s face. He braced himself for the inevitable.
“I told you Iolaus doesn’t get lost.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Iphicles muttered under his breath. Realistically, he knew there was almost no chance of THAT happening this close to Thebes. 'If we'd left yesterday like I wanted, we wouldn't be out here in this storm. But...NO...Iolaus wanted to stay and help the blacksmith with something...even though the blacksmith didn't need his help. If it wouldn't have upset Mother, I would've come ahead yesterday. But that would would have...' Iphicles noted with concern that his brother was looking at him strangely. “What?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” Hercules quickly answered. “I just thought I heard you say something.”
“I’m wet and cold,” Iphicles retorted. “My teeth are probably chattering.” He stared at his brother silently challenging him to question him. Predictably, Hercules turned away without a word.
They dismounted at the mouth of the cave and led the horses inside. They quickly unsaddled the horses and gave them what dry rations they could. By the time the animals were settled, it seemed the worst of the storm had passed.
“Gods, what a storm!” Iolaus shook his head sending drops of cold rain spraying in all directions.
“Quit that!” Iphicles snapped. “I’m wet enough!”
Hercules uneasily eyed both men. They’d been arguing with each other ever since leaving Corinth for Thebes to celebrate Alcmene’s birthday. “We’re all wet,” he commented. “It’s a good thing you packed Mother’s gifts with extra padding, Iph.” He gently put the carrysacks on the ground.
Iolaus immediately grabbed one and began searching inside. “Wish we could have a fire,” he muttered.
“The wood is wet, too,” Hercules joked. He ran a hand through his wet hair and shivered. “The storm’s moving away pretty quickly. But we’re stuck without a fire for the night.” He walked to the cave entrance, briefly illuminated by a flash of lightning.
“Iolaus, what are you looking for?” Iphicles irritably asked as he spread his cloak on the ground to dry.
“Ah! Safe and dry!” Iolaus triumphantly produced a small package.
“You’re welcome,” Iphicles muttered under his breath.
“What is it?” Hercules curiously looked over his shoulder. “Mother’s gift?”
“Yeah,” Iolaus grinned. “I wasn’t sure it would hurt it to be wet. Probably wouldn’t but you never know. I mean, it’ll...”
“For pity’s sake, just tell us what it is or be quiet about it!” Iphicles snapped.
Hercules moved away from the cave entrance towards the two men. His blue eyes flickered from one to the other.
Iolaus flushed and thrust the package back into the carrysack. He muttered something under his breath.
“What did you say?” Iphicles demanded in an even tone.
“I said I asked Aphrodite to bring me some seeds from the trees on Olympus for Alcmene’s garden!” Iolaus snapped. “You got a problem with that?”
“Great! Just great!” Iphicles angrily shouted. “A gift from Olympus!” He glared at the hunter. “You always have to...to...”
“To what?!” Iolaus shouted back. “Try to find the best gift for Alcmene? Excuse me, Your Majesty! I forgot there was a pecking order!”
“You forget a lot of things!” Iphicles seethed, jumping to his feet.
As Iolaus angrily got to his feet, Hercules muscled his way between them.
“That enough!” the demigod bellowed. He looked from one to the other. “This is NOT going to continue. The two of you settle this...here and now. There will be no...repeat...NO fighting like this at Mother’s! Do the two of you understand me?”
Getting no more than a bare nod from either man, he stepped back with a deep sigh. “I’m going for a walk. I’m not sitting here and listening to this. I’m not being a part of it. Just settle it...preferably without bloodshed or bruises. NOW!” Spinning on his heel, he left the cave and disappeared into the darkness.
Irritably glancing at the clearing sky, Hercules angrily shook his head and leaned against a nearby tree. 'Just once I wish they'd understand there's no competition betwee them.'
“Why should I do that?” Iolaus angrily muttered, looked at the cave entrance.
“Because he could break us in half if we don’t!” Iphicles snapped.
