“Did you really think you would get away with this?”
Alexios whirled around, his hand going for his spear as a few rolls of parchments fell to the ground. He’d been a little distracted looking through the letters and notes he’d found in the most well-hidden corner of this Cult hideout in a remote cave, but even so, he should have heard that someone had approached him. The fact that he hadn’t should have told him who it was even before he’d recognised the voice.
His brother stood only a few steps away from him. The burn on his arm from their battle at Pylos, still open and oozing when they’d spoken in Athens, had healed to an ugly, knotted scar. Other than that, he looked the same as always – angry eyes, cocky strength in every movement that somehow mirrored Alexios’ own and yet looked so very different, a constant sneer clinging to the corner of his mouth. His hair was the same length as Alexios’, but unadorned. There were a few new scratches on that beautiful golden armour of his, and he still had that long scar on his chin where his beard didn’t grow in perfectly anymore.
Alexios left the spear in its sheath and held out his arms in what he hoped came across as a peaceful gesture.
“I thought this far out in the middle of nowhere, nobody would actually know you well enough to notice the difference. And it worked.”
In fact, Alexios had been surprised by just how well it had worked. Herodotus had suggested it to him – they were identical twins after all, easily mistaken by anyone who didn’t know them particularly well, who wouldn’t notice the differences in how they spoke or moved, how they wore their hair or where they had scars. Still, Alexios would have thought it would be harder to fool a den of Cultists and their guards into thinking that he was Deimos, worshipped demi-god and devoted weapon of the Cult. But he supposed his brother’s reputation was so fearsome that nobody had dared to look at him too closely and question what he was doing here.
He stalked closer to him now, and Alexios couldn’t suppress the prickle that went down his spine – the last time they’d met, aside from their talk inside the prison cell, his brother had done his very best to try and kill him. He was dangerous, and worse, he was unpredictable. Right now he looked more insulted than angry, though.
“You could at least have tried to look more like me, to dress like me,” he said with a disdainful look at Alexios’ mismatched armour. It was mostly Spartan red these days, but it was still very obviously not one matching set made specifically for him by an exceptional blacksmith.
“That wasn’t even necessary to fool your friends.”
“I shall kill them for their foolishness.” Suddenly he was in Alexios’ space, crowding him against the cold stone wall, and the next moment his hand gripped Alexios by the throat. “And I should kill you for your insolence. Swanning around here, so loud and shameless that news of Deimos’ supposed arrival even reached my ears.”
The truth was that Alexios could have been more subtle, but part of him had almost hoped to draw his brother out. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have sown a small seed of doubt back in Athens. But it had probably not been enough to undo a lifetime of poison the Cult had poured into his brother’s ears. He’d needed to see him again, to speak to him again. To remind him that he had a family who still loved him.
“I didn’t come here to fight you, Kassan–”
The name was cut off when Kassandros’ grip tightened on his throat.
“Don’t call me that,” he snarled. “How many times do I have to tell you, that is not my name. Until you understand that, you and I have nothing to talk about.”
Alexios struggled for breath, felt his feet get lifted off the ground. It was a strange feeling, to be manhandled so easily. To feel his own strength in someone else. He could have fought back harder, but he knew if he provoked his brother at all, they might well kill each other this time. So instead he only held on to his forearm and squeezed lightly until Ka– Deimos loosened his grip. Deimos. Alexios hated thinking of him that way, but maybe he was right. Maybe Alexios could only get through to him if he worked with what he’d become, rather than with the boy he remembered from their shared childhood.
“Fine, Deimos.” Alexios rubbed his throat, or tried to, because Deimos still hadn’t let go of him, still kept him trapped between his body and the wall. “I’m not here to fight.”
“No, just to snoop around. Do you think if you kill enough of us, you can stop us? The Cult is everywhere, when will you begin to understand that?” That same bravado in Deimos’ voice as when Alexios had first spoken to him, but there was something else in his eyes that hadn’t been there in the past … or maybe Alexios just hadn’t seen it before, hadn’t been that close to him to notice it. Their bodies were pressed together, two imperfect mirrors of each other. When they’d been children, they’d truly been alike. Nobody but their parents had ever been able to tell them apart. But life had had different trials in store for them, had broken and remade them in different ways, and as much as he struggled to accept it, Alexios had to remember that he barely knew who his brother had become.
