Two Halves Don't Make a Whole
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The following is an episode of the Young Hercules Fan Fiction Seasons, a non-profit virtual season project; written for fans by fans this is done to help keep the legacy of the short-lived television series Young Hercules alive on the Internet. The overall direction of the story that takes place in this virtual season may not be exactly what took place if an actual televised season had been produced.
(Hercules looks at a young man, with dark black hair)
Hercules, breathing: "Iphicles!"
Iphicles: "Maybe I heard the name my kid brother was making..."
(Iphicles and Hercules exchange a confused look)
BECOMES A FAMILY FEUD
(Lucius attacks Hercules and Iolaus)
Lucius: "Always on a short leash, aren't you?"
Iphicles: "I'll show you what I can do!"
(Iphicles kicks Lucius)
(Lilith and Iolaus exchange confused looks)
(Iphicles sits at table, looking down)
Iphicles, frowning: "You think you're the best."
(Hercules gives a serious look, holding a dagger)
(Lucius kicks Iolaus in the ribs)
NOW THE BATTLE LINES ARE FORMED
Lucius: "I thought I'd come back for another stab...
(Iphicles looks at Hercules, not pleased)
Lucius: "...at killing my pesky freak of nature"
ALL OUT WAR IS ABOUT TO BREAK LOOSE
(Hercules, Iolaus, and Lilith outside Kora's inn)
ON THE NEXT YOUNG HERCULES!
It was past dusk when the stranger arrived, stepping into Kora's with his heavy leather cape swirling around his ankles. Tangles of the night's early mist followed him in, some melting like cobwebs as they brushed against the burning candles on the nearest tables, others clinging stubbornly to his sleeves and back.
"We're closing in a few minutes," Kora told him, "but the kitchen's still open if you want something quick."
The stranger pushed back the hood of his cape in a one quick moment, as if he wasn't sure he wanted to be seen. Dark hair bare, features illuminated by candles, he looked surprisingly young.
"Actually," he said, leaning an arm against the counter, "I just wanted directions. Is Cheiron's Academy around here?"
"Oh, are you a new cadet?"
Kora meant the question as polite chitchat, but the stranger drew back, eyes clouding.
"No," he answered finally. "I'm just looking for someone. Maybe you know him? His name's Hercules."
Kora eyed the newcomer a bit more closely. She had the nagging feeling that he looked familiar for some reason.
"Everybody around here knows Hercules," she said, her tone not quite deciding whether that was a good or a bad thing.
Again, the stranger's expression darkened.
"Do you know where I could find him? We're old . . . friends."
The man didn't seem anything more than mortal.
"You're in luck," she decided, giving him a quick smile. "He's right over there. I'll show you to the table."
"Thanks," the stranger said and trailing behind as if he might bolt at any second, followed her to the corner table where three figures were laughing heartily.
Fighting chuckles, Hercules held up a hand for silence and continued the story. "So then she said: 'Why don't you come in and meet daddy?'"
"How was I supposed to know her father was the Constable?" Iolaus protested. "Or that he had invited Cheiron to dinner that night?"
Lilith rolled her eyes. "And you really thought that Cheiron would buy that you had wandered out after curfew in a delirious fever and thought her house was the Academy?"
"No, I expected that to buy me a few minutes while Hercules set up a distraction," Iolaus countered. "But I didn't think he was going to let the entire police station's stables free!"
"It wasn't my idea," Hercules groaned. "I still have hoofmarks imprinted all over my body."
"Oh, so that's what's wrong with your face."
Hercules shot him a glare. "That's the gratitude I get? Didn't I spend the whole night helping you collect the horses?"
Iolaus offered him a cherubic smile. "But that wasn't exactly your idea, was it? What did Cheiron say again: a wise warriors must learn to hold his horses?"
"He never -"
The rest of Hercules' reply dropped away as a shadow fell across the table.
Lilith looked up into the face of a man maybe four years older than herself, with tangled dark hair and darker eyes.
Well, what do we have here? she thought.
And then she noticed that Hercules and Iolaus had both gone quiet, eyes wide, all traces of festivity wiped from their faces.
"Hercules, I found someone to see you," Kora said into the sudden, crowded silence.
"Hercules," the stranger greeted the half god, not moving a muscle. His expression was noncommittal, but Lilith thought she caught a trace of wariness in his voice.
Poker faces had never been Hercules' strong suit. Shock painted his features - shock and happiness.
"Iphicles," he breathed.
Two Halves Don't Make a Whole
Nathaniel Lees as Cheiron
Jodie Rimmer as Lilith
Angela Dotchin as Kora
Stewart Turner as Iphicles
Craig Parker as Lucius
Based on "Young Hercules"
Created by Renaissance Pictures
Tern O'Brien & Medea
Edited by Tern O'Brien
"Oh, so you two know each other?" Kora asked. Hercules' answer was the last one that Lilith could have imagined.
"Yeah," Hercules said softly. "Iphicles is my brother."
Brother?! Lilith thought incredulously, then echoed herself aloud. "He's your brother?"
She wondered if she should get ready for a fight - usually the appearance of Hercules' relatives didn't end in a picnic by the river. But Iolaus hadn't moved to the defensive and Hercules himself showed no signs of alarm, just astonishment.
At any rate, the brothers ignored her entirely.
Hercules half rose from his seat, never taking his eyes from Iphicles.
"What are you doing here?" he burst out, then as if afraid the question could be taken in the wrong way, hastened to add: "It's great to see you. " And then, almost hesitating. "It's been a long time."
Iphicles ducked his head in a kind of shrug, and smiled a slow smile that erased some of the sullenness his face and made Lilith finally believe that he and Hercules might indeed be related.
"Maybe I heard about the big name my kid brother was making for himself, and wanted to check it out for myself."
Hercules beamed. "Man, this is so cool!"
Lilith got the impression that Iphicles could have told him he was here to burn down the Academy and the half god would have been just as excited.
"My boat's staying in Corinth Harbor for a few days," Iphicles added. "I thought maybe you could put me up for a few nights."
As if thankful for something concrete to attend to, Hercules immediately jumped to his feet. "Sure! Yeah, that's great!" he said eagerly. Then: "Have you seen mother yet?"
Iphicles looked away. "No."
Whoa, what happened there? Lilith wondered. Something old, she guessed, and by the look on Iolaus' face, he knew some part of the story, although it could have just been memories of his own family experience intruding.
Hercules blinked, perhaps in disappointment, but seemed determined to pretend nothing was amiss.
"Well, let me show you to the Academy," he offered quickly, filling in the abruptly awkward pause. "Iphicles can have your bunk for the night, right Iolaus?"
"And where do I sleep?"
"Thanks," Hercules said distractedly. "Uh, catch you guys later, okay?"
"See ya around, Herk," Iolaus said with elaborate courtesy as Hercules guided Iphicles away from the table without even bothering to wave goodbye.
"And don't worry about the check, we've got it," Lilith called after them. Then, with a glance at the terminally short of dinars Iolaus, sighed and corrected herself: "I've got it."
Iolaus was scowling, and it was pretty clear he had more than the prospect of a bad night's sleep on his mind.
"Here we go again," he muttered.
Lilith had to agree. She had seen Hercules in such a frenzy that he forgot everything else only twice before, once when he had met Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus, and then again, when Lucius had arrived. The first time, it had almost cost him his closest friendship. The second time, learning almost too late that Lucius was homicidally obsessed with being the only living son of Zeus, had almost cost Hercules his life.
Maybe it was because he kept meeting relatives who hated him merely because he had been born, that Hercules was so starved to find any affectionate family.
"I never knew Hercules had a brother," Lilith reiterated as Hercules and Iphicles ducked out of the inn. "A mortal brother, I mean."
