WINTER SOLSTICE GIFT





Iolaus frowned as he watched his partner stare out the window at the darkening sky. Torches were appearing in the Corinthian capitol giving the city a warm welcoming glow from the cold night air.

The two heroes had traveled to Corinth at the request of Hercules' mother, Alcmene. She wanted to spend the Winter Solstice with her entire family. This was also the first Winter Solstice since Iphicles' wife, Rena, had died. She and Jason had gone out of their way to make sure Iphicles was kept occupied and busy. Yet they all recognized the sadness in his eyes each morning.

Alcmene believed Iphicles grief was affecting Hercules. Iolaus knew better.

A week before coming to Corinth, they'd stopped to help a farmer who had been stranded on the road with a broken wagon. It hadn't taken long for the two heroes to fix the wagon. In gratitude, the farmer had invited them to eat and spend the night with he and his family...who included his children Aeson and Ilea.

Iolaus had seen the sudden pallor on his friend's face when the farmer introduced his two excited children. Hercules had quickly excused himself offering to chop wood. Iolaus had carefully explained to the farmer and his wife about Hercules' reaction. They'd immediately understood and cast quick looks of sympathy towards the demi-god.

Ever since, Hercules had been silent almost to the point of being morose. Lost in his own pain and anguish, he'd barely noticed Iphicles'. His brother, however, was more observant.

While this situation might have once caused an angry scene between the brothers, Iphicles' own recent loss gave him some insight into Hercules' loss. After a quiet conversation with Iolaus, Iphicles allowed his mother and step-father to concentrate on him allowing Hercules to deal with his grief in his own way.

Now, however, Iolaus was starting to get worried. The Winter Solstice Festival was in full swing. The major celebration would be the next day, and Hercules didn't even seem to notice. Not even when Alcmene laughingly shooed Jason away from where some of the presents were sitting on a side table.

Iolaus took a deep breath. "Hey, Herc!" he genially spoke up. "We better get going!" When Hercules didn't respond, he stepped closer. "You know. Parties. Presents."

"Go on without me," Hercules quietly ordered.

"Aw, Herc, c'mon..." Iolaus began.

"I said go without me!" Hercules shouted. "Or do you need me to hold your hand?"

Iolaus' eyes widened in shock. He instinctively took a step backwards.

"Iolaus, I'm sorry," Hercules apologized finally turning around. He inwardly cringed at the look of pain his friend was just managing to hide. "I really am."

Iolaus shrugged. "Not a problem," he lightly answered.

"I just...need some time alone, that's all," Hercules' voice faltered.

"Okay, I'll see you later," Iolaus carefully answered heading for the door.

"Iolaus!" Hercules called. When the hunter hesitated then looked over his shoulder, the demi-god shrugged. "I'm sorry," he finally added.

Iolaus nodded managing a small smile before leaving.

"Great," Hercules muttered. "Just great." He irritably glanced around the room. He spotted the presents on the corner table and frowned. A stray thought flickered through his mind and was then gone. He suddenly wished some monster would go rampaging through a village and he could leave Corinth with a clear conscience. He wanted to be anywhere but here.

"What's bothering you, Hercules?"

The demi-god spun around to see Athena eyeing him with a curious frown. "What are you doing here?" he harshly demanded.

Athena's eyebrows raised. "Iolaus may listen to that tone of voice, but I won't," she warned.

"Then leave," Hercules ordered. "I didn't ask for you to come here in the first place."

"My assistance was requested," Athena coolly replied. "I believe it was two nights ago when Iolaus managed to suppress the urge to hit you over the head. 'Athena, give me wisdom' were his exact words." She eyed her half-brother with a slight smile. "To be honest, I don't think he was asking so much for wisdom as for patience."

Hercules flushed. "Yeah, well, I haven't been the best of company lately," he admitted. "I just wish this whole Solstice thing was over."

"Feeling sorry for yourself?" Athena coldly asked. She saw Hercules' eyes narrow. "Think you're the only one who's suffering a loss at this festive occasion?"

