...And Fancy Free

by Quiet Wolf

Story originally written for Hercules: the Legendary Journeys by: Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

“On this day, as we’ve done for generations, we dance to pay tribute to the Muses.”

Althea scarcely heard the magistrate, for she was enthralled by the glitz and glamor and almost beside herself with the excitement and anticipation of her very first Panathenia. Her father had never approved of the event, but that hadn’t stopped her from sneaking out to witness the contest for herself. It was what their small town was known for, after all, so no one could blame her for being curious. She told herself she’d just peak in for a quick look, but as soon as the first couple took the floor the young girl was thoroughly infatuated with the lights and the music, and of course the dancers, so elegant, graceful, and beautiful. And now that it was almost over, Althea knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was what she wanted to do. Standing alone in the corner, she vowed to herself that one day she would compete in the Panathenia.

“To thank them for their everlasting gift of divine inspiration,” the magistrate continued from his podium, still rambling on about the Muses and keeping them all in suspense. “You know, as magistrate of Rhumba, I’m often asked, ‘Asterius, what’s so great about your little town?’ And I always say, ‘We may not be Athens, but we are the dance capital of Greece!’” He paused for the obligatory applause. “And now, without further ado, it’s time to announce the winners of this season’s Panathenia. And the winners are... couple number two!”

“Yay!” Althea cheered for her favorites, clapping her hands and jumping up and down. “Couple number two!” Her enthusiasm was quickly dampened as a shower of water cascaded over her head. She turned to see Oena, the bully who had tormented her since the day they first met, sneering down at her and holding an empty goblet, flanked by her giggling friends.

“Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”

“But I didn’t...” Althea protested.

“You think you’re going to be a dancer someday, huh?” Oena demanded haughtily as she pushed her roughly.

“Why not?”

“You need a partner to dance. Who’d wanna dance with a loser? What a freak!” Oena grinned cruelly as the other girl’s lips began to tremble. “Look! I think she’s going to cry!”

Althea desperately tried to hold back the tears, tuning out the chants of ‘cry baby’ that were ringing in her ears as she made a solemn promise to herself. Not only would she dance at the Panathenia someday, but she was going to win.

It had happened years ago, but the memory was still fresh in the young woman’s mind as she made her way from the farm into town. When she’d left the Panathenia she had gone home to her father, expecting his support. But not only was he not understanding, he expressly forbid her to dance. Ever. Althea couldn’t understand his anger, and he refused to discuss it with her. For awhile she tried to obey, but that proved impossible. The urge... no the NEED to dance was in her soul, calling out to her, begging for release. And whenever he wasn’t looking, she’d prance and skip and twirl through her chores. As the years passed, Oena’s cruelty increased, but as the torments grew so did Althea’s desire to dance and to prove herself. So after one particularly humiliating incident in the marketplace a few weeks prior, Althea decided this was the year she was going to enter the contest and get back at Oena, and everyone else who’d ever teased her or laughed at her or simply dismissed her. She left home with her head held high and full of confidence, but the closer she came to town, the less sure of herself she felt. But she couldn’t back down, for that would just validate everything Oena ever said about her. Maybe she’d fall on her face, but she had to at least try.

“Watch it, Althea!” someone grumbled crossly.

“Whoops,” she murmured, even though the man had run into her. Ducking her head, she kept weaving through the crowds until she collided with what felt like a solid stone wall. “I’m sorry,” she apologized quickly, looking up at the tall, handsome stranger.

“No, it’s my fault,” he told her kindly. “I take up way too much space.”

Althea peered up at him quizzically until he pointed out that he’d only been joking.

“Oh, yeah.” She laughed heartily, more accustomed to being yelled at for being in the way than she was to humor. “Anyway, thanks for being so understanding.” She tried to move on but he gently took her arm to stop her.

“Could you tell me which road leads to Cyllabos?”

“That one,” she answered, pointing to clarify. And then she continued on her way with single minded purpose, not realizing that her necklace was lying on the road at the stranger’s feet.

“Iolaus! Dinner’s ready.”

“I’ll be right down,” the hunter called back. He peered over the side of the roof and let out a small sigh as Leandra disappeared back inside the house. The small repairs to the tiles had been completed an hour ago, but he had remained on the roof, enjoying the peace he’d found there. As much as he loved his grandmother and enjoyed spending time with her, her relentless questions about his father and his childhood were starting to wear on him. For Iolaus couldn’t bring himself to outright lie to her, but he certainly couldn’t tell her the truth. He’d made his peace with Skouros in the underworld and was even able to look back on his youth with adult eyes and understand the motivation behind his father’s hard cruelty. But that didn’t mean that Leandra would understand and he simply couldn’t break her heart by telling her that her son had grown into a ruthless soldier, incapable of showing kindness or even love to his own family, no matter what the underlying reasons might have been. So he countered her questions with misdirection, but he was running out of safe stories and he sensed she was losing patience with his evasiveness. His only hope was that Hercules would arrive soon and help to distract her.

Iolaus stopped to put away his tools and clean up a bit before he entered the house, eagerly taking his seat at the table. Leandra beamed as she set a heaping plate before him, welcoming his hearty appetite. There was so little she could really do for him, in her own mind, so it delighted her to cook for her grandson. An indulgence that she could provide, and usually he couldn’t get enough. But on this night, she couldn’t miss the slight frown creasing his brow as he sampled his food.

“Is anything wrong?”

“No,” the hunter protested, a bit too quickly. “Why?”

“You look worried.”

Iolaus sighed, running a hand over his forehead. Dinner was usually a time of questions. Questions to which he couldn’t answer, at least not in any way that wouldn’t upset his grandmother. So he’d been tense, anticipating her curiosity and trying to come up with a novel stalling technique that wasn’t completely obvious. But he couldn’t tell her that.

“I’m just thinking about Hercules, I guess,” he replied. It wasn’t really a lie. “He should have been here by now. I just hope he’s not in any trouble.”

“With the lives the two of you lead, I would imagine that’s a valid concern,” Leandra told him, having heard all about their many perilous adventures. “But now you know what it’s like for me, knowing you’re out there battling monsters and warlords and hoping and praying that you stay safe.”

“I’m not worried about monsters and warlords,” Iolaus grinned. “Herc can handle that. He just has a real problem saying ‘no’, and that’s what gets him into trouble. Without me around to talk some sense into him, he tends to get involved in things he shouldn’t and gets in over his head.”

“And you think that’s where he is now?”

The hunter thought about it and considered the various possibilities that could be causing his friend’s dely. His grin got broader.

“There’s no doubt in my mind.”

“That means no jumping, no leaping, no lifting your partner off the ground,” Asterius sternly told the assembly. “Remember, children, the Muses grant us inspiration, but they can also take it away! We are simple mortals, and must not aspire towards their exalted realm.”

Hercules couldn’t hold back a snort of disgust as he arrived on the scene just in time to hear the magistrate’s ridiculous lecture.

“Break the rules, and you will be disqualified,” came the ominous threat from the pulpit as the demigod began searching the crowd for the girl he had bumped into so he could return her necklace to her. “Any questions? Then let’s make this the best Panathenia ever!”

Althea was pushed aside as people came forward to get in line to register. But she stepped forward after them, determined to sign up and hoping that there was a single male in the crowd also looking for a partner. Her progress was halted as Oena appeared before her, blocking her way.

“Well, well, well,” she began. “Some people never learn. You’ve got two left feet, Ducky. You don’t have a chance.”

Althea stared back at the beautiful blond girl. She had looks and she had style and she had talent and money, and status that came from being the niece of the magistrate. Everything that Althea did not, and she couldn’t understand why Oena wasn’t happy with that, but instead felt her life wasn’t complete if she wasn’t putting someone else down.

“What did I ever do to you?” Althea asked quietly.

“Well, for starters, you were born,” Oena retorted airily. Althea tried to move around her, but the girl stuck out her foot and tripped her so that she sprawled forward into the dirt. “Stop wasting your time. You need a partner to enter the contest.” Althea sat up, glancing around the crowd to see a lot of head shaking and a few scornful looks. “You see?” Oena took delight in pointing out. “No one’s crazy enough to dance with you!”

“I’ll be your partner.”

A shadow fell over Oena and she quickly turned around, finding herself face to chest with a huge man.

“You?” Althea gasped as the stranger from the road bent down to help her to her feet.

“Thought you might need a hand,” he told her as he positioned her protectively at his side.

“She’s going to need a lot more than that,” Oena said nastily. The man was tall and muscled and more than a little handsome, but if he was on Althea’s side, then he automatically deserved her ridicule. “You must be as desperate as she is.”

“Who’s holding up the line, there?” Asterius demanded in annoyance, coming forward to see what the commotion was all about.

“They are, Uncle,” Oena was quick to tattle.

“This line is for contestants only,” the magistrate informed them.

“We are contestants,” the demigod countered, glancing over at the girl next to him to confirm that she was in agreement. “Right?”

Althea didn’t trust herself to speak. Nobody had ever defended her before in her life, and having this kind, good looking man suddenly appear out of thin air to stand up for her was overwhelming. The best she could do was vigorously nod her approval.

“And who are you?” the magistrate sneered, looking down his nose at the stranger.

“I’m Hercules,” the demigod told him proudly. He had known Asterius for all of a minute, but that was all it took to see he was a weasel and Hercules for once took delight in throwing his famous name into the faces of these pompous asses. But the declaration almost made Althea hyperventilate. The fact that her rescuer was a legendary hero was too much, and she had to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Asterius’ tone changed immediately and he began oozing false sincerity. “As magistrate of our fair town, I humbly welcome you to Rhumba.”

“Uncle!” Oena hissed angrily, seeing her chances of winning going straight to Tartarus. Because who could compete with the mighty monster slayer?

“I knew you had many talents, Hercules,” the magistrate continued, ignoring his niece. “I didn’t realize dancing was one of them.”

“Neither did I,” the demigod told him wryly, before shooting an apologetic look down at his new partner. “Actually, I’ve never done this before.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” Asterius said patronizingly. “I look forward to seeing some of your moves.”

“Me, too,” Hercules concurred. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we have to get back in line. We have a contest to enter.”

“Uncle, do something!” Oena insisted as they moved off to register while exchanging proper introductions..

“Don’t worry,” Asterius promised her as his politician’s grin faded away. “They don’t stand a chance.”

Once they were officially signed up, Hercules followed Althea as she slowly began moving away from the crowds.

“Are you all right?” he asked her, thinking she was acting a bit shell shocked.

“Yeah,” she replied, looking up at him earnestly. “I just can’t believe this is happening.” Althea stopped walking and turned to face him, taking a deep breath. “You know, if you want to back out of this, I’ll understand.”

