Just squeaking in before the deadline, here's one more Atlantis hc_bingo fic. This fic was originally intended to be written for the Major Character Death Fest, but that got cancelled, but then I got 'Mercy Killing' on my round seven h/c bingo card which fitted the idea perfectly so I went ahead and wrote it anyway.
I'm still not sure about the title, but I've literally spent the last two hours staring at an otherwise completed fic trying to think of a title, and I'm running out of time before the deadline so I pretty much gave up.
Pairing/characters: Pythagoras, Hercules, Ariadne, Jason (Jason/Ariadne)
Warnings: Major character death, sort of euthanasia.
Spoilers: episode 2.5 – The Day of the Dead
Disclaimer: Not mine. BBC and Urban Myth Films own them.
Word count: approx 5860
Summary: “It seems if we are bitten, we become one of them.”
AN: Written for hc_bingo, fills the ‘Mercy Killing’ prompt on my h/c bingo card
AN2: Thanks to fififolle for the beta. Set during episode 2.5, goes AU from the middle of the episode.
Remembrance on AO3
“It seems if we are bitten, we become one of them.”
The words almost stuck in his throat. It was a terrible thought, and an even more terrible fate. Just this once, Pythagoras wished that he might be wrong, that in his exhausted state he might have missed something, but it was the only possible logical conclusion based on the evidence he had witnessed since they entered the necropolis.
It was the tone of Hercules’ voice that caught his attention more than the words, and Pythagoras’ heart stuttered. But Hercules wasn’t looking at him, and Pythagoras followed his gaze to the blood on Ariadne’s arm.
No. Not her. Please not Ariadne as well.
“What is it?” Ariadne asked.
“Did he bite you?” Pythagoras asked urgently.
“I don’t know. I fell.”
Pythagoras moved closer.
Ariadne held her arm out and Pythagoras breathed again when he saw the truth.
“It’s a cut. It’s just a cut.”
The sighs of relief around the tomb were audible. It just made what he had to say next even harder.
“Unfortunately, this is not a cut.” Pythagoras held out his right arm. It was easier to keep his gaze focussed on the blood than on his friends when he spoke. “Diagoras bit me.”
Pythagoras wasn’t sure exactly what reaction he had expected to that, but the complete silence in the tomb unnerved him enough that after a few moments he felt the need to fill it with what he knew was superfluous information.
“It must have been when we were struggling, when I was trying to hold Diagoras back from attacking Orpheus and Eurydice. In all the confusion, I did not realise what happened until afterwards.”
The pain in Ariadne’s voice was what made him finally look up and acknowledge them, but whatever Ariadne had been intending to say, she did not get the chance.
“No.” Hercules shook his head. “No. There must be something you can do.”
Hercules’ denial was almost comforting in its predictability.
“I truly wish there was.”
Hercules shook his head again.
“There must be. Come on, Pythagoras, somewhere in that brain of yours there has to be a cure. You have to think of something.”
His words were almost an exact echo of another time, another conversation when they had sat looking at a small black stone. Pythagoras closed his eyes for a moment. Jason. Jason could not save him this time. He wasn’t even sure he would have the chance to see the man again.
He opened his eyes and held Hercules’ gaze.
“If we were in Atlantis with access to the library, and medicines, and several days of research time, then perhaps yes I might be able to discover something. But I am afraid that here and now we have none of those things.”
“Then we have to find a way to slow it down, to give you more time.” Hercules was becoming more and more desperate, and if the expression on Ariadne’s face was anything to go by they could all hear it in his voice. “Couldn’t we put a tourniquet around your arm, above the bite, to stop it spreading? Or if that doesn’t work we could cut your arm off. Now, I know it sounds extreme but if it stops that infection or whatever it is spreading to the rest of you then we will do it.”
“I do not think it works like that, I’m afraid,” Pythagoras said softly.
For a few moments there was silence. Then Hercules hurled his sword at the wall with a cry of anguish. Pythagoras flinched, even though he had been expecting something like this. Hercules turned and slammed his fist against the nearest surface.
“Hercules, please.” He hesitated. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t, Pythagoras. Don’t you dare.”