“And you still think they all serve you? A web that vast, and you think it’s all yours, that you’re not a puppet whose strings they pull?”
Deimos growled at him and slammed Alexios back into the wall. Pain burnt through his back and his throat where Deimos was still grabbing him. Was this how other men felt when Alexios shoved them around? He might have to start being a bit more careful at times.
But there was something like doubt in Deimos’ eyes, despite the anger, or maybe the anger was only a consequence of the doubt. All these years that the Cult had spent torturing every shred of hesitation out of him, and here he was, finally faltering. Deimos licked his lips, his gaze flitting over Alexios’ face.
“So I should be like you?” He sneered. “A misthios who sells himself to whoever pays the most? Who kills Spartans and Athenians alike and then accuses us of fanning the flames of war for our own gain? A lost little boy who runs after his parents because he deludes himself into thinking he can turn back time? Our ‘family’ is long gone. It died the day Nikolaos chose Sparta over us.”
Alexios’ throat hurt when he swallowed, and his voice was hoarse.
“They’re still alive, and if I can go home, so can you. You can help me take down the Cult –”
Maybe Alexios should have pulled his spear, because now Deimos did it for him, reached behind Alexios and yanked it out of its sheath. In his hand, it glowed as much as in Alexios’, and Alexios knew that he was just one temper tantrum away from dying with his own spear in his throat.
“Home,” Deimos said, and he only let go of Alexios’ throat to press the blade to his skin instead. “I should have known it wasn’t my home when our dear mater gave you our grandfather’s spear, and not me. Her firstborn, her favourite. She expected me to spend my life in your shadow. And so did our pater, didn’t he? I don’t think he had a hard time deciding which of his sons would be thrown off a cliff. Not his precious Alexios.”
Deimos spat his name like a curse. Alexios wanted to argue with him, but the truth was that he didn’t know – had the Cult told Nikolaos which of his sons he had to sacrifice? Or had they given him a choice? If Alexios had known, if once again they’d switched places that day, could he have protected Kassandros somehow? But then his brother wouldn’t have stood by idly any more than Alexios had. Alexios sighed. As far as he was concerned, there was no use torturing himself over that day. What happened had happened. He hadn’t killed Nikolaos for it either, because that wouldn’t undo what had been done to all of them any more than fighting Deimos would.
“Even if you don’t forgive them, you can come back to me,” he pressed on. “I tried to save you. I went over that cliff just as you did.”
The blade was chill against his throat, and for a moment the pressure increased until his skin almost broke. But Deimos had looked aside, licked his lips. He was so close that Alexios could smell the sea salt on his skin. When they’d been children, they’d gone swimming so very often, chasing each other until they were both exhausted and then arguing for the rest of the day about who had truly won.
“They told me that you pushed me,” Deimos said quietly, and this time the doubt was impossible to miss. Alexios wondered just how much they’d had to beat and torture him to make him forget the truth of that day, to make him believe that he couldn’t trust his memory.
“But you know that’s not true. You remember.” Alexios raised his hand, slowly as if touching a startled wild animal, and still he was surprised that Deimos didn’t flinch away when Alexios touched his cheek. The first time his brother let him touch him, he realised just then. “I tried to stop it, to save you. And received the same fate as you because of it. I was so sure you were dead, or I would have looked for you at the bottom of that cliff. We could have run away together.”
“The Cult would have found us.” Deimos’ voice had dropped to a whisper now, and he leant his cheek into Alexios’ touch. “And then they would have had both of us. At least until they let me kill you – nobody needs two demi-gods.”
Despite the threat, despite the spear tip pressing into the hollow of his throat, Alexios smiled.
“Two demi-gods actually would have taken over the Cult.”