“Herc would never do that!” Iolaus retorted, unclenching his fists.
“He’s NOT perfect, you know! He DOES make mistakes!” Iphicles meaningfully stared at the smaller man.
Iolaus flushed. “If that’s supposed to be an insult, you’ll have to do better than that,” he snarled.
“No insult intended,” Iphicles smoothly answered. “Just a statement of fact.”
“What’s your problem?” Iolaus demanded.
“You!” Iphicles angrily shot back. “Always...you! Always in between us!”
Iolaus took a deep breath. “It wasn’t my fault you weren’t around when we were kids.” He struggled to keep the anger from his voice. “It wasn’t my fault you grew up away from your family. It’s not my fault you and Hercules were at odds!”
“You’re always there...always in between us!” Iphicles shot back. “Every time I turn around to talk to him, you’re there! Gods, Iolaus, he’s MY brother, not yours!” His voice shook with emotion. “Why don’t you just...go home sometimes and leave us alone?! Why didn’t you just go home as a kid instead of always being around MY family?!”
Iolaus took a half-step towards the Corinthian king. His fists clenched then he angrily turned around and left the cave.
Hercules saw his friend angrily walk towards the nearby lake. Hidden by the shadows of the moonless night, the hunter didn’t see his friend sadly shake his head before walking back to the cave.
“Great,” Iphicles muttered as he sat on the cold ground. “That solved a lot.”
“He couldn’t go home, Iph.”
Iphicles sighed. “Eavesdropping, Hercules? I’m shocked.”
“The two of you weren’t exactly being quiet,” the demigod pointed out. He sat across from his brother and sadly stared at him.
Iphicles sighed again. The storm having passed, the reflected moonlight barely provided enough light to see one another. “I might have known you’d defend him.” When Hercules remained silent, he finally met the demigod’s eyes. “Alright, I’ll ask. Why couldn’t he go home? Did he forget how to get there?”
“His father nearly beat him to death because Iolaus refused to call me a bastard and Mother a whore.” Hercules saw the surprise in his brother’s eyes. “Somehow he crawled to our barn and collapsed there. He blurted the truth to Mother because he was afraid Skouros would come after him and hurt us. But he told me that he tried to ride a wild horse and got trampled.”
Iphicles frowned. “He never told you the truth?”
Hercules shook his head. “Never. I overheard him talking to Mother. She explained it to me.” He uneasily shrugged. “I shouldn’t have told you about it except...” He took a deep breath. “I’d appreciate it if you’d not tell Iolaus about this conversation.”
Iphicles studied his brother for a few moments. “I won’t. You have my word.”
Hercules curtly nodded. “I’ve never understood why he wouldn’t tell me. But I’ve respected his decision.”
Iphicles half-smiled at the frustration in his brother’s voice. “Kids believe adults do things to them for a reason,” he quietly offered. “If a child is punished, then he’s done something wrong. Even if the child doesn’t understand what it is that he’s done wrong.” He tilted his head to one side. “So Iolaus just...moved in?”
Hercules shook his head. “Not really. He’d go home when Skouros was away at war. But...after that beating, it seemed Skouros was at home more often than not.” He sighed. “Mother made him welcome. But sometimes...I guess he felt he was intruding or something. He’d disappear into the forest for a while.” He sat up straighter. “When I left to go to the Academy, he started running with the Lowacks.” He caught himself before he revealed more of Iolaus’ past than he knew his friend would want revealed. “We met again when he joined the Academy a few years later.”
Iphicles’ silence finally drew the demigod’s eyes to him. “Iolaus has never stood between you and me, Iphicles. You have to understand that.”
“Maybe in your eyes.” Iphicles saw how his brother was sitting hunched over as though holding some pain inside himself. “You and I have made our peace, brother. I suppose it’s time Iolaus and I made peace as well. Any idea where he went?” he asked as he got to his feet.
