At least the dungeons were clean. If he had to throw his brother into a dungeon, at least he could take comfort knowing that the place was clean and comfortable. Not that Hercules was sleeping well, from what the jailers had told him. Something else to feel guilty about. He had to rely on reports from the guards to find out how his brother was. But he couldn't stand the idea of seeing Hercules locked up, caged like a common criminal. And he couldn't take the chance that his brother might see his pain, guess his plans. So this was his first and last visit to the dungeons since Hercules had taken up residence. It was going to be harder than he had thought. Iphicles sighed, clenching his fists against the stabbing heartache as he walked down the narrow staircase to the waiting cell.
There was just so much to be done. So many refugees, so few resources. The ragged streams of people fleeing the smoking ruins of Amphipolis, Potadeia and the surrounding countryside had overrun Corinth. Sometimes it seemed like half of Greece was trying to escape to other countries, running from the wrath of gods gone mad. Word still hadn't spread about how Poseidon had destroyed the harbor, sunk most of the fleet and boats in the area. So the refugees came, hoping to escape by water, and then they stayed, helping to build primitive docks for the few remaining ships in exchange for passage to any place far from Greece.
Things could be worse, he supposed. There weren't any food riots, unlike Sparta and Thrace. The city was still standing, which was more than could be said for many. Thanks to Jason and his students, plus the remains of the men from the Corinthian Navy, the streets were relatively quiet. Crime and violence were definitely up, but compared to other cities, they were doing well. That would probably change soon, Iphicles thought, if his plan worked.
Once he reached the bottom of the stairs, Iphicles paused as he tried to collect himself. He wouldn't let Hercules see how tired he was, how he felt ripped to shreds, torn and bleeding. This was going to be hard enough on his brother without him having to deal with reflected pain. It was up to him to be the strong one, to shield Hercules. For once, he was going to do the right thing, and he wasn't going to let his brother stop him.
Hercules was in his cell, sitting on the plain but clean cot and amiably chatting with the young guard, who looked relaxed and comfortable. It wasn't surprising, since the guards all liked the demigod. He had turned himself in and given his word that he wouldn't try to escape, which made him a favorite among jailers who were used to being cursed and attacked. They had even offered to leave his cell door unlocked and let him get some exercise, but he had refused, saying it would set a bad precedent.
The guard snapped to attention when he heard Iphicles' footsteps, the smile fading from his face as he turned to face his king. Iphicles ignored him, instead directing his comments to his brother.
Hercules shrugged. "It's fine. This is a pretty nice dungeon you have here."
"You'd know, you've been thrown in enough." Iphicles poor joke fell flat and died. He just couldn't muster a sense of humor, not now. Not when he wanted to scream and pound his fists into the wall.
"Is it time?" Hercules rose from the rough cot he had been sitting on, stretching his arms over his head.
"Not yet." Iphicles tried to smile at the puzzled look on his brother's face. "I just thought you should spend your last night in a decent bed." Both of Hercules' eyebrows shot up as his face turned red. Iphicles tried not to laugh at his brother's flustered expression. "I meant you should have a good meal, that sort of thing." He raised one eyebrow suggestively. "And anything else you might want, we can see about."
"Thank you," Hercules said, after a long pause, his gaze darting between Iphicles and the floor, cheeks still flushed.
At a nod from Iphicles, the guard unlocked the door, hesitantly reaching out to clasp Hercules' hand in his own. The demigod returned the grip, grinning at the younger man.
"It's been nice talking to you, Calamis. I hope your daughter feels better soon."
Calamis smiled in return, and Iphicles was again astounded at how Hercules was able to make so many friends so quickly. It was a gift, one that wasn't doing him a damn bit of good right now. Where were all of his friends, all the people he'd helped and rescued over the years? Why weren't they here, threatening to tear down the castle to free him? Were they part of the mob outside, the ones already fighting for good vantage points to watch the sacrifice? Worthless cowards.
Hercules followed Iphicles quietly to the king's private quarters. It felt strange, awkward. Iphicles had no idea what he should say, how he should act. It wasn't every day he prepared to hand his brother over to be sacrificed to the gods. He watched as Hercules crossed the room and looked out the window, staring at the dense fog rolling off the sea, breathing the cool, salty air.
"How's the harbor doing?" Hercules continued to stare outside, into the darkness, trying to see something or someone.
"Better. We've got some makeshift docks put up, enough to load and unload ships, as long as the cargo isn't too heavy. They won't last long if the weather turns bad, though. Hope we'll get them replaced before then."
"Any news from...anywhere?"
