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The Third Option

Chapter Text

 

The fire seemed to be taunting him.

It danced across the walls, from far below to the corners of a barely-visible ceiling. The flames were beautiful, horrid ballerinas weaving out a song of death. But whose death? That was for Gilbert to decide. They threw shadows across the far ceilings, sharp and jagged like the rocks the cavern was carved out of. The diamond cuts that covered every single centimetre of surface were long and pointed towards him, like a firing squad of knives. Maybe the cavern was actually carved into diamond, but it was impossible to tell now. Everything was soot and dust and dried blood.

The fire came from the pit before him, his nails digging into the crumbling rock at the edge. His knees stung, and, as he looked over the edge, a string of blood and saliva dropped into the mess of flames and stone spikes packed into the floor. Certain death. It was an efficient, but messy, killing machine. If Gilbert had to choose a way to die, the pit would be bottom of his list.

“Thirty seconds.”

Gilbert choked back a sob and looked up at the pair of terrified faces before him, with puffy eyes and drying tracks of tears streaking down their cheeks. They were well past tears now, only room for numb terror. This wasn't real. It couldn't be! Everything had happened so suddenly, and Gilbert wanted this to be a bad dream so badly. But the blood in his eye from a split forehead and the string of his scraped palms told him it was really happening.

How could he choose?

His little brother hiccuped quietly, rubbing his runny nose with the back of his hand. Gilbert could see the bruises covering his legs, and face; the police were never the kind to be gentle. Ludwig was a strong boy, and Gilbert barely recognised the broken, terrified mess he'd become. 

Monique simply sat at the bottom of her cage, having accepted her fate. She could see the spikes through the bars across the bottom floor, and knew they would be the closest she got to a proper grave. He would choose Ludwig, of course. His brother was the most important person in the world. But he could not do that to her either.

Gilbert turned to the man behind him.

Emperor Roderich III, leader of the Eurasian empire. Autocrat, and a brutal one at that.

"You really are taking your time. Weighing up your options, or just panicking? Actually, don't tell me. I don't care."

“Please,” he begged, “there’s gotta be some other way. Take me instead.”

Roderich’s allowed a smirk to twist his smooth, fine features as he thought. Or acted like he was thinking. The man was sitting on a heavy, wooden throne, dwarfed by his heavy, maroon robes in a way that would be comical, if Gilbert was in a jokey mood. 

As it was, he just lay on the floor, handcuffed and beaten and cold for the first time in his life. Eurasia didn’t get cold, but down here there was no room for light, and even the fire was too far away to heat up the frozen rock. Gilbert's shoulder ached.

The Emperor’s eyes flashed through his delicate glasses with nothing but pure evil. As far as Gilbert could see, there was no goodness left inside of him. Everyone said it. Maybe he had been human when he was born, but his bloodline was poison and Roderich was the result of his own fate. A monster raised to retain control, to not be the weak link in his family’s chain.

To his right, stood General Zwingli in his decorated military uniform, holding a gun aimed for Gilbert’s head, in case he tried anything. His eyes gave away no emotion, as usual. Zwingli never missed, and Gilbert didn’t want to do or say anything that might make him turn his gun on Monique or Ludwig.

"Well, there is a third option," Roderich, tapped his chin with a finger in pretend thought, smiling, "I probably should have mentioned it, before you had to decide who should live."

Will they live?” asked Gilbert, afflicted with hope. "Both of them?"

“Of course."

“You promise?"

Roderich studied him. “You are in no position to demand such a thing, but, be that as it may, I promise. I swear on my life, and theirs, that they will be free to go. No harm will come to them."

"Then what must I do?"

Another wicked smile. "Oh, I think you already know that."

Gilbert turned back to look at the terrified faces before him, then looked down at the vortex of fire calling him. The two cages, Monique in one, Ludwig in the other, swung lazily above the pit, the chains holding them to the ceiling creaking and groaning.

"Ten seconds." Roderich's hand hovered over a pair of levers, on the wall next to his throne.

Ignoring their cries, their protests and words of self-sacrifice, Gilbert turned back to Roderich.

"I choose the third option," he whispered.

“Good boy.”

Chapter Text

 

Janus had long given up on screaming himself hoarse to wake his grandchildren. Not every single morning. It was just impossible. Prying all three of them out of sleep was like trying to to hold mud, so he just settled for standing by the stairs, banging pots and pans together until the boys had no choice but to get up, along with half the street.

Lovino winced at the sound, giving himself ten seconds to stare at the ceiling be outraged at waking up, then hauled himself into a sitting position to find his brothers already dragging themselves out the room.

“I’m up!” he called back, and the banging stopped.

That was the one good thing about their tiny living quarters. You didn’t even have to yell that loud to talk to anyone in the house. It also meant that secrets were never kept for long, which suited his nosy, gossipy family just fine.

And it certainly didn’t hurt the Empire to know what everyone was doing. Or saying.

The city was teeming with guards, spies and security cameras, ready and waiting to pick up even a whisper that questioned the ridiculously strict life you were born into. Lovino had to wonder if the house itself was bugged, but they’d had no proof of it yet, and it wasn’t like it would be hard to listen in on their conversations. No Vargas had an indoor voice, though their grandfather was trying his hardest to train them to talk quietly. Or... quieter

It was a dangerous world, especially for someone as careless and naive as his little brothers. If a person said, or did, anything the Empire disagreed with then the Shadow Police would come to your house in the middle of the night and that was that. You were never seen again.

But this was old news.

Lovino sat, rubbing his shoulder; all he wanted was to remember his dream. It had dissolved the moment he woke up, and now it was frustrating him. He recalled a numb sense of terror, being trapped and suspended. He couldn’t recover any detail from the sludge in his mind, but the leftover fear made him uneasy.

It didn’t matter, anyway. He dragged himself out of bed and got dressed. His shorts were looking frayed. Maybe when Grandpa Janus next got paid he could get some new clothes and dump the old ones on Feliciano. Poor Sal never got new clothes, but he did get to be the doted-on baby of the family.

It didn’t take long to travel from one end of their terraced, two-bedroom house to the other. The building was metal, like the rest of the city. Iron, to be precise, rusted and ugly brown. Living in an iron building was the sign of the lower class, the common workers, poor but not living in scrap metal shacks, like the Disgraced.

