“Pythagoras, why don’t you take your top off?”
It had seemed like an innocent enough question, but from the look that flitted across Pythagoras’ face, you might think Jason had asked him to strip naked. And that was an image Jason really didn’t want in his head while he was trying to have a conversation with his friend. Not that he had ever actually seen Pythagoras naked, but his imagination was more than up to the task.
“No, it’s fine,” Pythagoras mumbled. He tugged his soaked tunic away from his body, but made no other move to do anything about it.
“Just until it’s dry,” Jason tried again.
He hung his own top over a low hanging tree branch, and wished he could do the same with his trousers, but even he had some modesty. They had been out hunting in the woods when the rainstorm had come out of nowhere and soaked them to the bone, and then moved on as suddenly as it had appeared. Now the sun was back as warm as ever, and hunting had been postponed while they dried out. Jason and Hercules had both stripped their shirts off, and Hercules was now laid back on the grass, looking for all the world like he was about to have a nap.
Pythagoras shook his head.
“No, no. Really, it’s fine.”
“If he wants to wear wet clothes, leave him to it,” Hercules said in a voice that didn’t quite hit nonchalant.
Jason glanced at him, but Hercules’ eyes were closed, and his face gave nothing away.
“This is the sort of area I might find some good herbs. I’m going to have a look while you two rest,” Pythagoras announced.
Before Jason could object, or possibly volunteer to go with him, Pythagoras was gone. The last Jason saw of him as he disappeared behind a tree, he was tugging at his sodden shirt again with a faint look of disgust.
Jason was still trying to decide whether to go after him when Hercules spoke again.
“Leave him be, Jason.”
“I get the feeling I’m missing something here.”
“Considering your usual levels of ignorance, I’d say that is almost certainly the case.”
“Hercules. You know, don’t you? There is something wrong.”
Hercules opened his eyes and looked at him properly for the first time in the entire conversation. There was a warning in his eyes.
“Let it go, Jason.”
Jason looked back in the direction Pythagoras had gone, but there was no sign of him now. He didn’t like this one bit, but at the same time maybe Hercules was right. Maybe it really wasn’t any of his business. He sat down and tried to get comfortable against a tree. Hercules watched him for another few moments, and then closed his eyes again. A minute later he was snoring.
Jason’s resolve lasted all of ten minutes. With a glance back at Hercules, he headed off into the woods, leaving his shirt still drying on the tree branch.
It turned out Pythagoras had taken his top off. Jason saw the pale blue material draped across a large rock, but it was another moment before he spotted his friend crouched with his back to Jason, investigating a patch of undergrowth with his bag on the ground next to him. And suddenly Jason understood.
There were scars all over Pythagoras’ back and shoulders and sides. Thin white lines, some straight, others ragged, misshapes. All faint and old, but visible even against his pale skin.
Jason didn’t think he had made a sound, but Pythagoras suddenly straightened, turned, and leapt to his feet when he saw Jason.
“Sorry,” Jason blurted. “I wondered where you’d gone. I was worried.”
Pythagoras stared at him in shock for another second, and then grabbed his bag and held it in front of himself. Not in time to stop Jason from seeing that his chest bore much the same marks, if rather fewer.
Jason had absolutely no idea what to do. They stared at each other for another few seconds until Pythagoras grabbed his shirt and put it back on.
“Looks like it’s dry now.”
Jason could see that wasn’t true. He took a step closer to his friend, not sure what he needed to say to make any of this okay.
“I was right. There are lots of herbs. I’ve got enough rosemary to last for at least a month now.” Pythagoras’ voice was forcibly cheerful, but he was concentrating on refastening his belt and not looking at Jason.
“That... that’s good.”
“Has Hercules fallen asleep in the sun again? We should get him to move into the shade before he burns. Or better yet, head back to Atlantis. I know we didn’t catch anything, but it wasn’t a completely wasted trip.”
He held the now-full bag up, as if to demonstrate the fruits of his gatherings, and then slung the bag over his shoulder and walked past Jason back towards where they had left Hercules.
“Jason? Are you coming?”
“Yes, of course.”
Jason fell into step beside him, still floundering slightly. He couldn’t help but notice that there was suddenly a little more distance between them than normal as they walked.
It was a week later when the subject came up again. During that week they had all quite carefully and deliberately not mentioned anything about the incident in the woods, although Jason was fairly certain he had seen a few significant looks between Hercules and Pythagoras, and on one occasion a conversation had very obviously stopped the moment he walked in.
When Jason really thought about it, he realised that he had, in fact, never seen Pythagoras’ body in the entire six months that he had been in Atlantis. Pythagoras always found some excuse not to join them when they visited the baths, choosing instead to go by himself, usually either early in the morning or late at night. And while both Jason and Hercules often wandered around the house shirtless, especially in the mornings, Jason had never seen Pythagoras anything less than fully clothed. He wondered now why he hadn’t ever wondered about it before now.
