The Other Side

by MaryEand Quietwolf

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Robert Bielak

“Oh, no, no, no, no, no! I love ya, Herc, but I’m not going to pick pansies in the Great Meadow with you,” the handsome blond joked. He looked down at the tall demigod from his perch on the low hanging branch he’d chosen to rest upon after his unsuccessful bid to catch a squirrel for lunch. His blue eyes were fairly shimmering in the bright sun of the most glorious late-spring day.

“They’re herbs, Iolaus, herbs of healing,” Hercules muttered with mild irritation. He pushed himself off of the sturdy oak that marked the furthest point of his mother’s property and turned to face his best friend.

“You can call them whatever you want, Hercules. I’m still not going to pick them with you. While you’re out there in the Great Meadow with the pansies or herbs and other green growing things, I’ll be engaging in the manly art of hunting. Somebody’s got to put meat on your mother’s table,” Iolaus exclaimed as he flashed his friend a teasing grin. He pulled an arrow from the quiver that was slung over his shoulder and admired it just for show.

It was only going to be a four-day trip but the time would pass so much quicker in the company of his friend. The demigod really wanted Iolaus to come with him.

“These herbs are important too, Iolaus. Mother used up almost all her stores to patch us up after our run-in with Echidna and Hera’s archers. I’ve got to replenish her stocks for the next time,” Hercules urged.

“So pessimistic of you, oh, great demigod. How can you be so sure there’ll be a next time?” Iolaus asked just one second before nicking his finger on the arrow head he’d been fingering. “Ow!” he exclaimed jerking his bleeding finger up to his mouth for soothing.

“I rest my case. Here, let me see that.” Hercules took Iolaus’ proffered hand and examined the cut. “You’ll live. You should really come with me. The Meadow is right next to Asclepius’ temple. It wouldn’t hurt to drop in and pay your respects. You never know when you might be needing a favor…”

“No thanks, Herc. I think I prefer to stay as far away from your relatives as possible. Even Asclepius and I happen to like him,” Iolaus replied as he brought his finger back to his mouth for some additional soothing.

“Okay, I’ll tell him you said ‘Hi’. You’re sure you won’t change your mind?” Hercules cajoled one last time.

“Nah. I’ll go up into the hills a little to the west, catch a good-sized stag if I’m lucky and I’ll meet you back at your mother’s in four days. Deal?” Iolaus flexed the bow and took a practice shot to test and compensate for his injured finger.

“Deal,” Hercules agreed. Faced with his partner’s stubborn insistence he could do no more. With a smile and a wave farewell, Iolaus slipped into the shadows of the forest and Hercules turned in the opposite direction heading out towards the road.

The breath of Spring washed over the meadow, a humid reminder that the nightly rain showers brought the lush green grasses and colorful abundance of wildflowers that spread before the elderly swineherd as far as the eye could see. “Spring is here, Sal,” he said to the piglet he clutched protectively under his left arm. “The gods have blessed us with another beautiful day.”

A lovely young woman with a riot of brunette ringlets knelt in the middle of the meadow picking wildflowers. She rose when she heard the swineherd approach.

“Were you talking to me?” she asked.

The man was used to seeing this young lady in the area so he was not astonished when she seemed to pop up magically out of the tall grass.

She smiled when she saw the man carrying the littlest pig while leading his other charges towards his farm. “You were talking to your little friends, weren’t you?” she asked. “ May I pet him? They’re all so cute.”

“And they’re smart, too,” he responded with a proud, wide grin. “You can train them like you would a dog.”

“Shouldn’t they be in pens?” she asked.

“No. I don’t believe anything should be locked up,” he answered her. His voice strong with conviction.

“Oh, that’s a beautiful thought,” she said admiringly.

There was a barely perceivable flash, and a stately older woman appeared behind the two. A stern voice that only the young woman could hear called out.

“Persephone, what have I told you about talking to strangers?!”

“Oh, Mother, he’s harmless. He’s just a swineherder,” the young argued.

Neither being able to see nor to hear the older goddess, the swineherd took offense and defended himself to the young woman. “Herding pigs is an important job.”

“Typical mortal,” Demeter sniffed dismissively.

“Who are you talking to?” the swineherd asked the young woman. He had always thought she was so nice. Now he was beginning to wonder if she weren’t a bit touched in the head.

“Sounds just like your father,” Demeter said as she looked down her nose disdainfully at the puzzled old man. Then turning to address her daughter once again she asked, “Believe me, the less you deal with them, the better off you are. What are you doing here, anyway?”

“Well, you made such a wonderful spring day, I’d thought I’d take advantage of it. Look at all the lovely wildflowers,” Persephone answered with a heartfelt sigh as she spun slowly on her heel to take in the beauty of her surroundings.

Demeter’s face softened just a bit with a smile for her beautiful daughter. “No prettier than you, my dear.” Then looking over Persephone’s shoulder the goddess exclaimed, “Oh, my. Look at that poor oak tree. I must tend to it.”

The gentle breeze abruptly stilled. The birdsong was cut off in mid trill and an instant later the earth shook violently toppling the swineherd off of his feet and scattering his charges far and wide as they ran wildly in their fright. The beautiful blue sky suddenly filled with blackened clouds and the sound of thunder surrounded them. Something strange about the thunder. It sounded as if it were coming from the very ground under their feet instead of from the sky.

“Gods above!” shouted the terrified swineherd. He threw himself, prostrate, to the ground and cowered in fear.

The sound of wild, booming laughter filled the air, overpowering the thunder which now could clearly be identified as the storming hooves of a team of dark horses at the lead of a black and silver chariot. “Ha! Ha! Ya! Ha! Ya! Whoa!” commanded the driver who was cloaked in black from head to toe

Although the young woman could not see the driver’s face, nor any markings on his cloak she knew this being who disturbed the serenity of the day. Daughter of a deity or no, Persephone was frightened. “Hades! No, Hades, no!” she screamed as his chariot circled her then roared to a stop just inches from her side.

Anxious for the safety of his charges yet too afraid to even raise his head, the poor old swineherd called to his youngest piglets, “Phil?! Sal?!”

Hades ignored the cowering old man, leant over the side of his chariot, pulled Persephone to him with his strong arm around her waist and tried to soothe her as he ordered his horses to race off. “Come on! I’ve gotcha! Yah!”

“Noo!” Persephone wailed pitifully.

“Yah! Yah!” Hades urged his horses to fly away at top speed.

Shortly after dawn on the third day of his travels, Hercules emerged from the tree line of the forest that surrounded his destination. He stood still, drinking in the perfect view, absorbing the peace of the morning into his soul. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply the scent of the wild flowers that wafted across the tall grasses on the tail of a gentle breeze.

In this state of meditative calm, the demigod could sense the rumbling of muted thunder sending small shock waves through the muscles in his thighs and calves. His eyes shot opened the moment he registered the disquieting sensations and they were immediately drawn by the rapid darkening of the sky above the central meadow which was less than a mile from where he was standing. He knew something that evolved this quickly must be from the gods and it was his cue to investigate.

With the ground beneath his feet undulating and shifting, the demigod slowly and cautiously approached the area but he accelerated to top speed when he heard a woman’s screams. He was still about a quarter of a mile away from the center of activity when the screaming stopped, the ground stabilized and the sky returned to a brilliant sparkling blue.

Trampled grass, deep wheel ruts and other evidence of a scuffle told Hercules that he’d been too late to help. He raised his eyes to scan the area and they immediately settled on the shimmering manifestation of an irate goddess.

“Demeter?” the demigod asked quietly.

“He took her, and now she’s gone!” she mournfully exclaimed.

“Who took who?” Hercules asked, trying to understand what could fill the stern goddess with such anger and grief.

“Hades-- he kidnapped my daughter and took her to the other side.” She snapped at him.

“He took Persephone? But why?” Hercules asked.

“Because he hates me. Hercules, you have to help me,” she commanded.

He recognized that he might have been willing to help his aunt before, but her domineering and imperious attitude immediately reminded him of why he steadfastly refused to have anything to do with his father’s side of the family.

“What can I do?” Hercules asked. “I mean, if Hades is behind this, it’s a problem for the gods.”

“You’ve been to the other side and have come back,” she stated, as if it were an everyday occurrence for a living being to travel to the underworld and back.