Hercules sounded broken already, and he hadn’t even heard the worst of it yet.
Ariadne came closer.
“What do you need?” she asked.
The steadiness of her voice belied the pain in her eyes, and Pythagoras was never more grateful for the calm resolve and ability to hide her emotions that came with being queen. Somebody had to remain calm, and right then Pythagoras wasn’t sure he himself was going to be able to manage it for much longer. Especially not if Hercules carried on like this.
Pythagoras focussed his attention on Ariadne.
“From what I have seen with Dion and Diagoras, I believe I will lose consciousness within a few hours. After that, the next time I wake up I will no longer be myself. I will not know or recognise you as friends. My only thought, if indeed I have any thoughts at all, will be to attack.” He hesitated and swallowed, his mouth dry. “I do not wish that to happen. I do not want to be allowed to turn on you like that. Once I have lost consciousness, one of you will have to ensure that I do not wake up again.”
As he spoke he turned to look at Hercules. He had said, ‘one of you’, but that was not what he meant.
It took Hercules a moment to understand, and when he did, he physically stepped back away from him.
“No. Please Pythagoras. Do not ask that of me.”
Pythagoras went to him and took hold of his arms, holding him there.
“Hercules, believe me, this is not something that I ask lightly. But you are my oldest, dearest friend. It has to be you.” He almost smiled as he remembered that other time, that other conversation as they contemplated another death sentence. “Hercules, please. If this is to be my fate, then there is no one with whom I would rather spend my last few hours.”
After a moment, Hercules nodded, and Pythagoras could see the promise in his eyes that he would do it. Before Pythagoras could reply, Hercules wrapped his arms around him and pulled him into a crushing hug. Pythagoras held him, and for a moment he wasn’t sure which of them was trying to comfort the other. He wasn’t sure it even mattered, and for a while he simply let himself draw strength from his friend.
“Thank you,” Pythagoras whispered.
Eventually he let go and pulled away, not unaware that Hercules seemed unwilling to let go for another few seconds.
He looked around for Ariadne.
“How do you want to do this?” she asked.
Pythagoras had been considering this while they had been talking, and had already settled on what he thought was the best plan.
“I think it would be better if Hercules and I go into the tomb next door. My primary concern is to make sure that no one else suffers this fate, so it would be safer for you if it did not happen right here, in case things do not go as planned. But at the same time I appreciate that leaves you and Orpheus and Eurydice unprotected. So at least if we are nearby Hercules is within shouting distance if there is any danger.”
All of that was true, and the safety of his queen was a high priority for him, but it was not the only reason. There was a selfish part of Pythagoras that wanted this to be just himself and Hercules at the end. No matter how calm he was attempting to be outwardly, inside he could feel his fear, despair, and even anger building at the thought of what was coming. He did not want anyone else to witness it should his resolve fail.
If ever he was going to be selfish, and call in the many debts he was owed, he felt now was the time to do it.
He looked around. “You should take my sword,” he said to Ariadne. “I have no further use of it, and it might help you.”
He glanced down at his arm. The wound was becoming dark and inflamed, and already he could feel a heat building under his skin, a sensation that was not quite pain spreading throughout his arm and towards his shoulder.
“I believe as soon as possible would be best.”
He said a quiet farewell to Orpheus and Eurydice, gathered what few of his things were of use or value into a pathetically small pile, and turned back to his friends.
The force and unexpectedness of Ariadne’s hug caught him by surprise, and almost succeeded in breaking the stoic mask he was fighting so hard to keep in place. He held it, just, and carefully put his arms around her, acutely aware that she was both his queen, and his friend’s true love.
“You did not deserve this fate,” Ariadne said with a fierce, bitter edge to her voice.
“I do not think anyone deserves this fate,” Pythagoras replied.
Dion hadn’t. Diagoras, who had only got involved because he was kind and generous enough to offer help to a group of strangers in distress, certainly hadn’t deserved it.
“You have always been brave and loyal, Pythagoras, and you have served me far beyond what I had any right to ask of you. When we return to Atlantis, you will be honoured. Your name, and your deeds, will not be forgotten. I swear it by Poseidon. You will be honoured.”
