Squee! I made it in time for the deadline! \o/
Title: Desperate Measures
Pairing/characters: Jason, Pythagoras, Hercules
Warnings: Serious injury. Arachnophobes might not like a couple of scenes.
Disclaimer: Not mine. BBC and Urban Myth Films own them.
Word count: approx 7233
Summary: “Yes, I’ll perform surgery in the dark with my offhand in unsanitary conditions and with nothing more than a hunting knife... We may as well just kill him now!”
AN: Written for the hc_bingo February Challenge. Postage stamp for the prompts ‘Forced to hurt somebody’, ‘Surgery’, ‘Drowning’, and ‘Wild Card – Fever/Delirium’.
Also fills the Trope Bingo square Wild Card – Hurt/Comfort (because if I’m going to write 7k of fic in less than a week, I’m damn well going to make the thing multi-task for me!)
AN2: Thanks to the amazing fififolle for the super speedy beta.
Also posted at AO3
He is drowning. Water presses in on all sides, embracing him once again. Poseidon’s grip tightens around his lungs, squeezing, squeezing, and he would scream if he had the breath to do so.
And yet, even in the water, fire burns through his blood. Fire and pain.
He tries to swim, to reach out and touch the sunlight so far above him. He has to try, he has to stay alive, because his friends are there, they will help him, they will... but only if he can stay alive long enough to let them know.
He hears a voice calling his name.
Pythagoras slithered down the rocky slope, bounced off several solid lumps and snagged on multiple branches on the way down, and landed in an uncoordinated heap at the bottom. Barely pausing to take inventory of his brand new collection of cuts and scrapes, he scrambled out of the way, just in case Hercules decided to follow his example (because he really didn’t have time to deal with being squashed under his old friend right then), and ran over to the cave mouth where Jason was slumped.
Pythagoras dropped to his knees at Jason’s side. He looked carefully for injuries and immediately spotted the most obvious where blood was soaking his thigh. Then he turned his attention to the fact that Jason seemed barely conscious.
“Jason? Can you hear me?”
He carefully felt for a pulse at Jason’s wrist with his right hand, while he cupped Jason’s chin and raised his head with the other. That finally got a reaction, and Jason made a small sound of disgruntlement.
Okay, so he wasn’t actually unconscious. That was a good start. But he was still pretty far gone, for reasons that were as yet unknown, assuming it wasn’t simply blood loss (and unless he was missing something, Pythagoras didn’t think it was blood loss – there was nowhere near enough blood on Jason’s clothes to account for an injury that severe). He considered his options, and settled on one of his tried and tested methods of rousing Hercules in a morning.
“Wake up!” he yelled practically in Jason’s face.
Jason’s face scrunched into an expression of pain, and he finally opened his eyes.
“Ow. No need to shout,” Jason mumbled.
“What happened?” Pythagoras demanded.
Before Jason could answer, Pythagoras heard the sound of a branch snapping. A thump, a yell, several more thumps, and he turned round in time to see Hercules finally join them at the bottom of the creek by much the same route Pythagoras had come down, but in a rather less controlled fashion. Considering Pythagoras had all but fallen down it himself, that really wasn’t saying much.
“Hercules, I’ve found him. He’s injured.”
“Ow. So am I,” Hercules complained.
He was already picking himself up, though, so Pythagoras turned his attention back to their stupidly heroic idiot housemate.
“Jason, what happened?”
“Fight with a giant spider. I think I won.” He managed to focus his gaze on Pythagoras long enough to grin at him, but Pythagoras was still not convinced that Jason was fully aware of his surroundings.
“Did you hit your head?”
Given Jason’s current state, he didn’t wait for an answer, but carefully ran his hands across Jason’s scalp, and around the back of his neck.
“Don’t think so,” Jason said. “Ow!”
“Okay, we’ll call that a yes to possible injury to your head,” Pythagoras muttered. “What happened to your leg?”
Pythagoras briefly closed his eyes and resisted the urge to shout at him again. It wasn’t Jason’s fault he was hurt. It was Jason’s fault that he had gone off on his own in search of the monster rather than waiting for them to back him up, and they were going to have words about that as soon as Jason was in a fit state to realise just how pissed off Pythagoras was about it. But right then he needed to deal with whatever the hell was wrong with him.
Hercules leaned over Pythagoras’ shoulder and peered at Jason.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.” Pythagoras didn’t manage to keep the impatience from his voice, and tried to ignore the ‘don’t take it out on me’ look that Hercules threw him.
