Hercules stood at the edge of the cliff, tears streaming unnoticed down his face. His posture was stiff and yet it was clear that he was a broken man in spirit and mind. He had stood there for hours, watching the waves crashing against the rocks. He did not move, he had no where to go and no one was waiting for him anymore, not even Autolycus, his thoughts reminded him. He had come here after Autolycus's funeral, now all his family and friends had crossed over to the Elysian Fields and they were all far beyond his reach. He was alone.
"Not completely," a stray thought called to him. "There is still someone who wants you." and his mind recalled the most shattering day of his life, one whose pain he still carried with him.
Hercules had gone to Amphipolis for the funeral of Xena. She had been killed in an earthquake, he could not help but reflect on the cruel nature of the fates. She still had so much of her life before her, and in one instant, she was gone. Gabrielle was devastated, she blamed Ares for her loss though Hercules was certain that it was only one of life's ironies, a warrior killed in her sleep. It was a tragedy yes, but not Ares's handiwork.
He had gone alone, with the recent deaths of Jason and Joxer's murder at the hands of an assassin, Iphicles and Iolaus were caught up in a complicated game of negotiations and diplomatic strategy that they were unable to come with him. He had traveled there with such a heavy heart. The news had shattered another part of his poorly cracked heart, so many deaths so quickly, they would be badly missed.
He arrived in Amphipolis and rushed to Gabrielle's side. She was in such pain at the loss of her friend and lover. He had tried to comfort her but she was too full of anger and loss. They had burned her as befitting a warrior. In his heart, Hercules wanted to return to Corinth immediately to the safety of her friend and brother, but he stayed to help them recover from the damaged that the earthquake caused and to help ease Gabrielle's pain. He did as much as he could before he left, fear for Gabrielle utmost in his mind.
With a heavy heart he headed back to Corinth quickly, needing familiar faces to thaw the chill that was beginning to form there.
As he reached the outskirts of the city he noticed that a strange silence filled the air and the stench of rotting flesh filled his nose. He looked around and noticed not only the absence of people but the disarray of the houses. He quietly entered one of the houses, fear beginning to know at him. There were only dead bodies inside, ravaged by illness, their corpses were almost skeletal, pox-like marks all over their skin and faces frozen in agonizing pain. Shock froze the mighty son of Zeus as his brain forced the thoughts this sight created onwards and his heart refused to believe it.
As his heart finally accepted the reality, his legs began to move once more and he ran towards Corinth and the two most important people in his life
He could see the smoke rising from Corinth in the distance and he pushed himself faster and harder. There were a few people on the streets, burning corpses on funeral pyres. He stood transfixed as he watched them lift the dead bodies of man, women and even children on the blazing fires. "No," his mind screamed silently as he saw friends going to their eternal rest.
He forced himself to move and began a dreadful journey into the palace he sometimes called home. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder and for a moment gave in to it's offered comfort. He turned to thank whoever it was and found himself face to face with his hated half brother, Ares.
"Did you do this?" he barked, knowing already that this wasn't the God of War's work.
"No, no more than Xena's death was my fault." Ares responded gently.
"Then Who? Who did this?" the demigod demanded.
"It was a stranger from a far off land. He brought this illness and quickly succumbed to it. It spread so quickly, not even the gods could help, but we tried, for you we tried." the God of War explained sincerely.
"Everyone?' Herc whispered.
"No" Ares answered knowing it was a truthful answer to both questions the demigod was asking.
"Discord did not help and all of her followers have survived." Ares elaborated.
"She had the cure?" Hercules asked softly.
Ares could only nod as Hercules moved past him and looked into the flames that now wiped out the last of the illness. He looked around at this place that held so many memories for him, both good and bad, and realized that it was all gone. All that remained were diseased corpses and funeral fires. Nothing was left untouched and no one was left to rebuild it with him.
"Why?" Hercules pleaded.
"Revenge" Ares stated flatly.
"For who, me or Iolaus?" Hercules begged, wondering how he could carry on with this on his conscience.
"Both" Ares answered, "And me."
Hercules turned around, confusion and grief fighting for domination of his chiseled features. "Why?'
"You have caused her trouble and embarrassment, she never forgave Iolaus the chicken incident." Ares began.