Pythagoras swallowed and hugged her a little tighter.
“The honour was mine, your highness.”
He let go and tried to step away, but Ariadne took hold of his hands and kept him close.
“Is there nothing I can do?”
He wasn’t sure whether it was Ariadne’s words, or simply the knowledge of his own impending fate that made him bold, but Pythagoras replied, “There is perhaps one thing.”
“Someone will need to take care of Jason and Hercules in my absence. Would you watch over them? Try to keep them out of trouble for me?”
Ariadne smiled a little.
“I’m not sure even the gods themselves can keep those two out of trouble, but yes, I will try.”
Pythagoras laughed at that, and after a moment Ariadne joined him, although it was a choked, slightly wet sounding laugh. In that moment, Pythagoras mourned for the friendship that would never have chance to grow between them.
He let go of Ariadne’s hands and took one last look around the chamber. Then he turned to where Hercules was waiting at the mouth of the tomb.
“Are you ready?”
“No,” Hercules said. But then he turned and walked out of the tomb, and Pythagoras followed him.
“Do you remember when we first met?” Hercules said.
They had sat down, side by side, and got comfortable, or as comfortable as it was possible to get in a recently vacated tomb in an underground necropolis full of walking dead, and then... nothing. Hercules wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to do, what Pythagoras wanted him to do before that one last act that Hercules was trying very hard not to think about. But if there was one thing that Hercules couldn’t deal with right now it was silence.
“Of course.” Beside him, Pythagoras shuffled slightly and settled again, his knees drawn up and his head resting against the wall.
“I thought you were a right scrawny, naive idiot. I thought you wouldn’t last five minutes in Atlantis on your own.”
“Whereas it took me all of two days to realise that you really were an idiot.”
“Hey!” Hercules nudged him with his shoulder, and Pythagoras chuckled.
“An idiot with the biggest, most generous heart of any friend I have ever known,” Pythagoras qualified.
“And don’t you forget it.”
Pythagoras hesitated and then nudged him back.
“Of course, there’s also the fact that you steal my money, eat all the food, and never, ever do any housework. In fact, remind me again why I like you?”
“Because I’m the only one who will put up with your incessant chatter about bloody triangles, that’s why.”
“Well, look on the bright side; you won’t have to do that any more.”
Hercules tensed, and Pythagoras must have noticed.
“Sorry,” Pythagoras muttered. “That probably wasn’t the most tactful thing to say.”
Hercules remained silent, his gaze fixed on a spot on the wall where the torchlight was catching on something. All his attention, every other sense was focussed on the man sitting at his side, but right then he couldn’t look at him. Hercules feared if he did that, he would not get through this.
“Things were simpler back then, weren’t they?” Hercules eventually said. “Before Jason came. When it was just the two of us.”
“Simpler. Less exciting. Significantly less dangerous.”
“The biggest thing I had to worry about was which tavern I needed to come and rescue you from on any given night.”
Hercules smiled. Good memories. So many years of memories.
“Do you regret it?”
“Regret what?” Pythagoras asked.
“Jason. Taking him in. Everything that’s happened since then.”
Pythagoras was quiet for a moment.
“No. I don’t regret it at all.”
“Will you tell him I said that?” Pythagoras said after a moment. “You know. When he finds out what happened to me and inevitably decides to blame himself.”
It didn’t escape Hercules’ attention that Pythagoras was assuming Jason was still alive. Or maybe Pythagoras was just saying that to make Hercules feel better, to make sure he didn’t give up on their missing friend.
And just like that Hercules couldn’t keep it in any longer.
“Stop it, Pythagoras. For once, just stop.” The words burst out, angry and bitter.
“Stop what?” He sounded honestly bewildered.
“Being like this. Thinking of everyone else but yourself. Why are you being so bloody calm about all of this? Why aren’t you scared? Or angry? Because I bloody am.”
For a long time Pythagoras remained silent. Hercules forced himself to turn and look at him. Pythagoras was watching him.
