The Apple

by Caro

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Steven Baum

Aphrodite gave a melodramatic sigh knowing that it would gain the attention of at least one of the other goddesses in the room. Slyly she raised her eyes even as she kept her head lowered - perfect, the jock, Artemis was looking her way. "I just don’t know what to do." Aphrodite pouted, "The flowers are overflowing at my Temples and all those petitions claiming undying love for me. Men just can’t seem to resist me." Turning to her companions as if genuinely curious she asked them, "How do you manage to keep them at bay all the time? You’re so clever."

At that Athena looked up from her book and frowned, "What are you talking about Aphrodite?"

"Well, I mean, it’s just so distracting, all these men following a girl around like little dogs with their tongues hanging out - don’t you think?"

Neither Artemis nor Athena wanted to admit that they had no experience of having men trailing behind them, tongues lolling, so they just nodded wisely and kept their silence.

Aphrodite continued, "I know! It’s just so tedious isn’t it? But of course it isn’t as bad for either of you - I mean you’re both lovely of course, but -" Deliberately leaving the rest of the thought hanging Aphrodite picked up a trinket from the mantle beside her and pretended a fascination with it. Inwardly she smiled.

Athena rolled her eyes, she could tell that her little sister was up to something, most likely a bit of ego-boosting self promotion but she didn’t want to get sucked in to the game. Artemis however didn’t have the same level of patience and rose to the bait. Bristling she said, "But what? Just because you’re goddess of love doesn’t make you more beautiful that us! You’re all soft and full of air, not much entertainment for a real man."

"Oooh now, bitchy, bitchy." Aphrodite feigned shock, "In my experience dear, men like soft, and I’ll have you know I’m more entertainment than most men can handle."

Athena couldn’t keep quiet, "Stop reducing this to the mud-puddle, if we’re talking about beauty and not your ability to entertain - which I am sure is vast - then you cannot discount the depths of intellect. Beauty as you know is not merely skin deep, beauty lies in the soul itself. It is an all-round ability to understand the world and interpret what you see, it isn’t merely an upturned nose or a pert mouth it is knowledge and wisdom as well as an attractive façade."

Aphrodite appeared thoughtful for a moment, she tilted her head on one side and narrowed her eyes, "No, it’s no use. If I think any longer I’m going to get wrinkles, and that would never do. Are you saying that you’re more beautiful than me?" the goddess managed to sound both hurt and amazed by the tone of her question.

Athena and Artemis answered in unison, "Yes!"

The three goddesses squabbled for some time before it was suggested that they go to Zeus and he could decide which of them was most beautiful. Athena thought it had been her idea, after all she was the most intelligent; Artemis thought it had been her idea, after all she was the most practical. Aphrodite knew it had been her idea, after all everyone underestimated her - and she liked it that way.

Zeus, just as Aphrodite had known he would, dismissed the three, irritated at being distracted. He was currently attempting to win a pretty little thing down Athens way, and he was at a very delicate stage in the proceedings. "Go get someone else to chose children, and stop bothering me!" he roared at them.

Aphrodite was a great actress and she pouted prettily until innocently allowing Artemis to suggest that the contest would be fairer if a mortal could judge which of them he found most beautiful.

Athena agreed readily, "Yes, he’ll be neutral having never seen any of us before. But we must set some ground rules before approaching a mortal." She listed several rather sensible suggestions, which the others bickered over for only a very short time before agreeing.

Artemis suggested going to a city, but that was too crowded for Athena’s tastes, "We can’t let too many of them see us. This should be kept private."

Aphrodite smiled sweetly and said, "Why don’t we see if there are any men fishing at the bay below old Sidon’s place. I’ll go surfing there and check the place out. If everything is okay we can all meet up there."

The two others couldn’t find fault with the plan and found themselves reluctantly agreeing.

Waves were still rolling heavily onto the shallow shelf of the bay but they were nothing like the huge monsters of the previous afternoon. The air was clean and bracing full of the fresh-washed feel of the after-storm.

Hercules lay on his stomach on the firm wet sand, wearing only his breechclout he was sleeping late into the morning. Exhausted from the previous day’s life and death exertions, he lay where he had fallen sometime in the early hours of the morning.

The incoming tide slowly crept up on his position, softening the sand beneath his hands, pulling it from beneath him, but his exhausted sleep could not be pierced by the sea, it took something stronger.

"Woohoo-hoo!! Ho! Whoa!" The delight in the familiar voice found cracks in his sleep filled brain, and slowly Hercules rose through the layers of fuddled dreaming. Still more asleep than awake Hercules grumbled, "How’s he do it? Can’t he be normal and sleep?"

Groaning Hercules finally slit open his eyes, wincing at the bright sunlight reflecting off of wet sand, and at the infectious sounds of pure joy. Iolaus’ whoops and calls for Hercules to see what he was doing finally becoming motivation enough to fully awaken.

Rolling on to his back and leaning back on his elbows Hercules squinted and watched his friend as he cavorted on the waves, on the waves? How …? But then Hercules noticed the board that Iolaus was expertly riding the waves with. Whooping and laughing with glee, the hunter stood on the man-length of driftwood and let it take him through another wave. He, too, was clad in only his small blue breechclout and sea-water glistened on his tanned torso. ‘Good thing there’s no women here. He’d be mobbed.’ Hercules thought to himself as he watched.

It would have saved a lot of trouble later if Hercules had heard the peal of laughter and the hiccoughing giggles that followed, he would have recognised his sister’s voice and many things would have happened differently.

But Aphrodite was careful not to let her half-brother become aware that she was watching, this was just too delectable; Hercules lay there, wet sand sticking to his chest and legs as he reclined lazily watching his friend. Ah yes, little Iolaus, best friend to her brother, an interesting man made more so by the way that Hercules had always managed to keep him from her.

Admittedly her half-mortal sibling had never wanted much to do with any of the gods, but they’d met in passing more than a few times over the years. He’d always managed to steer the conversation away from his friend. But Aphrodite was intrigued, she’d received enough petitions over the years relating to Iolaus to know that mortal women found him irresistible, and when she’d seen how he had managed to find a chink in Xena’s armour she had become determined to meet him and find out for herself just what was so special about him.

She’d had enough of Ares strutting about telling all and sundry that Hercules’ best friend belonged to him, complete rubbish as everyone knew, just because a man is a good warrior … from the attention Iolaus got in so many women’s prayers Aphrodite thought that at least part of him belonged to her. She giggled again, as she thought of exactly what part of Iolaus’ anatomy should belong to her.

Aphrodite returned her attention to the scrying pool, sighing in appreciation of the sight of both men’s muscled and nearly naked bodies.

Hercules turned his head to try and follow just how the fit blond had managed to stand on his head on a board in the sea, making himself dizzy in the process. Finally, having noticed that Hercules was watching him, Iolaus let a wave bring him safely back to the beach. Laughing and breathless he danced off of the board and shook droplets of water from his hair.

The hunter had never felt quite so energised; the rush of riding over and through the huge waves was incredible. It felt like he was flying, the weight of life’s struggles gone. He wanted to get back out there; he wanted Hercules to get out there with him. He wanted to fly again, to be free, more completely and totally free than he had ever thought possible. Free even of earth’s binding.

"Hey Herc! Did you see that? It was fantastic. I mean - I was actually riding the wave!"

Hercules remembered their desperate struggle for survival in the stormy sea on the previous afternoon and wondered at the resilience and sheer joy that his companion always managed to show. Trying to quell the exuberance and still feeling somewhat grumpy from having been woken he said, "Yeah, it was amazing. You woke me up just to show me that?"

Iolaus barely controlling his excitement was almost jumping up and down beside the demigod who had finally groaned his way to his feet. "Yeah! It was great! I mean - this is gonna - I mean, people are gonna want to do this! This is really good!"

Hercules couldn’t hide his scepticism when he replied trying to stem the flow of babble from his friend’s mouth, "Io - Iolaus, you rode a piece of wood - on a wave. I mean -"

Iolaus was oblivious to Hercules’ bad temper, still on a high from his newly discovered game, "Yeah!"

Aphrodite watched and gave a little shake of the head, "Oh come on bro don’t spoil his fun. Lighten up!"

But Hercules wasn’t ready yet to lighten up, they’d nearly died only a few hours before in the waters around this beach, he’d been convinced that Iolaus was lost and now he had to watch his friend risking his life on those waves for the fun of it. But most of all, he really couldn’t understand what the appeal was. "You really think this is gonna catch on and become popular?"

Suddenly Iolaus began to doubt the rush of joy he’d had on the waves, it was a bit stupid when he thought about it. "Well, I - I -"

"I mean, really!" Hercules laughed and shook his head as he looked down at his friend, Iolaus’ bright smile had dropped from his face and Hercules felt a small stab of guilt, but it was better he see the truth.

"Uh, I guess not." Iolaus let his shoulders drop in disappointment.

"Well, now that I’m awake we probably should get going. I told King Sidon we’d be there in time for lunch."

But Iolaus hadn’t quite shaken off the feeling of freedom he’d felt on the waves and he wanted to hold on to it for a little while longer. He said, "You know what? I’ve got a really great feeling about this place. I want to stay here and do some fishing."

Hercules’ sense of responsibility was, as ever, at the fore, "What about the wedding?"

"Well, it’s not for a couple of days. And anyway, they’re your friends. I mean, I ‘hardly’ know them!"

Seeing that Iolaus was determined this time and still feeling a little bit guilty Hercules smiled and said, "All right. I suppose one of us should have some fun."

The two friends stood at the edge of the surf with foam rushing over their bare toes, and laughed. Both men wished that the moment could stay just a little longer; it was one of those perfect times, a snapshot for memory to encase and hold dear forever. The company of your best friend, the sound of the sea, the feel of the salt water on your skin, the wet sand between your toes and the warmth of the sun on your firm healthy strong flesh.

Aphrodite sighed, "What a party-pooper." She pouted, never letting her gaze stray from her brother’s blond companion. "Oh you are so cute! And just exactly what I need, you’ll do fine sweet-cheeks." She smiled and licked her delicate pink lips as her eyes roamed over the firm muscled body of the hunter. She watched as drops of water found their way in snaking tracks down honey skin and appreciated the way the band of blue wrapped around his hips and hugged him wetly, her eyes lingered for a long moment on his rear, "Oh, aren’t they just." Giggling she continued to watch until her eye-candy was no longer on view and the two men had begun to dress themselves. It was time to put her plan in motion.

Jason was restless, he couldn’t settle to any task and he found himself staring out of his window yearning for fresh air and freedom. But after all he’d been through to retrieve the Golden Fleece and his sense of self-worth he couldn’t just abandon his duties here, not now.

Sighing he returned his attention to the parchments that lay before him and picked up his quill. Signing his name and sealing the documents he leaned back in his chair once more, this was no good. He may be sober now but he wasn’t doing a very good job at being King. Suddenly he grinned; he knew what he was going to do.

Still grinning, the King called for his advisors. It was about time he got out of the palace and was seen, it was time to do a bit of visiting, and if he should just happen past a certain cottage on his travels, why then it would be downright rude not to pay his respects to the lady that lived there.

Feeling a heavy weight lift from his heart, Jason began to plan just how he would slip free of the royal guard for an hour or two when the time came.

Hercules finished lacing his boot and stood to watch his partner shoulder his fishing rod, "I never though I’d be glad to see Hilos or Delos again."

Iolaus had decided to leave his vest off; he wanted to make the most of the hot sun. He checked his rod even as he chuckled in response and said, "How can two kingdoms hate each other so much for so long?"

"Hate’s like anything else. After awhile, it becomes a habit."

Iolaus took a moment to think about his friend’s words, "Oh. You really think this marriage is going to bring peace?" Iolaus couldn’t believe that the two King’s would be able to hang up their swords after living with so much hatred, but if Hercules believed that they could then he was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt himself.

"Well, let’s hope so. It’ll be nice to be a guest for once, instead of a referee. You, uh - sure you don’t want to come?" Hercules looked down at Iolaus hopefully, he didn’t exactly relish the prospect of becoming a referee at the supposedly happy occasion, but he knew from experience that it was unlikely that things would progress smoothly.

Iolaus grinned, this time Hercules wasn’t going to guilt him into changing his mind. "Oh, yeah." He said with feeling.

"You know, there’s that lunch and then tomorrow’s the dinner with the groom, and -" Hercules tried to keep the whine out of his voice but he wasn’t entirely successful.

Iolaus grinned and shook his head interrupting the demigod’s plea, "Herc!"

Knowing that he’d been defeated Hercules gave a dramatic sigh, "Yeah, well, I’m off." He said and without saying goodbye turned away towards the castle perched atop the cliffs. His step was heavy he really wasn’t looking forward to doing this and to have to go alone was going to make the next couple of days very dull.

Iolaus smiled again, and said a quick and cheerful, "Bye" before turning back towards the surf; this should be a very good place for sea fishing.

It didn’t take Hercules very long to climb the steep track up the hill that edged the bay, the castle looked even more imposing from here and he took a final look down to the sand below, catching sight of two small figures at the sea’s edge. One of them had to be Iolaus. ‘He’s got the right idea.’ But Hercules didn’t begrudge Iolaus the break, he worked just as hard as the demigod and though he never complained - well, never seriously complained, Hercules knew that neither one of them got much time to relax. Sometimes, even Hercules got tired, where Iolaus found his energy from Hercules would never understand. He thought back to the early morning and smiled, Iolaus was crazy to think that anyone else would want to play that insane stunt on the sea!

