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The Final Labor

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At the funeral, so many people tell him it's better this way. His suffering is at an end, and He's at peace now. Hercules' friends don't say that, of course. "He was my brother," Atalanta says over and over, quiet and hard and still. No one seems to recognize it for a reproof.

Hercules doesn't say anything. Words would burn his mouth, would make people turn and stare in horror. He's more like Tydeus than anyone sees.

*

He builds the cabin by the Black Sea, but he knows no peace there. He thought the wind in the trees and the waves on the rocks would soothe him, but they make him restless. He's never been alone before, and he hates it. He can't sleep without someone to watch his back.

He had imagined an absence of words in his house, but not silence.

*

He can't learn to eat alone, either. The land by the Black Sea is fruitful and abundant. There's game and fruit, and good cheap bread in the village five miles east. Food is no longer something to be won, stolen, saved for, celebrated, given or received or shared. Sitting down to table is a waste of time. So is wine. Somehow his cupboard always holds too much or too little.

His meals for so long were seasoned by Tydeus's wholehearted relish.

*

Autolycus comes to visit. Hercules has forgotten how to talk to him—has forgotten how to talk at all, more than four or five words at a time, words like Yes, it's a fine day and That's a handsome boat or What a healthy child—and he feels a curious reluctance to begin again. He listens, wishing Autolycus would ask him to return to Greece.

Autolycus is convinced that Hercules is exactly where he's always wanted to be, though, and mocks him for it ruthlessly. Somehow, he can still say Athens and Athenian with pride. Hercules' throat hurts.

Autolycus says, "Maybe it's just as well you never had the chance to drag poor Tydeus out to the boondocks. The locals would have shat themselves."

Just yesterday, Hercules walked past a group of villagers building a fence and thought how Tydeus would have loved to help them. Words bubble up his throat like hot blood. "It's just as well, is it? So people tell me. As if without Tydeus reminding me of the horrors of my past, I can forget them and know peace. But they mean they want to forget. They can forget. I will never be at peace, and if my grief were as unsightly as his, no doubt they'd wish me dead too."

Autolycus is silent, his muscles taut with fury. For a moment Hercules wonders if they could fight, as they did when they were boys—but they've been fighters too long for a fight to mean love anymore. "Don't lump me in with ignorant shitheads," Autolycus says. "I've been in every fight you have. I loved him too. And I never wished him dead for a moment, as you fucking well know." He snorts angrily. "You, on the other hand..."

You said we should leave him with the corpses in Thebes, Hercules thinks, and you were always calling him an animal, and You weren't there when they slaughtered my family. But he knows it isn't Autolycus he's angry with. Autolycus is simply here. Tears sting his eyes.

Autolycus doesn't storm out. He stays and looks at the floor and Hercules is grateful.

He cannot seem to open his mouth to say he's sorry, but he pours the wine. Autolycus raises his glass and meets Hercules' eyes, very briefly. "To Tydeus."

They drink until they pass out side-by-side on the floor.

*

"Your idyll doesn't seem to be agreeing with you," Amphiaraus says when he visits. "If you want a good fight I'm sure I could find one for you."

Hercules laughs. "I don't need so many muscles as a private citizen."

"That isn't what I mean."

Hercules changes the subject, but later that night, by the fire, Amphiaraus says quietly, "One of these days, you must learn to let go. He was ready."

"I have been ready a thousand times to die," Hercules says, hot with anger. "None of you let me go. It is the greatest debt I owe you."

The old man chuckles. "Atalanta would smack you for calling it a debt if she were here." Hercules doesn't answer. "If you had let me go," Amphiaraus says, "it might have balanced the scales. It angers the gods to deny them their due."

It sounds like an accusation, but Amphiaraus's voice is heavy, as if he begrudges himself each day, thinking he's stolen it from Tydeus. "I don't believe that," Hercules says. "If I did—if I thought the gods could be bargained with—but Cerberus was only in my mind." Even as he says it, his heart pounds. His breath is shallow with tension and hope. Amphiaraus's visions are no myth, no lie. Why should there not also be gods?