“Why would you think I’d back out?” the demigod wondered.

“Because you’re Hercules,” she reminded him. “I’ve heard all your stories. You kill monsters and stop warlords and save villages.”

“Not every day,” Hercules said with amusement. “And my partner’s in Cyllabos visiting with his grandmother, so it just so happens I have some free time on my hands. I’ll just send him a message telling him I’ll be a little late, and then I’m all yours.”

“But don’t you have anything better to do than to stop in the middle of nowhere to dance with the town outcast?”

“Hey,” Hercules told her, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Listen to me, Althea. I promised to dance with you, and I never go back on my word. And for the record, I can’t think of anything better to do with my time than to help out a damsel in distress.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Althea met his sincere gaze and read the conviction in his clear blue eyes, and then it hit her full force. She was going to dance in the Panathenia. With Hercules. Instantly her demeanor changed and she led the demigod off down the road, running circles around him, bursting with excitement.

“I can’t thank you enough!”

“Well, don’t thank me yet, Althea,” Hercules warned her, although he had to smile at her exuberance. “I’ve never tried this, remember?”

“I have some moves of my own, some steps I’ve been working on,” she assured him. “Don’t worry, we’ll practice. Boy, am I glad I bumped into you!”

“Oh, you know, that reminds me,” the demigod told her as he came to a halt and pulled out her necklace from the pouch on his belt. “You dropped this.”

“Thank you,” Althea murmured, taking it from him and sobering drastically. “My mother gave this to me before she died. I would never have forgiven myself if I’d lost it. She said it would bring me luck.” The girl looked up at Hercules, who was actually listening to her talk, and her excitement returned tenfold. “I guess she was right!”

“Where are we going?” the demigod called out after her as she bounced off down the road.

“Well, you can’t practice on an empty stomach!” she yelled back. “And anyway, you’ve got to meet my father! Boy, is he going to be impressed when I bring home the son of Zeus!!”

Hercules sighed, stealing a tiny, longing glance back toward the road that led to Cyllabos as he wondered exactly what he had gotten himself into. Iolaus had always tried to tell him that there were some situations that he shouldn’t butt into, and the demigod was starting to think this one definitely qualified. But when he had seen the way Althea was treated, it had opened up some old wounds as he recalled the way both he and Iolaus had been picked on and shunned as kids. And when he saw the heartbroken look on the young girl’s face, he’d snapped. She needed a friend, and he could provide that for her. And if that meant learning how to dance, then he would do it. After all, how hard could it be?

As it turned out, Althea’s father was hardly impressed that his daughter had brought home the son of Zeus.

“Hercules, huh?” Elis grunted as he shoved a spoonful of porridge into his mouth. “I thought you’d be wearing a cape or something.”

“Daddy,” Althea scolded him lightly.

“I tried, but it just didn’t fly,” the demigod joked, hoping to alleviate some of the tension in the room. Althea thought he was hilarious and slapped him on the shoulder to prove it, but her father didn’t seem to have much of a sense of humor, although he was in possession of a pretty wicked glare.

“What brings you to these parts?”

“Oh, I was on my way to meet a friend and...”

“And he decided to stay for a few days,” Althea quickly interrupted, setting a bowl of porridge before him. “He hasn’t got anywhere to sleep. Uh, I was thinking... Well, I was wondering... Maybe he could stay...here?”

Elis immediately fixed his intense stare on the demigod, who squirmed uncomfortably across the table and had to look away. Hercules was used to being the imposing one, but for some reason he felt distinctly cowed by this overprotective man who appeared more than willing to take a blunt instrument to anyone he suspected of having less than honorable intentions toward his daughter.

“Are you any good with your hands?” Elis finally asked.

“Some people think so,” Hercules muttered. It was the wrong answer and he paid for it with another gaze that practically bored holes right through him.

“Of course he is,” Althea piped up, hoping to convince her stern father.

“I’m building a cistern out back,” Elis growled. “Got some logs need to be moved.”

“I’d be glad to help,” the demigod said hastily.

“All right then. You can stay in the barn.”

“Thank you,” Hercules told him, trying to sound humble and unthreatening. Elis went back to his meal and Althea couldn’t help celebrating his decision with joyful, if less than graceful, expression. But the demigod remained rigidly in his seat, his own dinner untouched as he was unwilling to move and risk getting targeted by that scathing glare again.

It was a beautiful evening and Iolaus convinced Leandra to leave the kitchen cleanup for later in favor of talking a walk with him. They strolled casually through Cyllabos, pleasantly greeting the villagers they encountered. The hunter was glad to see things were a lot friendlier than his first visit, and that the people were almost going out of their way to be polite, as if they still harbored guilty feelings over their mistreatment of both of them. But Iolaus was feeling restless and not terribly inclined toward small talk with strangers, so he steered his grandmother to the outskirts of town, sighing in contentment as they left the village behind for the quiet forest. At least he was content until Leandra slipped her arm through his and asked to hear more about his mother.

“I’ve told you all there is to tell,” he replied, knowing she wouldn’t be satisfied with that.

“You’ve barely told me anything.” When he was silent, Leandra gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “Erythia is your mother, Iolaus. The woman my Skouros married. Of course I want to know everything about her. I want to meet her. I want you to introduce us.”

Iolaus sighed inwardly and wondered if maybe he shouldn’t just come clean. Maybe not tell her quite everything, but enough to give her a picture of what his childhood was really like. It would probably hurt her, but didn’t she deserve to know the truth? And then when it was all out in the open, she could stop asking and he could stop evading and they could both fully enjoy their visit together without all the secrets between them.

The hunter sighed again, audibly this time. He knew the reasoning behind his reticence had less to do with noble reasons, no matter how much he tried to convince himself of that. The real truth was, he was afraid. Leandra was his grandmother. His family, real family. His blood. And she loved him. He could see it shining from her eyes when she looked at him. Hear it in her voice when she spoke. Feel it in her touch. The acceptance, the warmth, the pride she had for him; it was all palpable. And he was afraid that if she knew the ugly truth about his past and all the things that he’d done then she wouldn’t look at him like that anymore. He was afraid her gentle love would be replaced by his father’s scornful derision. And he couldn’t bear to see that happen.

“Leandra,” he began, not sure what to say. But their conversation was cut short as a cry for help echoed through the quiet woods. “Come on,” he commanded, taking her hand and leading her toward the sound. “Just stay behind me.”

They followed the cries to the small pond where Iolaus had battled Hephaestus’ metal warriors, but this time there was no such threat to be had. Just a young girl up in one of the trees, high above the ground and unable to get down.

“Hold on,” the hunter called up cheerfully, startling the sobbing girl into silence with his sudden presence. “I’m coming.”

“Be careful,” Leandra cautioned him, frowning as she assessed the height.

“I’m always careful,” he told her, giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.

“Somehow I doubt that’s true,” she murmured. But Leandra watched in amazement as her grandson nimbly scaled the tree, swinging himself lightly from one branch to the next. When there were no limbs in reach, he merely hung on with brute strength and free climbed the trunk, somehow finding hand and footholds in the bark until he made it to the young girl’s precarious perch.

“Hi,” he greeted, somewhat breathlessly. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a tree like this?”

She stared back at him in confusion for a moment, and then the terror began to leave her and she giggled in spite of herself.

“I’m stuck,” she confessed.

“Yeah, I gathered that,” the hunter said wryly. “My name’s Iolaus. What’s yours?”

“Zelia,” she answered.

“Nice to meet you.” Iolaus glanced down to where Leandra was waiting, far, far below them. “How did you get up here?”

“I climbed,” she told him proudly, before blushing slightly and ducking her head. “But there was a rope made of vines. My friends and I were seeing who could go the highest. I won, but then the vines broke and I couldn’t get back down.”

“What happened to your friends?” the hunter asked gently.

“They ran when the rope broke,” Zelia admitted. “We’re not supposed to climb in these trees.” She frowned, then sighed dramatically. “I’m going to be in SO much trouble!”

“Well first we have to get you down,” Iolaus told her, restraining himself from offering up his opinion on just what kind of friends could leave one of their own stranded. “Then you can worry about facing the music. I want you to get on my back, ok? Do you think you can do that?”

The girl hesitated for a moment, but then realized she didn’t have much of a choice unless she wanted to spend the night up in the tree. And coming home late, after dark, was only going to make things worse with her parents, so she carefully moved from the limb and climbed onto her rescuer’s back.

“I’ll do the work here,” the hunter continued, “but you have to hold on tight.” He squeaked slightly as her arms locked around his throat in a death grip. “Not that tight!” She eased up a little, closing her eyes and burying her face into his soft curls as he carefully began navigating his way back down the tree. And in no time she was sliding down off his back, her feet hitting solid ground with a welcomed thump.

“Are you all right?” Leandra asked in concern, brushing the girl’s hair back from her face and searching for obvious injuries.

“I’m fine,” she replied sheepishly, before glancing over to her savior. “Thanks to Iolaus.”

“Come on,” the hunter grinned, taking her hand. “Let’s get you home.”

They saw her safely back to the village and she led them to her house, but Iolaus stopped by the gate and motioned her forward.

“We’ll wait here until you get inside.”

“You mean you’re not going to tell my parents what happened?” Zelia asked slowly, with more than a little skepticism. It seemed to be a town conspiracy that every adult felt the need to rat out any and all children caught misbehaving, no matter how petty the transgression.

“No way,” Iolaus told her understandingly with a wink. “It’s my job to rescue pretty damsels in distress. Not to deliberately put them into harm’s way.”

The girl impulsively flung her arms around his waist, and the hunter hugged her back with a laugh.

“Go on,” he urged her. “Before you get caught out here and we both get in trouble.”

Zelia let him go and practically skipped to her front door, turning to give them a quick wave before she disappeared inside.

“You’re very good with children,” Leandra observed, taking his arm as they headed back to her house.

“Herc says the same thing,” Iolaus told her, his blue eyes twinkling. “Only he claims it’s because I still act like one and I can relate.”

“I’m serious,” she protested, her voice growing softer. “And it’s obvious you adore them. Do you think you’ll ever have another child?”

The hunter was silent, a sudden sadness descending over him. No, it wasn’t possible. Hera had seen to that. But Leandra didn’t know about the old witch’s curse, and that the spiteful goddess was the reason his family was dead. And he couldn’t burden her with his pain, so he just shrugged.

“Maybe someday,” he replied. “If it’s meant to be.”