Gearing himself up to play the friendly diplomat, Hercules entered the castle. He stepped back in surprise and a little alarm at the blast he received in each ear from the shell horns that were being used to announce arriving guests. Recovering from the shock of his welcome Hercules was soon overcome by the cacophony of sounds and sights that surrounded him. Servants carried trays laden with sweetmeats and tankards, music was playing discordantly to one side of the large room and Hercules scanned the faces surrounding him desperately seeking a familiar one. It was with relief that he finally spotted King Sidon approach him with outstretched arms. The two men exchanged a hug and King Sidon said, "Hercules, in the name of our great goddess, Artemis, welcome. Welcome to Hilos."

His ears still ringing from the blast of noise Hercules replied, "King Sidon, I didn’t expect such a royal reception."

Sidon’s rotund belly shook as he clapped Hercules on the back and turned him away from the entrance, "Well, it’s only fitting. If it hadn’t been for you none of this would have been possible."

Hercules was as always, uncomfortable with the praise being heaped on him and tried to get the King to see reason, "Well thanks, but Thera and Epius fell in love on their own."

"Now, you are too modest. If you hadn’t taught me the value of forgiveness I would have destroyed Delos years ago."

Hercules gave a wry smile, and said, "As I recall, you tried several times."

The king brushed off the comment, "Ancient history, ancient history. No, my only interest now is my daughter’s happiness, even if it does mean with, uh," Sidon cleared his throat and unable to say the name concluded with distaste, "one of those."

Out of King Sidon’s sight another man was making his way towards them, dressed in regal blue he was the complete opposite of Sidon, tall where Sidon was short, slim where Sidon was well-padded and with a full and rather intimidating beard where Sidon’s chubby round face was clean shaven. He hailed the most recently arrived guest with a hearty greeting, "Hercules!"

Recognising the voice, Sidon’s face screwed up into a sneer, and muttered under his breath, "Speaking of which."

Hercules had known that this was going to be a wearing visit but he really had hoped that the two monarchs would at least make an effort to be civil with each other - for their children’s sakes. Pasting on a diplomat’s smile he returned the greeting. "King Diadorus, it’s good to see you."

King Diadorus looked at Hercules speculatively, "Something’s not right." Then spotting a serving girl whose arms were filled with floral wreaths he grabbed one and placed it over Hercules’ head. "Yes. That’s better. Thanks for coming. My son’s wedding wouldn’t have been the same without you, although in the name of Athena, you’d have got a better greeting on Delos."

He laughed as if conspiring with Hercules, the demigod gave an inward groan and waited for Sidon to realise that he’d just been insulted - to his face.

Sidon spluttered for a moment before saying, "Wha-wha-uh, sorry, what did you say?"

Seeing Hercules’ disapproving glare Diadorus sighed, he’d forgotten how much he felt like a naughty school boy being upbraided by his teacher whenever Hercules was about, "Uh, nothing, I said, uh, it’s good meeting here on Hilos."

"Are you going to stand there talking’ to those two old fools all day, or are you gonna come and say hello to the bride and groom?"

Hercules hadn’t noticed the approaching pair, and he turned to greet the soon to be newlyweds with great pleasure. Epius looked handsome in a blue outfit that complimented his blue eyes and his bride to be, Thera was radiant in her muted brown outfit. Hercules wondered distractedly whether they realised that even their clothing mirrored their parents and the differences between the two kingdoms, brown for Hilos and blue for Delos.

"Thera!" the three exchanged happy greetings before Thera looked towards her father and King Diadorus, "Are these two behaving themselves?"

Hercules exchanged a knowing smile with her before saying, "That may take a little time." A passing servant with a tray laden with goblets filled with ruby red wine was waylaid by King Sidon and the five companions all took a glass. "The important thing is that you two love each other, and with this marriage and the treaty, it’s the dawn of a new age, to peace!"

Five glasses were raised and touched together, the young fiancées echoing Hercules’ toast, the two fathers sputtering until Diadorus came up with an acceptable alternative, "To the kids!" Not wanting to be upstaged, Sidon quickly added his, "The kids!"

Iolaus had been content to stand at the water’s edge with his rod firmly braced against his thigh, the sun was hot and his skin covered with a fine perspiration, the sound of the rolling waves crashing onto the sand had eased his thoughts and relaxed any tensions he had left in his body; he ‘had’ been content with that, but that was earlier - he’d been stood here for too long with nothing to show for it.

The fisherman that stood beside him had arrived on the beach not long after Hercules’ departure that morning. The two men had exchanged no more than a brief greeting before getting down to the serious business of fishing, both men too caught up in their own thoughts, but now Iolaus turned to his companion to share his misery, "What am I doing? There’s no fish here." Seeing the slightest touch of a grin on the older man’s face, shaded by a battered hat, Iolaus glanced downward and groaned. It just wasn’t his day today; at the fisherman’s feet was a pile of big, healthy succulent fish. Sometimes the gods conspired against him, nobody could be this unlucky naturally.

Iolaus had to ask, "Got special bait?" the man’s grin widened slightly as he gave a small shake of the head. Not a one for small talk was this one, fishing was a serious business.

Iolaus puffed out his cheeks and exhaled a big sigh, someone was definitely conspiring. He acknowledged the response with what he hoped was a knowledgeable sounding, "Ah." Then muttered, "I should have gone to that stupid wedding."

Inwardly he was weighing up the benefits of leaving now or sticking it out. If he left now Hercules would want to know why and then he’d have to explain that the fish weren’t biting and the demigod wouldn’t be able to resist teasing him, if he waited then he’d have to stay and watch this guy catch all the fish. "And I had a good feeling about this place - remind me never to follow a feeling."

Iolaus was about to drop his rod when he felt a tug, his eyes swept across the sea but he couldn’t see the telltale signs of a fish running. The line started tugging harder and he grinned. Finally! He was going to show that other guy some real fishing now! But even as he was trying to get the other man’s attention the rod pulled harder. "What in the name of Poseidon?" He found his feet slipping across wet sand and he was fighting the fishing rod. Iolaus wondered whether maybe he’d got himself a shark on the line, he hoped it wasn’t one of Poseidon’s children that would be more trouble than he needed.

Taking a calming breath Iolaus turned so that the rod was over his shoulder and started trying to haul it back up the beach, it seemed to be working and he made progress until suddenly there was no resistance and the line twanged. It had broken. Disappointed but curious Iolaus scanned the surface of the sea hoping to get a glance of the one that got away.

The two men stood in silence, watching as a huge clam shell broke the surface of the water. It bobbed there for a few seconds before it slowly began to open. Unconsciously the men leaned forward in tandem, trying to see what could be inside.

What they saw was a shimmer of pink and a halo of golden curls as the most gorgeous creature Iolaus had ever seen unfolded herself. Stretching in a way that she knew would make most mortal men lose the power of speech, Aphrodite smiled broadly. She was going to give Iolaus a show he would never forget. She laughed gleefully as she stood extending a long leg from behind her diaphanous skirts; she posed a moment before stretching her slim arms and taking strong hold of the shell. Expertly she turned the whole thing into the wind and let it take her. Letting her head fall back and enjoying the sensations of speed and freedom in the salty air Aphrodite could feel her audience’s stunned silence.

On the shore two men’s jaws dropped as they watched the goddess of love’s emergence from the clam shell and when she began posing and throwing her head back two fishing rods fell forgotten to the sand. Iolaus couldn’t frame a thought; his mind was too full of pink laughing beauty for him to be able to do more than gawp. He’d feel embarrassed at his inability to respond in a more effective way later, right now his mind was too shocked and his body too busy sending him all kinds of signals.

Aphrodite knew the reaction she was causing and revelled in it, both as a boost to her ego and in the knowledge that her plan was coming together perfectly. Now she’d get the chance to see what this Iolaus guy was like for herself, instead of having to watch from afar. She laughed again and pulled her wind-chariot through the waves even faster, shouted in to the wind, "Tubular!"

Jason was not happy; this wasn’t how he’d envisaged his little foray into the countryside. He sat astride his horse flanked by two rows of the King’s Royal Guard and preceded by two more, behind him followed the remaining guards, effectively placing him inside a safe, secure, moving, prison cell.

When he had broached the subject with their General the man’s brow had furrowed and he’d mumbled something about ridiculous royal foibles and having to honour their every whim. Jason had been sorely tempted to show him the royal door there and then but had thought better of it, it hadn’t been that long since he’d been falling down drunk most of the time and this man had stood by him then. He would never be another Triestes, Jason still missed that man sorely, but Lisisites had made a good replacement, he probably wouldn’t find another.

Jason was willing to prove himself again to his men, he was having to remember the old lesson that respect was earned and not inherited. He had lost a lot of people’s respect and now he had to get it back if he was going to be an effective King.

Trying to sit straighter in the saddle Jason felt the full burden of his position. Now that he was alone, truly alone without even a bottle to keep him company he realised the prospect of remaining responsible for the whole of Corinth no longer excited or humbled him, it just made him feel tired and old.

The sun was shining and it was a beautifully warm summer’s day, Jason tried to shake off his worries and enjoy the day - even if it was a little difficult seeing the countryside from behind a wall of solid soldier.

Aphrodite walked up the beach towards the two fishermen. Iolaus stared openly and appreciatively at her though he still looked dazed, the other man’s mouth was still hanging open in shock. As she got closer Iolaus tentatively spoke, "Uh, Aphrodite?"

The goddess was impressed with Iolaus, both for gathering himself together enough to speak relatively coherently but also because he’d recognised her. She was more than a little flattered that he thought that she looked as beautiful as she had always been depicted by mortals. "How did you guess?" she wasn’t being flippant, she was honestly interested, and hopeful of a bit of flattery.

Iolaus shrugged, uncomfortable under the scrutiny of those piercing grey eyes. "I, um, a wild guess?" he knew he was close to babbling but this was Aphrodite, of all the gods she was the one he most wanted to impress. He’d always wondered what she was really like, always wanted to meet her and now here she was - with no Hercules to butt in and ruin things.

Aphrodite felt the tingling in the air around her that signalled the arrival of her competition. She glanced out to look at the waves breaking on the ocean,

"Break’s better at Calydon, but the guys are cuter here." She gave Iolaus a sweet smile and he felt himself melt even further if that were possible.

From behind him came a most unladylike snort as the air sparkled and rearranged itself into the forms of two more beautiful goddesses. The snorter held a long bow with a quiver at her back, mimicking Aphrodite she said, "’The guy’s are cuter’ - give me a break!"

Iolaus reminded himself to breathe, that must be Artemis and the other one - ? He wracked his brain trying to think which goddess she could be. In her silver outfit and drawn back hair she cut an altogether more severe figure than the other two, and when she spoke too it clicked, Athena. She said with disdain, "What a bimbo."

The arrival of two more goddesses proved too much for the fisherman, who fell bonelessly to the ground in a dead faint. Nobody noticed him. Iolaus was still concerned that he get things right, he addressed the newcomers, "So, if this is Aphrodite, then you must be …"

"Artemis."

"Athena."

Iolaus had been right, but that didn’t make him feel any better. He found himself wishing for Hercules’ presence; at least his friend was used to the gods and their ways. Iolaus really didn’t want to get caught in the middle of something here, but then another thought occurred to him, "Is this a dream?"

Aphrodite was quietly appraising the blond mortal and although he wasn’t her usual type he really was very cute, especially close up. "A competition - which I intend to win!"

Iolaus felt like he’d been dragged into a nightmare, the kind where everything is wonderful, perfect even, and then the big bad monster comes to gobble you up. He didn’t want to know the answer to this question but he had no choice but to ask. "What kind of contest?" he shrank back slightly in anticipation of not liking the answer - he’d heard all about Olympian competitions and how things got nasty when they involved mortals in their games.

Athena jumped in with an answer, "For lack of a less gender-biased expression, a beauty contest."

That hadn’t been the answer that Iolaus was expecting and he was frankly confused, he frowned as he listened to Aphrodite claim that she would win and ‘take all’ whatever the all in this case might be. He still didn’t understand, "Why bother? I mean you’re all beautiful." It was obvious to him even if it wasn’t obvious to them.

Athena had an intelligent answer ready for him, "Sibling rivalry, fostered by a capricious, inattentive father."

Iolaus frowned again, he was getting a headache, he thought he understood what Athena was saying, although he wasn’t too sure what ‘capricious’ meant, but he still didn’t get why they needed to be here to hold the contest.

Artemis noticed the puzzled frown so she furthered the explanation, "We each have our own strengths. She’s a nerd. I’m a jock. But ‘Miss Airhead’ can’t leave well enough alone."

The two goddesses were turning into a double act; it was as if they were sharing their thoughts, Athena continued, "Aphrodite knows that all Zeus cares about is physical beauty so she struts in and asks him to pick the most beautiful goddess on Olympus."

"He doesn’t like to be cornered-- so he suggested we come down and find a mortal to decide the winner." Artemis finished the explanation which had left Iolaus’ head reeling. The fact that it wasn’t entirely accurate didn’t matter, after all Iolaus was only a mortal they were just expediting things by offering any explanation at all.

Iolaus found himself nodding his head, "Yeah, well, that makes sense. "But then he remembered that this was a dream turned nightmare, "Uh, what’s that got to do with me?"

Aphrodite couldn’t resist being the one to give him the good news, "You are a mortal. You’ll be the judge - if you’re up for it."

At some point she had crept up closer to Iolaus and as she finished speaking she goosed the hunter, he blushed furiously, and even though he knew he was way out of his depth his ego loved all the attention he was getting from three very beautiful goddesses and he found himself speaking before he’d really thought about the consequences, "Oh! Um, I’m up!"

Blushing an even darker shade of red as he realised what he’d just said, no matter the truth of the statement, he added, "I mean, great. I mean - I’ll be the judge."

Aphrodite enjoyed the mortal’s discomfort and laughed.

