Okay, so I know the obvious (and popular) slash pairing in this fandom is undoubtedly Jason/Pythagoras, but I have to admit, I am actually *far* more fascinated by Hercules and Pythagoras and their onscreen relationship dynamic; that old married couple vibe they’ve got going on. So I decided to write a bit of backstory of their lives before Jason arrived. I honestly didn’t expect it to end up being 9k... *looks sheepish*
Title: A Million Little Things
Pairing/characters: Hercules, Pythagoras
Spoilers: vague for 1.1 – The Earth Bull, and 1.8 – The Furies
Disclaimer: Not mine. BBC and Urban Myth Films own them.
Word count: approx 9223
Summary: “Friendship is not a big thing – it’s a million little things.” (author unknown)
AN: Pre-series – a little look at Hercules and Pythagoras and their lives before Jason arrived.
AN2: Fills the trope bingo square ‘Chosen Family’.
AN3: Huge thanks to clea2011 and celeste9, firstly for the beta, but also for putting up with me wittering on about this fic for the last three weeks while I’ve been writing it.
Cross posted to AO3
“Are you all right?”
It took Hercules a moment to realise that someone was speaking to him. He looked up, wincing at the pain in his shoulder when he moved.
The speaker appeared to be a young man, no more than a boy, really, who was looking at Hercules with a very earnest expression.
The boy indicated Hercules’ shoulder. “That looks quite painful. I saw what happened in the wrestling, I wondered if it might be sprained.”
Hercules scowled. As if he wasn’t feeling humiliated enough already, what with Acanthus still parading around the agora crowing about his victory while Hercules sat, abandoned and ignored, on the sidelines. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the young upstart was blatantly flirting with the woman who Hercules himself had been trying to impress with what ought to have been a straightforward win against a less experienced opponent.
“It’s nothing,” Hercules muttered.
He still couldn’t work out how Acanthus had managed to beat him, and it was worrying him more than he was willing to admit.
“It doesn’t look like nothing,” the boy persisted. “If you want I could-”
“Look, just leave me alone. Whatever you’re trying to sell me, I’m not interested.”
The boy took a step back, eagerness suddenly replaced by a spasm of fear and hurt, before it was quickly covered up with an attempt at indignation.
“I wasn’t intending to sell you anything. I just... well, you looked like you needed a healer, and I know something of the healing arts, and it didn’t look like there was anyone else who wanted to help you.”
Hercules chose to ignore that little dig about the fact that he so obviously had no friends or supporters now that he had been beaten. Instead he looked the boy up and down, paying more attention this time. Tall, skinny, maybe sixteen or seventeen he estimated. Mostly, though, his attention was held by the bluest eyes he had ever seen; wide and innocent and guileless. The kind of eyes that bards composed songs about. Usually tragedies.
“You’re a healer?” Hercules asked, trying to focus on the relevant part of what the boy had said. He didn’t even attempt to disguise his scepticism. He had always thought of healers as wise old men, or slightly batty old women with too many cats and a permanently bubbling cauldron of unidentifiable soup. Not skinny teenage boys.
“Well, I may not have a great deal of practical experience, but I have spent many years studying medicine and herbs and anatomy. If you want, I could take a look at your shoulder. I have some herbs in my bag...”
He trailed off, already rummaging in his bulging shoulder bag. Another, even larger, sack had already been dropped on the ground beside him. Hercules wondered how the boy had even carried it, considering it looked about as heavy as the lad himself.
Before Hercules could reply, the boy tugged a small pouch and a water skin out of his bag. As Hercules watched, he tipped some herbs out onto his palm, and then added some water and carefully rubbed his hands together, mixing it into a paste. He stepped forward and had almost laid his hands on Hercules’ shoulder when he stopped, uncertainty appearing in his eyes.
“If you want, I mean. Unless, well, you’ve probably got a wife at home who can sort it out for you. Maybe I should just...”
He looked like he was on the point of fleeing when Hercules touched his arm, stopping him in his tracks.
“Well, since you’ve already prepared it, seems a shame to waste it.”
Hercules honestly didn’t know why he had said that, other than just to stop him from babbling. There was a second where he wondered if he had just made a mistake in potentially encouraging the lad. Then the boy raised his head to meet Hercules’ gaze, and his face broke into a wide smile.
Hercules did his best to ignore the tiny flutter in his stomach at that smile and those big blue hopeful eyes.
Without warning, the boy was massaging his shoulder. Hercules winced, preparing himself for it to hurt, and was surprised when it didn’t. The boy started talking quietly, mostly, apparently, to himself, about muscles and ligaments and bone structure and things that Hercules wasn’t even sure he understood. All the time, his long thin fingers worked persistently at Hercules’ shoulder and upper arm, seemingly without any concern for the fact that he had his hands all over the bare torso of a man he had met only minutes earlier.
“Where did you learn that?” Hercules asked as he watched.
“A healer in the village where I grew up taught me a lot. But mostly I read a lot and study the work of the great physicians and anatomists.”
Hercules could believe that. The lad was so pale he was practically white, a sure sign that he spent far too much time inside reading rather than outside in the sun doing what most boys his age were doing.
“There, try it now.”
The boy stepped back a little and watched, a strange mix of satisfaction and curiosity in his expression. Hercules raised his arm and carefully rolled it around in the socket. There was still a dull ache, but the sharp spasms of pain he had been experiencing after the wrestling match were almost completely gone. That was unexpected.
“That’s... better,” he eventually said, trying not to sound too surprised.
The blinding smile he got in return was slightly disconcerting.
“That is good,” the boy enthused. “I wasn’t entirely sure if I was doing it right. I’ve never actually done that on a real person before.”
