“I’m Arcas. Hercules is my father.”
Iolaus was still gripping the young man’s forearm, his mind trying to grasp what he had just heard. His father… Hercules has a son? He realized his mouth was hanging open, and he shut it quickly. “Sorry,” he said in embarrassment, dropping his hand.
Arcas just laughed. “It’s okay. I’m kind of used to it. And, it was a surprise to him, too.” He winked.
Iolaus was at a loss for how to proceed. He was prepared for Jason, and for having time to come up with what he wanted to say to Hercules when he finally found him. This development had knocked him off balance. Hercules has a son, Jason’s living at the Academy, and Hercules and Arcas are living in his house. And Hercules has a son. A family. And he had missed out on all of that…
“He’s here,” Arcas told him, interrupting his reverie. “If you want to see him.”
Iolaus felt his heart skip in a sudden panic at Arcas’ words. It was as if everything had abruptly become real for him. Gods, I don’t know if I’m ready for this… What do I say? What do I do? Clearing his throat awkwardly, he started to say, “Oh, um… actually, that’s okay…” when he heard a familiar voice coming from the back of the house.
“Arcas! Are you still working out there?”
Arcas glanced back inside and then gave Iolaus a grin. “Sort of,” he called back.
Iolaus felt like there was a rock sitting in his stomach. Hearing that voice sent another jolt through his system and he tried to quell his mounting anxiety. He was still trying to remember how to get his mouth to work when Arcas sighed and pulled the shovel back out of the ground, laying it across his shoulder. “Well… this is going to be super awkward,” he said.
Iolaus didn’t know whether to laugh at that or not, and he didn’t have a chance to decide as familiar heavy footfalls sounded from inside the house.
“Arcas, come on, let’s eat!” Hercules was saying as he came on the porch to fetch his son, but stopped in the doorway, a look of absolute shock on his face. “Oh my gods…” he whispered.
All the anxiety, all the uncertainty melted off Iolaus’ shoulders when he saw him. He hasn’t changed at all… Hercules had a few more lines on his face than the last time Iolaus had seen him, but for the most part, the demigod still looked as he had twenty years ago. His hair was a bit shorter, not quite down to his shoulders, and the small amount of stubble he had on his jaw was graying. But… he was still Hercules.
Arcas had respectfully moved out of the way to give his father room to come off the porch and into the yard. Hercules still had that look on his face, as if he expected Iolaus to suddenly turn to smoke and disappear. “Iolaus?” he asked, incredulously.
Iolaus felt his eyes welling up. I’m home, he thought, really home. It was a strange feeling. He knew that things had changed but at the same time, it was like no time had passed at all.
Hercules was still staring at him, and Arcas was starting to look back and forth between them, oddly.
“Dad?” he prompted. “You okay?” But Hercules ignored him.
“Iolaus?” Hercules asked again.
Iolaus smiled. “Hey, Herc.” His voice sounded strange, and he realized he had been holding his breath. He let it out, and smiled even bigger. “I’m home.”
Hercules crossed distance between the porch and Iolaus in two big strides and grabbed him, hoisting him up off the ground in a rib cracking embrace. “Iolaus! I- I can’t believe it!” He started laughing, deep, joyful laughter. Iolaus started laughing too, and he hugged the demigod back with all his strength.
Hercules finally released him, planting his feet back down on the ground. “I can’t believe it’s you!” he said again. He put his hands on Iolaus’ shoulders and stared down into his eyes. “Gods! It’s been, what…”
“Twenty years, yeah,” Iolaus finished. “It’s been a really long time.” He thought he saw a flash of sadness in Hercules’ eyes, but it was gone so quickly, that Iolaus assumed he must have imagined it. Hercules just shook his head and slapped Iolaus on the back. There was a cough from behind him, and he looked back over at Arcas, and almost as if remembering he was there, exclaimed, “Oh, right! Arcas! Iolaus, this is my son Arcas.” He gestured back and forth between his friend and his son. “Arcas this… this is Iolaus.” He said Iolaus’ name as if he was still in awe of the fact that he was there.
“Yeah, we’ve met,” Arcas said in an amused way that suggested he was totally judging his father’s behavior. “I was here when he got here, remember?”
“Right, right, of course.” Hercules just kept standing there, grinning at him. Iolaus knew how he felt. It still felt so surreal, to be back in Greece, back here at the house, with Hercules.
Arcas put the shovel back on the ground and leaned against one of the porch posts, regarding the two men as they got reacquainted. When neither man moved, he finally said, “Dad, are we going to eat this duck, or are you just going to make us sit out here and have slop with the pigs?”
“Hmmm?” Hercules asked, not paying attention. “Oh, yeah, Iolaus come on in! We were just about to eat dinner,” he said, slapping Iolaus on the back once more and heading inside.
“No, no, that’s okay,” Iolaus said. “I don’t want to intrude.” He was still reeling from the thought that he was back home. It felt good, and yet it felt… strange. He felt like he was interrupting some quality family time. And he got the feeling that Arcas was not as thrilled as Hercules was at Iolaus’ return. Why had he said it was going to be awkward?
But to his surprise, Arcas said, “Don’t be ridiculous,” at the same time Hercules said, “You’re not intruding!”
They sounded so alike that Iolaus had to laugh.
“Come on, Iolaus, you’re family,” Hercules said, and starting pushing him to the door. “You came all this way, of course you’re eating with us.”
“Alright, alright,” Iolaus gave in, and followed Arcas into the house, while Hercules brought up the rear.
Hercules caught the look his son was giving him over Iolaus’ head. The high Hercules had been feeling upon seeing Iolaus was wearing off as the implications of what him being back meant. There was so much that needed to be said, and there was so much that had changed. He could tell Arcas was tense, as he set an extra plate for Iolaus and politely asked what he could get him to eat. And Iolaus… Iolaus seemed so different. He was calmer, not to mention tanner. And he had cut all his hair off! He was wearing clothes made out of some kind material that Hercules had never seen before, and he could have sworn he saw a blue tattoo on his chest.
Twenty years was a long time, and while Hercules was overjoyed at the sudden arrival of Iolaus, there was also a lot of pain. Pain that he had thought he’d put behind him a long time ago. And there was so much Iolaus didn’t know…
Arcas gave him a firm glare and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, Are you coming or not?
Oh boy… Hercules thought, tiredly. How am I going to do this?
Then – Hercules
The rest of the day went relatively smoothly. Hercules had followed Meg and Arcas back out to the gardens so they could run around. He had never seen Arcas so happy. He was usually quite shy with other children and preferred the company of adults. That alone was enough to make the trip worth it, no matter what else transpired.
Meg was a whirling tornado of energy, even more so than Arcas. She was full of bright, bouncy excitement, and Hercules had himself half convinced that maybe there was some truth to his paranoid theory after all. She was talking a mile a minute, constantly tripping over her royal garments, and had taken her crown off her head and was twirling it around as they walked. Arcas just mostly nodded, trying to keep up. She’s going to be a ball buster, Hercules thought, grinning. If she was Iolaus’ daughter, he’d be pleased by that.
Thinking of Iolaus brought on a pang of sadness. He had a feeling that he had guessed right about Niobe’s reaction earlier, and the Queen had truly thought that Iolaus was dead. He wasn’t surprised. They had still gotten strange and surprised looks from people occasionally after he had returned from the Light. And Iolaus had written to his mother and Pandeon to let them know what had happened, but when Hercules had brought up Nebula, Iolaus had shut down. If he hadn’t told Nebula, he definitely hadn’t told Niobe. Speaking of Nebula, I really should let her know what’s been going on… He’d been hesitant to do so, figuring it was Iolaus’ business. But, Iolaus wasn’t here.
Hercules shook his head in disgust, glancing down at the two children, who were still chattering away. You’re missing so much, Iolaus.
There was also the possibility that this entire thing was just a hell of a coincidence, and that Meg was Orestes’ daughter, and Hercules was dead wrong. But, the demigod had a feeling in his gut that something just wasn’t right about the situation. He was probably grasping at straws, trying to find aspects of Iolaus to hold on to wherever he looked, but it was a feeling that he couldn’t ignore. He just didn’t know how to approach the subject, or really, if he even should. He would admit to himself that he had a problem with sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. It was his job, after all. If he didn’t, he would never have saved or helped as many people as he did. Getting involved was what he did best. The difficulty was deciding when not to.
The sun had started setting, so Hercules brought the two children back inside and to the room he and Arcas had been given. They were playing with the two toys Arcas had brought along, Arcas allowing Meg to play the part of the warrior while he played the dragon. Or rather, he’d been browbeaten by Meg into admitting that girls could be warriors, too. He’d heard enough stories about Xena and Gabrielle to fight too hard about it.
There was a knock on the door, and Hercules got up to answer while Meg and Arcas argued over whether Meg’s warrior had made a legitimate move against the dragon (“Warriors can’t fly!”). To his chagrin, it was one of the servants, sent to retrieve Meg and escort him to dinner. “I have been instructed to take the princess and her friend back to the nursery.”
Hercules glanced over his shoulder. Meg and Arcas froze, watching the exchange with interest. There’s no getting out of this, I guess. “All right, just give me one moment.” He walked over to them and crouched down to their eye level. “Arcas, I have to go to dinner with Jason and Iphicles. This man is going to take you and Meg to another part of the castle to be with Meg’s brother.”
“I thought we were going camping?” He crossed his arms indignantly. “You said you weren’t going to have to do all this grown up stuff.”
Hercules sighed. “Well, I thought so, too. But, the king would really like me there and it’s not polite to say no. We can still go camping, just after dinner. How’s that?”
Arcas still looked unconvinced, but he grudgingly nodded. Meg, however, looked mutinous, but allowed Hercules to take her and Arcas’ hands and lead them to the door.
The servant offered him a curt nod and turned away. “Follow me.”
