The Good Death
Hercules ran breathlessly up to the palace gates, burst through the doors and collared the aged retainer who waited, or rather dozed on a chair in the wide hallway.
"Am I too late?" he asked, holding his chest and wondering if he'd ever get his breath back. Being a demigod was all very well, but it didn't halt the ageing process; just slowed it down.
"He's asking for you," Thanos said, motioning with one hand and beginning to limp feebly up the hallway.
"Spare yourself the walk. I know where he is," Hercules said and hurried out to the private gardens.
As he went through the door, he slowed down to a walk and tried not to look like he was out of breath, worried or hurting, even if he was. Once more, he would be saying farewell to someone he loved. He'd gotten more able to deal with these farewells over the years and at least he could say goodbye. He thought of those who had died in battle, or alone, with him unable to save them.
"Iph." He walked over to the aged figure wrapped in a blanket and sitting quietly on the stone seat looking out over the garden.
Iphicles didn't look up, just smiled briefly as his brother sat beside him. Hercules regarded his sibling as he gazed into the slowly setting sun. It hung like a huge red lantern, just short of the horizon, casting all colours over the sky and the drifting clouds.
"It's been a beautiful day, today," Iphicles said at last.
"Yes. It has," Hercules agreed.
"A good day to die," Iphicles murmured almost dreamily.
Hercules refrained from telling his brother he wasn't going to die. He still had a few more years in him. They both knew that when Iphicles made up his mind, it stayed made up. He was stubborn like that.
"How is Iolaus?" the king asked at last.
"Oh, you know him, ninety eight years old and still chasing after women and rabbits in equal measure, though he never catches either."
"I bet you're glad," Iphicles' voice held a note of humour.
"It keeps him happy. He's getting crotchety in his old age and reminisces a lot." Hercules smiled. "He had me acting out the siege we went through at Naxos the other week. He laughed so much I thought he was going to have a heart attack... but you know... even though I made a complete ass of myself in front of him and half the kids in the village, I didn't care."
Iphicles reached out and patted Hercules' shoulder. "You love him. The days when you used to care more about what other people think are gone."
"And the days when you can sit out here all night and dream are gone too. Come on, old man. I think you should go inside," Hercules said.
"Oh fuck you, Herc." The fire in the aged king's voice was still obvious. "There'll be time enough for resting when I get to the Elysian Fields." He looked back out over the garden and the dreamy look once more came over his face.
"What are you thinking?" Hercules asked at last.
Iphicles pulled in a long satisfied breath then let it out, breathing in the clean air. "I never did spend much time out here when Rena was alive. I was always too busy brooding and worrying over state problems... wars, fucking council meetings, but it hasn't changed... not from when I used to sometimes come out after all that king stuff and find her on her knees in the dirt, smudged with soil and filthy with pulling weeds. She never looked so beautiful, Herc. I used to throw my crown on the ground beside us and kiss
her. If we were lucky and that stuffy old retainer... uh..."
"Talus," Hercules supplied.
"Yeah... him, didn't get to me, we'd lay down and make love in the orange grove." Iphicles grinned, suddenly looking much younger. "We'd hide from him like a couple of kids."
"You still miss her," Hercules said softly.
Iphicles nodded. "She was the only woman I ever loved."
"Which reminds me, Who's going to assume the throne when you're gone?"
Iphicles sighed. "I thought long and hard about it, you know Herc. I knew you wouldn't want it... So I've asked Joxer's middle son. We're close and Thaddeus is a good man. He'll see Corinth all right."
Hercules nodded. "I agree." He put his hand on his brother's cooler one and squeezed it.
"I've had a good life, Hercules. I've fought all the good fights, done the best I can... even when I was a young hot head and you and I used to fight like cat and dog. Now I can die the good death and know that I've tried my hardest and succeeded."
Hercules hugged Iphicles close and kissed his cheek. "That you have, brother. That, you have," he murmured. "I never hated you, you know... never... not even when you took my name. I could see why you did it, and sometimes I wish... I wish you'd been the son of Zeus instead of me. You never know... You might have done well at that too. I love you Iph. Always have, always will."
There was no reply. Hercules looked down at his brother, saw the stillness in his face and body, and gently ran his hands through the curling white hair. "I really hope you heard that," he whispered. He gently let go of the still hand and folded it on his lap then kissed him again.
Hercules jumped in surprise and looked round.
"Ares. What are you doing here?" he asked at last.
"Coming to claim what's mine," Ares said softly, his normally dark, brooding face melancholy. He walked over to the demigod and his dead brother, then looked down with sad eyes at the king.
"What do you mean?" Hercules got ready to start the usual fight with his half brother.
"Oh relax, Hercules. I'm not going to hurt him," Ares said, a scathing note in his voice. He bent and gently picked up the, once powerful, body, cradling the old man in his arms. The snowy head rested against the war god's shoulder, and Hercules could have sworn he saw a faint smile on Iphicles' face.
"What are you going to do with him? He's only an old man," Hercules started.
"To you, perhaps, but to me, who loved him, he'll always be young," Ares said, his voice a whisper on the wind as he and the king disappeared.
Hercules shut his eyes, then smiled, then took one last look around Rena's gardens. The sun was totally gone now, and the air was cool. He shivered a little, then went to tell Thaddeus that he was now king of Corinth.