“Oh, now you tell me!”
“I didn’t think you would let me do it if you knew that.”
Hercules quickly reassessed just how guileless the lad was after all.
He picked himself up and put his tunic back on, still surprised at how easily his shoulder was moving. He had half expected to spend the next three days unable to move it at all after that fight.
“I suppose now you’re going to tell me how much that cost?” he sighed. He had been counting on winning that fight, and the fact that his purse wasn’t now bulging with prize money was a not inconsiderable problem.
The boy looked startled, as if the thought had never even crossed his mind.
“Um, well, is that what people do here? I wasn’t going to ask for anything, but if that’s the way they do things here, then perhaps.” He shrugged, and wiped his hands off on a cloth he had pulled from one of the bags.
“How long have you been in Atlantis?” Hercules asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
The boy looked up at the sun, and appeared to be doing a quick calculation.
“About five hours, give or take.”
A naive young lad in a strange city, probably carrying everything he owned in those bags, and innocently wandering up to complete strangers and offering his services. There was only one way that was going to end, and Hercules suddenly had a very unpleasant mental image of the boy beaten and left for dead in an alleyway, all his possessions stolen. Hercules was surprised by how much that thought troubled him.
He weighed his options.
“Are you hungry?”
The boy nodded far too eagerly, and then looked embarrassed at having admitted it.
“Good. If you won’t take my money, then you will join me in the tavern for a meal.”
“All right,” the boy grinned.
It wasn’t going to solve the boy’s long term survival problems, but Hercules felt inexplicably better about the fact that he would be able to keep an eye on him for the next few hours. Maybe he could find out a bit more about the lad, see if he was here visiting relatives or something.
“Excellent. So, what’s your name?”
The tavern was beginning to fill up with the early evening crowd, and their table was littered with empty plates and mostly empty wine flagons. In the last several hours, Hercules had regaled Pythagoras with tales of his own great heroics and adventures, and along the way he had managed to pick up several bits of information about the boy (including the fact that he seemed to have a wholly unhealthy fascination with triangles). The most important things, however, were that he was alone in Atlantis, that he had some money, and that he had no idea where he was going to be staying that night. These facts had only served to fuel Hercules’ conviction that the boy was probably going to be dead before the following dawn if he didn’t have someone watching out for him.
The only thing that was confusing Hercules right at that moment was why he was allowing that to become his problem.
A loud drunk shoved past their table, jostling Pythagoras, and the boy jumped half out of his skin and ducked away from the man’s flailing elbow.
“Watch what you’re doing,” Hercules warned the drunk, although he suspected the man hadn’t even heard him.
Pythagoras shuffled his seat a little closer to Hercules, and away from where the crowds were pushing around behind him.
Hercules picked up the flagon, realised it was empty, and sighed. He could tell the boy had been getting more and more uneasy as the tavern had filled up, but he seemed reluctant to actually leave as long as Hercules himself remained there.
“Tell you what, lad. You go and get us another flagon of wine, and then we’ll call it a night, eh?” Hercules pushed a couple of coins across to Pythagoras.
The look that flitted across the boy’s face was something that might have been disappointment, and Hercules was still trying to work out what that was about when Pythagoras nodded and took the money and started to thread his way through the crowd towards the bar.
Of course, the most important question was what to do when they left. Hercules couldn’t think of any way of inquiring about exactly where the lad was intending to spend the night, without it sounding like he was propositioning him. Which he absolutely wasn’t. He tried to remind himself that the boy wasn’t his problem, that he had more than returned the favour for Pythagoras fixing his shoulder, and where the lad went tonight was none of his concern.
He was distracted from his thoughts by a commotion at the bar. Hercules looked up in time to see Pythagoras stumble backwards and land in a sprawl on the floor, his hands held out in front of him to ward off the drunken man who had jostled him earlier. The drunk snarled something, and kicked Pythagoras.
Without any conscious decision happening in Hercules’ brain, he was across the room. He planted himself squarely between Pythagoras and the drunk, and punched the man in the face. The drunk staggered back a step or two, and suddenly the crowd around them moved to create space.
“Touch him again and you’ll answer to me. Is that clear?”
The drunk muttered something uncomplimentary about Hercules’ parentage, but backed off. Hercules glared at him, and then around at the crowd of gawkers.
“That goes for all of you. Nobody touches this boy. He is with me.”
There was a vague mumbling of acknowledgment, and people started shuffling away, particularly those who were stood near to where the lad was still lying on the floor. Nice to see his reputation was still intact, despite that afternoon’s defeat.
He reached a hand down to Pythagoras, and hauled him to his feet. The boy was staring at him with an expression somewhere between shock and adoration. Hercules yet again ignored that squirm in his stomach, and looked away so he didn’t have to meet those blue eyes.
“Right, get a flagon to go, and we’d best be out of here. I’ll get your bags.”
By the time Hercules had gathered up their things, Pythagoras had got served and was waiting for him. Considering how long it had taken anyone at the bar to pay any attention to him the last few times Pythagoras had tried to buy something, Hercules suspected that his warning had been even more successful than he had expected.
He half expected the lad to talk his ear off the entire way home, but Pythagoras was strangely quiet for the journey. Hercules kept glancing at him, wondering what was going on inside his head. Hell, Hercules was wondering what was going on inside his own head! He hadn’t even asked the boy if he wanted to come home with him, but that outburst in the tavern had left them little choice. After a statement like that, Hercules couldn’t cast the boy out on his own. He wouldn’t last two minutes.
They finally arrived, and once they were inside, Hercules dumped Pythagoras’ bags beside the table in the main room.