Leandra was silent the rest of the way home, again getting the sense that she wasn’t getting the whole story. She was an intelligent woman, and she knew her grandson was holding a lot back in regards to his childhood and his father. Although she knew he was doing it to protect her from a truth he thought she’d rather not hear, she wanted to know him, really know him, the good and the bad. And there was certainly nothing that could have happened in his life that would ever make her think less of him, which is why she kept plying him with questions and pushing for answers. But she had felt him tense when she’d brought up children, and she could almost feel the sorrow and regret radiating from him. Wisely, she decided to let this matter rest. Some things didn’t need to be forced, although there was one thing she did need to know.

“Iolaus,” she began as they entered the house. “How did you know that Skouros is with your family in the Elysian Fields?”

“I told you,” he answered, hiding his face under the pretense of starting a fire. “Hades opened a window and let me see it. Just one of the advantages to hanging around with his nephew.”

“You were there, weren’t you?” Leandra whispered. “And not visiting. You were dead.”

“Yeah, I was,” Iolaus admitted with a heavy sigh. He went to his grandmother and took her hands and captured her gaze. “But it’s ok. Hercules got me back. And while I was there, I had a chance to see my father. We talked about a lot of things, and I explained to him what happened to you and Cyllabos all those years ago.”

“That’s when he said that he still loves me?” she asked through her tears.

“He made me promise to tell you that,” the hunter reiterated.

She pulled him close and hugged him tightly for long moments. When she finally let him go, she gazed at him with the barest hint of a smile.

“I suppose if you’re going to get yourself killed, at least you have a friend who can bring you back.”

“Yeah.” Iolaus sighed again, knowing that next time he lost his life, nothing Hercules could do would get him back. The deal he’d made with Hades for Orestes’ life was solid, and his next death would be final. But he certainly couldn’t tell her that, so he just looped an arm around her and kissed her cheek, hating that there was yet another secret to keep from her. “I’m in good hands, Leandra. Don’t you worry about me.”

As soon as the sun rose, Hercules went to work in the hopes of getting into Elis’ good graces, if he even had any. The day was warm and once her father was preoccupied in the barn, Althea slipped off to check on the demigod and bring him something to drink. She made her way across the rope bridge that stretched over the ravine behind the house, but she stopped short on the other side as she got a look at her new friend. He was stacking logs, lifting the enormous cylinders of wood all by himself, the muscles of his bare arms and back bulging and rippling with the effort. Hercules turned and caught sight of her, and Althea could only stare at him, backlit by the sun in bronze perfection. He was truly magnificent.

“It’s lemonade,” she squeaked out, thrusting the container in her hand toward him.

The demigod stacked the log in his arms as ordinary men would stack kindling, then he grabbed up his shirt and slipped the garment over his shoulders, though he left the front open. He had a seat and accepted the lemonade, gulping it down thirstily. Althea was mesmerized as she watched the drops of liquid trickling down his chin to drip onto his broad chest, mingling with the sweat of his labors. Her breath caught her in throat as for the first time in her sheltered life she began to have some very adult thoughts and feelings.

“I made it myself,” she murmured distractedly as he glanced over and caught her staring.

“It’s good.”

“Sorry about my father,” Althea offered, tearing her gaze away from his muscles and trying to sound coherent. “He never really got over Mother’s death.”

“Why didn’t you tell him the truth?” Hercules asked as he corked the bottle of lemonade.

“If he knew we’d entered the contest,” she began sheepishly, looking away, “he probably wouldn’t let me leave the house. He thinks dancing’s a waste of time.”

“I wouldn’t want to go against your father’s wishes,” the demigod told her, not happy with the predicament she’d put him in. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“Hercules, please!” Althea paused as she realized she was entering the high pitched whine of a child and she quickly composed herself. “It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl to dance at this contest.”

“Althea,” Hercules sighed, sympathizing with her but definitely not wanting to encourage her to outright disobey her father. True he had promised to dance with her, but that was before he knew Elis definitely would not approve. “It’s just...”

“You saw the others,” she reminded him. “How they treat me? This is the only way I can show them I’m as good as they are. If I give up now, they’ll never let me live it down.” Althea met his gaze, her eyes full of desperate tears as she crouched at his feet to plead with him. “Please, Hercules, please. Please?”

“All right, all right,” he relented, always a sucker for tears. She beamed in delight and bounded up, about to scurrying off when he stopped her. “Althea? You have to tell your father that you entered the contest.”

“I will,” she chirped, a little too brightly.

“Althea,” Hercules sang out, halting her retreat with a knowing grin. He hadn’t spent all those years learning from his crafty partner’s machinations for nothing. “Before the contest,” he stressed.

“Ok,” she laughed, confirming his suspicions.

The demigod had to smile as she ran off. Althea was a little plain, but she was sweet and smart and full of life, and she had spunk despite having been beaten down all her life. All in all, he couldn’t help but like her. And he had a feeling that if she could just have a small taste of success and acceptance, then she would really blossom. He got up and went back to work, vowing to do his best to win the contest for he wasn’t about to let his partner down.

That night after Elis had retired, Althea joined Hercules in the barn for their first practice session. “Ok, here’s the deal,” she began authoritatively. “I’ll do my routine once so you can see it, and then we’ll do it step by step. You stay here. I need some room.”

The demigod stood back as she posed in the middle of the floor before executing a rather painful looking lurch.

“Are you all right?” he asked, but she quickly shushed him.

“Wait til I’m finished!” she ordered, irritated at having her concentration broken. Althea continued her routine, which consisted of a series of wild flailing and absurd full body contractions as her long braids flapped around her. And it reminded Hercules of a monster that he and Iolaus had dispatched in Hellespont that had continued to writhe and contort for several minutes after it was decapitated. But he took the diplomatic route when she completed her dance and asked him what he thought.

“I think we’re going to need some help,” the demigod drawled. He might not have danced before, but he knew the abomination he’d just witnessed was not going to win them the Panathenia.

“Right,” Althea agreed happily, fortunately not offended by his criticism and even agreeing that they could probably benefit from a little professional instruction.

Oena dramatically cried out in pain and collapsed against the pantechnicon, silencing the music as the elaborate contraption began to shake apart. Her partner, who had mistakenly stepped on her foot, went flying out of the building, vowing never to dance again.

“What’s the matter, cupcake?” Asterius soothed as he entered the chaos.

“Oh, Uncle,” she wailed, flinging herself into his arms.

“There, there. What’s troubling you, my dear?”

“I’m never going to win with these stiffs you keep sending me!”

“Now, now, of course you’ll win,” the magistrate comforted her. “You’ve won three years running.”

“But you let Hercules enter the contest,” she sobbed pitifully.

“Hercules has never danced a day in his life.”

“But this is the dance capital of Greece,” Oena protested, pulling back to give her uncle the full effect of her best pout. “There’s a dance school on every corner!”

“Don’t worry,” Asterius placated her, tweaking her nose with his fingers. “I’ve taken care of everything.”

Hercules and Althea made the rounds through Rhumba, knocking on the door of every dance studio in town. But no one would accept them as students, for nobody wanted to go against the magistrate’s orders and risk his wrath and retribution. Out of options for the moment, Althea collapsed in defeat on a bench on the outskirts of town.

“The contest is in five days,” she fretted, knowing that as hard as she’d worked on her own routine, it didn’t measure up to the skill she’d seen in the Panathenia every year. “We don’t stand a chance!”

“A lot can happen in five days,” Hercules told her, giving her a little hug as he sat down beside her. He spoke with experience, for he often had to complete much more monumental tasks with a lot less than five days to work with. “Trust me. Things will work out.”

A flash of blue caught their attention, and they looked up to see a parakeet perched on a tree branch in front of them. It began to whistle a merry tune, which matched the music that had suddenly begun to float on the air.

“Where’s that music coming from?” Althea wondered, for there were no houses that she knew of in the immediate vicinity.

The bird flew off, and Hercules’ half-god instinct began to kick in as the music grew louder. He got up and started to follow it, and a puzzled Althea trailed after him. They ended up at a quaint cottage that was surrounded by a beautiful garden, and they saw the parakeet being greeted by a decidedly strange woman.

“Oh, hello. Welcome back, clever bird.” She turned and saw her guests and began to glide toward them. “Like snakes to a charm, my darlings,” she sang out, spinning in a circle before them. “And I am always so charming.”

She was nothing like Hercules had ever seen before, with her odd manner of dress and her elaborate makeup and long red nails. Not to mention the accent. And yet there was something naggingly familiar about her.

“Do I know you?” he blurted out.

“Well, where I come from, across the seas of time, I’m known as the Mistress of Music, the Queen of Crescendo...” she paused for dramatic effect, batting her eyelashes. “But you can call me... your new dance teacher!” “You’re a dance teacher?” Althea asked skeptically, thinking that the gray haired woman couldn’t possibly have much spring in her step.

“The Widow Twanky, extraordinaire,” the woman proclaimed. “Known in all the ports of the China Sea as Mad Alice Cudlip, inventress of the Twanky Twiddle, the most daring dance move ever performed! And quite illegal in these parts.” She leaned in confidentially with a sly smile. “But if you’re very, very good, I might teach it to you.”

“How did you know we were looking for a teacher?” Hercules wondered.

“How does the porcu know to pine?” Twanky exclaimed as she minced backward and the music began to swell once more. “Why does the beaver give a dam? What is the difference between a duck? Answer all these questions and there’s nothing left to do!” She spread a fancy silk fan and fluttered it as she began to sing. “You seem a bit confused, a trifle unbelieving. The truth be told, I may seem old, but looks can be deceiving.”

Hercules and Althea exchanged a glance as the Widow whirled rapidly in a series of elaborate spins. Looks were deceiving, for she was incredibly light on her feet.

“Don’t feel afraid to take a chance, that’s my philosophy,” she continued in song. “Just stick with me and you will see, I’ll teach you how to dance.” She executed another impressive array of steps before moving up to Althea. “You’ll reign supreme, the dancing queen. And you’ll look cool,” she continued, sizing up Hercules and evidently liking what she saw. “You dancing fool. Honey, if you try, I know you’ll reach the sky. Just learn to spread your wings and flyyyyyyy!”

Flower petals cascading from the sky, disembodied silk streamers blowing in the breeze, and a strange woman who knew their plight without being told, spoke in riddles and song, and could apparently levitate off the ground... Althea was enthralled, but Hercules looked over his shoulder, searching for an escape. However, there was no time for retreat as Twanky bumped Althea, knocking her off balance. The demigod caught her in his arms and righted her with a graceful twirl, surprising both of them. Two minutes with the Widow and they had already mastered a new move.

