A moonless sky threw its darkened over shroud the kingdom of Corinth. In the King's chamber, sombre tones could be heard, a private meeting to decide the fate of a kingdom, and a king.
"A reliable source told me that someone will try to kill you tonight. This is serious, Iphicles, don't treat this as if it isn't," a tall man in the shadows urged the King.
"Do you know how many times I've heard these sorts of rumours and warnings. This is my world here, little brother, and I think I know how it works far better than you do," the King stated angrily.
The tall man emerged from the shadows, worry and pain evident in his eyes. "In normal circumstances, I'd agree but these aren't normal circumstances. I know who, how, why, when and where. I know all of this and I know that this warning is real." Hercules yelled back at his brother.
Iphicles stiffened at his brothers tone. He was the king here, he was in charge and he'd be damned if he was going to let his little brother take control like he had done every other time in his life. "If you know all this, tell my guards. Let them do their job and stop bothering me!!" he bellowed and turned away.
"Don't you want to know why?" Hercules asked softly as he moved to stand in front of his brother. Iphicles turned away again, shrugging his shoulders. "Another kingdom with plans for expansion and the like. You know the usual palace intrigue."
"No" Hercules corrected as he moved to the window and looked down upon the darkened city.
"Someone trying to hurt you through me, I suppose," Iphicles spat out bitterly.
"No," Hercules corrected again, pain evident upon his face at his brother's response.
At this Iphicles turned to face him. He had held little faith that the first reason could be true, but the second he had truly believed. He had long lost count of how many times innocent people had been hurt or killed because of Hercules. That it wasn't that, surprised him. Now he was really curious.
"Why then?" he demanded.
"His name is Cyrt. He isn't anyone in power or anything. His brother was a soldier in the Letonian army. They both were in fact, and that is how Cyrt knows for a fact that you killed his brother. It doesn't matter to him that it was war, or that you are a King. He wants justice, revenge, maybe just peace in his own heart, and he has come to the conclusion that only your death will give him that. If he fails or is stopped, he'll just try again until either he succeeds or he dies trying. It is as simple as that," Hercules finished, watching his brother carefully.
"The guards will stop him," Iphicles offered as he watched his brother grow angrier with every word he said.
"You don't understand, do you?" Hercules exploded. "I thought you of all people, could understand but you don't want to. His brother was his life and now he's lost everything. He has nothing more to lose. You may waylay him, but you won't stop him." Pain was evident behind the anger in Hercules' voice and for a moment, Iphicles understood his bother's empathy for the man. Hercules was right, he should understand. Both of them should. They had both been there and both of them had lost their way when the pain was too strong, yet part of him was still fighting against his brother.
"So I'll face him now, what's it to you?" Iphicles demanded.
"You're my brother, that's what it is to me!" Hercules yelled.
"Yes, I'm your brother, not some helpless villager waiting for the great Hercules to help them. I am the King of Corinth. I can look after myself, I don't need your help," he pointed out cruelly.
"I never said that you were helpless. I never said anything remotely like that. I came here to warn you," Herc replied gently.
"And I thank you for that," Iphicles interrupted remotely.
"And I came to help you," Hercules finished.
"Just how was the great Hercules, son of Zeus, going to do that when you just finished telling me how dangerous it all was?" Iphicles asked sarcastically.
"I was going to take your place," he replied softly.
"And what?" Iphicles laughed, "Let him attack you!"
Hercules nodded mutely, his eyes downcast.
Iphicles looked at him stunned. This wasn't really what he had planned. The great Hercules fought monsters, defeated warlords and angered gods. He did not sacrifice himself for lowly mortals especially his brother, and yet here he was, right in front of him, offering just that. There was no doubting his sincerity, and Iphicles felt humbled by his offer.
"No," he replied gently. "Thank you, but no."
"Why?" Hercules demanded.
"Because the world needs you more than it needs me. If this must end in blood, then better mine than yours. You are a hero. You help everyone, you fight their demons, their monsters, give them their freedom and make their lives better. People need that. You are the son of Zeus, if you ever die it will be with glory. It will be against a great enemy with honour dripping from it. I am just a king, easily replaced, easily forgotten. Nothing spectacular, nothing out of the ordinary. I won't be missed."
In that instant, Hercules saw Iphicles as he saw himself, and tears filled his eyes in sympathy and regret. "You are wrong. You do more good that I ever can. I have taken the easy route, no ties, no commitments. Your people turn to you to protect them, to lead them, to rule them. You do all of that very well. You are a good king. I couldn't do it, I couldn't give that much of myself. You, my brother, would be mourned far beyond me, believe that."
"But you are a hero. Everyone needs heroes," Iphicles cried out passionately.