“Right. This is my home. That’s my bedroom,” he waved in the general direction, “And that’s the spare room.” For ‘spare room’ read ‘place where all the accumulated junk of Hercules’ life had been dumped for want of anywhere better to put it’. If the lad was going to sleep in there, he might have to clear a bit of floor space first.
He turned round and almost ran into Pythagoras. The boy was right there in his personal space. Even in the half darkness of the room, he could see the trepidation in the boy’s eyes. Trepidation, and yet determination as well.
Hercules didn’t finish that sentence, because that was when he noticed that the boy’s hand had somehow found its way onto Hercules’ hip, and that he had moved even closer. This close, it suddenly occurred to him that the boy was actually a little taller than him.
“What are you doing?”
Pythagoras looked momentarily confused.
“I would have thought that was obvious.”
Hercules took hold of Pythagoras’ wrist, and removed his hand from where it was still resting on his hip. Then he took a deliberate step back.
“I think you might have got the wrong idea, lad.”
“But what you said at the tavern. I thought...”
“Yes, well, you thought wrong.”
Hercules didn’t think Pythagoras could have looked more like a kicked puppy if he had actually kicked him. He had to say something; he couldn’t bear seeing that expression for a moment longer.
“I’m sure you’re very good, and I have no objection to that sort of thing, but I don’t want or expect anything like that from you. You did me a favour, so now I’m returning it. You need somewhere to stay, and I happen to have a spare room. That’s all.”
He hoped he had put enough emphasis on the ‘spare room’ part of that statement.
Pythagoras stepped back and looked away, but not before Hercules saw that his face and neck were suddenly flushed red.
“I’m sorry. I thought... I shouldn’t have... stupid.” The last word was muttered under his breath, probably aimed at himself.
Hercules shook his head.
“Look, no harm done eh? And obviously it’s easy to see why anyone would find me irresistible.”
He grinned at his own attempt for levity, and was rewarded by Pythagoras finally looking up and meeting his eye again. His soft smile had an unexpected amused edge to it. He deliberately looked Hercules up and down, his gaze pausing at the slightly protruding belly, and the unfortunate wine stain down the front of his tunic.
Hercules knew he ought to make a show of protesting, but dear gods, it was all he could do not to simply lose himself in that smile.
“There’s spare bedding on that shelf there,” he waved vaguely in the right direction, speaking more to distract himself than anything else. “Just clear yourself a bit of space on the floor. And try not to break anything!”
Pythagoras glanced at the spare room, and his eyebrows went up when he saw the piles of stuff through the open door. Nevertheless, he moved to pick up some of the blankets Hercules had indicated.
Satisfied that the boy had finally got the right idea, Hercules headed to his own room and closed the door. He paused and leaned heavily against it and took a deep, steadying breath.
In the room behind him, he thought he heard a soft, quiet voice say, “Good night.”
Hercules knew then that it was too late. He was already lost.
The next morning Hercules stumbled into the main room and sat down at the table and began to eat. He had finished most of a bunch of grapes and was eyeing up the still warm bread when it occurred to him that there had been no food in the house yesterday. He paused and frowned. Thought for a moment. Then he shrugged and carried on eating.
The door opened, and Pythagoras came in carrying sweet pastries. Judging by the sudden aroma of warm honey and spices, they were the really good ones from Iolus’ stall.
“Good morning,” Pythagoras smiled.
“And a very good morning it is as well,” Hercules replied, indicating the food spread out on the table. “Where did all this come from?”
Pythagoras sat down opposite him, and pushed the pastries into the centre of the table.
“Well, I woke up early, and I was going to make breakfast, to say thank you for letting me stay. But then I realised you didn’t have any food, so I went shopping. Only, I may have got a little carried away, because I couldn’t carry everything and had to go back for the pastries.” He frowned slightly, as if he was attempting to work out a way in which he could have done it all in one trip.
“Well, your thanks is very much appreciated,” Hercules said around a mouthful of warm pastry. Oh, yes, these were Iolus’ really good ones.
Pythagoras smiled and picked up another one of them and started to nibble at the corner.
“So, what are your plans now?” Hercules asked, between finishing off the pastry and starting on a piece of cheese that had somehow been hiding underneath the grapes.
Pythagoras shrugged. “I have to admit, I haven’t really got any.”
“Well, there must have been a reason you came to Atlantis?”
“I had heard there was a good library here. And scholars. I had hoped to study with them, perhaps. If they will take me. I might already be too old to begin studies with most teachers.” His mouth turned downwards into a frown. “I haven’t really planned this very well, have I?”
Hercules studied the boy. He had no doubt there was at least some truth in what the boy had said about wanting to study, but Hercules got the feeling that whatever reason had compelled Pythagoras to come to Atlantis, it wasn’t so much about coming to Atlantis as it was about getting away from somewhere else. Or maybe someone else.
Before he could come up with any reason to talk himself out of it (and oh, there were so many reasons why he really ought to talk himself out of it), Hercules said, “You can stay here for a while, if you want.”
Pythagoras looked up from the half eaten pastry, his blue eyes wide.
“Really?” He hesitated. “I know what you said last night, but you don’t have to feel like you have to protect me or anything.”
“Just until you find your feet, eh? If you want to, of course.”
He had a sudden uncomfortable memory of Pythagoras’ hand on his hip, and what he had seemed to think was expected of him. Hercules hoped he had been clear enough on that subject last night.
“I would like that very much. Thank you.” Pythagoras’ smile suddenly took on a mischievous edge. “It would be an honour to stay with the famous hero Hercules.”
Hercules knew he was being mocked, but he grinned anyway, and continued eating. It had been a long time since he had felt so... easy... with anyone. He had missed it.