"Don't, Athena. Just...don't," Hercules warned.

Athena's grey eyes frosted over. "Grieve for what you have lost," she advised. "But not at the expense of what you have."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Hercules angrily shouted.

"Don't be foolish," Athena warned. "You know what I mean." She studied him for a moment. "You just don't want to remember." She coolly smiled. "So I'll provide assistance."

"I don't need your help." Hercules turned away.

"Three gods will visit you this night. You will have no choice but to go with them. Perhaps you will learn and remember. Or perhaps you will continue to be the foolish child I see before me." Before Hercules could turn back around, Athena had vanished.

"I don't believe this," Hercules muttered.

"Oh, believe it, Herkie." Aphrodite appeared in a sparkle of pink and gold energy.

"So what are you here to do?" Hercules asked with a sigh. "Just show me...tell me...whatever and go on about your business."

"Well, Happy Winter Solstice to you, too!" Aphrodite put her hands on her hips and glared at her half-brother.

"I'm sorry, ‘Dite. I'm just not in the mood." Hercules ran a hand through his hair.

"So I see." Aphrodite pouted. "Well, let's see if I can get you in the mood." She impishly grinned. "I'm real good about moods, you know."

Before Hercules could object, she took his hand and the room disappeared.

Hercules quickly looked around in confusion. "What are we doing at Mother's?" he asked. Then he stared over Aphrodite's shoulder in astonishment.

Aphrodite giggled. "You were kinda cute at that age," she admitted.

Hercules watched in surprise as he saw a younger version of himself carefully fingering a wrapped package. The adult Hercules shook his head. The child before him couldn't have been more than ten or eleven.

"Hercules! Stop that!"

Hercules spun around even as the child Hercules quickly brought his hands back to his side.

"Mother?" Hercules smiled at the younger version of his mother.

"I'm sorry," the child Hercules apologized.

"You'll see what's inside soon enough," the younger Alcmene promised with a smile.

The adult Hercules turned to Aphrodite. "What's going on? They can't see us, can they?"

"Of course not," Aphrodite chuckled. "As for what's going on...you're supposed to figure that one out."

Before the demi-god could answer, there was a knock on the door. With a slight frown, Alcmene slowly opened it then drew a small boy inside. "Iolaus! What are you doing out at this time of night?"

The face on the child Hercules brightened as he stood and pulled his friend closer to the warming fire.

"Well...we got word my Father will be home tomorrow," the child Iolaus explained. "So I won't be able to come over like I said I would." Before anyone could say anything, he pulled two small wrapped packages from his shirt.

"Iolaus, thank you," Alcmene smiled. She glanced at her son. "Since Iolaus won't be here tomorrow, I think it's alright to open his gifts now." She suppressed a smile as the child Hercules eagerly opened his gift.

"Wow," the child Hercules breathed. "Did you make this?" Before the child Iolaus could answer, he turned to his mother. "Open yours!"

Alcmene obediently opened hers then stared at the child Iolaus. "Oh, Iolaus, how wonderful. Is Hercules right? Did you make these?"

Aphrodite curiously stepped forward. She saw a crudely made broach and belt buckle. She glanced at her half-brother who was watching with a mixture of happiness and pride.

"Well, Alexandros let me work in his forge for some extra dinars," the child Iolaus shrugged. "I hope it's okay." He glanced at Alcmene.

"Of course it is," Alcmene gently replied. Then she looked at her son. "Hercules, why don't you get Iolaus' presents?"

"I have presents?" the child Iolaus half-whispered. He watched as Hercules grabbed two wrapped packages from the nearby table.

"Herkie, why didn't he think he was going to get presents?" Aphrodite asked.

Hercules frowned. "He didn't have a very nice childhood," he carefully explained. He knew Aphrodite was waiting for a more detailed explanation but he wasn't about to give one. Instead he watched as the child Iolaus carefully unwrapped the smaller package.

"Hey, this is your lucky marble!" the child Iolaus looked at his friend in surprise.