He turned his attention to the leg injury. There was a lot of blood, making it difficult to see what was going on, but it looked like a pretty deep gash in Jason’s thigh. Pythagoras examined it briefly, and then looked up at the cave mouth just behind them, and the darkness within. He shivered.
“Hercules, help me move him over there.” He waved in the direction of a spot a little way further down the creek where the slope behind would provide shelter.
“Why?” Hercules looked annoyed. “What’s wrong with here?”
“Because it will be dark soon, and the cave is blocking the sun here. I need better light to treat him properly. Besides, we may as well set up camp, we won’t be returning home today.”
All of that was true, but what he didn’t admit was that being this close to the cave was making him nervous. Jason said he had beaten the spider, but did that mean it was actually dead? If something was going to come out of the darkness at them, Pythagoras wanted a little distance so they might see it coming before it was upon them.
Hercules mumbled something, but nevertheless supported Jason’s other side, and they slung Jason’s arms around their shoulders and half carried him across to the spot that Pythagoras had decided would be the campsite.
While Hercules set up the camp, Pythagoras cleaned and dressed the injury on Jason’s leg. On closer inspection it was less a cut and more a puncture wound. The bleeding had also mostly stopped already, and the wound didn’t seem to be in any danger of worsening, so Pythagoras cleaned it and dressed and bandaged it, tying it off with a particularly sharp tug to make sure it was tight. Jason didn’t even flinch. He did, however, give Pythagoras one of his puppy eye looks.
“You’re angry with me, aren’t you?”
“You sneaked off and went to face the monster on your own and left us behind.”
Pythagoras was impressed at how steady his voice sounded.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said, still making the puppy eyes. “I just didn’t want you to get hurt, that’s all. The spider was really, really fast. And huge. Did I mention it was a giant spider? In fact, it’s probably a good thing you weren’t there, because you’d never have been able to dodge it or... or, I mean...” He suddenly flushed and looked awkward. “I mean, you’re not...”
Pythagoras knew exactly what he meant, but it was unlike Jason to draw attention to his abilities. Before he could reply Hercules spoke up from behind them where he was laying the campfire.
“That may be true, but you didn’t know for certain that it was a spider until you got here and found it.”
Jason squirmed and looked incredibly uncomfortable. Normally that would have been Pythagoras’ cue to change the subject and cheer him up, but not this time.
“Nobody is disputing the fact that you are the best among us, but that doesn’t mean you are invulnerable. We could have helped. That’s why we followed you all the way out here in the first place.” He waved his hand at Jason’s leg. “This might not have happened if we had been there with you.”
Jason finally seemed unable to meet their eyes any more, and his gaze dropped to his hands.
“You’re right. I’m sorry.”
Pythagoras sighed. Already his anger was draining away at the sight of his friend looking so sorry for himself. He looked up to the tree line up the slope of the creek, where the last rays of sunlight slanted through the tree trunks.
“How’s your head?”
Jason seemed more alert now, and he hoped they might have a more productive conversation this time.
“Sore. I think I hit it on a rock,” Jason admitted.
“I didn’t see any blood, so it’s probably just bruised. What about your leg? How does it feel now?”
“Okay, actually. Hardly hurts at all.”
Pythagoras frowned, but didn’t push it. He couldn’t believe for a moment that a wound that serious didn’t hurt. Maybe Jason didn’t want to make a fuss, especially after the conversation they had just had with him. Pythagoras resolved to keep an eye on him for signs of pain, but otherwise he would leave it.
“It will be dark soon. I’ll cook, and then we should get some rest. We can start for home tomorrow.”
He turned his back on Jason and started to help Hercules. Hercules caught his eye, and Pythagoras saw the question in his eyes. Hercules was concerned, but Pythagoras realised that it wasn’t Jason he was worried about. Pythagoras shook his head, and got on with organising the food.
Pythagoras was a great believer in the philosophy that food would make them all feel better.
It burns. It writhes and courses through his blood. It whispers in his head, tells him that he is alone, that his friends cannot help him. Will not help him.
The water rises.
Dinner was surprisingly uncomfortable. Normally in the aftermath of one of their adventures they would sit around the fire talking and laughing and reliving the exhilarating, terrifying moments. Pythagoras had asked Jason how he found and defeated the spider, but Jason had only recounted the bare facts of coming here, finding the cave, and fighting the spider. He seemed subdued still, and with hindsight, Pythagoras suspected that Jason was unwilling to elaborate as he normally would, for fear of the previous argument resurfacing.