Hercules led the two children down the halls to the other wing of the castle reserved for the Attican royals and their personal attendants. He left Meg and Arcas in the nursery with another servant – a young lady – and a two year old boy with dark hair that Hercules assumed was Orion. Meg took Arcas’ hand and led him to the opposite side of the room, obviously trying to put as much distance between them, her younger brother, and the servant girl as possible. Hercules thought he caught site of a bassinet and raised his eyebrows. Been busy, he mused, as there was no way that tiny crib was for the toddler. He made Arcas and Meg both promise to be on their best behavior, and he also made a point of telling Meg not to go sneaking out again. “You don’t want to get Arcas in trouble, right?” he asked her, which seemed to mollify her. Obviously, the threat of her friend being taken away was more than enough to convince her to stay put. Then he followed the first servant down the hall to the main dining area.
Dinner was about as socially awkward as he expected it to be. It sounded like negotiations were at a head, but he could tell that Iphicles was very put off by Amphion, and he knew that Jason just straight up didn’t like the guy. Hercules was having a hard time deciding either way. He was like most kings, besides his brother and Jason, and mostly just enjoyed listening to himself talk. And he was quite snobby, often complaining of the Attican weather (“It’s never this humid in Kyros.”) and the food (“No flavor at all, but we make do.”) Amphion, he had found out, was originally some kind of higher lord from a neighboring city state. Niobe, who was already a princess when she married Orestes, had legitimate claim to the throne once Orestes passed away. Hercules found it extremely odd that she would sit back and let Amphion do most of the talking and negotiating. Iolaus had described her as a headstrong, independent woman. But, people could change. The day to day activities of ruling Attica seemed to still belong to Niobe, as Hercules got the impression that dealing with the problems of his subjects wasn’t exactly Amphion’s strong suit. The whole thing confused the hell out of him. From the outside, they didn’t look like a good match at all.
Jason and Iphicles had a little too graciously accepted the wine once it had started being passed around, and Hercules’ cup had been filled before he could explain that he didn’t drink. Not wanting to be rude, he swirled it around occasionally and stared into it, mostly so he could just find something else to look at besides Jason’s permanent scowl and Niobe’s look of extreme discomfort. I’m obviously not the only one who doesn’t want to be here. Things got even worse when conversation ultimately returned back to the peace plan negotiations.
“It’s a pact to say we have each other’s backs and won’t go to war,” Amphion was saying, looking harried. “I fail to see what the issue is with that.”
“It could also be interpreted as we can’t stand up against you if you or your allies do something we don’t agree with,” Iphicles argued. He was trying to catch Jason’s eye in an effort to get him to back him up, but the former king seemed extremely interested in the many tapestries that adorned the walls.
Niobe took her husband’s hand. “I thought we had agreed to leave politics aside this evening.”
Amphion frowned at her, but eventually acquiesced. “As usual, my wife is correct. We should be enjoying this time. Hercules,” he called out, suddenly, almost making the demigod spill his wine down his front, “regale us with a story of one of your many adventures!”
Jason snorted in amusement and tried to hide it by taking a long swallow from his cup. Hercules ignored him and instead focused on Iphicles. This was his brother’s trip, and he didn’t want to take attention away from him. “I’m sure there are more interesting things to talk about,” Hercules said, putting his wine down before he ended up wearing it.
“Don’t be so modest! Perhaps the story of you and Jason and the famous Golden Fleece, in honor of Corinth’s former king,” Amphion said, indicating Jason with a nod. “Or the tale of the Nemean Lion? Or any of the others, of course. Say…” he added, as an afterthought, “didn’t you have a companion? Someone you traveled around with? What was his name? Blond fellow.”
“Iolaus,” Hercules, Jason, Iphicles, and Niobe all answered together.
Amphion blinked. “Right.” He gave Niobe a sideways glance. She was blushing furiously. “You’re familiar with him, Niobe?”
The queen briefly met Hercules’ eyes before focusing on her husband. “He was Orestes’ cousin, my king. Remember?”
“Oh, yes, yes, that’s right. Damned strange situation, that business with his brother during the coronation. Niobe told me. Lucky your friend came along when he did.”
Hercules raised his eyebrows in surprise. “You know about that?”
Amphion waved dismissively. “It’s something of a local legend around here. The king’s duplicate. The commoners get a kick out of it.”
Now Iphicles was starting to look interested. “I don’t follow. What happened during Orestes’ coronation?”
“There was a plot by his brother Minos to kill Orestes and become king,” Niobe explained. “Luckily Iolaus was an exact look alike of Orestes. Iolaus took his place during the coronation when Orestes was poisoned so that the crown would be passed down to the rightful ruler. Once the coronation was over, Iolaus turned the crown over to Orestes.”
“Yes, it was all very intriguing,” Amphion said, but he didn’t seem that interested. Iphicles was glancing back and forth between Niobe and Hercules in open fascination.
“Is this true?” he asked his brother. Hercules’ gaze lingered on Niobe a few moments longer, before nodding to Iphicles.
“Yes, it is. Iolaus told me about it.”
“Iolaus,” Iphicles repeated, astounded. “Iolaus was king. As in, king king. Iolaus.”
Hercules glared at him from across the table. “Yes, Iphicles.”
Jason’s shoulders shook with silent laughter, and Hercules gave him a kick under the table. “What is so hard to understand about that?” he demanded, ignoring the scowl Jason shot at him.
Iphicles shrugged. “Nothing, I guess. It’s just… you know… he’s Iolaus. His royal etiquette is well… lacking.”
“It was just for the day,” Niobe interrupted, trying to regain control of the conversation. “Just long enough for Orestes to be named heir and king.”
Hercules knew that was not entirely true. It had been longer than a day, and Iolaus, Hector, Linus, and Niobe had had to rescue Orestes and bring him back to Attica, and Minos had ultimately been killed. And Iolaus and Niobe had developed very strong feelings for each other.
“It wasn’t common knowledge,” Niobe continued. “Obviously, it would have ramifications if everyone knew about it, or if everyone knew that the King of Attica had a doppelgänger running around.”
“As I said, local legend,” Amphion said, unimpressed. “The people enjoy these sorts of things.”
Iphicles was still starting at Hercules in bewilderment. “I just can’t see it. Iolaus is a fantastic warrior, don’t get me wrong…”
His brother’s attitude was beginning to annoy him. Hercules decided to quickly change the subject. “Queen Niobe, I got a chance to see Orion when I took Meg and Arcas to the nursery. Do you and King Amphion have any other children?”
This got the desired effect, as both the king and queen smiled proudly. “Yes, a daughter Ariana. She was born three months ago.”
“Congratulations,” Jason said, and Hercules and Iphicles followed suit. “And Meg is-”
“-not mine,” Amphion cut in, sharply. Jason’s eyes widened and Hercules felt the temperature in the room drop immediately. Noticing how quiet everyone had obviously gotten, he elaborated, “What I mean is, she’s Niobe’s. From before.”
“She’s Orestes’,” Niobe said, a bit sharply, “and heir to Attica.” This seemed to make Amphion even more uncomfortable. Hercules wasn’t sure why. Plenty of people remarried when they’d already had children. But, he assumed since none of his children with Niobe had any claim to the throne, it was something Amphion was not too pleased with. So, he’s possessive. And power hungry. Hercules’ opinion of the man was quickly going south.
“She and Arcas seem to be getting along well,” Hercules said to Niobe, trying to gauge her reaction. But she merely smiled.
Hercules smiled back, and the room fell once again into an awkward silence. Oh, yeah. Definitely should have just gone camping.
Luckily the food was served not long after, and they could all avoid any more strained conversation. By the time it was over and Hercules was walking back to the nursery to retrieve Arcas, he was mentally exhausted. I forgot how ridiculous some royalty could be, Hercules thought, thinking of his time in Kastus. The constant showiness and etiquette had annoyed him greatly then, too. I have no idea how Iphicles does it. Or how Jason did it either. Or Iolaus, come to think of it. He frowned. Iphicles had been kind of right about Iolaus. Or, a lot right, really. His friend was never one for standing upon ceremony, and he felt bad for getting so irritated with his brother over dinner. I’ll apologize later.
The dinner had gone on later than he had anticipated, and when he got to the nursery he found both Meg and Arcas lying next to each other, sound asleep. They were going to have to put off camping for a night. Hercules smiled as he stood over them. “I take it everything went okay?” he asked the servant girl.
“Oh, yes,” she answered, softly. “Arcas is a very well behaved little boy. I think it’s good for her.”
He picked Arcas up carefully so as not to wake him. “Thank you,” he mouthed to the girl and then headed back to their room.
It had been a long day for all involved, and Jason and Iphicles had already headed off to each of their assigned rooms. So, Hercules was more than a little surprised when he opened the door to his own room to see Niobe sitting in one of the plush chairs beside the bed. He stopped in the doorway, still holding Arcas, whose cheek was pressed against his chest. “Uh… hi,” he said slowly, closing the door behind him.
She stood up when he entered, clasping her hands in front of her. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude or startle you.”
“It’s your palace, so technically, you’re not intruding.” He crossed the room and laid Arcas gently on the bed. “Was there something else I could do for you?” he asked, studying her. She really was very pretty, as were all of Iolaus’ loves.
She took a deep breath, as if steeling herself, and said, “I wanted to ask you about before. About-about Iolaus.”
Ah, he thought. He hadn’t had a chance at dinner to broach the subject of Iolaus being very much alive, and it wouldn’t have been the place for it anyway. Hercules rubbed his chin, thoughtfully. “You thought he was dead, didn’t you?”
“I had heard…” she began, but cleared her throat. Hercules was shocked to see that she was getting emotional. “I had heard that he wasn’t in Greece when he died. And, no one could really tell me what had happened, only that he was dead. But, then I heard rumors that he wasn’t, but that it wasn’t really Iolaus…” She stopped, shaking her head in confusion.