“This isn’t my concern. You and Hades are both gods. It’s reason enough for me to stay out of it,” Hercules replied over his shoulder as he turned his back to her took a step in the direction that would lead him to Asclepius’ temple.

“There’ll be consequences if you turn me down,” Demeter growled after the retreating demigod.

“I’m willing to suffer them,” Hercules told her. Then biting back a stronger retort because, after all, she had just lost her daughter, Hercules added, “I’m sorry for you-- but I can’t help.”

“You’re going to be a lot sorrier before I’m through!” Demeter threatened before disappearing from the meadow.

From her temple high atop Mount Olympus, the heartbroken goddess whispered chilling words that traveled throughout the land of Greece on the light spring breezes.

“The Earth shall be as barren as my heart.” And so it was.

By the time Hercules had made his way across the meadow to Asclepius’ temple, gathering the herbs needed to replenish his mother’s stock along the way, the wind had picked up and clouds filled the sky, erasing the gentle springtime warmth from the land.

Hercules ascended the marble steps to greet his cousin and shivered when a blast of freezing air swept up stairs right behind him. “Demeter,” Hercules whispered under his breath. “Nothing is ever easy.”

Hercules hadn’t stayed at his cousin’s temple more than an hour before heading back to Thebes. In that short amount of time, the sky had filled with storm clouds, the air had become frigid and a heavy snow began to blanket the green meadow in a thick white coat.

Asclepius recognized the demigod’s urgent desire to return home. He gifted the demigod with some healing potions and salves. He gave Hercules a pouch filled with food and a warm cloak to throw over his shoulders and sent him on his way.

The trip home was taking at least twice as long as it should have. The storm created almost white out conditions. About an hour before sunset on the second day, he could barely see three feet in front of him. He knew he would have to find shelter for himself or risk his life in the open.

Sheer luck had him stumble across the carcass of a dead goat who appeared to have been struggling through the snow to get home to its pen.

Hercules searched the area and saw what appeared to be a thin wisp of smoke rising above the trees which were not too far from where he stood. He homed in on the source of the smoke and eventually found himself standing before the door of a small but sturdy farmhouse.

The farmer and his wife recognized the demigod from their many trips into Thebes and they joyfully welcomed him into their home.

“I wish I could offer you something-- but all of our food is gone - destroyed in this instant freeze,” the farmer said as he ushered his most welcomed guest to a seat near the hearth fire.

“This usually is fertile land. You must have lost a lot. I’m sorry,” the demigod replied. Then he offered to share what he had left in his food pouch with the hungry family.

They settled by the fire after the spare meal and the farmer spoke. “Last year, we lost our goat herd to pestilence. We were counting on this year’s crop when-- ”

“-- the storm,” Hercules finished the man’s sentence in a low angry tone which was filled with disgust for Demeter’s cruelty.

“Now, the last of our livestock has died. All the other farms are having the same problems-- frozen livestock-- frozen crops. We were already living on the edge when this storm hit,” the farmer continued filling Hercules in on the situation.

“Here,” Hercules said as he emptied his money pouch onto the farmer’s kitchen table. “It’s not much, but it’ll help tide you over.”

The farmer appeared as if he were about to refuse the demigod’s offer of funds. He looked to his wife whose eyes caught and held his for one pleading moment then he blinked and extended his hand to Hercules. “I wouldn’t accept it,” he replied, “but for the kids.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Hercules assured him.

“When the goddess of the harvest turns against you--there’s not much anyone can do,” the farmer muttered as respectfully as possible.

Hercules studied the man, his wife and his children. He shook himself out of his thoughts and replied with conviction. “Yes, there is. “

He donned the warm cloak, shook the farmer’s hand and braced himself to head out once more into the freezing cold. “Thanks for the use of your fire,” he said as he swept out of the door.

Iolaus had been tracking an enormous stag for almost twenty-four hours. It was almost mid day on his third day out and he’d have to bag it soon if he wanted to make it back to Alcmene’s in time to meet up with Hercules as promised. He was determined not to return empty handed and put up with the demigod disparaging his hunting skills.

Between one moment and the next, the air around him seemed to change. He’d been aware of the warm rays of the sun hitting his right shoulder and his chest as he crouched, half hidden in a thicket of hazel waiting for his prey to approach. The very next second the sun blinked out and frigid air raised goosebumps on his arms and neck. A strong, cold wind whipped through the clearing before the thicket and the stag charged in as if it were being chased by a monster.

Ever alert, and with a quick prayer to Artemis, Iolaus let his arrow fly straight and true bringing down the great stag with the one shot. Iolaus prepared the animal with swift efficiency, additionally motivated to speed by the beginning of a highly unusual springtime snowfall.

Iolaus began to worry in earnest when the snowfall failed to let up after a couple of hours. He could understand the occasional quirk in the weather. It had happened once or twice in his lifetime, but usually not this far south and never for longer than an hour or two. What was happening now was a full-blown, wild storm that usually only occurred in the mountains to the far north.

The sky had been dark from noon and with the stars blocked out he could only guess at the passing of the time. He found a shallow cave in which to spend the night but he was awake well before dawn, too worried to return to sleep. He realized that this particular storm was not going to let up, that it was so sudden and devastating it must have been another demented act from one of the gods, and that he would have to get back to Alcmene’s as quickly as possible to consult with Hercules.

He skinned the deer and tied the pelt, hair-side down, to his upper body. It didn’t smell nice and looked rather disgusting but it kept him a lot warmer than his open vest. He scrabbled together a pallet on which to carry the carcass of the stag. Soon, between the deerskin and the effort used to drag the pallet through the snow, Iolaus found himself fairly warm.

He’d been walking for at least five hours when he stopped to get his bearings. He drank from his water skin, determined the direction he would need to take through the woods in order to reach the road to Thebes then he hoisted the pallet’s handles and made for the road when the faint wailing of a child carried to him on the wind. He stood very still and listened to the keening cries and realized they were coming from the direction of the road. He went to investigate.

The scene Iolaus encountered made his heart heavy and his eyes fill with tears. In a shallow gully off the side of the main road, a child huddled on its father’s lap, in the shelter of an overturned wagon, weeping inconsolably. A woman, with a newborn babe draped across her stilled chest lay bloodied and dead only feet away from them. The horse that had pulled the wagon lay on its side broken and dying.

Iolaus dropped the pallet he’d been dragging and slowly approached the man and the child. The man looked up at him and Iolaus held his arms out showing that he was unarmed and approaching in peace.

“The horse slid on the icy road pulled the wagon after him,” the man whispered through dry and cracking lips. “I was knocked out for a while and when I came to I found that my wife had broken her neck in the fall and miscarried our son. She died only minutes after. That was last night.”

“You must be freezing. I’ll get a fire started because I don’t see how we’ll be able to get back on the road this late in the day,” Iolaus told him. The man made an effort to rise but Iolaus stopped him. “You stay here with the child. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”

The little girl, who stopped crying when Iolaus first approached her father, looked up into the kind blue eyes of the hero. She gave him a small, wan smile then she closed her eyes and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep.

Iolaus collected a good supply of wood, set up a large campfire and set a haunch of the stag over the flames to roast. He dug a shallow grave for the man’s wife and covered it with rocks to protect the body from any hungry predators then, before they lost the last bit of daylight, Iolaus examined the wagon and determined that there was no real damage.

In the morning, the man helped Iolaus to right the wagon and to pull it back up to the road. They set the little girl in the bed of the wagon along with the carcass of the stag and the two men pulled it all the way back to Alcmene’s where she offered them shelter and comfort.

At dawn on the seventh day Hercules arrived home and spotted his partner near the barn chopping wood. Iolaus heard the crunching footfalls in the hard-packed snow. He set the axe aside, wiped his hands and the sweat from his forehead as he watched his partner approach then fell into an easy hug of greeting.

“I’m glad you’re back Hercules. We were beginning to worry about you,” Iolaus said with a quick relieved smile.

Hercules went to the side of the woodpile, picked up another axe and worked silently beside his friend until he though they had enough to supply their needs for the day.

“We’ll be needing a little more today, Herc,” Iolaus informed him quietly. “We have some company.” And then he went on to explain about what he’d found on his hunting trip.