Pythagoras wanted to tell him to stop being ridiculous. Now he had made his point and got it out of his system, and more importantly, now he knew that Jason was safe, he had all but forgotten about it. He had moved on. And Pythagoras knew Hercules wouldn’t know how to hold a grudge if his life depended on it. But still Jason seemed... off.
It was almost a relief when Jason said he was exhausted, and asked if they minded him taking a later watch this time.
“Of course it’s fine. You’re hurt. You should rest.” Pythagoras offered a reassuring smile.
Jason lay down, and within minutes his breathing had settled into the soft rhythm of sleep.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Hercules asked in a quiet voice.
“If you’re thinking that we don’t bother to wake him at all and let him sleep through, then yes.”
Hercules nodded. Pythagoras grinned, and relaxed properly for the first time since they had realised Jason had gone off on his own.
“And speaking of sleeping...”
Hercules poked the campfire with a stick, and then handed it to Pythagoras and lay down on his blanket.
“What are you doing?”
“Sleeping.” Hercules shuffled around until he was comfortable.
“But I cooked. Why do I have to take first watch as well?” Pythagoras was vaguely aware that he was whining, but felt it was an entirely valid question.
“Because I know you, Pythagoras, and if I did take first watch, you’d be lying awake for most of it worrying over Jason, and then you’d be exhausted and probably fall asleep on your own watch. This way, you can worry and do something useful at the same time.”
Hercules hadn’t even bothered to open his eyes as he spoke, and so didn’t see the death glare that Pythagoras gave him. Okay, perhaps ‘death glare’ was a little strong. Maybe ‘slightly annoyed frown’ might be more accurate. But the sentiment was the same.
He huffed, and stabbed the fire with the stick a few times. It was going to be a long night.
The water rises around him. Or maybe he is being dragged down. He tries to fight, to struggle, but his limbs are heavy and unresponsive. And it hurts. It burns every time he tries to swim. He knows that if he does not swim then he will only be pulled deeper, but it hurts.
And his friends will not help him.
He slips deeper into Poseidon’s realm.
The crescent moon was high overhead and Pythagoras was beginning to feel the chill of the night when he noticed that Jason was mumbling something.
“Jason?” he asked quietly.
Jason went quiet again, and for a horrible moment Pythagoras wondered if he might be in pain, but didn’t want to admit it because he thought they were still angry with him.
“Jason, are you all right?”
There was still no response, so Pythagoras moved closer. Jason’s eyes were closed and he still appeared to be asleep, but Jason wasn’t normally prone to talking in his sleep.
Pythagoras began to feel the first stirrings of fear.
He gently laid his hand against Jason’s forehead and almost hissed. He was burning.
“Jason. Jason, wake up.”
All thoughts of being quiet and gentle were forgotten, and he shook Jason’s shoulder. Jason murmured something and tried to turn away from him, his eyes squeezing tighter shut.
“No, Jason, you have to wake up. What’s wrong?”
“What hurts? Your head? Your leg?”
Pythagoras swore quietly. How had this happened? How had he missed it? Jason had seemed fine after dinner.
“Open your eyes, Jason. Look at me.”
Jason shook his head and tried to curl away from Pythagoras.
“No, no, no. Look at me.”
He took hold of Jason and tugged him back, and tried to pry one of his eyes open. Jason jerked away from his touch, and the small sound of distress that he made was so utterly un-Jason-like that Pythagoras could barely believe he had heard it.
“Yes, you are,” Pythagoras muttered.
He let go of his friend and went to his bag for a cloth and some water, which he quickly applied to Jason’s face. Jason flinched away again, but not enough to stop him.
What the hell was wrong, and what was causing it?
If the head injury was worse than he had thought, then a delayed concussion might explain the confusion and reluctance to wake properly. But it wouldn’t cause a fever. It was possible the fever was caused by an illness unrelated to Jason’s injuries, although if it were unrelated then it would be the most almighty of coincidences for it to strike right now, and Pythagoras didn’t believe that was likely. So what else?
He glanced down at the bandaged leg, and carefully laid his hand above where the bandage stopped. Even through his trousers, he could feel Jason’s skin was hotter than his face.
Not a coincidence, then. The wound might be infected, but if that was the case, Pythagoras had never seen an infection take hold so quickly. Which left him with one possibility that he really did not want to consider: Poison.
Okay, actually venom, if he was being strictly accurate, this being a spider. But the end result was likely to be the same.