Iolaus had a strange expression on his face, but roused himself at her question.
"Yeah," he said, his voice surprisingly flat. "His father was Amphitryon, Alcmene's husband."
"So why hasn't he been around?" Lilith persisted, interested in this previously unknown facet of Hercules' life. "I mean, he doesn't look much older than us."
"He left the farm maybe a half dozen years ago," Iolaus said, avoiding the real question. "He doesn't come around very often, but Herk used to really look up to him."
"Why'd he leave?"
Iolaus shrugged, the gesture saying more that he didn't want to pursue the topic, than that he didn't know. "How'd you like to grow up with your little brother a half-god?"
He shifted in his seat, changing the subject. "Hey, maybe Kora will let me sleep here tonight."
Iolaus shrugged again and with an air of finality focused his attention back on his meal.
"Well," Lilith said by way of closure, "with psychos like Ares and Lucius always trying to kill him, it must be nice to have at least one normal half-brother to count on."
That odd expression returned as Iolaus began industriously mopping up the last of his soup with pita bread.
"Yeah," he said carefully. "Maybe so."
Easily navigating the thickening night, Hercules stuck close to Iphicles' side, sneaking glances at his older brother and trying to decide whether he should follow Iphicles's lead and play it cool, pretending as if it hadn't been years since they had last seen each other.
Even all these years later, Iph made him feel like he was a little kid with dirt on his face, innocently trying to keep up with his big brother and never understanding how embarrassing it was for Iphicles not only to have a tag-along kid brother, but one who could outdo him at all the sports.
But things had changed - at least, he hoped things had changed. Here was Iphicles. Here was the chance Hercules never seemed to get with his family: the possibility to start all over again.
Herk was just about to give up any pretense of suavity, say anything no matter how stupid just as long as it might break the silence between, just in the hope that they could still act like brothers, not strangers, when Iphicles beat him to it.
"You're looking good, Hercules," he said, and Hercules thought he caught a bit of brotherly pride in the comment. "All grown up."
"Closer, anyway," Hercules offered.
"Having any adventures lately?"
Hercules hesitated, wondering what Iphicles had heard and how he would react to tales of gods and monsters. It would be nice to tell someone about his adventures - Iolaus and Jason and Lilith didn't really count because they had usually been there, and Alcmene always interrupted to ask why he hadn't done some eminently more practical and strategic move that he hadn't thought of at the time.
But would tales of daring do seemed like he was trying to show Iphicles up?
"Nah, not really," Hercules fudged, not wanting to fall into the competition trap again. "I still haven't gotten much real world experience or anything. Like you."
Good guess. Iphicles actually smiled and clapped a hand across Hercules' shoulders. "Tell you what, kid, in exchange for crashing at your place, I'll tell you everything you've always wanted to know about sea merchant trading but were afraid to ask."
Hercules grinned, held out his hand. "Deal."
Iphicles shook it with mock solemnity, like they had done when they were kids, then whistled as the dark bulk of the Academy came into foggy view.
"That's some place."
"Yeah, it's pretty cool." Hercules stepped up to the closed gates, and hands automatically finding a set of half-concealed carvings, pressed the proper combination. "Mostly, we can pretty much come and go as we please, but during the off hours you have to know the combination to the runes to get it."
He caught Iphicles' surprise and explained. "We can take care of ourselves, but there are the sons of some pretty important people here, and Cheiron doesn't want to take any chances."
"Important people, huh?" Iphicles echoed, and Hercules was glad it was too dark to see his blush. He hadn't been trying to talk about himself.
"Yeah, like Jason of Corinth was here until last year," he said, trying to steer the conversation away from dangerous waters.
"Jason the King?"
Hercules nodded as the gates swung firmly shut behind them. "But he's a really good guy. Not a swelled head or anything. No one here is. All that matters is what you do, not who you are."
Iphicles studied the grounds with a cool eye, than seemed to relax slightly. "Sounds like a good place."
Hercules grinned. "Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's worth it, you know? Hey-" the idea was out before he could recall it. "Why don't you enroll for a while?"
"I've got places I need to be," Iphicles said, immediately growing distant.
You could take a break for a while," Hercules suggested a little wistfully. "I could talk to Cheiron, I'm sure he would allow it. You and me, it'd be fun."
Iphicles swung on him. "Is it so impossible for you to believe that I have important things going on in my life?"
Hercules held up his hands, retreating from the sudden, familiar anger. "No, I didn't mean-"
"My father may have been a man, not a god, but that doesn't make me insignificant!"
So maybe nothing had changed after all.
"I have never said, or thought, it did," Hercules stated, trying to keep his own frustration out of his voice. "Come on, I don't want to have this conversation again."
As quickly as the anger had come, it was gone, leaving Iphicles looking abashed. "Sorry," he said sheepishly. "I just wanted you to be sure it was really me."
Hercules accepted the apology, waving away the discomfort. "I'll show you the bunk rooms," he offered.
Iphicles bowed wryly. "Lead the way."
Maybe that's the worst of it Hercules thought as they walked toward the buildings. Maybe things are looking up after all.
Far behind them, another dark stranger breezed into town.
Kora's was closed by now. But then, Lucius hadn't come for the food.
Iolaus was out of sorts and he told himself it was merely because sleeping on the cold floor while Iphicles used his bunk wasn't his idea of a sound rest. But he had slept on enough cold floors in his life that he couldn't blame it all on that, if he was honest. Then again, today he didn't particularly feel like being honest.
He had the nagging feeling that he wasn't the only one.
As Lilith hooked a leg over the bench next to Iolaus, the guest of honor and brother arrived on the scene. Iphicles had forsaken his big bad cloak of the night before and was dressed in hard worn but high quality dark leather. And he was even smiling as Hercules, bounding next to him, puppy eager, showed off the dining hall.
Just like the old days.
And as far as Iolaus was concerned, the old days weren't something he ever enjoyed revisiting.
The duo came directly over to where Iolaus and Lilith sat. Lilith looked honestly intrigued to meet Iphicles, and Iolaus settled for being as neutral as possible. Iolaus wasn't a thief anymore, and they weren't in any competition over Hercules. No point in dredging up any more old grievances; knowing Iphicles, he and Herk would already have more than enough issues to not need Iolaus' contributions.
"Everyone, this is my brother." Hercules looked so proud he was ready to explode. "Iphicles, this is Lilith."
"We almost met last night," Lilith said wryly and looked pleased when Herk blushed at gentle gibe.
To everyone's surprise, Iphicles took the hand she extended and kissed it. "My loss," he said.
Hercules sent an impressed glance over toward Iolaus, as if to say hey, look at my brother, he's got some moves!
Once, when Jason had tried teaching Lilith to be a princess, she had scrubbed her hand clean on her dress after the then crown prince had tried that little trick. This time, Iolaus noticed, she just settled for smiling. It didn't make him feel any happier.
"And I'm sure you remember Iolaus," Hercules continued, finally deigning to notice him.
"Hey," Iolaus said, determined to be polite. As long as Iphicles behaved, Iolaus would, too.
From the look in Iphicles' dark eyes, he had decided the same thing.
"Sure I remember." Iphicles clasped forearms, then winked. "Remind me to check my money bag before I leave the table."
A second too late, Iolaus managed to laugh along with everyone else.
He thought only Hercules noticed.
Lilith wasn't so slow herself, though. Tension underlined every movement at the table, and just because she wasn't entirely sure why it was there, didn't mean she couldn't feel it as palpably as everyone else must.
Hercules' grin was becoming ever so slightly strained. "So, now that we know everybody, let's eat," he said diplomatically.
Iphicles examined the contents with a dubious glance that was close to charming. "Oats?"
"Cheiron's specialty," Hercules shrugged.
