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The Cracks Run Deep

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It’s during one of their family dinners that Stentor notices.

Usually he’s too wrapped up in glaring at Alexios out of the corner of his eye to notice.  Every other word that comes out of Alexios’ mouth seems designed to infuriate him, and not just because Alexios is guilty of numerous crimes against Sparta.  At their last dinner he’d finally given in to his urge and punched his ‘brother’ in the nose, and Alexios had merely started laughing at him.

This time, however, Alexios is... behaving.  Or rather, he’s turned his attention to riling up Kassandra instead.  Unlike Stentor, however, Kassandra takes it all with good humor, rolling her eyes and elbowing Alexios when he claims that he’ll be able to beat her in their next sparring match.  

“How is the Adrestia?” Myrrine asks, cutting into Alexios’ diatribe about how swords are superior to daggers (which happen to be Kassandra’s weapon of choice).  “Did Barnabas get over his illness?”

“Thankfully, yes,” Kassandra answers, smiling.  “He’s recovering well.”

But she doesn’t elaborate.  She doesn’t say what illness Barnabas had that meant she needed to stay aboard the Adrestia to care for him.  She doesn’t regale them all with tales of her latest exploits throughout Greece, or whether she’s made any good friends or allies.  It strikes Stentor as strange, that she wouldn’t feel inclined to share such information with her parents, at least.

It’s then that he notices the other little details: the way her smile is tight around the edges, her hunched shoulders.  How she’s almost always the first one to excuse herself from the dinner table. He’s always thought that Kassandra’s weeks-long trips away from Sparta were out of necessity, to keep up with contacts she gained during her travels.  

Now, he’s not so sure.


 

It’s the lying he can’t stand.

He sees it more and more.  The moments when Kassandra will paste on a smile for Myrrine, or their father, and lie through her teeth.  He knows she’s doing it, because when she talks normally, she never has that defensive posture, like she’s going to cut and run any second.  She also never sounds so casual.

Kassandra assures Myrrine that of course she’s happy to be back in Sparta, with her family again.  She tells Nikolaos that she’s doing fine, she’s been giving regular offerings to the gods when the occasion calls for it.  She tells Stentor that she took so many jobs “before” that she’s not sure which were for Sparta or which for Athens, and all the while she smiles.  She even sometimes laughs.

It grates on Stentor’s nerves.  

When she’s away, he doesn’t have much time to think about it.  He has the leftovers of a war to worry about, whether that’s dealing with Athenian sympathizers in Messenia or treading on thin ice around the Athenian generals while they negotiate peace.  The constant influx of work that needs to be done keeps him from wondering just what his sister is doing, when she’s not around.

But when she does return to Sparta, he’s always invited for dinner.  And against his better judgment, he always accepts.

He keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Waiting for her to just... not show up one day, leaving Myrrine and his pater staring sadly down at their food.  But she always does. She always has a smile. And she always lies.

It isn’t long before he’s had enough, and he gets up abruptly from the dinner table, storming outside so that the cool air can clear his head.  

The creak of the door tells him he’s been followed.

“Mater is making me apologize,” Alexios grumbles.

Stentor snorts.  “Wasn’t you, this time.”

Though he can see why Myrrine would think it was.  Alexios had been in the process of dismantling the stance Stentor used while fighting.  The mockery (and Stentor’s not sure that that’s what it was) had been delivered as a series of surprisingly clinical observations, ones that Alexios had spoken with an emotionless voice.  Stentor got the impression that Alexios was parroting someone else’s teachings, and had been trying not to let how disturbed he was show.

But then Kassandra had smiled, clasped their pater’s shoulder, and told him not to worry so much about the state the Adrestia was in.  And suddenly, he couldn’t be in there anymore.

Alexios has moved to stand in front of him, now, arms crossed.  “What’s the problem, then?”

Stentor has a lot of words for the way he feels about Kassandra’s lies, but he suddenly finds himself devoid of them.  Though Alexios is a malaka, he does genuinely seem to care about Kassandra. He’ll listen to her when he won’t even listen to Myrrine, or their pater.  Stentor doubts he would appreciate his opinion on her.