After a few moments, Hercules explained, “He was in Sumeria. We were in Sumeria. He sacrificed himself to save… someone.”
Niobe put her hand to her mouth. “So, it’s true? But, then what-”
“It’s complicated,” Hercules interrupted. He was not planning on having to go into full detail. Frustrated, he ran his hand through his hair. “Did you want to go for a walk and I can explain? I don’t wake to wake Arcas up.”
But Niobe shook her head. “No. It would be better if we were alone. Amphion knows some things, like you heard earlier. But, he doesn’t know everything. He’d be suspicious, if I was asking so many questions about a man I was supposed to hardly know.”
Hercules couldn’t blame her for that. “I’m surprised you even told him that much. I thought it was supposed to be a secret?”
Niobe shrugged helplessly. “People in town, they talk. Some people swore they saw someone who looked like the king, but who wasn’t him, or that they saw them together at the same time. Eventually, enough word got around to Amphion that he began asking questions about our marriage, and about Minos’ death.”
“So, you told him just enough so that he’d be satisfied.”
Hercules nodded. “Fair enough.” He could tell she was still waiting for him to answer her about Iolaus. “He’s not dead anymore, Niobe. He’s actually in the East. He’s been there for the last year, studying.”
Niobe breathed out a sigh of relief and collapsed back into the chair. “By the gods…. How is that possible?”
“Like I said, it’s complicated. The stories you heard, about him being back but not really being him…” He stopped, trying to find the right words. And he didn’t know if she meant Dahak, or the other Iolaus from the Sovereign’s world. And he really didn’t feel like going into detail about that. “Uh… there was a demon, a dark god. Dahak. He… he took Iolaus’ body and came back to Greece to destroy the gods. We defeated him, and Iolaus’ soul was able to move on. That was the short version. The whole situation was much, much worse.”
Niobe looked horrified, and Hercules didn’t blame her. Just talking about it was enough to make him sick.
“That was… well, two years ago now,” Hercules added, surprised at how only a short amount of time had gone by. It felt like it had happened a lifetime ago. “Then there was this problem with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse trying to destroy the world-”
Niobe’s mouth dropped. “Wait, what?”
“Long story. Just… trust me. Anyway… yeah, had to save the world again and Iolaus somehow managed to sneak out of the afterlife and help me. But, he broke the rules, so they threw him out and brought him back to life as punishment.” Hercules shrugged. “I didn’t think that was much of a punishment, but… I guess Iolaus did,” he added, bitterly.
“And, now he’s in the East?”
Hercules swallowed and nodded, sitting down on the bed. “Yeah, in Chin. He’s been there before. He said he had to figure some things out, after what had happened with Dahak. Like I said, that was a year ago.” He knew he sounded bitter, but he didn’t care. Except for that one letter telling him to stay away, he hadn’t heard one peep out of Iolaus. He had tried to be understanding; his friend was going through something that he couldn’t comprehend. But, the last year had been taxing on Hercules, as well as Jason and Arcas. His son had helped fill the hole that Iolaus had left, but occasionally he would still get pangs of grief and miss Iolaus terribly. Occasions like these.
Niobe looked white, and she was gripping her hands together tightly. Hercules frowned. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I just… I thought you should know. Especially when you looked so shocked earlier today.”
Seeming to come back to herself, she unlaced her fingers and took Hercules’ hand. “No. I appreciate you telling me. I just can’t believe he’s alive…” She took a shaky breath.
Hercules realized that she had left him with the perfect opening, but he was unsure if he should take it. Actually, he knew he shouldn’t take it. Questioning the legitimacy of someone’s child was just something you didn’t go around doing. But, she had been so emotional talking about Iolaus, and the look on her face after hearing that he was alive was not exactly relief. If anything, Hercules thought she looked confused. You just told her someone died and came back from the dead, you idiot. Of course she’s confused. While that was, unfortunately, more commonplace in Hercules’ life, for a normal person like Niobe, those types of things just didn’t occur.
She suddenly gripped Hercules’ hand harder, making him look into her eyes. “You have to understand, Hercules… I thought he was dead.”
Hercules wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “I know.”
Niobe looked as if she wanted to say something else, but then changed her mind. She shook her curls down her back, and Hercules noticed that her royal mask was being firmly set back into place. “Thank you for telling me. I’m sure talking about it wasn’t easy.” She rose from the chair, and Hercules followed. “I’m actually very happy that you decided to accompany your brother. It’s been… nice getting to know you. Iolaus spoke of you often, and very fondly. He cared… cares… for you a great deal.”
Hercules thought she said that last part a bit wistfully, but let it go. Something had obviously happened with her and Iolaus, and he doubted he was going to be enlightened further. “It’s been nice meeting you as well.”
The queen squeezed his hand one more time, and then headed for the door. Hercules watched her go, knowing that they would probably not have another moment like this alone, without the company of attendants or her husband. He felt the question coming up and out of his mouth, like word vomit, and tried to stop it. Don’t ask her. Don’t ask her that. Not your business. He coughed, making Niobe slow and turn back around to look at him.
“Are you all right?” she asked, brow furrowed in concern.
“Yep,” he said. “Sorry… not used to the, uh, humidity.” You jackass, he winced inwardly.
She looked unconvinced, but just nodded and turned to leave again.
“Wait,” he heard himself say, and take an involuntary step toward her.
Oh boy… “Um… so, about Meg… ” he started, rubbing his hands on his pants in a nervous tick.
Niobe’s eyes narrowed. “Yes? What about her?”
Hercules licked his lips. From the icy stare he was getting from Niobe, he knew he really should just leave it well enough alone. But… if there was a chance… “She is Orestes’ daughter… isn’t she?” Well, you did it. You actually did it. You know she could have you executed, don’t you?
Niobe stared at him for a long time, and Hercules couldn’t read the expression on her face. It was somewhere between shock and anger at actually having been asked such a thing, and fear. Hercules held her gaze. He had committed, and he wasn’t about to back down now.
Finally, Niobe straightened and fixed him with a haughty look that only those with privilege seemed to be able to muster. “Who else’s would she be?” she asked with an air of finality.
Hercules let out the breath he had been holding. Had he really expected her to say otherwise? After a beat, he decided to play the game, and shrugged. “No idea.”
Niobe nodded once, curtly, and left. As soon as the door shut, Hercules felt his legs start getting weak. He groaned, and put his head in his hands. “I am such an idiot.”
Hercules jumped and whirled to face the bed, where Arcas was fully awake and sitting up, staring at him. “Arcas! I thought you were asleep!”
“I was. But then I woke up.” He shifted on the bed so he could see Hercules better. “That lady… she’s lying.” He sounded eerily calm.
Arcas nodded. “Can we go camping now since I’m awake?”
Hercules was still focusing on what Arcas had said about Niobe. “Wait, wait, wait. Arcas… how do you know she’s lying?”
His son started shifting uncomfortably. “Uh… I don’t want to tell you. You’ll get mad.”
He read her, Hercules realized. “Arcas, what have I told you about listening to people’s feelings when they don’t know about it? Niobe doesn’t know you can do that.” And if she did, she probably would never have come in here.
“I know, I’m sorry! But, when you guys were talking about Uncle Iolaus, she started feeling different. And it woke me up.”
“So you pretended to sleep and listened to us instead?”
Arcas didn’t answer that one at all. Instead, he laid back down and pulled the covers over his head.
“Arcas, there’s no use in hiding. I can still see you.”
“No, you can’t,” came the muffled reply. Hercules sighed and sat down on the bed, pulling the covers back again as he did so.
“Arcas, what you did was not polite.”
Arcas sat back up again. “But she’s lying! She shouldn’t be lying about Meg!”
“But how do you know that she’s lying, Arcas? Because she was thinking about Iolaus?”
“I just know! When you asked her about Meg’s daddy, she… she…” He grew frustrated, and pounded his tiny fists on the bed. Hercules grabbed his hands.
“Just calm down. What did she feel like?”
Arcas took a few calming breaths, like they had practiced. “I don’t know… not scared. But… kind of like scared.”
Arcas nodded enthusiastically. “She didn’t want you asking about that.”
“Arcas, that may be because I shouldn’t have asked that at all, and she was upset about it.”
But Arcas set his jaw in determination, and there was a look in his eyes that Hercules had never seen before. “No!” he said, emphatically, and punched the bed again. “No, Dad. She was lying. I know it.”
Hercules had no response. Arcas had no reason to make something like that up. He didn’t know all of the wild ideas Hercules had been coming up with regarding Meg’s parentage, and even if he did, he didn’t have the complexity of mind to create a story like that just to make Hercules feel better. And, unlike Niobe, Arcas had no reason to lie.
Arcas was still staring at him with that set expression, and Hercules could tell he was waiting for some kind of confirmation from his father. “Okay,” he said, smoothing Arcas’ hair back away from his forehead, “I believe you. But, there’s nothing we can do about it right now, all right?”
“What are you going to do?” Arcas asked, lying back down. “And if King Orestes isn’t Meg’s dad, what does that mean?”
Hercules in no way wanted to have that conversation with his four-year-old. “Nothing,” he said. “It just means… someone else is.”
“Who?”“Arcas, no more questions tonight. It’s time to go to sleep. You still want to go fishing and camping tomorrow, right?” Arcas nodded. “Okay, then time for bed.”