The richer a family was, the nicer materials their house was made out of, up to the Grand Palace in the centre of the city. The lavish building housed the Emperor and his family, built from gold and platinum and jewels, whatever valuable materials were around 200 years ago, after the first Emperor took over.

He’d called himself Emperor of all Eurasia, but no one actually knew what was beyond the city walls. Or how far the land beyond stretched. If there were other people, supposedly under the Emperor's rule. Was the city all there was of humanity?

Not that it mattered.

He pushed all thought of the Empire aside as he entered the main room. It was by far the biggest room in the house, but still cramped. A battered old dining table took up half the room, the other half a sitting area the family squeezed themselves into at the end of the day to talk and watch TV. Lovino and his brothers would squeeze themselves onto the sofa whilst Grandpa Janus sat in his armchair, sketching and writing poetry that would make anyone blush. Grandpa kept his little notebook hidden, and Lovino was not going to make the mistake of looking through it again.

Feliciano and Salvatorio were already halfway through breakfast, Feliciano completing some last minute homework. He scribbled out his notes with one hand, jam roll in the other. Salvatorio was reading from a textbook propped up against the milk, combing his hair at the same time.

“There you are, my little Lovino!” exclaimed Grandpa Janus, sat at the head of the table reading through the post. Messages here were burnt onto thin sheets of metal at a post office before being delivered. After being read and censored, if needed. “Good sleep?”

Lovino nodded to save telling a lie. He sat down and got eating, studying his grandfather. Janus Jupiter Vargas leaned back in his chair, his plate left untouched. The moment his eyes were off his grandsons, his smile was gone, replaced with a look of confusion. And worry. His brows were knotted together and he scratched his stubbly chin.

“Since when did we get those things?” Lovino asked, pointing at the letter. It didn’t look like a bill.

“Huh? Oh, just a message from an uncle of yours,” Grandpa Janus explained, “you remember Francis, right?”

“Francis… Francis… The overly affectionate one?” asked Lovino.

“Yes, him!” Janus snapped his fingers, breaking into a grin, “so you do remember him, then?”

“I remember the whole family.”

“Well, Francis seems to have run into a bit of trouble, he doesn’t say what, probably can’t through written communications, but it seems we'll have to make room for six new arrivals.”

Lovino dropped his roll. “What?”

“Francis has… recently lost his home,” explained Grandpa Janus, “this letter, it’s a plea to let them stay, otherwise they’ll be homeless, living in a shack.”

“So, technically, not homeless.”

Grandpa Janus flicked his ear. “They will be here this afternoon.”

“But we’re all on top of each other as it is and there’s only four of us!”

“I’m sorry Lovi,” sighed Grandpa Janus, “but they’re family.”

An illegitimate child. Two, of many, in fact, Francis and Monique.

“We can make things work, plus the four oldest have jobs and the youngest have school so they won’t be around all the time.”

“Only in the evenings when we’re all together.”

“Well, get used to it. My word is final, and I will not see my family suffer such an indignity.” He banged his fist on the table. “I would do the same for any of you. And besides, it'll be fun! We'll all be cosy together!”

“Fine,” growled Lovino; it wasn’t like he had any space or privacy in this house to begin with.

“Um, Grandpa,” said Salvatorio, “you said there were six people coming. I remember five. Francis, Monique, and their foster kids.”

“Ah, Monique's also bringing her brother-in-law or something,” said Grandpa Janus, skimming through the message one more time, “it wasn’t too clear. Funny, though, they haven’t mentioned her fiancé at all… Greg… Giovanni…”

“Gilbert. Maybe he ran off when he saw they were having problems,” suggested Lovino.

Feliciano gasped; “what a horrible thing to do! How can anyone leave their fiancée? Does no one care about love anymore? And Monique is just the loveliest-!”

She wasn’t. She was a bitch and Lovino thought she was the best.

“That’s no way to treat a pretty girl!” exclaimed Salvatorio, “nor your brother.”

“Now now boys,” chided Grandpa Janus, “we do not judge until we have the full story.”

“Good!” said Salvatorio, “I refuse to believe he could do that.” Lovino looked at him.

“Understood,’ said Feliciano.

“So Lovi,” said Grandpa Janus, done with the subject, “jobs. Where are we going to be looking today?”

Lovino tried to keep his sigh subtle. “I was thinking of trying a few restaurants. Local ones. Gotta be something, right?”

Grandpa Janus nodded.

“Look, if I get desperate, I can ask at some factory, right?”

“But is that what you want to do?”

“No. Probably not.”

“Want me to ask around for you?”

“Nah, I’ll be fine, but thanks anyway, Grandpa.” Lovino gave a small smile at that, then found a renewed interest in his breakfast.

“You are trying, aren’t you?” asked Grandpa Janus, placing a large, rough hand on his shoulder.

It was vital Lovino got a job, now he was an adult and no longer in school. He had until December to find employment, or he'd be breaking the law and receive an according punishment. A person wasn't allowed to be "workshy" in the city. Lovino hated that, even in July when he theoretically had time, people still looked at him like he was useless. Just some lazy kid who didn't want a job.

Even though they'd be right.

Sort of.

Lovino wanted a job, but not one he wouldn't want to do for the rest of his life. But what did he want to do? Would he ever find out? What if he found out too late when all the jobs in that field were taken, or after he'd attached himself to one profession? It was a panic that mixed nicely with the panic of the looming deadline and just what would happen if he couldn't find a job.

"Of course I am," he assured his grandpa. He still had plenty of time; so no need to worry. Right? At least, if he pretended nothing was wrong, he could pretend he wasn't panicking too.

"Good… good…"

"Well, I'll just get started on that. Might be my lucky day." Lovino said goodbye to his family and strolled out the door.

The street where they lived was messy and narrow, just a dull iron road bordered by tiny terraced houses. No gardens, no decorations, just rubbish strewn everywhere and dull-eyed adults on their way to work. That would be him too, eventually. Hopefully.

He started jogging down the street, greeting a few women cheerily, but ignoring most people. He reached the end of the lane and took a right turn, slower now and keeping his head down. He put on a blank expression and tried to avoid catching the eyes of the small group of police marching past. Another turning, and Lovino found himself in a small side street, a shortcut.