That had been a step too far, because Deimos growled at him again, pressed him harder into the stone wall, his breath hot on Alexios’ face. But he still didn’t cut his throat, still didn’t punch him or shove him or try to kill him in any one of the many ways he knew. Sweat trickled down Alexios’ spine, and his muscles tensed in a pleasant kind of anticipation entirely different from how he felt before a fight. He swallowed, tried to distract himself because he doubted that Deimos would be particularly understanding if he noticed. Not as much as Alexios always talked to him about family.
But before Alexios could say any more, Deimos stepped back, and then the spear cut the first strap of Alexios’ breastplate, then another and another until it clattered to the ground. Alexios looked at him, dumbfounded.
“What are you doing?” he asked, and even as he cupped Deimos’ chin to make him meet his eyes he received no reply but a strange look.
His belt was cut next and when it fell, it took Alexios’s sword with him, the only remaining weapon he could have grasped quickly. The cool air of the cave brushed over Alexios’ sweat-damp skin and he felt himself twitch when Deimos pressed the tip of the spear against the inside of his thigh. Alexios could have stopped him, of course, but he felt as transfixed as if under Medusa’s stare. Every other time they’d met, Deimos hadn’t even allowed him the simplest touch. Whatever this was, Alexios couldn’t possibly deny him.
“I should gut you like a fish,” Deimos growled, but even as he did, he turned his head until his lips brushed over Alexios’ palm. “Carve you open and throw your bleeding corpse at the feet of your beloved mater.”
A flash of pain went through Alexios when the spear finally cut his skin, drawing a thin, red line up from his knee to his groin. He struggled to hold still, to keep his eyes on Deimos’.
“Or maybe I should do as you did and take your place,” Deimos went on. “Go home to her and make her think it’s you when I kill her. Or I could start with that Spartan general you like so much – apparently I didn’t finish the job at Pylos.”
Alexios grimaced at the memory – Brasidas had limped for months, and Alexios hadn’t even known if he was still alive until he’d escaped from Athens. And as much as he doubted that Deimos would be able to fool either of them, imagining the pain and betrayal in their eyes still made him so angry he would have lashed out at anyone but his brother.
“If you’re going to kill me, Deimos, why are we still talking? I’ve seen you fight, you don’t play games with your prey.” When their eyes met, again there was this strange look in Deimos’ – doubt and uncertainty and maybe almost something like longing. He couldn’t have been happy with the way things were. Not when Alexios had heard exactly how Kleon had spoken to him back in Athens. A demi-god chastised like an unruly child? If Deimos’ pride was the reason he turned away from the Cult, Alexios could live with that.
Alexios’ hand slid from Deimos’ cheek to his hair, his fingers gently combing through the strands. It felt just like his own, familiar in a way nothing should have been after over fifteen years. They’d spent more of their lives apart than together, and yet they still fitted together so easily. Two halves of the same soul, Myrrine had said about them when they’d been little.
It was all Alexios had planned to do, truly. To touch him, to embrace him if Deimos would let him. As brothers did, the way they always had as children.
But then the angle of the spear shifted, and instead of cutting Alexios’ skin any further, Deimos sliced open his tunic from the bottom all the way up to Alexios’ chest, where he pressed the blade once again against Alexios’ throat and then kissed him so hard their teeth clashed. Deimos kissed him like he’d never kissed anyone whose feelings on the matter he’d cared to consider, rough and harsh, more teeth than tongue, and Alexios kissed him back before he could think better of it. The edges of Deimos’ armour dug into his bared skin, but he didn’t care, yanked him closer by his hair and his hip and bit him back until he tasted blood in their kiss, his own or his brother’s or both.
They were both panting when Deimos finally licked over his lips and then pulled back for a moment, and still the spear was right there at Alexios’ throat.
“No objections, brother?” he said and sneered, and this time he pushed the tip of the spear into the soft flesh below Alexios’ skin until a drop of blood trickled down his throat.
Alexios could think of a hundred objections – they were brothers, and brothers didn’t do this, no matter how long they’d been separated. Their mater would be heartbroken if she knew, of that he had no doubt. She might even see it as a sign that Deimos was truly lost, broken beyond repair. But Alexios knew he’d do far more damage if he denied him, and the truth was that he had no desire to do so. He’d missed him, had spent so many years without him when they’d barely ever left each other’s side at children. And if he pushed him away now, out of some concern for propriety that Alexios had never had in any other situation, he doubted his brother would ever return to him again.