It took another twenty minutes for Arcas to settle back down enough to go to sleep. Unable to quiet his mind after what had just occurred between him and Niobe and then Arcas, Hercules went over to the water basin and filled it. He splashed the cold water on his face and rubbed his eyes tiredly. What am I going to do? He stared at his reflection in the glass over the water basin. He looked tired. And old. And most of all, ashamed that he had asked Niobe such a personal question. He was feeling defeated. Ever since Iolaus had left, he just hadn’t seemed to be able to get his bearings. His life with Arcas was separate from his life as a hero, the life he had lead with Iolaus. He felt like he’d become two different people: Arcas’ father, who adored his son and the life he had with him without question, and the brooding, possessive, angry demigod that he’d been when Iolaus had left… and when Iolaus had died in Sumeria. Hercules did not want to go back to the person he had been two years ago. But being here, with Jason and Iphicles and Niobe, talking about Iolaus, just made him feel wrong inside. It just wasn’t the same anymore, and until Iolaus came back, it never would be.
Hercules came back over to the bed, watching Arcas sleep. He looked so peaceful. I’m letting him down, Hercules thought. I’m more concerned with Iolaus than I am with him. He had thought he was passed all this.
He hated this feeling. He was lost, desperately clinging to Iolaus like he would a lifeline. It was almost worse than when Iolaus had died; at least then he knew he was really gone. Iolaus wasn’t dead this time. He had just left, and Hercules had no idea where he was or if he was ever coming home.
He could never replace Iolaus with Arcas, and he didn’t want to. That would be terrible. But he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t realize he’d been avoiding dealing with his pain. He was throwing himself into being a father, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing, except Hercules felt like part of him was doing it to take his mind off his friend, instead of doing it for the right reasons.
Basically insinuating that Meg was Iolaus’ daughter and Niobe was a liar had been the last straw. He couldn’t do this anymore. Iolaus was gone. He was here now, with Arcas. He was a father. It was time for him to accept everything that had happened, and move on. It felt like he was giving up.
You’re not giving up on Iolaus, he told himself. You don’t give up. You’re Hercules, remember? At that moment, he really didn’t feel like being Hercules very much at all. Even if Arcas is right, what you did was not okay. You need to apologize to Niobe, and forget about it. But no matter how many times he told himself that, he knew he wouldn’t be able to. It would gnaw at him for months, years… What if Iolaus came back? What was he supposed to say? Hey, I think you have a kid in Attica? Maybe you should go stop by and talk to Niobe?
What was it Iolaus had said? That Hercules treated him like a thing? That had metaphorically gutted him. But, looking at himself now, he had to admit that maybe there was some truth to what Iolaus had said. Iolaus wasn’t his, and neither was Meg. Yet, here he was, trying to get Niobe to admit Meg was Iolaus’ daughter, for what? So he could have some part in her life? So he could look at Meg and see Iolaus?
It was wrong. He was meddling, just like the gods he had spent his whole life trying to defeat. All the jibes and mumblings from Jason about his god side were finally starting to come to light for him. Hercules knew that Jason was half joking most of the time, but there was some truth to it. He hadn’t felt this disgusted at that part of himself in a long time, not since he’d heard what they’d done to Xena. He almost wished he was a drinker, just so he could go drown himself in a local tavern. Almost.
He decided he needed to take a walk, so he quietly stepped outside and found a night watchman to keep an eye on the door to his and Arcas’ room.
The palace halls were quiet. Hercules caught site of some servants here and there cleaning or taking washings back and forth, all of the behind the scenes duties that went unnoticed by the royals they served. Hercules walked distractedly, not really paying attention to where he was going and trying to think about nothing, but to no avail. He’d opened Pandora’s Box, and eventually he was going to have to deal with it.
He really wished he had someone to talk to, and out of instinct, he thought of Iolaus. It made him angry. He had plenty of other people to talk to. He had Iphicles and Jason. Sadly, he’d never had that kind of relationship with his older half-brother. In fact, up until the last few years, he hadn’t had a very good relationship with him at all. They’d had a strained relationship growing up, Iphicles not understanding why his younger brother was so special and resenting the amount of time Alcmene spent on him. Things were much better between them now. Hercules thought that had a lot to do with Jason. He’d been a good mentor for Iphicles, and they had spent a lot of time together after Iphicles had been crowned king.
Hercules could talk to Jason, of course. Aside from Iolaus, Jason was Hercules’ oldest friend. Being a king had prevented Jason from having the life that Hercules and Iolaus had had on the road. But that was something that Jason had come to terms with at the Academy. It was his destiny to help people in his role as king, just as it was Hercules’ to be a hero. It may have bothered Jason when they were younger, but not anymore. They were both proud to call each other friend. And the relationship he had with Jason was much different than the one he had with Iolaus. For one thing, Jason had married his mother. And for another, as much as Jason acted like the grumpy old man, he was soft and kind at heart, and he was always very good at giving advice. Hercules figured you had to be, when you were a king.
Not that Iolaus didn’t give good advice. Most of the time though, he was more concerned with poking fun at Hercules than dispensing words of wisdom. But when he could tell his friend really needed it, there was no one better. Iolaus knew Hercules better than Hercules knew himself. It was what made all of this so hard. Iolaus really was the missing part of Hercules’ soul.
Thinking of Iolaus made him feel down again, so he pushed the thoughts away, and headed outside into the garden.
The palace grounds were extensive, and Hercules walked until he came to the large stone surrounding wall and could go no further. He crazily thought about scaling it and continuing on into the woods, but he knew better. Arcas was still asleep inside. He couldn’t go wandering off. Sighing, he turned and headed back again.
His feet took him back inside and, unwittingly, to the door of the room that Jason was staying in. Hercules hesitated. He really didn’t want to wake him up. But, he also knew that if he didn’t talk to someone about this, he was going to start acting like a crazy person. And Jason was, unfortunately, pretty used to that at this point.
He raised his hand to knock softly on the door, but before he could, it swung open. Hercules stepped back, startled.
Jason was standing in the opening, looking at him expectantly. He was wearing the light cotton shirt he wore under his tunic and loose cotton pants that Hercules assumed must be bed clothes. “You okay?”
“How did you-”
“I saw you wandering around out there,” he explained, nodding to his window. Hercules could see it faced the gardens.
“Oh,” was all Hercules said.
“You coming in or not?”
Hercules stepped through the door and Jason shut it behind him. “I’m sorry, I know it’s late.”
“Are you kidding? There was no way I was going to get a good night’s sleep in this place. This whole thing’s got me all fired up. It’s why I got out of the king business. I should never have let Iphicles talk me into coming,” Jason huffed, picking his discarded tunic off the chair and throwing it on the bed so Hercules could sit down.
“He appreciates your help, you know that, right?” Hercules told him, sinking down into it.
“Yeah, yeah. I know. But, he’s got his own advisors.”
“None of them are as good as you.”
Jason barked a laugh. “Right. You didn’t come here to flatter me. So, what’s going on? Is this about earlier, when Niobe asked about the amulet?” He nodded at Hercules’ chest, where it was still hanging.
“Not exactly… but, yes, being here with you and Iphicles without Iolaus, and talking about Iolaus…” Hercules trailed off.
Jason nodded. “It’s strange, I know. I think this is the most you’ve really talked about him in a while.”
Hercules couldn’t argue with that. He sat in silence, staring out the window. “Your room is nice. Has a great view.”
Jason furrowed his brow, but played along. “Yeah, it’s great. They have nice tapestries, too. Not as good as the ones back in Corinth, because, you know… I’m not on any of them.”
Hercules gave him a small smile. Jason decided to be patient, and wait for Hercules to gather his thoughts and say what he needed to say. After a few moments, the demigod finally turned his eyes back on him. “Can I run something by you?”
Jason shrugged. “Sure.”
“It’s going to sound insane.”
“From you? Never,” Jason deadpanned.
Hercules ignored it. “You and Iphicles… you guys have been talking to Niobe and Amphion for a while, right?”
“Past year or so, yeah. Why?”
“You both seemed surprised about Meg. And you didn’t know about Orion and Ariana either. I mean, isn’t there some kind of royal decree that goes out when kings and queens have kids?”
Jason shrugged. “For the first born, most of the time, yeah, but only to the neighboring kingdoms as a way to introduce the heir. People send tributes and gifts back…”
“Didn’t Iphicles get one when Meg was born?”
“Doubtful. Corinth isn’t a part of the Athenian provinces. And Niobe may have still been in mourning over Orestes’ death, trying to get her kingdom together.”
Hercules mulled that over. “Yeah, but… wouldn’t she want to celebrate the fact that Orestes’ line would continue? A kind of bright spot in a sad situation?”
Jason stared at him for a long moment, not answering. “What are you getting at, Hercules?” he asked, finally.
Saying it out loud to Jason just made him realize how ludicrous it all really did sound. “Remember when I told you Iolaus had to take Orestes’ place again, when Xenon had him assassinated? He had to travel around for a few days, pretend to be the king. And, uh, pretend to be Niobe’s husband?”
“Yes,” Jason said, slowly. Hercules could tell he was starting to get worried. “But, you told me you didn’t think anything had happened there.”
Hercules cleared his throat. “Well, uh… that was before I saw Meg.”
Jason’s eyes doubled their normal size and he put his head in his hands. “Oh, gods. Don’t do this to yourself, Hercules.” He looked back up at the demigod. “Look, I admit, the timing is a little weird but…” He trailed off, seeing Hercules’ expression, and narrowed his eyes. “What? What did you do?”
“What makes you think I did anything?” Hercules asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Because you have that look.”
“The look that says ‘I’ve done something really stupid and totally Hercules and now I feel really bad about it and don’t know what to do’.”
Hercules shifted in his seat, looking away and trying to keep his face neutral. “I don’t have a look.”
“What. Did. You. Do.”
Hercules laughed uncomfortably. “I, uh, might have, uh… insinuated to Niobe that I, uh, didn’t think Meg was really Orestes’.” He avoided Jason’s gaze and waited for the explosion. He wasn’t disappointed.
Jason turned visibly green, and he got up from his chair to pace around the room. “Oh, my gods. Oh, my gods! You didn’t! Hercules! What the hell is the matter with you?!”