“Do you really think I am not feeling any of those things right now?” he said, his voice quiet. “And if you want to know the truth, if it will make you any happier, I am not remaining calm for your sake. Right now I am being selfish, because yes, if I wanted to I could shout, scream, throw things, rage at the gods. But what good would it do? I am being calm because what I really want to spend this time doing is talking, and laughing and remembering the good things. So you see, I am really being incredibly selfish.”
That may have been true, but Hercules knew that he was also trying to be calm for Hercules’ sake.
He still wanted to rage, nothing Pythagoras said was going to change that. But he forced himself to keep it under control. He could do that for him, at least.
Hercules sat back beside him and sighed.
“We never did find you a woman.” He surprised himself at how steady his voice was.
“You weren’t actually looking for one for me. That was Jason, remember?”
Pythagoras was silent for a moment.
“It’s not actually women that I’m interested in, to be honest.”
Despite everything, Hercules chuckled.
“You do? Since when?” Pythagoras sounded honestly surprised.
“Oh, come on. I’m not a complete idiot, Pythagoras. I’ve known for a while, and suspected for a long time before that.”
“How?” There was genuine interest in his voice now, like this was an interesting logic puzzle that he wanted to understand.
“Well, there’s the fact that you’ve never shown any interest at all in women, no matter how beautiful they were. There’s the way you used to look at Jason, especially when he used to wander around half dressed. And there’s the way you’ve started looking at that pretty friend of yours recently. Kind of a fairly big clue.”
This time Pythagoras was the one who chuckled.
“I hadn’t realised I was being so obvious.”
“Only to the people who know you.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
Hercules shrugged. The truth was, while they had all laughed at his jokes about Pythagoras’ lack of romantic experience in general, Hercules had never been entirely sure how Pythagoras would react to anything that was more pointed, closer to the mark, especially considering that he was obviously making an effort to keep his preference hidden. Add to that the fact that Hercules had never quite worked out if Jason had realised or not, and he had simply decided that it was not worth the risk of genuinely hurting Pythagoras by making a joke of it.
But he couldn’t put any of that into words, even now. So instead he deflected.
“So, you and that lad, Icarus? Anything going on there?”
Pythagoras sighed. “Sadly, no.”
“Shame. He’s nice looking.”
They both laughed at that.
“So why didn’t you make a move on him?”
“Because, as you have reminded me on several occasions, I am a fool with no knowledge of love.”
Well, at least he finally admitted it.
“You could have asked me for advice.”
“You? You would probably have told me to get him drunk and jump on him!”
“It would have got his attention.”
“It might also have got me punched.”
“It might also have got you laid. Have you considered that, eh?”
Beside him, Pythagoras gave another quiet sigh.
“I don’t suppose we’ll find out either way now.”
Hercules sobered again, and for a little while neither of them said anything. It was Pythagoras who eventually spoke.
“When you get back, will you tell Icarus what happened to me? Not the details, obviously, because he doesn’t need to know that. I know it’s asking a lot of you, but I don’t want him to find out via rumour, or from a stranger.”
It was the last thing Hercules wanted to think about doing, but he could hardly say that.
“I’ll tell him you died doing something stupid.”
“I’d rather you told him I died doing something heroic.”
“Yes, like I said. Doing something stupid.”
Pythagoras laughed, and then started to shuffle and fidget until he finally settled down leaning against Hercules’ side, his head on Hercules’ shoulder.
“Are you quite finished getting comfy?”
Hercules glanced down and realised Pythagoras’ eyes were closed. Panic flared and he elbowed him hard in the ribs.
“Oi! You’re not going to sleep yet.”
Pythagoras looked up at him and managed a smile.
“No, not yet.” He got that look that usually meant he was considering something important. “While we’re on the subject of stupid and heroic, will you take care of Jason for me? I mean, I know you will anyway, but at least try to talk some sense into him when he’s being particularly idiotic.”
“It’s not like he ever listens to either of us these days anyway. I don’t know what makes you think he’ll listen to me.”
“He used to listen to us.” Pythagoras hesitated. “I’m worried about him, Hercules.”
“Me too,” Hercules admitted.
“Which is why you need to keep an eye on him for me. And Ariadne as well.”
“You’re getting very demanding, you know?”
Pythagoras’ smile was unexpectedly mischievous.
