When he woke up he felt disoriented for a moment and unable to tell what exactly had disturbed him.
Then he heard the nearly inaudible sniffles. As soft hiccupping swallow, the sound of somebody rubbing their face with some kind of cloth.
Someone was crying.
In his room.
He had gone to sleep alone, he was certain of that, and locked door and window. And still there was that soft sound of anguish. Whoever his guest was, he wasn't human, that much he was certain of, and also that his guest was not a danger to him. He simply knew. In the same way he knew that his own name was Hercules, that his best friend was Iolaus and that the love for his dead family still burned in his chest. He knew that, whoever his guest was, they were in need of a shoulder to cry on, not in search of a fight.
Carefully he got out of bed and walked over to the fireplace, stoking the softly glowing embers so that he at least might see his visitor.
"Pu' tha' ou'" came the prompt reaction, in a child's voice, stuffy from crying and a bit petulant, a little boy. The sound came from the rather comfortable chair beneath the window.
"I just wanted to see who's visiting me. You know it's not polite to get into other people's rooms when they sleep. Don't you?" The slightly fatherly tone still came to him automatically. He supposed it wasn't something he'd ever unlearn.
"We're fam'ly. Don' matter if'm `mpolite. N'body is to me ei'er."
"You're a god."
"An' you're half a one. Don' matter ei'er."
Stepping closer to the window, Hercules was finally able to make out the boy's features. He seemed to be about six years old. Wild dark hair stuck up in odd angles from his head, curling in places. The boy's face was pale, like moonlight, and his eyes, big and likely blue, reflected the flames. Hercules was pretty certain he'd never seen the child, but there was something familiar about him. Perhaps he was related to someone he knew?
"What are you doing here?" he finally asked, still uncertain what to expect.
"Cryin'. Ain't it obvious?" The boy rubbed the sleeve of his shirt over his face, smearing tears and other substances over it.
"Yes, I can see that. But why are you doing that here? Where are your parents?"
"'m safe here. You wouldn't hur' me. Me mom would if she saw me. M' uncle too."
"Why would your mum hurt you?"
"'m not supposed to cry. `m supposed to be grown up already. She don't know I still ain't. She'd kill me if she knew."
Hercules supposed this might be a good reason to be hiding in his room. But which mother would hurt her child? Especially one so young? The boy had said he was supposed to be grown up, so likely he appeared that way to the other gods. Maybe they believed he had done as Apollo. The fact, however, was that he had a child god in his room, whom nobody knew was still a child. And this child was crying for still unknown reasons and apparently felt safe enough to do so in his company, but not his family's. He had always known the gods weren't all that great but he had thought that at least they treated their kids well.
"Why have you come to me? You know I don't like gods."
"Don' matter. I'll die tomorrow anyway, so you've got no reason to hurt me."
"But who…why…how… WHAT???" There was a terrible feeling pooling in the pit of his stomach and it suddenly felt like a heavy rock had fallen on his chest.
"Calisto. To pro'e her poin'. With a hindsblood-coa'ed dagger."
"How can you speak about that so casually? Why don't you try to escape your fate?"
"M' fate is written alr'dy. Cannae change it. Ain't being casual bout it. Am crying ain't I?"
"Listen… What's your name anyway?"
"Don' have one. Nob'dy ever bother givin' me one."
Who was this child? His mother was willing to kill him. His uncle wanted to hurt him. Nobody had been caring enough to give him a name. Then it slowly dawned on him. He had seen the child's features already, on an adult face. He knew someone whose mother was a bitch and whose uncle liked to throw fireballs at him. Someone whom he'd beat up too, on occasion. Someone whose name he'd never known. Only ever his occupation. Strife.
"No need. You didn't know. Weren't supposed to."
"But I should have…"
"Couldn't." The little one was firm about it. "Could hug me though."
Hercules did. It was the least he could do. He felt the little god bury his face in his chest, starting to cry again. Silently, like any unwanted child learns to do.
In the morning Strife was gone. And when the earth started to shake that very same day, Hercules knew what had happened.
It took them a few days to reach the temple, the place where Strife had died.
But his body was still there. Looking for all the world as if he was merely lying there, perhaps after having been rudely shoved, with an expression of surprise still on his face. For all his knowing what would come, Strife, the child, hadn't believed that death would take him.
Hercules felt terrible. The young god of chaos would be terribly missed. Already silence had fallen over the villages they had passed. While Strife had been doing terrible things when on Ares's orders, he had also been a god of children and childish mischief, of small haggling, of teasing. And this the world had lost and with it a lot of laughter and happiness. How empty it now was.
Carefully Hercules kneeled down, bowing over the dead god to close his eyes. And under his touch the adult features melted away, making place for the little boy who had cried in his arms. Distantly he heard Iolaus gasp, but didn't turn to him. Instead he picked up the child, his heart aching when he felt how light the body was and how breakable. That nobody, not even him, had cared to see, to know…
A wronged god lay in his arms. And the world was paying the price. In time the balance would be restored, he knew. Another god would take over. But it wouldn't be this one. And who knew what fate awaited a nameless child in the underworld. Even a godly one.
"Don't worry Hercules. He is safe with me. Safer than he ever was." Hades had appeared. Silently like a shadow, sorrow shining from his eyes. "I'll take care of him until it is his turn to be reborn. His next life will be kinder to him. I assure you of that."
"So he won't return as the god of mischief? Nobody petitioned for him?"
"Even if they did, unless Strife himself wished to return I would not permit it. The child has cried enough. The Elysian Fields have welcomed him. See?" Hades held in his hand what seemed like a window, a small round ball with an image of the fields. And there was Strife, playing like any child. Happy.
"Thank you, Hades. I'm glad you showed this to me. But now, you'll have to excuse me. If nothing else, he'll get a decent burial at least."
Hades merely smiled, already fading away.
Hercules looked down at the child in his arms. The once so expressive face now unmoving, the shining mischievous eyes closed forever. He had buried his wife and his children. He had buried friends and strangers. Now he'd bury his nephew.