Hercules sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “I know, I know. It was stupid. I never-”
“Hercules, do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Jason demanded, storming over to him. “We are in the middle of negotiations with this kingdom, and you, the brother of the King of Corinth, just asked the Queen of fucking Attica if she had an illegitimate child with the cousin of her dead husband! And then lied about it to cover it up!”
Hercules’ mouth suddenly went very dry. “Oh. I, uh, didn’t really think about that part.”
“He didn’t think!” Jason muttered to himself. “Oh, he didn’t think about that part! For the love of all creation, are you trying to kill me?”
Hercules scowled, getting angry despite the situation. “No, of course not!”
“You’re doing a damned good job! I think I might actually be having a panic attack.”
Hercules got up and put his hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Jason, just sit down.”
“I don’t want to sit down. What I want is a stiff drink.” He glared at Hercules. “And you! You need a stiff foot up your ass.”
“Look, it was not my intention to ruin whatever was going on here. Besides, I thought Iphicles really didn’t want to sign that peace plan thing anyway.”
“That’s not the point! The point is that you just can’t keep your big, half god nose out of other people’s business!” He shook his head, and started pacing again. “This whole thing with Iolaus has just got you all over the place. I thought you were done with this! And I don’t care how much Meg looks like Iolaus… she’s not him. Oh, hell… This is the other Iolaus all over again, isn’t it?” Jason stopped and jumped as he heard a loud cracking sound from behind him, and turned to see that Hercules had put his hand through the reflective glass on the opposite side of the room.
Jason stared at him, and then at the shards on the floor. Hercules shook his hand out, and more little pieces of glass fell down. “Well,” Jason growled, “that’s just great. Welcome to Attica. Please, enjoy your stay, and break our stuff, and accuse our queen of adultery.”
“It’s not adultery if Orestes was already dead,” Hercules muttered. Jason threw him a look that would have melted him on the spot if Jason had been a god.
“Oh, shut up, Hercules. This has got to be one of the stupidest things you have ever done.”
Hercules tried in vain to lighten the mood. “Well, there was that time I took ambrosia…”
Jason held up his hand. “Don’t,” he ordered, and Hercules fell silent. This was not Jason, Hercules’ friend. This was a Jason who was used to being obeyed. “Okay. We’re going to find a way to fix this. I’ll just tell her that you’re crazy. It wouldn’t exactly be a lie.”
“Look, Jason, I’m sorry, okay! I got here, and Hector and Linus were just acting really strangely when they found out who I was. And Niobe… she was extremely nervous, especially when I was around Meg. I don’t think she even really wanted Arcas playing with her until she was cornered into it when you all had to go back to your meetings.”
Jason rolled his eyes. “Will you listen to yourself? You’re just being paranoid!”
“I knew you were going to say that.”
“Well, then you should have told the imaginary Jason in your head that he was right, and shut up about it.”
“I tried, Jason,” Hercules said, raising his voice. “Okay? I really did. But, even you had to admit, the timing was right. She’s the right age. And she’s just like him.”
The former king sputtered, gesturing wildly. “Orestes and Iolaus were identical. You know that. That’s how he was even able to impersonate him!”
“I’m not just talking about looks, Jason. I spent more time with her today than you did. I watched her all day, with Arcas. She is just like Iolaus. Her expressions, the way she says things, the way she purses her lips when she gets mad...” He recognized it instantly, when the attendant had come to take her back to the nursery. Iolaus had given him that same face thousands of times over the past thirty or more years.
“You know you’re talking about a four-year-old, right?”
“Yes, I know that! I can’t explain it, Jason. It was a gut feeling.” Hercules noticed he was breathing heavy, and tried to calm down. “I’m not making this up.”
Jason was giving him a pitying look, and the demigod knew what he was about to say before he said it. “Hercules… I think that you are still so devastated over Iolaus leaving that you would find any reason to find something of him in her. In anyone. Yes, the timing is right, but… she did have a husband, and it was their duty to create an heir. And, as coincidental as it may seem, she may have already been pregnant with Meg before Iolaus got there and Orestes died.”
Hercules knew Jason had a point, but it was still wrong. And he really didn’t want to tell Jason about what Arcas had said, because he knew how he’d react. But, it was the only card he had left. “Niobe came to see me this evening, to ask about Iolaus. That was how I was able to ask her about Meg when no one was around.” He hesitated, but then continued, “Arcas said… Arcas was pretending to be asleep, and when I asked her about Meg, he said he could tell she was lying.”
Jason gaped at him, open mouthed. “Arcas? Arcas said? You’re basing this on something your four-year-old son told you? Oh, Hercules…”
“Don’t patronize him,” Hercules snapped. “You know what he can do. He’s done it to you.”
Jason didn’t have a response for that. He ran his hand over his face tiredly and, moaning, collapsed onto the chair that Hercules had vacated. “This is not good. This is so not good.”
“Yeah,” Hercules agreed, sitting down as well. “What are we going to do?”
“We?” Jason asked, incredulously. “We are not doing anything. You are going fishing with your son tomorrow, so that Iphicles and I can try to clean up the mess you made. And I’m not talking about the mirror. Oh, crap. Iphicles… I wonder if I can get around telling him.”
Hercules stared, dumbfounded. “So, we’re just going to ignore the fact that Meg is Iolaus’ daughter?”
Jason fixed him with a harsh look. “I’m not entirely convinced that she is, no matter what Arcas thinks he felt.”
“And even if she is, what are you going to do about it, Hercules? I mean, really? What are you going to do? You’re not her father. You’re not even some kind of distant relative. You and Iolaus say you’re brothers, but you’re not. You’re friends. And I know how you get when it comes to Iolaus, and I know you think you’re… looking out for him or protecting him by getting involved in this, but you’re not. He has no idea! You can’t protect him from something he has no knowledge of.”
“That’s the point, Jason. It’s not right. She should have told him.”
“Are you insane? And how well do you think that would have gone over, huh? And what about the peace plan? She would have had to admit to all the adjoining kingdoms that a fake Orestes negotiated the thing and signed the document!” He shook his head. “No, Hercules. This is more complicated than her hiding it from Iolaus. She’s a queen, with a duty to protect her kingdom. Like it or not, she did what she thought was best.”
“And you agree with her?” Hercules demanded.
“I didn’t say that. But, you’ve never had to rule a kingdom, Hercules. It’s a little different than saving the world. It may actually be harder.”
Hercules didn’t dignify that with a response. It was easier for him to be angry with Niobe than to feel sorry for her. I’m sure she was really torn up about it. She probably cried over Iolaus into her big piles of dinars. He snorted derisively.
“I know how you are, Hercules,” Jason continued, “but this is one you’re just going to have to walk away from.”
“How? How am I supposed to do that, knowing who she is?”
“Like I said earlier, Meg is not your daughter, she’s not Iolaus, and she’s not your responsibility. It’s out of our hands.” Jason looked over at him sternly. “I’m not kidding, Hercules. I’ve put up with a lot from you over the years, but this I will absolutely not tolerate.”
Hercules really wanted to argue, to press the matter, to browbeat Jason into agreeing with him, but he knew it wouldn’t work.
“And it would be a really good idea for you to take Arcas and get out of here for a while tomorrow, while I try to smooth things over. Please,” Jason added, seeing Hercules’ frown.
“I just can’t believe that you don’t care.”
“Of course I care! It kills me if it’s true, and she would never know Iolaus, or us. But, we can’t interfere. Isn’t that always your mantra? Because you’ve been acting an awful lot like the gods that you claim to hate so much.”
Hercules wanted to be angry at that, but he had admitted as much to himself earlier, so he just settled for making a “humph” noise and walking over to where he had shattered the glass. “You shouldn’t have said that. About the other Iolaus.”
Jason sighed and got up, coming over to stand beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. “I know. And… I’m sorry. I guess we both drive each other a little crazy, don’t we?”
“Something like that.”
“So,” Jason continued, “what are we going to tell them about that, then?” He indicated the shards on the floor and then up at the broken mirror.
Hercules put his hands on his hips, studying it. “Huh. Good question.” He looked around the room, and then at the open window. “Maybe… a bird did it?”
Jason looked at him as if he said he was going to marry Ares and run off to Olympus. “Don’t be ridiculous. Is that really the best you can come up with?”
“I’m tired,” Hercules muttered, “and what, you have a better idea? What are you going to say, that we got into a fight and I put my arm through it?”
“It’s better than, ‘Oh, a bird did it’.”
“A bird did it.”
The next morning, Jason, Amphion, and Iphicles were surveying the ruined glass and the shards that Jason had swept into a pile on the floor.
Iphicles was tapping his foot impatiently, and kept throwing Jason dark looks, which he ignored. Amphion just walked around the pile and then to the open window in mild curiosity.
“My fault, really,” Jason continued, “I left the window open all night.”
Amphion turned back to him. “Well, where is it now?”
Amphion looked around the room. “The bird.”
Damn, Jason thought. “It, uh… flew away again.” He could feel Iphicles staring holes into the back of his head.
The king was looking at him dubiously, so Jason spread his arms, and elaborated, “It was a really big bird.” You have really fallen far, Jason.
“Hmmm.” Amphion scratched his beard, thoughtfully. “Damn animals. They really are becoming quite a nuisance. I’ll have to speak to the groundskeeper about that menagerie of his.”
Jason nodded, enthusiastically. “Good idea, Your Highness.” Huh. He’s a lot dumber than I thought. Works for me.
Then – Jason
Niobe obviously hadn’t informed her husband of her and Hercules’ late night chat, because Jason had a feeling if she had, they’d all be packing up and hitting the road by now. He wasn’t sure if he should tell Iphicles about Hercules’ theory. In fact, Hercules had expressly told him not to before he and Arcas had left early that morning to spend the day fishing.
“Don’t tell him, Jason. I already feel bad enough about Amphion asking me to tell stories and for getting annoyed with him last night when he kept going on about Iolaus,” Hercules had said while he packed his and Arcas’ things.