“It was nothing,” he said.  “Just felt stifled. You can tell Myrrine that you apologized to me.  Or I’ll tell her that I needed some fresh air, that’s all.”

Alexios snorted, already moving past him toward the door.  “I’ll tell her the first part. Don’t know that she’ll believe you if you tell her the second.”

Something about that statement hits Stentor wrong, but he can’t figure out what.  


 

Stentor never had a mater.  He doesn’t count the woman who was in charge of him and the other orphan boys.  After that there had only been his pater, and his pater had done what he could, even if he was never able to be both a mater and pater to him.

Myrrine tries, though.  She welcomes him to her family like he was always a part of it.  She refers to him as her son in front of others. She offers him small, but helpful hints of advice when he’s struggling with a strategy for his army.  She makes sure that he has a place at the dinner table.

Stentor doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to call her mater, but she’s won his respect.  Maybe, someday, even his love.

So when he arrives at the house for family dinner to see her sitting on the porch steps, looking forlorn, he feels a surge of protectiveness.

“Is everything alright, Myrrine?” he calls.

Her head jerks up.  He frowns. It’s not like Myrrine to not be paying attention to her surroundings.

“Yes, everything’s fine,” she quickly assures him.  “Kassandra’s late, that’s all.”

Stentor feels his chest tighten.  “Ah.”

Myrrine laughs suddenly, standing.  “I must look a sorry picture, sitting here doing nothing.  Would you like to come to the market with me? I haven’t bought anything for the dinner yet.”

Though he’s seething with anger now, he feels mollified that Myrrine would ask him to accompany her.  “Of course.”

Myrrine is a bit like his pater, in that she doesn’t feel the need for small talk.  Come to think of it, that’s a trait that the entire family seems to share - even Kassandra.  They walk through the market in comfortable silence, with Myrrine speaking only when she wishes to haggle the price of whatever vegetable she’s buying.  Stentor quickly learns that she’s a ruthless negotiator.

When they return to the house, nearly an hour later, it’s to find Alexios and Kassandra sitting on the front steps, sharing a bottle of wine between them.

“Oh, good,” Myrrine says, her eyes on Kassandra.  “You’re here.” The relief in her voice is evident.

Kassandra stands, and Stentor sort of hates her for not being even a little bit unsteady.  She clasps Myrrine’s hands. “I’m sorry I’m later, Mater. I ran into someone who paid me to take care of a delivery.  It didn’t seem far, but I guess it took longer than I expected.”

Myrrine bites her lip.  “Kassandra, you know there are more legitimate ways for you to - “

“What’s for dinner today, Mater?” Alexios asks loudly, following it with a long belch.

Stentor doesn’t miss it - the way Kassandra’s hands clench into fists, the way her eyes go unfocused, fixed on something in the distance.  She carefully steps aside to let Myrrine into the house, with Alexios following behind and stating that no, he did not drink too much, can’t he just share a bottle with his beloved sister?

Stentor folds his arms.  “Where were you, really?”

Kassandra starts.  Like she’s forgotten he’s there.  But then she fixes him with a steady gaze.

“I was delivering a package,” she answers.

“Were you?”

Kassandra frowns.  “Why do you want to know so badly?”

“Myrrine was upset,” he says.

He doesn’t expect those words to have the effect they do.  Kassandra’s frown deepens into a scowl, and he’s surprised by the bitterness he hears in her voice.

“She’s a Spartan,” she replies.  “She’ll get over it.”


 

The inevitable fight happens.  But not at that dinner.  And not between Kassandra and Stentor, like he has expected.  Like he has hoped.

He arrives at the house a bit early, a few weeks later, determined to keep Myrrine company in case Kassandra is late again.  When he approaches the door, however, he hears voices. They’re not raised, but they are agitated, and they make him stop before he can push the door open.

“...could have been enlisted.  I’m sure the king would give you a place in the military, even if you’re a woman.  You’re wasting your life!”

“I am the one who gets to decide whether or not my life is a waste, Mater,” Kassandra growls.  It’s the first time she isn’t putting on that facade of happiness, and it’s both a breath of fresh air and a gut punch.  “I’m happy. The people who work for me on the Adrestia are happy! What more do you want me to do?”