Hercules wasn’t on the market for a housemate, but he reckoned he could probably cope with Pythagoras for a while, at least. He was quiet, he was useful, and if he kept providing meals like this one then Hercules could see very few downsides to the arrangement.
After all, it was only going to be for a few days. Maybe a week or two.
Pythagoras had been there for three months when it occurred to Hercules that maybe they might have to clear all his junk out of the spare room (which he was already beginning to think of as Pythagoras’ room).
They spent the day shifting stuff, throwing stuff out, and reorganising the house. Okay, Pythagoras spent the day shifting stuff, throwing stuff out, and reorganising the house, while Hercules mostly directed him where to put things.
Hercules had to admit he had been surprised by some of the things that had turned up. He had forgotten he even owned those crates of ceramic bulls. They would be worth selling, he reckoned. And that did finally answer where his spare shield had gone.
The most surprising discovery of the day, however, came when Pythagoras finally started to unpack the rest of his own belongings from the bags he had brought with him on that first day.
“You own a sword.”
Hercules stood in the doorway and stared. It was quite a nice sword, as well, by the look of it.
“It was my father’s. Mother insisted I take it when I left home, even though we both know I can barely take it out of the scabbard without injuring myself.” Pythagoras gave a self-deprecating shrug.
“Your father was a fighter, was he?”
A strange expression spasmed across Pythagoras’ face, but was gone before Hercules could even guess what it meant.
“Not really.” He paused for a moment. “My father died when I was twelve.”
Twelve? Poor lad.
Out loud, Hercules asked, “What happened?” A second later he winced at his own insensitivity.
“He was killed. A... a fight went wrong.”
There was something in the way he spoke that made Hercules understand there was more. “You saw it happen?”
Pythagoras gave him a tentative smile.
Then there was an awkward silence, all the more noticeable because it was almost the first time since they had met that such a thing had happened.
“I could teach you how to use it. If you wanted?” Hercules offered.
Pythagoras shook his head.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. We both know me with a sword is a recipe for disaster. And one or both of us losing fingers.”
“And if I gave you some lessons it might stop that from happening.”
Pythagoras smiled. “Thank you, but no.”
For a moment he continued to hold the sword in his hands, and Hercules wondered just what was going on in his head. Probably remembering his father.
Hercules found himself smiling fondly at memories of his own father, and the stories he used to tell.
He was distracted from his thoughts when Pythagoras walked across the room and propped the sword in the corner. Then he turned his attention to the rest of the contents of his bags.
Hercules eyed the sword. It occurred to him that was the first time Pythagoras had ever mentioned his family in the entire time they had known each other.
He opened his mouth to ask more, and then noticed Pythagoras was already sorting through a pile of scrolls, his attention completely focussed on the diagrams and writing.
Not wanting to be subjected to another enthusiastic lecture about triangles, Hercules left him to it.
“They feed seven people to the Minotaur? That’s barbaric!”
Hercules patted Pythagoras on the shoulder. “Don’t say that too loudly, especially not within earshot of Minos’ guards.”
“And we all have to take part in this lot drawing thing?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Pythagoras pondered this in silence. He looked worried. Hercules didn’t blame him. Much as he liked Atlantis and all the women and taverns and opportunities it offered a man like him, this whole Minotaur business was one of the major downsides.
Every year Hercules promised himself he would leave the city before the next one. Or, at the very least, arrange to be on a long trip away from the city at around the right time, so he could hopefully avoid the entire thing. But he had forgotten again, and now it was that time of year, and it was too late to do anything but go to the palace and take his chances the next day.
Not that he would say that out loud, of course.
And now Pythagoras would have to take part as well. He was young, but unfortunately not young enough to avoid being included in the ritual.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Pythagoras said, sounding far more confident than he looked. “Think about it, Hercules. There are, what? Fifteen, twenty thousand people in Atlantis? Even taking into account that maybe a thousand or so of those are too young to take part in the lot drawing, that’s still a huge number. And only seven black stones. Statistically speaking, the chance of drawing a black stone is remote.”
The image of the old man, three people ahead of him in the queue last year, and his devastated expression when he drew a black stone, flitted into Hercules’ mind. He decided not to mention that to Pythagoras.
Everyone needed something to get them through the day. Some prayed to the gods, some took faith in their families, others got themselves so blind drunk the night before that they were barely conscious throughout the ritual. If Pythagoras took comfort from statistical probability, then who was Hercules to take that away from him?
“We’ll be fine,” Hercules agreed. “Of course we will.”
He patted Pythagoras’ arm again.
They spent the rest of the night talking about inconsequential things until the small hours of the morning. When they eventually both walked away from the palace with white stones, Hercules promised himself, yet again, that he would be gone from Atlantis by this time next year.
Hercules and Acanthus circled each other. The crowd around them was cheering and shouting and taking bets, the sun beat down on the agora, and the dust swirled around them in the breeze, but all his attention was on his opponent.
Acanthus was younger and more agile, as their last match had proved to Hercules’ cost. But that had also made him cocky, and Hercules knew he could use that.
Acanthus made the first move. Hercules deflected the force of the blow and shoved back, testing his opponent’s strength. Acanthus tried again, this time going for a wrestling hold and at the last moment flicking up with his elbow. Hercules caught most of the blow on his chin and saw stars for a second. That was enough for Acanthus to trip him, and Hercules hit the ground on his arse.
That could have gone better.
“Come on, Hercules!”
He picked himself up, refusing to look round at where he knew Pythagoras was standing in the crowd. He couldn’t afford to be distracted.