But, unlike Amphion, Iphicles wasn’t dumb as a rock, and as soon as the Attican king was no longer in earshot, Iphicles whirled on his stepfather. “Want to tell me what actually happened? Why are you breaking our host’s things?”
“It wasn’t me. It was Hercules,” Jason whispered to him.
Iphicles’ eyebrow twitched, a sign that he was losing his patience. “Okay... Why is my brother breaking our host’s things?”
“We got into sort of a heated discussion last night. I said something I shouldn’t have.” Iphicles kept staring. “About Iolaus. Well, about the other Iolaus.”
Iphicles seemed unimpressed. “So, he broke the mirror?”
“You know how Hercules gets about him. I told you about what he did after Iolaus died, right?” Jason had had to ask Hercules about it several times and collect stories from numerous sources before he got the whole picture of how far gone Hercules had really gotten a few years ago.
“Which time? When he threatened Hades or when he tried to kill himself?”
Jason paused. Huh. Good point. “Both.”
Iphicles rolled his eyes and started storming down the hallway. “Yeah, well… you know him better than I do.”
“Well, whose fault’s that? No,” he held his hands up when Iphicles turned back around, “you know what? I’m not having that conversation.”
The rest of the morning was filled with more talk, more negotiating, and more of Jason holding his fake smile in place when really all he wanted to do was take Amphion’s crown of his head and smack him around with it. He’s pretty full of himself for a former lord, Jason thought to himself. Getting chosen to marry a queen must have gone to his head. Or, he’s just an asshole. Jason decided on the latter.
Niobe had greeted them warmly enough, but when Amphion asked where Hercules was that morning, she immediately averted her gaze. This did not go unnoticed by either Jason or Iphicles.
“He took his son fishing,” Jason explained, trying to keep his face neutral. “Arcas has been begging to learn how to fish and go camping for a while now.”
Amphion had said something about it being a pity, but Jason wasn’t paying attention. Niobe noticed Jason studying her and gave him an icy look. Oookay. So, she probably figured out Hercules said something to me. Nice job, Jason.
They broke for lunch, and Jason attempted to follow Niobe without being too obvious, but she was constantly surrounded by guards or servants. Jason was beginning to wonder if he should attempt to smooth things over at all, since obviously Niobe wasn’t going to draw attention to the fact that Hercules thought Meg was Iolaus’ daughter and not her first husband’s. But, there was the old saying about how the man may be the head of the family, but the woman was the neck. And the neck could turn the head any way she wanted.
No. Jason couldn’t give a damn about this whole business, but having a good relationship with Attica was important to Iphicles, whether they signed the peace plan or not. Niobe could convince her husband to end negotiations, and cut off trade with Corinth completely if she wanted to. Jason didn’t figure her to be that petty, but it really wasn’t worth the risk.
So, he waited for his opening, and gritted his teeth and nodded politely at all the appropriate times. His face was going to hurt by the time this was over. Finally, as Amphion was finally backing down and agreeing to give Corinth some concessions and take out some of the wording that Iphicles didn’t like, his moment came when a servant girl tried to quietly and unobtrusively come into the room and speak to Niobe. She whispered something in her ear and then quietly walked back out of the room.
Niobe tried to keep her face blank, but Jason could see that she looked strained as she excused herself and followed the girl out into the hall. Jason waited a beat, pretending to be engrossed in whatever Iphicles and Amphion were discussing, and then excused himself as well, getting up out of his chair. Iphicles threw him a sideways glance but Jason shook his head, and made his way out the door.
By the time Jason had gotten to the hallway and shut the door, Niobe and the servant were gone. He figured it would probably not be a good idea to go wandering around the palace aimlessly, so he leaned against the far wall and decided to wait. About twenty minutes later, he caught site of Niobe coming back around the corner, and he quickly walked over to meet her. “Anything I can help with?” he asked, casually. She stopped, catching sight of him and looking resigned.
“Oh, it was nothing. Just a, uh…” She shook her head, and gave him a small smile. “Just a Meg problem.”
“Ah. Escaping again?”
“No… this time it was not wanting to behave during her studies,” Niobe sighed, and straightened the front of her gown.
Jason chuckled. “I was the same way when I was her age. Who wants to sit still and learn about history and royal etiquette when you could be running amok through the halls?”
This actually seemed to make Niobe feel a little better. “Thank you, Jason. Sometimes, I just feel like I’m at my wits end with her.”
Jason noticed that, thankfully, they were alone. Niobe seemed to realize this as well, so before she could find some reason to head back into the meeting hall, Jason said, “I wanted to apologize on behalf of my exceedingly stupid stepson.”
This was obviously not what Niobe had been expecting. “You don’t need to do that.”
“Yes, I do. Iolaus leaving… it’s been hard on him. And, as you can probably tell, it’s a bit of a sore spot. But, he shouldn’t have said what he said. It’s not an excuse.”
Niobe was quiet for a long time. She seemed to be gathering her courage, and Jason thought that her eyes suddenly looked very sad. “You don’t need to apologize, Jason, because… he was right.”
Jason wasn’t quite sure he had heard correctly. “He was right…?”
Glancing around to make sure they were alone, she turned to him and said, very quietly, “Meg’s not Orestes’.” Niobe’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but she also looked relieved, as if telling someone, other than Hector and Linus, was a burden that she had finally been released from.
Jason was speechless. He knew he should probably say something, but no words came to mind.
“I can tell you,” Niobe said, “because you’ll understand. You were a king. Things are different for us.”
On that, Jason agreed. He nodded. “Yes.”
“People like us, we have a duty. It would have been different, if it was Orestes who had…” she trailed off, and shook her head. “But, I’m the queen by marriage. What would they have thought of me?”
Jason didn’t have a good answer for that, so he said nothing.
“I had to protect my kingdom,” she went on. “The people… they love me. When Orestes and I married, it was a dream come true for them. All I care about is Attica, and what’s best for them.”
“I believe you,” Jason said, and he meant it. “And, we do have a duty to our people. But, we also have a duty to ourselves.” He let that sink in, and then asked, “And Amphion…?”
“He believes the same as everyone else, besides Hector and Linus, and now you and Hercules.”
“You told Hector and Linus?”
Niobe shook her head. “Hector’s not a fool. He knew. And frankly, they are more than just my guards. They’re friends. I could trust them. And they both knew Iolaus.” She looked down at the floor, as if there was something of great interest on her shoes. “He really did leave, then?”
Jason sighed, crossing his arms. “Yeah. Hercules isn’t too happy about it. He, uh, can get a little crazy when it comes to Iolaus, and again, I’m sorry for the way he approached the situation.”
Niobe caught his gaze. “Did they have some sort of falling out?”
The former king snorted. “No. That probably would have been easier.” He shook his head ruefully and stared down the hall. “No, Iolaus… him dying this last time and that thing with Dahak, and then being dead for so long and coming back… it did something to him. He wasn’t right anymore, he wasn’t himself. I think he tried to be, for Hercules. But, like I said, we have a duty to ourselves. And, he had to do what he thought was best for him. That meant leaving. Hercules didn’t handle it well. He didn’t handle it at all, actually. And well… seeing Meg… I think it brought it all back.” He took a look around the empty hallways. “This may not be the best place to be having this conversation.”
Niobe nodded in agreement. “To be honest, it wasn’t a conversation I was planning on having at all. Hercules is quite perceptive.”
That’s one way of putting it, Jason thought but to Niobe he just shrugged, and told her, “It’s a demigod thing.”
“And Arcas? Does he have Hercules’ abilities?”
“No. He…” but Jason trailed off, realizing that perhaps letting the Queen in on what Arcas was capable of might not be the best idea. At least, for the moment. “He’s more human than god. But, he does have Hercules’… perceptiveness, I guess. He’s sensitive, for a young boy. He doesn’t have many friends.”
“That’s very sad. And you? You’re headmaster of a school now?”
“Yes. Cheiron’s old academy, where Hercules, Iolaus, and I studied.”
“I see it’s taught you some patience,” she said, a smile crinkling her eyes. Jason laughed as well.
“It has at that. I was never one for these sorts of dealings. I always preferred to be more hands on.” He and Niobe started walking back to the meeting hall. “But, it sounds like we may be done. Amphion has agreed to some of Iphicles’ demands, and I think that will help him come to a decision quicker that will be mutually beneficial for both of us.”
“Anxious to leave us, Jason?” Niobe asked, but the former king could tell she was kidding.
“Never. But, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous of all the fish Hercules and Arcas are going to be catching.”
“Hercules is an excellent fisherman, I take it?”
Jason suppressed a smile, thinking of the last time the two of them had fished together. “He has a… unique way of going about it.”
Before they reached the doors, Niobe put a hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Jason, I obviously need your word that you will remain silent on what we discussed.”
Jason paused. “You know I would never do anything to jeopardize you or Meg.”
“No, I know you would never be so malicious as to tell Amphion. I meant Hercules.”
Jason’s brow furrowed. “But, he already knows.”
“He thinks he knows,” Niobe corrected. Jason started to answer, but Niobe put her hand up. “This includes Iolaus as well, if you’re in contact with him.”
“That’s… putting me in a very awkward position.” He didn’t tell her that Iolaus had left explicit instructions not to be contacted. “I can’t tell you what to do, obviously. And, frankly, when it comes to relationships and kids, I’m the last person that should be giving advice. But, Hercules knows Iolaus better than anyone, and he could be a very good friend to have around.”
“Meg needs to believe she’s Orestes’ daughter. I want her to rule Attica, Jason.”
Before Jason had a chance to respond one way or the other, the doors flew open, making both him and Niobe take a step backward. Iphicles and Amphion both exited, the latter with his arm around Iphicles. They seemed to be in good spirits. “Come,” Amphion was saying, “we shall have a drink and celebrate. Ah, there you two are!”
