Midnight. Hercules lay on his bunk and tried to sleep. In the cot beneath him, Iolaus shifted in the middle of some dream, and Jason snored lightly in his own bed on the other side of the dorm room.
The Academy was quiet save for the hushed breathing of slumbering cadets.
It had been a long day, but Hercules stared restlessly into the shadows of the ceiling.
Because he couldn't stop thinking about Zeus. His father.
Never heard from, never seen.
The future-seeing Eye he had stolen from the three witchy sisters could have revealed Zeus. Herc had held the power in his hand, had looked through the Eye and had been so close to seeing his father that he'd seen the god's outline. He was sure it must have been Zeus.
But in the end, Hercules had been forced to return the Eye to the sisters, and in exchange they had removed the curses they had placed on Jason and Iolaus. His best friends, one turned into a slop-guzzling boar, one attacked by any foliage he walked by. All because Hercules had wanted to know what his father looked like.
It wasn't like it really mattered, he tried to tell himself. It would have only been a vision, just a picture, of Zeus in the future. Not even in the present, not anything more than spying on a father who might or might not even care that Hercules existed. He had had no right to put Jason and Iolaus in danger just to satisfy his longing to know about his father.
And yet . . . .
Hercules had always looked forward to the future, had thought he and Iolaus and Jason would grow up and do great things. That he'd maybe meet a girl. And that he'd finally, finally come face to face with his father . . . .
And to be so close and to fail . . . .
He knew it shouldn't matter. But it did.
Sighing, Hercules tucked his hands under his head and tried to push away the all too familiar flood of emotions. Still sleepless, he settled down to wait out the night, searching the shadows of the room as if they, like the Eye, held a key to the rest of his life.
But the future, whatever it held, kept its own counsel; and tonight, even his half-formed hopes glimmered so distantly out in front of him that Hercules wasn't at all sure he could last long enough to catch them.
Twenty Years Later:
Imagine a time long ago: don't fuss,
it's not hard to do, not much work.
Picture two men: first, gold-haired Iolaus
and back-to-back, the boy scout half-god:
Iolaus dodged the bolt of crackling energy issuing from the Eye of Ares and glanced across the temple to where his partner stood ready for action.
"Have we got a plan yet?"
"I think this is the plan," Hercules called back, eyes riveted on the crystal "Eye" that Ares had installed as a burglar system.
As if honing in on the half-god's voice, the Eye expanded its attack and sent blue lightening screaming toward him. Hercules leapt high and the bolt sizzled under his feet.
At the same time, the Eye directed a second bolt toward Iolaus. The blond warrior dove out of the way. He hit the cold marble floor of Ares' temple and rolled, regaining his feet next to Hercules.
"Some plan," he complained theatrically. "Next time, I'm in charge of strategy."
"Iolaus, this was your strategy," Hercules reminded him pointedly. "Twenty-five years of experience and your entire plan is still just 'charge!'"
Simultaneously, they ducked to avoid another lightening bolt.
The writhing energy stream hit the wall of the temple and shattered it. Suddenly the gloom of the temple was speared by a man-sized circle of bright sunlight.
The partners regained their respective heights and stared at the hole in the wall. It was a big hole. The Eye packed a heck of a wallop, enough to cause even a half-god serious difficulties.
"Well, I didn't know it could do that!" Iolaus protested.
Hercules eyed the Eye. It glittered balefully, light refracting from the tiny facets of its surface in a way that, even had it not been trying to destroy them, would still have been aggressively gaudy.
But Ares had never been known for his taste in interior decoration.
The Arm of the Moirai, the objective of their excursion into Ares' territory, hung beneath the god of war's elaborate alarm system. The Arm was formed in the shape of a smooth golden gauntlet, but it was much more than a mere piece of clothing. The Moirai, the three Fates who held the lives of all mortals and even the gods in their power, had forged the Arm long ago. Then, deciding that it was too powerful to risk the possibility of the wrong person using it, they had hidden the weapon so secretly that for centuries no one had been certain it was anything more than a children's tale.
Somehow, Ares had finally discovered the Arm's hiding place. But Hercules wasn't about to give the god of war time to decipher the gauntlet's secrets.
The Eye purred as it powered up for another barrage.
Almost automatically, moving with a confidence formed by the practice of years and of pure trust in one other, Hercules and Iolaus turned back to back and linked hands. Hercules heaved with his immortal strength and Iolaus flew over his head just as the Eye's latest missile seared through the air that the warrior had been inhabiting seconds before.
Undaunted, the Eye continued to glow as it generated energy for yet another lightening bolt.
Hercules shook his head. That was Ares for you: deadly but not very innovative. Trust him to create a watchguard that never learned from its mistakes.
Once again, although in the opposite direction, Herc swung Iolaus over his head. But this time the lightening crackled high -- so high that it grazed the soles of the blond warrior's boots.
Oh. So maybe Ares had learned a few tricks after all.
Iolaus winced as he hit the ground and glared at the wisps of smoke that were floating up from his feet.
"Herc, as fun as all this is, can we have some progress here?" he prompted irritably. "Those were new boots!"
"Okay, let's get the Arm and hotfoot it out of here," Hercules agreed.
"Ha. Ha. Plan?"
Hercules nodded, eyes measuring angles, masonry, the distance to the Arm and the Eye. "Yeah, I have an idea."
Iolaus narrowed his eyes dubiously. "Is an idea better than a plan?"
"Better than one of your plans. Now --"
The half-god's words cut off as a bolt of power, not the icy blue of the Eye but gleaming golden, hit Iolaus on the chest and sent the hunter tumbling across the temple.
The attack had come from the hole in the temple's wall. Hercules turned and without much surprise saw a familiar shape standing outside and scowling.
"Ares," Hercules said grimly. "I figured you'd turn up sooner or later. Although, I wish it had been later."
"This is a private club, brother," Ares sneered. "And you weren't invited."
Hercules shrugged. "So call me a party-crasher."
Half-away across the temple from Herc and the god of war, Iolaus tried to blink the world back into focus. It had been a while since he'd been hit with the full force of one of Ares' zaps. It brought back memories. Memories of before he had learned how to duck.
Back on the other side of the temple, a tiny silver dagger dangling from his ear and dark eyes smoldering below cascading black hair, Ares stepped into his temple and jerked a thumb behind him at the ruined wall.
"Do you know how much that's going to cost me to get fixed?" he asked petulantly.
"Do I care?" The tone of Hercules' voice made the answer plain.
Ares pouted. "You know, brother, you're really starting to get down-right rude. I liked you so much better when you were just a goody good practicing how to curtsey at that stupid Academy of yours." He paused. "No, wait. No I didn't."
"Sounds good," Ares said malevolently.
Lightening flashed from the god and Hercules had to dive as a huge chunk of the ceiling plummeted toward him.
"I couldn't have said 'I'll live'?" he muttered from the floor.
More or less recovered, Iolaus jumped to his feet, ready to help Herc fight. A flash of gold caught his attention instead. He had slid all the way to the pedestal that held the Eye, which seemed to have shut down once its master had arrived on the scene.
The pedestal also held the Arm of the Moirai.
Which meant, Iolaus could just reach over, take down the gauntlet from its hook, and presto, mission accompli---
"Oh no you don't!" roared Ares.
"Iolaus, watch it," Hercules yelled, and even as Ares shot out his arm and released a blast of deadly energy, the half-god barreled into the god of war.
He was too late.
Iolaus saw the blast coming at him, knew he couldn't get out of the way in time, instinctively thrust the Arm out in front of him for meager protection, thought 'oh brother, here we go again' and waited for the impact . . . .
It didn't come. Instead he felt the Arm grow warm in his hands as it absorbed Ares' attack.
Then, with a modest click, the gauntlet opened.
Before Iolaus was quite aware of what was happening, it had closed again. Around his left arm.
He had time for one astounded glance at Hercules and then he was gone.
Hercules ran to the spot where his best friend and partner had been standing seconds before. Beyond two slightly ashy footprints, there was . . . nothing.
Ares began to chuckle.
"Hasn't that little friend of yours learned to look before he leaps yet?"