With a new urgency, Pythagoras shook his friend and patted his face.
“Jason, wake up. Tell me about the spider. How did it cause the wound on your leg?”
Jason mumbled something but it was too quiet for him to hear.
“Jason, please. Tell me what happened with the spider.”
“I know it does. If you tell me about the spider I can help you. I can make the burning stop.”
He sent a silent prayer to the gods that he hadn’t just lied to his friend.
Jason shook his head and turned away again.
He moved to shake Jason again, but stopped himself. He had been trying for several minutes now and there had been no appreciable improvement in Jason’s state of consciousness. There was only one way he was going to be certain whether it was venom or not. He was going to have to see the spider itself.
Pythagoras scuttled over to Hercules and shook him hard until he woke up, grumbling profusely and suggesting some anatomically improbable things that he was going to do to Pythagoras for waking him.
“Jason is sick.”
At those words Hercules properly opened his eyes and gave Pythagoras his full attention.
“He’s got a fever, he won’t wake, and he’s delirious. I think the spider might have been venomous.”
Hercules sat up and looked across at where their friend lay, still mumbling incoherently.
“Venom. Maybe. I don’t know. That’s why I need to go into the cave and see the spider for myself.”
Hercules stared at him.
“Are you completely mad? What if there’s more than one of them? What if it isn’t properly dead?”
“I have to do something to help Jason.”
“Well, what about your herbs? Can’t you mix something up that will neutralise it?”
“Possibly. But there are many types of animal venom, and they all require different treatments. If I use the wrong one it will either do nothing, or may even make it worse.”
Pythagoras turned away and selected a stick to make into a torch. That done, he picked up Jason’s sword and slung the strap over his shoulder.
“What are you doing?” Hercules asked in a world weary tone.
“Like I said, I’m going to the cave.”
He checked Jason one more time, and then set off towards the cave entrance. In the night, it seemed even more black and forbidding than it had in the daylight.
Pythagoras paused at the entrance and drew the sword. He had to do this. Jason needed him to be brave, even though every fibre of his body was screaming at him to get as far away as possible from this place and the dangers within it.
He stepped into the darkness.
Pythagoras jumped and almost dropped his sword. He turned to see Hercules striding towards him with his sword and another torch.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like? I’m coming with you,” Hercules said when he reached Pythagoras’ side.
“We can’t leave Jason alone.”
“We’ve not seen sight of any animals the whole night. They all stay away because of what used to live in there,” he nodded at the cave. “Besides, there’s nothing I can do to help Jason. You, on the other hand. If you think I’m letting you go in there on your own you’re an even bigger idiot than you look. Without me watching your back, you won’t make it more than a dozen paces before you trip over and stab yourself with your own sword.”
Pythagoras knew he ought to protest, but in truth all he felt was relief, and a rush of gratitude. He looked back at Jason again, and then followed Hercules into the cave.
It rapidly narrowed to a tunnel that meandered in one direction and then the next, until the entrance could no longer be seen. Pythagoras gripped his sword even tighter, and tried not to edge too close to Hercules. They rounded another corner and Pythagoras couldn’t stop the shriek that was ripped from his throat.
Jason hadn’t been kidding when he said the spider was huge. It was as big as a bull, and that was after death, when its legs were all folded in and it was slumped against the wall of the cave where it had apparently crawled to die. He really didn’t want to imagine how big it must have been when it was running around.
Hercules peered into the cave, and made a point of looking up the walls and roof as well. Then he looked back at Pythagoras and nodded into the cave.
They looked at each other for another moment. Hercules rolled his eyes and shoved Pythagoras into the cave.
“Go on then. You’re the one who wanted to look at it.”
Pythagoras took a few hesitant steps forwards, the torch held out in front of him. He didn’t dare take his eyes off the spider. If it so much as twitched he was ready to run. And probably scream as well, but mostly the emphasis was on running.
It didn’t twitch, though, and as he got closer he could see where one of its legs was bent the wrong way, and where there were deep sword slashes on its body, from which gouts of dark ichor had seeped. He shuddered.
“Well?” Hercules said, an impatient tone to his voice. “Have you found what you need yet?”
Pythagoras braced himself and stepped closer to the head. The spider’s eyes seemed to be watching him, and he froze for a moment until he managed to persuade himself that it was dead. The spider’s mouth had large protruding fangs, and Pythagoras got as close as he dared to examine them. If its bite was venomous, there was no obvious sign of it. Pythagoras frowned. The fangs were curved and tapering and slim. The wound in Jason’s leg was wider, more circular in shape. It didn’t correspond to the fangs at all, in fact.