“And so you see, just stick with me. You two can be so fancy free!” Twanky moved off into the field, leaping high above the tall grass. Althea got caught up in the moment and tried to join in with her own unique style, but a withering look from Hercules nipped her exuberance in the bud. “Darlings, if you try,” the Widow sang out, grabbing their attention to where she was suddenly poised on the roof of the cottage. “I know you’ll reach the sky. Just learn to spread your wings and flyyyyyyyyyyyyy!”

“Wow,” Hercules murmured, glancing at Althea to see if she was as pleasantly surprised as he was. There was definitely something odd about the Widow Twanky, but she seemed harmless enough and her dancing ability was without question.

“So, what do you say?” Twanky asked, appearing before them once more. Hercules and Althea exchanged a we-don’t-have-any-other-offers-so-what-have-we-got-to-lose look and answered her in unison with a casual shrug.

“Sure.”

“Oh, good!” the Widow exclaimed, not the least bit put off by their lack of enthusiasm. “Then let’s be off to my studio. Hurry, darlings, there’s a lot to learn and no time to lose.”

As he was unceremoniously ushered back to Rhumba, Hercules wondered, not for the first time, exactly what he had gotten himself into.

“Please, Iolaus! Just one more!”

Leandra smiled as she waited for her grandson, watching him as he laughingly tried to disengage himself from the eager children. While she perused the marketplace, he’d passed the time entertaining the kids with tales of his adventures with Hercules, and Leandra fondly speculated that he had enjoyed it as much as they had. But he apologetically declined their pleas, promising to give them more another day, and reluctantly they began moving off until he was left alone with Zelia. The girl had become a familiar figure, finding numerous reasons to seek out the hunter wherever he went and today was no different. She offered him a mug of cold lemonade that she had gotten from the market, and Iolaus shared it with her amidst substantial affectionate teasing. It appeared innocent enough, but Leandra didn’t miss the way the young girl was looking at her grandson as she ate up his attention, or how she blushed when he regally kissed her hand as he bid her farewell.

“I think you have an admirer,” she informed the hunter when he finally joined her, sure that he was unaware of the girl’s growing infatuation.

“Who?” Iolaus asked, confirming her suspicions as he took the packages from his grandmother’s hands to carry them home for her.

“Zelia.”

“What? She’s only twelve years old.”

“A twelve year old with a crush on the handsome hero who rescued her,” Leandra told him with amusement.

Iolaus shook his head, not quite believing that he could be the object of desire for a little girl. But all the same, he decided it might not be a bad idea to stop being so friendly with her. Just in case she was getting the wrong idea.

The old building Althea had believed to be long abandoned turned out to house an expansive studio, with a large, gleaming wooden floor and huge picture windows that overlooked the whole town. But the Widow left them no time to admire the view and immediately began to instruct her new pupils.

“In order to dance, one must be able to move freely. Now then, lesson number one: rhythm. Althea, what do we know about rhythm?”

“Beats me,” she replied, caught off guard.

“Precisely,” Twanky crowed, pinching her cheeks proudly. “You clever little girl! Rhythm is all about beats.”

“Good guess,” Hercules complimented her as he moved toward the window to look outside. The Widow grabbed Althea by the hand and dragged her over to him, placing the young girl’s hand on the demigod’s chest, over his heart.

“There. Do you feel the beat?”

“Ah, yeah,” Althea gulped, thinking that the beat was not all she felt.

“Hmmm, yes, I know,” Twanky purred, knowing exactly how discombobulated the young girl was getting with her hand full of the demigod’s brawny pecs. Althea had a lot of passion, which pleased the Widow for that would translate to chemistry and electricity on the dance floor. “You see, all life moves to the rhythm of our most glorious instrument. The human heart.” She steered them back toward the window to look out at the village, where life was going about its daily routine. “Rhythm is everywhere. All you have to do is listen.”

“I can’t hear anything,” Althea complained.

“Look,” Hercules pointed out. “A man sawing wood.”

“Yes, you see? And over there, that man banging away on his anvil. See? Rhythm is life. And the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.” She turned away from the window swaying slightly, and then she set off across the studio, moving to the rhythm of life. “Pick your feet up,” she ordered them. “Don’t be shy. That’s it! Come on!”

Althea glanced at Hercules and then complied, following the Widow as she found her own rhythm. Very reluctantly, and vowing that he would do everything in his power to make sure Iolaus never caught wind of this, the demigod halfheartedly followed.

“This is so stupid,” he grumbled, so caught up in his own humiliation that he failed to notice they were being spied on by one of the magistrate’s men.

Zelia sighed, staring at the ceiling as sleep eluded her. She couldn’t stop thinking about Iolaus. Handsome, brave, charming, kind, funny, strong, noble, heroic, golden Iolaus, with his sparkling blue eyes and his brilliant grin. She was in love with him, without a doubt. And while there was some doubt, she was reasonably sure he had feelings for her, too. The way he teased her, or the way he smiled at her like she was the only person on earth. She was his damsel in distress, and he was her hero. He’d rescued her, and now it was time for him to spirit her away so they could be together always, like the heroes and princesses in all those bardic tales.

Closing her eyes, she sighed again as she recalled every moment of her rescue. He’d come out of nowhere to calm her fears and bring her to safety. Showing such compassion and concern for her, and viewing her predicament with patience and humor instead of yelling at her for doing something so stupid. Protecting her with his strength until she felt safe and warm and secure in his care. Nobody had ever treated her like that before, and certainly not a legendary hero with eyes like the sea and hair like the sun and a smile that could melt ice. And it was something she just had to experience again. Grinning to herself, Zelia relaxed and let Morpheus claim her. She knew what she was going to do, and when it was over, Iolaus would realize that he loved her, too.

“Goodnight, Sweetheart,” Elis told his daughter fondly, dropping a kiss on the top of her head.

“Goodnight, Daddy,” she replied.

Elis gave Hercules an extra glare for good measure before heading off to his room.

“Goodnight....sir,” the demigod called after him, to no avail.

“He misses Mother so much,” Althea said softly, both apologizing for and explaining her father’s behavior. “I wish I could see him smile again. Just once.”

“How long has it been?”

“She died when I was four. I never really got a chance to know her. But he says I’m as pretty as she was.” Althea hesitated, then sought out Hercules’ gaze across the table, knowing that he would tell her the truth. “Do you think I’m pretty?”

“Well, yes,” the demigod stammered, a bit taken aback. But he realized it wasn’t a lie. She was pretty in her own way, and when she was happy there was a distinct radiance about her. “I think you’re very pretty. I...I’ll get that,” he grinned, grateful for the interruption that came in the form of a knock on the door. He opened it to reveal one of the magistrate’s goons standing there.

“The magistrate would like a word with you,” he intoned.

“Don’t worry,” Hercules said, looking back at Althea and catching her troubled expression. “I’ll be back soon.”

The demigod was escorted to the magistrate’s palatial home and ushered into his lavish office.

“Hercules, thank you for coming on such short notice,” Asterius greeted him, rising from behind his desk and coming forward. “I must admit, you’ve caught us a little bit off-guard. You’re the first celebrity we’ve had here, and we’ve done nothing to honor your gracious visit.”

“I appreciate the thought, but I’d rather you didn’t,” Hercules told him bluntly.

“And modest, too,” the magistrate continued with false sincerity and admiration. “You really are a...hero. Which is why I would like to invite you to be our first celebrity judge at the Panathenia. Of course, you’d have to withdraw as a contestant.”

“Well, thanks for the invitation,” the demigod said wryly, having suspected all along where this was going. “But I’ve already agreed to be Althea’s partner.”

“Ah, yes, that...girl.” Asterius plastered on his most concerned smile. “Between us adults, I’m a little concerned about her well-being.”

“Really?” Hercules drawled, raising an eyebrow.

“She’s been through so much. The death of her mother; never really fitting in with the other children. I’m afraid if you enter the contest and lose, she’ll be crushed.”

“We have no intention of losing,” the demigod informed him confidently.

“I think you may be overestimating your chances,” Asterius cautioned him as he resumed his seat behind the desk.

“If you really thought that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Hercules turned to leave, but the thinly veiled threat in the magistrate’s voice halted him in his tracks.

“I’m glad you’re here, Hercules, to comfort and protect that poor girl. But I do worry about what might happen to her after you’ve gone.”

“Believe me,” the demigod said quietly, but with a note of steel in his voice and a glare that would have done Elis proud, “if anything happens to Althea, I’ll be coming back.” He watched the smug smile wilt off the magistrate’s face and was satisfied that his not so thinly veiled threat had hit home. “Have a good night.”

The house was dark when Hercules got back, but the barn was lit with candles and he entered to find Althea sitting inside, waiting for him.

“Althea. What are you still doing up?”

"You changed your mind, didn’t you?” she asked quietly. She had seen enough to know just how “persuasive” the magistrate could be. No one in Rhumba ever dared to cross him.

“Not a chance,” Hercules told her firmly, crouching down to look her in the eye. “We’re in this together. Nothing’s going to change that.”

Althea’s heart skipped a beat as she met his warm blue eyed gaze. All through her young life she’d been made to feel like a nobody, but the man before her made her feel like someone special. He was considerate and gentle and funny and he believed in her. The son of Zeus, legendary hero of all Greece, was standing up for her, fighting for her, and doing everything in his considerable power to see her cherished dream come true.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you,” Althea blurted out impulsively. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I love you, Hercules!”

The demigod was shocked as she leaned forward and kissed him, and he quickly backed away.

“This... isn’t right,” he told her.

“I’m sorry,” Althea whispered, turning away from him in humiliation. “Who am I kidding? Stupid, stupid...”

Hercules internally cringed, for he never knew what to say in these types of situations. Iolaus was the one with the golden tongue and the endless charm, and he would have been able to effortless put the girl at ease. But since he wasn’t there, it was up to the demigod to try his best.

“I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but what you’re feeling... it’s not love.”

“I know what it means to love someone, Hercules,” she snapped back. Rejection she could handle, but she couldn’t take him belittling her feelings. “I’m not a little girl anymore.”

“No, you’re not. You are a beautiful young woman,” Hercules told her, meaning every word.

Althea glanced at him and saw the sincerity in his eyes. Maybe she couldn’t have him the way she wanted, but she couldn’t bear the thought of him dropping out of her life forever.

“When the contest is over, you won’t forget about me, will you?”

“Now, how could I possibly ever forget you?” the demigod said fondly, slipping an arm around her. Althea let herself be drawn into his embrace, resting her head on his shoulder and smiling as he continued. “You’ll always be my first dance partner.”

“Pssst! Sweet Cheeks! Over here!”

