For the Love of Pete

For the Love of Pete


By Charybdis


Rating: PG-13 for some language and sexual situations. Pretty mild stuff, but you've been warned.
Author's Note: Feedback (particularly of the blatantly flattering variety) is always welcome. Write to crows_nest@compuserve.com.
Disclaimer: Okay, you know the drill. If you don't finish the obstacle course before the hourglass runs out, Cheiron will make you do extra pushups. No, wait, wrong drill! What I meant was, the characters of Young Hercules are the property of Renaissance Pictures and Fox. I promise not to make any money from them, and when I'm finished, I'll put them back where I found them.


[ Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX | Epilogue]

Part I "Hey, Hercules. Check her out." Jason, king of Corinth, elbowed his friend in the ribs.

Before Hercules could turn around to inspect the girl, Jason elbowed him again. "Never mind. Look over there--that one's even better."

"Which one?"

"She just went into--Hey!" Jason ricocheted off a shaven-headed priest of Ares.

"Your pardon, Highness." The man's voice hissed like a serpent's, and he scuttled away.

Jason shivered and straightened his cloak. "Kouros gives me the creeps. It's like he's got this thin coating of slime."

"I know what you mean." But Hercules could tell he'd lost Jason's attention; another pretty girl had come into view. "You know, I've been thinking . . . isn't it time you settled down?"

Jason stopped dead in the street and cast a skeptical look in his friend's direction. "You're starting to sound like one of my advisors."

"Maybe it's good advice. You've got the kingdom--"

"To think about. Blah, blah, blah. I've heard this lecture already."

"Well, with all these girls, there must be one you *really* like?"

Jason shrugged. "I like them all." He started walking again, but his pace was more like a stalking leopard's than a casual stroll.

"But, Jason--"

The king turned on Hercules, all laughter gone from his eyes. "You don't understand."

"Try me."

"You really think it's that easy? Just find a girl I love and live happily ever after? Daisies and violets till the end of time? Yeah, right."

Shocked by his bitter tone, Hercules kept silent.

"When I marry, it'll be strictly a matter of convenience, for me and for her. No roses, just paperwork. Maybe she'll have a powerful father, that I can ally with to protect Corinth. Maybe it'll seal a trade agreement, or stop a war. The one thing that won't be involved, is love." He kicked a stone, sent it bouncing under the wheels of a cart.

"Maybe it won't be that bad. You never know, she might be just the one for you. Destiny."

"I wish I could believe that." He booted another pebble, onto the bottom step of the temple of Aphrodite. "I don't think I've told you much about my parents."

"No. Not really."

"Arranged marriage. Big peace treaty deal. Mom, the pampered younger daughter who had spent all her life in sheltered, cultural Athens, gets thrown into the arms of Dad, who hung around just long enough to get himself an heir before going back to the trenches."

"You?"

"Me. They avoided each other as much as possible after that." He folded his arms and stared defiantly up at the gold-leaf covered statue of Aphrodite on the porch of the temple. "As far as I'm concerned, love's the big lie. But hey, I'm the king. I'll enjoy what I can."

This particular line of conversation bothered Hercules. "So, what are you going to do? Run around fathering 'accidents' on every good looking woman that comes along? You could be just like *my* father when you grow up."

For a long moment, Jason simply stared at him, stony-faced. A heartbeat later, the back of Hercules' head bounced off the door of Aphrodite's temple. "By the gods, Hercules, is that what you think of me?"

With a casual swat, Hercules brushed his friend's fists off the front of his vest. "Calm down." He knew Jason's temper would die out as quickly as it flared up, but if the two of them got into a fight in the marketplace, they could do a lot of damage in a short period of time. "I wasn't saying anything, except that your attitude could use some improving."

"There's nothing wrong with my attitude. I'm just being realistic." He brushed ineffectively at a smudge of dirt on his tunic. "And envious."

"Huh?"

"I said I envy you." He fluttered his eyelashes and switched to a squeaky falsetto voice. "You're always talking about finding that special girl."

Herc took a swing at Jason's head. "I can dream."

"Oh, you'll find her. I hope you appreciate her when you do. Love is a luxury. Maybe it's the one luxury a king can't have."

"Let it go, Jason. C'mon, I think it's dinner time. You are going to feed me, aren't you?"

"If you can call it that. Iolaus scared off my cook with that fire-breathing snake prank, and the new guy Iphistos hired thinks he's an artist. I keep getting these teeny little pieces of fish with leafy twigs stuck in them."

"Um, maybe we should just eat at Kora's."

* * *

As Hercules and Jason made their way down the street, a pair of mother-of-pearl eyes in a golden face blinked, then narrowed. "So, little mister Jason-King-of-Corinth thinks he's too good for love. We'll just see about that."

The statue folded its arms and tapped one perfectly-formed golden foot. It paid no heed to the suddenly frightened passers-by who skittered out of its way. "Let's see. I'll have to call in a few favors to handle this one." Ting, ting, ting, its foot rang against the cobblestones. "Oh, I know just the thing." Sunlight flashed on metallic fingers, and spread around the statue in a golden pool. A heartbeat later, the idol was still again, although not in the same position it had started in.

* * *

"I'm an acolyte at the temple of Artemis. I can't just leave to run errands for you."

"You owe me, Petra. And so does dear sister Artemis, so *I'm* the boss. It's not like you'll have much to do. Just bat your eyes at King Jason, flash some cleavage." The goddess of love looked down her nose at the slender, dark-haired young woman. "You're not me, but you'll do."

"Maybe you didn't hear me. I'm an acolyte of *Artemis*. I don't do the man-chasing thing."

"You're not getting the big picture. *Jason* will do the chasing. Your job is to *not* get caught."

"This is your plan?"

Aphrodite's foot began tapping again. "I think you're forgetting who you're dealing with here."

"Yeah. Somehow I expected more from an actual deity. Silly me. So, any more instructions?"

"Just make him love you and break his heart like a cheap urn with an ode on it. Drive him crazy. The details are up to you."

"Great," Petra muttered.

Part II

In his little study off the throne room, Jason sat staring out the window.. He'd turned his back on the pile of scrolls covering the table; he felt too moody this morning to deal with affairs of state. No, not moody. Trapped.

He sighed and folded his arms across his chest. The window looked out on the vista of Corinth's marketplace, but his gaze had focused on the distant mountains, blue-gray on the horizon. He hadn't swung his sword at anything but the wooden posts in the practice yard for months, and he hadn't even had a chance to work out in a week.

In a few days, Herc would be gone again, off on another adventure. And he'd be stuck listening to complaints about who let their pigs roam loose on the street, or who stole someone else's prize-winning olives. Not exactly the stuff heroes were made of.

Herc'll be looking for his true love, and I'll be marking time here until some problem comes along that can only be solved with a ring . . .

"Ahem."

The sound of someone's throat being cleared sent him spinning around. He hoped he hadn't been talking out loud.

A woman stood before him, clutching another pile of scrolls in her arms. At least, he supposed she was female--with the dowdy clothes she was wearing, it was hard to tell for sure. Mousy brown hair was piled atop her head in a haphazard bun, and to complete the ensemble--

"What in the name of Hades is that thing on your face?"

The scrolls fell with a clatter as her hands clapped her cheeks. "What? Where? Did I get ink on me?"

"No, no, the lenses." Jason bent to pick up some of the scattered parchments.

"Oh, those." She pushed them up on the bridge of her nose and scooped up the scrolls that were out of Jason's reach, setting them on the edge of his table. "Daedelus makes them. I have a hard time seeing things that are far away, but he says the glass is ground in a curve to help my eyes to work right. I don't understand it, but I can see clouds now, so I don't complain." She smiled, but her hands twisted together nervously.

"That's very nice, um . . ."

"Petra."

"Right. Petra. That's great about the clouds. But in case Iphistos didn't tell you, my daily public audience is after lunch. So you'll have to come back then."

"I will?"

For what seemed like the millionth time that day, Jason sighed. "Yes. I'll be glad to do whatever I can to help you with whatever your problem is, but I can't just have people barging in here at all hours of the day and night. So come back after lunch and tell me all about whatever it is that's bothering you."

"Oh. But you don't understand--"

"I know, it's life and death pigs and olives stuff. Trust me, it can wait."

"No, really, you don't understand. I'm not here looking for help. I'm your new secretary. Iphistos said you needed help with organizing, and appointments and--"

"Secretary?" Jason inspected her again, and made a mental note to instruct Iphistos to pick someone more attractive next time he needed help. "Fine.. Sort through all this and try to rank it in order of importance. You can do that, right?"

"Right. Pigs and olives at the top of the list."

"Something like that." If Jason hadn't been so quick to turn back to the window, he might have been surprised by the speculative expression on his new secretary's face. Instead, he was relieved when the quiet rustling of her movements stilled and he was left alone again with his thoughts.

* * *

By the end of the day, Jason had decided that even if his new secretary wasn't much to look at, she was certainly making herself useful. The afternoon audience went more smoothly than it ever had before, and he'd had time left over for a little combat practice with Herc.

"Now if I can just get Iphistos to find her something to wear that doesn't look like a cast-off tapestry."

