As befit the yearly celebration of Aphrodite's Day, it was a blue-skyed, sweet-breezed day in Greece. All over the country candies were being delivered, flowers bashfully presented, cards hopefully sent and happily received. And nowhere was the romantic bug more evident than at Cheiron's Academy.
The only problem was that for those cadets who didn't already have childhood sweethearts in their home villages, the Academy didn't offer many chances for romance.
Of course, there were the occasional maidens who had needed the help of a cadet, and in the ensuing action, had developed certain tender feelings before needing to move on. More than one sigh was issued in quiet contemplation of these special women.
And there were the Amazons. But they weren't exactly the types for 'I'm thinking of you' cards.
Or were they? Hercules wondered. It had been a while since he had seen Cyane, the Amazon leader. Maybe she wouldn't remember him. Well, no, that was stupid, of course she'd remember him, he had helped save her from slavery, and had stopped a war between her tribe and the centaurs, and, um, she had kissed him, or at least had been about to until Iolaus showed up. Someday Hercules privately swore, he would pay Iolaus back for that demonstration of terrible timing.
But that could wait. Would have to wait, cause Iolaus wasn't having much luck with girls lately.
Not that Hercules was. But yes, there was Cyane. And Nemesis, she had seemed to like him -- but who knew how to send a card to a goddess?
Hercules turned the Aphrodite's Day scroll over in his hands.
As always, thoughts of far away crushes summoned more bitter sweet memories. But even if Eurydice was still alive, if Bacchus hadn't killed her . . . ::you mean if she hadn't died saving you:: . . . even then, would Hercules have been able to send her something? Could she have ever really left Orpheus? Maybe . . . . but there was no point wondering now.
With an effort, Hercules turned his thoughts back to the matter at hand, which was --
Caught by surprise, Hercules hastily shoved his card behind his back. For someone who constantly seemed like he was on the verge of tripping over something, Iolaus could walk damn quietly when he wanted to.
"Oh, Iolaus," he said as innocently as he could. "Hi."
Iolaus gave him a measuring look that Hercules was pretty sure the blond cadet had picked up from Herc's own mother. Of course, usually Alcemene was directing the look at Iolaus while he tried to explain how the broken barn ladder was in no way connected to 'battle' he and Hercules had waged that the morning, or why it wasn't their fault that they were covered in mud and tracking it into Alcemene's newly cleaned house.
"Come on, Herc," Iolaus said, obviously intrigued by anything that could make Hercules blush. "What're you hiding something behind your back?"
"I am n--Iolaus, give that back!"
But Iolaus had already darted around Hercules and grabbed the card. Without pause, he neatly leapt a balance beam and, keeping the obstruction between him and the irate and embarrassed half-god, proceeded to read the contents of the scroll in a sing-songy voice.
"'Roses are red/Violets are blue./Sugar is sweet/And so are y--'"
"All right, all right," Hercules cut him off sheepishly. "It's just something I thought up, okay? I was thinking of sending it to, um, Cyane . . ."
"CyANE?" Iolaus peered disbelievingly at his friend. "Like as in Amazon queen Cyane? Amazon 'haters of mushy romantic stuff'? I dunno, Herc . . . Maybe you should send her a sword or something instead. "
"Iolaus, that's just being stereotypical," Hercules argued, ignoring that he had been thinking the same thoughts only moments before. "Why should all Amazons hate poetry?"
He sudden made a lunge for his card, swinging over the balance beam, but Iolaus was ready for the move and had alread rolled below the beam to the other side.
"First of all--" Iolaus stood up and waved the scroll dismissively. "You call this poetry?"
"This is exactly why I didn't want to show you this--"
"And second of all: you're used to the girls who just laugh. Who knows what Amazons might do? Cyane might get out a really sharp knife and--"
"Okay, o-KAY." Regretfully, Hercules gave in. "It was probably a dumb idea anyhow."
"Kind of a catchy poem, though," Iolaus added thoughtfully, perhaps noticing his friend's disappointment and wanting to move on to other topics. "Maybe Kora would like it."
If Iolaus had been looking for a reaction, he certainly got it.