“He was heading towards the lake,” Hercules remembered. “For some reason, he heads to water when he’s angry or upset about something.”
Iphicles silently nodded. “This is between Iolaus and myself, Hercules. Don’t interfere.”
The demigod warily eyed his brother. “I can’t...”
“You can and will stay here,” Iphicles firmly interrupted. “It’ll never get settled if you interfere.”
Hercules took a deep breath. “Alright,” he reluctantly agreed. “Just try to keep the bloodshed to a minimum,” he added as Iphicles left the cave.
'Hercules knows him well...better than he knows me.' Iphicles easily spotted Iolaus sitting by the edge of the lake. The hunter sat on a large flat stone tossing rocks into the murky dark water. The dark clouds had completely disappeared leaving the full moon to shine down on the lake. The reflected moonlight easily allowed Iphicles to see not only Iolaus but the surrounding area. Drops of water gently fell from the rain-soaked trees providing a soft backdrop to the peaceful setting.
Sensing someone behind him, Iolaus spun to his feet facing Iphicles. “What do you want?” he tensely asked.
“To settle this,” Iphicles evenly replied.
Iolaus shrugged and sat back down on the stone facing the lake. “What do you want?” he repeated in a softer voice.
Iphicles sat on the edge of the rock. “Sometimes, I think Mother protected Hercules too much as a child. He honestly can’t understand that everyone’s childhood wasn’t as idyllic as his.” He felt Iolaus tense beside him. “And I don’t think he understands...even today...how hard it is to be compared to him.”
Iphicles settled himself more comfortably on the rock. “I’m sure you have some idea of how hard THAT is.” He gave a half-laugh. “Well, try being his OLDER brother. From the time he was four, he was as big as me. By the time he was six...” Iphicles shrugged. “He was always bigger, faster, stronger. And he was always following me around. Looking back, I realize he just wanted to be with me. But at the time, it seemed he took AWAY from me...to outshine me in front of MY friends.”
Iolaus glanced at the pensive king next to him. “That’s not true,” he finally said.
Iphicles shrugged. “Truth has very little to do with it. Children see things with very narrow vision.” He took a deep breath. “Then one day, my father’s family came and took me away. All I could understand was that I had to leave with them because of Hercules.” His voice shook as he remembered that day. “Because of...HIM...I had to leave my home.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” Iolaus quietly pointed out.
“I know that now,” Iphicles assured him. “Even at the time, I knew it here.” He tapped the side of his head. “But I didn’t know it here.” He tapped his chest over his heart. “You have NO idea how I resented him.” He took a deep breath. “And I resented Mother for not fighting harder to keep me. I felt she chose him over me.” He idly kicked the side of the rock with the heel of his boot. “I found out later, my uncle had threatened to have Hercules taken away as well if she fought him about me. It seemed she picked him over me.”
Remembering pain from his own childhood, Iolaus chose not to reply.
“A couple of years later, my uncle went to Corinth on business. I absolutely gave him no rest until he agreed to take me with him and bring me home to see Mother and Hercules. It would only be a brief visit, but...” Iphicles shrugged. “Hercules was at school when we arrived. My uncle refused to wait until he returned home. I only had a few minutes to see Mother. He wouldn’t even let that visit be a private one,” he bitterly continued.
Controlling himself, Iphicles focused on the barely visible shoreline on the other side of the lake. “We got back in his carriage and were passing the village when I saw you and Hercules, probably walking home from school. You were both laughing and...I hated that he was happy.” He uncomfortably shrugged. “I know how petty that sounds, but it hurt. He was happy and with friends. He could be at home with Mother. He was the chosen one, and I wasn’t.”
“I remember that day,” Iolaus softly replied. “Alcmene had been crying. I thought Sk...we were afraid someone had done something to her. She told us you had been there, but your uncle had to leave and couldn’t stay until we got there.” He took a deep breath and stared at the water lapping beneath his feet. “I’d seen Herc upset before. But I’d never seen him REALLY mad. His face got really white then he ran out of the house.”