Hercules explained the situation with Demeter as they sat over their breakfast. Then he spoke to Iolaus and his mother about his plans to rescue Persephone and set things right with Demeter once more.

“I’ll get my things. We should be leaving immediately,” Iolaus said, rising from his seat opposite the demigod.

“You can’t come with me this time, Iolaus,” the demigod told him. “You wouldn’t be allowed to return from the other side.”

“You can’t do this alone, Hercules. You need someone at your back. I’ll take my chances.”

“I can’t let you do that Iolaus. Besides, you’re needed here to look after mother and the townsfolk. This is only going to get worse before it gets better and I can’t trust anyone else with the responsibility.”

Iolaus hung his head in disappointment but he knew he couldn’t let Hercules down when the demigod relied on him for this special kind of support. Sometimes the demigod needed Iolaus to stay behind and take care of things he would normally only trust himself to do. This was another way that Iolaus watched out for him, by guaranteeing his peace of mind so he could be free and clear to do the job before him.

Iolaus raised his eyes to meet Hercules’. He couldn’t speak, only nodded his understanding and consent. Hercules knew how much it hurt his friend to be left behind like this and his eyes turned liquid in the flickering candlelight as he silently acknowledged his partner’s sacrifice with deep gratitude.

The howling wind still stoked the smoldering logs in the hearth while the oak boughs rocked overhead, laden down with snow and ice so they smacked threateningly against the roof beams, breaking the silence and signaling that it was past time for the Demigod’s journey to the other side.

“Demeter-- I’ve reconsidered,” Hercules shouted to the cloud-filled sky over the exact location in the great meadow that marked Persephone’s kidnapping.

“I thought you might,” drawled Demeter’s cold, cynical voice seconds before she actually appeared at his side.

“What you’re doing to mankind is unconscionable,” he snapped as he turned his angry gaze upon her emotionless features.

“What Hades did to me and my Persephone is unconscionable,” she spat at him.

Hercules looked about at the bleak and frozen world surrounding them and sneered. “You’ve made your point. Let’s get on with this.”

“I’ve talked to the other gods. You’ll be allowed to go to the other side. Find my daughter and bring her back,” she informed him.

“As easy as that. Hades is a formidable god. He rules the other side-- all of it,” Hercules responded, making sure she knew that he wasn’t to be dealt with lightly.

Demeter considering his words and bowing to reason said, “and he’ll use everything in his power to keep Persephone there-- demons, ghosts, monsters-- he’s full of sorcery and tricks.”

Hercules was still wary of his aunt’s intentions and pressed her for the exact terms of this bargain. “And if I go and return with Persephone, you’ll set nature back on course-- the weather-- the harvest?”

“You have my word,” she agreed. “Just remember, you can’t eat the food of the other side. And once you start back don’t look behind you.”

“Or what?” Hercules brows shot up in concern at her warning.

“Or you’ll be stuck there forever,” she replied.

He considered her words for a moment then he nodded his consent. “How do I get there?” he asked.

She stared at him unblinkingly and suddenly the earth opened up under his feet and he was falling into a great yawning pit.

Hercules landed with a sickening jolt on the sandy bottom of the seemingly endless pit. Cursing Demeter under his breath, he shook his head and assessed himself for any possible damage before pulling himself to his feet.

Before he would allow the darkness surrounded him to creep into his soul. He stilled himself, allowing his senses to become attuned to his surroundings. Into this peaceful state came to him the faint voices of children at play. “Give me the ball! Give me the ball!”

He turned in the direction of the sound and strode into the darkness. Moments later he could hear the quiet lapping of moving water against its banks. The water noise almost overpowering the light, heart-tugging laughter of the children.

A few more steps and Hercules could begin to discern the faint flickering of torch light not too far ahead. Then several steps later the grating, familiar voice of one who had been here too long pulled the demigod up short.

“Stop! Hold it right there!”

“Charon?” Hercules called out. He listened closely and now he could hear the distinct swish and stir of the boatman’s oar as it disturbed the surface of the Styx. His transport was close at hand.

“Aw, it’s you, Hercules. Great, I feel really fortunate,” the ferryman snapped sarcastically.

“You don’t sound surprised to see me,” Hercules noted.

“Well, what’s the surprise? We all know you’re coming,”

“You do?” the demigod puzzled.

“In fact-- Hades is really looking forward to it,” Charon said with a barking laugh. “ Oh, boy -- have you got your work cut out for you,” he added, seeming to take an almost sadistic joy in knowing what his boss had in store for the unwitting demigod.

Hercules was just about to ask Charon what he’d meant by his remarks when a squeal and a grunt interrupted his thoughts.

“That pig,” Hercules pointed at the source of his distraction.

“Yeah, cute, huh?” the boatman chuckled. “I’m gonna eat him later. Actually, I-- I fell on a bit of luck the other day. Or I should say, a bit of luck fell on me-- nearly broke my neck. And then-- I’m standing there-just minding my own business-- and Hades comes along in that stupid chariot of his-- you know-- driving like a maniac-nearly knocked me down. Still-- you don’t look a gift pig in the mouth, do ya? Actually, it’s very difficult to get food around here.”

“So I hear. This chariot-- Persephone in it?” Hercules asked, fishing for information.

“Persephone? Oh, yeah, well, you know, Hades has got a big thing about Persephone,” Charon confided.

“Then, he did kidnap her?” Hercules asked, a bit confused over this piece of information.

“Well, you know-- there’s two sides to every coin-- speakin’ of which-- you still owe me from last time,” Charon complained.

“Yeah-- put in on my tab,” Hercules told him as he climbed into the ferryman’s boat and made himself comfortable for the long ride across the Styx.

“Tab? What is that?” Charon asked. Annoyed that he was once again being taken advantage of by Zeus’ son.

“I can’t believe you’d do something like that! To anyone!” Persephone huffed in defiance as she faced down the god of the underworld.

“I did what I had to do,” Hades tried to reason with the peeved goddess.

“You’ve probably aged my mother twenty years! She’s very emotional, you know,” she argued, not really able to be angry with this handsome, brooding god whom she dearly loved.

“I can’t change what’s already been done,” he reasoned.

“You could have talked to her, or something,” Persephone said with a heart-wrenching little pout that Hades would have thought quite endearing and sexy if he didn’t know how manipulating it was really meant to be.

“Right. All I had to do was ask her, and she’d let you come and live on the other side to be my wife. Hah! When Tartarus freezes !” Hades yelled in frustration.

Persephone looked truly shocked at the god’s uncharacteristic tone of voice and Hades realized that she could mistake his frustration with the circumstances as being anger aimed at her instead. “Look” he said in a much calmer tone. “I’m sorry if I caused you or your mother any grief. I only did it because-- I love you.”

“Oh, great-- that justifies it. You love someone, so you can do whatever you want,” she snapped.

Hades hadn’t expected such a tart rejoinder after he’d opened his heart to Persephone. This was definitely going to be much more difficult than he’d first believed. “Why don’t you relax-- have some food? You haven’t eaten since you got here,” he cajoled in an attempt to change the subject.

“You know I can’t eat the food of the other side. I’ll be stuck here forever,” she pouted once more.

“Would that be so bad?” Hades asked, putting all of his hope in his eyes for Persephone to see.

“What about my mother?” she asked in a small voice.

“She can come visit. We’ll build on an extra room,” he said as Persephone allowed herself to be taken into his arms.

“She’d never go for it,” the goddess whispered as she rested her head on the god’s broad shoulder.

“That would be her loss,” Hades murmured into her hair before kissing her forehead and tightening his arms around her.

“That was a pretty wild chariot ride,” Persephone commented, thinking back over Hades’ grand romantic gesture.

“We can do that any time you like,” the handsome god replied as he gazed lovingly down at the goddess he had so long desired.

“Oh, Hades! Why does it have to be like this?” she cried and buried her head in his chest.

The boat was close to the far shore of the Styx and Charon, once again began to push the demigod for some sort of payment for his services. “I just don’t get it. How come, whenever I deal with you, I get the short end of the stick?”

“Ah.” Hercules replied. “It only seems that way, Charon. It’s because of your negative outlook.”

“Negative?! How can you say that?! I mean, look around. You see any sunlight? Any dancing girls? This ain’t exactly a cheery place, you know,” the boatman groused as the boat touched the shore and Hercules jumped over the side..