Acanthus made the first move again. He feinted left and at the last moment stabbed his fist to the right. The blow landed square in the middle of Hercules’ stomach, and he staggered back, gasping. The truth was, it actually did far less damage than he pretended it had done. That was one location that had more than ample padding.
He let Acanthus keep attacking, let him keep showing his hand, all the time making it appear he was becoming tired, worn down with the blows that kept landing. With the blows came the whispered insults, the taunts. Hercules snarled in response, and hit back with a deliberately fumbled attempt at a wrestling hold.
Acanthus could barely conceal the smirk as they circled each other again. Hercules was panting, gasping for breath. Acanthus had barely broken a sweat.
“Finish him!” someone yelled from the crowd.
Acanthus feinted again. This time Hercules dodged. For a second Acanthus was off balance. All pretence dropped, Hercules grabbed his arm and twisted it, simultaneously wrapping his foot around the back of Acanthus’ knee. His elbow found Acanthus’ throat and Hercules shoved the man’s head back. Before the younger man could realise what had happened, Hercules hooked his leg out from under him. This time Acanthus was the one on the ground.
This time, Acanthus didn’t get back up.
Hercules raised his arms to the crowd, who had all suddenly become quieter than they were a moment earlier. All except one.
Hercules grinned when he finally saw Pythagoras. Oh, the victory had been worth it just to put Acanthus back in his place. But later, after the wine-fuelled celebration had finally finished, what Hercules remembered most about the day was the look of undisguised joy and pride on his friend’s face.
“I miss her so much.”
Hercules stared into his wine and the promise of blissful oblivion, however temporary it would ultimately prove to be.
He felt Pythagoras’ arm settle around his shoulders, and without thinking about it he leaned into his friend.
“She was so beautiful.”
“That’s what you said about Ione as well,” Pythagoras pointed out gently.
Like he needed reminding! Because, of course, the fact that Ione had caught his eye had been the entire reason why Helena had dumped him, no matter how much he promised that Ione meant nothing to him.
He reached for the wine and downed the rest of his cup. He tried to ignore how much his hand wavered when he tipped the flagon to refill it. He wasn’t that drunk already, surely?
Pythagoras carefully took the flagon from his hand and put it down.
“I think you’ve had enough, my friend.”
“No I haven’t.”
“Listen to me, Hercules.”
Pythagoras touched his cheek and tugged him to turn and face him. Hercules half expected to see that look of disappointment which Pythagoras so often gave him when he was drunk, but instead there was nothing but worry in his friend’s eyes.
“Listen. You are a good man, and if Helena can’t see that then it’s her loss. As you have said on many occasions, there are plenty other fish in the sea, although I have to admit I find that rather insulting to women, to compare them to something as ugly as fish, but that is entirely beside the point right now. You will be fine, and you will find someone else. I promise you.”
Hercules frowned. How could he possibly know? Pythagoras had absolutely no experience with women and, from what little Hercules had managed to gather, precious little experience with men either.
He opened his mouth to say as much, but Pythagoras interrupted.
“Trust me, Hercules. In a few weeks time you will wonder who on earth Helena even was.”
Hercules didn’t believe that for a second. A vague memory surfaced of a similar situation six months earlier, and it occurred to him that he had felt the same way about Karrissa. But that had been completely different!
“Come on.” Pythagoras tugged him to his feet, his arm still wrapped around Hercules’ shoulder, and started to steer him in the direction of his bedroom. “Everything will look better in the morning after a good sleep.”
Hercules thought he ought to protest, but it was just too much effort. Besides, Pythagoras’ thin, bony shoulder was far more comfortable than it looked like it ought to be. It wasn’t the first time he had come to that realisation, and yet it always seemed to surprise him.
He let himself be put to bed with only a token complaint, which he suspected they both knew was more for show than because he actually meant it. He may have mumbled something about stopping fussing when he felt Pythagoras taking his sandals off and sorting out the mess that Hercules had left the blanket in that morning, but Pythagoras ignored that as well.
Hercules didn’t even bother to say anything when he heard Pythagoras leave and then come back again, and place something on the table beside his bed. Hercules knew, from past experience, that would be the cup of water that Pythagoras insisted he would need if he woke in the night. Of course, the chances of him waking any time before late morning were slim. He vaguely suspected that when he did, he would wake to the scent of one of Pythagoras’ most potent hangover remedies.
Which was all very nice, but he still missed Helena.
Hercules groaned. Bed was comfortable, and he had just been drifting off back to sleep. “What?”
“I asked you to tidy the house while I was at the market, and you’re still in bed!”
Hercules opened his eyes and peered at Pythagoras. The boy was glaring at him from the bedroom doorway.
“I thought you were doing it.”
“Why? Because I’m the only one in this house who has ever tidied up for the last three years? Because I’m the only one who even knows where the cleaning stuff is kept? It’s on the bottom shelf in the kitchen, by the way.”
Hercules made a disgruntled sound and wondered what his chances of getting back to sleep might be.
“You know, Hercules, just once, it might be nice if you helped!”
“Oh, shut up. You’re like a nagging old woman.”
That was met with a momentary silence. Hercules closed his eyes and turned over.
“Maybe I am,” Pythagoras muttered. “But at least I’m not a lazy, drunken old fool.”
The bedroom door slammed shut. Hercules ignored it. It was usually the best way when Pythagoras got into one of those moods.
Hercules was frantically packing when Pythagoras came in. The boy looked entirely too happy considering they were about to be homeless.
“You don’t need to worry any more about Diocles. I’ve sorted it,” Pythagoras announced.
Hercules paused in the middle of shoving clothes into a bag and looked up.
“I’ve paid off your debt. In full. You don’t owe Diocles anything, and the house is safe.”