"Oh, hold on!" Hercules protested.
Cyane was a great person, but she lived far away. Kora, on the other hand, was very much close by. And very much beautiful, not to mention available. And interested . . .well, okay maybe 'interested' wasn't exactly the right word. 'Uninterested' would be more technically correct. At least so far. But anything could happen on Aphrodite's Day.
"Iolaus, that's my poem!" he reminded the blond cadet possessively.
"I don't see your copyright on it," Iolaus countered, displaying the kind of anti-logic that had gotten him into some pretty sticky situations, and had gotten him out of even more.
"If anyone's going to give that to Kora, it's going to be me."
"Not if I get to Kora's first."
With a wicked smile, Iolaus began backing up toward the door to the training room, waving the now rather crumpled card tantalizingly.
"Iolaus," Hercules began sternly, "I spent a lot of time on th--Iolaus! Hey! Wait up . . . !"
Abruptly, the halls of the Academy echoed with the sound of two pairs of feet running for Kora's.
Although it was peak breakfast hour, Kora's Inn was jam-packed with cadets who didn't want to buy any food. They wanted to give Kora flowers and candy and to recite poems at her. But nothing that would actually help her business.
It had seemed like such a good idea to open a restaurant by the Academy, which was stuck in the middle of nowhere, although by a highly used road to Corinth. She had simply thought of the cadets as guaranteed business. She hadn't considered that they'd mostly spend all their time hanging around nursing a cup of water for hours.
And this. She definitely hadn't considered this.
Kora accepted another bouquet with a not-quite-polite smile and threw it behind her with the others. There was getting to be quite a collection. It was ridiculous.
Oh, Kora knew it wasn't really her. It was simply that once you took away long-distance relationships, Amazons, and travellers, the Academy's narrow social circle contained only two females. And Lilith seemed to be firmly ranked as a cadet, not a girl, and so she certainly didn't count.
Which left Kora. Much to her irritation and a little to her heartache. Because she was a devotee of Artimis and as long as she was sworn to follow the virgin-huntress, Kora could not allow herself to become emotionally involved with anyone. No matter how cute, or sweet, or persistant he was.
At any rate, she'd probably have to stab Iolaus to get him to stop flirting with her, and even then Hercules would probably see it as a sign of encouragement for him.
Hercules and Iolaus. Kora had to admit to herself that the two cadets, and also Jason of Corinth, were different. The other cadets were okay in a dim-witted, hit-anything-that-moves-and-brag-about-it kind of way, but there was something special about those three. As much as she tried not to, she liked them.
But not like that. Never like that.
All in all, Aphrodite's Day wasn't her favorite time of year.
Sitting alone at the counter at Kora's, Lilith was thinking much the same thing, for entirely different reasons.
It wasn't that she was upset that she didn't have a boyfriend or anything stupid and girly like that. She was perfectly happy with her life the way it was. She was training hard, doing what she loved. Better yet, the other cadets were finally accepting her as a real warrior.
Which meant that everyone had decided to ignore that she was also a female. But it wasn't like there was anyone that she would rather saw her as both a warrior and a girl, was there?
Well . . . a tiny treacherous voice began to whisper in her mind. She firmly and unconsciously squashed it down.
That 'mushroom picking' escapade with Ares in the cavern had knocked down a lot of the reserve between her and Hercules, and once Hercules was more friendly, Jason and Iolaus had quickly followed, and after them most of the others in the Academy. And for her part, Lilith felt more accepted and less like she had to shove a major attitude into everyone's face to get taken serioiusly.
Things were going great. So who needed little cute cards and all that soppy stuff?
No, it wasn't really that. It wasn't. It was just . . . Kora.
Lilith didn't have anything against the innkeeper, and Zeus knew Kora never did anything to encourage the cadets, but still . . . . who would believe the way all the guys at the Academy were spending the whole morning drooling over her? And had spent the entire week planning to drool? Writing poems? Making cards? Necko had even spent all night a few days ago chisling little romantic slogans into some candy hearts.