“I know. I believe the phrase you’re looking for is, ‘milking it’.”
Whatever expression was on Hercules’ face at that comment, the mischievousness slipped away, but Pythagoras’ soft smile remained.
“Do you remember that time you got turned into a pig?”
It was obvious, and not even subtle, but Hercules could recognise an attempt to steer things back in a safer direction when he was offered it.
“What about that time you stepped on my prize winning beetle? And then tried to pretend that some other random beetle was Astrabacus?”
“All beetles look the same.”
Hercules humphed and pretended to look affronted.
“And what about that time you got captured by Scythians because they caught you eating their lunch?”
“It was a bloody tasty boar, I’ll give them that.”
“Not the first time your stomach has got you into trouble.”
“No, and it probably won’t be the last either.”
When Pythagoras didn’t reply, Hercules looked down. Pythagoras’ eyes were closed again Hercules shook him, hard.
“I’m tired,” he said, his eyes still closed.
“No. No, you’ve got to stay awake.”
Not yet, it couldn’t be yet, surely? Pythagoras had said it would be a couple of hours, and Hercules was sure that couldn’t have passed already. Besides, Diagoras had lasted longer than that, hadn’t he? But then, Diagoras had been relatively fit and healthy when he was attacked. Pythagoras was already weakened and exhausted from the ambush in the ravine, their trek through the desert with no food and little water. And then there was all the time he had spent taking care of Dion and then Diagoras, and every bugger else apart from himself. Did that mean Pythagoras was more susceptible? That it would happen faster?
Hercules shook him again. Pythagoras opened his eyes and looked up at him, but Hercules could tell it took more effort this time.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m tired.”
“I know. Just hang on a bit longer, eh?”
Pythagoras nodded, and Hercules put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and held him.
He needed to think of something to talk about. Something that would get his attention.
“Do you remember that time Jason got turned into a dog, and kept turning up naked and bewildered?”
Pythagoras smiled. “How could I forget? Naked and bewildered is a good look on him.”
“No, Pythagoras. It’s not a good look on anyone. Besides, I think you’re biased.”
“Maybe just a little bit.”
Why was it only now that they could talk about this? Why hadn’t he said something sooner? Why had Pythagoras felt the need to keep this whole part of himself hidden for so long?
“Do you...” Pythagoras trailed off and frowned. His eyes were closed again. “Do you remember that time we accidentally set fire to the workshop?”
“What?” Hercules searched his memories, but that one didn’t sound familiar. It was possible he’d been drunk, of course, but still.
“Daedalus went mad.”
Oh. That explained why Hercules didn’t remember.
“I think that must have been you and Icarus, not me.”
“Oh. Yes. Icarus.” Pythagoras’ eyelids fluttered but did not open. “Tell... tell Icarus...”
Hercules sensed the change the moment it happened. One second Pythagoras was simply resting against his shoulder, the next he was slumped against him. This time Hercules didn’t even try to wake him. He knew it would be futile.
For a long time he simply sat there, watching the gentle rise and fall of Pythagoras’ chest as he breathed. Eventually, when he was certain beyond doubt that he was unconscious and not simply asleep, Hercules shifted Pythagoras so that he was lying on the ground. Hercules wondered if he ought to say something, but there were no more words. He leaned down and placed a soft kiss on Pythagoras’ forehead.
Then he picked up his sword and pushed the blade through his friend’s heart.
Hercules was still sitting there, cradling Pythagoras’ body in his arms, when Jason returned.
“I don’t think he’s been sober since we got back from the necropolis.”
The despair in Jason’s voice was evident, and Ariadne reached across and took his hand.
“I don’t know how to help him,” Jason continued. His gaze was fixed on their joined hands, as if he couldn’t bring himself to look up and meet her eyes. As if he were trying to hide the pain that she knew would be there.
“I know they were close.”
“Close doesn’t even begin to describe them. They were friends for years before I even came to Atlantis. I can’t even imagine one of them without the other. Hercules... he wasn’t this bad when he lost Medusa. And back then Pythagoras was the only one who could get through to him.”
“Have you tried talking to him?”
“Of course I have,” Jason snapped.