“You didn’t want me to, I hope? If this was just a test to see if I would complain, you might end up regretting this.” It was easy to fall into that playful tone he used with other men, even if Deimos was nothing like any other man Alexios had ever touched. Alexios’ skin burnt, on his thigh and his throat, his sweat prickling in those shallow cuts. Deimos kept the spear against his neck for a second longer, and then it fell to the ground with a far too loud clatter that echoed through the cave.
Deimos’ hands were as calloused as his own when they grabbed Alexios and lifted him up with an ease that should have been terrifying. Instead all Alexios did was wrap his legs around his brother’s waist and hold on to his hair, and he was glad his ruined tunic provided at least some protection against the rough stone wall behind him.
“I’m going to fuck you, don’t even think you’ll get to have me instead, just because you’re the firstborn,” Deimos said into his ear. “I’ll fuck you so hard you can limp back home to Sparta, and still feel me the next time you beg them all to take you back.”
Alexios only kissed him again because he was quite happy either way and had never understood why some men were so difficult about that, but if it made Deimos feel like he’d somehow got one over him, Alexios didn’t mind letting him believe that. It was strangely exhilarating to feel his brother’s strength without having to defend himself against it – for the first time he truly understood why people called them inhuman, divine, because he’d never been with any other man who could lift him so easily, who could move him around as if he were a scrawny boy. Alexios barely had to cling to him to keep his balance.
It was the least surprising thing in the world that Deimos wasn’t tender, and Alexios would have let his brother hurt him in this without a complaint, but Deimos wasn’t brutal either. His hands were rough when he shoved his fingers into Alexios’ mouth, easily holding him up with just one arm in the meantime. They were slick and hot when he rubbed over Alexios’ hole under his torn clothes until he got him wet enough to take him, and he was kissing Alexios again so breathlessly that Alexios could barely keep up. It was still uncomfortable, of course – the position, the uneven stone against his back, and a bit of spit was hardly enough to ease the way when neither of them was a particularly small man. Alexios had been delighted to find that they were still the same in this, too, when he wrapped his fingers around Deimos’ cock and it barely felt different from touching his own. He might have whimpered when Deimos pushed into him, too quick and too hurried, if the sounds hadn’t been muffled by another kiss. After a few hard thrusts the burn of discomfort all but faded under the pleasure and the mad thrill that his brother wanted him, wanted to touch him, wanted to be near him – even if it was only in this way for now. It was far more than Alexios could have hoped for.
He dug his fingers into Deimos’ hair to hold him close, moaned softly when Deimos buried his face against Alexios’ neck and kept thrusting into him. His back would be bruised, he had no doubt of that, and couldn’t bring himself to mind in the least. His cock was trapped between their bodies, the cold, smooth metal of Deimos’ armour on one side and Alexios’ overheated body on the other creating a strange sort of friction.
“I will not let you ruin everything,” Deimos panted into Alexios’ skin while his hands left deep bruises on Alexios’ thighs and hips.
“I am trying to fix this, not ruin it! So we can be reunited.” Alexios’ next words were lost in another moan when Deimos bit his neck, sucked and nibbled on his skin until pain blossomed there, too, and it only made the pleasure of every thrust more dizzying.
“Is that what you call this?” Deimos punctuated the question with a thrust so hard that Alexios’ head slammed back against the cold wall. “A reunion?”
“Isn’t it? We are family, we are meant to be together,” Alexios only said, although his voice was barely more than a breathy moan at this point. His cock twitched between them, and as Deimos met his eyes again, gave him that strangely longing, angry look that made Alexios think for the first time in years that he wasn’t merely clinging to empty hope, Alexios shuddered and came over his brother’s armour. Deimos didn’t last much longer than him – their bodies had always been so alike in all manners that Alexios wasn’t surprised that extended to this as well.