He could always find a job another day.

Chapter Text

 

It was cool and dark under the bridge, with welcoming shade that protected a person from the intense glare of the sun. The water was warm and clear, no good for a nice, cold swim, but you could see the bottom, the golden-red copper riverbed reflecting the sunlight. There was a walkway either side that ran the whole way along the river, providing people with access to the city’s water supply. It dissected the city, and, like everything else, was artificial. It sprouted from the western side of the city wall and disappeared into the eastern stretch, where it was cleaned, processed and regurgitated out of the western stretch once more. A network of pipes connected it to the houses so that everyone had running water but the river itself was also used to carry cargo too wide to fit through the streets. Long canoes would come and go, boatmen waving at the people they passed on their way, The river was three metres deep wherever it flowed and flowed slowly, so people could also swim in some fruitless attempt to escape the sun’s heat, especially in the stifling, airless summer.

The walkway under the bridge was where Lovino spent his days, smoking, slacking, and joking with his friends. It was the one place where he could escape from his worries, from reality. He walked towards his friends, waving cheerily and flashing a grin. They waved back and Lovino bent down to kiss Isabel’s hand.

“Hey gorgeous!” Isabel laughed, snatching her hand back. It was their little joke. She was sitting on the floor her legs hanging over the side, feet submerged in the crystal water. Her grin was almost hidden by an enormous summer hat.

Her older brother, Adriaan, was sat next to her, watching them with a face like someone was pissing on his cigarettes. Lovino did a mock sigh, rolling his eyes animatedly.

“Well, we don’t want you feeling left out now, Adriaan; don’t worry, you’re beautiful too,” he kissed the older man’s hand as well. Xavier, leaning against the wall, burst out laughing. Adriaan shook his head, snatching his hand back.

“Dickhead,” he growled, but meant no harm.

Lovino had never been overly fond of Isabel’s brother. He wasn’t the worst person in the world, but he was still a prick who’d sell his own mother if he thought it was a good investment. Until recently, he'd been the only one old enough to buy cigarettes, so they kept him around.

Lovino shrugged and took a seat next to Xavier, in front of an old propaganda poster of the Emperor. Feliciano had drawn a moustache onto a few months ago with a felt pen when he and Sal were hanging out with them after school. This little bit of graffiti indicated that the authorities never checked under the bridge, as such an insult to the Emperor would usually be removed immediately, so the four of them could stay there and talk about what they wanted to undisturbed.

“Hey Lovi,” said Isabel cheerily, “so, how’s things with you?”

“Can’t complain,” replied Lovino, “well, actually, I can.”

“You always can.”

“Apparently Grandpa just invited a shitload of relatives to stay with us. I don’t even have room to tug one out as it is; I’ll never have privacy now!"

"Jerk off in public like a non-coward," said Adriaan, and Lovino didn't even attempt to respond to that.

"Have I ever mentioned my uncle Francis?”

“Nope,” said Isabel.

“Francis Bonnefoy?” asked Xavier.

“You know him?”

Xavier shrugged; “he hangs out with my cousin. Nice guy, wouldn’t wanna live with him but still pretty cool.”

“Yeah well I have to live with him, and the other ones too,” Lovino folded his arms, pouting. Isabel giggled.

“So how is your booty- cousin! Cousin. How’s your cousin?” 

Xavier snorted, dusting down his floral shirt. "Damn Belle," he spluttered, “how come you never compliment my butt?”

“Maybe I will from now on, it’s just his is like a pair of cannon ba-.”

“Yeah Toni’s okay! Still a fucking dipshit, though.”

“Not even gonna ask,” muttered Adriaan.

“He’d forget his head if it wasn’t attached to his neck.”

“You sound like your mother,” said Isabel.

“His mother’s hotter, though,” said Lovino.

Xavier pulled a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket, offering one to Adriaan (Isabel didn’t smoke) before lighting one for himself and flicking the empty packet at Lovino.

“Cunt.”

“So, have any of you got any closer to finding a job yet?” Xavier asked, ignoring him.

“Yes I’ve had this nice job sticking up posters for a few years now,” replied Adriaan, smirking.

“I wasn’t talking to you, old man.”

“No,” answered Lovino, “I probably should start looking.”

“You should,” Isabel sighed, “we all should. Or there’ll only be hard labour left.”

“Not yet though. Can we please just enjoy our last few months of freedom?”

“Okay,” Isabel splashed him, “but if we get in trouble, it’s your fault.”

 


 

Lovino stuffed his hands in his pockets, wandering down the road. It was evening now and he was returning home after a long, hard day of doing nothing. He turned into the Golden Square, the open space for citizens to gather in front of the Grand Palace. In the middle was a beautiful fountain, and silver trees bordered the Square. A cheering crowd filled the space, barring his way. He looked towards the balcony at the front of the palace, and, sure enough, there was the Emperor, the grand Empress, Érzsebét, and the royal heir, Prince Franz. Sighing to himself, he began halfheartedly cheering and waving too, in case there were any police nearby that might accuse him of unloyalty. It picked up as he began shuffling through, and Lovino had no way of knowing what the Emperor was even saying in his address, only that he approved and supported him.

Most of the crowd drowned each other out, though, and it was only when Lovino stopped to rest, by the trees at the back, that he heard anything resembling interesting conversation.

“I bet I could shoot the dickhead from here.”

Lovino's ears prickled, and he glanced up to see a little blond man in a tree calling down to his friends. His round face was red with heat and anger, and lucky for him, no one else had heard, besides his horrified friends.

“Tino, what the hell are you saying?” cried another man from the ground, who was staring up at Tino with a look of horror, “you wanna get killed? Cause that’s how you get killed!”

“Gunner is right, you know,” added a third fellow, “besides, you can’t even hold a rifle anymore, let alone shoot one.”

Lovino decided to pretend he wasn’t listening, so they wouldn’t stop their conversation for his sake. This was the juiciest thing he’d overheard in weeks.

“A guy can dream, Vidar!” cried Tino, who appeared to be a day-drinker. Lovino spared a moment to watch as Gunner scaled the tree after him and dragged him down. The two, more sober, men got their friend out of sight and earshot before he caused any trouble for himself.