"Where is he, Ares?" Hercules demanded, real anger building in his voice.
"How should I know?" Ares giggled. "You didn't give me time to figure out what the thing even does, let alone how to control it!"
The god of war wiped tears of mirth out of his eyes and sighed contentedly.
"You know, the gods on Olympus have a pool going about when he'll finally bite it for good. I doubt it's this time, but then, we can always hope."
Almost comradely, Ares came up to stand by Hercules. He studied the unIolaused space bemusedly. "Really, I'm amazed he's survived this long."
"Me, too," Hercules agreed absently.
Then, suddenly, the two enemies realized that they were standing together like chums. Once again, lightening and masonry filled the air.
And Hercules wondered as he dodged and retaliated, 'what have you gotten yourself into this time, my friend?'
But the only answer was held by the future, who is a jealous mistress and does not give up her secrets lightly.
That is, except on rare occasions.
A Stitch in Time:
A tiny shiver ran through the air.
Hercules froze, a spoonful of oats suspended in front of him.
"Herc, trust me, it doesn't get any better if you look at it," Iolaus said from across the dining hall table.
Jason leaned over his own half-filled breakfast bowl and pointed at his friend. "You have been acting weird ever since you stole that Eye from those three creepy sisters."
He turned to Iolaus to back him up. "Weird?"
"Wacky," Iolaus contributed judiciously.
"Unbalanced," Jason added, nodding.
"Guys--" Hercules said tiredly.
"A few hooves short of a centaur."
"A few feathers short of an Amazon."
Iolaus looked intrigued. "Hmm, which feathers?"
A banging cut short the appealing possibilities as Hercules rapped his spoon against his bowl. "Hel-lo, guys?"
The two cadets turned innocently back to the demigod.
"Okay. All I want to know," Herc said slowly, ignoring the implied concern for him that his friends were expressing, "is: did you guys just feel that?"
"Feel what?" Jason asked.
"There was a sort of a . . . thing in the air."
"What kind of a 'thing'?"
Hercules sighed, searching for words. "Like . . . there was a change in the fabric of the universe, you know?"
Iolaus and Jason exchanged knowing glances.
"Oh," Iolaus said, "one of those things."
"Why didn't you say so?" added Jason.
Hercules sagged a little in relief, the beginnings of a smile on his face. "So you guys felt it too?"
"Not at all. Are you going to finish that?"
Ignoring Iolaus but pushing over his bowl, Hercules stood up determinedly. He might have missed some sleep lately, but he wasn't hallucinating.
"Something just happened and I'm going to find out what it is, okay?"
"Okay," Jason said placatingly. "I'll go with you. Iolaus?"
Busy with Hercules' breakfast, Iolaus waved them on.
"Be right with you," he called. "If it's something involving money or scantily clad women, wait for me."
Hercules led Jason into the Academy's outdoor training yard and stopped, practically sniffing the air.
"So this is where we're going to find this change in the universe thing?" Jason asked, folding his arms and looking vaguely around.
"It's here somewhere," Hercules said stubbornly.
"How do you know?"
"I told you, I felt a thing in the air."
"Oh, right, I forgot. Tell me, is 'thing' like a technical term? I mean, is this a godly thing or some other kind of thing."
Hercules held up a hand. "Just trust me, all right?"
Jason shook his head. "Definitely wacky."
"I am not."
"Really, I hate to say it buddy, but lately you have definitely not been functioning on all four chariot wheels."
"I have too!"
"Then where's the universe change thing?"
There was a movement at the far end of the courtyard.
Hercules pointed triumphantly. "There! See, I told you!"
The man was facing away from them, but even from the back it was obvious that he was well-muscled, a warrior perhaps, although he was a little short for that. He had on a purple patchwork vest and his blonde hair gleamed in the midmorning light.
The two cadets studied him.
"I don't know. That guy is a change in the fabric of the universe?" Jason asked dubiously.
Hercules had to admit that Jason had a point. The man wasn't as dramatic-looking as he would have thought a change in the fabric of the universe would be. Actually, the stranger looked a bit like . . . but that was impossible.
Hercules tried to shake off the thought but it stuck. At least from the back, the man really reminded him of --
Suddenly, the stranger seemed to sense that he wasn't alone and pivoted with surprising agility. His vest was open at the front and some sort of pendant hung around his neck. His left arm gleamed golden with an expensive-looking gauntlet, but his boots were blackened with what looked like singe marks.
And his face . . . .
As the man took in the two cadets, his expression changed from wariness to surprised glee.
"Hercules?" he exclaimed. "Jason?"
Instinctively, the cadets took a step backward.
"How does he know our names?" Jason whispered. "And how did he get in here? The Academy's gates are guarded."
"I don't know, maybe we should go get Cheiron," Hercules whispered back.
"Hey guys, come on!" the stranger grinned, advancing on them. "Herc, it's me!"
That nickname . . . . That smile . . . the glint in the blue eyes . . . .
Hercules opened his mouth. Shut it. Opened it again. No, it couldn't be . . . .
Half thinking that maybe Jason was right and he had been permanently befuddled by the future-seeing Eye, he murmured to the crown prince: "Does that guy seem familiar to you at all? Just out of curiosity?"
"Come on, guys," the man said again. "I haven't changed that much, have I? It's me!"
"Me who?" Jason asked. Hercules wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"Me!" the stranger urged. "Iolaus!"
"IOLAUS?" the cadets chorused, eyes widening.
"No, you can't be Iolaus," Hercules corrected the man desperately, "because you're, um-"
"Old!" said Jason, staring.
"Herc," the stranger said with a mix of patience and eagerness, "who else calls you that? Jason, what about when we thought Herc was dead and I climbed the Academy walls and called the gods cowards because they wouldn't fight me?"
"You did that?" Hercules asked softly, taken aback by the conformation in Jason's expression. "You never told me."
For a moment, the Iolaus-old-guy-stranger looked almost embarrassed. "Well, you know, you read too many epics and you start getting melodramatic . . . ."
Then the indomitable grin bobbed up again. "Man, it's so good to see you guys!"
He stepped forward as if to embrace Hercules, but the demigod skittered safely behind Jason.
Okay, this guy might be . . . Iolaus . . . but this whole thing was just plain eerie! And yet it was also unavoidable. The man was certainly older, a bit worn by weather and life, but there was still that incredible overflowing energy that Hercules had never seen the equal to in any other person except Iolaus. It couldn't be a trick or a trap of the gods. It had to be--
"Iolaus?" Jason squeaked.
"Hey, Jase, lookin' good," the Iolaus old guy said heartily, faking a jab to the crown prince's stomach.
Jason had a strained smile plastered across his face. "And you're looking . . . old," he repeated.
"Okay, I have a question," Hercules, trying not to freak, interrupted from behind Jason. "If you're really Iolaus, then what happened to you? Because a minute ago you were like us and now you're, uh--"
"Jason, will you quit harping on that?" the Iolaus stranger said with a touch of irritation. "In my time you're no teenager either."
"Your time." Hercules pounced on the words. "So this isn't your time. Which means that our Iolaus is still eating breakfast?"
The old Iolaus shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. See, Hercules and I, you know, Hercules from my time, we were fighting Ares in one of his temples--"
"You mean we're still fighting Ares after what, like forty years?" Hercules said with a sinking heart.
That wasn't exactly the way he had envisioned his future. Suddenly he wasn't quite as sure as he had been the night before that he wanted to know about the rest of his life.
"Forty years?" Old Iolaus echoed indignantly. "Hey, do I look sixty?"
When neither of the cadets hazarded an answer, he continued sternly: "I happen to be in my prime. You got that?"
"Sorry," Hercules said weakly. "It's just that we're used to you looking, um, like --"
Casually adjusting his vest, Iolaus sauntered out of the main building and started toward the group.
"Him! You. . . old guy," Hercules said quickly. "Are there rules to this time travel thing? I mean, if you meet your younger self the universe won't implode or anything, right?"
"Too late," said Jason.
"Hey guys," Iolaus said innocently. "So what's up?"
"Look on the bright side," Jason told Iolaus with mostly sincere sympathy, "at least you've still got your hair."