“I’ll tell you what,” Hercules bargained. “I’ll make it up to you. Keep that pig alive till I get back and I’ll give you a special recipe for him.”

“Hah!” exclaimed Charon, his interest finally piqued.

“There’s garlic…” Hercules teased.

“Garlic…” Charon repeated greedily.

“Honey...” Hercules equally sweet voice tempted.

“Honey…” Charon drooled.

“I’ll give the rest to you, later,” the demigod said.

“All right,” Charon reluctantly agreed. “But remember, you owe me two gold coins.”

“Yeah, I’m good for it,” Hercules assured Hades annoying lackey.

“Well, don’t leave town!” Charon joked. “Ah, I don’t know. I should charge him interest. I should charge him a lot of interest,” the boatman muttered as he pushed away from the shore.

Once on the far side of the Styx, the voices of the children became louder as Hercules approached Elysium.

“Your turn! Here!” a young boy’s voice called excitedly.

“Wait for me!” a little girl’s voice anxiously replied.

The demigod almost stumbled through a gate that surrounded an exact duplicate of his old homestead. The sun-kissed, golden brown curls caught his eye first. He would recognize each strand, each delicate wisp. His hands reacted first, reaching out towards the woman that the tempting tresses adorned.

She sensed his approach and turned towards him, her deep brown eyes lighting with love and welcome.

“Hercules? Hercules!” she cried as she flew into his arms.

“Deianeira,” he whispered unable to get anything more past the construction in his throat and across his suddenly dry lips.

“I am so glad you’re back,” she murmured into his ear.

“Back…” he whispered again as he tried not to drown in the waves of emotion that assaulted him.

“You’ve been gone much too long this time,” she said as she pulled back a bit to look her husband over and make sure it was real. “I swear, if you were gone any longer, you’d be-- a stranger to your own children.”

“Too long,” he managed to say in just a little stronger voice.

“Awww, gosh Hercules, I know you’re a busy man. You have monsters to slay and-- villains to battle. We should be grateful we get to see you at all. You must be starving. Come on, let me fix you something to eat,” she said, falling into full wifely mode with ease.

“Wait. Let me say hello to the kids, first,” Hercules stalled. He knew he couldn’t eat while he was here. He’d have to try to put Deianeira off for as long as he could. It would be so hard to explain.

“Oh! What am I thinking about?” suddenly remembering that the center of her world included others. “Children! Your father’s home!”

“Daddy’s home?” a young boy’s voice reached him before the child emerged from behind the house.

“Aeson…Clonus,” Hercules breathed into the hug as the bodies of his sons hit him and clung.

“It really is Daddy! Daddy!” a little girl’s voice joyously rang out as she followed her brothers into their father’s arms.

“Ilea,” he whispered into his daughter’s curls, once again overtaken by his emotions.

“Daddy, I missed you,” she whispered back and the demigod’s eyes filled with tears.

His arms tightened around his beautiful daughter as he told her, “I missed you too, Ilea. I missed you all so much.”

“Are you crying, Daddy?” she asked as she looked at him with the empathetic eyes of the very young and innocent.

“No-- no, it’s the wind-- just-- blew something in my eye. Ilea-- my little baby,” he assured her but tightened the hug just a little bit more.

After a little chit-chat and catching up on the news his children wished to share with him, Hercules found himself rolling around on rug before the hearth with his two young sons who also wanted to show off their wrestling skills.

“One arm for each of you!” he breathlessly laughed at their antics.

“Yeah!” the boys shouted in unison.

“OK, everybody, let’s sit down and eat before the food gets cold,” Deianeira called.

“In a minute. I just wanna finish teaching these boys how to wrestle, first. Whoa! Who’s there? Who was that? Who was that? Oh, you wanna wrestle, too? Huh?”

“You act like you haven’t been home in ages,” his wife commented.

“I just want to enjoy this while I can. You know-if something else comes up and I’m off, again,” he replied.

“Well-- let’s enjoy it, later. Let’s eat first,” Deianeira insisted.

“All right, let’s go!” Hercules seemingly gave in. He rose to his feet so he could make his way to the table but the boys had other ideas and would not let him go, clinging on to him and pulling at him. Whoa! Hey! Wait a minute! This isn’t fair!” Hercules laughed with a joy he hadn’t felt in so very long.

Hercules sat on the edge of the bed removing his boots as he nervously waited for his wife to finish dousing the lights in the rest of the house. There was so much wrong with this. He had a job to do down here. How could it be that he didn’t seem care anymore. How had he allowed himself to become so totally distracted. How could he not have.

“Hi,” Deianeira’s soft voice roused him from his thoughts.

“Hi,” he replied simply as he watched her approach.

“You know, I don’t understand. You haven’t eaten anything all night. You OK?” she asked in concern.

“Hmm-- I’ve never felt better,” he uttered the standard reply and was shocked to realize that he really deeply meant it.

“Well, you would think that fighting hydras and protecting the innocent would work up some kind of appetite,” she cajoled.

“My appetite is fine. I’ve-- got other things on my mind,” he replied truthfully.

“Ah, then maybe food is not what you’re hungry for. You’re probably not ready for a main course. A little appetizer? A little something to nibble on?” Deianeira teased, yet her words struck Hercules with the force of a stunning blow. They held the complete truth of the matter. He was starving for this. Missing this. Pining away for the simple normalcy and comfort of loving arms to rest in, knowing laughs, shared tendernesses.

Finding himself once more approaching emotional overload he opted for lightning the mood. “Nibbling is good.”

“Hm-hmmmm-- I’ve got just the place,” she teased as she pushed him back onto the mattress and straddled his hips.

“Show me,” he growled as he pulled her down into a hungry kiss. The time for teasing was well past.

The ruler of the underworld and his Persephone stood before a scrying mirror in the god’s magnificently appointed quarters. They were watching the love play between Hercules and his wife in her Elysian home.

“Hades-- don’t be a voyeur,” Persephone urged the dark god as she blushingly turned away from the achingly poignant coupling depicted in the mirror.

“They do make a nice couple,” Hades said admiringly.

“Come on. Give them some privacy,” the goddess urged once again.

“Give me one good reason,” Hades said with a smile as he turned his eyes away from the mirror to focus on his own true love.

“I can give you several,” she seductively replied. Finally glad to have his full attention. “Come on. Leave them alone,” she said, grabbing his hand and leading him towards their own bedchamber.

The village of Thebes was all but buried under several feet of snow. Iolaus and the farmer he’d rescued from the side of the road several days before had finally made their way into town to make certain all the people there were taken care of and to help with the collection of fire wood and food. Game was too easy to come by. Animals by the hundreds were being chased out of the forests and hills by hunger. The sudden return of winter was devastating all of nature.

Three young children were found alone, cold and hungry, in a ramshackle home on the edge of the village. The frozen body of their widowed father found in the tool shed behind the house. Iolaus left the farmer with instructions to bundle the children up as warmly as possible while he found them a wagon to transport them all back to Alcmene’s house. She would know what to do for the children.

Iolaus spotted the horse and carriage tracks that turned off the main Corinthian road heading in the direction of Alemene’s home. The horse and wagon he’d borrowed in the village to carry the children was traveling at an extremely slow pace due to the snow and ice and he couldn’t contain himself in case the other carriage meant trouble. He jumped down from the driver’s seat and threw the reins to the farmer, telling the man to follow him to the house.

Iolaus ran ahead, sure of foot, and three times quicker than the horse and wagon could ever do in these conditions. As he passed through the gate to Alcmene’s home, he instantly recognized the carriage as that of the royal house of Corinth. He reached the porch, shook off much of the snow that clung to his garments and entered the house to find King Jason being served tea by their friend’s mother. Well, actually she was serving the king a mug of tea with her right hand only because her left hand was occupied, gently and soothingly combing through the wavy hair on the king’s bent and crownless head.

Iolaus quickly turned his back on the touching scene and called to her over his shoulder as he removed his fur-lined cloak. “Alcmene.”

The startled woman pulled her hand back as if burnt and shoved the tea mug into Jason’s hands, whose head shot up at the sound of his friend’s familiar tenor voice.

“Iolaus, we have company,” Alcmene managed to say in a steady voice.