"That's the thing about heroes. The may be needed but they are always more expendable, because people are always prepared for their loss. They are only a momentary part of people's lives and then they are gone, moved on. But normal people, their loss shakes people to the heart of their being, because they are so much a part of their lives. Their loss is always unexpected and deeply mourned. You say this world needs me, and maybe that's true, but the people of Corinth need you and your loss will be much harder for people to bare. We are brothers, and yet in many ways, we're strangers. We share a mother, yet my differences have destroyed our lives. I sometimes wonder if I'm actually some sort of divine punishment that brings pain into the lives of those I hold dear. This time I won't. I know you won't actually believe this, but I have always loved you Iphicles, and I'M glad that you are my brother. Rule well and be happy," he said and with tears of regret falling from his eyes, Hercules hit his brother hard enough to knock him out and moved to him a corner where he would be safe.
He looked around the King's chamber, noticing the quiet changes his brother had brought in and knew with perfect clarity that he was doing the right thing.
Greece needed good rulers more than heroes now, and Iphicles was a good king. He silently said his goodbyes to all his family and friends as he laid down in the King's bed and waited.
Iphicles woke with a start, his head pounding and his body cramped. The first rays of dawn were peaking through the windows, and he realised what had happened.
Damn Hercules, still acting the hero, this was not his place. Iphicles was the king here and a good king at that. He could deal with his own problems, he didn't need to be saved by his little brother. That was Hercules though, always undermining Iphicles' self-confidence, always taking over.
He rose and headed towards his bed, anger still pounding in his head. He reached out to wake his ‘heroic' brother when he noticed a strange smell in the room. It was familiar yet out of place here. "Blood" he whispered and his anger drained away instantly.
As he glanced around the room, he saw a body laying on the balcony. The killer had come, attacked and taken his own life. Hercules had been right.
He turned once more to the bed and realised the figure beneath the covers was not moving.
Pain and loss threatened to overcome him. "What have I done?" he whispered. He stood, realising the implications. His brother, his only real family left, had died to save him, and he had left him only with words of anger and hate. Part of him rebelled, he only did it to be a hero but Iphicles could not lie to himself about this. No one but him would ever know what really happened here. There was no glory to be gained from this, only a life to be lost.
He realised something else now, something he never contemplated before. Maybe Hercules wasn't so confident or as together as he had always thought. Maybe Hercules did this because it was easier to lose his life than to lose another person he loved. Maybe Hercules didn't mean to always show him up, he might just have been trying to look after him the only way he knew how. Maybe his mother had been right all along, Hercules really did love him. Now all this knowledge was too late.
Iphicles pulled back the covers, part of him expecting to see anything but his brother. Part of him even now believing that his demigod brother would have found a way out of this. But as he saw the tousled chestnut hair, he knew that he hadn't this time.
Iphicles noticed the blood that was soaked through the back of his bother's shirt and the sheet around him, this was real. Iphicles had to laugh at the irony, how many times in his life hadn't he wished his brother dead and now, the pain of this loss was almost paralysing. His little brother was gone and he was alone. Hercules had given his life to save him and Iphicles never said he loved him. Too long he let is anger and pain control him and now it was too late.
He gathered his brother's body in his arms and rocked him gently as he had when Hercules was a baby. He said all the things he had meant to say to him before. Crying his tears of loss and regret, all too aware that it was far too late to matter anymore.
Iphicles sat there rocking his brother's body and crying for awhile before he noticed a soft familiar voice calling to him. At first he thought that it was his imagination but he finally realised that it was real.
He pulled his brother's body back and was rewarded with two pain filled corn blue eyes gazing up at him.
"Hi," Hercules whispered before he lost consciousness again.
Hope exploded within Iphicles. He needed a healer, and quickly, Iphicles debated leaving his brother to fetch one, he realised how faint Herc's pulse was, and knew that he couldn't leave him. Instead he yelled out for help, and in a few seconds was greeted by four guards bursting into the room.
"Fetch the healer," he ordered one, while ordering another to fetch Jason and Iolaus. The other two went to deal with the body on the balcony. He held on tightly to his brother, willing him to live.
Jason and Iolaus arrived first, much to Iphicles' dismay. The shock on their faces at any other time would have been comical. They tried to take Hercules away from him, but he wouldn't give him up. This was between Hercules and him, they had to see it through together, regardless of how it ended.
The healer arrived moments later and ushered everyone but Iphicles and Hercules from the room. As he treated Hercules' wounds, he kept talking to Iphicles. Telling him what the situation was, there were ten stab wounds in his back and he had lost an alarming amount of blood. The healer suspected that there had been poison on the dagger as well. He had cleaned the wounds as best that he could, putting a poultice on them to draw out the poison before he dressed them. Now all they could do was wait.