So if he hadn’t been bitten...
Pythagoras walked around the spider, looking at it from all angles. Its legs were too big to have created the injury if it had kicked him. He wandered round to the back, and eyed the huge fat abdomen. Very fat, in fact. And... leaking. He felt something squelch beneath his shoe and leapt back with a yelp.
“What?” Hercules swung round, sword held out.
“Nothing. It’s fine.”
Pythagoras held his torch down close to the ground and looked at what he had stepped in. It was a pale fluid with lumps in it, like an uneven gruel. Momentarily puzzled, Pythagoras crouched and put the sword down so he could get a better look. This close, he could see streaks of something dark within the fluid. He tentatively poked it with the tip of his finger and sniffed it. Sour. That was when he glanced up and saw the pointed spike protruding from the spider’s abdomen. But it wasn’t a spike. It had a sharp tapered point, but it was hollow. It was a tube.
It was a tube that almost exactly matched the size and shape of the puncture wound in Jason’s leg.
Pythagoras looked back down at the fluid pooled beneath it. He picked up his sword again, and poked at the lumpy bits, trying to separate some out so he could see more clearly. The sword wasn’t exactly a precision tool, though, and the blade slipped and crushed the bits he had been trying to separate. He picked the sword up to get it out of the way, and saw several tiny black shapes in the mush of lumps. He peered even closer. Miniature black shapes with eight...
He cried out and stumbled to his feet, backing away from the fluid.
“It’s an ovipositor.”
Hercules stared at him with a confused expression.
“Eggs. I think it has injected its own eggs into Jason. It’s using his body to incubate its young.”
Hercules stared at him for a full five seconds, his face reflecting all the horror Pythagoras felt.
“Are you sure?”
“No,” Pythagoras admitted. “I need to take another look at Jason.”
“Does that mean we can get out of here?”
Pythagoras nodded. He wanted nothing more than to get as far away from this monstrosity as possible.
“Yes. Please. As fast as possible, in fact.”
As he set off he fumbled the sword again, and it almost slipped from his grasp before he wrestled it back into the scabbard. No wonder Hercules didn’t trust him on his own with a weapon.
They hurried out of the cave and back to the campsite. Jason didn’t seem to have moved at all since they had left him, and Pythagoras tried to pour some more water on to the cloth to cool him down. Tried to, but failed because he struggled to get the stopper off the water skin.
“Give it here. You really are useless,” Hercules muttered in his long-suffering voice. He reached for the water skin, but instead frowned and grabbed Pythagoras’ wrist and turned his hand over.
“How have you done that? I was joking about you stabbing yourself with the sword, you know.”
Pythagoras looked and realised his finger was bleeding profusely. When he looked down at himself, there was blood smeared all over the handle of Jason’s sword. He stared at his finger.
He was bleeding, and he couldn’t feel it. There was no pain. There was... nothing.
No wonder he had been fumbling things with that hand.
Several thoughts slammed into his brain all at once.
“It numbs the site of the injury. That’s why Jason said his leg didn’t hurt. I thought he was just trying to be brave and not make a fuss, but he genuinely couldn’t feel that there was a bloody great big hole in his leg.”
“How can you know that?”
“Because I can’t feel my finger. I poked the fluid, and now I can’t feel it.” He paused and let that sink in. “Hercules, I can’t feel my finger!”
Hercules ripped the stopper off the water skin and sloshed a generous amount over Pythagoras’ hand. Pythagoras grabbed the cloth and scrubbed at his fingers, and Hercules occasionally poured more water over it. Eventually he admitted it was probably as cleansed as it was going to get, and attempted to wrap a bandage around it, until Hercules wrestled the strip of cloth out of his hand and did it for him.
“So what do we do now? If it isn’t poison, can you do anything for Jason?”
Pythagoras sat down and threw some more sticks onto the fire, which had begun to burn low.
“If the spider truly has injected its eggs into him, then we need to get them out.”
“And that will cure the fever?”
Pythagoras looked up at his friend, and allowed the panic that he was beginning to feel bleed into his voice.
“Hercules, I have never come across anything like this before. I don’t know whether extracting the eggs will be enough, or whether there is already some toxin in his blood causing the fever. I can use herbs to treat the fever, but this isn’t a normal fever, so I don’t know if the normal herbs will work. And we still need to get him back to Atlantis. But it might be too late by the time we get back. I don’t know!”