"Now it's your lucky marble," the child Hercules grinned. He didn't understand the look in his friend's eyes. "If you don't want that one, you can have any of mine you want."

"No!" the child Iolaus wrapped his small fingers around the marble. "Thanks." With a deep breath, he began opening the other package. With a wide grin, he pulled out a woolen shirt suitable for the colder weather. "Purple!"

"Somehow I thought it would suit you," Alcmene smiled. 'It's a Solstice gift. Surely Skouros won't take it away from him thinking it's charity.'

"Wow, I never had anything purple!" the child Iolaus held the shirt up to him. "I like it!" He carefully folded the shirt. "I guess I better go. I promised Mother I'd help get things ready for Father's visit."

"Come back when you can," Alcmene gently said. She walked the child Iolaus to the door and gave him a tight hug.

"Thank you," the child Iolaus whispered before he quickly ran down the dark path.

"Why did you bring me here, Aphrodite?" Hercules quietly asked blinking back tears.

"What happened when he got home?" Aphrodite asked in return.

Hercules looked away. "His father destroyed the shirt," he quietly answered. "It didn't matter it was a Solstice gift. Iolaus hid the marble." He turned back to his half-sister. "Why, ‘Dite?"

"Maybe to remind you that you're not the only one who can suffer while everyone else is being happy." Aphrodite's voice came as though from far away.

Hercules blinked. He was back in the palace in Corinth. "Aphrodite!" he yelled.

"Sorry. Just me!"

Hercules spun around to see Hermes grinning from behind him. He groaned. "You're the second god," he guessed. "Just how did Athena get you and Aphrodite into this?"

"That would be telling," Hermes grinned as he glanced around. "Iolaus isn't here?" Before Hercules could answer, the Herald grimaced. "Alright, Athena! I'll keep my mind on business!" He rubbed his left ear.

"So what happens now?" Hercules asked.

In response, Hermes waved his staff causing the snakes to hiss in protest. "I don't like this either," Hermes muttered to them. Then he pointed behind Hercules.

Iphicles sat on his throne. The expression on his face was a mixture of aggravation and depression. One of his courtiers, Stefanos, was trying to keep Iphicles' attention.

"Will you get to the point?" Iphicles finally snapped.

"The point, Your Majesty, is there have been almost no preparations for the Winter Solstice Festival," Stefanos replied. "And it's a little more than a month away."

"What's to prepare that hasn't been prepared before?" Iphicles waved a hand in dismissal.

"If I may speak honestly, Your Majesty?" Stefanos asked.

Iphicles nodded.

"We all grieve over the Queen's untimely death, but you are King of Corinth," Stefanos slowly explained. "For the sake of your subjects, you must snap out of this."

"Snap out of this?" Iphicles' dark eyes dangerously glinted. "My wife is dead! You presume to tell me to ‘snap out of this' as though I'd just lost a pet dog or favorite horse?"

"Not at all." Stefanos quickly backed away.

"Leave me!" Iphicles shouted. "If you're so worried about the festival, go ask Jason! I'm sure he'd love to point out where I've gone wrong!"

Hercules watched with a sinking heart at Stefanos quickly backed out of the room. "Rena," he murmured. "Gods, I've been so wrapped up in my own pain...I haven't seen his."

"Very good!" Hermes smiled approvingly. He glanced at Iphicles who was quickly downing a large quantity of wine one glass after the other. "Jason and Alcmene came, you know. The festival is all Alcmene's doing. Poor dear has almost exhausted herself." He grinned. "Jason hid the wine."

Hercules guiltily nodded. "Yeah, Jason went through all that himself." He glanced around the room. "Okay, Athena. I get it."

"Good. You've suffered the loss of part of your family, you know. But not all of it." Hermes' voice faded away as the room disappeared around Hercules.

Quickly looking around, he found himself in a dark cave. "Athena!" Hercules shouted. "Hermes!"

"I'm afraid you're stuck with me."