The forgotten fisherman finally began to stir from his swoon as Artemis checked that her quiver was still there and her bow was secure, wiping her brow she said, "I’ve been hunting stag all morning, I need to clean up."

"I suppose I could be a bit more presentable, myself." Athena pulled at her top to straighten the neckline.

Aphrodite knew that she looked perfect but this would help her enormously, "Whatever. We’ll meet back here in an hour." Just to be sure that things would go to plan she added, "No one talks to the judge until then."

The others readily agreed. At this point the fisherman was finally recovered enough to push himself up onto his elbows, the first sight to meet his eyes was a cascade of pretty shimmering sparkles and three very beautiful women disappearing before his eyes. Enough, too much, more than he could take, he allowed the darkness to take him again, it was safer there.

The fisherman had left the beach once he’d regained consciousness, he had brushed off Iolaus’ offers of help and gathered up his fishing tackle and fish and with all the dignity he could muster walked away leaving Iolaus to an empty beach.

Iolaus didn’t know what to think, to be honest he wasn’t really up to much thinking at all. All these years he’d been Hercules’ friend, spent so much time with him and yet he’d hardly ever seen his relatives, and now, no Hercules in sight and three goddesses turn up unannounced. He knew that Hercules would be telling him to calm down, that they had an ulterior motive couldn’t be trusted, but… he’d been flattered by their attention. He was a mortal, he couldn’t help himself. He knew this was a stupid idea, but he hadn’t been able to think before he let himself in for - well, whatever they had planned. It wasn’t going to end well, mixing mortals and gods - that was a bad thing to do.

Iolaus couldn’t settle - he had an hour before they returned, not long enough to go and find Hercules but too long to just sit and wait he’d never been very good at waiting. He sighed, kicking at the sand in exasperation, he had to calm down. He’d need to be in complete control of his faculties when they returned he would have to keep himself under control. Taking a deep cleansing breath Iolaus decided that he needed to do something to prepare for the task ahead. His thoughts returned to the East and to what he had learned in his time there.

Smiling wryly to himself he wondered why it was always so hard for him to keep the lessons close at hand, his impulsive nature had once more gotten him into trouble. Bending and picking up his vest he shrugged into it, the sun was still very hot and he didn’t want to burn. Then taking a few slow steps up the beach Iolaus stood facing out to sea and raised his arms slowly, breathing in deeply as he did so. He held the breath for a moment before slowly releasing it through his nose and stepping into the first move of a fluid dance. It was ritualistic and slow, its aim to clear the mind and strengthen the body, the moves were ones he now used when fighting, only deliberate and slowed down.

He didn’t get the chance to go through this routine as often as he’d like, when Hercules had spotted him doing it one morning he’d laughed, Iolaus had gone along with the joke, laughing with his buddy but he’d made sure that Hercules wasn’t around the next time he did it. Concentrating on his slow movements and the control he needed to keep on his breathing, the hunter was slow to acknowledge that he was no longer alone. His mind recognised that there was no immediate threat but eventually he couldn’t ignore the sounds,

"Nine hundred and ninety seven, nine hundred and ninety eight …"

Artemis was doing some impressive push-ups a little farther along the beach. Abandoning his own exercises Iolaus walked up to the goddess who had hardly broken sweat. He couldn’t help himself; he was impressed at her prowess, and found his eyes wandering appreciatively over her long, muscled limbs.

Once he was sure that Artemis had noticed his presence Iolaus spoke, "How many of those do you do?"

She looked up at him, doing one more push-up before relaxing back onto her knees, "Ten thousand a day. I used to do more, but I’m a little out of shape."

Iolaus found it hard to remember that he was talking to a goddess, so real was her body as it sat before him, and comments like that easily threw his concentration. He had definitely not had enough time to prepare himself for this. "Um, right. Hey! You’re not supposed to be here yet!"

Iolaus was indignant, but hardly surprised, since when did the gods play by the rules? He was intrigued as to what game Artemis was playing.

"I know but I have a very good reason." She wasn’t very good at pretending to be alluring, she wasn’t really sure how it should be done, but this man was a hunter and a fighter, he was a man whose life she could understand. He had even, on occasion, sent up a prayer or two in her direction, surely she knew how to capture his heart?

Iolaus found his curiosity winning over his caution and he raised an eyebrow inquisitively. "Reason?"

Artemis moved to stand close by the hunter, he could feel the heat of her skin, and he swallowed nervously as she spoke, "How would you like to be the greatest warrior the world has ever seen? Greater even than Hercules."

Iolaus had to stifle a laugh, this was just too preposterous, "You’re kidding, right?"

Artemis simply took him gently by the shoulders and as she said, "Turn around," pushed him round to see ….

Hercules was in the middle of a clearing in the woods, Iolaus didn’t recognise the place. He didn’t recognise the scene either, his friend, son to Zeus, was being thrown around like a rag doll by a dozen or so rough looking types. He was looking decidedly weak and helpless, and Iolaus shifted uncomfortably as he watched, wondering exactly where Artemis had conjured this image of the demigod from. Was it her own idea of how she thought Iolaus might like to see Hercules sometimes, or had she lifted it directly from his subconscious?

He looked on in silent amazement as Hercules called feebly for Iolaus to come and rescue him. ‘Oh puh-lease,’ he thought to himself, hoping that Artemis couldn’t hear him, ‘she’s got to do better than this!’ But he was intrigued as to what the great warrior Iolaus would be like and so he continued to watch.

Just then the man in question arrived. Thumping his sandals down onto a boulder on the edge of the clearing he posed beautifully for all to be dazzled by the sight before baring his teeth at Hercules and pulling an arrow from the quiver at his back. ‘Huh, I suppose it figures that he’s using a bow when Artemis is in charge of the fantasy.’ Iolaus was both horrified by the sight of this sandal clad ‘hero’ and fascinated by him. He continued to watch, unaware that his mouth was hanging open or that he was hardly breathing.

This fantasy Iolaus was wearing a more Olympian outfit than he was used to, a bright white and to Iolaus’ mind, very short, skirt was barely enough to cover what needed to be covered. His chest was bare and around his shoulders was wrapped a short cape of deep purple. The warrior’s skin was oiled and shining, his hair had been persuaded into tiny neat curls and was blazing gold in the sunlight, all in all, he was quite a sight, and secretly Iolaus was rather pleased, although he would never wear a skirt that short!

It didn’t take ‘warrior Iolaus’ very long to dispatch the bad guys; with the unerring accuracy of his trusty bow they were soon overcome and then an overly grateful Hercules was crawling over to Iolaus’ well oiled feet, kissing them and prostrating himself in gratitude.

As he watched, Iolaus found himself waging an internal battle; part of him realised that Artemis had stumbled upon a deeply hidden desire - that of for once being Hercules’ better; being able to save Hercules in the same way that Hercules so often saved him. He knew that he was an equal partner, he understood it on an intellectual level, but deep in his heart there lay a secret dream - and Artemis was playing it out before him. Although he still wouldn’t wear that skirt.

He couldn’t ever begin to articulate his feelings and so Iolaus settled for the only word he could come up with to describe how he felt, he softly exhaled and said "Wow!"

Artemis wanted to cover all her bases, but knowing that she didn’t have a lot of time she didn’t show Iolaus his other options she just told him, "And if that doesn’t do it for you, I can make you the world’s best wrestler or fastest runner. Think about it."

But Iolaus hardly noticed her words, and he didn’t see her disappear in a sparkle of stars, he was still in the world where he was the strong warrior and Hercules was always in need of rescuing.

Iolaus was still gazing into the middle distance, imagining himself as the ‘world’s greatest warrior’ when his reverie was disturbed, "Reflection is the hallmark of a superior mind."

Iolaus turned towards the voice, startled; "Athena!" his heart wouldn’t stand too much more of this.

She looked at him over the top of a strange contraption she wore over her eyes, two circles of glass bound together by wire, they made her look even more intelligent somehow. The look she was giving Iolaus was giving him a very odd feeling in the pit of his stomach - he finally decided that he was nervous, a feeling he wasn’t very well acquainted with.

She smiled, even her smile made her look clever, and Iolaus began to feel very inadequate, with Artemis he understood the goddess, the same went for Aphrodite he was comfortable in their territory. He wasn’t comfortable with those grey eyes boring into him, making him feel stupid and slow.

Referring to her sisters Athena said, "You know it’s sad really, Artemis’ obsession with sports, and Aphrodite, well - let’s just say there’s a lot of echoing going on between those ears."

Iolaus took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to find his centre; he fervently wished that he hadn’t become caught up in the middle of the Olympian’s petty squabbling. "Um, is there s-something you wanted?"

Athena smiled again; she’d been practising in front of a mirror. She had felt really silly doing it, but she was aware of Aphrodite’s ability to make a man melt at the merest hint of a smile from her pink lips, Athena was perfectly willing to play as dirty as the next goddess even if she felt herself entirely superior to them all. If smiling sweetly as a man was what was needed to gain his favour then she would smile sweetly and honey the smile with an offer he couldn’t resist.

"Not for myself, but - to you? I offer the greatest gift imaginable. Wisdom, a mind like none the world has ever known. Behold."

Iolaus found himself observing as another scene played out before him, he wasn’t sure that anything could better the image of rescuing Hercules from those thugs but he was willing to watch - after all he didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter not being willing to bear the brunt of a hissy fit from a pouting goddess. Of course Athena probably didn’t pout but …

Iolaus’ attention was pulled from his idle thoughts by the appearance through the mists before him of a familiar figure. This time he wore a long toga and had long hair and even a long beard. Iolaus couldn’t help smiling at the sight of his fantasy self, he’d never imagined that he could look learnéd but here he was looking very wise and important. Iolaus couldn’t help noticing that the white of his toga brought out the deep tan on his bare arms, and they were looking very buff, the girls would go for that. They probably wouldn’t go for the beard much though, and the whole oiled bare chest thing would probably be a better bet with most girls, but Iolaus could think of a few women who’d been somewhat distant with him in the past, they’d thought him too sweaty and uncouth this look might just crack them.

Again Hercules was a part of the fantasy and again he was in a subservient role. Iolaus barely noticed this though as he watched fascinated by this other world that was suddenly being opened up to him. The demigod stood beside Iolaus, his back bowed so that he seemed to be looking up at his shorter friend, he held a quill and parchment uncomfortably in his large hands and had a deep line between his eyes from concentration.

Before Iolaus stood several older men, all in white togas, Iolaus recognised one of them as the great philosopher and teacher Plato, he’d seen a statue of him in Athens a few years back. At the time he’d had little patience for the philosophers, he couldn’t see the need, but he was a little older and a little wiser now and he was less quick to dismiss these men. In fact …

Wise Iolaus was posing a question to the men before him, even his voice sounded different, he spoke with confidence and authority and Iolaus found himself believing that this man was very wise. "For example, there are always questions of aesthetics that find the great philosophers of our time at a loss for a simple answer. Perhaps you could prove me wrong by answering this question, what is the nature of … shall we say … beauty? Socrates?"

"I’m afraid the epistemology necessary to properly address the question does not yet exist."

Socrates’ answer was a weak attempt to say he didn’t know without admitting to not knowing, even Iolaus could see that without understanding half of what the philosopher said.

His fantasy twin’s response made him smile he’d seen the same thing but he did understand the long words. Something inside Iolaus felt strangely empty.

"In other words - you don’t know. Plato, what is your reply?"

"The search for beauty lifts us above all other life forms. But to attempt to define, or circumscribe it with mere words is folly."

Iolaus recognised more avoidance tactics and realised that he even understood the sentence, perhaps philosophy wasn’t quite so removed from his world as he’d thought. He still found himself feeling inferior, it wasn’t a feeling he liked very much.

His fantasy self said, "This is a good answer, though somewhat evasive. No, the truth is, my friends you are both right. For in the end we must learn to go beyond our limitations and accept, as an act of faith that some things may exist even if we cannot see or understand them."

At the end of this little speech, Iolaus’ companions applauded him and he gave a self-depreciating smile and bowed his thanks before turning to Hercules and asking, "Hercules, did you get all that?"

Hercules gave him a panicked glance and furrowing his brow into even deeper lines finally said, "Yeah, um, the question was something about nature - wasn’t it?"

Iolaus’ duplicate sighed resignedly at the slowness of his friend, but gave him a supportive pat on the back ‘you may be stupid but you are still my friend’. Iolaus felt himself shudder at the implications. Overly keen to please Hercules offered, "It was beauty, right?"

The image before him faded away and Iolaus turned back to Athena hoping that he would wake up sometime soon.

"I must say - you’d make a great wise man. Choose me, and you’ll be remembered forever."

"Oh, great!" they couldn’t be serious, how could he possibly make a choice when they’d offered him such different but equally desirable things. They were playing to his ego and he knew it, but knowing it didn’t stop him from wanting what had been laid before him, offered with only a minor catch. He could easily imagine himself a great warrior, he had a warrior’s heart, he was already renowned for his ability and courage so it wasn’t such a great stretch to imagine him the best of all. But then he thought of Hercules and their partnership and how it felt to fight at the back of the demigod, equals, partners, brothers. To be recognised before his friend though - that would be so nice just for once.

And then the idea of becoming a great wise man, that intrigued him. He’d always thought himself none too bright, letting Hercules’ knowledge fill the gap, but he did like the idea of knowing so much stuff and being respected for his knowledge and wisdom. That was something that could be taken into old age unlike the alternative fantasy.

Hercules sighed he was beginning to get a headache the two monarchs had been haggling over the small print all afternoon. Once one had agreed to something the other had to find something else that he didn’t like. Hercules had always been known for his diplomatic skills but this was stretching even his patience. He silently gave thanks that Iolaus wasn’t there to confuse matters even more.

Sidon had found something else to shout about, "What’s this about worshipping Athena on Hilos? Never!"