And Hercules and Iolaus were absolutely the worst. Didn't they have anything better to do? Any sense of dignity? At least Jason was in Corinth for the week so she wouldn't have to watch him join the ranks of the lovesick. She wasn't quite sure why that was a relief, but it was.
It wasn't jealousy, she told herself firmly, it was just that why did Aphrodite's Day turn guys into such complete meatheads?
Her only answer was a commotion at the door.
Iolaus had reached the inn a split-second before Hercules, but his attempt at a suave entrance was spoiled when the half-god stuck out a foot and tripped him.
Iolaus went down with a muffled yelp and Hercules stepped neatly over the body of his fallen friend and sauntered into the inn. He was wearing the subtle but pervasive smirk that Lilith had learned usually meant he was 'on the prowl'.
Boys. Unbelievable. Now she really was starting to feel sorry for Kora.
Hercules caught Lilith's eye and angled toward her.
"Hey Lilith," he hailed her, "Have you, uh, seen Kora anywhere?"
A touch of embarrassment replaced the smirk as Lilith glared at him.
"Don't tell me," she said testily, "More Aphrodite's Day gifts?"
"You mean she's gotten a lot already?" Hercules asked a little worriedly.
Lilith sniffed. "Look for yourself."
Hercules turned in the direction Lilith pointed and saw it was true. Kora was leaning on the counter with a glazed expression on her face, while Bironeus recited something with lots of dramatic gestures. Behind the innkeeper lay a large fluffy pile of pink ribbon and wrapping, from which flowers, the edges of cards and candy boxes peeked out like drowning men.
"She walks in beauty, like the night," Bironeus described fervently, "of cloudless climes and starry skies . . . ."
"Ah, I'm touched," Kora said impatiently, adding: "Oh? There's more? How nice."
"What does 'climes' mean?" Iolaus asked curiously, dusting himself off.
"It means you can tell her the poem," Herc replied immediately.
But Iolaus had also figured out that in the hierarchy of immortal love sonnets, 'roses are red' just wasn't going to cut it.
"No way am I going to say that stupid poem," he declared.
"It's not a stupid poem," Hercules said, a little hurt. "And it's a lot harder to rhyme 'you' than people might think!"
Iolaus tossed the card to Herc, smoothed back his hair, then pulled a crisp scroll tied with in an elaborate bow out of the back of his belt.
"Luckily," he said smugly, "I made arrangements of my own."
"You wrote a poem," Hercules said disbelievingly. "You."
Now it was Herc's turn to smile. Iolaus took a step backward to preserve his card from the fate the half-god's poem had met, but Hercules was simply pulling something from his own belt. It was a single red rose.
"I had a back-up plan myself," Hercules explained with a trace of his smirk returning.
Covertly measuring up each other's gifts, the two cadets made their way to the counter and Kora, who was just bidding Bironeus a firm goodbye.
Her fake smile dropped when she saw Hercules and Iolaus.
"Oh, not you too."
"We won't take up much of your time," Hercules hastened to assure her.
"Yeah, I just wanted you to know that I'm thinking of you," Iolaus said sweetly, handing over his scroll.
"Almost as much as I am," Hercules added smoothly, giving the blond cadet a short, searing look before turning his most charming smile toward the innkeeper.
Hercules started to flourish his rose, but before Kora could respond, a delivery boy strode up to the counter, his arms so full of roses that even his face was obscured by red petals and green leaves.
"Flowers for Kora," he announced and dumped the roses onto the counter. Herc's flower, as well as most of his arm, was obliterated under the floral cascade.
Hercules thought he heard a snicker from Lilith's direction.
"Sent with warmest regards from Jason, Crown Prince of Corinth," the messenger announced grandiosely.
The snickering stopped abruptly, but Hercules wasn't paying attention.
"Trust Mr. Crown Prince to show us all up," Iolaus muttered.
"Please tell the crown prince thank you," Kora told him the delivery boy . "He shouldn't have. He really shouldn't have."
"Um," Hercules said, for once wishing that Ares would come in and break this up, "So, I, uh, got you one, too."
Half apologetically, half gallantly, he extracted his lone rose from the glistening mound of flowers and held it out to the innkeeper.