Iphicles smiled. "After four months at sea, anything that's not fish is good by me."
Somewhat surprised, Lilith suddenly realized that when he wasn't scowling, Iphicles was actually rather cute.
She studied the two brothers as they ate. They were about the same height, although Iphicles' older years showed in his broader physique, hinting at what Hercules would look like when his frame filled out. Not bad at all.
And there was something similar in the tilt of the head, the shape of the face. But there the resemblance ended. Iphicles' hair was darker and his eyes darker still, with none of the frankness or the obvious compassion that shone in Herk's gaze.
With a little shudder, she realized that if they were talking half brothers, it was Ares, not Hercules, that Iphicles reminded her of. Which was ridiculous because they weren't even related.
But except when he smiled, there was something there - jealousy? - that reminded her of the god of war. Or of Lucius.
When he smiled, it was an entirely different story. She caught herself wishing he did it more often, and realized that she wanted to like him, if only for Hercules' sake.
Iolaus didn't like him, that was obvious.
Then again, sometimes Iolaus was so protective of Herk that it was a wonder he let anybody talk to the half god. He seemed to think that it was his job to stop Hercules from being too nice for his own good.
But this was Hercules' brother.
"So Iphicles," she said, leaning over the table with a wicked grin. "I bet you could tell us some pretty juicy stories about Hercules when he was a kid."
"Oh no," Hercules protested, looking half embarrassed, half pleased.
"I'm sure he's told you all the ones I know," Iphicles began, good-naturedly taking the bait. "Like the time we entered the chariot races at the village fair, and on the day of the race, one of our horses ate bad grain. So Hercules was the horse."
"And you won?" Lilith asked delightedly.
Iphicles shook his head. "We came in last."
"We did not!" Hercules corrected, laughing. "I beat that old couple with the donkeys, didn't I?"
"Only cause one of them had a heart attack during the race."
The brothers caught sight of the horrified look on Lilith's face and burst into twin guffaws.
"One of the donkeys, Lilith," Hercules sputtered. "Not one of the people."
Lilith was saved from a reply by the shrill whistle that signaled practice and burst the moment of comradery.
Iphicles glanced over at Hercules, who was already regretfully pushing away the leftovers of his breakfast.
"Time for training," he explained apologetically.
Lilith waited for the half god to invite his brother to participate in practice, then frowned to herself as he remained awkwardly silent.
So, shooting a quick, quizzical glance at Hercules, she said finally: "Iphicles, would you care to join us?"
She had meant the invitation more on behalf of Hercules, but Iphicles' nod and quick bow were directed solely at her.
"I'd love to," he said gallantly, "if you'll go easy on me."
Lilith waved him toward the training room with a tip of her head. "Come on."
Hercules watched them leave, grateful for Lilith for navigating an uneasy situation, and tossed off a grin to Iolaus. "Looks like they're sure hitting it off."
He caught himself wishing that it would be that easy between Iphicles and himself, but Iolaus must have interpreted the comment differently, because his face grew hurt and cold.
"Yeah, it's great," he said curtly. "Has he said why he's here?"
Just because Hercules had been waiting for the question, didn't mean he liked it any more when it came.
"He was in the neighborhood," he said, wincing inwardly at the defensive snap in his voice. But was it so impossible for Iolaus to believe that Iphicles just wanted to see his brother?
Apparently it was. "Just like that, after all these years."
"He's my brother, Iolaus," Hercules cut him off, trying not to be angry and not succeeding. "Just give him the benefit of the doubt. Okay?"
"Hercules," Iolaus said doggedly, "you and I both know Iphicles. He's a great guy, but he's-"
"My brother," Hercules repeated firmly and left Iolaus looking after him, an entirely different expression on his face.
Yeah, he' s your brother Iolaus thought as Hercules strode away. And I'm not. Message received loud and clear.
Oh no, no competition there. Iolaus sighed disgustedly at himself. Maybe he hadn't grown up as much as he'd thought, after all.
Lilith was already showing Iphicles basic staff movements by the time Hercules made it into the training room. Not surprisingly, Iphicles had them down pat. He'd always been a good athlete.
Just not as good as me came the guilty thought.
"Like this?" Iphicles was asking, twisting the staff down and around in order to hit an imaginary enemy in the thigh.
"Right on," Lilith complimented. "You're really good at this. Must run in the family."
"Wait til you see Alcmene beat the dust out of a rug before," Iphicles agreed, trying the move again to smooth out the rough corners.
Hercules hesitated at the brink of the room, wondering if he should disappear for a while, not mess up the good mood.
"Partner up," Cheiron called from across the room.
But Hercules' usual partner was off sulking and the half god wasn't sure going one on one with his brother would be a good idea.
Iphicles looked up, caught his younger brother's eye, and it was too late.
"Want to go a round?" Iph asked, still smiling at Lilith's encouragement.
"I don't know," Hercules hedged.
Iphicles' eyes narrowed ever so slightly and he leaned against his staff insolently. "I'm game if you are," he said, just short of challenging. Then he winked. "Or are you scared?"
The joke reassured Hercules. "Okay, you asked for it," he replied, accepting Lilith's staff and joining Iphicles in the training circle.
They circled. The last time they had done this, Hercules realized, he had been twelve years old and two and a half feet shorter.
"Time to impress me, kid," Iphicles taunted.
"So let's see how good Lilith's training really is," Hercules teased back, swinging in toward Iphicles' stomach. His brother blocked the roundhouse maneuver easily, deflecting Herk's staff back toward his own face so that he had to revolve it and back a pace away.
"I think you'll find I've picked up a few tricks in my travels." Iphicles grinned and spiked his staff toward Hercules' feet.
The half god jumped over the wood, tucking in mid air, and landed behind Iphicles to sweep his feet out from under him.
"But I've learned a thing or two, too," he admitted, as Iphicles went down in a heap.
"So I see." Wincing just slightly, Iphicles accepted Hercules' hand up and reclaimed his staff. "Guess I'd better remember that."
They circled again, this time more wary.
It felt good, exercising like this, together.
"Hey Iphicles," Herk asked conversationally. "Have you heard of the Odysseus maneuver?"
He swung his staff from Iphicles' feet, toward his side, chest, head-
"He travels from place to place-"
Then the staff swung again toward Iphicles' knees.
"But ends up in the same place he started from," Iphicles completed, countering the move. "We call it landlubber's folly," he added.
Iphicles showed him. Twisting the staff behind his shoulders, he suddenly reversed the drive of the wood and swept down to catch Hercules hard behind the knees.
For a moment, Hercules wavered, trying to regain his balance. Iphicles watched him, suddenly silent, eyes filling with a look of superiority, disdain for his younger brother.
Hercules had seen the same look before, whenever he had tried to follow Iphicles and his friends, and whenever Ares looked at him. Saying, you're really hopeless, aren't you?
Well, he wasn't about to let his brother feel that way about his abilities. Instead of fighting for equilibrium, Hercules embraced his off-balance state and fell backward, bending into a back handspring and kicking his staff into the air so that when he regained his feet, the staff fell right back into his hands.
"So," he said, and felt a triumphant smirk play across his lips, "is that the best you can do?"
Iphicles stared at him for a moment, then charged, banter forgotten. The staffs clanked together, once, twice, then Iphicles fell again.
"That was a lucky one," Hercules offered, holding out his hand.
This time, Iphicles ignored it.
"What does luck have to do with war?" he asked.
Hercules would have answered 'everything', but his older brother didn't give him a chance. He drove in fast, and caught Hercules a hard blow across the chest.
"Hey, this is supposed to be training," Herk said, with an effort catching the next blow across his staff and holding Iphicles at bay. "Not 'war'."
Iphicles slid away from the standoff. "Tired already, little brother?"