Iolaus stared hostilely at his supposed older self.
"Come on," he said, "you expect me to believe that he's me from the future? No way. I mean, look at his boots! This guy's totally over the hill!
"Excuse me?!" the older Iolaus bristled.
"I could beat him with one hand tied behind my back!" Iolaus continued.
The older Iolaus glanced at the other cadets.
"Didn't I have *any* manners when I was a kid?" he asked.
"Not really," Jason admitted.
Iolaus glared at his older self. "Who're you calling a kid, grandpa?"
"Okay, Iolaus!" Hercules interjected, sliding inbetween the warring Iolausi before things could get ugly.
"What?" the selves echoed in unison.
"That is so weird," said Jason.
"Uh, could you give us a minute?" Hercules asked the older Iolaus, doing his best to hang onto his 'everything is under control' face. Of course Iolaus, any Iolaus, would be able to see right through the act, but it never hurt to try.
With Jason's help, Herc managed to drag their Iolaus a short distance away from his older self, who had already regained his good-humor and stood rocking on the balls of his feet, his arms crossed in front of him, apparently enjoying himself immensely.
"Herc, you don't believe this guy, do you?" Iolaus appealed to his friend.
Hercules took a deep breath. "Yeah, I do," he admitted. "I know it's creepy, but who else could it be, you know?"
"Iolaus, he looks like you, talks like you, dresses like you," Jason reasoned. "It's gotta be you."
Iolaus sighed, caught by the logic. "So that's me."
Hercules patted him on the shoulder. "Yeah. I, uh, guess that growth spurt thing never really happened."
"You're not helping, Herc."
"I think the real question is why is he here?" Jason prompted.
Iolaus snapped his fingers. "Yes!"
He strode back to his future self, hooking his thumbs over his belt as he faced the older Iolaus.
"Hey old guy," he challenged, "this is my yard, what gives?"
"What Iolaus means," Hercules quickly amended, "is: can we help you with anything? Or is this just like a time traveling vacation or something."
The older Iolaus settled his hands on his low-slung belt. Neither version seemed to realize that they were now standing in the exact same position.
"As far as I can tell," he said, shrugging, "the Arm of the Moirai sent me back in time. I guess it must have been on the 'twenty years in the past' setting."
"The Arm of the Moirai?" Hercules echoed.
Jason made a face. "Sounds nasty."
"What's the Arm of the Moirai?" Iolaus asked.
"The Moirai control the life-span of all mortals," Hercules reminded him. "So they can pretty much do whatever they want with time. I think Cheiron said that the Arm of the Moirai was some kind of powerful time-controlling weapon that was lost years ago."
"Don't you ever listen in class?" Jason said sternly.
Iolaus shrugged. "Not really. And that reminds me--" he turned back to his older self and regarded him with a degree less animosity and a lot more speculation.
"You're me, right?" he said. "So tell me the truth, have I ever needed to know about the economy of Crete? Or the major export of Athens? Or at what time two chariots will pass each other if one leaves Sparta in the morning and the other leaves Thebes two hours later? Really. Is this stuff ever going to be useful?"
The older Iolaus hesitated.
"Don't answer that," Hercules said hastily.
"Let's just concentrate on getting you back to your own time," Jason added, steering the older Iolaus away from his younger self's inquiring gaze.
"Hey guys," Old Iolaus said thoughtfully, "can we get something to eat while we figure this out?" He suddenly grinned Iolaus' familiar grin amped up by twenty years. "I am really hungry!"
Oh yeah. He was Iolaus all right.
Ares, god of war and all around mean guy, was puzzled. So puzzled, in fact, that he had directed Strife to put away the skeet pull with the teddy bear targets so that he could be puzzled without interruption.
There were a lot of things Ares didn't like being: beaten (although the god of war was never really beaten, just momentarily held at bay); kind to animals (although he had a soft spot for his corpse-eating dog of war, Graegus); and puzzled.
On those rare occasions that he did become puzzled, he would rather help a little old lady across a busy street than stay that way. Puzzlement could lead to weakness. And that was not going to happen.
So when Ares felt the disturbance in the space-time continuum, he immediately set about locating where it had come from. It was taking some time -- Greece was a fairly big place. But then, Ares was a god.
It hadn't been a large disturbance. But anything that could make itself felt to a god meant power. Power that could be used by someone, say . . . . Him. And power was something that Ares liked very, very much.
Chuckling deeply to himself as he speculated about the future, Ares continued to search, knowing that soon he would find what, and who, he was looking for.
And then maybe he wouldn't have to settle for skeets. Maybe he would have far more interesting targets.
Oh yes. This had potential.
Kora's Inn was relatively uncrowded at this time in the morning. The beautiful Kora herself was behind the counter, menus in hand, ready for the next customer.
A smile lighting his face, the older Iolaus went directly up to her and took her free hand in his.
"Kora!" he said happily, gazing deeply into her eyes, "I'd almost forgotten how beautiful you are."
Behind him, the three cadets winced. They had all had the experience of being on the receiving end of Kora's caustic temper when they got too would-be romantic, or as Kora put it, 'stupid', with the innkeeper.
None of them had ever dared try to hold her hand.
"He's toast," Iolaus whispered to Hercules.
Instead of exploding, however, the girl looked at the handsome, blue-eyed, sun-tanned stranger smiling at her, and blinked. Smiled back. And blushed.
"I'm, uh, thank--" She dropped her menus, patted her hair, smiled more widely as she tried to recover the menus one-handedly. "--I, um, welcome to, can I help you?"
The cadets gaped.
"Are you guys seeing what I'm seeing?" Hercules asked, awe-stricken.
"Wow," was all Jason could say.
"Hey!" Iolaus protested, "how come she doesn't do that with me now?"
"Maybe she likes older men?" Jason suggested.
Their conversations seemed to shake Kora out of her reverie and she turned a more than usually cold eye to the cadets.
"Yes?" she said, her tone clearly telling them to scram.
"Um, hi Kora," Iolaus said, trying out his most winning smile. "It's me. Iolaus."
"And Jason," Jason quickly added.
Kora spared another smile for the older Iolaus, then rolled her eyes at the cadets.
"I know," she said before Hercules could speak, "and you're Hercules. So do you want something?"
"No, nothing," Hercules said meekly. Surrendering all self-respect, he pointed at the older Iolaus. "We're with him!"
"Yeah, Iolaus is his, um, nephew," Jason suggested.
"He's a good kid," the older Iolaus said on cue. "I know he may seem awkward and dim now, but give him a few decades and you'll see."
"Gee, thanks, 'unc'," Iolaus growled.
Kora's expression softened. "Oh, well, that's different. So guys, sit down, please, and Iolaus, maybe you can tell your uncle how I don't usually look this messy, it's just been a busy day and--"
"Kora," the older Iolaus said with an easy but not offensive confidence that made all three cadets hate him, "you look amazing, as always. And this is coming from someone who's seen Aphrodite close up."
"Oh, please," Hercules muttered to Iolaus. "Tell me she's not going to fall for a line like that."
"I meet Aphrodite?" Iolaus said. "Cool."
Kora giggled. "I, well, I'll just go get your food, now. And then I'll be, uh, back."
Nearly tripping over a customer as she tried to back up and look at older Iolaus at the time same, the innkeeper headed for the kitchen without bothering to ask anyone else what they wanted to eat.
"She giggled," Iolaus groaned.
"I can't believe it," Jason said, shaking his head. "She actually giggled!"
"That is so--" Hercules began, then changed his mind as a happy thought occurred. "Wait a minute. Iolaus--"
Two blond heads turned to look at him.
"--Not you, Iolaus, him Iolaus. Anyway, um," Hercules addressed the older version with as much nonchalance as he could muster, "am I like that in your time too? You know, with the women?"
The older Iolaus grinned. "Are you kidding? You have to beat them off with a stick. And don't get me started about the 50 daughters of King Thespius!"
"Fifty daughters?" Jason and Iolaus echoed incredulously
"Oh, yeah, that is more like it!" Hercules said smugly.
"But of course you're mostly too much of a goody two-sandals to do anything but run away from them," the older Iolaus added mischievously.