“I noticed the carriage outside,” he replied with a shy sad smile for her. “And we’ll be having more company in just a little while. The new mill hand froze to death. We found his children though. They’re chilled to the bone and hungry as can be. I couldn’t think of where else to take them.”

“You did the right thing, poor dears. We’ll make room for them,” she assured Iolaus before going to make preparations for their arrival.

Then, Iolaus turned his attention to his old friend. He approached the king with open arms and hugged him as the older man stood in greeting. “It’s good to see you, Jason. What brings you out here in this gods awful weather?”

“I figured this situation was some curse from Olympus and that you and Hercules would be busy taking care of the gods that caused it.” Jason answered. “The least I could do would be to come here to check on Alcmene’s safety. So as soon as the situation in Corinth was secured, I headed straight here. Also, if anyone had the slightest chance of knowing what was going on it would have to be Alcmene.”

Iolaus poured himself a mug of tea and stood next to the hearth to warm himself as he filled Jason in on the situation.

The children arrived with the farmer soon after and the attention of all of the adults in the house were focused on the needs of the orphans. All hands worked together to provide a warm dinner and to share the chores.

Before turning in for the evening, Jason excused himself to check on the horses in the barn. Moments later Iolaus followed to retrieve the tools he would need to make some small repairs inside the house the following morning. He found Jason pulling a large flask from his saddlebag. The older man uncorked the stopper with a trembling hand, took a long drink then stuffed the flask into the pocket of his cape. Because the king hadn’t heard Iolaus’ approach, and because Iolaus felt as if he’d witnessed something he wasn’t meant to, he kept it to himself for the moment. But it didn’t sit right with him. Alcmene had several casks of fine wine and ale in her kitchen. There had been no need for Jason to sneak a drink like a guilty schoolboy.

The bedroom he usually shared with Hercules had been given to the farmer and Jason. The farmer’s daughter and the three orphans were huddled together for warmth in the middle of Alcmene’s large bed and the demigod’s mother slept uncomfortably across the bottom. Iolaus grabbed a blanket and his bedroll and made himself comfortable on the rug before the hearth. He was warm, he was full and he should have been drowsy but he couldn’t erase the sight of Jason from his mind.

The tragedy of what happened to Jason’s family was fading news. He and Hercules hadn’t seen their friend since Iphicle's wedding and he was disturbed to see how the whole incident had aged and seemingly defeated his boyhood hero. There would be only fitful snatches of sleep for him tonight.

And so it was that Iolaus and Alcmene, neither able to sleep that night, found themselves in the quiet hours before dawn sitting across from each other on the hearth rug sharing their worries.

“Clonus, you are getting so strong,” Hercules stated with pride as he played with his younger son early in the morning following his arrival in the underworld.

“‘Cause I wanna be just like you when I grow up, Daddy,” the boy said as he hugged his father around the waist

“I wanna drive chariots when I grow up, Dad. Just like uncle Iolaus,” his older son Aeson chirped in as he showed his father a wooden carving of a chariot and three horses.

“Oh yeah? You think you can handle that?” Hercules admired the proffered carving as a truly contented smile swept across his lips.

“Yeah! Just like a regular grown up hero,” Aeson happily replied. Then he launched himself at his father without warning, trying to bring him down in a wrestling hold while Clonus worked at upsetting his father’s balance.

“Huh?! I’m gonna get you guys!” Hercules laughed heartily at his sons’ joint effort. “I’m gonna get you! You’re not getting away from me!” He joyfully roared as they ran away from his tickling fingers.

Hercules saw a movement just outside the garden gate and halted in the middle of all the horseplay when he recognized the intruder. “Persephone,” he called.

“Hercules,” the goddess acknowledged.

“How did you get away from Hades?” the demigod asked as he picked himself up off the ground and dusted himself off.

“He’s off doing his rounds in Tartarus,” she replied.

“So, you weren’t tied up, or guarded?” he asked. Not really expecting that she had been but curious to get her reaction just the same.

“Why? Where is there to run?” she replied with just enough sarcasm to keep the demigod guessing. “How’s my mom?” she asked him.

“How do you think?” He replied with subdued anger. “Maker of thunderstorms and tornadoes.”

“She’s so sensitive. Any little thing goes wrong, and she has these giant mood swings,” the goddess replied.

“I’ve noticed,” Hercules rejoined with his own turn at sarcasm.

“I keep telling her to take some herbs or something-- help even it out,” Persephone continued.

“Ah, she’ll be fine once we get you back,” Hercules said, getting straight to the point.

“Back where? What’s wrong? Is she in trouble?” Persephone asked, finally realizing the seriousness of the situation.

“Yeah,” Hercules answer cut short by his wife’s appearance in the garden.

“Oh. So, I guess that means you’ll be leaving again,” Deianeira addressed her husband with a nod towards the young goddess. “Well, I can’t let either one of you leave on an empty stomach. How about if I fix something to eat?” She knew she was being sickly good natured about the presence of the young woman in her garden, but Hercules had just returned to them and she wanted to hold him with her for as long as she could.

“Oh, I’m starving but I can’t,” Persephone said

“Oh, of course you can! Come on! Come on in the house!” Deianeira said, grabbing her husband’s hand and forcing the issue.

Hercules turned to Persephone and, shrugging his shoulders in defeat, he invited the goddess to follow him to the house.

“Doesn’t she know we can’t eat the food from the other side?” Persephone whispered when she got close enough to the demigod to do so without calling too much attention to herself.

Hercules sighed before replying. “Deianeira, the kids…they don’t know they’re dead. They’re reliving the happiest moments of their lives.”

“That’s quite a problem, Hercules,” the goddess said.

“A small one, Persephone, right now my biggest problem is getting you back.” Then making sure no one in the house was watching them, Hercules grabbed Persephone by the hand and headed out of the garden with her, his only thoughts to get her across the Styx before Hades returned from Tartarus.

Part Three by Quietwolf

Hercules had barely taken three steps when a brilliant light exploded around him and he felt himself falling. A bit dazed, he rose out of the clammy mist that swirled along the ground and tried to get his bearings. The house was gone, and the lush garden and the bright sun were replaced by an ominous gloom. He took a deep breath of the musty, stagnant air that had so recently been perfumed by fragrant flowers, realizing he was surrounded by a group of wraiths. Once beautiful women, now skeletal figures of torment, they didn't seem to notice him as they moved back and forth with their buckets in an exercise of futility.

“We cannot rest until we fill the well," they chanted in toneless unity.

Looking around, Hercules spied other tragic figures in the throes of torture. He moved toward the man closest to him, intending to help, but a voice behind him halted him in his tracks.

“Don’t bother. If he had lived a better life, he wouldn’t be here.”

“Hades," the demigod acknowledged his uncle as he materialized in a blinding flash of light.

“Welcome to Tartarus," the god greeted him glibly. "Or, as I like to refer to it as, the other side, of the Other Side.”

Hercules glanced around again, fixing his sights on a man chained to an iron rack, being relentlessly tickled with a feather on the soles of his feet. The man screamed, his voice raw and hoarse from voicing his unrelenting torment.

“That’s cruel," the demigod reproached his uncle as the man turned his wild eyes toward him, his face twisted in agony.

“No crueler than he was in his previous life," Hades told him, unrepentant. "Believe me, he deserves it.” He turned to cast a stern gaze over his nephew. "And you better watch yourself if you want return to the world as you know it.”

“Do you know what’s going on up there?" Hercules asked, hoping to appeal to whatever compassion might be lurking inside the dark god's brooding heart.

“I hear Demeter is a little mad," Hades replied offhandedly.

“‘Gone mad’ is more accurate," the demigod informed him. "She’s ruined the harvest with winter storms. People are starving... dying.”

“The woman does have her moods," the god of the underworld shrugged.

“What do you expect? You kidnaped her only daughter.”

“‘Kidnaped'," Hades sneered. "Demeter would say that.”

“You were wrong in taking her, Hades," Hercules insisted. "She’s going back.”

“Not if I can help it," Hades declared loftily, obviously not considering the half-mortal son of Zeus as much of a threat as he stalked off into his kingdom.

Hercules sighed and was about to follow when a flicker of movement caught his eye. An emaciated man was tied to a post, straining to get at a vibrantly red apple that dangled just out of his reach. With a defiant glance after his uncle, the demigod moved over to stand beside the poor soul.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," the man murmured, his head lolling weakly. "The direct approach.”