Jason came in late one evening to find the house in semi-darkness. There was a soft glow of candlelight coming from Pythagoras’ room, and Jason leaned in the doorway until he spotted his friend sitting on the floor in the balcony alcove.
“Pythagoras? Is everything okay?”
“Of course. I was just thinking.”
“Triangles again? Shall I leave you to it?” Jason asked with a chuckle.
“No, actually.” Pythagoras turned and looked at him properly. “Come in, Jason. Have a drink.”
Jason came in and saw the flagon tucked in beside his friend. Pythagoras took a drink from his cup, and then passed it to Jason when he had sat down opposite him.
“Shall I save you the trouble of asking?” Pythagoras said.
“I don’t understand.”
Pythagoras leaned his head back against the wall, but didn’t take his eyes off Jason. He was waiting.
Jason suddenly knew what this was about. For a second he wanted to tell Pythagoras to forget about it, that it was none of his business, that he didn’t need to know. But before he could say anything Jason realised two things – that Pythagoras was the one who had brought it up, and that meant he must have decided he was willing to talk about it, and also that there might not be a second chance for this conversation.
“Go on,” Jason said.
Pythagoras stayed silent a little longer, his fingers absently playing with a thread on his trousers.
“Mother wasn’t the only one he used to beat.”
Nobody needed to say who ‘he’ was.
It was something Jason had considered more than once in the last week, but hearing it spoken out loud was still a shock. Even more shocking, though, was the complete lack of emotion in Pythagoras’ voice as he had said it.
Jason realised he had stayed silent too long. He just wished he had a clue what it was that he ought to say.
“Why would any man do that to his son?” Jason finally replied.
“Because I wasn’t any good with a sword. Because I wasn’t strong or fast. Because I had more interest in mathematics than in wrestling and fighting and athletics. Because I wasn’t the son he wanted me to be. Take your pick.”
“That’s no reason for him to treat you like that.” Jason couldn’t keep the shock or, quite honestly, disgust, from his voice.
Pythagoras glanced up at him, but didn’t reply.
“How can you be so calm about it? I can’t imagine what it must have been like.” Jason knew he was probably opening his mouth and putting both feet in it, but he needed to say something.
“And I’m glad you can’t imagine it. I’m glad you have nothing but good memories of your father.” There was sincerity in his voice, and Jason knew he truly meant that, with no trace of bitterness or jealousy. Pythagoras shrugged again. “I’ve put it behind me, and tried to forget. Besides, what he did to me hardly compares to what I did to him.”
“It was an accident. It doesn’t compare,” Jason said immediately.
Pythagoras closed his eyes and breathed slowly for a moment. Then he was looking right at Jason in the half darkness of the room, and Jason saw the ocean of pain in his blue eyes.
“It was an accident, yes. But it was still... I killed him.”
Jason opened his mouth to reply, but he had no words.
Pythagoras reached for the cup and downed the rest of it, and then refilled it from the flagon.
“So, anyway. Now you know.” He waved vaguely in the direction of his chest, and Jason recognised the desire for a change in the direction of the conversation when he saw it.
“That’s why I’ve never seen you take your shirt off.”
“You shouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed about the way you look. You shouldn’t feel like you have to hide yourself.”
Pythagoras’ eyebrows hitched upwards at that comment.
“I really don’t think anyone wants or needs to see me without clothes.”
If anything, that only made Jason more angry.
“That’s not the point. It’s not like I’m saying you need to strip off in public, but you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about it in your own home. It doesn’t bother me. I’m sure it won’t bother Hercules.” Jason paused. “Hercules knows about this, doesn’t he?”
“Yes. And strangely, he was far less worked up about it than you seem to be.” Pythagoras watched him with an expression that was now heading rapidly towards curious.
“I’m not worked up!” Jason protested. “I’m just... I mean...” He searched for an appropriate word.
“No, Jason, you’re not worked up at all,” Pythagoras said with a mock patronising tone.
“Is this something else your father did to you?” Jason had no idea where the words were coming from, but suddenly he couldn’t stop the outrage and anger on his friend’s behalf. “Did he tell you that you were weak and skinny? That you weren’t manly enough? Made you feel ashamed to let anyone else see you?”
“Jason, stop it!”
He slammed to an abrupt halt in the face of Pythagoras’ outburst. It took him several seconds to realise that the expression on his face, the tension in his body, and the look of hurt and anger in his eyes all added up to one thing – Pythagoras was seconds away from losing his temper. And that was something Jason had never seen happen in the entire time he had known the man.
And yet, even knowing that, he couldn’t stop himself.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Jason insisted.
Pythagoras started to get up, turning away from him. Jason reached out and grabbed his wrist.