Hercules found it suddenly very important to study the wood grain of the table.
"Typical," cadet Iolaus agreed.
"So what about me?" Jason asked eagerly.
Old Iolaus hesitated, as if searching for the right words. "You end up marrying the most amazing woman I've ever known," he said finally.
Then, changing the subject, he sighed dreamily. "Ah, Kora. Do you know how many times I lay awake dreaming about her . . .?"
"Ahhhh, really?" Hercules said innocently, nudging his Iolaus.
"You little ol' romantic, you," Jason teased.
"Um, old guy?" Iolaus said urgently, blushing. "This may be fond reminiscence for you, but it's sort of the present for me, so can we go easy on the embarrassing details?"
"Okay. Here's an idea," said Hercules, taking pity on his friend and returning to the problem at hand. "Why don't you just, you know, take the Arm off? Maybe if it's not fastened, it won't work anymore and you'll sort of bounce back to your own time."
Iolaus sent him a thankful look.
Silently, the older Iolaus displayed the gauntlet. It was seamless, belying the fact that it must have opened at least once to fit around him. It looked liked the molten gold had simply been poured over the warrior's arm and left to harden.
"Any ideas?" he asked.
"Oh," said Hercules. "Hmm."
"Here you go," Kora said brightly, returning in record time with a heavily laden platter that seemed to hold most of the Inn's supplies for the week. She'd fixed her hair and her smudged apron was gone.
"I made you a sampler," she said sweetly, "just so you'd be sure to find something you like."
"I already have," the older Iolaus said, somehow pulling off the line with complete sincerity.
To the horror of the cadets, Kora giggled again.
"This is disgusting," Jason said.
Hercules jerked a thumb at older Iolaus (who was holding Kora's hand again) but spoke to his Iolaus. "No offense, but 50 daughters of Thespius or no 50 daughters of Thespius, I want you gone!"
"Oh," Kora said, finally managing to tear away her gaze from old Iolaus, "did you guys want anything?"
"No. I think I just lost my appetite," Jason said and Hercules agreed.
"Okay then." Kora gave old Iolaus a final smile, then frowned and glanced at Iolaus.
"You know," she said, "for relatives, you two don't look a thing alike."
Iolaus' forehead hit the table in defeat. "I think I hate myself," he said.
But he perked up when old Iolaus served out the food.
By the time old Iolaus had stormed his way through Kora's meal, enthusiastically matching his younger self bite for bite, the cadets had come up with a plan of action.
The Arm of the Moirai was a creation of the gods (although even gods walk lightly around the sisters of Fate). Therefore, maybe a god would know how it worked. And luckily, they happened to be on pretty good terms with just the god to ask.
When the group climbed the foothills of Mt. Aetna and hiked to the cave in which Hephaestus had built his favorite forge, however, they ran into an unexpected snag.
"Gune to Olimps," Hercules read, holding up the sooty note that Heph had left tacked to the side of the cave mouth. "Bee bak inn thre daz."
"For a god who can forge anything for anyone, he really needs to work on his spelling," Jason observed.
The older Iolaus groaned. "Oh, great. I can't wait three days, Hercules is going to get worried!"
"Maybe we can think of something else," Hercules said as comfortingly as he could, even as an unpleasant thrill ran down his spine as he heard his name given to someone else. Not someone else, exactly, someone he would become, but it was already difficult enough being Hercules in the present without having to imagine being Hercules in the future too. Which would then be the present, of course. . . . .
No wonder Iolaus was getting so creeped out.
Truthfully, they were all still uneasy around the older Iolaus. It wasn't that he was bad company. Far from it -- he was as ebullient and cheery as their Iolaus, and possibly even slightly more sensible. But seeing the two Iolausi together was seriously wiggy and the unspoken agreement was that they wanted him back to his own time as soon as possible.
Now that Hercules thought about it, it was probably just as weird for the older Iolaus, maybe even more so, since he was visiting his past. So for him, the cadets must be reminders of what they had all been before they became what they were in his time. Whatever that was. Judging by the older Iolaus, it seemed to be something pretty good. Hercules hoped so.
He was still a little confused, though, why a hero like the warrior seemed to be would wear boots that were half burned through.
Maybe heroing didn't pay very well?
"Okay," Jason asked briskly. "Anybody have any other ideas?"
"I've got it," Iolaus exclaimed, snapping his fingers. "Old timer, since you're here . . . can you remember the answers to tomorrow's history quiz?"
He looked at the expressions on the faces of the two cadets and the warrior. "What?"
"Can you stay focused please?" Hercules asked his friend without much sympathy for Iolaus' academic efforts.
"What about the results of any chariot races?" Iolaus continued, undaunted.
Obviously it would take more than meeting his future self to stop Iolaus from coming up with his trademark ingenious schemes that always seemed to unravel about halfway through.
"So three days it is," older Iolaus said resignedly.
"Hercules," Jason said suddenly, "where's he going to stay?"
He addressed the older Iolaus. "You can't stay in the Academy and you'd be pretty bored at the palace by yourself."
"What about your mom's, Herc?" Iolaus suggested.
Hercules blinked. He hadn't thought of that. She was definitely closer than Corinth. And of course, it wasn't like he would be asking Alcemene to house a total stranger . . . maybe the warrior could even finish up the last few chores that Hercules and Iolaus hadn't gotten to last vacation . . . .
"Well," he said a little reluctantly, "I guess . . . ."
Old Iolaus' expression had softened with an emotion that Hercules couldn't quite understand.
"Alcemene," the warrior murmured. "It would be so great to see her again . . . ."
"Don't you see her in your time?" Hercules asked, confused.
The older Iolaus coughed, as if suddenly realizing where he was. "Oh, yeah, sure," he said hurriedly, "but you know with all the traveling Herc and I do, we don't get to see her as much as we'd like to."
Hercules looked so stricken by the idea that he'd ever be too busy to visit his mother, that Jason clapped him on the back and promised that when Herc was traveling, he'd make sure look in on her as often as he could.
Hercules couldn't be sure, but he thought old Iolaus hid a smile and murmured something like 'Yeah, you'll certainly do that,' to himself.
"Well, we'd better get started if we want to be there in time for dinner," Iolaus announced, rubbing his hands in anticipation.
"Iolaus, do you ever think of anything besides food?" asked Jason, truly curious.
The two selves shared a grin, the first real sign of camaraderie they had shown since meeting.
"Last one there does the dishes?" the older Iolaus suggested, winking.
"Eat my dust, old timer!" Iolaus riposted immediately.
Hercules and Jason watched as the Iolais raced neck and neck down the wooded mountain path.
"He really hasn't changed much, has he?" Hercules said wonderingly.
"It frightens me," Jason agreed solemnly. "But," he added, "I'm not going to wash the dishes."
Without further ado, Herc and Jason bolted after their friend.
"So listen, we should get straight on a few things," Hercules said as the group threaded their way through the lily fields that bordered his mother's house. "Like what do we call you? Cause Iolaus is sort of taken."
Iolaus bit down a smile. Even at this young age, Hercules was already the natural leader, the force that solidified the group. Looking at the trio from a distance of twenty years' experience, he could clearly see how Herc kept Jason from feeling completely isolated by his duty to Corinth, and as for Iolaus himself. . . without Hercules, he had no doubt he would have broken parole and left the Academy for an aimless, pointless and probably quite short, life. But Hercules had believed in Iolaus and challenged him to believe in himself, and in return, Iolaus had been determined to succeed, if only to be able to be there to watch Herc's back.
Even if meant sitting -- or, to be honest, sleeping -- through interminable economics, socio-political, history, geology, philosophy and mathematics classes.
Which he had never used since.
Although, Iolaus had to admit, that was mostly because Hercules had actually been paying attention and so remembered the stuff better than he did.
"That's a good point," Jason was agreeing. "We can't just call you 'Iolaus' uncle'. You need a name."
"How about Old Guy?" the younger Iolaus chipped in.