Lovino shook his head, deciding to continue his journey home, trying to appear cheery and celebrating as he navigated his way through the crowd. Why did the name “Tino” sound so familiar?

Ducking into a side street, Lovino spat in disgust and began walking again, quicker now, lest anymore opportunities to be arrested came up.

 


 

“Please, treat this as if it’s your own home,” Grandpa Janus clasped Francis’ hands as the group stood in his main room.

They were a sorry sight, dressed in as many clothes as they could to save space in their bags. Monique and a little boy of around fifteen - introduced as Ludwig - were covered in still-fresh bruises and cuts that had barely scabbed over. He didn’t want to bring the subject up, but he could guess what happened to her fiancé.  They were older than the last time he’d seen them, and in worse condition. Francis, looked like he’d been going without dinners and they’d all been roughed up. The three foster kids looked ready to cry.

“Thank you, Papa,” Francis sighed.

“So, want me to fix you up something to eat?” asked Feliciano, sat cross-legged on the floor next to Salvatorio.

“Could you please?” asked one of the twins, Matthew, “if it’s not too much trouble. We’ve had a long day.”

“Sure thing!” Feliciano gave a bright smile and stood up to leave.

“I’ll help,” added Salvatorio, following him out of the room.

“Take the bags upstairs, the rest of you,” said Francis, “ask Grandpa where you’ll be staying.”

With instructions from Grandpa Janus, the kids began dragging the bags upstairs, Ludwig hovering around the others awkwardly the whole time.

“I suppose you want to know what happened,” said Francis in a low voice. Grandpa Janus nodded.

“But, if it’s too painful to talk about…”

“We might as well,” said Monique, sitting up straight, “I’m not sure if you know, but Gilbert, my… my fia- he was the editor of a little newspaper. They didn’t like his editing.” There was nothing more to say.

“I see,” Grandpa Janus sighed, “so sorry to hear that. I’m sure he was a good man.”

Monique nodded, not listening anymore.

 


 

“I’m home!” called Lovino, shutting the front door behind him and walking into the hallway. “Anyone care?” he added when he was met with silence. “I was doing drugs and stabbing old ladies!”

“No you weren’t, Lovi, but you’re just in time to help us,” Feliciano stuck his head in the kitchen doorway, smiling brightly, “get a plate; we have guests.”

Lovino had no time to answer before a platter full of homemade snacks was thrust into his empty hands. Feliciano and Salvatorio appeared with plates of their own and he was bustled into the main room. The boys put the food on the coffee table, to the apparent delight of their new guests.

“Wow, thanks guys,” Alfred, Matthew’s twin brother, began helping himself, “this looks great; I could just eat everything!”

“Please don’t,” said Francis, picking up a roll, “these tasty treats are for sharing.”

Feliciano beamed. “Don’t worry, there’s plenty to go round!”

“You’re a good cook, Feli,” said Angelique, the youngest of the group, curled up between her foster brothers, “can you teach me sometime?”

“Of course!” Feliciano was practically glowing from the attention. Lovino was proud of him, and a little jealous. After all, he was the one who’d taught Feliciano everything he knew about food. Of course, everything he knew about food came from Grandpa Janus, but he still wanted some credit.

Feliciano noticed Ludwig starting at the food on the table, but not touching anything. The kid tugged on his shirt nervously, looking at the floor. He was only a year or so younger than Feliciano himself, apparently, but looked small and bony, with cuts and bruises covering his skin.

“Hey, Ludwig, right?” Feliciano shuffled over to the kid, “aren’t you eating?”

Ludwig glanced up at him before looking back down without answering.

"He, well, Ludwig hasn’t said a word since his brother..." explained Francis. "They made him watch," he hissed to Grandpa Janus.

Feliciano saw Ludwig’s mouth twitch.

"Here," he said, piling food into a little plate, "eat, you’ll feel better."

Ludwig nodded, tentatively taking the plate, picking up a biscuit and taking a bite. He gave the smallest nod and Feliciano smiled.

"There, see? You feeling better?" Ludwig shrugged.

Lovino knew he was supposed to be feeling sorry for the kid, and he was, but the boy was just so creepy, the way he stared at everyone. Still, Lovino couldn’t imagine losing a brother. It was also weird not being the focus of his own brother's attention; Feliciano usually had a million questions about his day, and, instead, he was stroking Ludwig's hair as he ate. Lovino wasn't sure if he was relieved or not, but he supposed the weird kid needed Feliciano more.

He turned away from Ludwig, to the twins.

"So, you two got jobs then?" he asked, trying to make conversation.

"Yeah, we work at the arms factory," said the one with shorter hair, Alfred, right? Lovino always had trouble telling them apart.

"Hey that sounds interesting."

"It’s really not," said the other, Matthew, "it’s just screwing things all day."

Lovino snorted "That don’t sound so bad, screwing things all day, I mean." Matthew and Alfred laughed. They seemed alright and Lovino suspected they would make the whole overcrowding not seem so bad. Grandpa Janus flicked him on the ear and grumbled something about children being present.

"So you have a job?" asked Alfred.

"Not yet," replied Lovino, getting pretty sick of being asked. Yes, he'd started the conversation, but only because he couldn't think of anything to talk about without mentioning all the homelessness and death. "Only out of freaking school."

"Well if you want," suggested Matthew, "we could always put a word in at the factory if you can’t find anything."

"Thanks, I’d appreciate that," he lied.

"Don’t worry about it," Alfred flashed a grin.

Grandpa Janus flicked on the TV out of habit. There was only one channel. At the moment, there was a speech from the Emperor being broadcast, one of several daily addresses and possibly the one Lovino saw him give earlier.

 

"… And we must thank the loyal people of this empire,

For their efforts in maintaining the order and stability,

Necessary for the growth of the city, in all areas of life,

So that I may, proudly, say, t he ten year anniversary of my coronation next week…"

 

Francis sighed, switching off the set the moment the broadcast ended.

"Dick," murmured Alfred; Matthew nodded in agreement.

"Yes but he’s the dick that runs the place," Grandpa Janus shook his head, "so we all have to be careful.”

Chapter Text

 

He had half an hour before the next patrol.