‘Deep breath Hercules’ the demigod thought before saying with a soothing voice, "It just says that it’s legal, not that anyone has to do it."

Hercules thought that this point was easily won when Diadorus decided to interrupt, "Just sign the thing you stupid windbag, if anyone wants to worship Artemis on Delos that’ll be okay too."

Luckily Sidon was a little deaf and didn’t hear the irritable comment clearly, he looked up frowning at his companions and huffed in annoyance, "What’s that? What did you say?"

Hercules sighed as he once again tried to calm the ruffled feathers of the all too easily upset men. He glanced across at Epius and Thera who were talking quietly to each other whilst keeping within sight of their fathers; at least they could get along. And because of the love they shared all this was well worth the headache, just so that they could be together.

Thera though had just told Epius of her father’s plans to build them a home on Hilos as a wedding gift. The news was a bit of a shock to her betrothed, "What? Why didn’t you tell me before?"

Thera was just as good at placating an irate royal and she soon calmed him, "I’ll live anywhere you want Epius, as long as we can be together."

The two smiled happily at each other and shared a kiss as their fathers continued to grumble their way through the small print on the marriage contract.

Thera was getting bored; her father was still arguing semantics with Epius’ father. She sat on the edge of a table swinging her legs and wishing there was something to do to pass the time.

Epius had been caught up in planning some detail or other and had told her that he’d be a while and to wait for him but she was so bored. She looked out of the window and saw the sea below, the sun was shining it was a beautiful day. Suddenly she slid from the table - she’d go to the bay and take a walk on the beach, she couldn’t think of a better way to pass the time than strolling over the black sands on a sunny day. It was certainly better than sitting here being ignored by everyone.

Artemis was pacing like a caged animal and Athena was tapping a delicate toe in annoyance, "It’s just like her to be late!"

Iolaus didn’t care it gave him a much needed chance to catch his breath. So much had happened in a short time and he was reeling. The thought of becoming a great warrior was doing battle with the idea of becoming a great wise man and his ego was inflating at all the flattery the two goddesses had been throwing his way. Deep down he knew that this whole thing could only end in disaster, but it was so rare that anyone of importance took note of Iolaus - anyone other than Hercules that was.

Artemis stopped pacing and crossed her arms angrily, "That’s it! I’m not waiting any longer, you’ll just have to decide between the two of us."

Iolaus, pulled from his reverie responded with a confused, "Huh?"

Athena shook her head in annoyance, "It’s time for you to make a decision Iolaus, which of the two of us is the most beautiful?"

Iolaus looked helplessly between the two equally beautiful women, who had offered him equally enticing bribes, "Well, I don’t know, you’re both so beautiful."

Just as Iolaus despaired of ever being able to come to a decision a familiar sparkle filled the air behind him and Aphrodite said, "Not so fast!"

"You’re too late." Artemis knew that she was losing her best chance of winning, as did Athena, who just scowled at her sister.

"I don’t think so - he hasn’t made his mind up yet, have you?"

Iolaus shook his head he wasn’t used to being at such a complete loss in a situation. Normally he had a clue of what was going to happen or how he should respond and if he didn’t it wouldn’t bother him, he’d improvise. But here, improvising didn’t seem to be happening. He really wished Hercules had introduced him to more of his godly relatives before now.

"See." Aphrodite couldn’t resist a smile of triumph, "There’s something he needs to see before he decides." As she spoke she held up a large golden apple in her hand.

Athena turned to Artemis and said, "I should have known that she’d cheat."

"You started it! Iolaus hold this apple close to your heart and any woman you want will fall hopelessly in love with you. If you both touch it at the same time you’ll be soul-mates for life."

Iolaus found himself reaching out to take the apple from Aphrodite even as a small voice that sounded strangely like Hercules was telling him that it was a very, very bad idea. He couldn’t stop himself though, the thought of love, of having a woman really love him again, was too much - the thought of the vision before him, Aphrodite, loving him filled his heart and mind so full that the possibilities of becoming a warrior or a wise man were forgotten. All he could see was the apple and all he could feel was his heart beating for Aphrodite.

His voice was barely above a whisper, "You - I chose you."

Aphrodite felt a momentary stab of guilt, he was so sweet and he really did like her - she could see it in his eyes, but her need to complete her plan was far more important that a mortal’s feelings. He’d get over it; after all he could have any mortal girl he wanted now. "Me! Didn’t I tell you? It only works on mortals. Sorry. Oh! And one other thing, you can’t tell anyone about it."

Iolaus hid his disappointment, he should have known better; instead he concentrated on Aphrodite’s last comment, "Why not?"

"I don’t make up the rules. But if you do - no woman will ever want you again. Later" And with that she turned her back on Iolaus and walked towards the sea, disappearing once again in a shimmer of pink sparkles. Iolaus was getting used to it. Turning back to the others he discovered that he was once again alone on the beach.

He held the apple in his hand, hefting it and feeling its weight. He’d known he shouldn’t have fallen for anything a god offered - Hercules had warned him often enough. But he hadn’t warned him just how disarming his sisters could be, Hercules had never told Iolaus that Aphrodite was so beautiful that she stopped the breath in a man and turned his mind to mush, but then maybe Hercules didn’t know about that - he just saw his half-sister not a thing of beauty when he looked at her.

Sighing and shaking his head in irritation at himself, Iolaus pulled back his arm in readiness to throw the apple into the sea, but he couldn’t do it. It couldn’t win him the heart of the one he really wanted, Aphrodite, but … he thought of Ania and the look in her eyes when she caught his gaze, he missed the love. Instead of just attraction, instead of a little flirting it would feel so good to see love in a woman’s eyes again. He lowered his arm, he didn’t have a lot of faith in the golden apple, after all Aphrodite had won the contest - she had what she wanted, but he’d hold onto it for now - just in case.

Jason had visited several outlying farms and villages, passing through with an encouraging word and allowing the people to see King Jason at close quarters - from behind an insistent wall of soldiers anyway. He had begun to quite enjoy himself, waving and smiling as he met fellow travellers on the road. He liked seeing the double-takes and dubious frown’s before realisation set in and hasty bows and curtseys were performed. It was amusing but it wasn’t fulfilling.

The people had needed to see him, see for themselves that he was no longer the drunken king who had abandoned their needs for the bottom of a bottle. Jason knew that this had been the right thing to do and when they entered the next village he called a halt and dismounted. He walked towards the gathered villagers who had heard on the highly efficient local grapevine of their royal visitor.

Waving off his overly protective guards, Jason spent a happy morning discussing the needs of his citizens and how good the harvest would be. It wasn’t quite the same buzz as slaying monsters or fighting a warlord, and it didn’t have the same satisfaction as holding his son in his arms, but it still felt good.

Sidon came hurrying into the room, a worried frown creasing his brow, "I can’t find Thera anywhere! She wouldn’t miss this for the world - if any of you, you, you, Delosians, has hurt her I’ll…."

Hercules laid a calming hand on the frantic man’s back, "I’m sure she’s fine Sidon. She probably just went for a walk or something."

Hercules glared hard at Diadorus who was fuming at the accusation and ready to do battle with his nemesis once more.

Epius nodded, "Yes, she was pretty bored when I left her. But King Sidon is right it’s not like her to be late for something so important." Epius couldn’t help worrying. Marriage was a frightening enough prospect without the added pressure of parents that had been sworn enemies for life. A lot rested on this marriage - not least of all their future happiness.

He smiled gratefully when Hercules said, "I’ll go look for her. Epius, try and keep these two apart." The two in question had been lunging at each other unable to connect because Sidon was being held back by Hercules and Epius was holding on to his father. Epius nodded, wondering how he would be able to achieve the impossible without having godly blood.

Hercules carefully let go of his charge who glowered at Diadorus but didn’t move. Sighing in relief Hercules left the palace to find the errant bride.

Iolaus was still strolling along the beach holding the golden apple in his hand. He was wondering how Hercules was getting along with the warring marriage party and thinking that perhaps he should join him when he spotted a girl walking toward him on the beach. He went to tuck the apple safely out of sight in his vest and then stopped - even from a distance he could tell that she was beautiful, with her shoulder length blonde hair and slim figure.

He didn’t think the apple would work, he really didn’t - but he had to find out. He thought it would be a bit of fun, a harmless flirtation and he needed that so badly right now. He should have known better, but as always, Iolaus acted before he thought. He held out the apple as the girl approached him. She looked down at it shining in the sun and then into his eyes and the next thing he knew his arms were full of her and she was kissing him passionately. He was able to keep his head enough to ensure that she didn’t touch the apple and he held it out behind her as he enjoyed the long kiss.

Finally a breathless Iolaus reluctantly pushed her away, "Wow!"

She looked dreamily into his eyes and said, "Nothing like this has ever happened to me before," she giggled coyly, "I don’t even know your name."

But before Iolaus had a chance to do more than open his mouth to answer she had once again clamped her lips against his and was pressing her body into him. Not daring to believe and not convinced that this was ‘true love’ Iolaus held one arm out stiffly holding the apple and touched the other to her back uncomfortably. He couldn’t deny that he was enjoying the kiss but …

He pulled away again, this time taking a few steps back to make some distance between them, "Whoa, whoa, time out!"

She batted her eyelids at him and smiled sweetly, "Okay."

Iolaus took a deep breath to calm himself and try and find his centre, he was beginning to doubt that he’d ever find it again after everything that had happened.

"Can we start again?"

The girl nodded agreeably, "Sure."

Relieved Iolaus introduced himself, "Okay - Hi, I’m Iolaus, and you are?"

Brown eyes lit up as the girl savoured the name on her tongue, "Iolaus, Iolaus, ooh I love that name. I love us, I love you!"

And with that final statement she attached herself to his lips again. They had met near the end of the bay where the beach was narrow and close to the woods that bordered it, neither of them noticed the figure that came out of the woods and greeted them.

"Thera?"

Thera didn’t pull away from Iolaus, she merely raised her eyes to see who it was, when she recognised Hercules she released her limpet’s hold on Iolaus’ lips, "Oh, Hi Hercules."

Iolaus took the opportunity to take a step backwards even as he registered the familiar name. "What did you call her?"

Hercules answered with impatience, his voice dripping in sarcasm, "Thera, you know - the bride."

Iolaus stared at the girl who was yet again reaching for him, although Hercules had clamped a hand around her arm to pull her back, "That Thera?" he squeaked, he wasn’t stupid - although at the moment he was feeling pretty stupid - he knew what this could mean.

Just as he thought things couldn’t get any worse, sounds of approaching irate King’s could be heard as they crashed through the undergrowth, calling for Thera and swearing mightily.

Hercules, keeping a tight hold on the bride-to-be, led the way into the woods in the opposite direction from the approaching group. As they hurried up the sand, Iolaus called out breathlessly to Hercules, "Herc - Aphrodite - beauty contest - judge - stupid!" It was enough to give Hercules a good idea of what had happened and that Iolaus realized that he’d made a mistake. If Aphrodite was involved then Thera was probably under some kind of spell, he desperately wracked his brain trying to find a way out for Thera and Iolaus.

The demigod led the way until they found a clearing further into the woods Iolaus still had his hands full trying to push Thera away. Even as they walked she kept grabbing for his arms, his vest, his hair, any part of him that she could reach - this was like no love Iolaus had ever seen before and whilst he had to admit that the attention from a beautiful woman was nice it wasn’t what he was missing in his life. How many times had he wished for a woman that just wanted him for his body and now that he had her all he wanted to do was keep her away from him, life just wasn’t fair.

Hercules looked around him and said, "Okay, I think this is far enough." Seeing that Thera was still all over his partner he frowned and said a little more sharply than he had intended, "You, sit there!" He picked Thera up and sat her down on a handy rock, "You!" He grabbed Iolaus by the shoulder, "Over here," pulling him a short distance from the pouting girl.

Iolaus spoke first, "Hercules, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think it would work. I had no idea…"

Hercules felt his anger soften slightly, "Well you obviously don’t know my sister!" as he spoke he realised that it was his own fault that Iolaus knew so little about Aphrodite; he’d spent so many years trying to keep them apart.

Iolaus knew that he deserved to be on the receiving end of Hercules’ anger, he had been stupid but he couldn’t help thinking, ‘yeah, well next time introduce me to your relatives before they sneak up on me!’, to Hercules he just nodded, not wanting to anger the demigod further.

"That doesn’t matter now. She’s supposed to be getting married tomorrow - remember?"

Iolaus deserved that and he knew it, "Yeah."

Neither of the men had noticed that Thera hadn’t been able to sit still on her rock and just then she edged between them and spoke to Iolaus in her most sultry voice, "Hi."

Nervous and stepping back a small step he returned the greeting. Placing a hand proprietarily on Iolaus’ bicep Thera turned to Hercules and said, "Hercules, I wonder if you could tell Epius that I can’t marry him?"

Hercules was determined to stay calm when all he wanted to do was grab hold of the girl and shake some sense into her, ‘it isn’t her fault’ he reminded himself before replying, "Why not?"

She turned to Iolaus and ran her hand over the hard planes of his chest, "Because I love Iolaus and I want to be with him forever."

Iolaus jumped back batting Thera’s hands away from him and looked pleadingly at his friend, "Herc? You have got to do something!"

"Thera, aren’t you being a little hasty? You don’t know him."

Thera giggled and gave Iolaus another look from under long eyelashes, "Don’t you believe in love at first sight?"

Iolaus felt a warm melting in the pit of his stomach at being on the receiving end of such a look from such a woman and glared helplessly at the demigod, wanting nothing more than for the dream to be over.

Hercules sighed, he believed in love at first sight, of course he did, "Yes I do Thera, but this isn’t it - believe me. What about Epius?"