Kora accepted the rose, as she had Iolaus' card, with perhaps a trifle more graciousness than she had shown toward the other gifts.
"Thank you both," she said in a tone that lacked her customary hard edge. "This is sweet. Stupid, but sweet."
Her smile faded as theirs grew. "Now go away," she added brusquely. "Some of us have an inn to run."
And some people had mischief to make. Currently, they were hatching a plan that would leave Ares, god of war and sworn enemy of his half brother Hercules, very, very happy.
"Did you hear that?" Iolaus said excitedly as he and Hercules obediently left the counter to find a table. "She called me sweet."
"No," Hercules corrected, swinging his long legs over a chair, "I believe what she called you was stupid. She called me sweet."
Iolaus plunked himself into his own seat. "Oh, I beg to differ!"
"Beg all you want, you can't change facts."
"Facts? You want to talk facts--"
In the table next to the arguing cadets, two hooded figures that only Hercules could have seen (if he had been paying attention), exchanged wickedly satisified looks.
"Did you hear that?" the taller one giggled. "They wanted to beg."
The smaller figure smiled like like a dagger being drawn.
"I think we can arrange that," said Discord.
The goddess held up a small, nondescript bag and eyed it approvingly. "Once we dose Hercules with this love dust I stole from Aphrodite, he'll beg allright. He'll beg to do anything I want him to."
"Like jump off a cliff?" Strife suggested, pale eyes gleaming manically.
"Or walk into the heart of a volcano," Discord agreed malovently. "He'll be so in love with me that he'll do anything to make me happy."
"He'll be dying to do it!" Strife growled happily. Suddenly, his face went from estatic to grave as quickly as a rubber band snapping. "But are we sure it works on half-gods?"
Discord sighed impatiently. "I told you, it works on everybody, including full gods, so be careful. The last thing I need is to explain to Ares why you're suddenly in love with a chair or something."
"Hey, stay cool, I can handle," Strife assured her, squaring his shoulders. "I just walk up, give Hercola a pinch of love potion number IX, stand back, and let your face do the rest."
("Who does she talk to more often?" Iolaus demanded, immediately answering: "Yes, that's right: me!"
"Only cause you work for her so she has to tell you what to do--")
Discord thrust the bag into the god's pale hands.
"So what are you waiting for?"
Strife licked his lips in anticipation, then rose to his feet, loosening the bag's drawstring pouch. Like a malevolant scarecrow, he turned toward the table where Hercules and Iolaus sat.
"--don't believe me?" Iolaus was saying. "Fine, we'll ask Lilith. Hey Lilith!"
Beckoning for the cadet to join them, Iolaus stood up just as Strife reached the table. His foot caught the end of the god's cloak, pinning it to the ground. Abruptly pulled up short, Strife stumbled and plunged helplessly across the table in front of Hercules.
A brief puff of dust, glittering like crushed diamonds, spun into the air betwen the god and half-god.
"Oh no," Strife groaned.
"Idiot!" Discord snarled and disappeared in an angry flash.
"Wha--" Hercules began, blinking rapidly as the dust sunk in.
"No protests," Iolaus said sternly, unaware that anything out of the ordinary had occured. Since Strife was using a god's perogrative of invisibility to mortals, it simply looked like Hercules had petulantly kicked the table.
Hercules sneezed and rubbed his eyes. Next to him, Strife did the same.
Their eyes flickered open, landing on the new but now eternal object of their inexpressably, uncontrollable desire. . . . .
"You called?" Lilith asked ironically.
Hercules and Strife stared at her.
"Oh, Lilith, good," Iolaus said.
God and half-god drank in the form and features of the woman who far outstripped Helen of Troy and left Aphrodite herself coughing in the dust.
"Lilith," Hercules breathed.
"Lilith," Strife purred.
"Lillllithhh," Herc repeated.
Lilith just looked bewildered.
"What?" she said uncertainly. "Do I have food caught in my teeth?"
The situation came to a head shortly before lunch. Hercules (who hadn't even noticed when Strife disappeared, muttering something about getting cleaned up) spent all of the morning class trying to covertly gape at Lilith while pretending to pay attention to Cheiron's explanation of battle tactics.