Little Brother. The name caught at him, summoning up image upon image of Ares, sneering.
For the first time, Hercules started to really concentrate.
"Just warming up, old man," he taunted.
Wood cracked against wood, air splitting as staffs twirled and lunged. Hercules was vaguely aware that a crowd had gathered to watch them, couldn't remember how long they had been going. Iphicles really was good, putting all his effort into it. They would have been evenly matched, except that as always, Hercules had the edge in strength, in reflexes.
Hercules used that edge now, watching his brother's eyes to catch insight in them, then moving his staff to block the next move without even glancing at the weapons themselves. Sweating, breathing hard, Iphicles turned, kicked out with his leg; Hercules twisted away, tore the staff from Iphicles' hand and prepared the next move to-
"Enough!" Cheiron's voice thundered through the training room, breaking through the warriors' concentration. Hercules looked up instinctively, and by pure luck, his staff caught Iphicles across the ankles. Iphicles fell in a heap.
"This is a time for exercise," Cheiron said sternly. "Not for battles; it's too early in the morning. I suggest you two take a breather."
Iphicles got to his feet sullenly.
"Good practice," Hercules began. "You really had me-"
Iphicles pushed past him without a word.
With a worried look at Cheiron, Hercules turned and followed.
Iphicles was already halfway down the hall and moving fast by the time Hercules reached him.
"Iphicles, hold on!"
Iphicles pulled up short and glared at Hercules. "Nothing's changed, has it," he snarled. "You still love to humiliate me in front of your friends. You just have to prove how much better you are."
And suddenly Hercules realized how that final move had looked: like Hercules could have brought down Iphicles any time he had wanted to. Like he had been just stringing along his brother for kicks.
Too late, he realized that the expression on Iphicles' face hadn't been condescension at all, but a wary hope - hope that just once Hercules would fall. That move had been the best Iphicles could do, and Hercules had pretty much treated it - and Iphicles - like dirt. Exactly what he had been afraid Iphicles was doing to him.
"Iphicles, it was practice," he said apologetically. "I'm sorry if it got out of hand."
Iphicles still stared at him with hot, angry eyes. "You knew what would happen," he accused.
"Yeah, and if I hadn't said I'd practice with you, you'd have said I thought I was too good for you." Hercules could feel the old hurt coming to the surface again. "I can't win with you, can I?"
Iphicles looked away. "Just once," he said softly, "couldn't you let me be better than you at something? Would it kill you, just once?"
Hercules didn't know how to explain it. "Maybe it's habit from when I spent my entire childhood trying to be as good, as cool, as my big brother."
"Well, I guess you've succeeded."
When Iphicles met his eyes this time, something had dulled in them.
"I've gotta get some fresh air," he cut him off. "And there's a merchant I have to meet. That's why I came here, after all."
He left without a backward glance.
Iolaus found Hercules moping on one of the Academy's parapets.
"That was a nice move, with the handspring," he said.
"A little too good, I guess."
Iolaus shrugged, sitting down beside Herk so that his feet hung over the stone's edge.
"He'll get over it. We all do."
"Forgive you for being four times as strong and twice as quick as us. Sometimes it's a real pain in the butt."
Hercules sighed. "Look, Iolaus, about this morning-"
Iolaus shook his head. "I shouldn't have pushed. He's your brother."
Hercules scrubbed a hand through his hair, wondering how all of this had suddenly gotten so complicated.
"All my life, I've felt torn," he said finally, wanting to try to explain, wanting Iolaus to understand. "Do I belong here, there . . . anywhere. I just don't want to be torn on this, alright?"
Hercules looked his friend straight in the eyes, read a bit of jealousy, a bit of worry. But at least with Iolaus, he always knew he could straighten things out.
"I don't want to have to choose between having a brother, and my best friend, you know?"
He turned away again, a little embarrassed, and after a pause, Iolaus said in a considering tone: "but if you did have to choose . . . who would you pick?"
Disappointed, Hercules looked back at Iolaus . . . and saw the barely suppressed humor in his face. Relief slid through him. At least this part was back to normal, and maybe that meant things weren't so bad after all.
"No comment, alright?" he quipped. "But at least Iphicles knows how to be charming to the girls."
"I'll have you know I'm incredibly charming," Iolaus said indignantly. "Observe."
As Lilith came toward them, Iolaus spun on his knees, sweeping his arms out widely.
"Lilith! You're looking radiant today," he announced.
Lilith barely spared him a glance. "Yeah, whatever."
Stepping around Iolaus, she came up to Hercules and craned her neck around. "So what happened to Iphicles?"
"He remembered something he had to take care of," Hercules said, briefly wondering if it was true.
Lilith shook her head wonderingly. "Man, do you two really take training seriously."
That was a conversation he didn't really want to have now. Iolaus saved him from it.
"Uh, Lilith, how about showing me that move of yours?"
Iolaus had already latched onto her arm and was already guiding her away. "You know that one. That new one, where you do that jumping kicking bouncing thing."
Lilith's protests about how they were all jumping kicking bouncing things trailed off as they moved out of hearing.
"I'll catch up with you guys in a minute," Hercules said, mainly to himself.
Then, knowing what he needed to do, he headed out into the afternoon in search of his brother.
By the time Iphicles reached Kora's, he was already beginning to feel foolish. Hercules had been right, it was just a practice match, and yet he had allowed himself to build it into some huge fight. It wasn't the kid's fault he was the son of a god, and it wasn't his fault that Iphicles was so jealous of his little brother that he took everything like a personal challenge.
Even Iolaus. Simply because he was part of their rocky past, because it was so obvious to see that now he and Hercules were closer than Iphicles and his brother had ever managed to be.
And that's because of you Iphicles told himself, and knew it was true, and knew that as much as he was trying, he was messing things up again.
Maybe it had been a mistake to come here. Maybe the past should just stay behind him, not be dredged up. He would finish up his business, get on his boat, and sail away. And Hercules and Alcmene would be all the happier alone.
Somehow, the decision didn't make him feel any better.
Teadrin, the merchant he was supposed to meet - and the man who had started this whole ill-fated venture -- was waiting for him at the same corner table at which he had found Hercules.
"I thought we would meet at the Academy, Iphicles," Teadrin said flatly, wasting no time with greetings.
Iphicles sat without offering any salutations himself. He didn't trust Teadrin an inch and he liked him even less, but then, he didn't have many options and selling his cargo to the young merchant might be the last chance to get his boat out of hock.
So when Iphicles had learned of the merchant who was so interested in Cheiron's Academy that he would only do business with cadets, Iphicles had decided to give him one. It was only when Teadrin had insisted on proof that things had gotten so complicated.
And then Hercules had offered so casually to get him enrolled. As if Iphicles wouldn't have had a prayer getting in on his own. Iphicles' skills weren't so bad, even compared to Hercules; he didn't need his kid brother's charity. If he didn't have a ship to run, an existence to be made, he might have headed to the Academy himself after he had left home. If he hadn't known that Hercules was on his way there.
He could have. So what was the difference in saying he was a cadet? And why did he feel so lowdown in being forced to lie to this oily merchant with his overeager eyes and his impatient fingers that were always moving.
"The Academy is hardly the place to conduct business," Iphicles answered Teadrin's question as smoothly as he could, wanting to get this over as quickly as possible. "Have you got the money?"
Teadrin shrugged. "Have you got the wares?"
"A full shipload, in Corinth Harbor."
Teadrin grinned sharply, a surprisingly predatorily expression lighting his face. Then, catching Iphicles' scrutiny, he altered the expression into an attempt at innocence.
"Then it looks like we're in business," he said, but immediately held up a restraining hand. "After you give me a tour of the Academy, of course."