Iolaus sighed, catching a flash of pink, a shimmer of golden curls, and a whole lot of creamy skin beckoning to him from behind a nearby tree. His gaze drifted to the bow in his hands, and he couldn’t help wondering if maybe he shouldn’t just shoot himself in the foot with one of his arrows. It would most likely be less painful than dealing with Aphrodite. But he slung the bow across his back with an air of weary resolve and tramped over to where she was waiting.

“Hey, Aphrodite,” he greeted her, smiling in spite of himself. She was, after all, the undeniably beautiful, vivacious, barely clothed goddess of love. “How’s Hephaestus?”

“A slave to the forge.” She allowed herself a quick pout. “But that’s not why I’m here. I have to talk to you.”

“Aphrodite,” Iolaus said calmly, sparing a glance around the quiet forest. “There’s no one else here. I don’t think you need to whisper.”

“Good point.” The goddess stepped out from behind the tree and gave him a blinding grin.

“Now what do you need to talk to me about?”

“This!”

“Ow,” the hunter muttered as she whacked him across the chest with a rolled up scroll. “What was that for?”

“Why am I getting petitions for you from a child?”

“That’s just Zelia,” Iolaus told her, rubbing a hand lightly over his stinging pecs. “She apparently has a touch of hero worship. But I can handle it, don’t worry.”

“When I get something like this, I worry, Sweet Cheeks,” the goddess admonished him, smacking him with the scroll again. “And so should you.”

“Cut that out!” he yelped, snatching the petition from her hand. With a glare in her direction and an ungentlemanly curse under his breath, Iolaus unrolled the parchment and scanned the contents, his scowl turning into a puzzled frown as he glanced back at the goddess. “I don’t get it. What’s she talking about?”

“I don’t know,” Aphrodite shrugged. “But you’d better figure it out, because she’s serious.”

“She’s just a kid,” the hunter murmured, rereading the earnest petition.

“Her feelings may be immature and misguided,” the goddess of love told him, gentling her tone. “But that doesn’t make them any less real, Sweet Cheeks. So when you find her, go easy on her, ok? Mortals all do crazy things in the name of love.”

“You’re awfully quiet this morning,” Hercules commented. A grand understatement, as Althea had been subdued all through breakfast and completely mute ever since they’d left the house.

“I feel like such a fool,” she replied as she stepped onto the rope bridge that led across the ravine, shuddering a bit as she recalled how she had thrown herself at the demigod the night before. “I’m so embarrassed.”

“Oh, don’t be,” Hercules advised her. “You said what was on your mind, and that took courage.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Althea.” The demigod put his hand on her shoulder and turned her around to face him, the rope bridge swaying gently in the breeze beneath them. “We come from two different worlds, and our destinies lie in two different directions. I wouldn’t be able to give you everything you want, and that’s not fair to you. Someday you’re going to meet a young man who will, and then you’re going to forget all about me.”

“I guess you’re right,” she said slowly, thinking about what he said and realizing it was all true. They didn’t even really know each other, and while the paths of their lives had intersected for this one glorious moment, they were destined to go on in opposite directions. “But you were wrong about one thing, Hercules. Nobody has ever done for me what you’re doing, not even my father. And for that, I will always love you.”

The demigod smiled down at her, but a flash of movement caught his eye and he looked up, his gaze hardening as one of Asterius’ goons began hacking at the ropes holding the pile of logs that he’d so painstakingly stacked.

“Hold that thought,” Hercules told her, turning around to see another man cutting the ropes of the bridge.

“What are we going to do?” Althea cried out.

The demigod glanced over the side of the bridge to where the river was swirling far below them.

“Come on,” he commanded, taking her hand as they began to run toward the solid ground of the other side. “Hold on tight! Don’t look down!”

Hercules made it to safety just as the rope snapped and he managed to keep his hold on Althea, who had been a step behind him. Glancing over his shoulder as he heard an ominous crash, he saw that the heavy logs had been set free and were thundering toward them in rapid succession. But first things first, so he focused his attention back on the girl who was still dangling from his hand, clinging to what was left of the bridge.

“I’ve got you,” the demigod assured her as he pulled her up to the edge of the ravine. “Come on. Ready for your next lesson?”

“What do you mean?” Althea gasped.

“Balance.” Regretting the fact that he couldn’t give her a minute to catch her breath, Hercules pulled her in by his side as the first log reached them. Almost instinctively following his example, Althea jumped when he did and the pair managed to run over top as the procession of logs rolled by beneath them, until the last one tumbled harmlessly over the side of the ravine. Asterius’ henchman cursed and retreated, and the demigod decided to let him go as it suddenly hit Althea what had just happened and she paled and sunk to the ground.

“They tried to kill us,” she stated, her voice shaking with fear.

“Althea, look at me,” Hercules urged as he crouched down beside her. She didn’t listen, her shocked gaze riveted to the churning river far below them. “Come on, look at me,” he repeated forcefully.

“I can’t do this,” she exclaimed as the tears started to fall. “It’s not worth dying for!”

“But it is worth fighting for,” the demigod insisted. He held her terrified gaze, his blue eyes blazing with the intensity of his words. “I WILL NOT let anything happen to you.” Hercules got to his feet, a grin twitching his lips. The novelty had worn off the event of someone trying to kill him, as it happened virtually every other day. And while he had sympathy for a sheltered, small town girl having to deal with the trauma, he knew Althea was tougher than that. If he didn’t make a big deal out of it, she’d shake it off in no time. “Besides,” he continued with sincere admiration as he helped her up. “You were great.”

They continued on their way and as he predicted, by the time they arrived at Twanky’s studio Althea had recovered her enthusiasm full force. An enthusiasm that was dampened somewhat as the Widow let her grave displeasure over their tardiness be known.

“Late!” she scolded them sternly. “Late, late, late, late, late!”

“Sorry we’re late,” Hercules apologized, sharing a conspiratorial smile with Althea. “But we had to do a little practicing of our own.”

“Oooh, practicing,” Twanky echoed sarcastically. “Is that what you call it these days? Mucking about,” she accused them huffily as she raised her fan threateningly. “Discovering appendages you never even knew you had. Oh, you are a nasty, nasty little boy! Put your hand out now!”

“Pardon me?” the demigod asked in disbelief, thinking that the last time he checked, he’d been an adult.

“Don’t you ‘Pardon me’ me, you!” the Widow admonished him as she unleashed her wrath. “I shall give you ‘Pardon me’! I will ‘Pardon me’ you into the middle of next week! Now, hold that hand out! Right now, young man, or there shall be no lesson today!”

With a heavy sigh of resignation as he had no other recourse, Hercules presented his hand. He’d been beaten, mauled, strangled, singed, shot, and whipped, so surely a few slaps with a fan couldn’t be too bad. However, thoughts of corporeal punishment quickly fled Twanky’s mind.

“Oh, that’s quite a strong hand, really,” she murmured as she took it in her own. “Shapely forearm. Look at the size of those biceps,” she said to Althea in a stage whisper. “It’s huge! Hold me!” Overcome with the magnificence of the demigod, the Widow folded herself into his embrace, enjoying the rock solidness of his chest against her body as she fanned herself rapidly.

“Ah, shouldn’t we be getting on with the lesson?” Hercules spoke up uncomfortably.

“Oh, yes, right,” Twanky agreed as she untangled herself. “Plenty of time for that later.” She started forward but jumped as if she’d been goosed and she turned to glare at the demigod. Hercules met Althea’s surprised eyes and quickly held up his hands to declare his innocence. “Now then, watch!” the Widow ordered them, leaving Hercules a bit overwhelmed over how quickly she could shift moods.

Twanky displayed no signs of age as she glided across the floor gracefully before twirling in a circle and dancing back to land in a regal pose before them.

“Now, it’s your turn.”

“I can’t do that,” Althea protested quickly.

“What do you mean?” the Widow demanded. “You haven’t even tried.”

“Go on,” Hercules encouraged her, glad to be off Twanky’s radar for the moment and wanting to keep it that way as long as possible.

“That’s it,” Twanky coached as Althea began to half-heartedly retrace her steps in an effort to recreate the move. “Yes. Lift and breathe and stretch....”

“Althea, you ok?” the demigod asked as he hurried forward to pick her up after she fell on her face.

“I told you I couldn’t do it,” the girl grumbled. And immediately wished she hadn’t as her lips were seized in the Widow’s firm grasp.

“If you say that once more I shall wash your mouth out with soap. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Althea replied, as much as she was able with her mouth in a vice.

“Good.” Twanky released her and moved behind the girl, putting her hands on her shoulders. “Now close your eyes, and feel the rhythm of the steps.” Althea obeyed and began swaying slightly as she envisioned the move and saw it as one fluid movement. “That’s it. Let it flow through you. Off you go.”

She set out to try again, more determinedly this time. Althea didn’t quite have the same style and flair as her teacher, but she made it through the steps with some semblance of rhythm.

“I did it!” she exclaimed, her whole face lighting up as she beamed out her success. “I did it!”

“All right,” Hercules cheered her on.

“She did it,” the Widow sobbed, overcome with her pupil’s triumph and needing to lean against those semi-divine washboard abs again for support. “I’m so happy!”

“Back from hunting so soon?” Leandra inquired in surprise as her grandson burst through the door.

“Something’s happened to Zelia,” Iolaus blurted out in agitation. “I checked at her house and she’s not there. Nobody’s seen her and her friends don’t know where she is either.”

“Calm down” Leandra soothed him. “Take a breath. Why do you think something’s happened to her?”

“Aphrodite showed me this petition she got from Zelia,” the hunter told her. “She called herself a damsel in distress and there was something about me being her hero and her true love...” He trailed off, sweeping a hand through his unruly curls in frustration.

Leandra’s brow furrowed in confusion, and then the light dawned.

“You think she set herself up to be rescued again?”

“Yes, I do,” Iolaus muttered as he began to pace. “And she could be in real trouble somewhere. I checked back at the pond and she’s not there. She might be in danger, Leandra, and I don’t have time for a random search. Where would she have gone? Somewhere risky, but where I’d know to find her?”

“I think I know where she might be,” Leandra said slowly. “She was asking me yesterday and I never would have told her if I’d known she was thinking of doing something like this.” “What?” the hunter demanded. “What did you tell her?”

“Yeah, right,” Oena scoffed as she moved down the row of prospective partners her uncle had lined up for her. “You’re dreaming.” She stopped in front of a tall drink of water that was positively sneering his arrogance. “What’s your name?”

“Travoltus.”

“He’ll do,” she conceded after a moment’s deliberation. He wasn’t hideous looking and he had attitude. Whether or not he could actually dance wasn’t important, as she did all the work. As long as he could stay off her feet they had a chance.