“I want you home!” Myrrine cries, sounding miserable.  “You’re always away, and when you do come back here, it’s like you don’t even want to be!  I had to live too many years of my life thinking you were dead, and now - “

“I had to live most of my childhood knowing that my own pater threw me off a fucking cliff,” Kassandra says.  “I did what I had to do to survive, but truly living my life, the way I want to?  That wasn’t an option for me until now, and now you want to take that from me!”

“You could be happy here,” Myrrine says.  “I know you could, Kassandra. You’re a Spartan - “

“You keep saying that like it should mean something to me!  You have been ever since I found you again.” The last words are delivered with all the force of a physical blow: “I am not a Spartan, Mater.”

Kassandra storms out a few seconds later.  She barely glances at Stentor before she makes her way over to where Phobos is tied up, quickly putting on his saddle.  She throws her hood up over her head and avoids the path as she rides away, keeping to the forest instead.

Stentor hears sobs coming from inside the house.  He knows he should do something - go inside and comfort her, at least - but he stays frozen by the doorway, aware of the stricken look on his face.  When his pater and Alexios show up a few moments later, he glances at them helplessly.

His pater doesn’t hesitate, going inside as soon as he hears Myrrine.  Alexios doesn’t look surprised. Just resigned.

“It was only a matter of time,” he mutters.

“You knew this would happen?” Stentor asks.

“Suspected.”

That seems to be all Alexios is willing to share on the matter, because he falls silent after he says that.  

Eventually, Myrrine’s crying quiets, and they’re invited inside for dinner.  It’s cold by now, but Stentor eats every bite anyway, determined to pretend that everything’s fine.  He feels like his movements are not his own, as though someone else is controlling his own limbs.

The problem, he realizes, lying awake in bed, is that everything is not fine.  Pretending that it is just makes him feel dead inside.  He grimaces, then, as the reason for all of Kassandra’s lies becomes obvious.


 

The following weeks are oddly quiet.  

Alexios isn’t... subdued, exactly, but even he seems to be walking on eggshells, especially around his mater and their pater.  Myrrine walks around with a weight on her shoulders and frustration in her words. His pater just looks resigned.

There’s no word from Kassandra.  Stentor doesn’t count the reports that someone with their face covered is wreaking havoc on Thasos.  Whoever they are, they uncover a conspiracy to use the athletes there as soldiers, and at least one important Spartan leader is dead by the time it’s all over.  It comes out later that he was a member of the Cult of Kosmos.

He finds himself taking more time to dig through reports, and finds little signs everywhere: Kassandra working with Athenians, Kassandra working with Spartans, Kassandra working against both.  She’s never mentioned by name, but the references to a misthios are telling. He knows he should feel angry that she would so blatantly betray Sparta, but he can’t seem to summon up the emotion.

Stentor doesn’t discuss it with his family.  At least, not until he finds a report about someone fitting Alexios’ description helping her.  He pulls his brother aside before the next family dinner.

“How long have you been working with her?”

Alexios gives him a sour look, but doesn’t lie.  “Since she convinced me to turn away from the Cult.  You think I am loyal to Sparta?”

“But you’ve been in touch with her,” Stentor argues.

Alexios scowls and storms back into the house without answering.  

More time passes.  Eventually, Stentor gives up on scouring the reports for Kassandra; all it has done so far is made him lose sleep.  Sometimes, he dreams about what it would’ve been like to grow up alongside Kassandra. He sees her sparring with their pater, and he spars with her, and there’s laughter -

And sometimes, he sees her small body flung off a cliff.  

After he wakes up from those, he has to keep himself from riding across Lakonia to find his pater, to ask him: what was he thinking?  Then reality will reassert itself, and he will know that it was Nikolaos’ honor as a Spartan that he demanded he throw his daughter to her death.  

It’s after he accidentally finds a report about ‘the misthios’, saving a group of children from a diabolical group of slave traders, that he starts to wonder if having honor is the same as being right.


 

He’s on the shores of Messenia when he sees a familiar eagle swooping overhead.

As he follows beneath it, he muses on whether or not it’s a coincidence that Ikaros has shown up while he’s on... well, the closest thing to a break that Spartan soldiers get.  He’s mostly here for show, to make sure that their Messenian neighbors toe the line. Judging by the expectant look on Kassandra’s face as he nears the docks, she’s aware of this.