He immediately looked up, and it was all there in his eyes; the guilt, the despair, the worry. The pain.
“Sorry,” Jason said. “I didn’t mean to-”
“Shush, I know. Hercules is not the only one who is grieving. I would be a poor ruler, fiancé and friend if I took offence at anything you said when you are in this state.”
For a moment his lips formed the ghost of a smile at the word fiancé, although his expression still suggested he couldn’t quite believe it was real. Then it was gone again and the guilt was back. No doubt he thought there should be no room for happiness in his heart right then.
That was when Ariadne knew she would have to do something herself.
“I will talk to Hercules.” She saw the protest before Jason even spoke, and held a hand up to stop him. “After everything we have been through, I feel I know both of them well enough, but I also have a little distance and can see things more clearly than you right now. I was there in the tomb, I saw what happened. Perhaps he will listen to me.”
“You are the queen of Atlantis. I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You didn’t ask,” Ariadne gently countered. “Besides, I am more than aware that I owe the three of you my life many times over. I think it is long past time that I repaid that debt with more than just gratitude and a purse full of coins.”
That was how she found herself knocking at the door to their little house later that afternoon, her passage through the city streets hidden under a thick, plain-looking cloak with a large hood. There was no answer, but if what Jason had told her over the last few days was true, there was every chance Hercules might not be in a fit state to answer the door. She knocked again, and then carefully pushed at the door. It swung open, and Ariadne stepped inside.
She had been here a couple of times in the past, and despite the sparseness she had always felt a sense of warmth and homeliness here that could rival the palace and all its luxurious furnishings and roaring fires any day. Although perhaps not today.
The house was a mess. The table was littered with unwashed plates and cups, and empty wine flagons were scattered across nearly every available surface. More than one flagon was smashed, one on the floor beside the table, another lay in fragments against the wall, beneath a splattered stain of red on the plaster at head height. It did not take a genius to work out it had been thrown against the wall, and with some force if the scatter of shards was anything to go by.
Jason had often laughed as he described Pythagoras as the tidy one, the domestic one among them, the one who fussed and took care of their little household and everyone in it. Ariadne could well believe it now, looking at the state of the place in his absence.
In the midst of all this was Hercules, sitting at the table and nursing his grief with yet another flagon of wine.
He looked up when Ariadne entered, and frowned for a moment, as if trying to work out who she was, and why she was there.
“Hercules,” she said, coming closer.
Something seemed to penetrate his mind and he sat up straighter.
“Jason? Is he...?”
“Jason is fine,” Ariadne said immediately. She indicated the seat across the table from him. “May I join you?”
Hercules waved his hand at the table in a gesture that appeared to mean yes, and she sat down and pushed the hood back away from her face.
“I may not have been telling the complete truth when I said Jason was fine,” she admitted. When Hercules looked up and met her eyes there was an unexpected suspicion there. “He is worried about you. We both are.”
Hercules grunted and his gaze dropped back down the cup in his hands. He picked it up, hesitated, and then downed the lot in one great swig. He slammed the cup back down, making the abandoned plates and pots jump and clatter.
Ariadne reached across and placed a hand over his.
“Hercules, please. I know you are hurting, but you must know this isn’t helping.” She hesitated, not sure if she should say the obvious. But she needed to get a reaction out of him, to break him out of this stupor. “Is this really what Pythagoras would have wanted for you?”
That got a reaction alright.
Hercules looked up at her and it took all of her composure to sit still and not lean back from the force of anger she could see in his eyes.
“You may be the queen of Atlantis, but don’t you dare try to tell me what he would have wanted.”
“I’m sorry. You are right. You knew Pythagoras better than anyone. You know yourself what he would have thought. But I can tell you what Jason wants. What I want.” She tightened her grip on his hand. “We want you to be alright, because we need you, Hercules. Jason is worried about you, and he is grieving himself as well. And on top of all that we are going to be married and Jason needs you, Hercules. He really needs you. And so do I.”
Hercules stared at her for several seconds, but this time it seemed more confused than angry.
She waited so long that she was beginning to wonder if he would ever answer when Hercules finally spoke.