"Nothing much. You heard Athena leveled Amphipolis and Potadeia."
"No one knows what happened to Ares after Xena died. I've heard rumors that he killed himself over her, but I don't buy it."
"Neither do I." A long pause. "I'm sorry."
Iphicles shrugged in response. "You did what you thought was right."
"And now everyone has to pay."
There didn't seem to be a good response to that. Iphicles walked over to a table and pulled out a chair. "Sit. I had some food brought up for you."
"Thanks." Hercules stared out the window for a few moments more before sitting down across from his brother. "Last meal for the condemned man?" His voice held a slightly bitter edge, and Iphicles winced at the tone as well as the words. "Sorry."
"Would you quit apologizing? Eat something, dammit." Iphicles gestured irritably at his brother.
Hercules picked at the roast chicken, nibbled on some bread and cheese, drank most of a glass of wine. He seemed to be eating more out of a sense of duty than hunger.
"You gonna have anything?"
"I ate already," Iphicles lied, unwilling to confess to the cramps and nausea that had been plaguing him all day. The tension and guilt gnawed at him, leaving him hollow and raw. He hadn't eaten in at least two days. Nights he spent tossing on a bed that felt all too cold and empty, while his days were filled with the dazed and stunned stares of refugees. People who were condemned to death, thanks to him and his brother. For once they had something in common.
Even the condemned deserved a chance at comfort. A last meal, warmth, companionship, a final touch. But not all of them were granted this chance.
The plate was still half-full when Hercules pushed it away. "Guess I don't have much of an appetite." He tried to smile, but it was a weak imitation.
"No big deal." Another lie. Food was growing scarce. A few ships still arrived with cargo, but only a fraction of the usual trade continued. The treasury was dangerously close to empty, the economy going to Tartarus in a reed basket. Soon they'd have to start rationing, imposing martial law. It would turn ugly, without question.
Pushing his chair back, Hercules stood and settled in front of the fire, arms resting loosely on his knees. He looked relaxed, but the tendons in his neck stood out, the set of his jaw betraying the inner turmoil held in check.
"It's not your fault." Iphicles sat behind his brother, reaching out to try and massage the tension from his neck and shoulders. Hercules began to relax under his touch, leaning back until he rested against Iphicles' chest. Iphicles wrapped his arms around his brother, holding him close, lips brushing against Hercules' neck, nuzzling at his ear, until Hercules roughly shook his head.
"I'm the one who... killed Zeus." Hercules' voice was quiet and low, but still trembled slightly. The tension returned to his body and he pulled away from Iphicles, who tightened his grip and firmly pulled him back.
"You didn't know what would happen."
"No." He chuckled humorlessly. "I didn't even really believe Hera when she told me it would kill him. I just assumed it was one of her games. It never occurred to me...." He took a few deep breaths. "I spent most of my life trying to get close to my father. I never imagined I'd kill him."
Iphicles pulled his brother closer, whispering in his ear. "You did what you had to do."
"I could've let him kill the baby."
"No, you couldn't. It's not in your nature. You couldn't stand by and let him kill someone who was innocent." He began caressing Hercules' chest, trying to keep the pain at bay. But his brother still trembled, his gaze locked deep inside himself.
"There had to have been another way."
"You didn't have time to think of one." The silence was broken only by the popping of the fire, the sighs of the wind. "You did the right thing."
"Did I?" The hollow note in Hercules' voice was sharp as a knife.
"Yeah, you did." Iphicles punctuated the comment with a slow kiss to Hercules' cheek. Hercules turned his head, returning the kiss slowly and languidly, gazing into his brother's eyes.
"Then why doesn't it feel like it? Why is everyone paying for what I did?" He whispered the words, still not understanding, still confused.
"It's not always easy to do the right thing." Sometimes it tore your heart out, made you want to howl and scream. It wasn't always easy, but it had to be done. The price paid for the wrong choice was higher, more devastating.
Hercules pulled away, standing up and looking out the window again. "Do you see all those people? Because of me, they don't have homes. Their families are dead, their possessions lost. How do I apologize to them? How do I fix it?"
"You can't. But you did the right thing." Iphicles watched as his brother paced, looking more and more like a caged animal. Hercules didn't belong here. He shouldn't be held like this. He should be outside, free, sitting around a campfire and trading jokes with Iolaus, not debating ethics and waiting to die. Iphicles sighed as he stared into the fire.