He’d hoped to make her feel guilty but she mere batted her eyes and tried once more to pull Iolaus close, "I know, I know, I feel really badly for him but he’s young, he’ll get over it." Managing to get through Iolaus’ defences once more she put her arms around his waist and pulled him into a hug, one hand straying downwards and grasping hold of a leather clad rear. "Iolaus and I were meant to be together."

Sounds of approaching men gave Iolaus the impetus to break free and back away from Thera hands raised in a warding gesture. "Herc?"

Hercules thought quickly, "Get out of here Iolaus, lay low, you don’t want these guys to find you."

"Yeah, yeah, um, maybe I can help?"

"Find Aphrodite and get her to break the spell."

Iolaus groaned inwardly at the though of having to meet the goddess again, he wasn’t sure his heart could take the strain, but he’d do whatever he had to. "Where do I find her?"

"She likes the way the waves break up at the point, and remind her she owes me a favour. Just - just keep out of sight." It was the closest Hercules would come to letting his friend know that he was worried about him and Iolaus would get no closer to telling his friend thanks, "Yeah, okay."

As Iolaus turned away Thera took one more lunge towards him but Hercules grabbed her round the waist stopping her at the same time urging his friend’s retreat. "Go!"

As Iolaus disappeared into the undergrowth Hercules turned to meet the arriving royal party.

Epius was the first into the clearing and caught sight of Iolaus’ retreating back but didn’t recognise him in the brief glimpse. Hercules called out to Epius and Diadorus who was just behind his son, hoping to distract them from Iolaus.

Seeing his fiancé, Epius soon forgot Iolaus and his concern for Thera took over.

Hercules could feel Thera ready herself to chase after Iolaus so he swept her off her feet and into his arms and holding her a little more tightly than necessary he went to join the arriving group. Iolaus would be fine, he could handle Aphrodite by himself and the soldiers would never catch up to him, Hercules didn’t have time to worry about his friend his hands were plenty full already.

And Thera was about to compound the problem, "Epius, there’s something I have to tell you - I’ve fallen …"

Hercules interrupted quickly with the first thing that came to mind, "In a ditch. She fell in a ditch she wasn’t looking where she was going."

Epius rushed forward in concern, "Are you okay? Were you hurt?"

Hercules wasn’t about to let Thera say anything more, "She’s fine. She’s fine. She bumped her head a little so it’s best she stays quiet for now." He squeezed Thera at this comment to make sure that she would keep silent. He breathed a big sigh of relief when nobody seemed to question his story, which to his ears had sounded flimsy at best.

Epius, however, was going to cause problems, "Thera, I just wanted you to know that we can live where-ever you want to live. If you want to live on Hilos that’s fine with me, just so long as we’re together."

Hercules tightened his hold on Thera once more as he felt her wriggling, wanting to reply. Again he spoke before she had the chance but he was beginning to wonder how long he’d be able to keep this up - Iolaus had better find Aphrodite fast. "We should get back Thera’s had a bit of a shock." ‘And that’s nothing to the shock you’ll have if Iolaus doesn’t sort this soon’ Hercules grimaced as Thera began wriggling again. King Diadorus was blustering and complaining that Epius couldn’t possibly live on Hilos and King Sidon was protesting that Thera was never going to live on Delos - could the day get any longer?

Iolaus clambered over rocks with all the agility of a mountain goat as he tried to reach the point and find Aphrodite. He was trying not to think about that meeting, he had no idea what he was going to say to the Goddess of Love, or how he would be able to persuade her to break the spell. It was only Iolaus’ belief in Hercules that allowed him to continue. Hercules had believed that he could do it, therefore it must be true.

He could hear the distant rumbling of waves and finally he jumped down onto sand and looked out at the low tide beach. Even at low tide the sea was creating good sized rollers and Iolaus thought fondly of his few moments of freedom on the waves that morning. He was drawn back from his daydream by a feminine voice exclaiming, "Bitchin’"

Iolaus put his head to one side and mouthed the word to himself, a big question mark in his thoughts. But he recognised the voice and allowing himself the brief thought that his reckless nature could sometimes be a benefit he went to meet the goddess without pause.

Aphrodite was busy contemplating the perfect waves but acknowledged Iolaus’ presence, "Ah just wait until the tide gets in."

Iolaus wasn’t quite sure how a mortal should approach a god, so he didn’t allow himself to worry about it and spoke as he would to any beautiful woman … okay so he wasn’t doing that, he couldn’t afford to think about how beautiful she was or the way she made his stomach flip-flop whenever she looked at him. He took a little breath and said, "Aphrodite, I have to talk to you."

She glanced at him briefly before looking back out to sea, "Yeah?" was her disinterested response.

Iolaus ploughed ahead regardless, "This whole thing is a mistake."

This got Aphrodite’s attention; she really couldn’t understand this mortal, "Why? You scored, I saw you."

"Yeah, but … I didn’t think the apple would work, at least not like that and not …" the unspoken words hung in the air and Aphrodite couldn’t help but feel a small twinge for this strangely compelling mortal. She said softly, "Not her. You didn’t know who she was did you?"

Iolaus sighed, "No, and I really hadn’t expected …" he flung his hands out in an attempt to describe the words he couldn’t find.

Aphrodite hardened her heart and smiled, "Bummer."

Iolaus understood the change in tone and decided that he’d have to use his joker after all, "Hercules said that you owe him a favour."

Aphrodite giggled, "Doesn’t everyone?" she watched Iolaus carefully and he didn’t flinch under her scrutiny, finally she sighed, "You mortals are so tedious. You want me to lose the spell? Is that it?"

"Yes - no! I - yes. Please Aphrodite."

"All right, fine, whatever." Aphrodite turned away from Iolaus and he couldn’t believe that he’d been granted his request. She hadn’t even waved her arm, the air hadn’t been filled with sparkles and the apple, the apple was still snuggling solidly inside his vest.

"Is that it?"

"You got it sweet cheeks." Aphrodite couldn’t resist trying the endearment on Iolaus for size - it fit him beautifully and he didn’t even bat an eye when he heard her say it, she was impressed.

"Don’t you want this back?" Iolaus held out the apple, it seemed strange to him that the goddess would go to all this trouble and then give in so readily, but then there was no explaining Hercules’ relatives.

Aphrodite laughed, sending Iolaus’ stomach into twisting knots of jelly, "I’ve got plenty more, silly, don’t you want it - it is a ‘golden’ apple after all."

Iolaus hadn’t thought of that before, feeling very slow and stupid he said, "Oh! Yeah. But really Aphrodite, I’ve got no need for …"

The goddess couldn’t believe her ears, not only was he cute he wasn’t greedy - for money anyway! And she’d begun to think mortals were boring. So money wouldn’t work, what would? "But Iolaus, don’t you want a souvenir of our time together?" She let her voice drop and soften as she continued, leaning towards him and using her cleavage to full effect, "I’d be hurt if you said you didn’t want to remember ‘us’."

Iolaus felt himself colouring and cleared his throat, "Um, yeah, I mean, of course it’d be … um… thanks Aphrodite, that’s really nice of you."

Peals of giggles were accompanied by a shower of pink stars as Aphrodite took her leave of Iolaus knowing that her plan was once again back on course.

The banqueting table in the great hall of the castle was sagging under the weight of all the food it bore - the pre-wedding feast was under way and Hercules was quietly pleased that it seemed to be going well. He’d taken Thera to her room telling the others that she needed a lie down and was hoping that she’d stay put until Iolaus had found Aphrodite. She’d been perfectly willing to sit at her window and pine for Iolaus, with a bit of luck that would last for a while longer.

His attention was drawn by Diadorus nudging him in the ribs, he spoke with disdain, indicating Sidon who was sitting on the opposite side of the table, "Where did these people learn their manners? In a barn? Eating with their left hand!"

Hercules was about to make a polite comment although secretly he agreed, Sidon and his entourage were stuffing food into their mouth as if they hadn’t eaten for a year - even Iolaus would have been shocked, but as he turned to his companion Diadorus picked up a chicken leg with his right hand and proceeded to devour it, debris flying everywhere.

Hercules was relieved when he saw Thera, even if it was only for the distraction, he was beginning to feel quite queasy. He watched her closely as she stopped behind her father and said, "Father, oh I’ve missed you."

Hercules raised an inquiring eyebrow, "Are you feeling better?"

Thera smiled and he could see the old Thera in that smile, none of the earlier madness evident, "Just like my old self."

Hercules smiled in relief, Iolaus had succeeded, "You can’t believe how relieved I am to hear that."

Thera winked at Hercules, telling him that she knew exactly how relieved he was, before picking up a goblet from the table and saying, "Could I have everyone’s attention? I have something I wanted to say."

Just then as the room quietened, Iolaus slipped through the door. Spotting Hercules he waved at him trying to get his attention, when he did he gave him the thumbs up. It was only when Thera turned towards him and caught his eye that Iolaus realised that he was still holding the golden apple in his hand. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach he watched her. A small part of him was fascinated by the instant change he saw, from normal, soon-to-be-wed Thera, to crazed woman, obsessing with Iolaus.

Thera was in the middle of a sentence when she spotted Iolaus, she didn’t register the apple in his hand just the impact of her love for him, nothing else mattered, all else was merely insubstantial mist, there was only Iolaus and she must have him!

"This is truly one of the happiest days of my life, seeing you all united as I will be tomorrow with my one true love - - Iolaus! Iolaus, oh how I’ve missed you!"

Hercules allowed himself a moment before going into action, he closed his eyes wishing that he’d allowed Iolaus to continue surfing the waves that morning and they had both spent the rest of the day sleeping. Girding himself he opened his eyes to chaos.

Epius was looking thunderstruck; unable as yet to react he stood watching as Thera threw herself at a retreating Iolaus, shouting to him to hold her in his arms. Diadorus was spluttering in outrage, threatening impending doom on all of Hilos, and Sidon was calling for the guards to attack.

Hercules called out to Iolaus, "I told you to stay away!"

Iolaus, ineffectually attempting to fend off Thera’s advances, gave Hercules a pleading look, "Aphrodite said …"

Hercules was impatient with Iolaus, he knew better than to trust a goddess by now, "Well she lied. Now get out of here!"

Iolaus ducked as a guard poked at him with a spear, "Yeah."

Hercules grabbed hold of two other approaching guards and knocked their heads together, "Take her with you - go!"

Iolaus grabbed Thera by the hand and pulled her with him as he exited the room, avoiding yet another spear and the lunge of a rather badly sharpened sword as he went.

The last thing he heard as they ran down the hallway was the frustrated voice of Thera’s father calling for his guards to kill Iolaus.

Hercules really didn’t want to fight these men but the guards had been ordered to kill Iolaus and he had to stop them and find a way to get the two monarchs to calm down and see reason.

Diadorus was getting red in the face as he shouted to his men to chase after Iolaus and Thera, raining imprecations down on the pair. Sidon angrily strutted towards Diadorus threatening him with murder and mayhem if anyone so much as touched a hair on his daughter’s head, while Epius just stood watching the door and wondering how his life could have fallen apart so suddenly. Meanwhile Hercules was preventing any of the guards from getting near the door and slowly reducing the numbers attacking him by safely adding them to the injury list.

Eventually he was able to shout above the noise, "Stop it! All of you! I know what that looked like, but Thera hasn’t done anything wrong."

Diadorus looked as if he was about to blow a blood vessel as he shouted, "How can you say that? You saw her! How dare that tramp bring shame upon my kingdom!"

Sidon was blustering with rage, unable to find instant words for his anger and Epius cut before him not giving him the opportunity. Epius was a peaceful young man, not easy to anger but even his voice held an edge to it as he spoke, "No, this is my problem, father! It’s got nothing to do with you or our people, or anyone else! If you want to go to war, go ahead, but don’t insult Thera or use her as an excuse!"

Hercules put his big hand briefly on Epius’ shoulder, proud of the young man’s attitude.

His outburst had made his father’s anger falter and allowed the two king’s minds to think more clearly and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing as Hercules realised when Sidon said, "That man - he’s a friend of yours isn’t he Hercules?"

"Yes - but it wasn’t his fault either. Look, if everyone could just calm down, I can bring them back and we can get this whole thing sorted out. Give them a chance - the gods are at work here."

He looked expectantly firstly at Diadorus who glowered in reply and then at Sidon who shuffled his feet and harrumphed a few times. Hercules snorted impatiently and prompted them, "All right?" when there was no response forthcoming he tried again, "All right?"

Finally both men muttered their agreement and told their guards to stand down while Hercules wondered how he would ever sort this one out.

Jason had enjoyed his time chatting to villagers and farmers but the soldiers that guarded him had spent the entire time frowning and muttering that it wasn’t safe here and they couldn’t do their jobs properly. Finally he sighed and signalled to the captain of the guard that he was ready to move on. His horse was brought to him and he mounted waving a fond farewell to the gathered villagers.

The general moved his horse to walk alongside the king’s, "So, time to get back home now?"

Jason smiled at him and shook his head, "No, not yet, there’s plenty of daylight left yet. The mother of a good friend of mine lives hereabouts I want to pay her a visit before we return."

The general had been well trained in schooling his face so that it showed no reaction, but he was disappointed. His men were restless and wanted to get back and stop this traipsing aimlessly across the countryside it was boring - especially as they had to be on their best behaviour the whole time. Jason surprised him with his next comment and Lisisites began to wonder if the king had learned to read minds now.

The king spoke with sympathy when he said, "I’m sure your men are sick of babysitting me, and this is a personal visit that I’d rather stay personal. Why don’t you send them back to barracks?"

The general was shaking his head adamantly even before Jason had finished speaking, "Sire, with all due respect, it isn’t safe. We can’t possibly leave you alone!"