Niobe and Jason exchanged glances. “I take it the two of you came to a decision, my love?” Niobe asked Amphion as he came around to stand beside her.
“We did indeed! Our alliance with Corinth has been solidified.”
Iphicles’ smile was a little more strained than Amphion’s, but he nodded in agreement. “It was a good day. Jason, if you’ll walk with me?”
“We will still celebrate later!” Amphion called after them. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”
“When my brother returns, King Amphion,” Iphicles told him, and then grabbed Jason’s elbow and lead him around the corner. “What the hell?” he hissed. “You just took off!”
“Sorry, I had to… deal with something,” Jason explained, lamely.
“And what, may I ask, was so important?”
Jason tried to change the subject. “It doesn’t matter. So, I guess you signed it after all, then? Amphion seems pretty damned pleased with himself.”
“We agreed on a modified version, yes, but nothing’s been signed. He finally agreed to my concessions. And I also secured some new trade contingencies as well. If you agree, we’ll sign tomorrow morning and then head back to Corinth.”
Jason nodded, impressed. “I’ll have to look it over. But, as long as Corinth’s not committed to send any of our men if they decide to go to war…”
“We agreed on more of a monetary sort of aid rather than sending our own men, yes.”
“Good. I’m not about to have our boys dying if he pisses someone off.” Iphicles was still staring at him. “What?”
“Are you going to tell me why you and Queen Niobe disappeared? Or does this have something to do with my brother and whatever happened with you two last night?” Iphicles asked with a knowing look.
Jason snapped his fingers. “Speaking of Hercules, I should go find him. He’ll be happy to hear we’ll be leaving tomorrow.” He started to turn around, but Iphicles strong armed him.
“Jason, what’s going on?”
Jason felt terrible about keeping Iphicles in the dark, but he didn’t need to know the specifics. And, while he hadn’t been able to give his word to Niobe before Iphicles dragged him off, he knew that it was an unspoken agreement between him and the Queen. “Look, I can’t go into details right now. All you need to know is that I took care of it.” When Iphicles didn’t budge, he added, “Hercules did something stupid and I’m cleaning it up.”
“Fine,” Iphicles sighed, and finally released his arm.
“So, this means I can go fishing now, too, right?” Jason asked, hopefully. Iphicles just gave him a dirty look and continued down the hall. “I guess that’s a no.”
Arcas mainly chewed his food in silence and just watched his father and Iolaus interact. He had heard every story possible about Iolaus growing up, from both his father and Jason. It was a strange sensation, seeing the two of them together. He knew that deep down, his father had just accepted that he might never see Iolaus again. It was nice, to see him so happy for a change.
After the initial shock and joy had worn off the two men, they mostly sat in silence as well, as if unsure of what to say. After all the stories, Arcas was expecting someone with a ravenous appetite who wouldn’t shut up, so he was surprised when Iolaus politely declined some of the food, claiming he had already eaten some of what he had picked up in Corinth. From the way Hercules’ eyebrows had gone up, his father was surprised as well.
Hercules, for his part, hadn’t touched his food. He just kept staring at Iolaus from across the table. Arcas frowned, and glanced back and forth between the two of them. “Would you quit staring at him like that?” he asked, nudging his father with his elbow. “You’re weirding me out.”
“Hmmm?” Hercules asked, then saw the look that Arcas was giving him. Blushing, he cleared his throat. “Right… sorry. When did you get back?”
“Just today. This morning, actually,” Iolaus explained, and then rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. “I was, uh, wandering around for a while trying to decide if I should come find you.”
Hercules nodded. “Oh.”
Iolaus paused, and then realized that Hercules must have misunderstood. “No, no, I meant… I didn’t know where you were.”
“No one in town told you I was here?” Hercules asked, surprised.
“Well, they did. Sort of. That’s what had me confused. I thought I was going to have to hunt you down or something. I didn’t expect you to have… settled down again.” He stopped, thinking. “You know what was weird? They kept saying you were either here, or in Attica.”
Hercules and Arcas exchanged quick glances. “Attica, huh?” the demigod repeated.
“Yeah… and I thought, I don’t even think Hercules has been to Attica. Well, I’m sure you have at some point by now.” He saw the look Arcas was giving Hercules and frowned. “What?”
“Nothing,” Hercules said, and finally started grabbing some of the olives, cheese, and duck that Arcas had laid out on the table. “I like what you’ve done with your hair.”
Iolaus snorted wryly and ran a hand through it. “Yeah, I guess I thought I needed a change.”
Hercules was tempted to say, “You could have gotten a hair cut in Greece” but he let it slide. “It suits you. Really,” he said at Iolaus’ dubious look, “I’m being serious. It goes with all your new… additions.” At Iolaus’ confused look, Hercules pointed at the markings on his chest and hands. Iolaus blinked down at them and barked a laugh, as if he had forgotten they were there.
“Oh, yeah. Don’t worry, it’s a dye.”
“When did that happen?” Hercules asked while Arcas leaned over the table to get a better look. It was mostly intricate swirls and floral patterns but there was also some kind of writing that Arcas couldn’t decipher.
“In India,” Iolaus explained, glancing down at his knuckles again. “It’s called mehndi. They use it for all kinds of things, but mostly for protection. I got it done before I left. Well… redone. Like I said, it’s a dye, and they paint it on. It’s actually pretty interesting.”
“Huh,” Hercules said, thoughtfully. “It’s definitely different.”
Iolaus wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he took a sip of water and looked around the kitchen as another awkward silence followed. “Is this new?” he asked, indicating the table.
Gods, this is painful, Arcas thought. “Yeah, we had to get a bigger one. What with me and Dad, and Jason, and Meg…”
Hercules’ eyes widened, and he choked on the olive he had just tossed into his mouth. Iolaus’ brow furrowed in concern. “You okay?” he asked, looking him over.
Hercules nodded as Arcas pounded him on the back. “Yep…” He coughed again, giving his son a withering look. Arcas, for his part, shrugged innocently and went back to his food.
“Who’s Meg?” Iolaus asked, looking back and forth between them.
“A friend from school,” Hercules said before Arcas could respond.
Iolaus raised an eyebrow. “Just a friend? Not, you know… girlfriend?”
Now it was Arcas’ turn to choke, and he sputtered and gasped on his water as Hercules ducked his head to try and hide a smile. “No,” Arcas stated, wiping his mouth, “no, no, no, no. Gods no. Hell no.”
“So… that’s a no.”
Arcas threw both Iolaus and Hercules disparaging glares before returning to his dinner. “Is this how it’s going to be now that he’s back? Because, if so, I think I may stop coming to visit.”
Hercules rolled his eyes, ignoring him, and explained to Iolaus, “She and Arcas both went to the Academy.”
“Really? That’s great! Following in Hercules’ footsteps?”
Arcas laughed. “Something like that.”
“I think it’s fantastic! Herc and I have a lot of good memories from that place.”
“Oh, I know. And I’ve heard them all.”
Iolaus wasn’t sure if Arcas sounded annoyed or not, but he could tell that Hercules was getting frustrated with his son. He kept glancing over at Arcas out of the corner of his eye. “Speaking of the Academy, how’s Jason?” Iolaus asked, trying to regain Hercules’ attention.
Hercules slowly looked away from Arcas, but he still looked bothered. “He’s doing well. He stays up there most of the time now. It was just getting to be too much for him to keep travelling back and forth. He’ll be happy to see you.”
“We’re heading up there tomorrow, actually,” Arcas interjected, and before Hercules could stop him, continued, “You should come.”
Iolaus shrugged. “Sure. Sounds good to me.”
The room got quiet again, and Iolaus took the time to study the two of them. There was a resemblance, that was for sure. And he could tell from the way they interacted, they had a good humored relationship. He was happy for Hercules, but… there was suddenly a deep regret in Iolaus that he hadn’t been able to see Arcas grow up. He tried to shake it off.
“So… how did this happen?” he asked. Hercules and Arcas glanced up, confused. Iolaus gestured back and forth. “You… having a son…?”
Arcas slowly put his fork down. “Well, you see, Iolaus… when two people love each other-”
“Very funny,” Iolaus said, and tossed an olive pit at him. “What I meant was… when, I guess?”
Hercules was silent for a moment, and tapped his finger absent mindedly on the table. “Arcas… can Iolaus and I have some time to talk?” When Arcas didn’t reply, he added, “Alone?”
To both of their surprise, Arcas started laughing, and looked back and forth between them as if they were missing out on the joke. “No,” he said, chuckling, and added some more duck to his plate. “No way am I missing all this.”
Hercules turned a wide-eyed stare on Iolaus, who shrugged as if to say, What do you want me to do about it? The demigod frowned and said, very firmly, “Arcas. Now.”
Father and son stared at each other, neither willing to back down. But after a beat, Arcas sighed dramatically and grabbed his plate, getting up. “Fine. I’ll be upstairs.” He held out his hand to Iolaus, who grasped it. “It was nice to finally be able to meet you, Iolaus.”
“I was glad to meet you, too,” Iolaus said back.
“Just don’t start thinking you can kick me to the kiddie table whenever you feel like it,” Arcas warned, and trudged down the hall and up some wooden stairs that Iolaus knew had not been there before he had left.
“I can do whatever I feel like, I’m your father,” Hercules called after him and then shook his head, ruefully. “Sorry about that.”
Iolaus just chuckled. “Don’t apologize. This is great!”
Iolaus gestured wildly around the room. “This… you… him… Hercules, I’m just so happy for you. I really am. He’s great.”
Hercules smiled to himself. “Yeah, he’s something all right.”
“How old is he?”
“Twenty-three now. Wow… I feel old.”
Iolaus snorted. “You are old.”