Hercules shrugged. "You can't have it all, Jason. Just be glad she can alphabetize things. Your last secretary filed everything under 'i'."

"For 'important'. Yeah, but I wouldn't mind improving the scenery. This place has been looking pretty dull lately." He ducked Herc's quick jab and tried a leg sweep, but Herc caught on and leaped out of the way.

"Suffering from 'castle fever', are we?"

"*We're* not. *I* am. You'll be free as a bird when you want to go." Jason's backhanded sword strike rang against Herc's shield. "And yes, before you say it, I'm--sweet Aphrodite!" His sword point dropped into the dirt, and only Hercules' preternatural reflexes prevented him from beheading the king.

"What do you mean, you're Aphrodite? Why did you let down your guard like that?!"

Jason didn't seem to hear him. "Did you see her?"

"Her who?" Herc spun around, but as far as he could see, the two of them were alone in the courtyard.

"That woman. She was . . ." His voice trailed off, his expression one of dazed wonder. "She was right there behind you, for an instant, and then she was gone."

"I think you're imagining things. The stress is starting to get to you."

"No, she was there. I'm sure of it." Jason sheathed his sword and stalked across the courtyard to the doorway. He looked down the long corridor and shook his head. "She had long, dark hair and pale skin. She had on this filmy blue dress."

"You need a girlfriend." Hercules smacked his friend's shoulder. "And I need a nice, thick steak. Let's call it a day."

* * *

The priest of Ares knelt on the floor of the cavern. Strife stroked the man's bald head with agitated fingers. "Kouros. Kouros, Kouros, Kouros. You are just *full* of exciting news today. Aphrodite on the move again, is it?" He left off caressing the priest's bald pate and danced a little jig. "Much as I'm amused at the thought of King Jason with his knickers in a bind, I think we can make this little project even more interesting, don't you?"

"Of course, my master." The renegade priest groveled even lower.

* * *

Petra slapped a stack of parchments down on the table. Jason didn't even look up. "I took the liberty of writing replies to the messages dated more than a week ago. All you have to do is sign them, though you may want to read them first, to be sure I'm not starting a war with anyone."

"Right. No wars." He dipped his quill pen into a clay jar of ink and scrawled x's across three more rooms on the map of the palace.

"May I ask what you're doing, Highness?"

"I'm making x's on my map." He scowled at the dog-eared piece of parchment. "Did I check the lower scullery yesterday?"

"If you want, I can ask the scullery maids. I'm sure if they saw you, they'll be all abuzz."

Her sarcasm seemed to float over his head. "Thanks, Pete. That would be great," he mumbled.

"*What* did you call me?"

For the first time that morning, the fog in his eyes seemed to clear. "Pete. That's okay, isn't it? I mean, you don't really look like a 'Petra'. And we'll be working together a lot. I don't go in for formality. You can call me Jason."

"Gee, thanks, *Jason*. I'll get right on that scullery issue, *Jason*." It occurred to her that getting herself fired for insubordination would not be the way to make Aphrodite happy, but at that moment, she didn't care.

"You don't mind, do you, Pete? You're really helping me out."

On second thought, why was she worried? She could have been a place setting on the table, for all the attention he paid her. And why did that thought irk her so much? After all, her plan to drive him crazy was working.

He was still marking off rooms on the map. She could tell he wouldn't be doing any actual king-type work that day, so she picked up the scrolls she'd put down earlier. Over the past few days, she'd become very adept at forging his name. Hardly anyone had noticed Jason's distraction, except perhaps the man who'd wanted a judgment against his neighbor for property damage but ended up with the title of 'Official Royal Chimney Sweep'. "But you don't even *have* chimneys," he'd remarked plaintively as Iphistos herded him out.

Petra shifted the awkward bundle of scrolls. Thank the gods Jason wasn't king of Sumeria, or she'd be hoisting clay tablets instead of parchments. On the other hand, the thought of breaking a few tablets over his rock-like head gave her a certain degree of satisfaction.

Once the scrolls had been delivered to the proper messengers, and the scullery maids questioned, she returned to her room and pulled off the dusty brown wig. "I can't believe how much it itches," she said as she shook out her hair and scratched her scalp. She set the lenses aside on a table and rubbed her eyes. Then she shrugged out of her ugly, shapeless chiton, dug the blue silk dress from the bottom of her chest and pulled it on. When she'd straightened it on her shoulders, she peeked out the door of her room. All was quiet in the hall, so she slipped out and made her way toward the wing where Jason had his apartments. It was time for the mysterious beauty to make another appearance.

Part III

Petra groaned and kicked off the sweat-soaked sheet that covered her. Bad enough that she spent her days running around trying to keep Jason's kingdom from falling apart while he mooned over a figment of his imagination. Now her dreams were haunted by a certain pig-headed, egotistical king. If only she'd never seen him with that sad little quirk of a half-smile on his face . . .

She shook her head. An acolyte of Artemis should not be having these kinds of thoughts. Not at all. 'But he has such nice lips,' sighed her traitorous mind. 'And those eyes. And that *body*.'

A sudden pounding on the door jolted her from her reverie. "Who is it?" she called as she swept up her hair and stuffed it under the wig.

"Pete? Are you awake?"

"Jason?" She cracked open the door to find the king of Corinth standing in the corridor with his hands behind his back.

"Oh, good. You're awake."

"I am now," she grumbled. "Shouldn't we both be sleeping?"

"I gave up on sleep after a while. Look, can I come in? Herc's not back yet, and I wanted to talk to someone."

That's me, she thought. Another one of the boys. "Well, since you came all this way."

He sprawled in the only chair, his legs stretched out before him, so she seated herself on the edge of the bed, legs primly together and hands on her knees. "You wanted to talk?"

"Pete, if you'd seen that girl, you would tell me, wouldn't you?"

"Of course. If I'd seen her." Stringing words together was proving difficult, inasmuch as the black leather vest he was wearing showed a wide expanse of smooth bronze chest.

"That's just it. Nobody's seen her but me. Hercules thinks I'm going crazy."

"What do you think?"

"She's real. She's got to be real."

Petra reached out and patted his arm. She'd meant for it to be a sisterly kind of gesture, but the heat of him seemed to burn her fingers, and she jerked back. "Maybe you should let it go. It might all be some trick of the gods, or something."

Jason frowned and dug his toes into the rug. "Maybe. Or maybe she's in some kind of trouble. Maybe she's lost her memory."

He had a lot of theories, Petra discovered. A whole night's worth--the first faint glow of dawn was lighting the sky outside her window when his voice finally trailed off. She stifled a yawn.

"Is it morning already?"

"Very observant, your Highness." She ostentatiously fluffed up her pillow. "Perhaps we should try to catch what sleep we can."

"Thanks for listening, Pete." He stood, stretched with the fluid motion of a cat, and started for the door, then turned back. "Something's different about you."

"Hmm?" She couldn't seem to keep her eyes open, until she felt a warm breath on her cheek and looked up to find a pair of puzzled eyes mere inches from her face.

"That's it!" He snapped his fingers, and she jumped. Had he figured out her secret? "No lenses," he added triumphantly. To her surprise, he ran a gentle finger down her face, from temple to chin. "Too bad you can't see without them, Pete. You have beautiful eyes."

Before she managed to start breathing again, he was gone.

* * *

One Week Later . . .

"Damn him to the deepest pit of Tartarus!" Petra snatched off her wig and threw it across the room. It flopped on the floor, a less than satisfying gesture.

"Temper, temper."

Petra gasped. Aphrodite's willowy frame had just appeared, walking out of the wall in a haze of light. "What are you doing here?"

Aphrodite examined her manicure. "You know, I could ask you the same thing, sweetie. I believe I gave you an assignment. Something about leading King Jason into temptation?" She prodded a stack of scrolls with one dainty sandaled toe. "I didn't say anything about secretarial work. And that *wig*. Got to go."

"As I recall, you didn't give me any specifics. I'm doing this my way."

"That would be swell, except--" the goddess' eyes blazed with golden fire--"you're *not doing anything*. Other than alphabetizing. And while I have noticed that Jason can get hot and bothered over just about anything in a skirt, you're not helping matters along by wearing *that* old thing. My god, what did you do, borrow Medusa's hand-me-downs?"

"I can't do this."

"I'm sorry, I think my hearing is going. What was that?"

"I said I can't do this. I won't. I'm not playing your little game any more; I'm packing up tonight and I'm going back to Artemis' temple."

Aphrodite narrowed her eyes and prowled around Petra. "Why the sudden change of heart? You were doing so well. Ohhh." The goddess of love laughed, a throaty sound that raised the hair on the back of Petra's neck.. "This is unexpected. Oh, I *like* it. You're in love with the king. This is perfect!"

"This is a nightmare."

"Listen up. You're going to do as I say, or I'll make sure no man will ever look upon you with desire again. Got that? I want you to keep right on driving Jason nuts. Do whatever you have to do." She curled a lock of Petra's hair around her finger. "And I do mean *anything*."

Another flash of light, and she was gone. "Not on your life," Petra spoke to empty air. She pulled her knapsack out from under the bed, and started to fill it with her clothes, and then she saw the pile of scrolls stacked in the corner of the room. She couldn't leave all that work unfinished. Jason needed her.