Hercules looked to the right as a figure appeared from the darkness. "Hades?" 'How did Athena pull this off?'

"Come with me," Hades brusquely ordered.

Remembering that this was the time of year Persephone spent with Hades, Hercules understood the need for haste. Hades probably wasn't very happy about being involved in Athena's scheme.

The Lord of the Underwood stopped in front of a small pool of water. "Look," he quietly ordered.

Hesitantly, Hercules stepped closer. The first thing he saw was a flickering campfire. A lone figure sat in the shadows. Curious, he got down on his knees and peered at the wavering images.

"Well, another Winter Solstice without you. Made it through another year."

'Was that his voice? Iolaus' voice?' Hercules looked over his shoulder at Hades. "Who is it?" he demanded.

"I suggest you keep looking," Hades coolly replied.

Despite himself, Hercules looked back into the water. He desperately tried to see if the figure had hair the color of bright sunlight.

The lone figure remained in the shadows. "Well, here's to fighting the good fight." The figure took a deep drink from a wineskin. Hercules watched as the shoulders of the figure slumped in what might be either pain or loneliness...or both.

"That's enough, Hades!" Hercules angrily got to his feet. "No more!"

"I hope you're right. Grieve for what you have lost. But not at the expense of what you have." Hades' voice echoed long after the cave disappeared.

With a jerk, Hercules awoke in his bed in the Corinthian palace. He looked around disoriented and confused. After a few moments, he got to his feet and looked out the window. From the position of the moon, it was close to the middle of the night. The palace seemed quiet.

Running a hand through his hair, Hercules quietly left his room and walked downstairs. He walked into the reception room Iphicles and Rena had set aside for private dinners and receptions. He was surprised to see Iphicles sitting in a chair next to the fire.

"Iph?" Hercules softly called unconsciously using his brother's childhood nickname.

"Can't sleep either, Hercules?" Iphicles smiled knowingly.

"To be honest, I'm not sure," Hercules admitted. He walked closer to the fire. Slowly he reached out and squeezed his brother's shoulder. "I'm sorry I haven't been here."

Iphicles nodded. "Iolaus told us about that family." He stared broodingly into the fire. "I can't even imagine how that was for you."

"Like I was reliving it all over again," Hercules admitted. He restlessly paced the room. "But that doesn't excuse how I've acted."

"Maybe. Maybe not." Iphicles sighed. He gave his brother a sardonic look. "You could have warned me Jason is a hard taskmaster when he sets his mind to it."

Hercules grinned. "I heard he hid the wine," he teased.

"Probably with Mother's help," Iphicles nodded.

"I guess we've all lost a lot," Hercules frowned. "But I know that here and now I'm grateful for the family I have with me."

"So am I," Iphicles nodded. His dark eyes twinkled as Hercules began curiously looking at the wrapped packages.

"What's this?" Hercules frowned. "To Jason from Hercules." He looked over his shoulder. "I didn't bring..." He closed his eyes.

"Then it looks like Iolaus has saved your sorry hide yet again," Iphicles chuckled. He got to his feet and walked to the table. "I couldn't say for certain, but I think he spent all the dinars he had with him. He probably used that well-known charm of his quite a bit, too."

"There are gifts for everyone from me." Hercules shook his head. "But none from Iolaus?"

Iphicles eyed his brother. "I told you. I think he spent all his dinars on these presents."

Hercules silently shook his head. Sometimes he really didn't know what to make of Iolaus. Just when he thought he had him figured out, his partner would do something like this. He shook his head again suddenly aware Iphicles was talking to him.

"You know, you're lucky you have me for a brother." Iphicles was shrugging on his cloak. "I mean who else could safely wake merchants up at this hour?"

"Iphicles! You can't!" Hercules protested. "I'll just change the tags on the presents."

"And spoil Iolaus' Winter Solstice Gift to you?" Iphicles shook his head. "No, I don't think so." He grinned. "Now come on."