Afterwards, it was as if Deimos couldn’t get away from his touch quickly enough. He pulled out so fast that Alexios bit back a pained grunt, and set Alexios down so carelessly that he almost stumbled to the ground before he regained his balance. He was a mess – his thighs and torso scratched up from Deimos’ armour, his brother’s come trickling down his thighs and his own come sticking to his stomach, blood smeared all over his leg where their exertions had torn the shallow cut open further. Deimos didn’t look quite as filthy, but he was clearly upset, pacing through the cave once he’d tucked his cock back in, running a hand through his hair as if he couldn’t quite believe Alexios had touched it moments ago.
Alexios shifted a bit closer to where his sword and spear had fallen to the ground, just in case Deimos changed his mind again about trying to kill him. But he didn’t look furious for once, merely uncertain, though Alexios wasn’t sure if that might not be more dangerous.
After a few long moments of silence – even Alexios decided that for once it might be best if he kept his mouth shut – Deimos stopped in front of him, stabbed Alexios in the chest with his index, and said, “You look nothing like me. Anyone who knows me wouldn’t have been fooled by your ridiculous charade.”
Somehow Alexios had not expected that particular issue to be foremost on Deimos’ mind after what they’d just done. He stared, actually at a loss for words for once, as Deimos started stripping out of his armour, all the way down to his tunic. Alexios paled when he saw more of his skin – the scars on his shoulders and his thighs, countless more marks from whips and canes and burns than even most slaves had. He’d known the Cult had tortured his brother to turn him into their perfect weapon, but it was another thing to see it with his own eyes. When Deimos caught him staring, he met Alexios’ eyes defiantly, and Alexios could well imagine that sympathy was the last thing his brother would want. Deimos nudged the breastplate with his foot and shoved it over to Alexios.
“Try this next time.”
“Are you … helping me deceive your own people?” Alexios asked. Surely Deimos would have no trouble having a replacement made, but still, the biggest help he’d offered Alexios until now had been not trying to kill him every time they spoke.
“You’re stupid enough to try this again no matter what I do or don’t do. At least this way, nobody else will kill you before I get around to it.” He didn’t look like even he found that explanation convincing, but Alexios would take it. There were some ways in which he shouldn’t push his brother too much.
“No, we wouldn’t want that,” he simply said instead. He watched Deimos curiously – out of armour he looked less like a stranger, the lines of his body under the tunic seemed as familiar as Alexios’ own, and his posture wasn’t quite as aggressive as usual. Nonetheless, Alexios held very still when his brother stepped closer to him, flipped the broken spear up with his foot and caught it with a gesture so casual as if he’d been wielding it all his life. Once again he brought the blade to Alexios’ throat, but this time it felt more like a caress than a threat.
“You should stay out of my way,” Deimos said quietly, just a whisper in the heated air between them. Alexios wanted to kiss him again, but when he strained against the blade, the firm pressure of the cold metal drove him back against the wall.
“And you should still know me well enough to know that I won’t do that.”
Even less so after today. Alexios knew better than to say it, but this had given him more hope that he could still save his brother than anything else had. Before today, Deimos hadn’t even allowed Alexios to squeeze his shoulder. He’d pushed him away every time Alexios had tried to reach out to him. What had happened now was certainly not what Alexios had planned or expected, but he didn’t think Deimos would have done it if Alexios hadn’t been starting to get to him.
“Unfortunately,” Deimos said. He gave Alexios a calculating look, his eyes dark and wild, and Alexios wondered for a moment how anyone could ever mistake them for each other. It distracted him enough that he didn’t realise what Deimos was about to do until a sharp pain interrupted his thoughts – Deimos had already stepped back by the time Alexios raised his hand to his bleeding chin and gingerly touched the cut there. A long, but shallow mark, starting just below his bottom lip and going all the way down to the edge of his chin. A perfect mirror to the scar on Deimos’ own face. It hurt far more than the previous cuts on his thigh and neck, but the thrill that went through Alexios when he realised what his brother had done was nothing short of joyful.