Lost in that memory, Iolaus didn’t realize Iphicles had turned to watch him. “By the time I caught up with him, he was deep in the forest...hitting the trunk of this massive tree with every bit of strength he had. He kept screaming that it was his fault.” Finally, feeling Iphicles’ eyes on him, the hunter took a deep breath. “I wasn’t stupid enough to get near him until he calmed down. I knew he was totally out of control and wouldn’t even know it if he hit me...but he’d sure feel guilty as Tartarus for it afterwards. I don’t think I ever really convinced him it wasn’t his fault that you were taken away.”
“What happened when you went back home?” Iphicles asked after a moment’s silence.
Iolaus shrugged. “I don’t know. I walked him back home, but I didn’t stay. I knew he and Alcmene needed to talk...about things that didn’t concern me. As soon as he was in the house, I took off and camped out by the river. Herc came looking for me the next day.” Iolaus grinned. “To apologize for losing his temper.”
“That sounds like him,” Iphicles ruefully admitted.
Iolaus unconsciously bit his lower lip. “I never tried to take your place, Iphicles,” he quietly spoke. “Well...except I’d see this sad look on their faces when somebody would mention your name or there was some occasion where families or brothers were mentioned. Then, I’d try to...I don’t know...make it up to them that you weren’t there.”
“You know, it’s not easy to live with the fact that if it came down to choosing between you and me, Hercules would choose you,” Iphicles irritably spoke. “Mother might make the same choice, too.”
“That’s not true!” Iolaus automatically denied with a flush. “Anyway, I’d never let it get to that point.”
“YOU wouldn’t?” Iphicles jibed. “Is that a fact?”
Iolaus coldly stared at the other man. “Yeah. It’s a fact.” Angrily, he threw another stone into the lake.
Iphicles heard the forceful splash of the rock hitting the water. “Every time I’d mention wanting to go home, my uncle would remind me of why I was living with him. That it was Mother’s fault...and Hercules’. I’d done nothing wrong...they had. As I grew older, we’d hear stories about Hercules doing this or that. And I’d hear the whispers. ‘That’s Hercules’ brother.’ And they’d expect the same...deeds from me.” Iphicles scowled. “And, of course, I’d fail. So, eventually I stopped trying.” He took a deep breath. “A child hears something repeated over and over. He comes to believe it...whether he wants to or not.”
'Worthless runt. Miserable whelp. Useless crybaby. Good for nothing.' Iolaus winced as he heard his father’s voice in his mind.
“I suppose I’ve always resented you for being the sort of brother I should have been...the sort of son I should have been,” Iphicles mused. “Seeing you with my brother...and mother, I sometimes felt like I was included on sufferance.”
“That’s not true,” Iolaus grimaced. “Anyway, you’re not the only one with resentment.” He squirmed when Iphicles turned to look at him. “You’re Herc’s brother and Alcmene’s son. Nothing could change that. I sometimes wondered if I’d be as important to them...if you came home. If you’d been there, I’d never have to question that.” The last words were mumbled in a voice almost too low for Iphicles to hear.
The hunter suddenly turned and glared at Iphicles. “It’s not easy to swallow when we’re around you, and Herc sometimes forgets I exist! He’s always so eager to try and...make up to you whatever it is you think he took from you.” He looked back at the lake. “Like I’m his best friend only until you show up. Then...” He resolutely shook his head. “Herc never chooses one of us over the other, Iphicles. He just doesn’t.”
Iphicles suddenly burst into laughter.
Iolaus glared at him for several seconds. “You think that’s funny?” he demanded.
“Actually...yes,” Iphicles finally admitted. “Suddenly, this whole...argument is funny.”
Iolaus stared at the lake for several moments before grunting a half-agreement. “Maybe,” he admitted.