“I didn’t expect to see you,” he says, voice flat.  

“I know,” Kassandra says, uncrossing her arms.  “I’m planning another trip. I’d like you to come along.”

“I’m not helping you with whatever duplicitous scheme you have lined up next.”

“No duplicity involved,” Kassandra promises.  “There is something I want to show you. It should only take a few days.”

A movement behind her catches his attention.  He blinks in surprise when he sees Alexios hanging back, near the ship.  He’s foregone both his Deimos armor and his Spartan armor in favor of the roughspun clothes of a mercenary, matching his sister.  

Kassandra follows his gaze.  “Ah. You will have to dress the part, I’m afraid.”

Stentor takes that to mean that he’ll have to wear something a bit less conspicuous than his own Spartan armor.  More and more, this sounds like a bad idea, and yet -

Part of him wants to understand.  Part of him has wanted to understand Kassandra since he found out that she spared their pater’s life, rather than take it.  He can make up some excuse to his men, about needing to travel on important business.

“Alright,” he says.  “Just let me get my things.”

The next couple of days are spent sailing east, then north.  It’s easy to see why living on the Adrestia is preferable to Kassandra.  The ship’s captain, Barnabas, is friendly, if a bit too superstitious. Herodotus is a quiet, thoughtful crew member, who usually spends the day writing down what he can.  

Alexios seems to love it, lighting up in a way he has not back in Sparta.  And Stentor can’t deny that the longer he spends on the vessel, the more relaxed he becomes.  He’s fairly certain that most of Kassandra’s crew members are criminals, but it doesn’t bother him like it might have in the past.

He doesn’t have any doubts until they arrive in Attika.

“I can’t be here!” he hisses at Kassandra.  “Are you crazy?”

“Who is going to recognize you?” Kassandra retorts.  “I’m only taking you to the outskirts of Athens. Besides, the war is over.  If you are killed on Athenian soil, then it will just erupt again. Considering the plague that swept through Attika, I doubt Athens is eager for that to happen.”

Stentor grumbles, but otherwise keeps his misgivings to himself.  Alexios looks about ten seconds away from mocking him for them.

They do come uncomfortably close to Greater Athens.  True to Kassandra’s word, however, they stay on the outskirts of the city, instead heading for the cemetery.  The three of them come to a stop before a headstone that reads Phoibe, and Stentor feels a strange twisting in his gut.

“This is Phoibe,” Kassandra says, her voice suddenly raw.  “She was my little sister. I brought you both because, I think, she would’ve liked to be your little sister as well.”

Stentor isn’t sure what to feel.  He glances at Alexios, to see him frozen as he stares at the inscription of the girl’s name.  Kassandra kneels before the grave, as though she’s forgotten that either of them are there, and whispers something before placing her hand on the name.  Stentor wonders if this was what made Sparta seem small and unimportant to Kassandra.

“Hello Phoibe,” he murmurs.  “I wish I could have met you.”

Alexios jumps at his words, but Kassandra gives him a look that, he thinks, might be the closest thing to love she’s shown him.


 

“You should talk to Myrrine.”

The sun is starting to set over the horizon.  They’ll be back in Messenia later tomorrow. Stentor feels like he needs to say this, before his sister vanishes again.  He’s worried that it might be for good, this time.

“I don’t know what I would say,” Kassandra answers, not looking at him.  “She wants so badly for things to go back to the way they were. How can I tell her that they never can?  That it’s impossible? That’s not what she wants to hear, and people always hear what they want to hear.”

“She might surprise you,” Stentor says.  “I think she’s more afraid of losing you completely than she is of losing what she might have had with you.”

Kassandra is silent for a long time, looking out over the water.  It strikes Stentor that this is probably the calmest conversation that the two of them have ever had.  They don’t actively butt heads as much as he and Alexios do, but there is almost always an uncomfortable tension when they speak to each other.

“I will try,” Kassandra finally says.  She sounds pained. “I don’t want to lose her again, either.”

He lets out a sigh of relief, and as the sun goes down, it’s like the world sighs with him.