By the gods, had he really ever been such a smart aleck? Even as Iolaus thought the words, he heard the ghost of his Hercules whisper over his shoulder, 'like you're any different now?' Okay, he probably shouldn't have mentioned the daughters of Thespius, but the look on Herc's face had been priceless . . . and maybe he had rubbed in the thing with Kora . . . . so yeah, maybe he hadn't changed in some ways . . . .
But he had changed in so many others ways, as had the Hercules and Jason from his time. Put simply, they had grown-up. The cadets were still kids. Kids with potential, definitely, but kids nonetheless, still trying to find their way, their places, in the world.
He could see it in the almost perpetual shade of anxiety on Herc's face, as if he was always worried that he wasn't doing things quite right, quite like a hero should be, like Zeus would want him to.
Jason was still trying to get comfortable under the burden of being crown prince, and then there was Iolaus' younger self, still half a punk, terribly insecure under all that flippancy, so wanting to be worthy of being a hero.
They were so all bursting with good intentions and hope for the future. It was amazing they had ever survived. But they had survived, although he knew exactly the price they had all paid at one time or another; and now twenty years later he and Herc and Jason were still surviving, and still hopeful.
Iolaus knew that his younger self saw him as an opponent, proof that the teenager Iolaus still had a lot of growing up to do. But Iolaus found himself hoping that once that passed, his younger self would be proud of him, of the man he would become.
"Hey," he said aloud, pretending to be affronted, "I may not be a teenager, but I make up for it in wisdom and skill."
"I have wis--" his younger self began indignantly, then stopped. "Well. Skill," he finished a little weakly.
Iolaus caught the tail end of a look between Herc and Jason that very clearly expressed their incredulity that any Iolaus, young or old, could possess, much less use, wisdom.
Okay, maybe he should have said experience, but hey, he'd picked up stuff here and there. He was learning, and while there might still be a lot to learn, he still had a lot of time to do it in. There was still a lot of future left.
He just had to get back to his time to enjoy it. It was interesting reliving the past for a few hours, but to replay the next twenty years? No thanks, once was definitely enough. And there were probably time-traveling rules about that sort of thing. Not to mention how disconcerting it was to feel like the stuffy adult around the people he had grown up with. Of course, it had seemed to work for Kora well enough!
Ah, Kora . . . and to see Alcemene one final time . . . .
Alcemene's voice -- her very young voice -- cut short Iolaus' reverie and the cadet's discussion of the exact level of his younger self's 'skill'.
The group stopped a little awkwardly as Alcemene rounded the bend, her flower basket hanging from her arm. Iolaus had forgotten just how beautiful Herc's mom was; of course, you didn't notice that kind of thing when you were a teenager. Even Jason wouldn't be noticing for a dozen years or so.
"Iolaus, Jason," she continued, pleased but puzzled, "what are you all doing here? And who is--?"
Iolaus saw her eyes widen in recognition as she fully noticed him for the first time. So she remembered. He had been wondering. It had been almost twenty years ago for her, of course, although only a year for him, since he had traveled back in time to try to save Alcemene and the still unborn Hercules from Callisto's assassination attempt.
Time travel was getting to be a habit, he thought wryly.
He hadn't been certain how the whole back-in-time thing worked, whether she would or wouldn't remember it had been him who had finally (thank the Fates) saved her and her son. Now, a tiny shake of his head warned her not to say anything.
Alcemene had always treated Iolaus as family, putting extra effort into making him feel secure and welcome in her home. Iolaus was sure she would have done so no matter what, but he also knew how uncertain of his own worth he had felt as a teenager. It wouldn't serve any purpose to throw Alcemene's kindness into doubt by revealing that even before she had met him, she had known part of the role he would play in her and her son's future life.
She caught his gesture and nodded slightly in return. More proof that Herc had gotten his intelligence, as well as his compassion and integrity, from his mortal genes.
"Mom," Hercules said quickly, "this is Iolaus' uncle . . . ."
He hesitated as they all realized they had never come up with a name.
" . . . whose name . . . " Herc continued, eyes urging someone to jump in, " . . . is . . . ."
"Raviolaus," Jason said suddenly, then shrugged defensively as the cadets and Iolaus stared at him.
Alcemene suddenly went poker-faced.
"Uh, that's right," cadet Iolaus said gamely. "See, I was named after him. Sort of."
Laughter lingering treacherously around the edges of her lips, Alcemene graciously held out her hand to Iolaus. "It's very nice to meet you, Raviolaus. I'm Alcemene, Hercules' mother."
"It's a pleasure, Alcemene," Iolaus said, trying not to let emotion choke his voice. "Iolaus has told me a lot of great things about you."
Alcemene, in many ways the most important woman in his life, standing alive and vibrant in front of him. It was incredible.
Alcemene cast a glance at the cadets. "Did you four want to stay for supper?" she asked.
"Actually, mom," Hercules said, "Raviolaus is leaving for the north sea in a couple of days. See, he's a . . . sailor and he came in unexpectedly to port--"
"And wanted to see his nephew," Alcemene said helpfully.
"Oh, uh, yeah, exactly! But the thing is, he doesn't have any place to stay until he leaves again. So we were hoping he could sort of stay here?"
As one, the cadets held their breath, watching Alcemene. She met Iolaus' eyes and the smile she was fighting not to release almost broke free.
"I think we could arrange something," she said sweetly. "Raviolaus, would you follow me?"
Hooking her arm around his, she led him down the oh so familiar path toward the only place he had ever really thought of as home. The cadets trailed afterward and Iolaus could only imagine the over-protective look on Herc's face as he saw his mother walking so closely with a man he thought she should consider a stranger.
"Hercules isn't in danger again, is he?" Alcemene whispered a little worriedly.
"Oh no. Callisto's gone for good. This was just a little mix up with the Fates," Iolaus whispered back. "But it's all worth it to see you."
"The last time I saw you like this, I was twenty years younger!" Alcemene protested, laughing.
"So you're twenty years more beautiful."
"I always knew you'd turn out to be a charmer. But you just want me to make your favorite dishes for dinner," Alcemene said fondly and Iolaus felt that sorely missed thrill of pride and gratitude that came from knowing that she approved of him.
Behind the two adults, Hercules elbowed his Iolaus in the ribs. "Hey, are you flirting with my mom?"
"No, not you you, you him!"
The three cadets studied the adults. Alcemene certainly was laughing quite a lot . . . .
"This is getting just too creepy," Jason declared.
Hercules kept glaring at his friend.
"Don't look at me," Iolaus protested plaintively. "It's not my fault!"
Ares was getting bored.
He had searched most of Greece, scrying for that pulse of most intriguing power he had felt, and still nothing. He was seriously considering giving up and starting a war somewhere just to have something interesting to watch.
But war was forever. He could enjoy it any time he wanted. And this power might just give him a sorely needed edge in Olympus.
Oh, he knew what the others were saying about him. That he was obsessed. So busy tormenting his mortal half-brother Hercules that he was slacking off, letting the carnage business get sloppy. Such slander! Ares was a god! He was perfectly able to carefully orchestrate death and chaos and still have time for a little relaxing recreation.
Obsessed indeed. He was in complete control. He could give up prosecuting Hercules whenever he wanted. Cold turkey. Just like that. If he wanted to.
He didn't want to. Even a god needed hobbies.
Cheered by the thought, Ares returned to his scrying, promising himself that later he'd treat himself to thinking up something really nasty for his baby brother.
With a contented sigh, he turned his attention toward Corinth and Thebes.
Maybe he'd find something there.
It was nearing dusk when Alcemene finally ordered Iolaus out of the kitchen, laughing and condemning his cooking skills as even worse than those of his younger self. Young Iolaus, along with Jason, had already been sent into the barn to collect eggs and fresh milk as the only culinary enterprise they could reliably perform without injuring themselves.
Hercules was sitting outside on the wooden fence that would eventually become only a decoration after his addition of the huge stone wall around his mother's property. Behind him, the sky glowed with the last lights of sunset.
"A dinar for your thoughts," Iolaus offered, coming up to him.
With an effort that no one besides Iolaus would have noticed, Hercules blinked away whatever he had been thinking. From the mournful look on Herc's face, Iolaus could guess what it had been.