Heracles kept a calm, steady gaze on the Eastern Market Square at the end of the alley, hidden in the shadows of a doorway in a CCTV blindspot he'd found earlier. The city wall loomed over him, over the slums where the residents crowded into one-room huts, trying to give off no signs of life. Anyone caught outside in the lowest level was shot on sight. It was where scum to low-level to execute were evicted, and the people here were considered disposable. Heracles tried to avoid the place, if he could.

He was waiting for someone he hadn’t seen for ten years. 

All he had to go on was a note left on his counter that morning. Anonymous, but in a familiar hand, and telling him to wait here at 10pm, have whatever was left of the rebels ready, and it was probably a trap. But Heracles had dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge, and he just couldn’t walk away from a mystery. He always needed to know more.

Kiku said it was a bad idea, though. Heracles was known to the police. He’d been low down in the rebel ranks, not important enough to punish, just keep an eye on.

Not like his siblings.

Had this been to test if he’d cause trouble, if given the opportunity? Because he would. Though he’d probably just get tortured to death and dumped who knows where.

At least Kiku was safe.

He couldn't be throwing his life away, though. It'd hurt Kiku, in more ways than one. He was being selfish.

“What am I doing here?” he asked himself, scratching the back of his head.

“Waiting for me, I presume,” came a voice from the end of the alley.

Heracles jumped, just suppressing a shout. He turned towards the voice with raised fists, then immediately lowered them.

“Sadik Adnan you bastard,” he murmured, “you’re really back.”

“The one and only,” Sadik winked at him. He was grinning widely, leaning against the wall. Heracles noted a distinct lack of his own siblings. He’d been the only one in the family to escape exile, but his twin sister and younger brother? He’d not seen them in 10 years. One of his closest friends, Muhammad Hassan, had been exiled with them, but only Sadik was left to stand before him.

Sadik’s smile fell.

“Hey, I know you got a bunch of questions and all, but we need to find cover. And I need to get this little man to sleep.” He gestured at his chest, where a small boy nestled in his coat, arms around Sadik’s neck, Sadik cradled him tenderly. The boy wore one of Sadik’s old shirts as a tunic and was wrapped in a frayed blanket.

Heracles’ nephew, he assumed. So, there was at least some family in the city.

“Hestia had the baby, then?”

Sadik nodded. “Just lost sight of the city when she went into labour. This is Kuzey.”

“And where is she? And Stelios? And Hassan?”

Sadik shook his head.

“I see.” A heavy silence fell between them.

Sadik cleared his throat. “Still, I’m here for a reason.

Heracles sighed and got walking. It was a route he'd planned carefully. Less chance of being seen. “We’re going to try again?”

“Yes, and-”

“No. I don’t want to be part of this.”

Kuzey stirred in Sadik’s arms, and a pair of large eyes peeked out from under the blanket.

“Dad?” he mumbled. 

“We’re here, little one,” he muttered, stroking his hair, “we’re in the city. Think you could walk now?”

Kuzey nodded, and he set the boy down. He wrapped his blanket around him like a shawl, and took Sadik’s hand.

“We should get inside before we’re seen,” he insisted, and Heracles rolled his eyes. He lead them down another alley. Sadik kept a firm grip on Kuzey’s hand, and Kuzey huddled against his trousers.

“Back to the old place?” asked Sadik.

“Where else?”

Sadik gave a firm nod. “So, did you find many people?”

“You gave me one day.”

“So… no?”

“You’ll see when you get there.”

Sadik groaned, and Heracles shushed him.

One more corner, and he was home. The bike shed outside the cafe was empty, as was the surrounding square. The ground fell away at one side, into the river, with a short fence stopping people from falling in. Mostly. The building itself was falling apart, forgotten except for the regulars. Even the police didn’t pay much attention, now that the rebels were all but destroyed.

“It’s good to be home,” Sadik sighed.

“It’s my home,” said Heracles, dragging him inside.

The cafe had been scrubbed clean for the next day. The wooden floors beneath their feet were worn and faded, like the panelling on the walls. At the end of the room was a counter, and an empty display shelf for sandwiches and cakes. Behind the counter was the back room, and below the back room was a cellar, where supplies were stored, kept cool by the freezing rock. There was a box in the storage room that hadn’t been moved in ten years, covering a stone slab. That stone slab was the doorway to another world.

“After everything that happened, it feels like home to me,” he smiled, “it’s where my family was.”

“I’m flattered you consider me family, but-”

“I was talking about your sister.”

Heracles flicked his nose. Kuzey kicked him in the shin.

“Don’t be mean!” he squeaked. Heracles cursed and bit back the urge to boot the little bastard across the room. It was mean and besides, Kuzey was all he had left of Hestia.

“Kuzey, don’t kick. We’re in civilisation, now.” Sadik sat on one of the tables. “Where is everyone? Downstairs?”

“Yes, but before we go, please understand, you can use the base, but I don’t want to be running around getting myself killed. I have a life now. Kiku and I got married.” 

“Congratulations,” Sadik gave a nod, “you were allowed?”

“The Emperors go back and forth on the subject. Current one, for all his faults, lets us marry regardless of gender. Guess that means the city was overpopulated.”

“He’s still a tyrant.”

“I know. I’ve known for the past ten years. I’ve known at every rally and execution. Roderich is as set in his ways as his father, but that Empress of his, she has new ideas. New cruelties.”

“They need to go. I don’t care if we exile them, or have to kill the whole lot, but they can’t be left to rule like this. If all the citizens banded together-”

“No. There’s no way you’ll get the whole city on your side.”

Sadik sighed. “I know things didn’t go so well last time,” he looked haunted. Heracles didn’t blame him. “And I know you have every reason not to believe me-”

“I had to watch my mother die,” he glared at him; “I’ve waited all this time for Hestia and Stelios to come back, and I long accepted they’d never… but- well, I'd had hoped... You can’t ask me to do this again. So stop.”

Sadik didn’t stop. “But we’ll recruit more, plan carefully. I’ve had so much time to come up with ideas out there. We will succeed this time!” He looked so hopeful; Heracles wanted to look away. “Please; I just want a better life for Kuzey. He’s been through so much, I just want him to be safe for once.”

Heracles glared at him.