I'll just get this work caught up, she promised herself, and then I'm going back to the temple for sure. She didn't care about Aphrodite's threats; a priestess of Artemis didn't *want* men lusting after her. Really.

* * *

In the end, she made another appearance as the mysterious stranger because she couldn't stand the guilt. Jason had tried to focus his attention on Corinth again, but the dark circles forming under his eyes told her he was sleeping even less than she was, and often when she brought in messages and scrolls, she found him staring into the distance with a lost look on his face.

She'd planned to face him as the stranger, reassure him that she was in no danger. But when the moment came, she'd turned tail and run, frightened by the heat in his eyes and the answering call in her blood.

She huddled in the dark depths of the linen closet and listened to the footsteps pounding past. "Did you see which way she went, Iphistos?"

"No," Iphistos answered in his usual sorrowful tones. "Sorry."

She waited for a time after the sounds of movement in the corridor had faded, and eased open the door.

"Gotcha." A hand closed around her wrist, holding her gently, but tightly enough that she couldn't escape. Jason pulled her into the light. "You've led me on quite a chase. I think it's time you explain yourself."

Words locked in her throat. She gestured with her free hand as if that could prime the pump and get the words flowing again.

Jason frowned. "You can't speak? Who did this to you?"

She shook her head frantically.

"You were born a mute?"

She shook her head again. Playing charades with the King of Corinth was *not* part of the plan, she told herself.

He loosened his grip on her arm. "Did I hurt you?" Another quick shake of her head, but he examined the flesh at her wrist anyway. She felt the swordsman's calluses on the pads of his fingers as they skimmed over her, and she shivered.

Petra took a step back from him, hoping her head would clear with a little distance, but Jason followed until he was looming over her. "Don't be afraid. I only want to help you."

Still no sounds came out of her throat. 'What if he recognizes my voice?' Suddenly her clever plan didn't seem very bright.

"Please, tell me what I can do to help you."

'But it's not time for your afternoon audience,' snapped the one part of her brain that was still functioning semi-rationally. 'Oh. That rule must not apply to *pretty* girls.' But if she said that, he'd know immediately who she was.

Jason reached out a cautious hand and pushed a heavy coil of hair off her shoulder, then cupped her face, his thumb brushing the line of her cheekbone. "Whatever it is, I'll take care of it. I promise you that. I'm the king here, so whatever I say, goes."

She finally did manage to make a sound then, though it was more of a whimper than anything else.

"Let me find you a place to sit, and something to drink." He stepped back, and she felt her knees wobble. Jason must have caught it, too, for he swung her up into his arms and strode off down the hall toward his rooms, talking as he went. "You're kind of tinier than I expected. Do you need something to eat, too?"

Petra slid her arms around his neck and hung on. He'd cradled her close, one arm around her shoulders and one under her knees; her nose rested so near his throat she could see the faint throbbing of his pulse. Curious, she slipped one hand down to rest against his chest, and felt the strong, steady beat of his heart at her fingers. She heard his breath quicken and moved her hand back to where it had been.

"Listen, I know just the thing. I'll have Iphistos find Pete- -my secretary. She's good at fixing things."

"No!" That finally got the words flowing; horror filled her at the thought of Iphistos finding an empty room decorated with the pieces of Pete's disguise. "No, that's not necessary, Ja--Highness."

"Hey! You spoke. That's great!" He settled her on a bench in the corridor and knelt beside her. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"

She shrugged and examined her fingers, struggling to gather her thoughts. "It's really nothing serious, Highness. Merely a matter of . . ." What was the story she'd thought up the night before? It was so hard to remember anything with his face so close to hers. Oh, yes . . . "I was trying to avoid an arranged marriage. I've always wanted to be a priestess of Artemis, but my father had other plans."

"If that's true, why didn't you go to the temple?"

"Don't you see? That would be the first place he'd look for me." She told herself it was only a matter of acting in character that had her clutching his vest in her fists. She was especially proud of the faint note of panic she'd worked into her voice.

"Shh. You're safe here." Never one to miss an opportunity that presented itself, Jason slid his arms around her.

"I know." Somehow she resisted the urge to lean against him. "I just needed a place to hide, until the day of the marriage passed. That was today, and now the terms of the contract are broken. I'm free to go to the temple, so I'll be on my way."

"You're welcome to stay longer."

"I--I can't. But thank you. I appreciate your hospitality, even if you didn't know I was here."

"Oh, I *knew*," he muttered. His hands moved up and down her back. "Where have you been sleeping?"

"Here and there." She sat back, but he didn't let go of her.

"At least let me find you somewhere comfortable to stay the night. There's plenty of room here; I'd hate to think of you curled up in a closet, or out on the street. It's not safe."

"No." Reluctantly she pushed his hands away. "I don't want to be even more obligated to you. But thanks."

He nodded, his face solemn. "Whatever you want."

'Whatever I want.' She glanced up, found herself caught in his gaze. What did she want? She'd always planned to become a priestess of Artemis, to devote her life to the hunt and forsake the world. And part of her still wanted that, but now this beautiful man knelt at her feet. She wanted to know the taste of him, and she knew she couldn't run until her curiosity was satisfied.

Her eyes never leaving his, she threaded her fingers through his thick, dark hair. He trembled when she touched him, but otherwise remained as still as stone. For a moment, Petra hesitated. Had she been wrong about Jason? Was he only being compassionate to a woman alone and helpless?

She decided she didn't care, as she leaned closer and brushed her lips across his. Still he did not move, and she dipped her head again, sampling him with her tongue. He had the flavor of late-summer grapes, tangy-sweet.

Petra had always wondered why the girls in her village got so excited about sneaking out into the woods with the boys. A few plowboy types had tried pawing her over, but frankly she would rather have put a snake down her tunic, and the guys soon tired of the pain involved in cornering her.

It must be me, she thought with an inward sigh. I never wanted to learn, and now Jason's just sitting there on the floor with his eyes closed. I must be awful at kissing. I must be completely inept. I must be--

Jason reached up and took her by the arms, and pulled her off the bench into his lap.

How many hands can one man have? she wondered. Granted, the things his mouth was doing were making it rather hard to concentrate, but she was fairly sure there was a hand knotted in her hair, and maybe one stroking her neck, and there was definitely one that had gotten *inside* her dress somehow--which was mystifying because it usually took *her* a very long time to get into the dress--and another one that was . . . No, wait, that *wasn't* a hand.

She jumped up with a squeal and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Hold on just a minute, buster. Just because you're the king doesn't mean you can do that to a future priestess of Artemis."

"Um." Jason pushed to his feet and tried to rearrange his pants, which looked to be bunching uncomfortably. "Buster?"

"I'm sorry about this. It never should have gone this far." Focus on his face. His face. "I must go." She hitched the sleeve of her dress back up and set off down the hall.

"Wait." Someone who hadn't been working with him for the past few weeks, might not have noticed the little break in his voice. "I don't even know your name."

Petra sighed. "Believe me, it's better that way. Goodbye, your Highness.."

Part of her hoped he would try to catch her, but he let her walk on alone.. "What a time to decide to become a gentleman, you big lumpy idiot," she muttered as she stalked through the corridors of the castle.

Part IV

Iolaus hesitated in the doorway of Jason's study. The king of Corinth was pacing around, waving his arms and muttering to himself. Hercules leaned against the table with his arms folded, and there was a frumpy-looking girl sitting in Jason's chair putting wax seals on scrolls.

"Okay, I'm making my puzzled face."

"Hey." Herc sketched a wave. "We're having a crisis of state. Glad you could make it."

"I try never to miss a crisis. So, do I sense some approaching back-story?"

"Jason's in love with a ghost, or something. Petra here is running things until we can figure this out."

"That was quick."

Jason jammed his hands through his hair. "Better this way, she says . . .."

Iolaus stepped in front of him. "It's a new look for you. I like it, it says 'Mad King of Corinth'." He waggled his fingers beside his head. Jason stepped around him without interrupting his semi-audible rant.

" . . . should just listen to her. But what if she's in trouble? . . ."

"How long has he been like this?"

"Oh . . ." Hercules shrugged and glanced at Petra.

"Are we counting from when it started, or when it got worse?"

"When it started."

"Four weeks, two days and twelve hours. Give or take." She smacked Jason's signet ring into a puddle of wax, then held the sheet of parchment up to the light.

Jason stopped in the middle of the room. For the first time he seemed to notice his friends. "I can't believe she could sneak around my home, and kiss me like that, and just walk away. I feel so . . ."

"Used?" offered Petra. "Cheap?"

He thought for a moment. "No, mostly just frustrated and incredibly horny."

She winced. "Scary place."

"Sorry." He turned to Hercules. "What do you think I should do?"

"You really want to know what I think?"

"Hit me." Jason perched on the table next to his friend. The parchment Petra was holding drooped down slightly so she could eye his rear end.

"I think you should just forget about her."

"I can't do that."

"You'd better try. Look, you've got a whole city out there counting on you to do your job. And--no offense, Pete, you're doing a great job--"

"None taken." She rolled up the scroll with a deft twist of her wrist and tied a ribbon around it.