“Have him fitted for his costume,” Asterius commanded quickly, before she could change her mind.

“Sir! Sir!”

“What’s he still doing here?” Oena hissed as the magistrate’s lieutenant approached.

“What’s the matter?” Asterius asked him.

“Hercules and the girl managed to... avoid the accident this morning,” the man relayed.

“Oh, Uncle, you promised!” Oena shrieked.

“Now, now. You know I’m a man who keeps his word,” the magistrate placated her. “It seems Hercules has left us no choice. Time for a more hands-on approach.”

“Oh, that’s what you always say!” Oena shouted as she entered a full blown tantrum. “Now, I’ll never win the Panathenia!”

“Stop whining, you blubbering brat!” Asterius shouted back as his patience finally ran out.

She stopped crying out of shock, for he had never spoken so harshly to her before, nor failed to cater to her every whim. Oena didn’t know what to make of it, but when she saw her Uncle’s peon chuckling, the rage overtook her and she attacked him physically so that he’d remember his place and think twice before ever mocking her again.

Leandra shivered slightly as she approached the cliff, well remembering the day that Iagos had pushed her over the edge. She was sure it was to be her end, but Iolaus, with no regard for his own well being, had followed her over and risked his own life to save hers. It was a spectacular rescue, so she'd told the young girl, her voice beaming with pride for her courageous grandson. And it appeared that Zelia had agreed, so much so that she'd wanted to duplicate the rescue for herself.

"Iolaus?" She'd let him go on ahead of her when it became apparent she was slowing him down, but Leandra didn’t see him anywhere as she reached the cliff.

"Down here."

She carefully eased closer to the drop off and looked down to see her grandson perched on a narrow ledge, hovering over Zelia's limp body.

"Is she....?"

"She's alive," the hunter called up. "But I don't know how badly she might be hurt."

"Let me go back to the village," Leandra told him. "I'll bring back help."

"No, there's no time," Iolaus argued. "We've got to get her out of here now and to the healer. Just tie the end of that rope off around something solid and throw it down here to me."

Praying that he knew what he was doing, Leandra did as he asked, wrapping the rope she’d brought around a tree and tying it off with so many knots it would never come loose.

"Please, be careful," she begged as she tossed the free end down to him.

Iolaus caught it and secured it around the unconscious girl so that if he slipped or she fell, the rope would stop her descent. Then he settled her over his shoulder, centering her weight to keep her balanced, and began to free climb up the side of the cliff, using the rope to pull himself up. When he got to the top where he had roots to hold onto, Leandra reached out and took Zelia from him, surprising him slightly with her strength. But then again, while thinking of her as his grandmother it was easy to forget that she was younger than he was.

"I think she was climbing down to that ledge and the vines came away from the rock," the hunter panted as he pulled himself back to solid ground. "She still had a few in her hands."

"We'll have to splint her leg before we take her back," Leandra announced, giving the girl a quick examination. "Stay with her and I'll go find some branches." She got to her feet but hesitated, touching her grandson gently on the shoulder. "This wasn't your fault, Iolaus."

"Yeah, sure," he sighed. As his grandmother hurried off, he dug into her bag and found a clean cloth that he gently pressed against the oozing gash on Zelia's temple. After several moments, the girl moaned and began to come around, blinking her eyes open and gazing up at him dazedly. It took her a minute to focus, but then she smiled when she realized who was beside her.

"I knew you'd find me," she whispered, almost happily. "I knew you'd save me."

“Your turn.”

Hercules stared incredulously at the Widow. He had no problem with dancing, but surely she didn’t expect him to go frolicking across the floor like a drunken satyr.

“I don’t twirl,” he told her firmly.

“Oh, of course you do, you silly boy,” Twanky chastised him. “You do it every day.”

“Uh, I don’t think so,” the demigod argued, knowing that if he ever went about spinning down the road Iolaus would be sure to point it out to him.

“Oh. Really.”

There was a little gleam in her eye that made Hercules nervous. Twanky started to turn away from him, as if accepting his declaration, but then she whirled back around with an ear splitting shriek and attacked him. The demigod instinctively reacted, leaping up and over her with an impressive aerial roll as Althea wisely got out of the way. As soon as he landed, she was after him again and he dodged her attack, spinning out of range. Relentlessly she charged once more and Hercules again whirled past her.

“There, you see. You do twirl.”

The demigod had tensed, expecting another rush. But when he realized that she was through proving her point he relaxed slightly with an air of grudging acceptance as Althea chuckled in amusement.

“You see, fighting, in its very essence, is like a dance,” Twanky continued, adjusting her cleavage slightly as she came forward to lecture her pupil. “And you, my hunky Herc, are a natural.”

“Thanks. I think,” the demigod murmured, a bit unsettled.

“Now, tell me,” the Widow purred, running a sculpted nail down his muscular arm. “Have you ever fought with a partner?”

“Yes,” Hercules replied hesitantly.

“Mmmm. And what, perchance, is his name?”

“Iolaus,” the demigod answered uncomfortably, not sure why he was feeling like he was ratting his buddy out for something.

“Iolaus.” Twanky nodded approvingly. “Well, Hercules, I know this’ll be difficult, but I want you to imagine, for a moment, that I am Iolaus. Now, I know it’s a stretch of the imagination, but I would appreciate the effort. Now then...” She gasped theatrically, and the demigod quickly looked over his shoulder, not caring what the threat was as long as it got the image of his partner in a wig and a dress out of his head. There was nothing there, but the Widow took his hand and swept past him and he automatically anchored her. “Oh no! We’re surrounded!” Twanky spun past him again, effortlessly catching his hand as she landed on the other side and Hercules was a bit dismayed over the way he so naturally twirled to readjust his position. “Completely defenseless!” Another spin and she was behind him, and the demigod, feeling that presence at his back, immediately adopted a fighting stance. “What are we going to do?”

They exchanged a glance over their shoulders, and Hercules grinned in spite of himself, glad for a chance to show what he could do after having been made to feel graceless and awkward and uncoordinated time and time again. He dropped to the ground with a low spin kick, surprised to see out of the corner of his eye that his teacher was doing the same. She followed his every move perfectly, completely in sync with him as he spun and kicked and leaped, battling imaginary foes. And the demigod quickly began to feel like he was fighting with Iolaus, for Twanky was seemingly able to read his mind and anticipate his actions just like his partner could. She was about the same proportionately, too, and they moved together flawlessly as if they’d been doing so for years, effortlessly performing intricate moves and capping their performance off with a perfect Thermopylae. Hercules stopped, staring at the older woman in wonder as she patted her hair, not a bit out of breath.

“That was great!” Althea exclaimed excitedly as she came forward.

“Yeah,” the demigod agreed with sincere admiration. “You’re not bad!”

“You’re not bad yourself,” the Widow chuckled. “But now, you two must learn to do that together.” She sobered, reaching out to join their hands. “Hercules. Althea. Do you promise to trust each other? To catch each other when you fall? And to move together, as long as you both shall dance?”

“We do,” they vowed solemnly.

“Then, darlings, it’s time to learn the Twanky Twiddle.”

That turned out to be easier said than done.

"She's going to be fine, you know."

Iolaus glanced up, a bit startled as Leandra slid a steaming mug in front of him. "A broken leg and a knock on the head," he muttered as he took a sip of the hot cider.

"Both will heal," Leandra pointed out. "Zelia's young and enthusiastic and she didn't think about what she was doing. But you can't blame yourself for that."

"I encouraged her..."

"No, you tried to be her friend and she took it the wrong way. You're a very charming man." Leandra smiled as she sat down at the table beside him, smoothing a stray curl back from his face. "It's only natural that she would develop a crush on you. But I have every confidence that you'll set her straight, without any feelings being hurt. And hopefully she's learned to temper her impulsiveness with common sense."

"I don't know if that can be learned," Iolaus grinned, his grandmother's wise counsel lifting his mood. "Herc'll tell you it's one I haven't mastered yet."

"That reminds me," Leandra exclaimed, rising to retrieve the letter she’d put on the mantle above the fireplace. "This came for you this morning from Hercules. With all the excitement, I forgot all about it."

The hunter took the scroll and opened it, quickly reading the brief message.

"He's going to be late," he relayed. "He's tied up with something in Rhumba. Says he'll explain when he gets here." Iolaus caught his grandmother's eye and smirked. "Which means he got suckered into helping someone and he's in over his head in some weird situation and he's not going to explain a thing when he does show up."

"I'm glad it's nothing serious," Leandra remarked. "With as much as you talk about him, I feel like I know him already. I’m really looking forward to meeting him."

"Me, too," Iolaus murmured. He obviously was eager to introduce his partner and best friend to his grandmother. But he was also excited for Hercules to meet Leandra. Because she was a wonderful woman, but also because the hunter wanted to reciprocate a little of the familial love he'd always gotten from the demigod's mother. Since he was a kid, Alcmene had always been there to comfort and nurture, to feed and scold, to soothe little hurts and big ones, too. She had never once failed to make him feel welcomed and wanted and loved, and Iolaus desperately wanted to give a little of that back to Hercules. But as he thought of his surrogate mother, his mind drifted to his real one, and as he watched Leandra stirring the cider in the pot over the fire, he felt a sudden need to unburden his soul and tell her the truth. "Leandra, I haven't seen my mother since I was fifteen."

If she was shocked, she didn't show it. She merely turned to look at him with her soft gaze, which was neither judgmental nor condemning.

"Why not?" No accusation, just curiosity and concern.

"That is a very long story," the hunter sighed, draining his mug. "I guess when I was a kid, I thought I knew everything and I thought I understood how the world worked. I blamed my mother, and my father, for a lot of things and I figured I could do better on my own. I left home and tried to make my way on the streets. Well, I fell in with a gang and ended up as a thief and generally was just nothing but trouble for a long time."

"Why didn't you tell me this before?" she asked, refilling his mug for him.

"I guess because... I love you and I didn't want you to think of me as a no good thief."

"Iolaus, I could never think badly of you," Leandra assured him as she sat back down beside him. "Stealing as a boy, well, that's just something you did. Not who you are. You are a hero and a brave, kind, selfless man. And you are my grandson and I could never, ever stop loving you." She drew him into a warm hug, wrapping her arms around him tightly. "Is this why you haven't been back to see your mother? Because you think she sees you as a thief and doesn't love you anymore?"

"I don't know," Iolaus sighed as he pulled back. "At first I was angry with her. Then I was too ashamed of how I'd behaved to go back. As the years went by it just got more and more awkward. I guess I just convinced myself that she was better off without me."