Hercules took a moment to process that, his brain turning it over several times and examining the statement until he was certain that Pythagoras had said what he thought he had said.
“You’ve paid off my debt?” Hercules finally asked.
Pythagoras nodded, looking about as pleased with himself as Hercules had ever seen him.
Hercules felt a grin forming. He covered the distance across the room in a couple of strides and grabbed Pythagoras into a hug that lifted the boy off his feet.
“You are brilliant!”
“I know,” Pythagoras said, still grinning, although the grin was rapidly becoming a grimace. “Um, Hercules, can you put me down and stop squeezing, please? I quite like having circulation in my arms.”
Hercules did put him down, but not before one final squeeze.
“This calls for a celebration!”
Hercules looked round for the nearest flagon, but then he stopped, and turned back to Pythagoras, frowning.
“Hang on. Where did you find that much money?”
For a moment the only word Hercules could find to describe Pythagoras’ expression was ‘shifty’.
“I, um, had some savings. And I called in some favours from people. And I sold a few things.”
Hercules narrowed his eyes. As far as he knew, Pythagoras didn’t have very many possessions which were that valuable.
“Well, some jewellery. And... um... andmyfather’ssword.”
“Your what? Why?”
“It was no use to me anyway. And it was the only thing I had that was worth enough to make up the full amount. So I sold it.”
“But that was...”
There were not many things that were capable of making Hercules speechless. Pythagoras selling the last remaining link to his dead father to pay off Hercules’ debt turned out to be one of those things.
Pythagoras shrugged again, not meeting Hercules’ eye.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does matter.”
Pythagoras suddenly looked up, his eyes fierce.
“It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we still have a home. That’s the important thing.”
There was a look in his eye, as if he were daring Hercules to challenge him.
For a moment Hercules studied his friend. Pythagoras looked... older. How had he not noticed the boy wasn’t so much of a boy any more?
Hercules shook that thought away, and then wrapped his arms around Pythagoras and hugged him again. What the hell was he supposed to say? ‘Thank you’ just didn’t seem adequate to cover it. ‘You’re a good friend’, while being completely true, was also the understatement of the year. So he hugged him, and placed a gentle kiss on Pythagoras’ forehead, and hoped that his friend understood everything that he couldn’t find the words for.
Pythagoras returned the hug, and patted Hercules’ back.
“Oh! I just remembered!”
Pythagoras disentangled himself from Hercules and went to the bag he had dumped on the table.
“When I was calling in favours, Lysander couldn’t give me any money, but he could give me a pie. Well, actually, his wife gave me a pie. And anyway, that meant I could use some of the money that I had put aside for food to pay Diocles.” He turned back with a large pie and a soft smile. “You said something about a celebration?”
If Hercules hadn’t loved the boy before this moment, he was fairly certain he would have fallen right at that moment.
He inhaled the aroma of warm pie. Today was turning into the best day he’d had for months. He grinned.
Hercules wasn’t sure what had woken him. He lay in the darkness listening, and eventually heard it again.
Pythagoras was talking in his sleep. Or at least, Hercules assumed he was asleep. Pythagoras had been unusually quiet and withdrawn recently, and if the dark circles around his eyes were any indication, Hercules suspected that he hadn’t been sleeping well. But this was new. Unless, of course, Hercules had simply been so drunk he had slept through it on previous occasions.
He got up and crept into the main room and paused at the door to Pythagoras’ room. Pythagoras was curled up and, yes, he was indeed mumbling something. From the expression on his face, and the way the blanket was screwed up and tangled around him, Hercules guessed that whatever he was dreaming about, it was not pleasant.
For a moment he hesitated. Should he wake the boy up, or leave him alone? Knowing Pythagoras, he would probably just be embarrassed and deny there was anything wrong if Hercules did wake him.
Hercules had turned to go when he heard something that made him stop.
Shit. He knew that sword business was going to come back and bite them. Probably dredged up all the memories after all this time. One thing was for sure; Hercules couldn’t just walk away and leave him to his nightmares.
He crouched at Pythagoras’ side and gently touched his shoulder.
Pythagoras’ eyes snapped open and he lashed out, his hand catching Hercules on the chin. They both shouted something, and before Hercules could do anything Pythagoras had flailed out of bed away from him and scrambled backwards until he hit the wall, his eyes wide and staring and quite obviously seeing something that was not the inside of his bedroom.
“Pythagoras, it’s okay, it’s me.”
Hercules approached slowly, his hands held out to the sides.
Pythagoras stared at him and for a second there was no recognition in his eyes. Then, finally, he seemed to realise where he was. He curled up into a ball, hugged his knees, and started to cry.
Hercules stopped. This... this was new. Pythagoras was always so together, so sensible, so calm. He didn’t do this. More to the point, Hercules knew he was crap at offering comfort. It was the middle of the night, he was in uncharted territory, and he had absolutely no idea what to do.
Pythagoras whimpered quietly into his knees, and Hercules did the only thing he could. He went over, sat down on the floor next to him, and put his arm around the boy’s shoulders.
He felt Pythagoras stiffen for a moment, possibly because he was as surprised as Hercules. For an awkward moment Hercules wondered if he had done entirely the wrong thing. Then Pythagoras relaxed again, and scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
Hercules squeezed his shoulder.
“You’re all right. It was just a dream, that’s all.”
For a second Pythagoras’ breath seemed to catch. Then he let it out, and nodded.
Hercules waited, but it seemed no details were going to be forthcoming. Pythagoras wasn’t usually reticent if he wanted to talk about something, so Hercules took that as a sign this wasn’t something he should push. Which, to be honest, was a relief, because what the hell was Hercules supposed to say if the lad did start talking about what had happened to his father? There was sod all either of them could do about it, and raking up the past wasn’t going to help Pythagoras get a decent night’s sleep.