"No why YOU!" the demigod yelled.
Ares looked at him, regret clear in his face. "She was trying to cause trouble for me, turning warlords against me and the like. I warned her to stop or she'd suffer for it, she didn't listen and so I killed one of her warlords, I didn't realize that she loved him. She swore she'd avenge his death by destroying the person I loved, just as I had done to her."
"Iolaus or Iphicles?" Hercules asked sympathetically.
"Neither," Ares roared loudly, forcing Hercules to move back in surprise. "You still can't see the truth, even when it's right in front of your face. I love you Hercules, always you."
"But?" Herc began.
"But you're here, alive?" Ares finished for him, gently caressing his face. "I know, she was out to destroy you my love, taking your life would never have achieved that, by the gods how long did it take me to figure that out, too long. No, to destroy you, death has never been an option, well not your death, when I realized what she was going to do, I tried to stop her but it was too late. I'm so sorry, I couldn't save them."
"No" Hercules sobbed, and rushed into the palace. The sight and smell stopped him in his tracks. Ares moved behind him and wrapped his arm around his beloved's shocked body.
Hercules moved on, unaware of Ares, his mind focused on finding his two brothers, one of blood and one of the soul. They were not with the dead that lined the hallways or that laid on the throne room floor. In fact, he couldn't find them anywhere.
"Where are they?" he begged Ares.
Ares pulled him gently towards their chambers, and Hercules felt his heart grow cold in fear and grief.
He noticed that the hallways here were empty and the smell of rotting flesh and sickness was absent.
He turned to ask Ares why but realized that they were there and all the others thoughts left his mind. He pushed the door open and silently moved towards their bed chambers. The door was open and he saw them laying there in each other's embrace, they looked as if they were merely napping not trapped in eternal slumber. They looked so peaceful, no sign of illness anywhere.
"Discord would not have let them live, even if they had survived the illness." Ares stated. "All the gods realized that, so they were spared the pain, Hades took them in their sleep. They are together in the Elysian Fields. We thought you needed to see this with your own eyes, that's why their bodies are still here." Ares offered to ease Hercules' pain.
"Thank you" he stated flatly. "I'll take care of it, let them leave this world together, far away from all this, this ..." he gestured to the dead city around them.
Ares looked at him gently, and with a wave of his hand, the two bodies were gone. "They're waiting for you on the otherside, their bodies are already gone." Ares stated though Hercules did not seem to notice, he was lost in a world of pain so deep, it could not heal.
Ares stood there, watching the mighty son of Zeus die right in front of his eyes but unable to do anything to stop it. As his pain turned to rage, Discord decided to make an appearance. Her chicken laugh echoing in the empty castle.
The God of War turned, ready to beat the shit out of the bitch, when he realized that she was flying across the room already and not of her own accord.
As he heard the thud of her head colliding with the thick stone wall, he realized that Hercules had hit her and was heading towards her, in his eyes was a determination to make her suffer as much as he was. His rage, for the first time in his life, was controlling him.
Ares stood back and watched in admiration as the demigod unleashed the full potential of his strength on Discord.
Hercules did not pause or hesitate, releasing years of suppressed anger and grief on the pitiful creature before him. Finally Discord laid slumped against a column, unconscious and badly beaten. Her blood visible all over the room. The murderous gleam in the demigod's eyes was still clearly visible. "Zeus!" he screamed like a man whose grip on sanity had finally gone. "You owe me this!!"
Ares stood frozen, his mind unable to believe the scene unfolding before his very eyes. Hercules, champion of the people and righteousness, was about to kill in cold blood, for revenge no less. Zeus would never allow a god's life to be taken this way or his prized offspring commit such an act, or would he?
"Discord will be killed!" Zeus's voice bellowed, breaking the eerie atmosphere that had settles, as his words rang out a quiet so thick it was almost solid encompassed the room.
Hercules began to slowly move towards the fallen body and as Ares watched the pain in his eyes, he knew that he could not live with himself if he let the demigod strike the fatal blow. It would mean one more victim to Discord and one more body to burn.
This was all Ares's faulty. He had never felt guilt or remorse before, but Athena had forced him to, they were humbling emotions for the God of War.