Teadrin leaned forward, his hood slipping further over his face and turning his stare into gimlets.
"I told you," he enunciated impatiently, "My employer is giving you this contract solely because of the reputation of the Academy. So I need to know that you are what you say you are. All I'm asking is for a little proof about who you are."
"Fine," Iphicles capitulated. He didn't have much choice, not if he wanted to save his ship and prove he could make it in the world. "Meet me at the Academy gates in half an hour."
Teadrin stuck out his hand. "It's a pleasure doing business with you."
Iphicles shook the hand silently, thinking that 'pleasure' was one of the last words that he would use to describe the last few days.
A movement suddenly reflected in Teadrin's eyes, and the merchant's expression changed as rapidly as storm clouds. Quicker than thought, the merchant slid away, but Iphicles didn't notice his departure. He was too busy seeing what Teadrin what had caught Teadrin's attention: Hercules, standing half a dozen paces away, staring at him with hurt and disappointment naked on his face.
"So that's why you came here," the half god whispered.
"It wasn't just that," Iphicles tried to say.
"Right," Hercules said, brushing away the words. "After all these years, you just suddenly really wanted to see your little brother, who just happened to be a cadet in the Academy. It was pure coincidence that you needed to pretend to be a cadet to get some good business deal."
"Hercules, I needed this deal. Last winter was hard on us, I needed-"
"I'm glad you're getting what you needed, Iphicles," Hercules said flatly.
"I used to envy you so much when I was a kid, because you had a normal father, because I knew that if he hadn't died, he would have been there every day for you. And when the kids teased me, you were always there to stick up for me."
Hercules' expression turned almost apologetic. "I guess it was just my mistake in thinking I still knew who you are."
Iphicles wanted to protest, say he hadn't realized, but the words turned to vapor in his throat.
Shaking his hair out of his face impatiently, as if brushing away childish thoughts, the half god turned to go, then turned back to Iphicles. "I won't say anything about this to Cheiron. Give your tour . . . and maybe I'll see you in another five years."
Face compressed with emotion, Hercules swivelled on his heels and strode away, brushing past Iolaus on his way out.
"Herk, Cheiron wanted--"
"Not now, Iolaus."
Iolaus' puzzled look faded into something closer to renewed contempt as he caught sight of Iphicles standing alone at the table.
"What did you do to him?" he demanded, advancing on Iphicles like a siege.
Iphicles didn't want to have this conversation. But lately it seemed like all he did was say things he didn't want to.
"Hercules already has a mother, Iolaus," he said coldly. "Why don't you find something else to do?"
Iolaus flushed, fists clenching. "You don't deserve having a brother like Hercules," he stated, "and you never have."
"You don't know what it's like-" Iphicles began before he could stop the frustration from bubbling up.
"Don't know what it's like being around a half god?" Iolaus completed derisively. "Sure I do, and sometimes it's the hardest thing I can think of."
"So why do you do it?"
The sincerity in Iphicles' tone tempered Iolaus' own anger into something more determined. "Because he's a good guy and he needs all the friends he can get." his gaze focused on Iphicles. "He needs his family, too."
But Iphicles was tired of the responsibility. "Why does he need me?" he spat. "He's got you."
A little too much vulnerability made it into the question. Embarrassed and angry, Iphicles pushed past Iolaus before the cadet could answer and stormed out into the glaring afternoon sun.
"Whatever he's getting," Kora said, gazing after him, "I hope it's worth it."
"No," Iolaus said, subdued. "It probably isn't."
Lucius whistled cheerfully as he waited for Iphicles. He was having a great day, and it promised to only get better. He could barely contain his glee as he imagined his mother's reaction to this new torment of Hercules. And his father, Zeus, must be looking down at him this very moment in paternal pride, silently urging Lucius on, as eager as his son for the day when Lucius had finally earned the right to sit beside his father in Olympus.
And if that meant killing every single friend of Hercules, until little angelic Herkie was so consumed by hatred that the world would thank Lucius for dispatching him, then so be it.
It wasn't like Lucius had anything else to do today, anyway.
So he waited and whistled, blending into the foliage by the side of the road when Hercules sped past. The young demigod was so close . . . it was tempting to abandon the elaborate cruelty of his plan and just attack. But Lucius restrained himself.
Zeus was a god who admired craftsmanship. And his mother's face had shone so when he described what he would do to Hercules and his friends.
He'd hate to disappoint his mother. Couldn't disappoint her.
The Blond Wonder turned sharply before he entered the Academy, heading for the open country. Lucius noted the direction and smiled. Perfect.
A moment later, who appeared but Iolaus. He reached the gates, paused as he read Mr. High and Mighty's trail, then let it go and entered into the Academy.
Lovely. Everybody was just exactly where Lucius wanted them. Silently, he thanked his father for such obvious intervention.
Lucius had considered many times simply slipping into the fortress, but he had never found a fully satisfactory plan. Slitting Hercules' throat in his sleep lacked the drama necessary for a son of Zeus, and even Lucius was wary about surrounding himself unnecessarily with so many warrior wannabes.
So it had been a stroke of luck - luck sent by the gods, proof that Zeus truly favored Lucius more than any of his other so called sons - to find Iphicles. The boy was so desperate to sound cool that he had tripped over himself to give Lucius the final piece to his plan: access into the Academy.
He wanted Hercules to know that there was nowhere that Lucius couldn't get into. Nowhere that Hercules was safe.
Nowhere that his friends would be safe, either. More proof that Hercules was soft, surrounding himself with loser mortal friends. Well, he would pay the price for that, and so would they.
With effort, Lucius clamped down on the wild exhilaration and when Iphicles finally arrived, trudging and looking like he had been eating sour lemons, he merely greeted him with an innocent, syrupy smile.
"Ready to go?" he asked breezily.
Iphicles' head jerked up, as if he hadn't even noticed Lucius standing there. A flash of dislike illuminated his face for a split second and his lips parted, as if about to say something.
No, no, that wasn't going to happen. Lucius casually crossed his hands behind his back and shook the dirk from his sleeve. He wasn't about to be stopped now.
"Is there anything wrong?" he asked sweetly, drawing out the 'o' to emphasize the idiocy of the suggestion.
Iphicles hesitated, looking caught and disgusted with himself. Then he straightened and shook his head.
"No," he said harshly. "Come on."
Iphicles turned toward the locking glyphs and the dirk went back up Lucius' sleeve.
"Goody," he said.
Iolaus had decided to enact the time-tested method of exercise as a way of working through frustration. His sword spun from hand to hand, breaking the light from the hall's high windows into tiny shreds of rainbow prisms. . . but he couldn't shake the feeling that he had done everything wrong. Every time he promised himself he'd back out of things that weren't really his business, he seemed to end up charging right back into the middle and not helping matters at all.
The problem was, Herk was the one who usually handled all the emotional stuff. Iolaus usually went out and hunted up something to eat during that part. But whatever Herk said, it usually worked better than Iolaus' current attempts. Maybe next time, Iolaus would stick around and listen to what Herk said, because he was all out of ideas here.
Frustrated, he tossed the sword to the ground and wiping the back of his hand across his forehead, headed for the water cooler.
He was almost there when a figure stepped into the light.
"Nice moves," said Lucius. "Want to see some of mine?"
Recognition, shock and the feeling that he was in big trouble tripped over each other inside Iolaus' brain.
"Lucius," he named the psychotic half god, as if the old stories were true and naming an evil force would control it. No such luck.
Lucius looked touched. "You remember me."
Iolaus tried not to look at his abandoned sword. If he could just get a little closer . .
"Well, we don't get many homicidal maniacs around here," he said, shifting his weight toward the sword. "Well, not too many."