Instead, Hercules just squeezed his shoulder again.
“You’re all right,” he repeated.
Pythagoras nodded again. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, he uncurled himself enough that he could turn and rest his head on Hercules’ shoulder. After the initial surprise, Hercules wrapped both arms around him and murmured meaningless words of comfort and let the boy calm down properly.
He wasn’t sure how long they sat there like that. He eventually became aware that Pythagoras had stopped shaking, although the occasional sniffle suggested he wasn’t entirely composed just yet.
The only answer was a quiet, slightly wet-sounding snuffle.
Hercules let go with one arm and shifted enough that he could look down and see his friend’s face. Pythagoras’ eyes were closed.
“Oi,” Hercules said softly. “You can’t go to sleep there. Come on; let’s get you back to bed.”
He tried to push the boy off and stand up, but Pythagoras made a vague sound of distress and wrapped a skinny arm around Hercules’ waist.
“No, come on.”
Hercules tried again, but Pythagoras refused to move. He burrowed his face against Hercules’ shoulder and mumbled something that sounded like, “Please don’t leave me.”
Hercules sat back down with a sigh. He wasn’t going to refuse a request like that, but at the same time he couldn’t stay sitting on the floor all night. It was already playing havoc with his back. Maybe just another few minutes. He would let the boy calm down a bit more, and then get him back to bed.
Pythagoras wriggled a little, and settled again.
Just a few more minutes.
Hercules gradually realised that Pythagoras’ breathing had taken on the slow, steady rhythm of sleep. His fingers loosened their death grip tangle in Hercules’ tunic. This time, his sleep seemed undisturbed.
They stayed like that all night.
Another year, another round of offerings to the Minotaur, and Hercules still hadn’t got round to leaving the city, despite his promises in so many previous years.
As he and Pythagoras walked away, smiling at each other in relief, the throne room echoed with an anguished wail. They both hesitated for a second, and then quickened their pace to escape the palace and get home.
The unfortunate woman had been directly behind them in the queue. That was too close. Far too close.
Hercules renewed his vow to leave before the next time.
He wondered if Pythagoras would come with him.
Pythagoras didn’t even look up from the scatter of scrolls and parchment on his desk.
“Dinner! Food. I’m starving.”
“Yes. In a minute.”
He still hadn’t actually looked up. Hercules suspected he wasn’t even listening.
The boy glanced up. He looked vaguely startled at Hercules’ presence in the room, despite the fact they had been having what almost passed for a conversation for the last minute.
“Dinner,” Hercules reminded him. He had been out all day haggling with traders, and Pythagoras had said something that morning about cooking a stew, which Hercules had to admit he might possibly have been looking forward to for the last hour or so.
“Oh.” Pythagoras looked puzzled. “Why, what time is it?”
“Oh, right.” He seemed to be pondering something for a moment. Then he turned his attention back to the scroll in front of him, and the myriad triangles and numbers scrawled across it. “I’ll be there in a minute. I just want to finish this.”
“Have you even moved from that desk since I left you this morning?”
Hercules rolled his eyes, and gave up. He searched the kitchen until he found some bread and cheese. Something told him there would be no stew today.
“Hercules? Have you taken money from my room?”
“You need to find a better hiding place for your valuables. The back corner of the shelf is too obvious.”
Pythagoras marched into the main room and glared at Hercules.
“So you did take it.”
“I borrowed it,” Hercules corrected. He was only half listening to Pythagoras, his mind still back in the tavern and a rather successful bout of gambling he had spent the afternoon involved in.
“No. ‘Borrowed’ implies that you asked me first, and that you intend to give it back at some point. And we both know that neither of those are true.”
Something in Pythagoras’ voice made Hercules actually look up and pay attention. His normally quiet and easy going housemate was... annoyed. That was probably more of a surprise than it ought to have been.
“I’ll pay you back,” he said, aiming for mollifying, but probably sounding rather more like indignant.
“That’s what you said last time. And the time before that. And I have yet to see any of it back!”
“Yes, well, about that-”
“I don’t want to hear it!” Pythagoras snapped. “I’m sure you have a hundred perfectly good reasons why you don’t have it, or how you’ll get it next week. But in the meantime, that was the money I intended to use to buy more medicinal supplies. And now I can’t. So I hope whatever it was that you spent it on was worth it, because the next time you have a hangover, or the next time you injure yourself wrestling I won’t be able to fix it because I have no bloody herbs!”
He grabbed his cloak and walked out. The door slammed behind him far harder than was strictly necessary.
Hercules stared at the door for all of ten seconds, his mouth hanging open.
Well, that was uncalled for!
He reached for his belt pouch, which made a very satisfying chinking noise with all of that afternoon’s winnings. Hercules carefully counted out the money he had borrowed and put it back on the shelf behind the big jar.
Then he went to the market in search of wine and pie.
“Did I ever tell you the story about how I defeated Pyrax and his attack-trained guard lizards?”
“Yes. You did. At least three times.”
Hercules frowned. Pythagoras was normally more accommodating than that. Mind you, Pythagoras was normally a lot more sober than he currently was, which possibly explained it.
Pythagoras and alcohol didn’t usually go together, and Hercules had been quite amused by how little it took to get the lad completely pissed. Mind, it was unusually potent wine he had brought home on this occasion. And Pythagoras had partaken of rather more than he usually did, because he was happy about some breakthrough to do with triangles that Hercules hadn’t actually listened to after the first five words, but he was more than willing to share his wine when it appeared the lad wanted to celebrate.