"You did the right thing," Iphicles said, trying again. "What Zeus wanted to do was wrong. He wanted to kill someone who was completely innocent. What if he wanted to kill a hundred people? Or a thousand? When do we draw the line?" His voice turned bitter. "What kind of men are we, if we sacrifice an innocent to keep a bunch of...terrorists from killing others? Why don't we stand up to them instead of caving in like the gutless cowards we are?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't think about how hard this would be on you. Maybe I should've gone someplace else, like Thrace."
"No," Iphicles snapped. He took a deep breath, trying to keep the panic from his voice. "At least this way I get to say goodbye. I'll be with you, until the end. You won't have to be alone."
"I agreed to this, Iph. It's different. Athena and Apollo agreed to stop the destruction as long as I..." he inclined his head, "you know."
"As long as you die," Iphicles said coldly. "Otherwise all the gods continue rampaging. They're no better than a group of raiders or warlords. They're spineless, gutless, worthless pieces of shit." He spat the words out as if they were rotted meat, his face twisted in anger.
"They're afraid. And angry."
"They're your family." Iphicles laughed humorlessly. "I've been afraid, and I've been angry with you. I've even hated you. But I've never tried to kill you." He paused. "Okay, maybe I made some stupid threats, but I never really wanted to hurt you. Not like this."
"Would you quit pacing? You're making me dizzy and I'm getting a crick in my neck trying to talk to you while you're moving around like that."
"Sorry." Hercules sat on the bed, shoulders hunched. "Nice bed."
"One of the perks I get for being the king." Iphicles tried to joke, ignoring the lump in his throat, the pain in his chest. "Snazzy clothes, servants, good bed. It's all part of the package."
"Cool." Hercules tried to lighten the mood, but it still pressed down on them, the weight bowing their souls. "What about Iolaus and Jason?"
"They're coming. They had some loose ends to tie up." He paused. "They're both leaving, after this is over. Jason says he never wants to see Corinth again. Says it's nothing but a nest of snakes. Iolaus was talking about heading East again and Jason decided to go with him for a while. Probably until they get sick of each other." Iphicles shook his head in mock despair. "They're arguing already about what to take, which way to go… you know how they are." He paused. "They should be here at dawn."
"When's it supposed to happen?"
"Mid-afternoon. Athena wanted to make sure everyone had time to get here for the spectacle."
"Don't let Jason and Iolaus do anything stupid, okay?"
Iphicles tried to look innocent and long-suffering. "How can I stop them? It comes to them so naturally."
He was rewarded with a dim smile. "You know what I mean. I won't go with them. I'm doing this of my own free will."
"I know." He did know. Hercules was always more stubborn than a mule. That was why he'd drugged the wine. Iolaus and Jason would get Hercules away while he was unconscious, and he wouldn't be able to fight or protest. He wouldn't be able to stop what had to happen next. "Athena and Apollo will have their sacrifice." It just wouldn't be the one they expected. Iphicles smothered a flare of bitterness. Even in death, he'd be the second choice. But at least his death would count for something.
The silence grew, thick and dense as the fog, enveloping the brothers.
"This is so wrong," Iphicles said quietly. "I can't believe I'm doing this."
Hercules half-laughed. "You're doing the right thing."
"Maybe. But it's still wrong." Iphicles walked over to the bed and sat next to his brother. "There's so much I wanted to do together," he said quietly, taking Hercules' hand in his own. "There's so much we still have to say. Things I never had a chance to tell you."
The silence was broken by the sound of lips meeting, clothes undone and discarded. Fingers caressed skin, memorizing shape and texture. Mouths licked and sucked, probing and tasting, bodies and souls spinning into a desperate climax.
After, Iphicles pulled his unconscious brother's body close, burying his nose in Hercules' hair, blinking against the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. They had wasted so much time, and there was no way to recapture it or make up for the lost years. All he could do was hope that Hercules understood.
Iolaus and Jason would be there at dawn with the charm that Aphrodite had given them. It would shield them from the gods, allow them to make their escape. At dawn he'd have to say goodbye forever. Iphicles pulled Hercules closer, listening to his heartbeat for the last time, wishing there were some other way. But there wasn't. He couldn't let them kill his brother, even if it meant thousands of deaths resting on his shoulders. It would be like selling his soul, an evil done in the name of good. And he would pay, when Athena and Apollo demanded their sacrifice. He could sacrifice himself for his people, for his brother, but they couldn't have Hercules. The world needed him, whether he liked it or not.
For the first time in his adult life, Iphicles understood his brother, and it was too late. Always too late. The story of his life, and now of his death. It was for the best though, because he wasn't sure he wanted to see what the world was becoming, what his people were becoming. At least if Hercules survived there would be some hope.
Iphicles finally slept, his brother in his arms, as he waited for the dawn.