He didn't wait for Lucius' reply, but sprang and dove, stretching out his fingers toward the tantalizing hilt of his weapon.
Lucius was faster. Whipping out a length of knotted rope from his sleeve, he sent the sword spinning away from Iolaus' outstretched hand with a careless jerk of the line. The sword spun through the air to land securely in his hand.
Iolaus tried to backtrack, make it to the nearest door, but the rope snaked out again and he fell heavily to the floor, legs pressed tightly together by the line.
Casually, confidently, Lucius strolled up to the fallen cadet. "Too slow, what a shame," he said with mock sympathy. "maybe you should spend more time practicing and less time toadying up to little Herkie."
"What do you want here?" Iolaus glared up at him, squirming to find leverage to fight.
Lucius shrugged. "I thought I'd come back for another stab at killing my pesky freak of nature half brother." Suddenly, he giggled. "Get it? Stab?"
What is it with psychopaths and bad puns? Iolaus wondered.
"Lucky for him your fighting isn't any better than your jokes," he growled aloud.
Lucius kicked him lightly in the ribs.
"Temper, temper," he chided, his face looking almost beatific with pleasure. "Now, you know I can't be Zeus' favorite son with Alcmene's brat hanging around, can I?"
He bent closer to Iolaus ear and the cadet felt hot breath on his cheek.
"This time," Lucius whispered, as if imparting a cherished secret, "I'm going to get rid of him once and for all. And you're going to help me."
"Yeah, and the world is round."
Lucius squatted over Iolaus, sword resting so lightly on the other's throat. "I didn't say you had a choice about it."
Suddenly, he straightened, yanking Iolaus to his feet as well. "Look, and here comes the nice cadet who invited me in."
Iolaus watched Iphicles approach. Proof that the day could get even worse. But . . . "He told you he was a cadet?"
"He was so anxious to impress me," Lucius sneered. "Like being a cadet is some kind of big deal."
"Oh, and being a son of Zeus is?"
"Exactly." Lucius discarded the sword, but the pressure against Iolaus' lower back was immediately replaced by another sharp pinprick. A dagger then, easier to conceal.
"Now, play along like a nice little schoolboy, or I gut you and big mouth cadet right here, and leave you as a calling card," Lucius said brightly. "Agreed?"
Iolaus didn't answer him, painfully aware that no answer was necessary. He searched desperately through his mind for options, but right now all he could come up with were: die now, and die later. He wasn't thrilled with either plan.
And here came Iphicles, as blindly innocent of the danger he was approaching as the shepherd who went into the hydra's cave because it might contain interesting newts.
At least Lucius didn't seem to realize Iphicles' relation to Hercules. Otherwise, he would have ignored Iolaus and gone straight for Iphicles. Knowing Iphicles, he wouldn't go around spreading the news that his little brother was famous; whatever petty reason had caused him to masquerade as a cadet, it might have saved his life.
Now all Iolaus had to do was make sure Iphicles didn't spill the beans.
While he was at it, maybe he could slip Iphicles a message, a clue to alert Herk that trouble was brewing. Or better yet, if Iphicles distracted Lucius enough, maybe he could overpower the half god.
And while he was dreaming, he'd always wanted a pony . . . .
Iphicles slowed a little as he approached the two, but barely gave Iolaus a second chance.
"There you are, Teadrin," he said with a preoccupied air. "I thought I'd lost you."
Lucius shrugged, assuming the 'I'm a pal' act Iolaus remembered from his first appearance. "I guess I took a wrong turn out of the privies. I was wondering around looking for you when I spotted my old friend, Iolaus."
Now Iphicles did look at him. "You know each other?"
Iolaus thought maybe there was concern in his voice, and realized that Iphicles must be afraid that Iolaus would tell the truth about his status as a non-cadet. Luckily for Iphicles (and unluckily for Iolaus), Iolaus had bigger problems on his mind right now.
"Some surprise, huh?" Lucius said jovially. "Who would've guessed we both would have ended up here?"
A prick from the dagger encouraged Iolaus to go along with the ruse and he laughed half heartedly. "I guess you never know what old, old . . " he faltered, realizing he'd forgotten the half god's assumed name.
"Teadrin," Lucius supplied smoothly.
"Teadrin'll do next," Iolaus finished somewhat lamely. "Haven't seen him in years, not since Castor-"
The dagger dug in, hard.
"-ia, back in Thrace," Iolaus improvised, hoping against hope that Iphicles had caught the hesitation. But Iphicles just nodded distractedly in a way that convinced Iolaus he hadn't heard a word of the exchange.
Great, just what he needed. Not only was he in no position to say 'help', but even if he could slip it into conversation, Iphicles probably wouldn't notice anyway.
"Iolaus," Iphicles said, "I need to talk to Hercules, but he isn't here. Do you know where he might have gone if he . . wanted to think about things?"
"I saw him head toward the meadows," Lucius volunteered and Iolaus bit back a curse. He didn't like the idea of Lucius knowing Hercules' location. And he didn't like the idea of Hercules' location being so far away.
"Okay," Iphicles nodded, then sighed. "According to the law of averages, I think I'm about due for a conversation where I don't act like a warlord with a toothache."
Iolaus caught the tacit apology in the words and felt he owed Iphicles some gesture. Might as well go out graciously.
"You know," he said, "Herk wasn't trying to show you up this morning."
Iphicles winced. "I know. That's one of the reasons I need to talk to him. I mean, Hercules is my brother-"
"-In-arms," Iolaus hastily finished, realizing almost too late the trap he had almost led Iphicles into. "Brothers in arms, aren't we all, yes. And that's darn important, yes indeed, you betcha . . . ."
Lucius shifted impatiently.
"Well," Iolaus cut off his ramble obediently, "Teadrin and I are just going to finish up a few things here. So, see you later."
"Okay," Iphicles said heavily. "Thanks."
"No problem," Iolaus replied with a weak grin, adding in the privacy of his mind oh by the way, you didn't happen to notice the knife jammed against my spine, did you? Guess not, well, never mind. Just bury me anywhere but home. . .
I phicles disappeared through the doorway. Lucius loosened his grip on Iolaus' arm, but the dagger stayed right in place.
"Isn't this fun?" he asked. "Now, let's go hunt up our friend Lilith, and set up something to welcome Hercules when he gets back."
"Well, he likes daisies," Iolaus quipped humorlessly.
Lucius' face was like flint as he began to bind Iolaus' hands. "I prefer to say it with flames."
Iolaus sighed. "Why did I know you were going to say something like that?"
The land rolled out in bright green for miles on three side of the hill. On the fourth, it sloped down steeply into sand and finally a trickling river that gleamed like lazy lightening. Hercules sat with his feet dangling down the slope, soaking up the freshness of the grass and sky and sand.
He didn't turn around as Iphicles approached.
There was a pause, then: "Nice view," said Iphicles.
"You can almost see mother's from here," Hercules said, still not looking at him. "I don't know, it's sort of peaceful."
Iphicles sat down beside him. "I see what you mean." Another pause, then: "Listen, I want to apologize for this morning. Well, for all the times this morning. Sometimes I get so caught up with trying to be number one that I lose sight of what's important."
Hercules shrugged. "Everybody does that sometimes." He plucked a daisy, twirled it idly. "You know, I used to wonder, if I had worked just a little harder at being bad at things, would you have stayed around?"
He held his breath as he felt more than saw Iphicles shake his head. "It wasn't just you, Hercules. I just had issues. I didn't feel like I belonged."
"Believe it or not," Hercules offered, "I've felt that way once or twice myself. But being a cadet, it feels right."
"I didn't mean to use you, Hercules," Iphicles said honestly. "And I didn't mean to cheapen what being a cadet means to you."
"It's not the title that matters. I just . . . missed you."