"But it's not Pete's job to be king. It's *yours*. Pull yourself together and do it."

"Easy for you to say. I just can't seem to get her out of my head. For the first time, I'm really crazy about a woman."

"'Crazy' being the operative word," added Iolaus.

"It's like what you were saying about destiny, Herc."

"Pretend I didn't say it. Jason, I'm sure she was beautiful and exciting, but she's gone. Accept it and move on."

Jason shrugged. "Whatever." Shoulders slumped, he ambled out of the room.

When he was gone, Iolaus said, "I hope he gets over her soon."

Hercules shook his head. "We've got to do something."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. But you remember how he is when he's frustrated. The man's a menace."

Iolaus peered out the window. "Maybe we should evacuate the city."

* * *

Two weeks later . . .

"How do I look?" Strife carefully adjusted his artificial bosom.

"I'm speechless." Kouros held out a sheer silk scarf and helped the demigod arrange it over his face.

"And you have the grapes?"

Kouros produced a wooden bowl. Strife inspected the fruit and then pulled a tiny crystal bottle out of thin air. Once he'd taken out the stopper, he told the priest, "Hold your breath." While Kouros' bald head gradually turned from white to red to an extreme shade of purple, Strife dripped a venomously green liquid onto the grapes. "Ha! Jason won't be able to pass up a snack with his honey, and with him dead, Corinth will collapse into chaos. I'm brilliant!"

The poison shimmered, then faded into the skin of the fruit.

Kouros, eyes bulging and lips turning blue, gestured frantically at Strife.

"Oh. Sorry. I think the air's fine now, you can breathe again."

The priest sank to the floor, gasping.

Strife sashayed around him, swinging his hips and singing, "I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love with a wonderful guuuuuy! Wait, I'm forgetting something. Yes, that's it. Sprinkle me with a little fairy dust, Kouros, and I'll be ready for the ball."

"Fairy dust?"

"Sorry! Wrong mythos. I can take care of this myself, just need a few more strategically placed curves . . ." With a wave of his hand, his body bulged and then settled into a more feminine form. "Yes, perfect. Ooo, I'm a hottie!"

Kouros, wishing he'd become a tax collector like his father had wanted him to do, covered his eyes.

* * *

"This is great! Hey, let me try them, Herc. See how the lenses make my head look really skinny right in the middle?"

Hercules hooted. "Like that time Vertika's asp coiled around your head and squeezed."

"Don't remind me."

Petra drummed her fingers on the table. "I'm glad you boys are having fun, but I need them back."

Iolaus pushed the lenses up on top of his head. "But you look so much better without them."

"I can't see anything."

"With Iolaus in the room, that's bound to be an improvement."

"Hey!" The two were soon shoving each other, and Petra scrambled around the table.

"Give those back!" It didn't help that Iolaus and Hercules were both considerably taller than she, so when they decided to play keep-away, she was left to jump up and down between them. Finally a well-timed kick to Iolaus' kneecap brought his hands, and her lenses, back within reach.

"That wasn't fair."

"You're lucky I didn't aim higher."

Iolaus rubbed at his knee. "I can see why Jason is letting you run things. He's probably afraid to tell you no."

At that moment the topic of conversation entered the room at a run, and Petra shoved the lenses back onto her face just in time. She'd made the mistake of letting him get a good look at her without them, and she didn't want to risk him finding out the truth.

"She's back! I saw her again."

Hercules groaned as Jason tried to herd everyone out of study.

"Come on! If we split up, maybe we can catch her."

Iolaus scratched his head. "Why would you want to catch her if she doesn't want anything to do with you?"

"Humor me."

"Humor him." Hercules took Iolaus by the elbow. "You take the east wing, I'll take the west wing. Get servants to stand guard at the doors."

"Hurry up, Pete." Jason grabbed one of her hands and tugged her out of her chair. "I need your help."

"She's not here, Jason."

"Yes she is."

"No she isn't. You probably just saw one of the maids and got confused."

"*I* *saw* *her*. You gotta help me, Pete." He pulled her around the table. "Please?"

She sighed. "Okay. Fine. On one condition: when we *don't* find her, you will get back to doing your own work."

"We will find her. But it's a deal anyway." He grinned. "It's obvious she can't bear to be away from me. Once I convince her to stay, everything will be fine."

Part V

Relegated to the upper floors of the palace, Petra commandeered a handful of maids and began a haphazard search of the building, so she could semi-honestly say she'd made the effort. Nothing turned up, but the longer she hunted, the more what Jason had seen bothered her. What if he really had spotted his mysterious woman?

"But that's me," she muttered. "Or what if he saw a woman he thought was me? What if someone wanted him to think it was me?"

She sent the maids on, but stayed behind in one small, secluded room. "I know you're watching, Aphrodite. Come out where I can talk to you."

"Someone's getting above herself. Here's a clue--*I'm* the goddess here. I give the orders."

"Someone's pretending to be me. I want to know what's going on."

"You're pretending to be you." Aphrodite pouted. "Or you were, anyway. This is the last time I leave a project like this up to a mortal. Next time, I'll handle it myself."

A spark of jealous rage ignited in Petra at the thought of Jason in Aphrodite's clutches, but she squashed it ruthlessly. "I am not pretending anything at the moment. And I want to know what in Hades is going on!"

"It must be love; you're beginning to sound like him. How precious. Okay, let me see what's going on. This was *not* part of the plan."

"Some plan." Petra's words echoed in empty air.

* * *

Hercules heard voices and crept up on the open door. Pete, and *Aphrodite*? What was up with that?

He didn't have long to wait to find out.

A brief upswelling of light through the doorway signaled the return of the goddess.

"You have to get downstairs. Like, *now*, honey."

"Why?" asked Petra.

Hercules leaned closer to the doorway. He wanted to hear this.

"Something I wasn't expecting--a little interference from one of my relatives. I'll handle it. But if you want to save your king, you need to make sure he doesn't eat anything any pretty girl gives him."

"Where is he?" Panic gave Petra's voice a sharp edge.

"Downstairs. In the corridor just past the throne room--" Petra raced out before Aphrodite could finish. "*Mortals.* They're so excitable."

Fists clenched, Hercules followed Petra down the stairs toward the throne room. He didn't know what sort of plot Jason's secretary had hatched with the goddess, but if it put Jason in danger, the girl was going to pay.

* * *

The distant sounds of shouting and doors slamming echoed along the corridor. Then a furtive whisper reached Jason from around the next corner, and he moved against the wall, inching closer to the bend in the hallway.

He slipped around the corner and saw the girl standing with her back to him. She had on the same blue dress, though this time her face was veiled. Still, Jason was sure he'd know her anywhere.

"You came back."

She turned slowly. "Of course." Her voice was husky, and she cleared her throat before continuing. "I couldn't stay away from you."

The weight that had been clutching at his heart dropped away. "I've been hoping you'd say that." He stepped closer, reached out to pull down the veil, but she turned away.

"Please . . . not so hasty, King Jason. I haven't eaten all day, and I'm famished. Would you care to share a bowl of grapes with me?" She held out a carved wooden bowl, heaping with purple-red fruit.

"Of course." He took her arm. "Let's find someplace quiet."

"Oh, here is fine. I'm . . . starving." She pushed the bowl into his hands. "Kings first."

"Thanks." He pulled a cluster from the main stem and turned them over in his hand. "These look perfect."

"Everything is perfect. Go on, taste them."

He would much rather have fed her a few grapes, if she was so hungry, but since she insisted, it wouldn't be gentlemanly to keep her waiting. He pulled a grape free.

"Don't eat that!" Pete pounded around the corner, with Hercules on her heels.

Startled, he dropped the bunch of grapes. "What's going on?"

The mysterious lady shrugged. "Who knows? Please, eat." She held out the bowl again, but as he reached for it, Pete dove forward and knocked it from his grasp.

"Don't, Jason! They've been poisoned!" She grabbed him by the arm, and he tried to shake her off.

"Jason, wait. Pete's right." Hercules pointed to the floor. Where the bowl had tipped over, a pile of dead insects had spilled onto the flagstones.

Bile rose in Jason's throat as he looked from the bowl of dead flies to the veiled lady. "What are you trying to do?"

"Time to go. Better luck to me next time." With a snap of the fingers, the woman disappeared, leaving only a puddle of pale blue silk on the floor of the hallway.

Jason slumped against the wall with his fingertips pressed against his eyes. "What in the name of Zeus just happened here? She tried to kill me, Herc. Why?"

"I don't know, but I know someone who might."

The king of Corinth looked up to see his friend catch Pete by the elbow and push her forward. "I caught her discussing some 'plan' with Aphrodite," Herc added.

"What?!" Jason and Pete shouted in unison.

"Don't try to play innocent with me." Herc glared at Pete. "I know what I heard."

"But it's not like that." She looked back and forth between the two of them. Jason turned away, crossing his arms over his abdomen as if he could make the sick feeling in his gut go away.

"Oh, no." Pete reached around him, her hands resting just below his ribs.. "Were we too late? Did you eat the grapes?"

"I'm *fine*." He shrugged her off like an old coat, ignoring the twinge of guilt when her feet went out from under her and she toppled to the floor.