Jason gave another amused smile, "I didn’t tell you to leave me alone, I told you to send your men home, I didn’t tell you to go with them. I can trust you to be discreet can’t I?"

Lisisites looked steadily back at his king as he was regarded with a calculating eye, "Aye, that you can your majesty - but the men?"

"Tell them that we are going to visit an old friend who is a little nervous of large groups of large men! Alcmene wouldn’t appreciate them trampling her garden."

The general grinned as he realised that the old friend Jason was referring to must be Hercules and he nodded curtly before turning to give his men the good news.

Jason watched as the men made ready to leave him behind, it probably wasn’t sensible to visit Alcmene like this, misleading rumours might well get back to Hercules, where-ever he was right now, but Jason didn’t care. He wanted to see his friend’s mother, wanted to hear her comforting voice and sit in her beautiful garden. Why should a King not do as he wished occasionally?

Before he left to find Iolaus and Thera, Hercules decided to have a quiet word with Epius who had been worryingly quiet ever since the scene at the banquet. He found the young prince standing on a balcony, hidden from prying eyes and ears and looking out over the sea.

Hercules made some noise as he approached to ensure that he didn’t frighten Epius, then with a soft voice he said, "Epius, what just happened, it wasn’t - it wasn’t how it looked."

Epius turned to Hercules with lethargic movements, his entire posture screaming exhaustion, "What was it then? How am I supposed to react when the woman I love falls into another man’s arms declaring her love for him - in front of everyone? How can I ever forgive her?"

Hercules sighed; Aphrodite had a lot to answer for here, "That’s what I’m trying to say. It wasn’t her fault."

A corner of Epius’ mouth quirked up "Yeah, right. Look Hercules, I know I’m not a hero like you, but, this marriage - it’s supposed to be bringing our kingdoms together and I don’t, I just don’t, I can’t …"

"Your pride is hurt."

"Wouldn’t yours be? This is the woman I love!"

"There’s no reason to stop loving her Epius. Listen, Aphrodite cast a spell on my friend, Iolaus. He didn’t understand what it meant and he tried it out on Thera - he didn’t know who she was Epius and he …"

Epius seemed to wake up a little at hearing this, "You mean she doesn’t love him?"

"No she doesn’t. Now, I can deal with Aphrodite. But you need to remember that Thera is the woman you love, the woman you are going to marry. Are you really going to let your pride stop you?" Hercules waited as Epius digested the news and nodded, renewed determination showing on his face. Hercules slapped him on the back and said, "I’m gonna go get Thera."

Iolaus had taken Thera back to the beach and into a cave that he’d spotted there earlier. He knew that Hercules would find them easily enough. It had been a struggle making his way down the steep path whilst holding on to Thera and fending off her advances. She really wasn’t able to control herself and Iolaus was beginning to wonder exactly what kind of ‘love’ Aphrodite thought this was. It sure wasn’t like Ania’s love for him.

In the end, about halfway down the path Iolaus had been forced to bind Thera’s wrists in front of her with a vine he’d spotted. She’d sulked but frustrated in her efforts to touch Iolaus had finally started to behave herself. He hadn’t wanted to bind her wrists he felt guilty enough already without adding this to the list. Now he looked over to her as she sat on a boulder in the spacious cave entrance and sighed, she was looking so helpless and pathetic and it was bringing out all his chivalrous tendencies.

Thera noticed his contemplation of her and heaved a big sigh, "Please Iolaus. Please let me go."

Iolaus sat down beside the young woman and looked into her eyes, "If I let you go do you promise to behave?"

Thera nodded emphatically, "Promise."

"All right."

Thera obediently held out her hands to Iolaus but the closeness of him was too much for her and she couldn’t resist leaning in to him, "Oh, you smell so good, so masculine." She reached out to touch his chest and Iolaus jumped up and backed across the floor of the cave, "Uh, oh second thoughts, I’ll leave you right there."

Thera sat and pouted making Iolaus clear his throat nervously and wish that she wouldn’t do that. She asked, "Don’t you want me Iolaus?"

His throat seemed to be blocked and he gave another little cough, she was doing things to him, but he couldn’t take advantage, he mustn’t. "No?" it came out more a question than a denial and Iolaus hated the way his voice had turned into a squeak. A good swim in the bracing sea wouldn’t go amiss right about now.

"I don’t believe you." She was using that sultry, come-hither voice again and Iolaus was tempted to leave the cave and scream for a bit - it might make him feel more in control. Instead he tried to explain, "What you’re feeling for me, it isn’t real it’s just a spell."

Thera stood and moved close to Iolaus, who stood his ground realising that if he retreated any further they’d be outside and in plain sight of any soldiers that were watching from the cliffs. "Make love to me Iolaus."

Iolaus had known the day would turn into a nightmare, you can’t get involved with the gods and it not turn out bad, but he’d had no idea that his nightmare would be having to resist the persistent wiles of a very beautiful woman, a woman that he found extremely attractive. "No, Thera. What about Epius?"

Thera was still standing close to Iolaus, close enough for him to be able to feel her breath on his skin as she said, "What about Epius?"

"Don’t you have any feelings for him?"

Thera dismissed the thought with a cold, "Of course, what’s that got to do with us?"

"You’re breaking his heart."

"He’ll get over it."

Iolaus really couldn’t think of anything to say to that, "Oh."

Thera reached up with her hands and cupped Iolaus’ face, "We were meant to be together."

Iolaus pushed her away from him and pulled the golden apple out from his vest, "See this? This is the only thing making you feel this way." He had hoped that somehow seeing the apple would make Thera believe what he was saying but she just saw the gold glowing in the low light of the cave, "Oh it’s pretty," she moved closer to him again, "Can I touch it?"

Iolaus found himself holding the apple out but then snatched it back when he remembered Aphrodite’s words. If he thought things were bad now they’d be a thousand times worse if he let her touch it. How would he be able to live with the knowledge that he’d enslaved Thera’s heart to him and broken Epius’?

"No! No, that’s not - not a good idea. I’d better put it away."

At that moment he realised that someone was standing behind him and he jumped in surprise when he turned to find Hercules there. "Herc! Don’t ever sneak up on me like that again." He really didn’t think his heart would take the shock, not after the day he was having.

Hercules was frowning and didn’t look at all pleased with Iolaus, "You didn’t tell me about this." He said glowering at Iolaus and plucking the apple from his fingers.

Iolaus was nervous, he hated it when Hercules was mad at him, and he hated it even more when the big guy was right to be mad. "Uh - you didn’t ask?" he laughed nervously and tried to explain, "I mean, Aphrodite said, if I told anyone, it wouldn’t work. I don’t know about you, but -" he knew he was sounding pathetic but he still hadn’t recovered his equilibrium from his attempts to fend off Thera. He felt off-balance and it was beginning to make him dizzy.

Hercules rolled his eyes, and not wanting to let Iolaus continue his babble said, "I get the picture."

"Ah."

"I’ll be right back." Hercules turned to leave the cave, knowing that he’d have to see Aphrodite himself to sort this out.

Iolaus was happy to let Hercules take control, "Yeah, good. Oh, no! Thera!"

He wasn’t so happy when Thera snuck up behind him and trapped him in her arms; those bound wrists had come in handy for her after all.

Hercules strode purposely into the cave, Aphrodite hadn’t been on the beach where Iolaus had found her but Hercules knew his sister well enough to know that she was close by. Too much was going on for her to abandon her plans. The cave’s entrance was easy to find and the sound of Aphrodite’s bell-like giggling was like a beacon leading him home.

It took a moment or two for the demigod’s eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior of the cave and he called out a greeting before he could see his surroundings properly. All he could make out was the dark shape of a huge clam shell in the middle of the cave. His greeting elicited a response and Aphrodite poked her head out from behind the shell, Hercules’ eyes had adjusted enough for him to see that the flashes of skin he was seeing meant that his sister was not wearing anything.

He felt the rush of blood to his face as he turned away, "Aphrodite!" she was his sister, couldn’t she just once - behave!

Aphrodite was enjoying his embarrassment and she laughed before moving back behind the shell, "Hercules, you are so decent! Not at all like our father."

Hercules responded sarcastically, "Tragic."

A moment later his sister appeared again, this time wearing the diaphanous pick outfit with which he was familiar. "There, how’s this?"

Hercules risked a look and heaved a sigh of relief, whilst this outfit was still way more revealing that he would normally be comfortable with, this was Aphrodite and he was used to her flaunting her body - at least some of her was covered up.

"Better, thanks."

Aphrodite was quick to spot that Hercules was holding her golden apple in his hand, he wasn’t exactly hiding it, "You brought my apple back - your friend didn’t find it useful?"

"Hard to believe isn’t it."

Aphrodite detected the hard edge in Hercules’ voice but it didn’t deter her, after all he was only half god.

"I’ll just take it back then."

"Not so fast," Hercules held the apple up high out of reach of Aphrodite, "That little beauty contest - what was in it for you?"

"Pride, what else? I ‘am’ the goddess of love. How would it look to lose a beauty contest - especially to those two?"

Hercules appeared to think about her reply for a moment before saying, "I see, so you have no interest in keeping the war between Hilos and Delos going?"

Aphrodite put on her best dumb blonde face and allowed herself a little frown - not so much that she would give herself any lines, but just enough to appear genuinely puzzled. "Why would I care about them?"

Hercules was impressed by his sister’s performance; if he didn’t know better he might even have been taken in by it, as it was, "Because I know you. You’re not as dumb as you pretend to be. There’s a lot more gold in Hilos and Delos than there is in Cythera, isn’t there?"

Aphrodite was inwardly cursing her too-clever half mortal brother, outwardly she kept the air of confusion, "I don’t know what you’re talking about."

Hercules was beginning to think that he should get a new job as school teacher, after all he seemed to spend and inordinate amount of his time acting the role out. "No?"

Aphrodite didn’t respond, hoping that he’d give up and go away or that he didn’t really know what she was up to and wouldn’t be able to guess, it was a vain hope and she knew it.

Hercules said, "I mean, you’ve never thought that if Hilos and Delos were to destroy each other, you could take over and have all those shrines rebuilt in your honour."

She couldn’t resist gloating a little; she was very proud of her brilliant plan and hadn’t been able to share her brilliance with anyone up until now. "Pretty clever, huh?"

Hercules shook his head in disgust, "No, not really. See, that’ll never happen so long as Thera and Epius care for each other."

"Maybe."

"And you call yourself goddess of ‘love’, undo the spell!"

Aphrodite sighed as if she’d seen the error of her ways; he did have a point - a little one, "Done. May I have my apple back?"

"I trust you - but not that much." Hercules hefted the apple in his hand, getting a good strong grip and pulling his arm back put all his considerable strength into letting it fly. He watched, satisfied, as the apple burned its way through the atmosphere. Someone, somewhere, would be seeing a red ball of flame cross the sky and wondering what the omen meant.

"There, that should take care of your spell."

Aphrodite seemed to be taking her loss well, "Leaving so soon?"

But Hercules wasn’t really bothered by her lack of reaction, he was now more concerned with getting back to Iolaus and sorting out the problems that Aphrodite had created. "You know, I’d love to stay and catch up with you, little sister, but you’ve made quite a mess of things, and I’ve got some cleaning up to do. See you round."

Hercules turned and left the cave without waiting for a farewell from his sister. She glowered at his back, she hated it when he called her ‘little’ sister, she was so not his little sister. Then again she’d have to kill him if he ever called her ‘big’ sister which was chronologically more accurate. Smiling again, Aphrodite pulled a golden apple from behind her back. It was a perfect replica of the original. Bringing it up to her lips and kissing it Aphrodite said, "How do you like them apples?" and laughed. Hercules had given it his best shot and he’d failed miserably.

Iolaus was still trying to free himself from Thera’s invasive hands, he’d had to cut her bonds to free himself from her embrace but now he was back to batting her away whilst praying fervently that Hercules would hurry up.

It took him a moment to realise that he was pushing at thin air and Thera was standing staring at him in horror. "Oh, by the gods, what have I done?" she sat bonelessly on the same boulder as before and dropped her head into her hands.

Iolaus was wary but hopeful that Herc had found Aphrodite and persuaded her to break the spell, "Thera? Are you okay?"

Thera looked up at him with troubled eyes, "How will Epius ever forgive me?"

"You’re not - you’re not gonna jump all over me?"

Thera managed a weak smile, "No Iolaus, nice as you are I don’t want to jump you or kiss you, or make mad passionate love to you."

Iolaus grinned for a moment, "Really? Shame." Before contritely sitting beside Thera, "Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Look, Epius will understand when we explain things to him - he loves you, believe in him."

Thera nodded and stood, walking towards the entrance of the cave, to look out at the sea.

Iolaus went to join her and they stood looking at the waves crashing on the shore for some time before he spoke again, "I’m sorry I dragged you into all of this."

Thera gave him a quizzical look and said, "You did, didn’t you." Before she became serious again, "I really do love Epius, what if he can’t forgive me?"

Iolaus could only reiterate his previous comment, "He will."

"Thanks."

Iolaus wasn’t sure that she had anything to thank him for after all the trouble he’d gotten her into, "What for?"

Thera turned to Iolaus, earnest brown eyes seeking out blue ones, "For not taking advantage of me."

Iolaus couldn’t answer that and Thera pulled him into a hug. Iolaus hugged her back thinking that it was strange that now she wasn’t fluttering her eyes at him and egging him on, Thera felt more like a favourite sister than a prospective lover. He returned her hug with conviction until he heard a dismayed cry from his partner.

Pulling away from Thera Iolaus was quick to assure his friend that everything was okay but Hercules’ reaction put a seed of doubt into his head. "No, no, it’s okay, it was just a - it was just a friendly hug - wasn’t it?"