“No ‘maybe’ about it,” Iphicles grinned. “All these years, I’ve been resenting YOU for being close to Mother and Hercules. And you resented ME for not being close to them.” He chuckled once again.
Iolaus tried not to smile. “It does seem...twisted, doesn’t it?” After a moment of mutual smiles, Iolaus continued. “You know, Hercules is just irritated enough with the both of us to take matters into his own hands.”
Iphicles nodded. “So let’s eliminate him from the equation. Any problems the two of us have with each other gets settled between us. He doesn’t get to know a thing about it.”
Iolaus’ suddenly somber expression mirrored his serious thoughts. “I don’t like keeping secrets from Herc,” he admitted. “But...in this case, you’re right.”
“You know, I’m Hercules’ brother by blood...and you’re his brother by choice,” Iphicles pointed out. He tentatively glanced at the smaller man. “In a way, I suppose you could consider us half-brothers of a sort.” He saw the look of surprise on Iolaus’ face. Surprise...and something else.
“Yeah...I guess you could,” Iolaus hesitantly nodded.
“There’s something else that really irritates me,” Iphicles said after a moment’s silence. When Iolaus threw him a silent, questioning look, he smiled. “Hercules is younger than either of us. So how is it, he tells US what to do?”
Iolaus’ blue eyes twinkled in amusement. “Ummm...’cause he’s bigger than us?”
Iphicles’ head tilted to one side. “I think it’s time my LITTLE brother was taught a lesson about...how did you put it?...the pecking order?”
His eyes alight with mischief, Iolaus suddenly grinned.
Hercules resisted the temptation to pace. Instead, he forced himself to sit quietly in the dark. He’d arranged their supplies...spaced out the sleeping arrangements...taken care of the horses...all the time listening for angry voices. He didn’t know whether to be relieved about not hearing them. He had several visions of Iphicles and Iolaus throwing each other into the cold lake.
'They're both so...stubborn and full of pride. You'd think THEY were the brothers, they're so alike sometimes,' Hercules irritably thought. 'What in Zeus' name are they doing out there for so long?'
Deciding it was far too quiet, Hercules got to his feet. He hesitated, remembering Iphicles’ order to not interfere. 'Checking to make sure one of them isn't killing the other isn't interfering,' he told himself.
Walking as quietly as possible, he followed the faint path towards the lake. He stopped, his heart in his mouth as he saw both men lying unconscious in the moonlight.
Iolaus lay sprawled on his stomach on top of a flat rock by the lakeshore. His face was turned towards the lake, away from the demigod’s sight. One arm hung limp over the side of the rock, fingers extended in an almost helpless fashion.
Iphicles lay almost curled on his side at the edge of the lake. His auburn hair half-covered his face, and one fist was clenched. His other hand was dug into the ground as though he’d tried to crawl towards the lake before collapsing.
Senses alert, the demigod ran to his brother and friend. Unsure of which one to check first for injuries, he didn’t see both men suddenly lunge towards him. With a startled yelp, he found himself being thrown backwards...into the cold water of the lake.
Sputtering, Hercules shot to the surface. As his feet found solid ground, he heard Iphicles low laugh mixed with Iolaus’ giggle. He glared at both men who stood on the lake shore safely beyond his reach.
“I told you he couldn’t resist not knowing what was going on,” Iphicles finally said.
Iolaus nodded. “And I told you I didn’t disagree.”
“You two are SO funny,” Hercules grumbled as he waded out of the lake. “I don’t suppose you considered I’d be worried seeing the two of you sprawled out like that.”
“If you’d kept your promise and stayed in the cave, you wouldn’t have been worried, now would you?” Iphicles gleefully pointed out.
“It was getting late,” Hercules argued. “Besides, I wanted to make sure the two of you hadn’t killed each other.”
“Why would he have thought that?” Iolaus innocently asked Iphicles.
The Corinthian king shrugged. “Maybe a demigod thing,” he guessed.