"I can promise you that's not true," Leandra murmured, taking his hand and squeezing it. "Any mother would be proud to have a son like you. And maybe it's time you give Erythia the chance to prove it to you."

Iolaus didn't answer, but he did give serious weight to her words. After all, he'd made peace with his father. He owed it to his mother to try and do the same. And if the gentle Leandra could still love him after knowing his less than honorable past, it didn’t seem like too much to hope for that his mother just might feel the same.

Hercules had never realized how difficult dancing could be. He’d written it off as just learning a few steps, and when the Widow had equated it to fighting he was sure he’d have it mastered in no time. After all, as she had said, he was a natural. But over the course of the next few days, the demigod saw that the art of dancing was actually a very involved, very complex, very physically demanding process.

Twanky quickly ceased to be a sweet, if eccentric, lady and became a grueling taskmaster, wielding a stinging switch that she used liberally. After being on the receiving end a few times, Hercules began to pay rapt attention to his frame and his positioning. They had to learn about hip control and foot placement and breathing. The Widow grilled them on the importance of learning to listen and move to the count, and her lessons on balance made Cheiron’s seem like a leisurely stroll in the woods by comparison. Then she pulled out a large board with several parchments of illustrated instruction and began to go over the physics of movement. The demigod took notes, feeling a bit overwhelmed. All this and they hadn’t even begun to learn the steps.

When they did finally take to the floor, it was more swatting from the switch, mostly for transgressions against positioning that they were supposed to have already learned. But Twanky guided them through the steps one by one, her rigidness softening somewhat as she realized how hard they were both working and how hard they were really trying. Slowly, their routine began to come together and Althea started to bond with Twanky, enjoying having a comforting mother figure in her life. As for Hercules, the notes went out the window and he decided to follow his heart. It had always served him well in the past, and he figured he could count on it now to give him the passion to dance.

Althea’s passion had never been in question. The girl met every lesson with unbridled enthusiasm, took her punishments in stride, and never failed to get back on her feet when she fell, willing to try again. But during their final lesson, they still hadn’t nailed their finale and nerves began to get the best of her.

“All right, my darlings,” Twanky encouraged them. “This is the one. I know it. I can feel it. Off you go.”

But the timing was off just by a hair, and Althea hit the hard floor. She wasn’t hurt, but she curled up in a heap of defeat.

“It’s just too hard!”

“You can do this, Althea,” Hercules told her supportively. “I know you can.”

“The contest is tonight,” she reminded him in discouragement as she sat up. “I don’t think I’ve got it in me.”

“That’s exactly what your mother said, all those years ago.”

“You knew my mother?” Althea demanded, scrambling up to rush over to the Widow.

“Oh yes,” Twanky told her. “She was a pupil of mine. And the most incredible dancer this town has ever seen.”

“My mother was a dancer?” the girl repeated in shock.

“I’ve never seen anybody with such a passion. Such a fire inside. I never thought I’d see anyone else sparkle like that again.” Twanky reached out to gently chuck her under the chin. “Until I saw you.”

“Why did my father never tell me?” Althea murmured brokenly. The tears began to come and she fled the studio, determined to go home and get the truth.

“Althea, wait!” Hercules called as he went after her.

But she didn’t want to listen to anything he had to say and the demigod realized there was nothing he could do. This was between her and her father, and he could only hope the imminent confrontation wouldn’t shatter the young girl’s spirit. When they reached the house, Althea stopped in the open doorway, seeing her father inside and feeling the anger swelling inside her.

“Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“Tell you what?” Elis asked, turning to face her.

“That my mother was a dancer!” she exclaimed as she entered the house.

“Who told you that?”

“The Widow Twanky.”

There was a silent pause, and Hercules grew apprehensive. He’d been intending on giving them privacy, but then he thought better of it and his presence filled the doorway, ready to intervene if things got ugly.

“You’ve been dancing behind my back,” Elis said finally, lowering himself to a chair, scarcely able to believe that his obedient daughter had so flagrantly defied him.

“Stop treating me like a child and start telling me the truth!” Althea shouted. “Please!”

“She did love to dance,” Ellis whispered, smiling at the memory of his beloved wife. “Winning the Panathenia meant everything to her. We would have, too.”

“We?” she asked. “You were her dance partner?”

“It was the happiest time of my life,” he acknowledged. His smile grew broader but tears filled his eyes. “She refused to follow the rules. So the magistrate disqualified us. We were banned from the contest forever. The truth is, your mother died of a broken heart.” He glanced up at her, unable to fathom the same thing happening to his daughter. “That’s why I forbid you to enter the contest!”

Althea met his gaze, her eyes growing hard behind her own tears. She loved her father more than anything and she empathized with his pain, but she was not ready to forgive him for his deception or his denial of her heart.

“You can’t stop me,” she told him boldly before turning to run out of the house, pausing to lock eyes with Hercules for a brief moment, literally daring him to tell her that they couldn’t enter the contest because her father didn’t approve. He just looked back at her sadly, so she left and headed back to the studio, wanting to hear more about her mother from someone who appreciated the passion for dance that she’d had.

“Elis,” the demigod began as he stepped inside the house.

“How dare you?” the man growled dangerously as he realized the legendary hero had been indulging his daughter’s whims, right under his nose.

“I know you want what’s best for your daughter, but this is her dream,” Hercules tried to explain.

“I am trying to protect her!” Elis yelled, jumping to his feet and getting in the demigod’s face, not intimidated by his size or his strength.

“If you really want to protect her,” Hercules told him coldly, “then encourage her. Support her.” His blue eyes bored into the man’s and this time it was Elis who had to look away, for the demigod was rapidly losing respect for someone who could let his own fear destroy his daughter’s happiness and he was ready to let his displeasure be known. “If you don’t let her dance, you will break her heart.”

Figuring he’d let Elis think about that for awhile, Hercules left the house and went after Althea, assuming that she’d gone back to the studio. But when he got there, he found Twanky tied up and gagged on the floor and three of Asterius’ goons wielding clubs and surrounding the girl.

“Now, what is it they say again to wish someone luck? Oh, yes. Break a leg.”

“Hey!” Hercules called out, grabbing their attention. “Let me guess. You’re looking for a dance partner.” One of the men rushed him and the demigod blocked his swing. “Sorry, but you’re not my type.” He guided the thug through a tandem turn, making sure to keep his back straight and his center of balance over his leading foot as he heaved the goon out the window. His two friends quickly followed.

“Oh, Hercules, I’m so glad to see you!” Althea cried as she rushed forward to hug him.

Twanky began writhing and sputtering behind her gag, reminding them of her predicament. The demigod hurried to her rescue, helping her to her feet and breaking the bonds on her wrists.

“Are you all right?”

“No, I’m not!” the Widow exclaimed as she ripped off the gag. “How they man-handled me! And it’s been so long.”

“Yeah,” the demigod drawled, thinking that it was a good time to leave before he was saddled with an image he’d rather not have in his head. “Well, we should get to the competition.”

“Wait!” Twanky cried, pulling on his arm to stop him. “You’re not going to the Panathenia dressed like that!” “It’s all I ever wear,” Hercules told her, glancing down at his clothing.

“I know, and I’m sick of it,” the Widow sniffed, taking his hand. “Come on!”

"Iolaus!" The girl's whole face lit up as the hunter entered her room. "Are those for me?" She took the bouquet of wildflowers he handed her and hugged them to her chest, breathing in their delicate scent. "They're beautiful."

"How are you feeling?"

"I'm ok, thanks to you." Zelia smiled up at him adoringly. "My hero. You saved my life."

"We were both lucky," Iolaus began, knowing the time had come to break the young girl's heart. "But next time I might not be there. You have to be more careful, Zelia."

"Why wouldn't you be there?" she demanded, her happy smile fading. "I thought..."

"I know what you were thinking," the hunter said gently as he sat down on the edge of her bed. "And I'm sorry if I did anything to make you think that. But what you want is impossible, for many reasons."

"Don't you love me?" she whispered, her eyes filling with tears.

"Not like that," Iolaus murmured.

Zelia was silent for long moments, then she turned away from him and covered her face with her hands.

"You must think I'm a real idiot."

"I think you are a very brave, very spirited, very vibrant, beautiful young lady," Iolaus told her warmly as he slid a little closer and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "And I also think that in a few years when you have your pick of any man in this village, you aren't going to feel the same way about me. And I'm going to wish that you did."

Zelia glanced up at him and couldn't help but smile at his infectious grin. She nestled in against his chest with a small sigh.

"Iolaus?"

"Hmmm?"

"You're still my hero."

"And you can always call on me if you need me," the hunter promised her, resting his chin on the top of her head. "But somehow, Zelia, I don't think you're going to need anyone to rescue you anymore."

It was the biggest Panathenia to date and the magistrate grinned like a shark as he surveyed the packed hall.

“Well, let’s get straight to it, shall we?” he announced, throwing himself completely into his role as host. “From the Dionysian Institute of Danceology, couple number one!”

Oena watched the pair with disinterest, immediately realizing they were no competition. At least for her. She glanced at Travoltus and smacked him on the chest to get his attention.

“Better not screw this up!” she warned him.

Across the hall, Althea stood watching Oena with growing apprehension. Who was she kidding? She was never going to fit in and she was never going to be accepted. And she’d been a fool to think that she could do this. More likely than not she was just setting herself up for another huge embarrassment. With a heavy sigh, she wondered if she should just leave now and go back home.

“Althea.”

She turned, startled to see her father behind her and assuming he’d come to drag her away from the contest. But that was the furthest from Elis’ mind, much to her astonishment.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth,” he apologized. “I was afraid. You’re so like your mother. But Hercules was right. You need to follow your dream, wherever it takes you. That’s what she would’ve wanted you to do.”

“Oh, Daddy,” Althea murmured, falling into his arms. He hugged her tightly, then pulled her back so that he could look in her eyes.

“Now, go get ready,” he told her, smiling proudly. “And finish what she started!”

Althea glanced back out to the dance floor. Couple number one was technically good, but they had no flair, no pizzaz. Not like her and Hercules. She smiled back at her father, feeling a new wave of confidence. She owed it to him, and her mother, to try her best. And she owed it to Twanky and Hercules who had worked so hard to help her reach her dream. But mostly, she owed it to herself. Giving her father a quick kiss, Althea dashed off to get into the elegant gown the Widow had given her, and to get ready to unleash her passion on all of Rhumba.