"Oh, uh, it's nothing. I was just thinking about some stuff," the young demigod said, trying to smile. He brushed away stray bangs that had fallen into his eyes. "That's a nice amulet."
Iolaus smiled, accepting the change in conversation and lightly touching the amulet with his fingers. "Yeah. Actually, it belonged to my father."
Hercules brightened a little. "So you mean you and he finally work things out?"
"Pretty much. Yeah, we did," Iolaus said, not bothering to mention that they had both been deceased and in Tartarus at the time.
"In case you were wondering," he added gently, "you and your dad do, too."
"I meet Zeus?" The tone of repressed excitement and hope in the cadet's voice made Iolaus once again burn with anger at the way Zeus had, did, would always, treat his favorite son.
The god didn't deserve a kid like Herc. He never had, and probably never would.
Hercules sat up straighter, face suddenly looking far too young and vulnerable in the closing night. "When do I? What's he? What happens, why do? Is it soon?"
"I think," Iolaus said carefully, for all he wanted to tell his friend everything and prepare him for what was to come, "that's something you should find out for yourself."
"Oh." Herc's expression sank in disappointment.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he said eventually. "But . . . when we do meet, whenever that is . . . will he like me?"
Iolaus looked at the boy who would become the strongest man, and best friend, he had ever known. Not just physical strength, but emotional; even now the cadet was filled with the compassion and kindness which his immortal family had never shown him.
"He'll be proud to have you as his son," Iolaus said gravely. "Just like he is right now."
For perhaps the first time that day, Hercules met Iolaus eye to eye.
"Thank you," said the cadet quietly.
Then he tilted his head to study Iolaus. "My mom's not alive in your time, is she?"
'Great Iolaus,' Iolaus thought to himself, 'give him a father and take away his mom.' Sometimes Herc was too observant for his own good.
"An illness, last year," he said aloud, feeling the loss even now. "You know . . . she was like a mother to me."
"It took me a long time to tell her that."
"I guess you thought you had time," Hercules said, still softly.
"Herc," Iolaus said emphatically, "she died with no regrets. She lives to see you become everything she knows you can be."
"I hope so," said Hercules, and they left it at that.
As Iolaus made a move to let the young half-god be alone, Herc suddenly said: "Hey Iolaus?"
Iolaus. Not old guy.
"I'm glad that, you know, in the future, we're still friends."
Iolaus grinned at the brother of his heart, thought about making a joke, but in the end simply replied: "Me too."
The dusk's half-light was creeping up around them now, half-shadowing Hercules' face, making his eyes turn dark.
"So, is being a hero hard?"
'Yes,' Iolaus thought. 'But you make a great one. And don't I wish I could tell you what's coming.'
But it wouldn't work. The Fates worked as they willed. Stopped one time, Hera would find another way to destroy Herc's family; Strife and Ares would have trapped Serena one way or another, and Iolaus knew that neither Deianeira nor Serena would have willingly chosen to keep their lives in exchange for never having met and loved Hercules.
Hercules' and Iolaus' past was past, and the cadets' futures were just starting, at once already scripted and perpetually unscripted. Iolaus didn't have the right or the ability to try to reshape them. Even if it might save the boy watching him so anxiously pain.
He couldn't say, don't be Hercules. The world needed Hercules. Iolaus needed Hercules. And Hercules needed to be Hercules; it was his destiny.
"You bring light into people's lives," he said aloud. "You brought it into mine and into hundreds of others. And you save Greece more times than I can remember. You're the hero of heroes."
"I do all that?" Herc looked half proud, half scared.
Iolaus shrugged modestly. "Well, I help with some of it."
There was another pause as Hercules absorbed this description of the future. Then: "Hey, Iolaus? Do I *really* run away from the 50 daughters of King Thespius?"
"You broke the known-world record for half-mile dash."
Chuckling softly, Iolaus went back into the house as Hercules, head filled with visions, slapped his forehead and asked the stars: "What was I thinking?!"
"Just in time," Alcemene smiled as Iolaus re-entered the kitchen. "You can help me take the dishes out to the table."
She handed him a stack of plates, then followed him into the dining area with glasses and cutlery.
"Did you and Hercules have a nice talk?" she asked. "He's been so quiet lately. Something must be bothering him."
Not much escaped Alcemene, especially where her son was concerned.
"It's just growing pains," Iolaus offered.
Alcemene sighed, suddenly looking almost old. "I know you can't tell us what's going to happen, but I look at him, at all of them . . . they're so young. And I know that so much is going to happen to them--" she broke off, then added simply, "I guess it's the mother in me. I just wish I could know he'll be allright."
"He'll be all right," Iolaus promised her. "He always is."
Alcemene smiled her thanks and squeezed his hand. "With you to help him, of course he will be."
She started to hand over a basket of bread for the table, then stopped and studied him with that familiar shrewdly kind gaze.
"What is it?" she asked.
Iolaus hesitated. "I just . . . Iolaus . . . I mean, he and I, we've never been good at expressing our, my, feelings. But I just hope you know what you mean to him--and me."
Placing her hand against his cheek, Alcemene smiled at her adopted son. "You may not have said it in words," she said, "but you've told me."
"Look at that!" Hercules yelped, nearly falling off the fence. "He's hugging my mom!"
"That's just sick," Jason said.
"It's not my fault!" Iolaus repeated.
"I'm going in there and breaking that up right now," Jason declared. Shouldering his bucket of milk, he headed quickly back to the house.
Instead of following, Iolaus placed his basket of eggs on the ground and joined his friend on the fence with a suddenly distracted look on his face.
The friends sat in silence as stars and moon added brightness to the deep blue of twilight.
"Nice night," Hercules said finally.
"I was talking to, you know, "you", earlier. He's a cool guy." Iolaus didn't seem thrilled to hear this news.
"That's what's bothering you, isn't it," Hercules suggested.
Iolaus made a face. "Sort of. It's just that yesterday it was like, what's going to happen tomorrow, will I get kicked out of the Academy, will Ares blow us all away--"
"Can you get a date," Hercules added, grinning.
"Well, yeah, but now I've suddenly got the next twenty years planned out!"
Iolaus looked so miserable at the thought, that Hercules grew serious as well.
"I know what you mean," he agreed. "It's a little frightening. But he says we're going to be famous heroes. We're going to save Greece."
"That's not us," Iolaus said unhappily.
"It will be."
When Iolaus didn't answer, Hercules continued slowly, "Actually, if you think about it, all we really know is that we're alive in the future. At least, in that future. I mean, who knows, maybe we'll do something different from what they did and our lives will end up totally different. You could still get kicked out."
Iolaus brightened. "You think so?"
"Sure! I mean, we've still got all the same decisions ahead of us and we still don't know which way we chose to get where we get in the future. You know? It's still shooting in the dark."
"Oh." Paradoxically, the idea that the future was still a complete mystery seemed to be really cheering Iolaus up. Of course, Iolaus' idea of thinking ahead was remembering to hold his nose as he jumped off a cliff into water that he couldn't swim.
Still, Hercules was beginning to understand why the older Iolaus hadn't wanted to tell him much about the future. It wasn't the warrior's future, it was theirs, based on their guesses and hopes right now. It was still all up to them.
The realization wasn't as frightening as it would have been a few days before. Hercules would meet his father, he would do his best, he would probably make a lot of mistakes but he would have his friends and himself to rely on, and it would all turn out. He would be the man he wanted to be. It would just take a little patience.
And as fun as it would be to become a famous hero, just hanging around the Academy and having a few laughs for a couple of years really wasn't so bad either.
"So we're big heroes, huh?" Iolaus said speculatively, apparently coming to the same conclusion as his friend.
"I guess a lot can happen in twenty years," Hercules agreed.
"Hmm. Hey, maybe I marry Kora!" Iolaus suggested, eyes lighting up. "You saw the natural chemistry between us."
Hercules scratched his eyebrow doubtfully. "I don't know, Iolaus, it's only twenty years. I don't think things can change that much!"
"So maybe I should start wearing an open vest, huh?" Iolaus twisted his shoulders, posing with dramatic machismo and growling to himself.