He knew that if he hadn't flaunted Hercules in front of Discord, this would never have happened, yet he had. The ultimate joke being that when he had first started doing this, he had only chosen Hercules because he knew it would annoy Discord the most. That he desired this do-gooder over her would drive her crazy, but as he had watched Hercules to keep up the pretense, he found himself honestly falling for the demigod, until all the pretense was gone.
He had not realized exactly what Discord was capable of, how manipulative she could really be. Even when Athena told all the gods what was happening in Corinth, he had thought that she was on his side. He could never tell Hercules that they had actually found a cure relatively quickly, but one vital ingredient was missing, and seemed to have disappeared completely. As he concentrated on this mystery and began to piece together what was going on, Athena forced him to feel the consequences of his actions. He had been as powerless as the other gods to stop the deaths and had as Aphrodite had faced Iolaus and Iphicles, offering them a quick and painless death for Hercules' sake. He had actually shed a tear as they agreed on one condition, that all the gods swore to watch over Hercules and keep him safe. As he watched them die, Athena made him understand what this would do to his Hercules, and for the first time Ares felt true remorse for his actions.
He had stood there thinking, watching over the two bodies in their peaceful repose when Discord had arrived to watch them die. She lashed out at everyone and everything when she realized that the other gods had thwarted her plans of revenge. She had sworn it wasn't over, and now she was back.
Only Ares could save Hercules from his greatest enemy, his own rage, and he would gladly do it. He realized that Zeus had known and understood, and that was why he had phrased his words so ambiguously.
Hercules was only a few metres from Discord. His powerful muscles flexing with anticipation of the violence he was about to unleash. Just as his fingers grabbed her arm, a lightning bolt of pure energy hit them, sending Hercules flying to the other side of the hall, while Discord screamed in agony as her body was turned back into energy particles and then disappeared.
Discord was dead, Hercules was saved, everything was right, or so Ares tried to tell himself. He moved towards the crumpled body of his....? What were they now, Ares stopped to think. Brothers, yes. Enemies, on occasion. Friends, in a perverse sort of way. Lovers, maybe in the future, but for now he was his protector.
He looked at Hercules, son of Zeus and world's strongest man, as he laid on the floor curled up like a child, his body shaking with his pain. It was clear to Ares that the madness had past and the grief had begun.
Gently he pulled the fallen hero into his arms, rocking him like a child, murmuring comforting words.
Athena appeared. "I have come to take him, to help him heal" she stated possessively. Ares could only nod an acknowledgment as his heart broke silently.
He leant down and whispered into Hercules' ear his parting words. "I do love you and when you are ready I will take you to Olympus with me, but not now. When the world has turned cold and there is no more warmth to be found for you here, call my name and we will find life again in one another." With those words Ares disappeared and Hercules had not seen him since.
There were times when Hercules thought that he could sense the God of War nearby but he had never actually seen him, not once. Not when Athena nursed him back to health or when Aphrodite healed his tattered heart. Not on his travels as he continued his journey's alone and not now as he buried the last of his family and friends.
Now when the world felt so cold to his heart, there was no one whose friendship or love could warm it again. He was alone. It was time.
"Ares," he called, "I'm ready."
"I know," a voice behind him replied. "I've been waiting."
"I thought so."
Ares moved to Hercules' side and pulled him into his arms. He kissed him deeply, releasing their long suppressed desire and sharing the burdens of loneliness, fear and grief. This kiss should have shattered the world with its intensity, instead it restored two shattered souls, joining them beyond their mere bodies.
"I need a new assistant," Ares offered.
"Any perks?" Hercules joked as he held Ares hand tightly.
"Eternal life, unlimited power and oh, me!" Ares responded offhandedly.
"The first two make up for the third I guess." Hercules replied with a laugh.
Ares ignored the joke and pulled him closer. He gave Hercules a moment to say farewell to this mortal world and the life he left behind.
"Never leave me," Hercules begged in a whisper as they prepared to go.
"Never my love, never," Ares promised quietly.
With a flash they were gone and with them an age of heroes and magic that would only find life as myth and legends, yet there was always the hope that if people believed once more, they would see what was always around them and life for the gods would start once more.