Hercules seemed to study him for several seconds.
“What do you need?”
“I don’t understand.”
“What do you need to be able to treat him?”
“I need to cut his leg back open and extract the eggs. That’s the starting point. After that, treat the symptoms.”
“So, a good knife and a lot of bandages and water.”
“And daylight would be nice. And sensation in my right index finger.”
“Neither of which we have. So, can Jason afford to wait for either of those things?”
Pythagoras thought. Honestly, he had no idea. But all his instincts were telling him that they needed to move fast on this one if they wanted to save Jason.
“I don’t think so.”
“Right, so we make do with torchlight. And you make do with your left hand.”
“Yes, I’ll perform surgery in the dark with my offhand in unsanitary conditions and with nothing more than a hunting knife. That’s going to work so well. We may as well just kill him now!”
Hercules leaned down and grabbed Pythagoras’ shoulders and looked him right in the eye.
“What will happen to him if you don’t do it?”
Pythagoras couldn’t tear his gaze away from Hercules.
“The spiders will hatch inside him and probably feast on his flesh from the inside out. He’ll almost certainly die. If he’s lucky, he’ll be dead before they start to eat him.”
“So without you doing this he’s going to die.”
“If I mess it up he’ll probably die as well.”
“So what have you got to lose?”
“Don’t joke about it!”
“I’m not,” Hercules snapped back. “Listen to me, Pythagoras. We’re too far from Atlantis to get help, or get him home. There’s only one person here who can save him, and that’s you. If you don’t try he will definitely die. If you do try, at least he’s got a chance.”
Hercules’ voice was steady, confident. He believed that Pythagoras could really do this, that he could save Jason. There was no question in his eyes at all. He believed. Even as he clung to that, Pythagoras wished he shared that belief.
“Okay. But I’m going to need your help.”
Fire rages through him. The water is dark and presses down on him like Poseidon himself has grabbed hold and will not let go.
And all he can think is that he is alone.
They started by moving Jason closer to the fire and laying him at the best angle to create the maximum amount of firelight. Hercules set about heating as much water as possible, and Pythagoras gathered together all the tools he was going to need, setting them down out of the way, but somewhere easily accessible.
It didn’t feel real. He couldn’t persuade himself that he was actually going to attempt this, and the preparations passed by in a strangely detached blur.
It was only when he realised that he was kneeling beside his friend with a knife in his hand and his hands shaking that Pythagoras became fully aware of what was going on.
Hercules was watching him.
“Yes. I just need a minute.”
“How’s the finger?”
Pythagoras frowned and looked down at his still-bandaged finger.
“Oh. Um, actually, I think it’s getting better. It’s tingling. Like pins and needles.”
“Well, that’s probably a good sign.”
A thought occurred to Pythagoras.
“I hope that doesn’t mean the numbing agent has worn off on Jason as well. Otherwise, this is going to be unpleasant.”
“Ah. Not good.” Hercules appeared to think for a moment. “Do you want me to...?” He mimed punching Jason in the face.
It took Pythagoras a moment to get his meaning.
“No. Much as I hate the thought of it, I’d rather not knock him unconscious right now. I’ve no idea what another head injury might do to him.”
“So him possibly being awake and aware of what’s happening while you cut his leg open is better?”
“No. But it might be necessary.”
Pythagoras glanced at Jason. He had been mumbling intermittently all the time they had been preparing for this, although most of it made little sense, and Pythagoras really wasn’t sure whether Jason had any idea what was going on around him, or what was about to happen. That didn’t mean he wasn’t going to be aware once they started, though. And that, perhaps more than anything, was what made Pythagoras hesitate.
He closed his eyes, muttered a prayer to the gods of healing, and then got to work.
Pythagoras stripped the bandage off and examined the wound. The blood had all clotted and the bleeding stopped hours ago. Now that he had removed the bandage, though, he could see that the area around the wound was swollen, and the skin inflamed. He pressed the blade against Jason’s leg, and then took it away again.
“I can’t do it with my left hand.”
He swapped to his right hand, and tested his grip. Sensation was beginning to return to his finger now, and as long as he didn’t put too much pressure on it, he thought it might be steadier. He went in a second time.
A thin red line appeared in Jason’s skin in the wake of the blade. Jason flinched and made an incoherent noise. Pythagoras pressed harder, opening up a slice a little longer than his finger across the circular wound, and peeling the congealed blood off the top.