“Here," Hercules offered kindly, pushing the apple down within reach. "Let me help you.”

"Head on. Head on,” he continued after taking several grateful bites of the tempting fruit.

The demigod looked at the man with sympathetic eyes, but he realized he needed to defer to Hades' area of expertise. Tartarus was reserved for mortals who had committed the foulest, cruelest, most merciless acts in their earthly lives, so it was probable that this fellow was forced to endure his torment for good reason. And although it went against his nature, Hercules left him where he was, gently patting him on the shoulder.

“Good luck, my friend," he said softly.

“His bark is worse than his bite," the man moaned as the demigod moved off.

Hades was long gone, but the road out of Tartarus turned into a bridge that stretched across a moat to a large castle. It wasn't any cheerier than Tartarus, but it was ornately adorned and Hercules realized it could be no other than his uncle's home. And most likely, it was where he would find Persephone, for he was quite sure Hades hadn't left her sitting patiently back in the garden. The demigod crossed the bridge with an air of determination, and came up to a massive iron gate that was chained shut. He ran his hands over the thick rings of metal as the starving man's words came back to him.

“A chain’s weakest link. Head on," he repeated. "Well, my friend, maybe you weren’t so delirious after all." Hercules broke the chain easily with his hands and eased it from the gate. But as he slipped inside, he was immediately greeted with a snarl as a huge three-headed dog with glowing eyes emerged from the shadows. "Cerberus," he said a bit nervously. "We’ve been down this road before. I didn’t hurt you then, I won’t now." With utmost care he eased passed the beast that growled but did not attempt to stop him. "So much for a guard dog," the demigod muttered as he dashed up the stone staircase in search of Persephone.

A hand clamping over her mouth startled her out of sleep and Persephone bolted up with a muffled gasp, only to be quickly shushed.

“Hercules, what are you doing here?” she asked as he released her.

“I thought we went over that," he answered wryly.

“But how did you get past Hades’ dog?”

“We’re old acquaintances," he told her shortly, tossing her gown to her. "Get dressed.”

“You know, Hades really isn’t so bad," Persephone began as she scurried behind a screen to change.

“Right, the guy who abducts girls," the demigod snorted, going to the doorway to check for trouble. "They should build a statue for him.”

“He just has this reputation of being cold and uncaring," she retorted. "People forget he’s also in charge of the Elysian Fields.”

“You like him?” Hercules demanded, moving to the window to check the outside.

“I think he’s wonderful," she sighed, coming out from behind the screen and placing her golden headband over her curls. "Look, if he’s been cruel to anyone in Tartarus, it’s because they deserve it. And besides, he’s kind of sexy.”

“‘Sexy’?" the demigod yelped in disbelief, moving across the room to face her. "He kidnaps you, your mother sends nature on a rampage, and all you can think of is...‘Sexy’?”

“So, he’s not perfect," Persephone pouted. "Who is? That doesn’t mean he can’t change. If the right person came along.”

“Well, it won’t be you," Hercules told her in no uncertain terms. When he saw the petulant look come over her face, he sighed, trying a different tactic. "Do you two have any idea what your mother’s moods have done to mankind? People are dying up there.”

“I’m sorry," the girl said faintly, finally grasping the seriousness of the situation. "I...I didn’t realize.”

“Well, you do now," the demigod said firmly. "Let’s get going.”

“Wait.”

“What?”

“The pig." Persephone pointed to the small animal that was bedded down in the corner of the room.

“What about it?” Hercules frowned.

“It belongs to the swineherd I was talking to when Hades grabbed me. His pigs were like family. We have to take him back with us.”

"Persephone, we don't have time for this," the demigod argued.

“Please?" she begged, looking up at him with innocent, beseeching eyes.

“What is it with people and pigs?" Hercules muttered to himself. "All right." He stooped to pick up the pig, which didn't appreciate being plucked from it's bed and was not shy about vocalizing it's indignation. Persephone grabbed her bag and they turned to leave, but an armored figure with a horned helmet and a large spear came bursting into the room.

"I think it’s best if you wait back here," the demigod ordered, pushing Persephone out of harm's way.

Hades' soldier attacked, and Hercules kicked out at the spear with one leg and then kicked his opponent with the other. Juggling the pig in his arms, he managed a free hand, grabbing his foe by the scruff of the neck and heaving him across the room where he shattered into lifeless pieces. A second guard appeared and the quick thinking demigod tossed the pig to him

“Hold this!" As the soldier clutched the animal, Hercules leapfrogged over him and kicked him squarely in the butt, causing the brute to launch the pig high into the air. The demigod caught it as it plummeted back down. "Thanks," he said amiably before kicking him again, sending him sliding off into the corner in a disintegrating heap. He turned around, finding himself facing down two more adversaries. Hercules lashed out with a series of punches and kicks before tossing the pig in the air. Twice more he launched the animal in order to pummel the underworld warriors that kept appearing. But finally he dismantled the last of them, posing to catch the pig with dramatic flair as it hurtled back down to the ground. He looked over to Persephone with an air of impatience. "Let’s go.”

She hurried after him and the pig, which was now stunned into silence after it's involuntary aerodynamic exhibition. They quickly navigated the stone staircase, but as they reached the bottom, Hades, himself, materialized in their path.

“I won’t be that easy," he declared ominously.

“Wait over there," Hercules told Persephone, pushing the pig into her arms. As soon as she was out of the way, Hades began to charge.

“Let’s settle this right now.”

The demigod grabbed a discarded sword from the stairs just in time to block his uncle's spear. They began to fight fiercely, the clash of their weapons ringing loudly and drowning out Persephone's pleas for them to stop until Hercules finally managed to pin Hades up against a wall with his own spear.

“Give it up!” he shouted.

“I’ll fight you unarmed if I have to," the god retorted. "But I won’t let her go!”

“Hades, I’m taking her!” Hercules insisted.

But his words proved incendiary, and Hades quickly fought his way free. They brawled viciously, and the very underworld shook with the force of their blows. Hades finally got the upper hand, and loomed arrogantly over his nephew.

“Give it up, Hercules! You’re no match for a god!”

But the demigod disagreed, ducking a savage punch and landing one of his own. The battle raged on for what seemed like hours, until Persephone began to believe it was never going to end. Hercules got in a lucky shot, sending his uncle tumbling across the ground. Hades repelled his advance, sweeping the demigod off of his feet, but he seemed to lack the strength to rise. Equally, Hercules was in no hurry to get up, so they sat exhausted side by side, panting heavily and investigating their injuries.

"That’s a heck of a right you have," Hades finally conceded.

“You took it pretty well.” Modesty was not a trait the gods understood, and Hercules saw no need to humble himself.

“You took most of my best shots, too.”

“You sure we can’t talk this out?" Hercules asked. "I mean, we can keep this up all day, but, eventually, I am going to beat you.”

“I doubt it," Hades countered, mildly amused by his nephew's righteous confidence. "But let’s talk. I've got to catch my breath.”

The god of the underworld was frustrated. All he wanted was to be with the woman he loved. A simple enough desire, yet he was being denied at every turn. In hindsight, his methods may have been a little extreme, but his intentions were pure. After eons of existence, he'd finally found true love and happiness, but the Fates were apparently doing their best to see that it all never reached fruition. He'd even stooped so low as to seek Aphrodite's help, but the flighty goddess of love had been too distracted to give him anything other than 'the path to love is never easy'. But the really ironic part was that the one who was giving him the most trouble was the one who should have understood better than anyone what he was trying to do. Sighing, Hades glanced over at his nephew as they strolled through the underworld, deciding to try one more appeal. One from the heart.

“Tell me, how much do you love Deianeira?”

“It’s... beyond measure," Hercules replied as they entered Tartarus. "When she and the kids went out of my life, it left a void that can never be filled.”

“That’s how I feel about Persephone," Hades explained, reaching out and automatically moving the half eaten apple out of the starving man's reach. "I just wish her mother would understand that.”

“Have you talked to her about it?”

“Talked, cajoled, pleaded, threatened," the god explained in exasperation. "I’ve tried everything. She just won’t let her have anything to do with me.”

“Mothers can be very protective," Hercules reasoned.