“Things are going to be different, this time,” Sadik promised.

“Shut up.”

“Can you at least tell me if you were able to recruit people?”

“Find out for yourself.” Heracles went out into the back, Sadik picking up a half-asleep Kuzey and following.

Down in the cellar, Sadik strode over to the box he remembered, and the path in the dust where it had been recently moved. They’d need to sweep that up. He pushed the box aside to find a sliver of old rope. It didn’t stand out in the darkness, but he knew what to look for.

Pulling on the rope opened up a trapdoor, revealing a ladder descending down into darkness.

Sadik cast his mind back to his younger days, following Hestia through the ladder to join their parents’ meetings, learning and discussing tactics with the other rebels. Back then, things were exciting, the consequences for failing nonexistent in their minds. It wasn’t a game, but he didn’t take it as seriously as his father did. And he didn’t think he’d ever see him executed.

But now this was all or nothing. He had to take his place, be strong, and save the city. And avenge everyone he lost. It had been almost fun, stewing in the desert, planning and dreaming of the day when he finally saw that tyrant, and his entire court of rich jokers, executed. He was going to kill Roderich personally.

He climbed down the ladder. At the bottom, Heracles passed down a sleeping Kuzey before shutting the trapdoor and following. 

The three of them - Kuzey in Sadik’s arms - wandered down a dim corridor, deeper and deeper down into the earth, lit only by a series of tiny, tiny lights on the floor. The corridors were built to be winding, all looking the same and easy to get lost in. Even if someone discovered their base, it would be nearly impossible to navigate, unless they had a mole helping them. Plans and secrets would stay hidden, and any group of soldiers or guards would have to go two at a time, split up to cover all the branches of the base, and be easily picked off in the dark. Well, that was the theory anyway.

One turn, and then another, and Sadik found himself outside the meeting room. It was a place he’d always felt safe in, as well as so electrically alive. They’d talked about murdering the emperor there. Planned a hundred ways for this omnipotent family to die.

“Everyone in there?” he asked. Heracles nodded. 

“Great,” Sadik’s smile fell ever so slightly. “Is it okay if I put the little one to bed first?” It had been years since he was around people. What if he’d gone feral? What if he didn’t know how to talk to that many other humans?

“Of course. You remember where the bunks are?”

Sadik nodded and made his way down the corridor. One turning, and he’d reached a section dedicated to spare rooms. Sometimes it was too dangerous to go home, whether it was curfews or storms or crackdowns by the Shadow Police, and he and Hestia would curl up in a bed, safe in their own little cocoon, with Heracles grumbling to himself in the bunk below. 

The room was as he remembered it, besides the dust. There were several rows of bunks with a bookshelf in the corner, donated by Hestia's mother, Mrs Karpusi. Sadik had read every book, once Heracles had stopped hogging them all.

He couldn’t wait to explore the old place, but there would be time for that later. He would have so, so much time. It wasn’t like he or Kuzey could leave again. Sadik was a wanted man, even if the authorities were not yet aware of his return; he couldn’t just apply for a flat for the two of them. But compared to how he’d lived in the desert, this place was practically a palace.

He placed Kuzey in the nearest bunk. The boy opened an eye, staring at him in confusion.

“Hey, Little Man,” Sadik kissed his forehead, “get lots of rest; you’ve had a long journey.”

Kuzey closed his eye and was asleep within minutes.

Sadik smiled at the child before leaving as quietly as he could. Making his way back to the meeting room, he stopped at the doors to compose himself. Could he speak to all these people? He hadn’t spoken to another adult since Hestia died. They would probably think he was uncivilised. Stupid. They’d leave and give him up to the shadow police. Or forget this ever happened and he and Kuzey would be left down here to rot. But he could never convince them to risk their lives. He wasn’t his father. He had the voice, but not the commanding presence.

He smoothed down his hair, puffed out his chest, and opened the door.

The meeting room was a large hall, with a stage at the far end. In the middle of the room, a bulky, steel table stood. Sadik didn’t know whether to be disheartened or relieved that only five seats were occupied.

He silently walked across the room, studying the five with interest. He put on his best, most calculating face, squaring his jaw. There was Heracles, of course, and Sadik recognised two of the four new faces. Kiku sat next to Heracles and watched him with interest. Next to them was young Arthur Kirkland, the only person not to have been in conversation before he entered. A bowler hat sat on the table in front of him, and he awkwardly scratched his eyebrow. He and Sadik had known each other back in the old days, and he’d consider Arthur a friend. 

The final two sat huddled together, one scruffy and rat-like with a tiny hat and long fingers tapping the table. The other was older and tired, possibly homeless, or from the lowest level.

Sadik took his seat at the head of the table and cleared his throat.

“So, Heracles, want to explain to me how we’re gonna overthrow the Emperor with just six people?”

Heracles met his glare. “I repeat, you gave me a day’s notice.”

“We can begin a recruitment campaign tomorrow,” said Kiku, “I assure you we’ll find more people.”

“So, you’ve really been outside the city?” asked the rat-looking guy.

“That’s right.”

The two strangers exchanged glances.

“What’s it like?” asked the other one. 

Rat Man’s eyes shone. “What did you see? Are there other people? I heard there’s animals out there. Are they big?”

“Who are these guys?” Sadik hissed at Heracles.

“Allow us to introduce ourselves,” Rat Man put a hand on his chest. “Call me Alin Radacanu. And this is my very good friend: Tsvetan Borisov. So, what’s it like on the outside?”

Sadik sighed. “No good to live in, so we’d never be able to escape and survive out there, if that’s what you mean.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It’s a dead, barren wasteland. Desert. There’s no people, and I travelled to every corner. No resources, either, so it’s not like there could be people. I barely scraped through, never settling, just moving from place to place to find something to eat. There are beasts, yes, but they’re wild. Vicious. It’s a life on the edge.” He shook his head. “The city’s the safest place for us. Or, it will be once he have some basic rights.”

“So that’s what we’re fighting for then,” asked Heracles, raising an eyebrow, “our rights?”