Jason cried out and his leg jerked. Pythagoras hissed and snatched the blade away, but not before it opened another inadvertent cut.
Hercules was kneeling across from Pythagoras, and simply planted one large hand in the middle of Jason’s chest, and the other clamped around Jason’s knee below the site of the wound. He braced himself and held Jason down.
Pythagoras nodded his thanks, and went back to work.
He used the blade to pry the edges of the cut apart, grabbed a cloth with his spare hand and mopped up the sudden gout of blood. He tried to ignore Jason’s futile struggling and whimpering. Pythagoras leaned in closer to peer into the wound. It took him a moment to see anything, and then, out of the mess of blood and muscle he saw something that should not have been there. He worked the point of the blade in around the edge of the pale coloured egg sac, trying to find the extent of the foreign body without bursting it open. From what he could see, he estimated it was about the size of an olive,
He was vaguely aware of Jason flailing his fist at Hercules’ shoulder. The big man simply grunted, and continued to hold him down.
“Pythagoras. Any day now.”
“Rushing me right now is not the best plan,” Pythagoras muttered.
He traced the edge of the egg sac, pausing occasionally to mop up the blood when it became too messy to see what he was doing. It was larger than he had expected, and becoming harder to access without pulling the cut open even further. Pythagoras assessed his options, and then placed another cut at right angles to the first, forming a cross roughly over where he thought the bulk of the egg sac was nestled.
Jason yelled and twisted so hard he almost managed to break free of Hercules. Pythagoras snatched his hands away again until Hercules had him back under control. Pythagoras so wanted to comfort Jason, to promise that it was going to be okay, but he couldn’t even bring himself to talk to his friend. Not while he was doing this to him.
He peeled back the newly created flap of skin and flesh and uncovered the egg sac. It had insinuated itself deep into the muscle of Jason’s thigh. He slid the point of the blade around it to detach it from the surrounding flesh. It moved.
Pythagoras cried out and barely stopped himself from jumping back. He managed to keep the knife steady, even as he pressed his forearm against his mouth in revulsion.
The surface of the sac was moving. Rippling. Writhing.
He looked up at Hercules, his eyes wide.
“Get on with it!”
Pythagoras turned his attention back to what he was doing, and realised that the egg sac was now obscured again by the free flowing blood. If he didn’t do this quickly, they wouldn’t have to worry about the fever – Jason might simply die from blood loss.
He swallowed down his fear and nausea and mopped up the blood again. Then he took a moment to wipe his hands, not just of blood but also of the slick sweat that was making his grip falter again.
Pythagoras sliced deep into Jason’s leg and peeled around the egg sac until it came free. He caught it on the flat of the blade and gently lifted the writhing mass of parasitic creatures out into the night air. Jason screamed and bucked hard, and this time Hercules was the one whose grip faltered. Pythagoras threw himself backwards away from his friend’s flailing. The egg sac dropped to the ground beside him, and Pythagoras scrambled off his knees onto his feet, and stamped hard on it. Pale fluid burst everywhere beneath his foot, and he ground down on it, smearing it across the dirt, intent on killing every last one of the creatures that had invaded his friend’s body.
That done, he dropped back to his knees at Jason’s side as Hercules finally regained control.
“Is it done? Is that it?” Hercules asked, breathless.
Pythagoras couldn’t even form words. He nodded, and then got to work, cleaning the fresh wound, closing it, stitching it, dressing and bandaging it for a second time, packing the bandage with a mix of herbs that ought to reduce the risk of infection, all the while trying to stem the constant flow of blood. All the while trying to ignore his friend’s pathetic whimpering. After only a few minutes, Pythagoras was half convinced that even the screaming was better than that desperate sound.
When he was sure there was nothing more he could do, Pythagoras used what was left of the water to wash the blood off his hands and arms and anywhere else he could see in the firelight. And then he stood up and walked away until he couldn’t hear Jason any more. Until he couldn’t see the mess of blood any more and the only sound was the blood pounding in his own ears.
He found a tree, leaned against it, and threw up.
Pythagoras was still shaking and retching up the last of the food in his stomach when Hercules slowly moved into his field of view, treading carefully, like he didn’t want to startle him. Pythagoras knew he was a mess. He couldn’t bring himself to care. He looked up and met Hercules’ gaze.
Hercules only hesitated for a second. Then he stepped forward and tugged Pythagoras into his arms. Pythagoras buried his face in his friend’s shoulder, closed his eyes, and let himself be held.