“In fact,” Pythagoras swayed towards him and poked him in the shoulder. “Every time you tell it, there are more attack-trained guard lizards, and the wall that you climbed over is even higher, and Pyrax seems to gain extra magic powers. Even though we both know he was actually a merchant with no magic powers at all.”
“Are you accusing me of lying?” Hercules blustered. Of course, his protest was more for show, and because it was what Pythagoras expected him to do, than because he actually thought Pythagoras would believe his story. He suspected his cover was well and truly blown on this one.
Pythagoras frowned and thought about that one for a surprisingly long time.
“No,” Pythagoras eventually said. “But I do think that you are emblish... embol... embellishing it. A bit.”
“And you think the great bards never embellished their tales? You think all those heroic ballads happened exactly as the bards tell it? Eh?”
Pythagoras frowned again, and was still trying to work that one out when Hercules poured out the last of the wine flagon. Most of it went into his own cup, because no matter how amusing his young friend was right then, quite frankly Hercules wasn’t looking forward to dealing with Pythagoras’ hangover in the morning.
“So, anyway,” Hercules continued, as if he had never been interrupted. “There I was, wondering just how to get over the wall of his estate. It must have been more than the height of three men-”
“It was the height of two men last time.”
“Who’s telling this story?”
Pythagoras gave him an indulgent smile, and rolled his eyes.
“Go on then, Hercules. It was the height of three men. Three very tall men.”
“Exactly. And I knew that behind it there lay a pack of attack-trained lizards, capable of ripping a man limb from limb...”
“There were ten of them last time,” Pythagoras supplied. He probably thought he was being helpful.
It was Hercules’ turn to roll his eyes.
“Yes, a pack of ten attack-trained lizards, lying in wait...”
Pythagoras finished the last of his wine, and leaned against Hercules’ shoulder. He occasionally provided comments about exactly how many guards there were in previous tellings, or reminded him that the attack-trained lizard had bitten his leg, not his arm the last time. But mostly he laughed in the right places, and agreed emphatically about how evil Pyrax was, and tried to steal the last dregs of Hercules’ wine.
Hercules had nearly finished the story when he was interrupted by what could only be described as a snore. He looked down, and realised that Pythagoras had slumped against his shoulder, and was fast asleep.
Well, that was hardly complimentary about his storytelling skills!
Hercules tried to gently nudge him awake. Pythagoras snuffled, and made himself comfortable in a position that just resulted in his fluffy hair tickling Hercules’ neck.
He pushed Pythagoras far away enough that he could stand up, and then simply picked the boy up and carried him to his room and put him to bed. Pythagoras stirred once, and then fell back into the deep sleep of the inexperienced drunk.
Hercules absolutely did not watch him sleep for a while before he finally took himself off to bed, with a promise that he would finish the story properly some other night.
A white stone. Hercules gripped it tight and walked away, breathing easily again. He was so busy offering silent thanks to the gods that it took him a moment to realise that Pythagoras was still standing at the bull headed jar. What the hell was taking so long? When his friend finally turned around, the look on his face was enough. Hercules didn’t want to look, didn’t want to acknowledge it, but his eyes were drawn downwards to the stone in Pythagoras’ hand.
It was black.
Hercules jerked awake. He stared into the darkness of his room, dark, black, like the stone.
A dream. Just a dream. His heart was still racing, and he had to concentrate on breathing until the image began to fade.
It wasn’t real. It was just a dream. A nightmare. And Hercules the great hero was not afraid of stupid nightmares.
He told himself he was going to get a drink of water when he got up and went into the main room. And he told himself he was just checking for no reason when he paused by Pythagoras’ bedroom door.
Of course, he was still there, sleeping peacefully.
Just a stupid bloody dream. The lots weren’t going to be drawn until the day after tomorrow. Or possibly tomorrow, he wasn’t entirely sure.
Hercules suddenly came to a decision. This year he wasn’t leaving it to chance. He would visit the Oracle.
Several hours later, sitting on the rocks outside the city gates and watching the sea, Hercules almost wished he hadn’t gone to the Oracle.
It is your destiny to go to the labyrinth and face the Minotaur.
The words still echoed in his head, going round and round, even while part of him refused to believe that it was possible.
And yet somehow, even after the Oracle’s words, the one thing that kept coming back to haunt him was that bloody dream of Pythagoras and the black stone. They couldn’t both be destined to draw black stones, could they? No doubt Pythagoras would say the statistical probability of that happening was so remote as to be practically impossible.
Practically impossible. But not completely impossible.
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t go into the palace tomorrow and take the chance. He wasn’t prepared to die yet. And he wasn’t prepared to let Pythagoras die, either. He would leave the city. Actually do it this time as well, curfew be damned. And he would persuade Pythagoras to come with him. It would be a hard sell, he knew, but he had to at least try.
He just hoped that bloody fugitive was gone by the time he got home. He wouldn’t be able to talk Pythagoras into anything with some stranger hanging around. It would be just their luck that he was actually some spy who would go running to the city guards if he knew of their plans to escape. Honestly, what the hell had Pythagoras been thinking?
Hercules shook his head. No, he knew exactly what Pythagoras had been thinking. The stranger had been injured, and Pythagoras never could resist his mother hen instincts when faced with someone in need of medical help. Also, Hercules had to admit, the stranger was pretty. Very pretty. He absently wondered if that might have appealed to some of Pythagoras’ other instincts as well. Then he rapidly came to the conclusion that he really didn’t want to follow that thought very far, lest it lead to mental images he was happier not having.
He stood up, took one more look out to sea, and then headed back into Atlantis.
Hercules was sure of one thing – one way or another, today, everything was going to change.