"Me, too," Iphicles said, and the real regret in his voice made Hercules feel better about their relationship than he had in a long time.
They both spoke at once, then grinning, Hercules gestured for Iphicles to go. "Age before beauty."
Iphicles looked at him with serious eyes. "There's something I think you should know . . ."
Iphicles took a deep breath. "You know the merchant? Who I . . . let into the Academy?"
Hercules felt himself tense, alerted by something in Iphicles tone.
"I don't know why," Iphicles continued, "but I bumped into Iolaus a few minutes ago, and Teadrin was holding a dagger on him; and not in a friendly kind of way."
The news was electrifying, wiping away all thoughts of petty jealousies and childhood hurts.
Iphicles shook his head grimly. "He was pretty well covered. It didn't look like there was anything I could do there. And I got the impression that Teadrin was after something more than Iolaus. Does 'Castor' ring a bell?"
Something both icy and furious dug into Hercules' heart. "Iphicles, what did this guy, Teadrin, look like?"
"Dark hair, about your height, my age, maybe."
"Lucius," Hercules realized. At his side, Iphicles straightened at the amount anger his little brother put into the word.
"Iphicles," Hercules cut him off urgently, "did you tell him I was your brother?"
Hercules' eyes were like blue shadow. "Lucius wants to kill me because I'm a son of Zeus."
I never realized . . . Iphicles thought.
"Can't we have even one conversation without you mentioning that?" he joked without humor.
"He's got this psychotic idea that if he destroys all of the other sons of Zeus, then Zeus will have to pay attention to him. He killed Castor and tried to kill me and he'll use anyone he knows is close to me to get to me."
Iphicles had been keeping up with Hercules' fast stride, but now he grabbed his brother's shoulder, forcing him to stop. Hercules almost tore free of his grip, but barely controlled himself.
"Hercules, if you're right, you can't go after him. He'll be waiting for you."
"If I don't go," Hercules said roughly, "he'll kill Iolaus, and who knows who else."
"But it's a trap!"
Hercules hesitated. "Iolaus would do the same for me. He's-"
"Like a brother to you," Iphicles finished, seeing, and for the first time accepting, the answer in Hercules' expression.
"Well," he said, without the rancor Hercules had been expecting, "he's a better choice than Lucius. Let's get going."
"Iphicles, you should stay here. Lucius is dangerous."
Iphicles gave him a cocky grin. "What's the point of being a big brother if I can't pull rank every once and a while?"
Hercules hesitated, then gave in with a reluctant grin. "Okay, let's go."
Hercules pointed across the sandy crack in the meadows, to the other bank of the river where the spidery outline of strange structure could be seen against the blue sky.
"Funny place to build something, don't you think?"
Iphicles studied the scene. "He didn't want you to miss it, did he?"
Hercules didn't change expression. "You don't always get exactly what you want."
"Why is it," Lilith grumbled as Lucius hauled her into place, "that bad guys always arrange these ridiculously complicated devices?"
It looked like a seesaw built for Titans, a giant ladder balanced on two others that leaned together to form a V-shape. On one end of the balancing ladder, Lucius had tied Iolaus, and on the other, Lilith.
Lilith cursed as she swung high, pulled up by Iolaus' heavier weight on the other end. Her wrists were already beginning to ache with the weight, and her head didn't feel so great either; Lucius had given her a nasty 'greeting'.
"Yeah," Iolaus chipped in, twisting awkwardly as he tried to find a way to unobtrusively loosen his bonds without immediately plunging to the bone breaking ground, "talk about overcompensation!"
"I'm hurt you don't like it," Lucius said lightly. Then to Lilith: "Now, if you keep struggling like this, you'll chafe."
"You may be a son of Zeus," Lilith told him, aiming an impotent kick toward his face, "but you're still a psycho."
Lucius gave her an injured look. "It is my problem you don't know how to choose your friends?"
"At least we have friends," Iolaus snarled.
The barb hit home. Lucius' face went blank, then white with rage. "I don't need friends," he yelled. "I'm the son of Zeus!"
And Hercules stepped into the clearing.
"From one son of Zeus to another," he said simply, "let me give you some advice: Get Over It."
Lucius actually looked happy to see him. "You're a little early," he said, like a host willing to cater to the whims of his guests. "But I was just about to start the party."
He launched himself from the ladder, twisting lithely in midair to land in front of the structure, next to burning torch propped between two rocks and half a dozen lengths from where Hercules stood.
Behind him, Iphicles began to very carefully inch his way up the rickety V ladders toward the captives.
Lucius didn't seem to notice. All of his obsessive attention was concentrated on the half god before him.
So far, so good Hercules thought warily.
He eyed his half brother with disgust. "You know, this is getting really, really old!"
"Oh, too bad," Lucius shrugged. "And here I was going to invite you to the barbecue, too." Whirling the torch up, Lucius abruptly tossed it over his head.
The torch landed in a thick pool of liquid and for a split second lay spluttering. Then the land erupted in flames, an inverse Phoenix, not heralding life but promising scorching death.
Iphicles flattened himself against the ladder as flames roared up around him, and Iolaus and Lilith cried in surprise and swore as they tried to pull their feet higher into safety.
It was, Hercules had to admit, a bit of a setback. But the basic plan remained the same: get Lucius.
"Iolaus, Lilith, hang on!" Hercules yelled.
"Yeah, why didn't we think of that?" Iolaus called back, already beginning to cough from the smoke.
"Feel free to try and save them," Lucius smirked. "But a warning: if you untie one of your little gang, the other will plummet into the flames."
Involuntarily, Hercules glanced back toward Iolaus and Lilith. Right now, they were just balanced enough that neither dipped too far into the flames - but if Iphicles managed to free one, Lucius was right, the other, without of the ballast, would be in fiery trouble.
"Tough decision, isn't it?" Lucius said sympathetically. "Which blond will it be?"
"I told you before," Hercules rasped, "you harm anyone I care about and I'll see you in Tartarus."
He didn't dare check on Iphicles' process again, for fear that Lucius would notice, for fear he would become too angry to do what he needed to do.
Lucius fixed him with the full shield of his insanity and declared with complete confidence: "But I'll be going to Olympus."
"I don't think so."
Hercules launched himself at Lucius, hitting him heels first in the stomach. The impact knocked the smug expression off of Lucius' face, but the half god didn't fall. Instead, he flipped backward and then swivelled to face Hercules.
For a moment, the two half-gods measured each other, than they both sprang into the air, colliding in midair in a flurry of punches and returning to earth.
And now Hercules had another reason not to spare a moment to check on his friends: he was very close to getting his ass kicked.
On the structure, Iphicles had managed to hook a leg over the balancing ladder and had inched out to where Lilith hung. The added weight swung her down precariously, but on the other side, Iolaus gave a sigh of relief as his toes were pulled into cool air.
"Am I glad to see you," Lilith said as Iphicles sawed away at her bonds with the short knife he usually used to cut up his meat.
"Heroics must run in the family," Iphicles cracked, half-hanging over the ladder himself as his blade worried at the ropes.
Suddenly the line snapped and Lilith gasped as she fell - then jerked to a stop as Iphicles' hands locked securely around her wrists.
"What do you think?" Iphicles' upside down face asked her. "Am I getting the hang of it?"
Grunting with the effort, he hauled her through the rungs so that she sat in relative safety.
"Can you stay here while I get Iolaus?" Iphicles asked her.
Lilith managed a soot smeared grin. "Hey, it's a nice view up here anyway."
Caught off guard by Hercules' feint, Lucius hit the ground with bruising intensity. But as he blinked at the sky, unauthorized movement caught his eyes.
Someone was on his creation, and it looked like loser Iphicles.
So that was how Hercules had gotten here so fast.