Fire burns through his veins. It rips and tears and burns and there seems no end to the torment as the dark water drags him ever downwards. His lungs fill with water. He is alone.
He begins to hope that he might die soon.
He begins to fear that he might not.
“He’s getting worse, not better.”
Pythagoras applied a cold cloth to Jason’s face for the third time in ten minutes. He was still semi-conscious and still delirious, but now his mumbling was completely incoherent. Pythagoras couldn’t make out more than one recognisable word in ten, and even those made little sense.
“Give him time.”
“I don’t know what else to do.”
“You could get some sleep and let me watch over him for a bit.”
Pythagoras shook his head.
“You’re exhausted. Sleep!”
Pythagoras ignored him. It was long past the midpoint of the night, and Pythagoras didn’t want to think about how long he had been awake, and how much had happened in the last day.
He knew it was irrational, and as a man of science he ought to have been immune to such things, but somehow the thought had got into his head that he had to stay awake. That if he let his vigil lapse even for a few minutes then Jason might slip away from them. Common sense told him it was stupid, that if Jason was going to die then it would happen regardless of whether he was watching or not. But a tiny persistent voice kept asking him if he was prepared to take that risk, and in the chill dark of the night, the answer was always no.
“I think we should talk to him.”
“How do you know he can even hear us?”
“I don’t. But if he can, he needs to know that we’re here.” He gave Hercules a helpless shrug. “It might help.”
Hercules looked like he was going to argue again, but something stopped him. He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then dragged his blanket over and sat down on Jason’s other side.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I wrestled a pack of guard dogs into submission?”
Pythagoras groaned and for a moment felt a smile touch his lips for the first time in hours.
“Now that’s a threat, Jason. You’d better wake up soon, because if you don’t you’ll be forced to listen to Hercules’ stories.”
“I’ll have you know this one is completely true.”
Pythagoras gave him a look.
“Almost completely true. Anyway, there I was, trying to get into the grounds of a merchant’s house...”
Pythagoras let Hercules’ voice drift into the background. He lay down beside Jason, propped up on one elbow so he could still watch over him. With his free hand he reached for their friend and entwined his fingers with Jason’s.
If it was Jason’s fate to die this night, he would not die alone.
Water presses in on all sides, embracing him one final time.
And yet, somehow, the pain seems less intense. He wonders if this is the end.
Poseidon’s fist around his lungs seems to loosen, just for a moment.
He takes his chance and tries to swim. He has to try. He may be alone, but he has to try.
He hears a voice calling his name. Familiar. Friend.
He is not alone.
He strikes towards the voice. He reaches out, and takes hold of the hand that reaches for him.
Something shifted next to him, and suddenly Pythagoras’ face was filling his field of vision. Jason squinted for a moment, and then opened his eyes properly. Pythagoras gave him the biggest grin he had ever seen on the man’s face.
A grunt came from somewhere on his other side, and Jason carefully turned his head to see Hercules waking.
“You had us worried for a while there,” Pythagoras said. “How do you feel?”
“Not very helpful.” Pythagoras was still smiling, though.
“Everything hurts,” Jason admitted. “Especially my leg.”
Pythagoras’s smile slipped away somewhat.
“Um, yes. About that...”
“We can talk about it later,” Hercules interrupted.
The big man sat up, which was helpful, because it meant Jason could see him without having to turn his head again. Considering the headache that was assaulting the inside of his skull right then, not moving his head was very definitely a good thing.
Pythagoras placed a hand against his forehead, and nodded.
“The worst of the fever seems to have passed, at least.”
“Am I going to regret asking what was wrong with me?”
“Probably best not have that conversation until after breakfast,” Pythagoras said, making that face he did whenever he was trying to avoid saying something, and attempting to convince people that everything was okay.
“And speaking of breakfast...”
Hercules got up and wandered over to the smouldering remains of the campfire, muttering at it.
“You’re definitely cooking this time,” Pythagoras said.
Nevertheless, he sat up and started fussing with pouches of herbs from his bag. Jason had a feeling that as soon as they got the fire going for hot water, he was going to be plied with all manner of remedies. He also has a distinct feeling that whatever had happened, he owed quite a lot to his two friends. He hoped he hadn’t caused them too much trouble. Again.
“So, what do you fancy for breakfast?” Hercules asked, impressing Jason yet again with his ability to fixate utterly on food, regardless of what else might be going on.
“I don’t mind.” He paused, and then smirked for no obvious reason. “Just as long as it isn’t eggs.”