Amphiaraus shakes his head, smiling. "No one gets a good bargain from the gods."

"Do you honestly believe it can be done?"

"How should I know? I never even heard of it in a myth. Orpheus didn't get his wife back, did he?"

No. But he almost had. Stories lie, but..."In all your travels, Amphiaraus," Hercules plows on stubbornly, "did you ever hear anyone talk of journeying to Hades?"

"Going to Hades isn't difficult. Coming back is the trick."

Hercules has had too much to drink and he misses Tydeus so that he can't breathe. He misses his hair and the world-weary way he rolled his blue eyes when he thought no one was looking. He misses his mouth and the sound of his breathing, every sound he made, every grunt and moan and howl and sigh and huff of laughter. He wants to sit at Tydeus's feet and press his face into his thighs. He wants to wrap his hand around Tydeus's leg, his fingertips on the soft skin at the back of his knee. "If you wanted to do it," he says, "how would you?"

Amphiaraus throws up his hands. "I wish Autolycus were here to talk sense into you."

But the day he departs, he sets a packet of herbs on the table. "Brew them in wine," he says quietly, tapping the packet with one finger. "Not too much wine. Remember, Death is inside all of us. Assuming you're mortal, of course." His eyes are dark and deep. "If he asks for an offering, I'm available."

*

Hercules puts the herbs at the back of his cupboard and tries to ignore them. He tries—not to forget, but to remember and be grateful for what he had. But one morning he wakes up and the sun is shining and he can't even feel it on his skin. He pours out a wineskin into his kettle and shakes the herbs into it. This is madness, but there's no one here to see it, so why not?

He puts out the cooking fire before he drinks it, in case.

*

Everything is blurry and sharp at the same time. The clouds are white smears on a field of blue, making shapes he understands. He is still in his cabin, looking out his window.

So, the herbs aren't enough on their own. What else did Amphiaraus say? Death is inside all of us. Hercules knows that better than most. He reaches inside himself for the Death he knows is there. He's killed so many. He remembers their blood on his hands, spattering his face. He remembers death rattles and skulls crunching. But nothing happens.

A man doesn't get to Hades by killing, does he? Suddenly, Hercules is afraid. A warrior soon learns not to think of his own death. To wrap the idea of it in oilskin and tuck it in his pack, carrying it with him without touching it. Who knows what will happen if he unwraps it? He should sleep it off and tell Amphiaraus, next time he visits, that he thought better of it.

He never thought he was a demi-god, but...he hasn't truly felt mortal in a long time. His veins thrum anxiously, and suddenly he wants this. He wants to be mortal again. Shutting his eyes, he slides his thoughts along each artery and imagines them opening, imagines a knife slipping between his ribs, knows exactly when it's gone too deep for healing. He feels his bones inside his flesh, and goes inside them to the living marrow. One day, the marrow will dry and his bones will be clean and brittle. He feels it, feels himself living, feels how each atom of his body moves and breathes, and how movement holds the possibility of stillness inside it. How it could happen one instant to the next.

What is it like to be a god, and not have this heavy potentiality coiling and hissing through you?

He feels himself falling, a sudden jolt as in a dream, and starts awake. He lies on the floor in darkness. A failure, then, and a wasted day. He gets to his feet, his body feeling strangely sated. He's almost content to have gained only this, when he sees that he isn't in his cabin. He's in a cave, dark and cold and uninteresting, facing a man in a chair. The hound lying at his feet raises its head when Hercules steps toward them, and he feels dizzy. Three souls look out its one pair of eyes.

"How nice to finally meet my nephew," Hades says sardonically.

Hercules bows. "My lord."

"Have you come to fight me for something? I'm tougher than I look."

"No, my lord. I have come to beg you to restore my companion Tydeus to me."

Hades's eyes sharpen. "Oh, is that all?"