For four days, Iphicles sat by his brother's side, waiting, talking to him, yelling at him, crying for him, still he wouldn't wake up. Finally he had no choice, the kingdom's business had to be attended to, so he left Hercules' side.
He had his hand on the door, waiting for a moment in hope that his brother would wake up and call to him again, but there was no voice calling to him, only the leaves rustling outside the window. His brother had let him down once again. He opened the door and left without a backward glance.
A week had pasted since his brother had first come bearing a warning. In a week his life had been turned upside down and inside out, but no one could see this change, he made certain of that.
He threw himself into his work, letting it fill most of his waking hours. The remaining time he spent with his guests. As news of Hercules' precarious situation became known, friends of his brother had come to support him.
Iphicles had to admit that they had surprised him in two ways. Firstly he had expected alot more people, but Hercules had been right, maybe heroes weren't mourned like he thought they were. Secondly, he was surprised by the friends his brother had, he had always known how normal Iolaus was, but part of him always believed that this was an exception not the rule. Yet these people, none of them were born exceptional, no great physical strength or other such gifts, they were just ordinary people who he had helped, whose side he fought along, and who he believed in. Iphicles was beginning to believe that he never knew his brother at all, and maybe he had been worth knowing.
Iphicles was in his chamber, answering his correspondence when there was a knock on the door. As with every knock now, his body tensed, and hope and fear fought for dominance of his emotions, as Iolaus appeared, he realised that there was no news, and he tried to hide his disappointment. He motioned for Iolaus to come in and moved from the desk to sit in the comfortable chairs near the window.
"Iphicles," Iolaus started, "Hercules asked me to talk to you, to give you a message if anything ever happened to him. The healer doesn't have much hope now and ...." he trailed off meaningfully.
Iphicles nodded his understanding. "Go on," he urged and Iolaus rose and began pacing around the room.
"Hercules, when I first met him, rarely spoke about his family. For a while I almost believed that he was an orphan, well on his mortal side anyway. Eventually I met his mother and he started talking about her more. Anyway, one day we were out hunting and he was talking freely, an unusual thing for him. So I asked him why he didn't talk about his family like everyone else. He said he didn't talk about his family because he didn't want to remind the gods they were there, and that way they would leave them alone. It was a belief he had held since the first really bad thing had happened as a child. I guess I made a comment about how hard it must have been for the two of them alone. That's when he first told me about you. I wonder if you ever realised how much pain and guilt he carried with him because of your loss. You were the first person he lost because of his father. The way he talked about you, well it was easy to hear how much he looked up to you, how much he wanted to be like you, and how much he loved you."
Iphicles looked up in shock. "No!" he whispered, "I disappointed him all my life."
Iolaus smiled a bittersweet smile. "You never disappointed him, you never could as long as you were yourself. I didn't think you ever realised that, but it was true. True then, true now. See there was something about Herc that you never understood. He truly believes that he needs to protect those he loves because he's normally the reason they are in danger to begin with. He was always so proud of you, and I think a bit envious. The thing is, he asked me to tell you how much he loved you and how proud he always was to call you his brother." Iolaus' voice broke on the last word and the tears he had fought to control, broke free.
For one moment, Iphicles looked awkwardly at his bother's best friend, then moved to comfort him and in turn be comforted by him, united by one man.
Almost all the court was in bed asleep, but one room was awash with candlelight and alive with conversation. In this room gathered all those who were here for Hercules. Jason, Iolaus, Autolycus, Salmons, Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer and Iphicles. They sat around trading humourless stories about Hercules.
It was Joxer's turn and for the first time that night, he did not exaggerate his place in it. Instead he told the bittersweet tale of Serena as Hercules had told him one cold sad night long ago.
Even Gabrielle was impressed and touched by his tale of love and loss, as he finished, Iolaus added the next part, how Hercules had given up his life with her so that she could have a life. All the laughter was gone and everyone sat silently remembering the man, not the hero but their brother, their friend.
They were all too caught up in their own thoughts to hear the quiet footsteps that entered the room, most of them missed the soft "Hey" that followed.
Iolaus and Iphicles didn't and were rewarded with a smile so bright that it put the sun to shame.
"Hercules!" they said in unison, rising instantly to embrace him. The loud clattering of knocked over chairs brought the others out of their revelry and soon a party loud enough to wake the castle gained life.
The next few days, as Hercules regained his strength and healed, were spent in the company of these friends and family. All of them healing wounds that could not be seen.
All too soon, it came time to leave. Iphicles was, for the first time in his life, truly sad to see his brother go.
He had gotten to honestly know his brother and vice versa. Neither was the person the other had thought them to be and for the first time, Iphicles could not feel Hercules' shadow holding him down.
They were both good men in their own right but now they knew it. Finally they had a chance to really be brothers.