"Jason, please, you don't understand--"

"Oh, I understand. You don't have to play concerned any more. What did they offer you, Pete? What was the price for my life?"

"I wasn't trying to kill you. We just saved you." She looked to Hercules for help, but he was as stony-faced as the king.

"Or you could have been trying to worm your way into my confidence." He shook his head.

"What should we do with her?" asked Hercules.

"Get her out of my sight. Help her pack her things and escort her out of Corinth."

"Are you sure it's safe?"

"We're onto her games now. Next time, the gods will send someone else. Just go." He turned away.

"Jason, *please.*" As Hercules pulled her to her feet, she struggled to stand on her own. "I--"

The words stuck in her throat. In his stiff shoulders and straight back, there was no sign he had heard her. And even if she could tell him she loved him, she knew he wouldn't care.

Part VI

"I'm sorry it didn't work out." Kouros cowered before Strife.

"Oh, there's more than one way to skin a king." With a snap of his fingers, his usual outfit reappeared. "It's good to be back to normal. How do women stand it every day? On the other hand, I can say I've nearly been groped by royalty."

For the first time, Kouros felt a faint twinge of sympathy for Jason. "What now, master?"

"I'm so glad you asked. But I think I'll let you guess. Go ahead, Kouros. Take a *stab in the dark*. Heh heh heh."

* * *

Petra stood in her acolyte's cell with her hands resting on the windowsill. A month before, this quiet place seemed like a little piece of Elysium. Now she found herself pacing the narrow confines like a caged animal.

Hercules had deposited her on the doorstep of the temple outside the city, and left without a backward glance. Her sisters accepted her back into the fold, their eyes full of questions and sympathy for her silent misery.

When the chief priestess had given her a month's solitary contemplation for purification, at first Petra had welcomed it. She needed the time to think, to let go of the world again. 'It wasn't this hard the last time,' she thought on more than one occasion.

What bothered her most was the silence. Having grown up with eleven brothers and sisters in a tiny farmhouse, at first she'd treasured the luxury of her own space, however small. But now it wasn't the same. She kept imagining she was back in the palace, listening for the boys shouting outside her window, or the sound of them scuffling in the hallway. She was waiting to hear Jason laugh, or ask for her explanation about a scroll she needed signed.

Too quiet. And her window, curse it, looked out on a neatly-kept garden.

From her window in the palace, she could see the practice yard, and had spent many happy moments watching the boys go through the paces of their exercises. They'd caught her watching, once, and she could picture in her mind the insolent grin Jason had flashed when he saluted her. She'd nearly fallen off the window sill--having that much bare, sweaty male flesh on display was definitely a safety hazard. And the next day, Iolaus had offered to teach her a few simple routines.

"We'll be moving on eventually," he said. "Jason will need someone to practice with." Then he'd winked, as if he could read her mind.

All that was dead in the past. Iolaus would never teach her to use a sword--and she'd never get even with him for that toadskin he'd rolled up inside one of the scrolls. She'd never get to taste Alcmene's famous stew, like Hercules had promised. She'd never touch Jason again--

"Stop it!" she told herself harshly, and slammed her hand against the stone wall of her room. She'd hoped the pain would get her mind off the path it had been traveling, but it only left her sore and disgruntled. If she was supposed to be in here for the purposes of purifying her mind, it was less than successful.

She was still standing at the window when someone knocked at the door and opened it. Petra stifled a wave of disappointment when she saw the wizened figure of the chief priestess. Still, she bowed low. "Good morning, Mother."

"I sensed that you are troubled, child." One claw-like hand patted Petra on the shoulder. "I thought it might be a comfort to talk about it."

Petra swallowed. "There really isn't anything to tell. I just need to focus my thoughts on the temple again, and the service of Artemis."

"That is part of what I wished to speak of, child. I do not think I have thanked you."

"Thanked me? For what?"

"For the service you performed for the Huntress, in discharging her debt to Aphrodite."

"You know of that?" Petra wondered exactly how much the woman had been told.

"Of course. Perhaps you might be troubled by actions you were forced to take in Aphrodite's service. I want you to know that Artemis will absolve you of anything that might be bothering you; it only remains for you to let those memories go."

"Thank you, Mother." She bowed again as the old woman went out of the cell and closed the door behind her.

Let the memories go--the only problem was, she had no desire to forget about her days in the palace.

* * *

"What a mess." Jason turned to set one scroll on the table, and three others rolled onto the floor. The study was a nightmare of clutter, and a smear of ink blurred the bridge of his nose.

"Yeah, it's amazing." Iolaus picked up the fallen parchments, set them back in the pile, and caught two more as they cascaded out of the chaos. "I mean, just a week ago everything was in perfect order, and since Pete left--" He stopped in midsentence.

Jason's fingers had tightened on the message he was reading, crumpling the thin sheet. A muscle in his jaw twitched spastically, but otherwise he was completely still.

"Uh, sorry."

"I told you, I don't want to hear that name again. Ever. The next time, I'll have you executed."

"You could try." Iolaus brushed aside a stack of maps and perched on the edge of the table. "Look, has it occured to you and Herc that you might be, well, over-reacting?"

"Pete betrayed me."

"You keep saying that, but the way I hear it, she saved your life."

"She was messing around in some plan of the gods. In my book, that doesn't exactly make her Little Miss Innocent." Jason began shredding the scroll, letting the tiny pieces drift to the floor.

"Oh, like we've never met anyone else who's been used by the gods against their will. You never even gave her a chance to explain."

"I don't want to talk about this."

"Fine. Go ahead with your royal sulk. I just felt like I had to speak up. Pete's the best thing to happen to this drafty stone barn in a long time, and I'm not just saying that because she didn't kill me when I put the poison ivy potpourri in her bed."

Jason sighed. "I miss her."

"What was that?" Iolaus cupped his hand behind his ear.

"I said I miss her. But how could I ever trust her again, huh? Tell me that."

"How could you not? I mean, she was completely unsupervised by you for most of a month. She could have sabotaged all kinds of sensitive negotiations, but she didn't--in fact, you're better off than you were. I'm not telling you what to do, I'm just suggesting that you think this through." He walked to the door, then turned back. "I know you're a stubborn idiot, but for once try to pretend you're not." He ducked the scroll that Jason pitched at his head, and vanished down the hall.

* * *

Petra sat on her cot with her arms wrapped around her knees. A thin shaft of moonlight pierced the darkness in her cell, limning the stones with silver.

She'd woken up from a dream about Jason, a hot, sticky sort of dream that left her feeling twitchy. 'At least it wasn't the nightmare,' she reminded herself. In that dream Jason, his face twisted with hate, pushed her off the castle ramparts. Every time she seemed to fall forever, with his mocking face leering over her like a dark sun.

But the kissing sort of dreams were painful in their own way.

She sighed and wriggled her toes against the rough wool blanket. Maybe it was time she admitted to herself that she didn't belong here any more. No matter how much time passed, the memories of her days in Corinth would not fade; more to the point, she didn't *want* to forget.

While she pondered, the light on the floor turned into a silvery puddle, spread, and rose into the form of Aphrodite.

"Rise and shine. Oh, you're already up."

Petra turned her head and looked out the window.

"Pouting? If it makes you feel any better, Jason's in a big snit, too."

"Why would that make me feel better?"

In a blink, the goddess was perched on the windowsill. "I don't know. Misery loves company? Anyway, sweetie, it's time to pack your bags."

"I paid my debt to you."

"Touchy, touchy. If you want to be a bean counter, fine. Put this in your ledger: I'm doing you a favor, for no reason but the goodness of my heart."

Petra lay back down on the bed. "You'll forgive me if I'm not full of gratitude."

"Oh, come on! If it wasn't for me, you'd never have left this place. I mean, it's not exactly a house of thrills. Hey, I gave you the chance to learn about love."

"Listen, don't do me any more favors."

"All right. Sorry to bother you; I just figured you wouldn't be able to pass up the chance to save King Jason's life again. I suppose I can take care of it myself."

She raised her hand and began to fade into the moonlight again, when Petra said, "Wait!"

"I thought that would get your attention. I'll explain on the way."

"But I can't just walk out of here."

"Leave that to me. I have a little experience in the 'sneaking away to a lover' department."

"Jason's not my lover."

"And it just cracks your amphorae, doesn't it?" Aphrodite opened the door and motioned Petra to follow her. "This would be much easier if you could just go through walls."

It was as if the two of them were caught in a time between moments; the temple was unnaturally quiet as they moved through it, and the few women they saw stood motionless and unblinking.

"Creepy, isn't it?" Once they were beyond the walls, Aphrodite snapped her fingers and the crickets began chirping again.

Petra slung her knapsack over her shoulder. "Are you going to tell me what this is about?"

"I found the mysterious 'lady'. The other one, I mean." She held a finger to her lips and led Petra off the road to a thicket. There the two of them pushed aside the leaves and looked within.

A strange, wild-haired man dressed in black was dancing around the little clearing at the heart of the thicket, while a priest wearing the dark robes of Ares' temple sharpened a thin-bladed knife.

"The one who looks like he's trying to escape the Immortal Wedgie is my not-esteemed relative, Strife." Aphrodite leaned close to whisper the information in Petra's ear. The acolyte made a silent 'o' of understanding with her lips, then followed the goddess back to the road.