“Pyth-” he hesitated. “He told me to take care of Jason. And you.”
Ariadne couldn’t help a tiny smile touching her lips. She had suspected as much.
“He asked me to watch out for you and Jason as well,” Ariadne admitted.
For a moment she thought she saw the old Hercules in his eyes. A fond exasperation that she knew he kept solely for Pythagoras.
“He’s a bloody fussing mother hen and when I see him in Hades I’m going to have some pointed words with him.”
At that Ariadne really did smile.
“You and Jason are really getting married? When did that happen?”
“A few days ago. Jason said he had told you, but...”
Hercules shook his head. “He probably did. But I wasn’t listening.”
“You should know, I wanted to wait. I wanted to give you both time. It is only because The Oracle is insisting that we do things quickly that the wedding is being planned already. I mean no disrespect to Pythagoras, or to your need to grieve, Hercules.”
He nodded. “I know. I would never even think for a moment that you did.”
Ariadne hesitated before speaking again, unsure how far she could push it. In the end she decided to say it anyway.
“Pythagoras was a good man, and I will miss him. Not just because he was a useful operative, although he was that. I wish I could truly have called him a friend, but I did not get the chance to know him as well as I would have liked. But I do know how much you and Jason thought of him. His presence will be missed at the wedding. And more than that, his wisdom and intelligence will be missed at court when we are in need of friends and allies and wise counsel.” She squeezed Hercules’ hand again, and when she continued her voice was soft, gentle. “We have already lost Pythagoras. I do not think Jason can take losing you as well.”
Hercules gently tugged his hand away, and then rested his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands. For a horrible moment Ariadne thought he was going to break down right there in front of her. Instead he breathed deeply and scrubbed his hands down his face.
When he opened his eyes again he looked more sober than Ariadne had expected.
“What do you need?”
“We just need you to be what you always have been; a friend. When the time comes, we just need you to be there, Hercules.”
“I’ll be there.”
And when the time came, he was.
Jason let go of his youngest son’s hand and let the boy run ahead. Hercules was sitting on his favourite bench out in the palace gardens. He came out here a lot more these days, Jason had noticed. And as he so often was lately, he appeared to be dozing in the sun. He wouldn’t be for long if little Pytheas had anything to say about it, though.
Besides, Jason had much to discuss with Hercules. His and Ariadne’s tenth wedding anniversary was fast approaching, and they had much to plan. There were games and feasts and visiting dignitaries, and even after ten years as king this kind of thing still did not come easily to Jason.
But the ten years had been, for the most part, good ones. There was peace and prosperity, the people had full bellies, and the city had more allies than it had enemies. Their rule was already being spoken of as a golden age by the people, and the future of their royal line had been secured with the birth of three children. And, true to his word, Hercules had been there, supporting and advising them the whole time.
Of course, their wedding anniversary never failed to remind him of another anniversary, a much less happy event that had happened not long before their marriage. Jason suspected that might be the reason why Hercules was to be found out here, alone, so much more recently. Why this year, in particular, he had been quieter over the last few weeks, and why he had made so many visits to the temple of Poseidon.
Jason felt a flash of guilt. In all his worry about the impending celebrations, he had not made time for Hercules, and they had not found one evening to get together and drink to the memory of their missing friend, as they did every year at around this time. Tonight, without fail, he would make the time.
“He’s asleep,” Pytheas said, pouting a little as he tugged at Hercules’ sleeve.
Jason caught up with his son and smiled. Hercules really could sleep through anything. Some things never changed.
He shook his friend’s shoulder. And that was when Jason realised the truth.
“Pytheas, go inside and ask your mother to come out here.”
He was impressed at how steady his voice was.
“Why?” His son had been well named; his curiosity was almost as boundless as that of the man they had named him for. “Is Uncle Hercules alright?”
Jason swallowed. “Yes, I think he is now.”
The little boy ran off, and Jason finally allowed himself to close his eyes and let the tears come. He squeezed Hercules’ lifeless shoulder.
“Rest now, my friend. You will be together again soon.”
On the banks of the river Styx, two old friends embraced, and spent the rest of eternity sharing tales of great adventures.