"You gave Orpheus a chance," Hercules says, hoping it's true. "I am begging you for that same chance. If there is something you want in exchange—"

The god smiles, looking about as trustworthy as any king Hercules has ever known. "You humans have less to offer the gods than you think you do. The best I hope for is some amusement." He leans down and scratches his hound behind the ears, whispering something. The hound trots off out of sight.

There is a long, long silence. Hercules stands at attention, head bowed. He is afraid again: the Death inside him likes this place, twisting and growing. His fingers and toes tingle and go numb. It doesn't feel unpleasant. He's sleepy. The only sour note is the jangling of his nerves and a faint sourness in his stomach.

The hound pads silently into view, and behind him...Tydeus, his footfalls making no sound. Is it a property of this place, or only Tydeus's skill? Or is the beating of Hercules's heart so loud nothing else can be heard? It will burst and fill his chest with blood. He tries to say Tydeus's name, but his voice fails him. He tries to move, but Hades holds up a hand and he doesn't dare disobey.

Tydeus's eyes meet his, quiet and watchful. Is he at peace here? Should Hercules have let him be?

It has been an age since he met Tydeus's eyes. Even here in the lifeless, exhausted dark, they shoot blue arrows into him. "I missed you." His voice cracks in his dry throat. He swallows. "Will you come back with me?"

Tydeus looks at Hades, whose smile widens. "You may both go," he says. "But do not look over your shoulder. He must follow you out, and neither of you may draw your weapons. If you do, he stays."

"I wear no sword," Hercules says.

Hades raises his brows, and Hercules recognizes the familiar weight at his hip. Tydeus, too, wears his twin axes.

Hades produces a packet of spiced warm nuts from under his chair and tosses one into his mouth. "Good luck," he says, and gestures to Hercules to turn around.

Hercules does. His shoulders tense, ready for battle. "Follow me," he says. "And don't draw your weapon. I built us that cabin by the Black Sea, if we can get to it."

And then he is on a battlefield. He recognizes it. A memory, then. Doubt assails him. Is this all a dream?

Then everything is drowned out but the need to draw his sword. Because this is a battlefield, perfect in every detail, just as it happened. He shuts his eyes despite nerves screaming against it, but he can still hear and sense and smell: the thuds and the ring of steel on steel, the whistle of a blade past his ear, the crack of bones breaking, sweat and leather, the ground shaking with the pounding of hundreds of feet, men pushing and shoving at him from all sides. Screams of pain and rage. Blood everywhere, the smell of it hot and thick, spattering his skin and squelching in his sandals. Other smells, too: vomit, and men's guts spilling out over their legs.

He hears Tydeus howl. "Follow me," he says again, louder, in a voice of command. "Follow me, and don't draw your weapons." He scans the field. Across it he sees two simple pillars supporting a stone slab. It wasn't there, on the real battlefield. It must be the way out.

He begins to shoulder his way through, ducking and twisting to avoid the fight raging around him. His hand itches and clenches, empty. All his life he's known what to do in a place like this. All his life he's fought. This is wrong, wrong to his bones.

If it's this terrible for him, what must it be like for Tydeus? "Follow my voice," he says again. Have they been separated?

"Don't draw your weapon," he commands again. "We aren't fighters anymore, Tydeus. We're men of peace." He steps on a hand. Its owner moans in pain and curls in on himself. Without action, the field is unbearable. His skin crawls with helplessness and frustration. "Autolycus and I made you a warrior," he says. "We meant it for the best. We thought it would ease your fear. I'm sorry if we were wrong. I'm sorry we made you see this again and again and again. I'm sorry we slaughtered those villagers outside Thrace." Tydeus was free, and Hercules has dragged him onto another battlefield. How many times has he promised, only one more fight?

Is Tydeus still behind him? The battle is so loud. He thinks he hears a growling whimper, but he's afraid to stop talking to be sure. "I missed you, Tydeus," he shouts. "I missed you so much. Maybe I deserved to lose you, but you didn't deserve to die. You deserve everything, and I'm going to give you everything I can, everything I have, everything I am. I'll do anything you want. Please, please come back with me, please follow me through one last battlefield and don't draw your weapons. This is only a nightmare. Only a nightmare, and you'll wake in a moment, I swear, only a nightmare, only a memory, fighting back won't stop it. Follow me."