“Pythagoras. Pythagoras, wait. I’m sorry. Stay, please.”
For a moment Pythagoras remained where he was, halfway towards getting up. Then he took a deep breath, and slowly sat back down opposite Jason. Jason didn’t let go of him until he was sure his friend was not going to bolt at the first opportunity.
“I’m sorry,” Jason said again. He meant it.
They were both silent for a while. Jason reached for the cup and took a swig of wine. He needed it.
“You are right,” Pythagoras admitted in a voice so quiet Jason almost didn’t hear him. He sounded... defeated.
Jason was suddenly very glad that Pythagoras’ father was already dead, because he had never wanted to hurt someone so much in his entire life.
“But it wasn’t just that,” Pythagoras continued. He wasn’t meeting Jason’s gaze any more, and was instead focussing on his fingers as they yet again started to fiddle with some imagined thing of interest on his trousers. “Yes, he said all those things, and more. But it wasn’t just him. It was the boys who laughed and mocked when I went to the baths and the gymnasium. It was the girls who pointed and giggled when I tried to pretend I was like other boys to please him. It was everyone who ever stared at me when they saw what I looked like. So I learned to not let people see.”
He paused and finally glanced up at Jason, meeting his eye again.
“Atlantis was a fresh start. No one here knew. No one here needed to know. It’s better that way.”
Somehow the most shocking thing about these revelations was again the fact that Pythagoras seemed to have simply accepted that this was normal. Jason had never, ever expected to hear such things coming from Pythagoras. He normally seemed so sensible, so assured about his place in the household and self-confident in his skills and knowledge.
“That doesn’t make it right,” Jason finally said. “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of how you look.”
Another brief flash of anger seemed to flit across Pythagoras’ face.
“That’s easy for you to say. I doubt anyone has ever laughed at you when you took your shirt off.”
Jason couldn’t have been more surprised if Pythagoras had hit him. Although in truth, the words stung more than any punch. Just because he was fit and good looking, didn’t mean he didn’t understand what it was like to be different. He was still trying to come up with a retort when he saw Pythagoras’ anger quickly morph into guilt.
“Sorry. That was uncalled for.” Pythagoras sighed. “I did not intend this to turn into an argument.”
“Neither did I.”
“Then perhaps it’s time we changed the subject, before one of us says something else that we didn’t intend.”
Pythagoras offered him a small smile.
“I just thought I owed you an explanation.”
“You don’t owe me anything. It’s up to you what you choose to tell people. But for the record, I’m glad you did.”
I’m glad you trusted me, was what he wanted to say, but he couldn’t say it. It seemed too intimate, somehow. Besides, considering how many secrets he was keeping, Jason knew he had no right to expect his friends to share their secrets.
“Hercules said the same thing as you, you know? He said he didn’t care what was under the shirt, and that if I wanted to wander around the house naked it was none of his business.” Pythagoras huffed a quiet laugh. “Although he did then go on to qualify that by saying he would really rather I didn’t wander around naked.”
They both chuckled, and whatever tension there had been dissipated.
Pythagoras emptied the last of the wine into the cup, drank half, and offered the rest to Jason. It briefly occurred to Jason that in his world, surely all the psychologists would have expected Pythagoras to turn out bad, broken in some way considering the events of his childhood. And yet he really was the kindest, most generous and sensible man Jason had ever known. A little introverted, perhaps, but in no way broken.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Pythagoras said, his mouth forming the tiniest of smiles.
Jason almost spat out the wine he had been sipping, and choked on the mouthful that went down the wrong way. Pythagoras was on the point of leaning over to thump his back when he finally got the coughing under control.
“Sorry, that wasn’t supposed to happen,” Pythagoras said.
“So what did you think I was thinking?” Jason wasn’t actually sure he wanted to know, but had to ask.
“You’re wondering whether this conversation is going to make any difference, or whether I’m just going to keep hiding away.”
“And are you?”
He shrugged. “Honestly? I don’t know. Some habits are hard to break.”
Jason nodded. He understood that all too well.
They were quiet for a while, but it was not uncomfortable.
“So, how long should we wait before we go looking for whichever tavern we need to rescue Hercules from tonight?” Jason finally asked.
Pythagoras chuckled. “There’s time yet. He won’t thank us for interrupting if he’s in the middle of a drinking contest again.”
“He might if he’s losing.”
Pythagoras laughed properly at that.
“Come on then. Let’s go find him.”
He stood up and offered Jason a hand, pulling him to his feet. Jason watched his friend as he grabbed his cloak, and really did wonder if any of this was going to make a difference. Like Pythagoras had said, some habits were hard to break, especially ones ingrained since childhood.
Pythagoras wasn’t going to change overnight, that was for certain. But at least now he knew he would have his friends’ support, whatever he decided, and Jason dared to hope that might be enough.