When they'd gotten further away from the thicket, Aphrodite explained in more detail. "Strife's one of the bootlickers in the Olympus heirarchy--I won't bore you with the ins and outs of godly politics. Let's just say he thinks he has something to prove."

"But why hurt Jason?"

"A couple reasons, I think. Jason is Hercules' friend, for one thing. Strife's uncle, Ares, hates Hercules, and wouldn't mind seeing him suffer.. And Corinth is one of the more stable realms in the area. Killing Jason would upset the balance of power in the whole region."

"And it was Strife who appeared as me?"

"Yeah, after you dumped the job." She waved away Petra's protest. "I know, I know. Love made you do the wacky. But once I get you back there, you have to straighten this out."

"I thought you wanted revenge on Jason."

"I wanted to teach him a lesson. Death was not part of the curriculum."

Petra rolled her eyes. She couldn't believe the mess Aphrodite had created. And now not only Jason's life, but the future of Corinth, rested in her hands.

Part VII

Petra hid in the shadows of the garden outside the castle, watching as Jason toured each of the guard stations. It wasn't until she tasted blood that she realized she'd bitten through her lip. To see him again, to have him so close and yet be unable to go to him . . . she choked back a sob, fighting to keep silent.

Aphrodite had left her. "Things to do. I'm sure you can handle it from here." Petra wasn't so optimistic--nothing in her training had prepared her to go toe to toe with a god, even a minor one who seemed to be a few urns short of a wine shipment. But Jason's life depended on it.

She scooted through the shrubbery, ducking under branches and ignoring the twigs that caught in her hair. All her hurrying seemed to go for naught; the guards at each post saluted the king and gave him a brief report, but she saw no signs of anything unusual. That is, nothing happened until he reached the last station, at the postern gate.

The two men there drew up to attention as he approached, but then one of them hitched sideways a bit, and something in the movement jogged her memory. Strife.

"Jason! Get back, he's going to kill you!"

Moonlight flashed on a blade as it rose up. Petra threw herself out of the bushes and launched herself at Strife, who caught her by the hair and held her at arm's length. "Oh, this is perfect, Kouros. Someone to take the blame."

"Jason, run!" Though her scalp felt like it was on fire, she lashed out at Strife with her booted feet.

"This is just so much fun." Strife wrenched her around so she was facing the king. "Tell me, have you recognized her yet?"

Jason had drawn his own blade by then; he gestured at her with it. "You're .. . . you're that woman."

"Partly right." Strife tilted her head up with the tip of his dagger. "But in another light, she looks like--oh my goodness! Can it be? Yes--it's the mousy little secretary." He shook his head. "I am not impressed, your Highness. What kind of idiot is fooled by a pair of lenses?"

"Pete?"

"I'm sorry, Jason. I wanted to tell you, but--"

The point of Strife's dagger jabbed deeper into her flesh, and a drop of blood trickled down her neck. "Enough with the reunion. I have work to do."

Jason bent and carefully set his sword on the ground, then raised his hands over his head. "Your fight isn't with her, Strife. Do what you want with me, just let her go."

"Impressive. Heartwarming, really." He gestured to Kouros, who kicked Jason's blade out of reach, then moved to stand behind the king with a knife at the ready. "But ultimately a waste of time. You see, you're going to be killed by your jilted lover, who will then commit suicide in a fit of remorse."

"It's been done. Very unoriginal," observed Petra, and winced as Strife dragged on her hair again.

"I'm not asking for a critique. Your only purpose here is to die." He gestured at Kouros. "You opened the well?"

"Five paces behind you." The priest prodded Jason forward with the point of his dagger. "No one will find them for a while."

"Good, good. Plenty of time for rival claimants to the throne to make their appearances." Strife winked at Jason. "How would I look in a crown?"

"Like a sick bastard with a jewelry fetish." The insult lost some of its impact when Kouros poked him with the dagger and Jason grunted in pain.

A few more steps found them at the brink of a shadowed pit in the underbrush. Two slabs of stone, each about the length and width of a grave, lay overturned on the ground beside the hole. "Kill him first. He's the dangerous one. We can take our time with the girl."

"If you hurt her--"

"You'll what? Bleed on me?" Strife shivered ostentatiouly. "I'm bored. Skewer him."

Petra stepped back and slammed Strife's kneecap with her heel. She doubted it had done much damage, but it startled him enough that he let go of her hair, and that gave her the opportunity she needed. Howling with rage, she tore around the edge of the pit. Jason tried to catch her, but she pushed him aside. And Kouros drove his blade into her.

Someone gasped. It might have been her, though it sounded like it had come from a distant place. It was much like the nightmare: she fell backward into the darkness, and Jason was watching her go. His face was filled with fear and pain, not rage. But she was taking forever and ever and ever to fall.

* * *

Jason threw himself toward the lip of the well, but it was too late. He saw a flash of moonlight on pale skin, and then she was gone from his sight.

"No!" He reached down into the darkness, and felt hands on his ankles. Before he could lash out, he was tipped over the edge of the well into the chasm below.

He landed with a thump on a pile of debris at the bottom. Not very comfortable, but he had survived with only bruises. Then he realized that he'd sprawled across a body. "Pete?" She didn't answer.

In the black of the pit he couldn't tell exactly how far they'd fallen, but far enough that it wouldn't be easy to climb back out, especially if he had to help Pete. His brain skittered around the thought that she might already be beyond help; he wouldn't accept that unless he had to.

Jason shook his head, trying to collect his scattered thoughts. First, check Pete, he decided. Then find a way out of here. As he started to push to his feet, he heard a grinding sound from above, and the faint light from the castle gardens went out.

"Damn," he muttered. Strife had positioned the stone blocks back over the hole; even if he could move them, he wouldn't be able to if he had to carry Pete as well. No doubt the godling would also think to hide the stones with scattered dirt, and since no one knew to look for them, he had no hope of outside rescue.

First things first. He felt around until he could check the pulse in her neck; the faint, but steady beat at the base of her throat drove out all other thoughts.

"Thank the gods." She was still alive; he felt like a condemned criminal given an unexpected reprieve.

His fingers traced down her shoulder. The dress was sticky with congealing blood, and he had to tug the sleeve down over her shoulder so he could feel the wound. It was narrow, but deep he thought, and low enough that it might have damaged something vital. He leaned over her, holding his ear next to her mouth so he could listen for the bubbling gurgle that might signal a hole in her lung.

He wished he'd paid more attention in Cheiron's classes on medical training, then he realized she was trying to speak. "Pete? What is it?"

"Don't lean . . . on my . . . shoulder."

"Sorry." He sat up and shrugged out of his heavy leather vest, then pulled the tunic under it over his head. After giving it the sniff test, he wadded it up. "I'm going to use this as a bandage. I've been wearing it all afternoon so it's kind of smelly, but it's the only thing I've got."

"I don't mind. . . I missed the smell of you."

Jason heard the smile in her voice even if he couldn't see it. He slid his arm around her shoulders and eased her up so she could lean her back against his chest while he held the bandage against her wound. Her faint gasp of pain as he pressed down sent a wave of rage rumbling through him: anger at Strife and Kouros, at Aphrodite, and anger at himself.

"Jason, you're shaking. Did they--"

"No, I'm fine. Well, I'm not *fine*. But I'm not hurt." He leaned his cheek against the top of her head and sighed. "Not like you."

"I'll be okay. It's not that--" She shifted, and an involuntary groan cut off her words.

"Pete--" Panic choked him, too. If he lost her now . . .

Before he could ask her what was wrong, a blue light like a shooting star briefly lit up their prison. A moment later, Strife stood before them, surrounded by a blue glow. He tapped his cheeks with his fingertips. "Isn't this cozy?"

Jason eased Pete out of his arms as he reached for the knife hidden in his boot. Not much of a weapon with which to battle a god, but he wasn't going down without a fight. Pete crab-crawled out of his way, pushing with her legs and her one good arm.

"Good girl," he whispered as he stood to face their enemy.

"It didn't take you long to change your tune." Strife sneered. "Suddenly she's your best buddy again."

Jason held the knife against his thigh and hoped Strife hadn't noticed it.. "Pete wouldn't have done what she did without a good reason. I should have realized that right away. And since she saved me, that couldn't have been her with the poisoned grapes."

Strife waved his hands and took on Petra's form again. "No, that was me."

"*You*?" The young king thought for a moment. "Ewwww."

"So, here we are. I can't decide, should I kill you right away, or let you two suffer a while?"

Jason lifted the knife, and the finely honed blade glimmered in the faint blue light. "Let's get this over with."

"Enough with the drama. And you can put that thing away. It wouldn't do you any good. Are you up for a little wager, your highness?"

"I think I'd like to try another game. This one isn't much fun."

"It never is . . . for the losers." Strife snickered. "Do you know where you are?"

"In a hole?"

"In a very special hole. Part of your legacy as king of Corinth, in a way. You see, this is part of the old city of Kiorith, which was burned by the somebody-or-others a few millenia ago. Nothing left but these old tunnels. Quite a maze."

