Giving up the Fight
The steady drip of water on his right shoulder woke Hercules from dreams of green fields and laughing children. He yawned hugely, and immediately regretted it as he inhaled the scent of human waste and creeping mildew. How many dungeons did this make? How many times had he and Iolaus fought their way out of prisons far worse? He laughed a bit, a rough, pained sound. No matter how many years passed he still felt a pang when he thought of his old friend.
Hercules twisted to scratch his chin against his collar. The chains attached to the cuffs on his wrists jangled and his sore head throbbed with a rhythm like Hephastus pounding an anvil. The chains were not strong. He could break them any time. There just didn't seem much point. He had outlived his usefulness long ago and the world had new heroes now, fighting for a God he did not know or understand. A white bearded old man of a god that reminded him forcibly of his father at times. How Zeus would laugh, if he were still around.
Now there were Knights of Christ, men who committed atrocities that even Hera wouldn't condone in the name of their God . These warriors could not understand why he refused to take sides, why he tried to help their enemies as often as he helped them. So they smiled at him until he turned his back then clubbed him over the head and chained him like a dog in a foul smelling hole to await trial. For heresy. He could appreciate the humor there. Did he put false idols up before their God? Hard not to when you were related to half of the gods in the known universe. Difficult as it was to admit, Hercules was beginning to think that the world had been a better place when his father's children had overseen it's day to day affairs. They at least had taken an interest in mortal lives.
Hercules was tired. Tired of fighting a war he could never win. Human nature could not be defeated, and that nature demanded violence and pain. He swallowed, his tongue clacking in his dry mouth. Why fight it? Just let them burn him alive or whatever it was they had in store for him and hope that the Fates finally decided to let him go this time. He sighed and shifted, searching for a more comfortable position. Did the Fates even exist anymore? Did Clotho still work her spindle and Atropos still use her shears? Perhaps he should learn to pray to this new God.
The light, when it came, was blinding, and he was vaguely annoyed that it obscured his view of the fat spider that was crawling up his leg. He blinked mechanically and tried to identify a new and somehow familiar smell. Long moments passed before his vision adjusted, and when he saw who was standing in front of him he realized the scent was the raw lightning of ripped ether, of an appearing god.
He looked good, Hercules decided. Hair cut short, beardless for a change in the Norman manner. Still had a penchant for black leather obviously, only now it was a knight's hauberk and silversteel chain mail.
"Ares." The simple word came out with no surprise or heat. Who else would it be but Ares? He was really the only one left.
"Hercules." He still had the same the softsand voice that Hercules had once hated the very sound of. "Heard you were here. Just stopped by to see how the mighty have fallen." Was he born with that self satisfied jeer in his throat?
Hercules rolled his head to one side and jiggled his toes to set his eight-legged friend in motion again. His voice was flat. "Yeah, awaiting execution. I'm sure you're thrilled. How's the crusade business these days?"
"Booming," Ares said with a genuine smile. "These people understand war. They may have fancy excuses, but they fight for the sheer pleasure of it. They love me."
"Hey, good for you."
The light piercing his eyes was blocked as Ares crouched before him. A gauntleted hand slid under his chin and pulled his face around. Dark eyes studied him in detail, noting bruises and scabs. "I don't see you in what, a few centuries? I show up to visit you in prison and this is the greeting I get? Maybe they hit you a bit too hard." Ares titled his head in a painfully familiar, characteristic posture as he waited for Hercules to reply.
Herc snorted. "Maybe they hit me just hard enough. Why are you here Ares? To gloat? Here I'll help. You're stuck in this shithole and I'm the hottest thing on two legs with these people. Look how pathetic you are, blah blah blah. Happy? Great. 'Bye." Hercules closed his eyes and leaned back against the damp stone wall, dismissing his half brother with little effort.
Air moved as Ares stood. Mail clinked as the war god paced the cell, measuring it with long strides. He made a full circuit, then nudged Hercules with a booted foot. "That's it? No protestations? No threats? What's with you anyway? Isn't it about time for you to pull those chains out of the wall and try to kick my ass?"
Herc cracked open one eye and regarded his scowling brother balefully. "Go away Ares. I have no intention of fighting you."
Ares laughed, the booming sound echoing crazily off the walls of the cell. He sobered when Hercules did nothing more than fix him with a blank stare. "You mean it, don't you? You really aren't going to lift a finger."
Hercules rolled his eyes to the ceiling. "Now he gets it. No Ares, I am not going to get up. Why in the name of Zeus should I? I've had it. Let them kill each other. Let them follow you straight to their Hell. Who cares?"
In a blink Ares was squatting before him again, forcing Herc to meet his eyes. The god's face was carefully neutral. "You're giving up?"
"Just like that?"
"Yes, just like that." Hercules blew a strand of lank, dirty hair off his cheek. "Not to sound whiney Ares, but no one really needs me anymore. I'm just marking time. Everything I cared about is gone." He trailed off as Ares began to chuckle.
Ares pulled off his gloves, and warm fingers stroked over Hercules' hair and down his cheek. "Looks like I left you alone too long, little brother. I should have popped in now and then and livened things up. But I figured I'd give you a bit of that peace you always said you wanted. Never occurred to me that you would give up the 'good fight'."
Hercules sat passively under Ares' stroking. He should knock the hand away, he knew, but it had been so long since someone had touched him. So very long. And this was Ares. Ares, the only thing that still tied him to that long ago heyday of Greece. So he sat and let Ares pet him like an overgrown puppy and tried to battle the hurt that came with thoughts of the old days. He preferred the hard won detachment he carried with him lately.