Thera nodded with a smile on her face and none of the mad love for Iolaus showing in her eyes. Iolaus allowed himself to breathe again and he could sense the tension leave Hercules, so far so good.

Hercules was relieved, more than he would ever admit to his friend. Whilst he had every faith in Iolaus, he knew that the temptation that Thera presented him would have proved too much for the passionate man sooner or later, thankfully Iolaus had prevailed. "Good, then let’s go face the music."

Sidon and Diadorus were both pacing the great hall of the castle, neither one wanted to let the other see them leave first, and nor did they want to let the other out of their sight. Soldiers from both camps accompanied their Kings as they walked the room, up and down, up and down, wearing a path in the stone slabs that made the floor.

Sidon was the first to break the long silence, "Hercules should have been here hours ago, what’s going on?"

It was enough for Diadorus to stop pacing and speak to his men, "Ten minutes, then we leave for Delos."

Sidon had heard the order, and he turned to his own men, "The first thing I want you to do is sink those ships."

Diadorus, always up for a bit of brinkmanship and knowing full well that his opposite number could hear every word, said, "We’ll circle back on the way to the docks. It’s time to put and end to this, once and for all."

Before things could escalate any further there was a commotion at the door as Hercules, Thera and Iolaus entered the room. Hercules raised his hand stopping the outbursts that he could see dancing on the tongues of both kings. "Hi, Thera has something she wants to say."

Thera stepped towards Epius with trepidation, throughout the frantic pacing he had stood silently in a corner of the room, completely ignored by his father and his future father-in-law. When Thera entered the room his heart soared and he found himself beside her. Thera took a deep breath, and hoping against hope that Iolaus was right said, "Epius, I’m sorry. I - I know that I’ve hurt you. And if you can’t find it in your heart to take me back, I’ll understand but I can’t live without you. Please forgive me?"

Unnoticed an old woman had appeared in the hall, she was stooped with a dowager’s hump and she hobbled slowly past the soldiers, her gnarled hands holding a tray filled with apples. Her white hair wisped out from under a dowdy brown hood and the cape it belonged to billowed out around her. It wasn’t until she was on top of him that Iolaus noticed her and then it was too late, she bumped into him gracing him with a startled apology just as Epius said, "I love you Thera."

Thera opened her mouth to reply with the same token but her eye was caught by a glint and she looked up to see Iolaus holding a golden apple, her heart missed a beat, "And I love - Iolaus!"

Iolaus had barely looked at the old woman or the apples she carried, so, as she bumped into him and the apples were sent flying, it was instinct that made him catch the one that flew his way. He could have sworn that it had been a normal apple, red and juicy, but now with growing horror he felt the cold weight of gold in the palm of his hand and heard the dreaded words of love coming from Thera’s lips once again.

He was backed against the closed door and there was nowhere to run, instead he threw a pleading glance Hercules’ way before Thera closed on him, reaching out hungry hands. He dropped the apple in his attempts to push her away, but not wanting to hurt her and uncomfortably aware of the eyes that watched he was mostly unsuccessful. Shocked by her persistence and open nerve he found himself backed against the door trying to remove her hand from inside his waistband, "No Thera, no, please - no! There’s people here!"

Watching the furore from a far corner the old lady threw back her hood and shook out her now golden hair, Aphrodite’s tinkling laughter filled the hall as she disappeared in a shower of sparkles. Hercules saw her and exclaimed, "Aphrodite!" Looking round at the chaos that was beginning to take hold and hearing both kings declaring war on each other’s kingdoms he sighed, "I don’t believe this!"

Jason breathed in deeply and held the breath before exhaling with satisfaction; the air was clear with just a hint of lavender on the breeze. It really was a beautiful afternoon, a touch hot but ideal for sitting in a bower and enjoying the company of a … he really should stop thinking of Alcmene in that way. It was hardly appropriate to be thinking of the mother of one of his closest friends as if he could - as if she - well, but she was beautiful.

He let his reigns fall and his horse slowed, plodding along he pondered his feelings for Alcmene and what he should do about them, if anything. Lisisites stayed a discrete horse’s length behind, ready if the king wanted him but not intruding on his thoughts.

They arrived at their destination all too soon in Jason’s opinion, he wasn’t ready to see Alcmene; he didn’t know what to say to her or even if he should be there. After all he was king of Corinth, widower, recent drunk and friend to her son, she’d call him fool if he made any advances - wouldn’t she? She’d always been so good to him, but that was her nature wasn’t it? She was like that with everyone. It didn’t mean - he couldn’t let himself expect - he mustn’t hope that - Jason was beginning to feel like a tongue-tied teenager and now here he was dismounting and walking up the garden path, brushing past the roses and inhaling their heady scent. Roses always made him think of Alcmene, just like her, beautiful to behold, filling a house with joy and warmth, but if you crossed them the thorns were sharp and could easily taste blood.

Standing up taller and attempting to pull himself together by shaking himself and taking a deep breath Jason raised his hand to knock - just as Alcmene opened the door. It was hard to tell which of them was the more startled. Alcmene gave a little shriek and brought her hands up to her throat, Jason jumped and stepped back suddenly sure he was doing the wrong thing.

Alcmene was the first to recover, "Jason! What a lovely surprise. Oh, you did startle me. Now, I suppose you can’t stay for very long?" at Jason’s negative reply she sighed, "Well, never mind. Why don’t you go and sit in the garden whilst I get us some lemonade - would your man there like some too?"

Jason found himself relaxing in Alcmene’s presence and he smiled, "Yes, I’m sure he’d appreciate that. It’s a hot day for travelling."

Alcmene smiled, and it was obvious to Jason that she was pleased to see him and not at all put out that he was there without Hercules or her heart’s adoptive son, Iolaus. He had been right to come.

The great hall was in chaos, soldiers were running in six different directions, Sidon and Diadorus were shouting at everyone and anyone that came near them and Iolaus was struggling to extricate himself from Thera’s octopus-like arms. Feeling more like the damsel in need of rescue than the handsome hero Iolaus pleaded with her to see reason. "No, no, please Thera. No!" The last had come out as a yelp when a cool hand had once more managed to slide past his defences and started to unbuckle his belt.

Thera was oblivious of the bedlam her only thoughts were of her need for Iolaus, but when Epius spoke her name it was enough to make her look up, she turned so that she and Iolaus swapped positions and she was looking over Iolaus’ shoulder.

"Thera, how dare you! That’s twice you’ve betrayed me."

Thera giggled, "Uh, three times actually."

Epius could hear a muffled groan come from Iolaus but he was too stunned by her happy betrayal to consider what it meant.

Diadorus heard the ungrateful wench giggling, laughing at his son and his rage grew, "Kill them all!" he shouted staring meaningfully at Sidon.

Sidon blustered at the sheer effrontery of this guest in his palace whilst Hercules stepped in trying to calm things - yet again. "Wait, wait! Diadorus! Sidon had nothing to do with this."

Diadorus appeared to think about this for a moment before shouting to his soldiers, "Kill him anyway."

Sidon was almost growling now, "Well fine! Kill him," he pointed to Iolaus, "but nobody touches a hair on my daughter’s head!"

During this exchange Hercules had been sidling over to Iolaus who looked up from Thera to acknowledge his presence, "Look’s like we’ve outstayed our welcome."

Hercules pulled Thera from Iolaus and pushed her to one side, "Uh, yep." For once she stayed put, the sight of two dozen large soldiers bearing down on her was enough to cool her ardour briefly. She was looking forward to comforting a sweaty and bruised Iolaus after the fight though.

Hercules and Iolaus spared each other a quick glance before meeting with the oncoming soldiers. As he fought Hercules slowly made his way towards the balcony, the door would be no escape this time it would take too long to get it open, and there were too many men to defeat them all, not with Epius and Thera to protect, that left them the balcony. Knowing that Iolaus would follow Hercules concentrated on his target. From over his shoulder he heard Sidon yelling, "Come on, kill the little blond guy!" and he smiled knowing that the comment would fuel Iolaus desire to fight more than anything else could.

Thera was watching meekly, she couldn’t understand why they were fighting, it was so much fuss over nothing, but Iolaus - Iolaus was magnificent. He moved fast, ducking under blows and kicking out with lightning accuracy. Thera was admiring the way his muscles bunched in his shoulders as he punched his way through a group of soldiers when she felt an arm around her waist pulling her to one side.

It was Hercules and he’d taken advantage of a lull in the proceedings to pull her out on to the balcony. He lifted her onto the parapet where she squatted nervously and clung to him. "Let me go." Hercules gently pulled her hand away from his arm, "Can you swim?"

Fear had taken over for the moment and Thera stared at him as if her were mad, she looked down, the long, long way down to the white foamy sea below and looked back at him again, "Yeah, but..."

"Great, now stay here."

Thera couldn’t believe that this was happening to her, "No, oh, no. No. You have got to be kidding."

Hercules was about to go look for Epius and Iolaus but he didn’t need to go very far, Epius was pulling his fist back ready to crush Iolaus’ face with the force of his anger whilst Iolaus was holding up his hands in a placatory manner, "Hey, come on now."

"Epius!" this was all they needed, "What are you doing?"

Iolaus nodded vigorously, "Yeah!"

Epius looked at Iolaus for a long moment before letting his hand drop, he couldn’t blame Iolaus. He hadn’t taken advantage of Thera like he could have, but Thera… how could she have done this?

Hercules and Iolaus silently guided Epius to join Thera on the balcony, there was no time to pause the soldiers would work out where they’d gone soon enough.

They jumped up onto the wall even as they heard voices from within yell that they’d been spotted. Hercules took a breath, "On three."

He and Iolaus both shouted at the same moment, "Three!" and the four people jumped just as Sidon and Diadorus rushed onto the balcony with several soldiers in tow.

Both stared down at the sea, there was no sign of their children and then both cried out their child’s name in fear. Diadorus was first to tear his eyes away from the rocky shore below, he turned to Sidon, "This is your fault!"

Sidon’s reply was more appropriate for the school playground than a meeting between kings but it made him feel better, "You great big weasel!"

Diadorus was happy to respond in kind, "Tub of lard!"

Sidon had had enough, it was time for action not words, he called for his sword, Diadorus mimicked his actions and the two men led the way out of the castle towards the beach. There they would fight the battle they had both long been waiting for, there they would avenge their children and reclaim their heritage.

Hercules had chosen the spot they jumped from carefully, there were rocks directly below but only a short distance out the shelf dropped away and there was deep water. All four had jumped as far out to sea as possible to miss the rocks.

As she had jumped Thera in her fright had grabbed hold of Iolaus’ hand, Epius had noticed and his heart had torn a little bit further. She held on to Iolaus as if he were her only lifeline as they plummeted downwards and even the sharp shock of hitting the cold water couldn’t break him free of her.

Hercules and Epius were both somewhere nearby but for this moment there were just the two of them, the force of their fall pushing them deep into the water. As their descent slowed Iolaus pulled his hand free wanting to use it to propel himself to the surface but Thera had other ideas. He looked so beautiful to her in the murky water; his vest was ballooning away from his body, his hair golden snakes around his head. She wanted to touch him so badly; she needed to feel him - now. She pushed her body against his, grabbing his vest by the shoulders and pulling it down effectively trapping his arms. She ran her hands down his body, savouring the feel of his firm muscles rippling under her fingers, until she reached the fastening of his pants where she started fiddling, trying to free him of his clothes. Iolaus tangled in his vest only made things worse as he tried to free himself, growing more and more aware of his need for air. He tried to kick upwards but Thera came with him - they were closer to the surface but he was no closer to being safe. He couldn’t believe that a woman could be getting the better of him like this, but that was the story of the day for him wasn’t it? Women, whether they be god or mortal, putting Iolaus firmly in his place - under the heel of their foot. He thought of Aphrodite, and wished that she’d break the spell before one of them drowned.

Aphrodite wasn’t very far away, she was back in her cave watching what was happening, she was rather enjoying Thera’s attempts to divest Iolaus of his clothing until she heard his plea. He sounded so sincere, so desperate, it made her feel uncomfortable. Thera was forgetting that they needed to breathe, perhaps the spell had been a little bit too strong, the girl was so single minded.

Aphrodite could remember the petition she had received from Thera when she’d first met Epius, it had pleaded with the goddess to make things between the two kingdoms right so that she and Epius could be together. Aphrodite wriggled against the edge of the pool; she was feeling just a little bit guilty. And Iolaus, he’d been so darned good, resisting all of Thera’s wiles and even though Aphrodite had put her all into the spell he hadn’t allowed himself to be pulled along by Thera’s sultry flattery or her willingness to be his. That took strength, and it took compassion. He was also pretty cute, plus she couldn’t forget that he was Hercules’ best friend. She’d get it in the neck from her brother if anything permanent happened to his little buddy.

Sighing, Aphrodite waved her hand over the pool letting a sparkle or two rest briefly on the surface before dissipating. It wouldn’t do either of them any harm to have some of the old Aphrodite glitter in their lives, it was the least she could do. They had played their part for her and now there was nothing on earth that could stop the warring kingdoms from destroying each other.

She watched as Thera pulled back from Iolaus suddenly, and then pulled at his vest to straighten it. She watched as they propelled themselves speedily upward and bob up onto the surface like corks. She watched as Thera hugged Iolaus apologising and gasping for air, and she watched and laughed as Thera tried to straighten Iolaus’ clothing causing him great embarrassment in the process.

The two had lagged behind their companions so now they swam strongly to catch Hercules and Epius who had almost reached the shore.