"Oh. Wow." Jason spared a glance at Pete, who leaned against the stone wall with his crumpled tunic in her hand. Eyes closed, she sprawled with her head tipped back, and the bluish light lent a ghastly pallor to her skin. The blood staining her dress showed up as a strange black-red color.

"She's dying, your highness. Look at the life run out of her." Strife rubbed his hands together. "Pain is such a thing of beauty."

"Damn you." Jason's voice cracked. "Damn you to the deepest pit of Tartarus."

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. You're not a good sport at all. But I'll still let you play." The god increased the power of the light, to show that the tunnel in which they stood branched off into three separate corridors a short way away. "I'll be back at dawn. If you're still below ground, you're mine."

Before Jason could reply, Strife vanished, leaving them in total darkness once more.

"Jason?" The faint sound of Pete's voice echoed oddly in the stone chamber.

"I'm here. Keep talking so I can find you."

"Try to feel your way along the wall. I can hear your footsteps."

"Pete, I'm so sorry."

"I know. I'm sorry, too. About everything."

"I should have listened to you. I should have trusted you." He sighed as he shuffled along the wall, moving slowly so he wouldn't step on Pete by mistake. "And you should have trusted me."

Petra coughed, and her breath hissed with the pain of it. "But that might have put you in danger."

"Oh, that. Ffft. I'm in danger all the time. No big deal."

"Yes, but not the disgruntled-gods-trying-to-kill-you sort of danger, right?"

Jason's prodding toe encountered something. "That you?"

"Mmm-hmm. Careful."

He knelt down beside her and took her hand. Her skin felt too cool to his touch, and Strife's words echoed in his mind: 'She's dying, your highness.' "We have to get moving."

Her cold fingers squeezed his. "I can't, Jason. I'm too tired."

"Fine." He slid down to sit next to her on the floor. "We'll just wait here for that obnoxious little god."

Petra laced her fingers with his and leaned her head against his shoulder.. He felt so solid and real, so safe. She wanted to savor it for a moment. Her thoughts fuzzed, slid out of focus. It was almost like part of her wasn't even sitting in the tunnel any more.

"You can't stay," she finally whispered. "You have to try to get out."

"'It's been done. Very unoriginal,'" he mimicked. "Don't waste your breath, Pete. We're in this together."

"But the kingdom--"

"Means nothing if I don't do what I can to protect every person in it. Including you."

"You are so stubborn." But the way she rubbed her face against the warm skin of his shoulder belied her sharp tone.

"It's a gift. In fact," he reached up and gently brushed her cheek with his knuckles, "I have lots of talents."

"I'll bet." Laughter warmed her voice. "Is one of those a talent for keeping a dying girl warm?"

"Don't say that, Pete. Don't ever say that." But he pulled her into his arms and held her close against him.

Part VIII

Iolaus stared down at the mess congealing on his plate. A whole fish in some sort of green sauce, its body covered with gold foil scales, glared back at him.

"New rule, Herc. Never eat anything that's watching you."

"I'm there." Hercules pushed his plate aside and glanced at the end of the table where Jason's meal sat untouched. "He did say 'midnight snack', didn't he?"

"Maybe he caught a glimpse of the menu."

Herc tipped his chair back on two legs. "It's just . . . I can't put a finger on it, but something's not right."

"He hasn't been the same since Pete left."

"You mean, since we threw her out. You really think she's innocent?"

"When have my instincts been wrong?"

"Aside from the time you invited the most notorious horse thief in three kingdoms to help you train Jason's team for the chariot races?"

"You guys are just going to keep bringing that up until the day I die, aren't you?" He shook his head. "No, really, I think Pete got a raw deal, from the gods and then from us. You should have at least heard her out."

"'Shoul d have' is always too late."

"Only if you let it be. You know what I think? I think we ought to take Jason out to Artemis' temple tomorrow, see if we can get him to meet with Pete and apologize."

"If he'll go." They both glanced at the empty chair again. "Where do you think he went?"

Iolaus shrugged. "He said he was going to do his inspection rounds, and then he'd meet us here."

"It's not like him to just not show up like that."

"Yeah, he's getting disgustingly responsible, isn't he? Hey, maybe he decided to go find Pete on his own."

"He would have told us." Herc's chair thumped on the floor as he stood up. "Something's wrong. What if the person who tried to kill him before came back?"

"You're not going to be happy until we're traipsing around in the dark looking for him, are you?"

"Let's at least check his rooms and ask the guards if they saw anything."

* * *

Pete's cold fingers traced patterns on Jason's bare chest, and he shivered. "Tell me a story," she whispered.

"You should try to rest."

"Please? Talk to me?" She snuggled under his chin and savored the heat of his body. If she could, she would have crawled inside him and curled up.

"Okay. I'm not very good at this kind of thing, but here goes." He thought for a moment. "Once upon a time, there was a king. He was kind of a stupid king."

"Anyone I know?" Pete giggled, but her breath caught and she began to cough.

"Shh. No, of course you don't know this king. He lived long, long ago. And far, far away."

"Right. Go on."

"Anyway, he was handsome, and handy in a fight, but not very good at the kingly paperwork. He was a king in need, and he didn't even realize it."

"Then what happened?"

"One day, a beautiful woman arrived to help him. But he didn't realize that, because she had a very clever disguise, and because, as I mentioned before, he was not the brightest torch in the throne room. If you see where I'm going."

"Mmm."

"So anyway, being an oblivious kind of guy, he didn't notice that the woman was in trouble. He was too busy chasing another woman around the castle, except she turned out to be the same woman, at least most of the time. I think he's still a little confused about that."

"I--this woman, I mean--she was an acolyte of Artemis, but she owed Aphrodite a favor."

"For what?"

"Long story. Aphrodite called in her chips, and sent the woman to the castle. Her job was to drive the king crazy with lust."

"Oh, really?"

"Except that when she met this king, she found that she liked him, despite his many flaws."

"'Many flaws,' huh?" He ran careful fingers along her jaw and down her neck.

Petra drew in a shuddering breath. "Well, some flaws. And things just got out of hand from there."

"I'll say."

Petra coughed again. "You know, Aphrodite never meant for you to be hurt.. Not physically, anyway. That was all Strife."

"I know." He threaded his free hand through her long, tangled hair. "So this was all . . . it was just a matter of paying your debt."

Petra knew what she *ought* to say, if she was really a good acolyte of Artemis, but she owed him the truth. Wanted him to know the truth. "It started that way. And then I fell in love."

He was silent for so long she decided she'd said the wrong thing. Maybe he wouldn't believe her, after all that had happened. Then she felt his lips on her forehead, a brief, gentle caress. "I love you, too, Pete."

Her awareness of the dark pit gradually faded, and she floated into the void on the sound of his voice.

* * *

"There's nothing out here, Herc. We're wandering around in the dark, getting weird looks from all the guards, and if I know Jason, he's at a certain temple outside the city, climbing trees so he can look in windows and find Pete. And he'll come back all smirky tomorrow, and we'll still be dragging around out here. And he's going to *laugh* at--" Iolaus' foot hit something that felt remarkably like a body. He struggled to maintain his balance, then shifted his torch so he could see what he'd stumbled upon.

One look unleashed a string of the very worst words he knew. By the time he started winding down, Herc had found him. "That didn't sound good. Stub your toe?"

"I wish." Iolaus pointed into the underbrush. "Meneas. I did quarterstaff practice with him just a couple of days ago."

Hercules knelt beside the body. "His throat's been cut. And his helmet and sword are missing."

"This is not a good thing. I guess your instincts were right on target tonight."

Hercules wiped off his bloodied hand and stood. "I just hope the alarm bells didn't go off too late. You alert the rest of the guards, okay? We'll get a real search going. I'll look for Meneas' partner."

By the time Iolaus returned with a crowd of torch-bearing soldiers, Hercules had found Meneas' partner Teleos, also with a slit throat.

The captain of the guards shook his head. "They had the postern gate tonight."

"Could they have let someone in?" Hercules poked around in the bushes, looking for tracks.

"I couldn't have asked for two more loyal men. They would have died before betraying the king."

"They *did* die," Iolaus pointed out. "We should probably check the gate first."

But it was locked, and the men scouring the ground along the walls saw no signs that anyone had climbed out.

"Well, someone killed them." Iolaus prowled around Meneas' body. "Unless you want to assume that they sliced open their own throats, and hid the blades they used, then came back here and hid themselves in the bushes before they died."

"That would be a little far-fetched. But there's no sign of anyone else having been here." Hercules folded his arms. "I'm thinking this has 'god' written all over it."

"So who is it this time? This place has seen a lot of activity lately."

Hercules bent down and closed Meneas' staring eyes. "I think we can narrow it down to the ones that like to hurt people."

"Like that's a short list."

"We can deal with that later. Right now we have to find Jason. Let's get search parties organized."

Iolaus squinted into the night sky. "Maybe we should wait for morning. We could miss a lot in the darkness. And he's been gone so long. If they were going to kill him . . ." His words trailed off into silence as he realized what he'd said.

"Yeah, but some of them like to play with their prey. I have to do something."