“Try ‘Overprotective.’" Hades paused, becoming thoughtful. "I don’t know, maybe it’s my manner or my clothes. They won’t even let me come around the Elysian Fields any more. Claim I’m too gloomy.”

“A change in wardrobe couldn’t hurt.”

“You think I dress badly?” the god demanded, offended.

“Well, not badly," the demigod placated him. "But... dark.”

“Take a look around you!" Hades commanded indignantly. "You think this is a fun job?! Not only have I got the Elysian Fields to think of, I’ve got Tartarus and the Asphodel Meadows! I’ve got an image to uphold!”

“Dress however you want," Hercules said impatiently, wanting to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand and away from the surreal. "What are we going to do about Persephone?”

“Hercules," the god murmured plaintively. "She’s the only bright spot in this whole place.”

“Can’t help that," the demigod told him. "What you did was wrong.”

“If you take her, I’ll be doomed to the same emptiness you felt when you lost your whole family.”

Hercules' heart went out to his uncle as he saw the sincerity shining from his eyes. He did sympathize with Hades and he hated to cause him the pain of loss, but the fate of mankind was worth more than one god's happiness.

“I can’t let her stay," he said regretfully. "I made a deal.” He left Tartarus and returned to the massive iron gates where Persephone was waiting, still clutching the pig in her arms. “Persephone, let’s go.”

“Hercules," Hades cried out, running up behind them. "Take your wife. I’ll change the rules. Take your whole family if you want to. Anyone. Just leave Persephone here, please.”

The demigod closed his eyes against the surge of emotions welling up in him. To have Deianeira and the kids back was his most cherished dream, and now he was being given the chance to realize that dream. But what kind of a life could they have together in a frozen wasteland? He opened eyes that were shining with tears and looked at Hades. Just as he had sanctimoniously denied his uncle happiness to save mankind, he now had to deny his own to do the same.

“I can’t.”

They started to move forward, and when Hades tried to stop them Hercules lashed out with a punch that sent his uncle reeling. Taking Persephone's arm, he pulled her along as they began to run. They made it to the Styx, and before Charon could even start in on him, Hercules began spewing out his promised recipe as he helped Persephone into the ferry. By the time they reached the far shore, the boatman was almost beside himself, salivating with anticipation.

“Ha-ha-ha," he chortled. "Oh now that’s, uh, three cloves of garlic, a pinch of basil-- oh, oh, oh, boy-- I’m lookin’ forward to this. Yeah."

They bumped up against shore and Persephone threw Hercules another beseeching look. Not having time to argue, he leapt out of the ferry, leaving Charon to give the lady a hand while he scooped up the pig that was still tethered to the dock.

"Hey, where’re you goin’ with my pig?!” Charon demanded.

“I promised I’d give you the recipe," the demigod told him. "I didn’t say I’d let you use it.”

“Ah, now wait a minute!" But the ferryman's argument was halted as Hercules kicked the boat, sending it drifting off back into the river. "Ah, no, I can’t believe he did that!" Charon grumbled. "Whatever happened to respect?!”

“Hercules!” Persephone called out as he quickly ushered her along.

“No, no second thoughts," the demigod said forcefully. "We’re going!”

“Hercules, please, wait!” she begged, trying to pull free.

Right in front of them, a huge, gaping fissure opened up in the ground, cutting them off from their escape with a yawning void full of molten fire.

“He doesn’t give up, does he?” Hercules muttered, mostly to himself.

“I... I can’t go," Persephone declared pitifully. "I love him.”

“Sorry," the demigod tossed off rather insincerely. "We don’t have time to debate this.” First he heaved the two pigs across as gently as he could, then he swung the girl up onto his back, bracing her against his strong shoulders as he prepared to leap the great divide.

“Hercules, where are you going? And why did you just take off without saying goodbye?"

It was a voice he'd recognize anywhere, rich and full of warmth. The voice of the woman he loved.

“Hold on," Hercules ordered through clenched teeth, finding it took all of his strength to heed Demeter's warning and not look behind him. Taking as long a running start as he could get, he jumped with all his might, sailing over the fiery pit and landing just shy of the other side.

“Please, please come back," Deianeira's voice cried out. "Don’t leave me." Her voice slowly turned into Hades', although the heartbreak it contained was just as palpable. "Please! Don’t leave me!”

Hercules latched on to ledge with one hand and reached the other down to Persephone, who had lost her grip on impact and was sliding down his body to the abyss below.

“Here, grab my hand!" She did, with impressive strength. "Still want me to let go?" he asked wryly. She gasped in terror as she looked down at the river of fire churning below. "I didn’t think so.”

Using Hercules as a ladder, Persephone began to climb up to the ledge, and she was none too gentle about it. As he was getting kneed in the back, elbowed in the head, and kicked in the face, he grimly reflected that he hadn't been pummeled this bad since he was a boy at the bottom of a bagball pile-on. But finally she made it up and turned to peer down at him.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome," the demigod replied as he popped up beside her. He got to his feet and helped her do the same. "Come on.”

Demeter was waiting at the entrance that led back to the living world, and she cried out her daughter's name with joy when she caught sight of her approaching.

"Mother!" Persephone greeted, realizing how much she'd missed her.

“Wait!" Hades ordered, stepping out from behind a stalagmite and halting the reunion. "You can’t go out there.”

“She belongs to me," Demeter insisted angrily. "You know the rules. Hercules made it back.”

“I know the rules," the god retorted smugly. He moved toward Persephone, stooping to pick up the pomegranate that had rolled out of her bag when she'd dropped it at his appearance. The same one he tried to tempt her with when she'd first arrived, and a temptation that apparently had proven too strong. He displayed the bitten fruit triumphantly for all to see. "Eat it and weep.”

“You ate the food of the other side?” the goddess of the harvest reproached her daughter.

“I couldn’t help it," Persephone protested. "I was starving.”

“Hercules brought her back! She stays with me!” Demeter shouted.

“She ate the food, she’s mine!” Hades roared back.

“Now hold on, both of you!" Hercules ordered, stepping in between them, ready to end this once and for all. "I hear a lot about what you want, and what you want, but I don’t hear what she wants." He turned, moving to stand before the girl, his voice gentling in kindness. "Well, Persephone, what do you want?”

“I don’t know," she murmured, more used to taking orders than having choices. She looked back and forth between the two deities that she loved, and then fixed an innocent gaze on Hercules, the one man who seemed to care what she thought. So she told him the truth. "Both, I guess.”

“You can’t," Demeter snapped.

“You have to pick," Hades agreed.

“She already has," the demigod mediated. "She wants both. She can have both. She ate half the fruit. That means she can stay half the year on the Other Side with Hades, and half on Earth with her mother.”

“There’s no way!” Demeter screeched.

“I’ll take it to Zeus!” Hades threatened.

“Quiet!" Hercules thundered, suddenly feeling the urge to beat his head against the wall. What was with the gods, anyway? It was no wonder Zeus spent as little time on Olympus as possible. Taking a deep breath, he turned back to the girl. "Does that work for you, Persephone?" At her nod, he fixed a withering look on the two gods. "Then it should work for all of you. You both claim to love her, and if that's true, then you'll each stop this petty selfishness and do what makes her happy."

“Who gets her first?” Hades wanted to know.

“That’s for Persephone to decide," the demigod replied firmly, driving home his point that they needed to stop treating her like a prize to be won.

“Mankind is suffering," the girl announced, not needing more than a moment to make up her mind. "Mother needs to get nature back on course." She gave Hades an apologetic glance. "Six months really isn’t that long.”

“It’ll seem like an eternity," the god sighed dejectedly.

“Oh, Hades!” Persephone ran to him and threw her arms around him. He hugged her tightly and met her lips with his in a burst of explosive passion.

"Not one word," Hercules commanded, halting the indignant outburst Demeter was about to make. She stepped back, muttering under her breath, and he turned to the lovebirds who were painting such a tragic picture. "And you two... It's not like you can't go up and visit her, Hades."

"Well," he said thoughtfully. "There is that feast on Olympus next week."

"Just be sure and bring your chariot." Persephone grinned wickedly and kissed the god goodbye. “I’ll see you soon, my love. Think of me.”

With a small wave, she moved to join her mother. Demeter embraced her happily as she led her out of the Other Side, back to the world.