"Sneaky," Lucius said disapprovingly and rolling to his feet, picked up a table-sized rock and heaved it toward Iphicles.
"Iphicles! Watch out!" Hercules cried in warning, tackling Lucius seconds too late.
Iphicles heard the yell, saw the projectile, and threw himself flat, clinging to the ladder and rocking the entire structure as the stone missed his head by mere inches.
The ladders groaned wearily as they shuddered, and as Lilith shifted to compensate for the movement, the rapidly smoke-weakened rungs split under her and shredded.
She cried aloud as she fell; Iolaus echoed the expression alarmedly as he swung toward the fire and Iphicles tumbled, grunting, down the suddenly inclined ladder. But Lilith twisted and managed to catch another rung as she slid past. The structure quivered again as her weight caught again and Iolaus lifted, but this time the wood remained sturdy.
"Everybody still there?" she called hopefully.
"More or less," Iphicles responded, gingerly raising himself to edge the final way toward Iolaus. "But that was too close for comfort."
Iolaus looked at the flames reaching eagerly for him. "You wanna talk about too close?" he called. "I'm feeling like a marshmallow, here!"
"It's always food with you, isn't it?" Lilith muttered, painstakingly swinging herself back toward her end of the ladder.
Hercules began to breath again.
Lucius tsk'd in disappointment and held up his thumb and forefinger. "I almost had him. It's this darn crosswind."
"Why can't you keep this between us?" Hercules demanded, clenching his fist.
Lucius almost laughed. "Beginning to feel the hate? It's boiling inside you, I can see it."
Hercules shook away the insinuation. "I'm not like you, Lucius," he said firmly. "I'm happy with who I am--and I've had enough of you."
"Oh but Hercules," Lucius said, and a dagger materialized in one hand, a knotted rope in the other, "I'm just beginning with you."
Iolaus had managed to curl himself up and hook his feet over one of the edges of the ladder so when Iphicles cut his bonds, he merely swung down to hang by his boots. Hopefully, his hair wasn't long enough to catch fire.
"Thanks, man," he gasped, carefully bending up to regain a more concrete grip with his hands on the smoky wood.
Iphicles gave him a sweaty grin. "Ready to get off this thing?"
"Well, I was attached to it for a while, but now I think I'm over that," Iolaus decided wryly.
The structure gave a heartfelt groan and lurched as the fire ate at its foundations.
Iolaus and Iphicles stood gingerly and Lilith echoed their movement at her end.
"On three?" Iphicles suggested. "One?"
"Two!" Lilith yelled over the crackling flames.
Iolaus took a deep breath and jumped: "Threeeeee!"
Lilith dove as well and Iphicles almost followed . . . but as he stood poised to leap, a flash of steel caught his eye. Instinct taking over any higher brain functions, Iphicles ran half the length of the disintegrating ladder and launched himself into the air, toward Lucius.
Hercules struggled frantically to rip away the rope that had tangled his arm to a low-lying tree trunk. Lucius advanced with his dagger gleaming, but Hercules didn't even have enough maneuverability to get to his feet and defend himself properly.
"Always on a short leash, aren't you?" Lucius taunted, then: "I'll let you in on a secret: it's the hate that gives the edge."
"Hate won't get you anywhere, Lucius," Hercules told him, feeling in these last minutes a strange sense of pity for the demented half god.
And then Iphicles collided into him in a blur of flailing arms and flying hair.
Hercules lunged for the dagger and ripped the blade through his bond as Iphicles rolled and came up gripping a length of old branch in his hand.
"Leave him alone!" Iphicles demanded.
"Do you mind?" Lucius actually looked affronted at the interruption. "This is a family thing."
Iphicles took a better grip on his makeshift weapon. "That's why I'm here."
"And just who ARE you?" Lucius asked.
Hercules stood up, meeting Iphicles' glance and saying a dozen unsaid things.
"That's my brother," he said proudly.
"Another brother?" Lucius rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Just how many relatives do you have?"
"Not too many I actually like."
"The name's Iphicles," said Iphicles. "Son of Amphitryon."
Lucius' burgeoning interest disintegrated at the name and his face twisted into a sneer. "Never heard of him."
Iphicles shrugged. "I may be all mortal, but I can still do this . . . "
Abruptly, he dropped his branch and contorted his face into an absurd expression, pulling his lips apart and sticking out his tongue.
"What?" Lucius began.
Which is when Hercules swung his legs around to sweep Lucius' feet out from under him. Caught by surprise, the psychotic half god wavered, fighting for balance, then collapsed and tumbled down the bank toward the river below.
Iphicles shook his head. "Landlubber."
Smiling slightly, he held out a hand to help Hercules up. "Nice move."
Hercules shrugged nonchalantly, then winced at a bruised muscle. "I learned from the master."
At the river bottom, Lucius stood shakily, gasping, glaring, and dripping wet.
Hercules surveyed the scene with mock chagrin. "Uh oh," he called, "looks like everybody escaped again."
"I'll be back," Lucius growled, scrabbling backward into the underbrush.
Shaking his head, Hercules turned his back on the retreating half god and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "Now there's one family member I could do without!"
Sooty but unburned, Iolaus and Lilith bounded up to the brothers just as with a final wail, the remains of Lucius' structure collapsed into a cascade of coals and smoke.
"So much for that," Hercules said with satisfaction.
"But we'll always have the memories." Iolaus' hair, face and clothes were a uniform black with charcoal. "Phew, I thought I was gonna end up extra crispy for a while there."
"Glad you stayed half-baked," Hercules said solemnly.
"Thanks to you two," Iolaus said, then frowned. "Hey . . ."
"I think," Lilith cut in, "we'd better go get a bucket chain going." She turned to Iphicles. "Thanks for saving our lives and everything."
Iphicles gave a half bow, then clasped hands with Iolaus, and Hercules felt a brief, treasured moment of belonging as two parts of his life came together.
He lingered as the other two headed for the Academy, wanting the moment to last and happy that Iphicles lingered as well.
"You know," he said after a while, "I think we make a pretty good team. Sons of Alcmene, what do you think?"
Iphicles nodded slowly. "Sounds good."
"Then why don't you stay for a while?" Hercules tried to keep the tone light. "I wouldn't mind having a brother around who didn't always want to kill me. It'd be a nice change."
He knew the answer even before his brother spoke. "I'd like to," Iphicles said softly. "Really. But I've got to get going if I want to keep my boat."
"Right," Hercules agreed. "The bad winter. Well . . . maybe you'll be back this way again, sometime."
"I will," Iphicles promised, his certainty unexpected and warming. "Until then," he continued, sticking out his hand, "do me proud."
"I'll do my best."
"And tell mother-" Iphicles hesitated, trying to find the words. "I think of her often. I just have-"
"Issues to work out," Hercules completed. "She knows."
Iphicles winked at him. "How'd you get to be so smart?"
"Lucky, I guess. So . . . see you around?"
"You know me, I'm just like a bad dinar."
"Yeah, I know you," Hercules said simply. "You're my brother."
Most of the Academy was already making their way toward the ashen smear that was all that was physically left of Lucius' malevolence; giant bonfires tend to attract attention.
"Iphicles-" Hercules began, looking back.
But Iphicles was already gone.
Hercules nodded once, slowly. "Okay," he murmured, "maybe next time."
But he waited until the dark figure of Iphicles had crossed the river and reached the crest of the twin hill, hoping that he might turn around, at least once. And when he did, and raised one arm in a farewell salute, Hercules felt that in the return gesture, somehow they had said all they needed to.
"Goodbye," he said. "For now."
And then he turned back to where Iolaus and Lilith and the rest of the Academy were waiting.
TERN O'BRIEN AND MEDEA
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