After a brief council with the captain of the guards, they decided to focus the search on the castle grounds. "Jason may still be here," Hercules told them. "Or we may find a clue to his whereabouts. Move slowly and investigate every corner, even if it seems an unlikely spot to hide someone. And someone should alert the castle staff to do a search inside.." For an instant, a vision flashed into his mind of Jason's body slumped on his throne, eyes dead and throat gaping open like an obscene second mouth. He banished the thought, though he knew it would return to him in nightmares for a long time.

'No time to worry, now,' he lectured himself. 'We've got to find Jason.'

* * *

"Pete?" It was the third time he'd called her name, but she still didn't answer. He knew she lived, he could feel her breath on his skin, a whisper of warmth. But she was fading fast; he knew that, too.

"Stay with me, Pete. What am I going to do if I lose you? And the kingdom--you know Corinth will go to Tartarus in a market basket if you're not around. You told me so often enough."

He could see her, one hand fisted on her hip and the other shaking a long, delicate finger in his face. At first he'd been annoyed by her lectures, then amused. He'd finally gotten to the point of making outrageously asinine suggestions just to send her into one of her tirades.

He laughed at the memory, but a rising sob choked off his amusement.

"Oh, gods. When I think of all the time I wasted. You were right in front of me all along, and I didn't see it." He smoothed back her hair and tightened his hold on her. "I thought I was crazy about that mystery woman, but it was you that I missed."

He blinked his eyes, trying to clear away the stinging. "I'm not going to cry. My father always said, 'Soldiers don't cry. Unless their horse gets killed.' 'Course, he never had anyone like you around.

"This is our last morning together, isn't it? I mean, we have to face facts, Strife is going to toast me like a skinned rabbit, and there isn't much I can do about it. If I could save your life, it would be worth it, but I don't think he'll give me even that much.

"If we were back in the castle, I'd bring you breakfast again. Bacon and cheese on toasted bread. Some fruit." He tried to shift his legs, which had long since fallen asleep. "I never told you how much I enjoyed eating breakfast with you every morning, did I? But I guess a lot of things aren't going to be said."

He tipped his head up and looked toward the roof of the tunnel. Not that he could see anything; darkness shrouded them like a smothering velvet tapestry.

How much longer did they have until Strife returned? He'd lost all track of time, but he didn't think dawn could be too far away. If that little weenie of a deity even bothered to come back; he could just leave them to die of thirst in the pit, slowly weakening while hovering between the hope that someone would find them and the fear that Strife would suddenly appear and finish them.

Part IX

Dawn light had turned everything on the castle grounds a muted, pearly gray hue.

"Face it, Herc. There's nothing here." Iolaus shrugged his shoulders to loosen the tight muscles. "We've been staring at the ground for hours now."

"There's got to be something." But Hercules' tone said this was more wishful thinking than anything else.

"Maybe we need to start facing the fact that Jason's gone. He could be anywhere in Corinth. He could be anywhere in the world." Or the afterlife--the thought hung unspoken on the air between them. "We've got to think about the safety of the city, as well as Jason."

"I know, I--"

"What?"

Hercules waved his friend to silence. "I think I've found something." He bent down and picked up a small piece of leather that lay in the dust off the path.

Iolaus stepped up behind him and touched it. "This is off Jason's vest, isn't it? It has the same kind of copper rivets."

"And it's been torn off. You'd need a lot of force for that; it didn't just get caught on a twig."

Iolaus hunched down and surveyed the area. "Someone's been moving dirt here. The leaves have been turned over. There are rotted ones on top."

Hercules brushed at the leaves. "There's a flat stone under here. Help me find the edges."

The two friends hurriedly brushed away the soil around the edges of the stone, each silently hoping that their discovery hadn't come too late.

"Okay, now get a branch. Help me lever it up." Hercules wedged his fingers under the stone and heaved. The heavy stone block shifted and began to rise.

* * *

Jason stifled a sigh. He was thirsty enough that a quick death being toasted by Strife began to look appealing. He whispered Pete's name again, but there was still no answer. With a groan he closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall.

"Poor king. All tired out. And we haven't even gotten to the good part yet." Strife burst into view with a dramatic blue flash.

"I miss the days when I couldn't see you," said Jason.

* * *

"Do you see him?" Iolaus strained to hold the stone block steady.

"Yeah, but he's got company. Strife. And Pete's down there. It looks like she's hurt."

"We'd better do something."

"On the count of three. You push the stone the rest of the way over, and I'll take Strife by surprise."

* * *

"You don't want to make me angry." Strife raised his hand and pointed at the two mortals.

"Oh, yeah, I'm frightened. Some god you are. You were afraid to fight me face to face, so you had to sneak around and try to kill me by deceit. Coward." Jason met Strife's eyes, daring him to act.

"That's it. *Now* I'm angry." The air around his fist glowed brighter, and then a shaft of fire arced toward Jason and Petra. It seemed to take forever to reach them, and then Jason felt like a giant hammer was pounding him through an eternity of pain. He felt Petra stiffen in his arms, and an instant later, something dropped from the ceiling onto Strife, knocking the god flat.

"Mind if I drop in?"

"Glad you're here," Jason muttered through gritted teeth.

"Yeah, this looked like just the party to crash." Hercules blocked Strife's swing and punched him in the chest. The god staggered back. "How's Pete?"

"Pretty bad."

"Well, let me just pound Strife and we'll get you out." He caught the god on the kneecap and then whipped around and swept his feet out from under him. Strife whimpered.

"You know," Hercules told him in a conversational tone, "usually I'm a mild-mannered guy. I don't go looking for fights." He stomped on Strife's hand. "But right now, I'm kinda pissed." Strife's eyes opened wide as Hercules picked him up off the ground and head-butted him.

Strife's mouth worked for a moment without making any sounds. Then he said, "I think I hear Ares calling me." And just like that, Herc's hands were empty.

* * *

Jason knelt by Petra's side. The force of Strife's lightning bolt had reopened the knife wound. Blood oozed out, a slow red weeping. He thought maybe it was a bad sign, that her body had grown too weak to pump life through her any more.

A faint scrape of boots on stone; Jason turned around and saw Hercules standing behind him. "Thanks, man." He wished he could sound more sincerely grateful.

"Is she . . . ?"

"Alive. Barely." He scrubbed at the wetness on his cheeks with the back of one hand.

"Then there's hope." A rope slipped over the brink of the well and slapped on the stone beside them. "Iolaus is up there with the guards. We'll get her out of here, find someone to help her."

"I don't think we can move her without putting her at more risk. Can you get a priest of Aesculpius down here?"

"I'll see what I can do." Hercules tugged on the rope and called up to Iolaus. "I'm coming up. Hold it steady." He pulled himself up hand over hand, leaving Jason alone again with Pete.

He brushed the hair out of her eyes. There was still so much he needed to say to her. Yet now he couldn't even hold her at the end, for fear of injuring her more. A bleak vision of the empty study and a lifetime of regrets stretched before him.

He was wishing he could just die with her when he heard a trill of music, and the air was suddenly heavy with the scent of roses. "Aphrodite." He spat out her name; it left a bitter taste in his mouth. "Come to admire your handiwork?"

"I didn't mean for this to happen." The goddess' sweet, flawless face wore an expression of sorrow.

"Why did you do it?" He wadded up the dress at Pete's shoulder and pressed down to try to stop the bleeding. If she could only hold on a little longer . . .

"You said love was a lie. I wanted to prove you wrong."

He laughed, a short, harsh sound. "You win. I believe in love. Proud of yourself?"

"I never said love would be easy." She shrugged. "Move aside, Jason."

"NO!" He shielded Pete's body with his own as he drew the knife again. "You can't take her. I won't let you."

"Cool it." With a flick of her wrist, Jason floated away from Pete and landed with a soft bump on the other side of the corridor. "I'm trying to save her, you moron." A flood of golden light washed over Petra's body. For a heartbeat of time, the world seemed to stop, shifted in its foundations. Then Petra's chest heaved, and she sat bolt upright, gasping.

"Pete!" Jason scrambled across the floor and threw his arms around her. She huddled against him, her face pressed into his chest.

When Jason looked up, he saw the goddess of love watching them with a faint smile. "Thank you."

"Hey, it was the least I could do." She held his gaze for a long moment. "Artemis will release her from her vows for now. But don't waste any time, King Jason."

"Never again." He tightened his hold on Pete as Aphrodite flickered out of the mortal realm. "Never again."

Epilogue

"They look really happy." Hercules stopped in the marketplace and turned so he could see Jason and Petra, walking back to the palace with their arms wrapped around each other.

"Yeah." Iolaus kicked at the dirt.

"What's eating you?"

"It's just . . . it's not fair! Jason always gets the girls."

Herc smiled. "I think this time he earned it. He won't be taking Pete for granted."

"Yeah, but what about *me*? When do I get the girl?" His eyes narrowed and he glanced back and forth. "Hey . . . I've got an idea."

"Don't do it, Iolaus. Don't even think about it."

"Hey! Aphrodite! Yeah, you, you alleged goddess of love!"

Hercules covered his ears. "I'm not hearing this. I'm not even *here*."

"You're a big fraud! I don't believe in you! What are you going to do about it, huh? You gonna make me fall in love? I doubt it! Neener, neener, neener!"

The End


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