Iolaus managed to pull himself onto the rocks only just behind Hercules and Epius, with Thera just behind him. Hoping that Hercules hadn’t noticed the little delay Iolaus shook his head to get the droplets from his hair and let out a short whoop of relief. All four sat on the rocks to recover their breath and Hercules turned to Thera in concern, "Are you all right?"

"No!" Her exclamation was partly in indignation at having to make the jump but mostly because she still hadn’t recovered from the shock of what she had almost done when under Aphrodite’s influence.

Epius had managed to regain his breath and said, "Yeah, really - what happened to one and two?"

Hercules and Iolaus looked at each other and shrugged grinning. Getting to their feet the four escapees from the palace made their way over the rocks to the safety of the beach. Standing on the beach Thera moved close to Epius and looked up at him, hating that she’d been made to forget how he made her feel for even a moment. "Epius? Look, I’m sorry. I know what I did was terrible, but please give me a chance to explain."

As Thera was speaking Hercules had heard the approaching voice of Diadorus, "That’ll have to wait, we’ve got company."

Iolaus pointed in the opposite direction, "That’s not all."

Now that he’d pointed them out they could all make out the figures moving behind the bushes and making their way down to the beach.

Hercules wasted no time, "All right, you two, wait in that cave." He pointed out the cave that Iolaus and Thera had hidden in earlier on. But Epius had other ideas and with a stubborn glare at Thera said, "I’d rather be fighting!"

Thera returned the glare, "Me too!"

Iolaus watched them thinking that they did have something in common with their father’s after all, but he was relieved to see that they complied with Hercules’ curt, "It’s not an option - now go!"

With reluctant steps the young couple made their way to the safety of the cave, but they wouldn’t retreat within, they stood in the entranceway - watching.

Iolaus gave a big sigh, puffing out his cheeks as he watched the soldiers approach, "I’d rather be fishing."

Hercules grinned at him before turning back to Diadorus’ men who were almost upon them, "Me too!"

The two groups of men gathered together on the beach, Delosians on one side and the Hilosians on the other, Hercules and Iolaus trapped in between. Hercules tried to mediate, still hoping that they could avoid bloodshed, but he wasn’t very confident. "Sidon, Diadorus, we need to talk."

Diadorus was looking around him checking the lay of the land and he caught sight of his son and the traitorous wench Thera sheltering in the mouth of a cave close by, he turned back to Hercules, "The time for talking is past Hercules." Diadorus called to his son, "If anything happens to me - kill her!"

Sidon panicked at the thought of his beautiful daughter being in danger and didn’t consider that Epius was highly unlikely to go through with killing her; instead he started babbling, his Captain whispering suggestions in his ear, "All right, all right. You win. Now, you just let her go and I’ll spare all your women and children! And we won’t burn your castle down, either! Now, you’ve got five minutes!"

Diadorus snorted his derision, Sidon snorted back. Hercules just threw up his hands and turning to Iolaus he said, "Can you believe these two?"

"You’d think they’d get tired of it."

"Doesn’t look like it."

As the kings finally gave in to their tempers and raised their hands to lead their men into battle Iolaus took a look around him and shook his head with regret, "Why does keeping the peace have to be so violent?"

As the two sides met in battle and Hercules and Iolaus did their best to diffuse the situation Thera tried once more to mend the rift that had formed between the two lovers, "Epius, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else to say."

Epius pretended to be watching the fighting intently, "Don’t say anything. I can’t believe what a fool I was to trust you."

Hercules was getting very frustrated, he was having no difficulty dispatching his opponents but it wasn’t helping to stop the fighting. He could see Iolaus battling away but with exactly the same results. They fought, soldiers dropping bruised and battered but the cause of the fight was still there. The two hot-headed short tempered kings were both shouting their battle cries at the tops of their voices, their anger enough to fuel Hephaestus’ forge for a month.

Iolaus turned and kicked out at a Delosian who was creeping up behind him, before rolling into the legs of three Hilosians, bowling them over. As he stood Iolaus saw a pink shimmer, he had to look away as he blocked a sword that was sweeping down to cleave his head, and fighting with the soldier he almost forgot what he had seen, but then there it was again, pink - diaphanous, see-through - pink. What on earth?

He yelled across at Hercules, "What’s she doing here?"

Hercules quickly dispatched his latest foe, sweeping the man off of his feet and swinging him round throwing him into some of his comrades. Hercules decided that the soldiers could battle it out on their own for a bit and he moved to intercept his sister, who seemed to be enjoying walking unseen through the battle. As he was turning away from the fighting he saw Epius pick up a piece of driftwood and hefting it like a club enter the fray. Not to be outdone Thera found her own weapon and followed him into battle. The two were soon fighting back to back and it gave Hercules more than a glimmer of hope.

Iolaus ran to join the demigod, ducking the occasional projectile as he went. "Herc? How come I can see her - nobody else can."

"I don’t know Iolaus, why don’t you ask her yourself?"

Iolaus turned to see an amused expression on Aphrodite’s face as she watched him, "Uh, yeah, um…"

Hercules took pity on Iolaus’ obvious discomfort and stepped in front of him, "It’s a good thing that they can’t see you or they might stop fighting."

Aphrodite just threw her head back and laughed, and Iolaus took a deep, shaky, breath trying very hard not to look at her long neck as it was exposed. She was still laughing a little when she said, "Give it up Hercules - it’s over."

Hercules inclined his head towards the two lovers who were still fighting, working together just as Hercules and Iolaus had been doing only moments before.

"Ah - sweet. But as much as ‘they’ are in love their fathers hate each other even more. They’re never gonna be able to live in peace - not after this."

Hercules didn’t seem too put out by this and Iolaus had started to wonder exactly what he had in mind. "So, you’ll win after all." Hercules shrugged, as if it weren’t the worst that could happen.

Aphrodite was gleeful in her victory, "I’m thinking of having matching gold shrines," she pointed her delicate finger to first one end of the beach and then the other, "there, and there. What do you think?"

"Well, I’m sure you’ll be very happy."

Iolaus thought that this was all very sweet and everything and he was sure that Hercules had something brilliant planned but he was getting very nervous standing here in the middle of a battlefield and not fighting. "Uh, Herc?"

"Yeah, okay Iolaus. Keep her busy for a minute."

Iolaus gave his friend his best ‘look’ it told a story of the long-suffering best friend, who was never told the plan and who always got the crummy jobs. Hercules didn’t have time to play though he just said, "You’ll think of something. Ask her why you can see her." Before he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Iolaus turned back to Aphrodite who was standing watching him expectantly. He hated that look, it made him feel as if she were dissecting him, looking inside his head and laughing at his thoughts. So he wasn’t at his most articulate when he tried to speak to her, "Um Hi!" He gave her his biggest grin and a little wave, "Um, you know, I just wanted you to know that I don’t hold it against you - all that golden apple stuff. I mean, you’re gorgeous and - it’s not like, I didn’t - I …" he was getting nowhere fast and her attention would be bound to waver any second so, desperate, he said the first thing that came into his head. "Can I have a kiss? Just a little one, on the cheek, just so I can tell my friends that Aphrodite kissed me - y’know?"

Aphrodite reigned in her desire to go ‘Awww’ and gave him a little smile instead. He deserved a reward for all his trouble, and he ‘was’ very cute. "All right Iolaus, but you do realise that I heard your prayer don’t you?"

Iolaus who’d been leaning in close to Aphrodite moved back to look at her, "Huh?"

She whispered in his ear, "Under the water - I saw you." Then she gave him a small but special kiss on the cheek. Iolaus’ pulled away with a blissful smile on his face. He felt just slightly guilty for tricking her but - it had been worth it and he was going to have to think about what she’d just said, she’d heard his prayer. Now that had possibilities.

Just as they pulled back from each other Hercules called out Aphrodite’s name and she turned to see him standing between Diadorus and Sidon, that in itself wouldn’t have been a problem but he was holding the golden apple and as she looked on in horror, he took Diadorus’ hand slapping it on to the apple, then he placed Sidon’s hand on the apple as well. His smile split his face as he watched the two men turn from sworn enemies to bosom buddies before his eyes.

Diadorus looked across at his most wonderful friend, "Are you all right my friend?"

And Sidon took Diadorus by his arms and held him tightly, "My brother, my brother!"

Aphrodite was furious, even more so when Hercules gloated, "How do you like ‘them’ apples?"

"You sure know how to ruin a girl’s fun." Aphrodite disappeared in a flounce of pink as Iolaus watched and laughed at her retreat. He’d got a little bit of his own back for the way she’d used him and it felt very good.

Jason stretched his legs out in front of him contentedly as he watched Alcmene pour him a glass of lemonade.

"What brings you here Jason?"

"Can’t a man pay a lady a visit on a sunny afternoon without a reason?" Jason’s voice was playful and he felt more relaxed here than he had in a long, long time.

Alcmene smiled as she sat beside him, "Oh, of course not, but I know you Jason. What brings you all the way out here?"

Jason sighed, it was always like this with Alcmene, she always knew when something was wrong and she never let you avoid a problem. She’d been like it with Hercules and Iolaus when they were kids and she was like it with him too. He decided that it was a good sign, it must mean that she cared about him.

"You, as always, are right. I needed to get out of the palace for a while." He turned and looked earnestly down into her face, "I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be than with you, here - so here I am."

Alcmene had a knack of seeming calm, even in the face of disaster, and Jason couldn’t tell what she was thinking as she stood and invited him to stroll around the garden with her. Lisisites stood and started moving towards them but Jason waved him off, they didn’t need a chaperone and this was probably the safest place on earth.

Linking his arm through hers Jason enjoyed the peace that fell over him, the air was heavily scented with rose and lavender and the grass was soft beneath their feet as they strolled slowly through the garden.

Jason sighed, "I had to get out of the palace Alcmene. It’s so full of memories, so full of the children and Medea."

Alcmene stayed silent just tightening her grip on his arm briefly in acknowledgement.

"I’ve had to win back the respect of my men after - well, I was a mess and they lost all respect for me. I can still see it in their eyes now, it wears me down. Everything’s so grey now."

Alcmene patted his arm and bent to a rose, cupping its petals and inhaling the scent, "It won’t be easy Jason, you miss your family terribly - of course you do, and the palace is still full of them, but that will fade and your men will see that you have recovered from your grief. You just have to hold on Jason, it will get better."

Jason smiled down at her, "Have you always been so wise?"

Alcmene laughed, "No my dear, not at all, but with two son’s and one who is like a son to me, that are always getting into trouble I’ve had to learn."

Jason laughed, it felt good to laugh, it had been too long since he’d felt so happy. "It’s not just the ghosts of my family Alcmene, I just - being King, I’ve missed so much. I get jealous of Iolaus and Hercules you know. They can go where they want, when they want, no cares no responsibilities except to themselves."

Alcmene frowned slightly but Jason continued before she could voice her thought, "Okay, that’s not entirely true, but they chose to be responsible, I don’t have the choice. Sometimes I just wish I could live in a little cottage with a lovely garden and enjoy a beautiful sunny day."

Alcmene suddenly felt shy and she looked up to realise that they were now behind the cottage and that Jason’s guard was out of sight. She stopped walking and looked up at him, "Like here?"

Jason felt a lump in his throat and he nodded, "Like here, with you."

Cupping her face gently in his hands Jason looked carefully into Alcmene’s eyes, he wanted to be sure she wanted this too. She smiled and tilted her head back closing her eyes, and briefly but oh so sweetly their lips touched.

It wasn’t until the following day that the wedding finally took place, with all the pomp and ceremony a truly royal wedding deserved. It was a beautiful wedding and there wasn’t a dry eye in the palace when the bride and groom kissed for the first time as man and wife - although Iolaus swore later that he’d had a bit of grit in his eye at the time.

The newlywed’s fathers both behaved themselves impeccably although Hercules did get a bit tired of the way they would constantly corner him and thank him - profusely - for bringing them together. And while Thera and Epius sailed away to an undisclosed location for a few days of marital bliss plans were already being made to unite the two kingdoms in more than just marriage.

As Hercules and Iolaus took their leave, trade agreements were being signed and the two men slipped away almost un-noticed as the two kings argued, each insistent that the other should have a bigger percentage.

As they made their way down the steep path to the beach Iolaus laughed, "Whew! Can you believe those two?"

Hercules chuckled, "Yeah, just a bit different from yesterday morning."

"Thanks Herc."

Hercules pretended amazement and did a double-take, "Huh, you’re thanking me! What for?"

Iolaus shrugged, "Well, y’know, Aphrodite and all that stuff. I’m sorry."

"Hey, don’t be. Who can resist the thought of eternal love?"

Iolaus’ face took on a far off dreamy expression, "Yeah." He sighed. "Hey, did you know what a terrific wise man I make?"

And he went on to regale Hercules with the fantasy Athena had shown him as they walked. Finally reaching the beach and walking across the black sands, Iolaus’ thoughts returned to the apple that he’d been given there, "Boy, I’m never going to look at an apple the same way again."

"I know what you mean. You know my cousin Asclepius?"

"The one who does medicine?"

"Yeah that’s him, he’s always saying, ‘An apple a day keeps Asclepius away.’ I could never figure out what he meant by that."

Iolaus watched as two boys swam through the surf ahead, he couldn’t be sure because of the sun’s glare but he thought they had a piece of driftwood from the wreck with them. "Who could, have you ever read one of his prescriptions?"

As they got closer he could see that the boys were indeed playing with a board, standing on the waves and flying over the surface of the foam. The excited yells and whoops of joy reached the two men as they passed by, and Iolaus couldn’t resist, he cocked an eyebrow and Hercules and said with a sarcastic lilt, "It’ll never be popular - really!"

Hercules just shook his head in amazement and Iolaus laughed. It felt good to know that just occasionally he was right about something and Hercules was wrong. He planned to remind his friend of this on a regular basis.

THE END



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