"Okay," Hercules said, wincing as he watched his friend's gyrations, "I'm going in the house now."
Abandoning his fashion decisions for the moment, Iolaus hopped off the fence as well and moved on to the next topic of importance.
"So Herc, when you hightail it away from those 50 daughters of King Thespius, do you think I get them?"
"Oh, I'm not running. No, no, no."
"You already did!"
Hercules adjusted his gauntlets and squared his shoulders. "This time around, there're gonna be some changes!"
"Okay, then how about we split half and half? Do you think we only get one night? Or--"
"Gentlemen," a familiar voice said suddenly. "And I use the term very loosely. Good evening."
The cadets groaned.
"Well, it was," Iolaus muttered disgustedly.
"Ares," Hercules ground out, moving a protective half a step in front of Iolaus.
Smirking, the god of war sauntered out of the darkness. He sniffed the air. "Smells good. Am I in time for dinner?"
"What do you want?" Hercules demanded.
Ares stepped a little closer and bent his head toward the cadets conspiratorially.
"It's a funny story, actually," the god of war related. "See, this morning I felt a disturbance in time and space, suggesting a weapon of great power that, of course, I want. And imagine my surprise when I tracked it down to you. I've got to tell you, it really made my day. So, hand it over and no one gets hurt. Much."
Hercules clenched his jaw. "I don't think so."
"Okay," Ares shrugged. "Option two: I still get the weapon, and everyone gets hurt. A lot. What do you say?"
"I think we need a plan C," Iolaus said. Then: "Wait, I've got it! Ready?"
"Uh, Iolaus, are you sure . . . ?"
Sheer surprise at their audacity stopped Ares from reacting. Hercules hit him around the waist and Iolaus came tumbling after, and god, half-god and mortal collapsed to the ground.
"Hey," Hercules panted, sitting on top of Ares, "that kind of worked."
Ares didn't give Iolaus time for any self-congratulations. Roaring in incoherent fury, the god of war sent a current of crackling energy outward that picked up the cadets and tossed them halfway across the yard, where they slammed back into the ground.
Flat on his back, Hercules tried to regain his breath.
"I take it back," he wheezed. "That was not a good plan!"
Iolaus levered himself up on his elbows, face smudged by its impact with the dirt. "Everyone's a critic."
"Working up an appetite yet, little brother?" Ares jeered.
Hercules flipped himself back to his feet and faced the god of war.
"Don't you have anything better to do?" he asked with mixed anger and incredulity.
Ares shrugged. "Actually, no."
Thrusting out a hand, the god sent another bolt of energy racing toward Hercules. The blast lit up the night, as bright and as deadly as a meteor. Hercules evaded it with a backhandspring, dodged a second with a series of flips, then faltered as he realized that the group in the Alcemene's house had noticed the outside commotion.
"Mother get ba--" he began.
Ares' third energy bolt caught him directly on the chest, flipping him backward. He hit the ground hard, wincing.
"Oh, did that hurt?" Ares asked with fake sympathy.
"I'll live," Hercules told him, getting to his knees and trying to push past the pain.
"I sincerely hope not," Ares said.
He struck again and hot fire wracked the cadet as the blast seemed to pound every atom of his body individually. Hercules fell back to the ground.
Ares advanced until he was nearly standing over his fallen half-brother.
"But," he continued conversationally, "since I can't hurt you, Zeus' orders, blah blah blah, I'll have to let that tree do it."
Ares snapped his finger. Suddenly a large pine loomed over the yard. If it fell, it would crush Hercules and they both knew that he couldn't move fast enough to avoid it.
"That tree," the god of war said smugly. He pointed his fingers at the tree's trunk.
Just as the god released his fatal blast, Iolaus swung around the broom handle he had grabbed and scooped Ares' feet out from under him. Ares went down in a surprised heap, his energy bolt soaring high into the sky.
Iolaus the younger and Jason were already scrambling up to help Hercules out of the danger zone as a small, extremely singed bird fell to the ground with a persecuted squawk.
Ares sprang back to his feet. "Who did that?" he thundered.
"I did," Iolaus stated, tensing himself for the inevitable conflict.
Ares, being a god, didn't age -- although this version had longer hair and those weird metal armor finger things. Unfortunately, his temper also stayed as bad as ever.
"And you are?" Ares demanded.
"They call me: Iolaus."
The god of war looked closer. His dark eyes narrowed.
"I see. My half-brother's irritating sidekick come back from the future with the Arm of the Moirai. I should have recognized the stupid hair."
"Hey!" both Iolausi objected.
"And what's with the boots?"
Forestalling Iolaus' indignant answer, Ares sighed dramatically. "You don't know how much it depresses me to think that you're still alive," he said.
"Funny, I'm pretty happy about it," Iolaus quipped.
"Well, start crying."
Suddenly, someone joined Iolaus in front of Ares.
"If you want him, you'll have to go through me," the younger Iolaus challenged.
"Two for the price of one? Okay," said Ares, and the two selves went flying.
"I hate it when he does that," Iolaus groaned as he hit the ground.
His younger self vigorously echoed the sentiment..
Ares flexed his fingers happily. "It's like this, kids," he said. "I want that Arm, and if it has the old guy's arm still in it, I don't really care. Get it?"
As Iolaus (who hadn't appreciated the old guy crack from a deity millennia old) readied himself for a one-on-one, Hercules' desperately trawling glance finally fell on the objects he needed.
Shrugging off Jason's support, he ran across the yard and picked up the weapon.
"Hey Ares," he called. "Hasn't anyone ever told you not to put all your eggs in one basket?"
The god of war swiveled.
"Excuse me?" he said. "Is that supposed to mean someth--"
The fresh-laid egg hit him directly on the forehead. Catching onto the plan, Jason had already scooped up a handful of eggs and launched one into Ares' chest by the time Herc's follow-up landed on the god of war's nose.
Egg dripping down his face and chest, Ares opened his mouth to howl his rage just as Hercules again wound up and let go. The egg fit perfectly inbetween the god of war's opened lips.
"HERCUL--urk?" Ares said as the egg struck home.
The two Iolausi took advantage of the god's momentary incapacitation to scramble over to the rest of the group.
"By the way," Iolaus said as he and his younger self caught the eggs Jason distributed, "thanks for the help back there."
The cadet Iolaus shrugged, but there was a new acceptance and approval in the movement. "I was just standing up for myself."
The selves shook hands. Happily, the universe didn't implode.
By now, even Alcemene was throwing, and proving herself to be a wickedly accurate shot. Eggs peppered Ares' clothes and slid down his hair.
"I never thought of Ares as an egg-head," Jason cracked, hurling more missiles.
"He's so mad that in a minute he's gonna lay an egg," Hercules agreed.
More eggs landed on the spluttering god of war.
"Herc, should we really be egging him on like this?"
The cadets thought for a moment, then nodded as one. "Definitely," they chorused.
Ares finally recovered from his shock. The egg rocketed out of his mouth and soared out of sight, although a distant yowl suggested it had collided with yet another innocent night creature.
"You DARE egg the god of war?" Ares thundered.
"Uh, oh. So what was the rest of our plan?" Jason asked Herc.
"Make him some pancakes and bacon?"
"Oh, great," Iolaus the younger complained.
"Hercules," said Alcemene reprovingly.
"How about we just charge him?" Jason suggested.
The other cadets shook their heads rapidly.
"Already tried it," young Iolaus explained. "Big ouch."
Ares was so boiling mad that the eggs were actually frying on him. "I'm going to blast someone," he roared, "so who wants some?"
Not waiting for an answer, he hurtled lightening at the group. Instinctively, Iolaus grabbed Herc's hands and ignoring the half-god's confused protests, swung him heels over head over Iolaus' own head.
The rest of the group scattered, and the energy crackled harmlessly through the space where Herc had been.
Hercules touched down on the other side of Iolaus and stared dizzily at the warrior.
"What was that about!?"
"I've always wanted to do that," Iolaus admitted happily.
Jason, Alcemene and cadet Iolaus had cautiously regrouped behind a wagon. By the time Hercules and Iolaus joined them, Iolaus had come up with his plan.