“Oh, I missed you, my dear.”

Hercules watched them go, shaking his head slightly. It occurred to him that his little Ilea had more sense than the gods did. He turned to his uncle, who was still staring after the departed figures.

“Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got some pigs to deliver," the demigod announced, moving toward the entrance to try and find the little squealers.

“Hercules," Hades called out, halting him. Having recently experienced love and loss for the first time, the god was feeling very empathetic to his nephew and wanted to do something to both thank him and make things up to him. At least, as much as he could. "Don't you want to say goodbye first?"

"It's been an... interesting visit, Hades," Hercules began. "But I really don't think..."

"Not to me," the god interrupted, a smile of amusement twitching his lips. He waved his hand, opening a scrying mirror to show Aeson and Clonus chasing each other around the house while Ilea trotted after them.

"I want to," the demigod whispered past the lump in his throat. "But I don't think I should. It just isn't right." He glanced at his uncle, who was staring at him, perplexed. Hercules sighed, not knowing how to explain himself when guilt was not an emotion with which the gods were familiar. "They don't even know they're dead. How can I go back and pretend everything's normal? It's not fair to them that I enjoy myself while they don't even know the truth."

"Is that what you want?" Hades asked. "For them to know the truth? To spend their lives knowing that they are dead in the Elysian Fields while you're back up there? To know that you aren't ever going to walk through that door for a visit?" The lord of the underworld moved forward and placed a surprisingly compassionate hand on his nephew's shoulder. "It may be an illusion, but they are far happier with it than they ever would be with the truth. They are happy here, Hercules. They miss you, but one of their greatest joys is in the hope that maybe today will bring a visit from you, or your mother, or 'Uncle Iolaus'. Don't take that away from them. Let them live in peace, rather than with the knowledge that their lives were stolen away by Psycho Hera."

"You're right," Hercules murmured, although that did little to ease the pain in his heart.

"So while you're here, why don't you go and say goodbye?" the god suggested gently. "Don't analyze it. Your visit made them happy, and from what Persephone let me see, you appeared to be enjoying yourself. If you still need a reason, you can think of it as closure. The goodbye you never got to say when they died."

The demigod paused, considering it. He still didn't feel right about it, but he knew he had to go back since he had disappeared so abruptly. Deianeira would wonder what happened to him and would definitely start to worry if he didn't return. And he knew Hades was right. He needed closure, and a loving goodbye would go a long way in completing his healing process. And deep down, he wanted to see and hold and kiss his family just one more time, no matter how much his conscience protested the charade.

"I guess a goodbye is in order," he admitted, turning his back on the entrance back to the world.

"You have acted bravely and fairly throughout all this, Hercules. I never thought it was right, what Hera did to you, and I wish I could do more to help," Hades said somberly. "But your family is safe here. I give you my word that I'll take care of them."

"Thank you, Hades," the demigod told him gratefully, reaching out a hand. The god of the underworld grinned slightly and took it, and Hercules immediately experienced the blinding light and disorientation with which he was becoming annoyingly familiar. Once his head cleared, he picked himself up off the ground, squinting slightly in the bright sunlight. Without hesitation, he headed for the door of the house, dusting himself off as he went and calling out for his wife.

Alcmene laughed as the three children latched onto her amid a chorus of "thank you"s. Kneeling down, she hugged them all tightly and kissed them, assuring them they were all very welcome. Jason collected the orphans, lifting them up into his carriage and eliciting giggles when he pretended that the youngest was too heavy for him to pick up. Once the children were settled, he turned to Alcmene and Iolaus, who were waiting to see them all off.

"They'll be well taken care of at the castle until we can find a home for them," he promised, although his assurance was not necessary to the two he was addressing.

"Just be careful driving back," Iolaus advised his old friend, glancing down the road that lead out of Thebes. There was still snow on the ground, but it wasn't going to last long under the warm sun's gaze in what was shaping up to be a balmy spring morning. Mud was a much more likely hazard.

"We'll take it slow," Jason vowed. He reached out, shaking the hunter's hand warmly. "It was good to see you, my friend." Turning, he embraced Alcmene, hugging her tightly. "And thank you, Alcmene, for everything."

"It was my pleasure," she told him. "Come back soon, Jason."

He climbed up into the carriage, and with a fond wave, he set the horses on the path back to Corinth. Iolaus lifted a hand, his blue eyes troubled with concern for his friend. Jason was functioning, but that was all. There was no life in him, no spark. While he had become much more dignified and stoic as he'd grown into his monarchy, there had always remained a bit of the eager playfulness that defined him as a boy. But not anymore. The tragedies of his life had worn him down, leaving him empty and hollow. He desperately needed to find the will and desire to carry on, and the hunter was worried about what would happen to his old friend if he didn't find it soon.

"He'll be all right, Iolaus," Alcmene reassured him, reading his mind like few could.

"I hope so," he sighed. "I know he's still grieving, but I just thought he'd be starting to get past it by now."

"He's had a lot to deal with, and unfortunately he's had to deal with most of it on his own," she reasoned. "Give him time. He's strong, and he'll come around eventually."

"I feel like I should have helped him more," Iolaus confessed as he took her arm and began leading her back inside. While he was out living the life of adventure, it was sometimes easy to forget about the people back home dealing with their own problems. "Herc and I should have been there for him."

"There's nothing you could have done," Alcmene comforted him. "Jason understands, and he knows that he has your support."

"All the same, I'm glad that you're looking out for him," the hunter told her. He knew from long experience that Alcmene's wise council was often the only thing that made sense when the entire world seemed to be spinning out of control. And the fact that Jason was seeking that council made him feel better about the king's state of mind.

"He's come to me a few times, but I wish he'd come more often," she sighed. "He thinks he's imposing, and I can't seem to convince him otherwise. But he knows I'm here when he needs me, so that's a start. And maybe having those children around will be just the thing to help him learn to embrace life once more."

"You really care about him, don't you?"

"Well, of course I do," Alcmene replied. But when she met those blue eyes, the slightest bit of a blush crept into her cheeks. She had always prided herself on being able to read Iolaus' mind from the time he was just a young scamp, but now it was a bit disconcerting to know that the door swung both ways.

The hunter wisely let the matter drop, but he couldn't help wondering if maybe there were something between Alcmene and Jason beyond friendship and the king's need for a shoulder to cry on. Hugs that were just a little too tight, smiles that were just a little too warm, and looks that went on just a little too long all made him speculate that perhaps there was an attraction growing. Iolaus mulled it over, finding that he rather liked the idea. They were both good people that he loved dearly, so if they could find happiness with each other, he'd wish them nothing but well. On the other hand, he thought wryly, if Hercules' attitude during the recent Demetrius debacle was any indication, maybe they would be better off just as friends. It was a growing attraction the overprotective demigod was not bound to take well. Iolaus decided to keep his suspicions to himself, but he vowed to keep an eye on his old friend and his surrogate mother to see if anything developed between them.

"Well," he began, changing the subject. "I'm sure you'll want to cook that game in the shed before it thaws and spoils. Do you need me to go out and get any herbs to go with it?"

"No," Alcmene replied, doing her best to keep a straight face. "But I did use up a lot of the herbs Hercules brought back on those poor children. You could go to the Great Meadow and restock my supply."

Iolaus sighed dramatically, running a hand through his tousled blond curls.

"I think I'd rather go to the Other Side."

Hades scratched Cerberus absently on the middle head as he passed before moving quickly up the stone staircase to his castle. Six months really wasn't that long, and he had a lot of things he wanted to do before Persephone would be joining him in his kingdom. Tartarus aside, the underworld didn't necessarily need to be such a gloomy and depressing place, and he felt that now a few changes were in order to attempt to make things more appealing and inviting for a beautiful young woman. But the interior decorating could wait a little while. In the meantime, Hades decided to make full use of his bachelor status, so with no one to reproach him he waved his hand and the scrying mirror opened up before him. Privacy aside, this was bound to be a goodbye for the ages, and he couldn't pass up the opportunity to watch. Besides, Hercules was a romantic, and there was always a chance he could learn a thing or two that, at least in Persephone's eyes, would put a wild chariot ride to shame.

Disclaimer: Neither Phil nor Sal nor any of the Piglet Brethern were harmed during the production of this RLJ episode.



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