The contest continued and several other couples took their turn on the floor. Some were better than others, but they were all entertaining under the glitz of the lights and the music. Oena and Travoltus were the final entries, by design of the magistrate so that their routine would be freshest in the minds of the judges. They both performed well and Asterius was sure that his lovely niece, the picture of grace and style, would be awarded the trophy yet again. As their dance ended, he was rolled out on his podium, eager to bring the contest to a close. Hercules had been a no show thus far, but the magistrate knew he wouldn’t relax until the prize was safely in Oena’s hands.

“Weren’t they wonderful?” he began, not bothering to hide his obvious bias. “Let’s give them another round of applause! And since there are no more contestants, the judges will now select a winner!”

Suddenly, the front doors slammed open and the dark, artificially lit hall was flooded with sunlight. Two shadowy figures stood backlit in the doorway, unrecognizable to all inside. One of them came forward, spinning a few times for momentum before sliding across the floor, coming to a halt in the middle of the spotlight. She paused for a dramatic beat, then sat up and looked back at her partner and it was no wonder that many people failed to recognize her. Gone was the plain, mousy, insecure, awkward girl. And in her place, a beautiful, confident, poised woman with long flowing hair and a natural grace waited. Eyes followed her gaze to the large figure in the doorway, and Asterius immediately discerned that the demigod was making his entrance.

“You’re too late, Hercules!” he shouted. “The contest is over!”

But his podium was pushed off the floor as Hercules came forward with slow, deliberate steps. Everyone gaped and stared at him, his sculpted physique poured into his tight leather trousers and glittering jacket. He had admittedly had his doubts, but Twanky insisted and told him to trust her. After all, she was his biggest fan and she wasn’t about to do anything to take away from his muscular ruggedness. And as he stalked across the floor with seething attitude, the Widow found it a bit hard to breathe as she, along with everyone else there, admired her work. But the demigod only had eyes for Althea, his smoky gaze never wavering from her face as he slipped into his character and remembered what Twanky had told them about using their natural chemistry to ignite a fire that would transcend to the audience.

Reaching down, he pulled her up and she spun into his embrace where he dipped her back slightly. Althea’s seductive gaze matched his, but the tiniest hint of a smile twitched her lips. Hercules understood and gave her a quick wink. They were ready to light the hall on fire.

They faced each other in a closed position and Althea locked her leg around his, letting him pivot her in a circle. Then they both stepped back in a corte, posing briefly before she spun into his embrace again. Hercules lowered her into a drop with his right hand and waved his left in front of her face before stretching it out at his side, keeping his wrist tight and his fingers straight as Twanky’s switch had taught him.

The music’s tempo increased and they began double time, dancing across the floor as mirror opposites with a chasse. Their routine was flawless and they moved in perfect sync as they enacted an amalgamation of turns and kicks and swivels, with plenty of twirling. Hercules effortlessly swept Althea up to his shoulder and held her as he spun her around. Asterius glanced around at all the awed faces around him and knew he had to put a stop to the farce.

“Get them off that dance floor, now!” he snarled to his goons.

Hercules didn’t miss a beat or break his rhythm as he swung out to send the magistrate’s lackeys flying. Althea, to her credit, didn’t bat an eye for she trusted her partner implicitly. They kept going and the demigod took advantage of a series of upcoming aerials to foil their attackers. Whirling Althea around his waist and over his shoulders, he used her momentum to beat back the goons. Twanky lent her assistance, taking out a thug near her with a heavy clay jar that was on the bar beside her.

Hercules and Althea faced each other in the open position, and she reached out to place a hand on his chest as they did a box step. Then the demigod swept her up and flipped her over his head. She landed perfectly and Hercules couldn’t help grinning at her. They kept dancing, fueled by the growing reaction of the crowd that was definitely getting caught up in their chemistry and the heat and passion of their performance. Even some of Asterius’ goons gave up and decided to hang back and enjoy the show. Hercules took care of those foolish enough to come back for more as Althea pranced before Oena and the other girls who had always made her life miserable, not wanting to miss her opportunity to throw it back into their faces. Then she positioned herself, turning back to face her partner as their finale loomed before them.

They had never managed to perfect the move, but this time Althea was sure they could do it. She knew Hercules would not let her fall, and more importantly, she believed that she would not let herself fall. Catching the demigod’s eye, she grinned broadly, letting him know it was time for the Twanky Twiddle.

Hercules kicked one of the fallen men at his feet, sending him sliding toward Althea. She cartwheeled over him and leapt into the demigod’s arms. He hoisted her into the air in a one handed lift, holding her aloft and rapidly spinning her as the crowd gasped in astonishment and even Oena’s bitter, cynical jaw dropped at the sight. Then as the Widow held her breath, Hercules tossed his partner high up into the air where she seemed to float for a moment before she plummeted back down to earth, landing safely in her partner’s arms as the music ended.

The crowed exploded with cheers and applause, and everyone followed the judges who made a beeline to the beaming couple who had so obviously left all the other contestants in the dust.

“Uncle, do something!” Oena shrieked, obviously not about to play the gracious loser.

Asterius began pushing through the crowd, shoving people out of his way as he fought to get to the winners.

“Stop this outrage!” he commanded. “You have insulted the Muses by breaking the rules and now they’ll turn their backs on us!” He lunged forward to snatch the trophy from the judge and Elis almost collapsed as he relived his nightmare and his greatest fear. But Hercules intercepted the magistrate, wanting to show off one last move he’d learned from the Widow Twanky.

“Wrong,” he countered with deadly seriousness. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Asterius said meekly, feeling the power behind the hand that was unceremoniously squishing his lips in a vice like grip.

“Good.” The demigod released him with a hard shove that sent him sprawling and turned to address the amused crowd. “The Muses inspire us to find what’s already in our hearts. But your magistrate wants you to forget that. Well, there is nothing wrong with reaching for the sky. Don’t let his rules keep you from trying.”

The judges agreed and presented the trophy to Althea without any pomp or ceremony. She thanked them gratefully and the Widow came forward to give her a proud kiss on the cheek.

“Well!” she cried out, turning to the crowd. “You heard him! What are you waiting for? Let’s dance!”

With Twanky’s encouragement, the music swelled and the crowd began pairing up as Hercules found himself in the clutches of a small, but persistent, woman and Elis excitedly congratulated his daughter.

“I am your magistrate!” Asterius shouted furiously. “Stop this at once! Do you hear me?” But nobody listened, emboldened by Hercules and no longer willing to fear the pompous weasel. The magistrate found himself knocked to the ground, but he picked himself back up. “Stop this!” he ordered again, demanding to be obeyed. “Stop it! Stop this at once!”

Twanky and Elis danced by and paused as the Widow sneered down at Asterius, enjoying how the mighty had fallen.

“Aw, shut up!” she told him, delivering a solid backhand.

It was the blow that released the town, and even the magistrate’s guards joined in with the celebration, enjoying their newfound freedom to be a part of the party, instead of looking stern on the sidelines and enforcing their boss’ ridiculous laws.

Althea sidestepped Oena who was huddled on the floor next to the pantechnicon sobbing to herself and went to Hercules as he managed to disengage himself from his ardent admirer.

“I don’t know how to thank you enough,” she told him with heartfelt sincerity.

“You don’t have to,” the demigod replied as he hugged her. “We did this together.”

“Well, how about the last dance?” Althea offered.

“You know, I’d love to.” Hercules grinned and inclined his head, indicating something behind her. “But I think I’m going to have to get in line.”

Althea turned to see Travoltus, flanked by several other young men, all waiting for their turn to dance with her. She turned back to Hercules, giving him a look of pure love, platonic this time, for everything he had done for her.

“Go on,” he urged her fondly.

“Thank you,” she murmured, giving him a kiss before heading off to greet her fan club.

Hercules watched her with no small measure of satisfaction. Rhumba would be fine, finally out from under the iron fist of Asterius. And Althea... well, she’d be more than fine. Which meant it was time for him to go.

“And where do you think you’re going?” Twanky demanded, latching on to him as he tried to slip away to the door.

“Ah, actually, I’m going to go see my friend, Iolaus,” Hercules explained.

“Oh, no, you’re not!” the Widow insisted.

“But he’s...”

The demigod’s protest was cut off as Twanky dragged him back to the dance floor. And it was hardly the first time, and sadly probably not the last during his visit in Rhumba, that Hercules found himself asking just how he managed to get himself into these situations.

"I wish you didn't have to go," Leandra said sadly. "But I suppose I should be grateful you were able to stay as long as you did. I know that being a hero doesn't leave you much free time. Promise me that you'll come back as soon as you're able, and that you'll bring Hercules with you."

"I will," Iolaus told her. "I just wish you could have gotten to meet him."

"Next time," she murmured. As the widow of a soldier, she was accustomed to and accepting of goodbyes with the men in her life. "I understand you both want to help your friend. I hope he's not in serious trouble. Hercules' message was rather vague."

"I'm sure the one he got from Salmoneus wasn't much clearer," the hunter chuckled. "And knowing good old Sal, serious trouble is a safe bet."

"Well if anyone can get him out of it, you can," Leandra said fondly. "Iolaus, will you promise me something else?"

"Anything."

"In between saving the world, try and find some time to visit your mother. I know she misses you."

"I'll try..."

"Listen to me." Leandra cupped his face in her hands, capturing his gaze. "I know what it's like to lose a son. Even after all these years, Erythia is still feeling that loss. No matter what happened between you, she still loves you. And every morning she wakes up with the hope that maybe this day will be the day her son will walk through her door. So do it for her, and do it for yourself. And do it for me. My son won't return, but you could spare her that pain."

"Ok," Iolaus murmured, his heart aching a little. "I promise you that I'll find the time to go see her."

Satisfied, Leandra drew him into a fierce hug.

"Every night I cry for the loss of my son," she whispered in his ear. "But I can't wish for things to be different. Because if they were, then I might not have you. And I wouldn't give you up for anything, Iolaus."

Overwhelmed by her love for him, the hunter held on to his grandmother until he was able to blink back the moisture in his eyes and regain his composure. Not for the first time, he had to wonder what kind of a man Skouros would have been if he’d gotten to grow up with her, trying to imagine him as a warm, caring father who was not afraid to love or be loved.

"Thank you, Leandra,” he told her as they pulled apart. “For everything."

"Take care of yourself," she instructed with a sad smile. "And take care of Hercules. I want you both in one piece when you come back to see me."

"Soon," Iolaus vowed. "I promise." He kissed her on the cheek and turned away, making his way through the village. When he reached the far side he turned back around, not surprised to see Leandra still standing by the door, watching him go. They waved, and then Iolaus set off down the road that would lead him out of Cyllabos and on to his next adventure with Hercules.

The Widow Twanky, once again, on top of the dance world with the success of the Hercules Hustle, was not harmed or tripped during the production of this motion picture.



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