“Indeed we are!” Sadik stood up, walking over to the stage and scrambling up. He could make a big speech! His father used to do so many, all moving and resounding and able to make a person believe anything was possible. “Because every one of us deserves our freedom! The right to live as human beings, and be treated with dignity. To not be killed or imprisoned for no reason, to criticise the government and not have our families pay for it! Our mission is to restore democracy, true democracy, and protect it!”

“Demo-what?” asked Alin.

“Democracy! We will vote for our leaders, and they will maintain peace, and if we don’t like what they stand for, we vote ‘em out! No torture, no executions, no police abuse! And no fucking royal family!”

Arthur clapped, Kiku, Alin and Tsvetan soon joining in. Sadik took a dramatic bow and jumped off the stage. It was probably too short. Too concise and not enough solid plans.

“You have my loyalty,” said Arthur.

“Thank you, friend,” Sadik clapped his shoulder. “So, not convinced the rest of your family to come back, then? Where’s your mother?”

Arthur looked down. “It’s been too long since we last met. There were raids. Arrests. They went after my family. My siblings were more heavily involved and their executions were already arranged. Hector, well, you know what he was like, a fight broke out. He didn’t want the police taking the others, and he wasn't coming quietly, but you can’t win against guns.” He ran a hand through his hair. “My youngest brother and I were the only survivors, because I hid us under the bed like a little bitch. I was tortured, Peter…”

“Children of those executed were rounded up and sent to the mines,” Kiku filled in, “I doubt any lasted long.”

Arthur was very quiet.

Sadik had liked Arthur’s family. He’d been a close friend of his sister, Muirgheal. “I’m so, so sorry-”

“Save your pity. I’m here to fight. There is nothing left to take from me, so I have no reason to fear anyone.”

“I will fight too,” said Kiku, to Heracles’ dismay, “you are a good friend, and will follow where you go.”

“What about you, new guys?”

“For painful reasons Alin Radacanu and Tsvetan Borisov would like to withhold, we also want in,” said Alin Radacanu.

Heracles sighed. “After some consideration, I think it would be hard to use this place as your base if I was not somewhat affiliated. I won’t be storming the palace anytime soon, but I suppose I’m already in enough trouble that actually listening to you won’t make it worse.”

“Thank you,” Sadik gave a smile that wasn’t returned.

Alin coughed awkwardly. “I must ask, how did you do it? Sneak back into the city?”

“Well,” said Sadik, “you know the plant that cleans the river water and filters out all the waste in the pipes?”

“Yes?”

“And you know how the waste is dumped outside the city via a massive pipe?”

“Yes?”

“Do you not see where this is going?”

Alin winced. “Oh. Nice.”

“Yeah. Luckily, this place has spare clothing, if I remember right. Spare everything. It’s too late to be trying to make your way home now, but there’s beds here. Get plenty of rest; the real work begins tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Feliciano hated getting up. He scrunched up his eyes in protest at the bright light. He didn’t want to go to school; he wanted to go back to sleep then spend the day lazing in the sun. But, any second now, his brothers would start talking like they were on opposite ends of the house, despite being meters away, and sleep would be impossible.

He was surprised he couldn’t already hear them.

Had he woken up early, for once? Lovino had a few choice words for when that happened.

Now that he thought about it, he was pretty uncomfortable. And damp.

He bolted up, fear trickling over him like the mystery liquid. He’d wet the bed! This was so unfair! He hadn’t wet the bed in at least 4 years, and now, of all nights, when he was sharing a bed and everything-

Oh.

He pulled back the covers.

Ludwig had wet the bed.

Feliciano didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to be mad, not after seeing the state Ludwig had been in, and this wouldn’t help how he was feeling. He hadn’t said a word to anyone, jumped at every little thing, didn’t want anyone touching him. Even now, he was on the edge of the bed, up against the wall, shaking in his sleep, brow furrowed. Every time Feliciano had brushed against him in his sleep, he’d flinched.

And now this.

He gently shook him awake.

“Hey, Ludwig?” For once in his life, he kept his voice a whisper. “You’ve had an accident; we need to get you cleaned up.”

Ludwig blinked in confusion, then it hit him. He scrambled up to the headboard, away from the puddle, curled up on himself, and maybe sobbed. Maybe he held actual tears back, but all Feliciano could see was a pair of shaking shoulders.

“Hey, hey it’s okay, friendo,” Feliciano patted his back, “it happens. It’s okay. We’ll get your stuff washed and get some breakfast and forget all about it, sound good?” He gave Ludwig a bright smile, and Ludwig nodded miserably in return.

“No one will ever know.” Feliciano got him up and stripped the streets, sneaking out into the hall. Luckily, his brothers, and the twins, were heavy sleepers. They passed the cupboard where Angelique slept under the boiler, and snuck into the bathroom.

“It’s a good thing everyone else is as lazy as I am; lots of privacy.” He smiled as he loaded the washing machine. Ludwig didn’t respond, tears streaming down his face that he tried to wipe away.

“Nothing to be ashamed of, but you might need to strip.”

Ludwig didn’t look too happy about that.

“I need to wash the pyjamas.” Feliciano took his off. "We have towels if you want," he added, when Ludwig still hadn't made any move to strip.

"You get your clothes in there, I'll fetch a change for you." 

Ludwig took his soiled pyjamas off and hid behind the shower curtain, a pair of towels wrapped around him.

"Oh good idea!" Chirped Feliciano the moment he came back. "Get showered. I got you a shorts and shirt." No reply. He turned on the machine. "I'll get started on breakfast."

 


 


Lovino dipped his sore feet into the river water. Fuck the heat. Actually, that was a lie. He loved the heat and the sun, but he hated walking on metal. Who decided the city was supposed to be built out of metal? His shoes stopped him from blistering, but it was still like walking on coal.

“So how’s life with the Bonnefoys?” asked Isabel.

“Awful. Crowded. Smelly.” Replied Lovino, “the twins are alright though.”

“Any hot ones?” she asked, sitting next to him and dipping her own feet in the water.

“Are you ever not horny?” 

“Never.”

Lovino rolled his eyes, “I don’t know if they’re hot; they’re my cousins, fuck’s sake!”

“Coward. There’s never more than a million people in this city at one point. We’re all a little related at this point.”

Lovino wrinkled his nose, exchanging a glance with Xavier. “Thanks, I was hoping to fall amazingly in love at some point, but that’s always gonna be in my mind now.”