------------------------

Hercules grinned as he studied his sleeping partner. Leaning down close to Iolaus' ear, Hercules loudly shouted. "WAKE UP! PRESENT TIME!" Then he laughed as he quickly moved away.

Iolaus half-jumped to his feet his arms flailing to either side of him. "Wha...what?" he groggily looked around. "Herc, don't do that." He flopped back down on the bed. "I don't feel good."

"Too bad." Hercules grinned. He'd seen the flash of clarity in his friend's eyes as well as the sudden looking away. A clear sign Iolaus was shamming. "C'mon. I want to get downstairs early."

"Go ‘way," Iolaus mumbled pulling the blankets over his head.

"Nope," Hercules grinned. "You know you're not sick." He pulled the blankets away. "You've got two minutes to get dressed or I'll dress you." He wickedly grinned at his partner's expression.

"You're awfully happy this morning," Iolaus grumbled getting to his feet.

"Yeah, I am," Hercules happily nodded. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Iolaus quickly smile.

"Look, Herc, I really don't want to go down there," Iolaus muttered. "I spent all my money and didn't have any to get anybody any gifts."

"Who cares?" Hercules shrugged. "You know I don't. And you know Mother doesn't. And if Jason and Iph say anything, I'll take care of it."

Iolaus frowned at Hercules' use of his brother's nickname. Then he shrugged. At least the demi-god was in a good mood. As Hercules practically pulled Iolaus down to the private reception room, Iolaus realized his partner was in more than a good mood. If he didn't know better, he'd swear Hercules had been drinking.

"Okay," Iolaus sighed. "We're down here before anyone else. Happy?"

"Deliriously," Hercules grinned. He walked over to the table where the presents were sitting. "I know I've been a beast the last couple of days. Not to mention biting your head off a couple of times." He looked over his shoulder. "You do know I'm sorry for that? That I'd never ever want to say or do anything to hurt you?"

"Yeah, I know," Iolaus nodded. "I understand."

"I know you do," Hercules nodded. "That's one thing I treasure most about our friendship. That's something I hope to never forget or lose."

"Won't happen." Iolaus quickly turned to start a fire. He hoped Hercules hadn't seen the sudden tears.

"I also know you spent all your dinars on presents and put my name on them," Hercules softly added.

Iolaus froze. 'Damn Iphicles. Couldn't you keep your mouth shut?' "Uh...well...you were preoccupied. I knew you didn't actually forget."

"I forgot a lot of things," Hercules sadly admitted. "Iphicles dragged me out earlier this morning and I got gifts for everyone. I put both our names on all the tags."

"Yeah?" Iolaus looked over his shoulder to see Hercules standing behind him. "Really?"

"Yeah, really," Hercules laughed. He dropped something into Iolaus' hand. "That's yours."

Iolaus stared down at the wrapped gift for a few seconds then sat on the floor in front of the fire.

Hercules was suddenly reminded of the first Winter Solstice gifts the hunter had received from Alcmene and Hercules. Some of the same look of wonder and surprise flitted across his partner's face. Hercules quietly sat close to his friend as Iolaus carefully opened the package.

Iolaus stared at the gift in surprise for a moment then grinned at his friend. "Marbles?" He saw the matching grin on Hercules' face. "Gods, Herc! It's been years! How did you ever remember I had all those marbles?"

"Because I gave you the first one," Hercules softly answered. "And most of the ones you had were the ones you won from me. Remember?"

"Yeah," Iolaus fondly smiled. "The lucky marble." He slightly flushed. "My mother kept it with the stuff I left behind."

Hercules' eyes widened for a moment. "Well, don't get too attached to these," he teased. "I intend to win them from you."

"With what?" Iolaus demanded. "I have all the marbles!" He held them out of Hercules' reach. "Okay, I'll let you have a couple."

"A couple!" Hercules shook his head. Then he grinned even wider as Iolaus began splitting them up.

Hours later when Alcmene walked into the room, she was surprised to see Iolaus and Hercules stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace laughing and giggling over a game of marbles. Jason and Iphicles, however, didn't seem the least surprised.


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