Hercules rolled his eyes when Iolaus somberly nodded in agreement. “Are the two of you through playing games? Can we get some sleep now?” He wrung the water from his hair and flung the moisture to one side.
“We’ll have to take turns as guard,” Iolaus pointed out as he and Iphicles turned to walk back up the path. “He’s going to try and get even, you know.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Hercules interrupted. It was hard to keep the happiness from his voice. It felt so good to see his brothers united...even if it was against him. “I wouldn’t want Mother asking questions about bruises.” He waited until he heard their laughter. “I’ll wait until after her birthday.” He smiled to himself when they looked over their shoulders at him...then warily looked back at each other.
Alcmene heard their laughter as they walked down the lane. She stared out the upstairs window, smiling as her three sons led their horses towards the barn. She was more than pleased to see Iphicles and Iolaus teasing Hercules with no evidence of restraint or ill-feeling between them. Turning around, she was startled to see a beautiful young blonde woman standing behind her. She was even more startled by the revealing outfit worn by the young woman. “Aphrodite?” she hesitantly questioned.
Aphrodite grinned. “I thought it was time to meet my favorite brother’s mother.”
“Welcome,” Alcmene greeted with a slight smile. “Hercules just arrived. I’ll go tell him...”
“No...don’t do that,” Aphrodite requested. “Actually, Zeus asked me to stop by. He heard I’d helped Sweetcheeks...I mean, Iolaus, with his gift for you. So he asked if I’d convey his good wishes to you on your birthday.”
“That’s very kind of him,” Alcmene slowly nodded. “Please thank him for me.”
Aphrodite smiled. “They’re going to be fine, you know. Iphicles and Sweet...I mean, Iolaus. They’re really going to be friends now.”
“What did...Zeus didn’t interfere, did he?” Alcmene demanded.
“No.” Aphrodite’s eyes widened.
“Did you?” Alcmene prodded.
“Not really,” Aphrodite admitted. “I mean...not in any way that counts.” She squirmed slightly. “Hey, I’m the Goddess of Love. And love covers a lot of territory, you know.” She finally shrugged. “It was bothering Herkie...I mean, Hercules that Iphicles and Sweet...I mean, Iolaus, weren’t getting along. And he was worried about what would happen on your birthday considering what happened last year.” She snickered as Alcmene ruefully rolled her eyes.
“Anyway, Zeus arranged for that storm last night to delay them in getting here,” Aphrodite continued. “I just used a little...godlike influence to get them to LISTEN to each other.” She pouted slightly. “Besides, Herkie...I mean, Hercules, was getting really irritated with both of them. And you know his patience is legendary.” She snickered again.
“Well, as long as it’s their idea, and they weren’t coerced,” Alcmene smiled.
Aphrodite smiled in return. “Trust me, Herkie...I mean, Hercules, was going to provide some coercion of his own.” She waved her fingers. “Happy Birthday, Alcmene.”
“Thank you.” Alcmene shook her head as the goddess disappeared. She heard Jason calling her name as her sons entered the house. ‘Herkie? Sweetcheeks? I wish I could ask them about THAT!’
Zeus turned from his scrying screen as Aphrodite materialized next to him. “Well done, Aphrodite.”
The goddess preened then peeked past the Father of the Gods to watch as Alcmene was hugged by each of her sons. “You’re an old softy, you know,” she accused with an impish grin.
“Perhaps,” Zeus admitted. “But Alcmene deserves this birthday to be perfect...in every way.” He absently frowned.
Aphrodite delicately shuddered. Mortals were so...fragile. “Well, I’m off. Cupid said that Bliss can fly on his own now. I thought I’d see how well he’s doing at it.”
Zeus turned back to the scrying screen with a nod. He watched in silence for several minutes while redirecting storm clouds away from the small farm. “Happy Birthday, my dear,” he murmured. “I wish there could be many more.”
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