Deimos still hadn’t taken his eyes off him, his gaze greedy as if he too got far too much enjoyment out of making them more alike. As they’d once been, as they should be again. He licked his lips, and for a few moments Alexios expected him to come close again, to kiss him and shove him to the ground and have him a second time. But then Deimos looked down at the spear in his hand and cocked his head to the side.
“Maybe I should keep this for a little while. Only seems fair when you’ve had it for years.” He weighed the spear in his hand, his grip on it as certain as if it had been with him all this time. When they’d been children, after Myrrine had entrusted Alexios with her father’s spear, the two of them had shared it anyway. They’d talked about fighting together side by side, shielding each other and passing the spear between them as they killed anyone foolish enough to stand against them. Alexios wondered if Deimos still remembered that, too, or if the Cult had made him forget about all those days spent training together as well.
Suddenly Deimos threw the spear at Alexios’ feet and scoffed again.
“But like I said, I don’t want anyone else to kill you, and you probably need that little toy to stand a chance against your enemies.”
“Oh, really? I had no trouble standing my own against you, I think I can handle a few common soldiers and guards,” Alexios replied almost automatically. There were some things he couldn’t let go unanswered, no matter how much he was trying not to antagonise his brother.
“The next time we meet in battle, you can fight me without it. See if you still stand a chance then.” Deimos gave Alexios a long look, and then he turned to leave.
“Wait! Deimos!” Alexios was still barely dressed, but he only grabbed his spear in passing before he hurried after his brother. “Come back with me. You don’t need to return to the Cult. You know they are using you, not serving you.”
Deimos stopped mid-stride, his back still turned to Alexios. It was dark in the tunnel that led out of the cave, but even so Alexios could almost feel the tension in his brother’s body. Feel his hesitation. But after a few long seconds, Deimos started walking again.
“Don’t try to follow me, Alexios,” he said, his voice echoing from the cold stone walls. Alexios wanted to, desperately, he wanted to run after him and grab his shoulder and pull him close again, to hold him to his chest until Deimos – until Kassandros finally remembered who he was and where he belonged.
But his brother had always been every bit as stubborn as Alexios himself. He wouldn’t be talked into doing anything he did not want, and so Alexios would have to give him time to figure out what he wanted by himself. Even if waiting for it was starting to become unbearable.
And still Alexios felt more elated than he had in a long time – maybe since he’d first found his mater again. He went back into the cave, girded his torn tunic as best he could with Deimos’ belt before he put on Deimos’ breastplate and bracers, and when he strode out of the tunnel a little while later, nobody gave him a second look. Apparently the actual Deimos had arrived and disappeared again without being seen.
The bruises and scratches on Alexios’ body only took days to heal, and he’d long stopped feeling them by the time he returned to Sparta and to his mother. He didn’t mention that he’d run into his brother again – she would notice that something unusual had happened, and she’d ask him too many questions he wouldn’t be able to answer. He didn’t like the idea of lying to her, even less so than he wanted to keep secrets from her.
But she touched the new scar on his chin, the only one that hadn’t healed perfectly yet. A long red mark, hard to miss despite his beard. She didn’t know what it meant, since she hadn’t seen her second son since the day they’d both been taken from her. Brasidas on the other hand stopped short when he saw Alexios again, then smiled and joked that he almost could have mistaken him for his brother – an uncomfortable thought, that Deimos had not only made it easier for Alexios to take his place, but also the other way around. But then Alexios truly doubted that Deimos would be able to fool any of his friends or the rest of their family. Subtlety and deception didn’t seem to be his strong suits. So Alexios laughed with Brasidas and let himself be dragged off to a long evening with his syssition, and he tried not to worry about what would happen when his brother finally came home. If he too would be welcomed back, even though he’d hurt so many of the people Alexios cared for. Or if he would be shunned and exiled, and Alexios would have to sail away from the home he’d only just regained if he wanted to keep his brother by his side.
He scratched idly at the scar on his chin, and as warm and comfortable as he felt with Brasidas’ shoulder and arm pressed against his, he knew that it was no choice at all. He wouldn’t stop at anything to bring his brother home, and he wouldn’t let Sparta deny him his family any more than the Cult.