Ares hand slid down to rest against the back of his neck, thumb nestling into the hollow of his throat. Herc found himself leaning into the touch ever so slightly, and he let his head droop forward, infinitely weary. "Wouldn't have mattered Ares. Even if you had been around, I think I would still feel this way. I'm an anachronism. I'm tired. And I just don't *feel* anything anymore."
Ares' hand moved away, then came back with a ringing slap that knocked his head into the wall behind him. His eyes flew open and he stared at the war god in shock. "What in Hera's name was that for?" His shout rang loud in the enclosed space, and he realized he was gritting his teeth the way he once had every time Ares came within ten feet of him.
White teeth flashed in a feral grin as Ares casually backhanded him, snapping his head into the wall again. Ares flexed his shoulders and his voice was full of throaty amusement when he answered. "Got your attention, didn't I? So you're tired. So what? You think I'm going to let you get away with just moping around with you hand attached to your forehead?" Ares' expression changed rapidly to a fierce frown. " I don't think so brother of mine."
Hercules licked blood from his lower lip. "I don't get it Ares. I thought you' be glad to see me go."
The chains holding to the wall disappeared, and suddenly Hercules was upright, Ares' fists twisted in his tunic. His legs and arms screamed at him as blood rushed back into them, and he couldn't fight back as Ares shook him roughly. His half-brother's face loomed before him, and Ares carefully enunciated every word. "You. Don't Get. To. Give Up. You aren't finished until I say you are."
His legs gave out, and Hercules didn't try to catch himself as he sagged to the floor. His dead weight caught Ares off guard and they went down together, ending in a heap on rotten straw. Hercules saw stars as his head bounced off Ares chain mail, and it took him a few minutes to gather his thoughts. When he was able to speak again, only one word came to mind. "Why?"
Ares untangled himself and shoved Hercules into a backwards sprawl on the bottom of the filthy cell. The god twisted his hand into Herc's long hair and rapped his the other man's head against the floor, drawing a yelp. Ares pounded Herc's head into the ground until the demi-god was sure it was going to crack open and ooze brains. He finally waded through the stunning pain and flailed out at Ares with a wild fist, knocking the god away. Ares was back in a instant, straddling Hercules and driving a balled up fist into his nose. It was a blow designed to madden an opponent and it worked perfectly. Hercules gave a mighty heave and Ares went flying, landing hard against the opposite wall. Both combatants were at each other's throats again immediately, straining against each other in a battle they had fought hundreds of times before. Hercules was at a disadvantage due to his pounding head and generally weakend condition, and Ares soon turned the fight in his own favor. Hercules blinked up at Ares in disbelief as he was pinned to the ground and held there. Ares sat on the demi-god and bore down with his full body weight, crushing the air out of Herc's lungs. Hercules felt the mix of anger and hurt that always accompanied a fight with Ares twist in his gut. He bucked against the pressure of Ares' body, but could not throw him off. Ares leaned down and very deliberately bit into Hercules' split lower lip, and he let out a bellow. Ares drew back and spat bright red on Hercules' tunic. "Don't feel anything? Looks like you felt that one. Want to go another round?"
Hercules grunted with effort as he tried to rid himself of Ares' weight, but had no success. "Why Ares? Why are you doing this?"
Ares simply hit him. Again and again, until he screamed in agony and his lungs burned with every labored breath. Ares beat him until his entire body was a giant throbbing ache and his shouts turned to a repeated moaned "Why?". Hercules' thoughts were a roiling mass of hate for Ares, surprise at his own weakness, and fear. Yes, fear that this would be the time that Ares would go too far, would somehow find the way to kill him. Hercules' struggles became mindless. Animal instinct took over and he fought for his very life, refusing to lay down and die.
Exhaustion finally caught up with him, and he collapsed, feeling the lightheaded weakness that signaled the end of an adrenaline rush. When he could martial his thoughts into any semblance of order, he was shocked to realize that Ares was no longer fighting him, had not been for some time. The war god was simply holding him, restraining him so that he did not injure himself. He stared, wide eyed at his half-brother and his voice croaked wretchedly when he repeated his only question, "Why?"
Suddenly Ares was *right there*, his face only inches from Hercules'. His eyes, insanely dark this close, expressed every emotion Hercules expected and a few he didn't. Raging hatred and a terrible anger werer there, but were closely chased by something softer, which disappeared as quickly as it came. "Decided you wanted to live after all, didn't you Hercules? You certainly didn't want to quit just now." There was no sarcasm in that voice now, no intention to gloat.
Hercules nodded, baffled. "Yeah, I guess so. But I don't understand why that matters to you."
Ares dropped his head, bringing their foreheads together. His breath ghosted across Hercules' lips, and his voice lowered until it was barely audible. "You wanna know why? Because you're it, that's why. You're all I have left. Of our father. Of our brothers and sisters. Of Iphicles. And I don't give up easily. You know that. So you don't get to just lay down and die and take that away from me. You said you couldn't feel anymore, but I think we proved how wrong you were. So tell me, promise me, you'll get up and fight me."
Hercules lay there under Ares, stunned, and sifted the day through his head, allowing himself to luxuriate in feelings he thought long dead. His hands came up without conscious thought and gripped Ares short hair, and he pulled the god's face into the hollow between his neck and shoulder. He would never have imagined, in all his hundreds of years, that Ares would be the reason to go on. Hercules nuzzled his cheek against the crown of Ares' head. "I promise. I won't give up now Ares. I won't give up the fight."