It was a risk, but since Ares' blast had opened the Arm at the temple, maybe another blast would do it again and send Iolaus back to his own time. It sounded more or less logical. More or less.
"I'm going to try something," he said. "If I disappear, it means it worked."
"What if it doesn't work?" Jason asked.
"Positive thinking," Iolaus muttered, more to himself than the others. He prepared to move.
"Iolaus!" Hercules said, stopping him. The young hero gave him a half-smile and stuck out his hand. "So I guess I'll see you later?"
Iolaus clasped the offered forearm.
"Count on it," he assured Herc. "Partner."
Jason also shook hands with him, saying: "It's been an experience."
"You'll be a great king, Jason. Take care of Corinth."
"Will do. Thanks."
Alcemene kissed him on the cheek. "Tell Hercules I love him," she whispered. "And get someone to fix those shoes of yours. They're really in dreadful condition."
"Thank you," he told her, and they both understood he meant the message for much more than her last motherly advice.
After hugging her one last time, Iolaus turned to his younger self and decided future be damned.
"Listen," he said urgently, "watch out for Amazons, and the She-Demon, and Hera's Enforcer, and -- this is really important -- don't go anywhere near S--"
"Excuse me? Why am I just standing here?" Ares bellowed. "Either someone comes out or I go in!"
Iolaus tipped his head toward the impatient god of war. "Guess I'd better be going."
"Bye," Hercules said simply.
Iolaus nodded, meeting his friend's young eyes one last time, then stood up and left the protection of the wagon.
"What was all that she-demon, enforcer stuff about?" Jason asked as Iolaus strode calmly out toward Ares.
Iolaus the younger shrugged. "Beats me."
"Maybe they're old girlfriends."
"I guess I'll just wait and see," the cadet said philosophically. "It's probably nothing important."
Iolaus stopped in front of Ares and regarded the seething and egg-speckled god of war.
"You know," he told Ares, "you've spent most of my life messing with me and my friend, and I'm getting really tired of it."
"I can fix that," Ares growled. A glowing energy ball appeared at his fingers. Iolaus didn't move.
"Hey, what's he doing?" Hercules asked worriedly.
The energy ball turned into a tiny pulsating tornado of malevolence.
"This isn't going to be pretty," Jason said.
Ares drew back his hand.
"Oh, bad," cadet Iolaus warned.
In the yard, Iolaus hadn't moved his eyes away from Ares.
"Sayonara, blondie!" the god of war roared and hurled his blast toward the warrior.
Iolaus' arm shot up. The energy slammed home.
The cadets flinched, fully expecting to watch the remains of Iolaus scatter to the ground.
But instead, they saw Ares' death ball hit the Arm of the Moirai, ricochet back, and hit Ares himself full on the chest. The god was hurled backward with the force of his own attack and landed in the top branches of the pine tree.
There was a discreet click and the Arm opened. Iolaus had time for a last wave, and then he was gone.
"This isn't over, little brother!" Ares yelled from his tree perch.
"Yeah yeah, big surprise," Herc muttered.
With a final glare, Ares and the tree disappeared in a flash of silver, and the night rolled smoothly back into place.
"Well," said Iolaus, "that was odd."
"Yeah, no offense, Iolaus " Jason said, "but one of you is more than enough!"
"I'll take that as a compliment," Iolaus said primly.
"Uh, mom," Hercules said suddenly. "You're probably wondering what that was all about."
"Why don't you tell me about it over dinner," Alcemene suggested.
The cadets' faces lit up with healthy appetite.
"Oh, man, I am so starved!" Iolaus exclaimed.
"So what else is new?" Jason joked.
"Do you know how much you've eaten today, Iolaus?" Hercules asked in true astonishment.
"What, hardly anything--"
Smiling to herself, Alcemene herded the cadets into the house and set about feeding her boys.
"--two bowls and Herc's, plus like all of Kora's--"
"Oh, excuse me, Mr. Crown Prince "All the Slop You Can Eat" of Corinth."
"That was not my fault!"
"Hey mom, are we going to have dessert?"
Yes, Alcemene thought contentedly to herself, growing up or not, she had the feeling that some things would never change. And she wouldn't have it any other way.
"Are you . . . tired . . . yet . . . ?" Ares gasped.
"I told you," Hercules said, breathing deeply, "I'm staying here . . . until Iolaus . . . gets back. . . ."
The half brothers had been fighting all day.
After hours of throwing lightening blasts, Ares was about ready to pass out. Hercules, mainly just having to duck and dodge, was doing a bit better but was definitely, although luckily not literally, feeling the burn.
Resignedly, Ares managed to get his hand up and tossed out a fairly pathetic spark of energy that died before it even reached Hercules.
"Leave or face the wrath of the god of war," he said weakly, his knees quivering.
"You're really obsessed. You know that, don't you?"
The air trembled.
"Wow, hey guys," Iolaus said brightly.
"Not him again," Ares groaned.
"Welcome back!" Hercules grinned wholeheartedly as his friend and partner came bounding over to where he stood. They clasped forearms happily.
"Thanks buddy! Hey, what do we do about this?"
Hercules took the still-open gauntlet and weighed it thoughtfully.
"That's mine!" Ares protested, leaning against the wall to keep from falling down.
The partners ignored him. Instead, Hercules motioned for Iolaus to follow him outside. Ares staggered determinedly after them.
Forest surrounded the secluded temple. Hercules stopped at a slender laurel tree.
"This should do it," he said pleasantly and without further ado, snapped the gauntlet closed around the tree.
"No---" Ares tried to yell, but it came out more a wheeze.
The tree shimmered for a second, then disappeared.
"So the tree just went back into the past?" Iolaus asked a little puzzledly.
"Where it'll just be a seedling. As it grows, bark will cover the gauntlet," Hercules explained. "The Arm will be safe for another twenty years, until Ares finds it."
"When we'll rescue it again and put it back on the tree and so on--"
"And so on," Hercules agreed. "That's the idea. It should be safe forever."
Iolaus considered this. "Cool," he decided.
"This . . .isn't . . . ove--" Ares panted, then fell over.
"So Herc, wait til I tell you where I was all day," Iolaus said excitedly as they walked away from the exhausted god of war.
"Iolaus," Hercules reminded him, "I was there, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Weird."
"Speaking of which, I can't believe you didn't tell me that Jason ended up marrying Alcemene."
"Oh come on, you would've broken his neck!"
"And those 50 daughters of Thespius--"
"I can't believe you still ran away from them."
"I was being a gentleman."
"And I can't believe I wasn't there to pick up the slack!"
Iolaus sighed deeply, then his eyes lit up again. "Hey, what do you say we try to track down Kora? You know, just to say hello."
"What? Oh, and Herc, can we stop at a cobbler's in the next village? I've really got to do something about these boots. And dinner! I feel like I haven't eaten in twenty years!"
"Iolaus, it's good to have you back."
Twenty Years Earlier:
After dinner, explanations, dessert and dish-washing, Iolaus dug out an old bagball and suggested a game. The moon was bright enough that it would be easy to see.
"I don't know, Iolaus," Hercules hedged. "We should probably study."
"Yeah, we've got that quiz tomorrow," Jason reminded him.
"Don't bother me with trifles," Iolaus said loftily. "Live for the moment, say I."
Jason shook his head. "I can't believe you. Is that all you've learned from today? I mean, aren't you ever going to think about the future?"
"What's the point?" Iolaus shrugged. "It's going to happen one way or another. And who's to say that we aren't supposed to play a ballgame right now. Right Herc?"
He bounced the ball temptingly.
"What?" Hercules had been thinking about other things. But not the worries and impatience that had been haunting him of late. He had simply been savoring the moment and the sweet anticipation of such moments to come.
"Oh, yeah, why not?" he said, surprising himself as well as Jason. "What happens, happens, you know?"
"See, he's learning!" Iolaus said proudly.
"Actually," said the demigod, arching an eyebrow, "I already know what the future holds in store. It's you two, eating my dust to the goal."
Reaching out, he snared the ball from Iolaus. Jason charged, Iolaus blocked, Hercules rushed, and the game was on as the night softly fell back, and revealed the new day.