“Aw, suffer.”

“Where’s Adriaan?” asked Xavier, “why hasn’t he graced us with his complete and utter lack of charisma.”

“At work,” replied Isabel, “a concept foreign to you two.”

Xavier looked at her. “You’re unemployed too. Besides, there may be a position in a factory with my name on it.”

“So much for waiting til September.”

“Yeah, but you know all the good jobs will be gone soon. This one’s working in an ice treats parlour. I mean, if I gotta do something, I’d like that.”

“I guess.” Maybe Lovino shouldn’t be a jealous bitch over his friends actually having interests and direction, but he was going to be a jealous bitch anyway.

“I wonder if I could get a job at the palace,” said Isabel, and Lovino nearly fell in the river.

“What?” cried Xavier; “are you insane?”

Lovino looked at her like she was. “You know those people are,” he glanced around, “evil. No servant of theirs ever sees retirement.”

“I just want to see real flowers,” she explained, “I could if I worked in the palace gardens. I heard there’s beautiful flowers growing there. Adriaan told me.”

“Yeah, but you have to be one of the nobility to even get close to the palace,” said Lovino.

“Then I’ll find me a noble,” said Isabel, wiggling her eyebrows.

“But-” Lovino decided not to mention the unlikely chances of a noble even looking her way. Everyone was allowed to dream.

“You’re too good for some poncy lord or politician,” Xavier told her bluntly.

“Well aren’t you-” Isabel stopped, looking past Xavier. “Wait, who’s that?”

Out next to the bridge, at the top of the steep steps leading to the street above, was a man with incredible sunburn, bright red limbs poking out of a shorts and shirt.

“Oh shit, he looks freaky,” Lovino hissed. “How much as he heard?”

“Think he’s part of the shadow police?” asked Isabel, clutching his hand.

“Nah, they have uniforms and stuff,” Xavier tried to reassure her.

“Maybe he’s undercover.”

Lovino looked at the stranger. He stared back.

“Nah, that’s crazy. Come on now, we’re not doing anything wrong.” Saying stuff that was, but not, technically, doing.

“Never stopped them from arresting anyone,” said Xavier, “take ‘em away for some questioning. Might be released. Probably not.”

Xavier nudged him with his foot; “shit! He’s coming over to us!”

“Act natural,” said Lovino, “act innocent.”

“Which?”

The strange man sat down between him and Isabel. They both shuffled away.

“Hello all,” he nodded at them, “may I join you?”

“Why?” asked Isabel.

The stranger shrugged. “You seem interesting. Thought I might sit and listen. What are you talking about?"

"Nothing," said Lovino quickly. 

For once in his life, he wished Adriaan was there. He always knew how to act in the presence of authority figures. He'd be able to speak for them here.

"Doesn't sound like nothing."

"We're not breaking the law," said Xavier. Lovino wanted to kick him.

"I never doubted that for a second." The stranger scratched his head. "Would you like to?"

"What do you mean?" Lovino eyed him suspiciously. This was a trap. "We obey. We care about the law."

"Do you?" The stranger raised an eyebrow. He jerked a thumb at the wall. "That poster. Your work?"

It was one of the Emperor. He was all regal, dressed in more jewels than Lovino would see in his lifetime. Feliciano had drawn a moustache on it. Not an act of rebellion, he'd just been bored. And Lovino wasn't going to grass on his brother.

"That's ridiculous," Isabel wrinkled her nose.

“I won’t say anything,” said the Stranger, “but I like that you have an eye for trouble. Mischief. Maybe even rebellion.”

Lovino leaned closer. “What do you mean?”

“Would you say you’re satisfied with life?”

“What do you mean?”

Arthur glanced around. “You guys seem young. Smart. You have your entire futures ahead of you, like thousands of other young people. But who’s to say you have a future here. Want to change things? Make life better? Less… oppressive?”

“That’s impossible,” said Xavier flatly. Rehearsed. “This is the way things have always been, and always will be.”

“It doesn’t have to be. You can help make it different.”

“No thanks,” growled Adriaan from behind them.

The four jumped, wheeling round to find him looming over them, furious. He recognised the stranger, Lovino could tell. He looked scared too; it wasn’t a reassuring expression. 

“You’re not dragging my sister into this, Kirkland,” he spat, grabbing Isabel’s wrist. 

“Ad-”

“Trust me, it’s for your own good.” He yanked her up. “Please, just come with me. I can’t tell you two what to do,” he added at the boys, “but if you had any sense, you’d walk away from this.” He stormed off, dragging Isabel behind him.

Isabel scratched at her brother’s arm. “Hey, what’s the big idea?”

“Arthur’s trouble. He’s only gonna get you in trouble.”

“I can make my own decisions!”

“Just trust me here,” Adriaan finally let go, wheeling round. “I’m begging you, stay away from him. He’s gonna get you killed.”

Isabel saw the pleading in his eyes, heard the quiver in his voice. Adriaan never got like this, about anything. She sighed. “I see. Fine, fine. I’ll be good.”

 


 

 

Adriaan left a scene of stunned silence under the bridge.

“Well,” began Arthur, “that was… unfortunate. Still, what do you two say?” 

“What are you getting at, exactly?” Lovino liked doing the exact opposite of what Adriaan wanted him to do, and it wasn’t like he’d been helpful with this guy, just leaving them behind to look after his sister. Maybe he was curious now. He’d been told not to do something, and now he wanted to do it.”

Arthur brought his voice down to a whisper. “I’m talking revolution.”

Revolution. A word so forbidden Lovino had never dared think it before. He tingled with anticipation.

“Sounds a little risky,” said Xavier, glancing at Lovino for help.

Arthur leaned in. “It is, but imagine a world without him. Without any of them.”

Incomprehensible. The Emperor was eternal.

“If we got enough people on our side, if we managed to pull this off, everyone could be free. Safe. I really think we can do it, but we need people.”

This was ridiculous. They’d be found out within hours and killed. And then their entire family. And that was before considering the prospect of this all being some set up to trick them into dissident behaviour. 

Xavier spoke first.

“Sure, why not? What about you, Lovi?”

He shrugged. “I’m not letting you be stupid on your own. And what have I got to lose?”