“Hey!” Hercules said in mock insult. “Might I remind you that you’re two years older than me?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah… so what’s that about?” Iolaus nodded towards the hallway. “Upstairs..?”
“Well… I had to add onto the house, as you can see. Jason let us stay here and I didn’t think it was right that he should have to deal with a growing boy so…” Hercules shrugged. “Anyway, I added another wing and then Arcas really wanted his own space as he got older, so we built the loft.”
Iolaus was impressed. “Wow. Yeah, it sure looks different. Looks good, though.”
“I just kept thinking Mother would have been happy I was adding all these rooms, because they were for her grandson.”
Iolaus smiled, remembering. “Alcmene always did want you to have another family. She was a great woman.”
Hercules casually dropped in, “She always wanted you to have another family, too.”
Iolaus just grunted. “Well… some things just don’t work out.” He cleared his throat. “So, spill.”
Hercules looked at him quizzically. “What?”
“Come on, Hercules.” He pointed at the ceiling, indicating the loft where Arcas was. “When did this happen? And more importantly, who did it happen with?” Iolaus asked, wiggling his eyebrows at him.
Hercules tried to keep himself from blushing. “Well,” he began, running a hand through his hair, “remember when I got amnesia? And Hera tried to get me to pledge my loyalty to her?”
Iolaus frowned in concentration. “You mean in Kastus?”
“Yeah. And you were purple,” he added, prompting a look of deep annoyance from Iolaus. They also could hear the sound of boisterous laughter coming from upstairs.
Iolaus shot the demigod a look of mock betrayal. “You told him that?”
“Come on, I had to. And then, everyone kept asking you why you were purple,” Hercules laughed, sitting back in his chair. “Iolaus, come on, it was funny!”
Iolaus just rolled his eyes. “Anyway… so Kastus. Wait… Kirin? Like, Queen Kirin?” At Hercules’ nod, he shook his head in astonishment. “But, you said that was only for one night.” Hercules cleared his throat uncomfortably, and Iolaus’ face broke into a wide grin. “Wow,” he said, appreciatively. “Good for you, Herc.”
“No, no… I mean, I guess that’s just one of those perks of being a half god.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” the demigod said quickly, blushing furiously. “Very cute, Iolaus.”
“Hey, I’m just making an observation.”
“Oh, my gods, look at you! You still get so embarrassed!” The blond burst out laughing as Hercules pressed his lips together and looked at the floor. “Can you even say the word sex?”
Hercules threw his napkin at him. “Don’t start with me.” But, he was laughing, too. For a moment, it felt like nothing had changed, and not a day had gone by. Without realizing he was going to say it, Hercules blurted, “I’ve missed you.” Iolaus slowly stopped laughing and gazed at Hercules across the table. “Gods, Iolaus, I have missed you so much. And I am so glad you’re back. I just… can’t believe you’re here. It’s crazy. I…” He shook his head, unable to continue.
Finally, Iolaus gave Hercules a small smile. “I know. And… I’ve missed you, too. It was, uh…” He coughed, trying to hide his emotion. “It was hard.”
Hercules suddenly felt his hand clenching involuntarily, and he concentrated hard on relaxing. “Yeah,” he agreed, “a lot has happened. And, a lot has changed.” He indicated Iolaus. “You, for starters… cut your hair, got some tattoos…You haven’t got a piercing somewhere I can’t see, too, have you?”
Iolaus winked. “If you’re good, I’ll let you see later.” He laughed at Hercules’ shocked look. “Herc, I’m kidding.”
“Oh. Good.” He sounded more than a little relieved.
“So, what happened? Why did Arcas have to come stay with you?” Hercules got very quiet, and Iolaus realized that he must have said the wrong thing. He waved dismissively, and went back to eating. “You know what? Forget it.”
“No, it’s okay. Kirin, uh… she got sick. Or, at least, that’s what they told me. She was a commoner before she married Millius and well… Arcas has no real royal blood. Kirin was worried about him staying in Kastus after she died, so she sent him to me. His half-brother, Protos, is king now.”
Iolaus nodded, remembering some of the people they had had to deal with there. “I’m so sorry.” And he meant it. Hercules’ life had been full of enough tragedy.
“It was hardest on Arcas, obviously. He was so young… he says he doesn’t remember, but… I don’t know.” Hercules suddenly clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly. “Enough about that. I want to hear about your, uh… trip.”
Iolaus waved him off, and Hercules thought he looked uncomfortable. “Nah, it’s boring.”
“No, Iolaus, I really want to hear about it. It must have been amazing, for you to have stayed for so long.” He took a sip of water and noticed that Iolaus looked like he was trying not to let that last comment bother him. Hercules raised his eyebrows at him expectantly. “The East… India… What was it like?”
Iolaus’ eyes became unfocused, remembering. “Incredible,” he breathed. “Beautiful. It’s hard to explain. It was very different.”
“Well,” Hercules prompted, “what did you learn?”
“A lot. So many things… I, uh, don’t even know where to begin.”
“Well,” Arcas’ voice interrupted suddenly, making both men jump, “you can start by explaining why the hell you’ve been gone for two decades.” He was leaning against the opening to the hall that lead back into the kitchen, his arms crossed, an unreadable expression on his face.
Hercules’ head whipped around so fast Iolaus was concerned his friend had given himself whiplash. “Arcas!” The demigod wasn’t sure if he should be angry or embarrassed or both.
Iolaus, for his part, just sat in his seat and put his hands in his lap. “It’s okay, Hercules,” he said, calmly.
“No,” Hercules said through clenched teeth, “it’s not.” He was glaring at his son murderously.
“He’s your son,” Iolaus argued. “He’s just doing his job.”
“He seems to think his job is to protect me,” Hercules said, still glaring.
“Hmmm,” Iolaus said with a long-suffering air, “I wonder what that must feel like.”
Hercules instead turned his glare on Iolaus. “Very funny. That’s all I need, the two of you ganging up on me.”
“Oh, yeah, laugh it up. It’s all so funny. Yay, Iolaus is back!” Arcas pushed off the wall and stalked back over to the table. “Are you kidding me? What’s next? Are we going to hold hands and skip around the garden? Sing Kumbaya? Put daisies in our hair?”
“That’s enough,” Hercules warned him.
“No, Dad, this is bull shit!”
“Hey, watch it!”
Arcas ignored him. “I was listening to you guys upstairs, and this is ridiculous. Look,” he turned on Iolaus, “I’m really glad you’re back. I am. But you have no idea what it’s been like for him-”
“Arcas!” Hercules said, sharply, making his son turn and face him. “I said, that’s enough.”
“He has every right to be angry,” Iolaus interrupted. He looked at Hercules pointedly. “And so do you.”
Hercules didn’t say anything for a long moment, but he also didn’t break Iolaus’ gaze. Arcas shook his head in disgust. “Dad… you need to tell him.”
“Go back upstairs,” Hercules demanded, not looking at him.
“No, I’m not going to go back upstairs. He needs to know.”
Iolaus’ brow furrowed, and he glanced back and forth between the two men in confusion. “Wait. I need to know what?”
“Arcas, now is not the time to have this conversation.”
Arcas’ nostrils flared, and he put his hands on his hips, refusing to back down. “Do it, or I will.”
Iolaus recognized that tone of voice immediately, because he’d heard it hundreds of times before from Hercules. It was the same tone the demigod used on particularly thick-headed warlords who were just not getting that what they were doing was wrong and they should stop before Hercules beat them up and tossed them around in front of all their little warlord friends.
Iolaus wasn’t entirely sure they were still talking about Hercules being angry with him either. There was something else going on. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all… Hercules was right, and lot had changed. They had both changed. And he would be delusional if he thought that being away for so long hadn’t done some damage to his and Hercules’ relationship. He sighed in resignation and stood up.
“Look, Hercules… your son is right. I shouldn’t have just come here thinking everything was going to be fine-”
“Iolaus, sit down!” Hercules yelled, making Iolaus jump and stare at him in surprise. After a beat, he slowly and silently sank back down into the chair. “Thank you. Arcas, a word.” Hercules stood up and grabbed his son’s arm, practically dragging him back down the hall, leaving Iolaus alone.
“What the hell is your problem?” he hissed once they were out of earshot. “This is not like you at all.”
“I can’t help it, okay?” Arcas told him, eyes flashing. “I can tell that you are barely holding it together. And him…” He shook his head, baffled. “I can’t get anything from him.”
“What do you mean? And quit listening in on our conversation.”
“I mean… he’s blank, Dad. Either that, or he is really, really good at blocking out his emotions from people like me. Like, he’s used to someone trying to get in his head.”
Hercules blinked, nonplussed. “Arcas, he was possessed by Dahak. Yeah, I’m sure he got pretty good at keeping things out of his head. It’s how he fought the thing for so long. And that’s not an excuse for your behavior.”
Arcas wasn’t listening. “It’s like he’s not there. It’s freaking me out. And you,” he added, poking his father in the chest, “need to tell him the truth. And I’m not just talking about how him being away for so long has made you feel.”
Hercules pressed his lips together. “I’m… waiting for an opportune time.”
Arcas wasn’t buying it. “Dad, you can’t do your typical ‘let me put the bad news off as long as possible’ routine. I know this is going to suck. It’s going to suck a lot. But, he needs to know. We’re going to the Academy tomorrow-”
“Yeah, thanks for that, by the way. I was not planning on having Iolaus along.”
Arcas shrugged dismissively, ignoring his father’s tone. “Hey, I’m here to help.”
Hercules was not amused. He took a breath and looked away, staring down the hall. “Arcas… this isn’t just about Iolaus. What is she going to say when we stroll up there tomorrow, huh?” He turned back and looked at Arcas expectantly. “Well?”
Arcas’ gaze didn’t falter. “The difference, Dad, is that she knows about him. He doesn’t know about her. Meg will get over it.” He nodded out to the kitchen. “What about him?”