Hercules steps over a man who pissed himself as he died. His eyes stare unseeing at the sky. "Maybe we'll never be free of it," he says. "Hades took this from inside my head. But I want to live with death inside me, I want to be happy, I want to kiss you by the sea and if you love me, Tydeus, don't draw your axes." Someone slams into him, a hand flailing for his throat, and his hand is already on his sword hilt. He squeezes his fist tight until the metal bites his skin, and lets go. "I'm going to do this." He grits his teeth. "I can do this. You can do this. Only a little farther."

The doorway is near now. He ducks around two men choking each other, terrified that Tydeus is already gone, and Hercules will get back up there and still be alone and have to face that everything he's done has been a sham and a failure, that good men have died and monsters have lived and he's only made it worse. He knows he can't look behind him but his neck aches to do it. His body usually obeys him but what if, this once, he can't control it? What if his head turns in spite of himself? He took herbs, he drank wine, he isn't..."Please," he says, and puts his hand on one of the pillars. He waits a moment for Tydeus to catch up—

"Hercules."

He can barely hear it over the noise of the battlefield, but his breath stops in his throat. That voice...he turns his head, only halfway, and there she is beside the pillar, beautiful and sad. "You came for him, and not for me?"

It pierces his chest like a golden blade, poison-tipped.

"What about our children?"

There they are, a solemn little row in front of her, pale and frightened-looking. "Daddy?" Toxocleite holds out her arms, and he gathers her up. She's too big to hold, really, or she would be for a father with smaller arms and a weaker back. She smells like herself, she's a weight on his hip more familiar than his sword, and when he buries his face in her hair she giggles shakily and pushes him away with small hands. "Did you come to get us?"

He shakes his head.

Megara steps closer and speaks in his ear. Her soft curls brush his scalp. "Do you really think Hades wasn't frightened when he realized who was in his realm? This is a trick, a trick to get you out of here before you topple his throne. You can get us all out if you fight. Please, Hercules."

It feels true, feels like when he learned the truth from Eurystheus, the world turning like a key in a lock.

His boys cluster around him, and out of the corner of his eye he sees an axe coming down right at Deicoon's bare head. He whirls, hoisting Toxocleite higher so he can reach between her dangling legs for his sword.

Oh.

He shuts his eyes, whirls back, prays that the faint glimpse of the end of a narrow gold dreadlock hasn't doomed them.

"Go," Tydeus says behind him. Strange, how he knows Tydeus's voice. He would have known it even if he'd never heard it. "I'll hold them off."

Fear puts a knife in his gut and twists. "Hands down," he barks. "No weapons!" His daughter flinches. He was always so careful to be gentle with her.

He squeezes her tight, presses his boys close, a hand on their heads in turn. Is it a trick, or isn't it? Are these his children, or aren't they? He kisses the top of his daughter's head. "You be good for your mother," he says. "Tydeus, with me." He sets her down and lunges through the doorway.

He hits grassy, sweet-smelling earth. Everything is still blurry; it takes him a moment to understand that tears mar his vision, not herbs.

He can hear someone breathing behind him.

He rolls over. Tydeus is panting, wild-eyed, accusatory and sorry. Tydeus is here. Hercules's hand itches with wanting to touch his shaved scalp.

He sits, wiping his eyes. "It wasn't them," he says thickly, not knowing if he believes his own words. "I went for you." He puts out a hand, afraid Tydeus will shrink back. But Tydeus comes to sit beside him, silent and faintly trembling. "You wanted to come back with me, didn't you?"

Tydeus gives him a sidelong glance, his mouth curving up slyly. He shrugs and tilts his face to the sun.

Hercules leans his head on Tydeus's shoulder and breathes in the sea air. "It's peaceful here," he says. "You'll like it."