The result was that Iolaus, confused at his friend's behavior, also spent most of the period studying her. She seemed like the same old Lilith to him. Lilith herself spent the last half of class completely convinced that the two friends were planning to pull one of their infamous practical jokes on her.
"Hey, Lilith--" Hercules began as the class broke up, but she was talking to Cheiron about one of the maneuvers the half-god hadn't been able to concentrate on.
Waiting for her outside of the classroom, Hercules leaned against the wall, face pressed against the cool surface, and sighed deeply.
"So, lunch awaits!" Iolaus announced beside him, rubbing his hands in anticipation.
Hercules didn't move.
"I'm not really hungry," he mumbled.
Iolaus shook his head and clucked his tongue. "Uh oh, this sounds serious. Who is she?"
Hercules blinked slowly, apparently finally noticing that Iolaus was actually there.
"Come on," Iolaus prodded. "I know that look."
"I don't have a look," Hercules protested, straightening self-consciously.
"Yes, you do," Iolaus insisted. "It's that puppy-dog-eyed, pathetic sighing look you always get when you're thinking about a girl. Yeah, that one. So come on, spill, what's her name and does she have any sisters?"
Caught, Hercules glared at his friend.
"You're shrewd, I'll give you that much," he accused.
Iolaus folded his arms and waited expectantly.
"Okay," Hercules capitulated. "Now this is gonna sound weird and even I'm not sure how it happened, but--" he lapsed back into his puppy-dog-eye-sighing-look. "I am just head over heels with Lilith!"
He couldn't have gotten a bigger reaction if he had told Iolaus he was eloping with Discord.
"*Lilith*?!" Iolaus looked truly flabbergasted. "Herc, that is beyond weird and into mentally unsound. Lilith is a cadet!"
"I know," Hercules moaned, clutching his heart, "but ever since this morning at Kora's, I haven't been able to stop thinking about her. Her eyes, her hair, her--"
"Hey, guys. What're you talking about?" Lilith asked, approaching the pair suspiciously.
"Funnily enough," Iolaus said blithely, "we were talking about hhrugnkah."
Hercules withdrew his elbow from Iolaus' ribcage and smiled ingratiatingly at Lilith.
"What was that?" Lilith asked as Iolaus wheezed in the background.
"What? Oh, nothing," Hercules simpered. "You know, it wasn't really even a "talk", it was just sort of words spewing out without purpose."
"Oh. You mean like you're doing now?"
Hercules laughed brightly, then: "Here's a thought. I was just going to Kora's for lunch. Do you want to come? With me?"
"But I thought ow!," Iolaus said and rubbed the foot that Hercules had just stomped on.
Recovering themselves, the two cadets smiled innocently at Lilith.
"You guys," she chided with a knowing smile. "Don't think I don't know what's going on."
"What do you mean?" Hercules said anxiously.
"You're planning to pull some joke on me, right? Well, forget it. I am got going to walk right into it."
"Lilith," Hercules said earnestly, "I will never again play a practical joke on you, I swear on my honor as," he raised his voice a little ostentatiously, "A Son Of Zeus."
"She knows who your father is, Herc," Iolaus reminded his lovesick friend in a pointed whisper.
"Shush," Herc demanded, his gaze never leaving Lilith, his smile never wavering.
Lilith hesitated, scrutinizing the cadets, then shrugged. "Okay, let's go. I'm starved."
"Finally," Iolaus muttered.
But Hercules was already holding out his hand to bar Iolaus' progress. He might not have paid attention in class today, but Hercules knew a thing or two about strategy. And while there were many times when it was great to have Iolaus present, this wasn't going to be one of them.
"Unfortunately, Iolaus won't be able to join us," he stated.
"No." Hercules sent a pleading look toward Iolaus and hinted: "Because you've got that thing?"
"Oh, right," Iolaus said with reluctant loyalty. "That thing. *That* thing. That *thing*."
Lilith looked at the boys with somewhat renewed suspicions. "Iolaus, since when do you skip a meal for anything?"
Iolaus offered her his patented 'who, me, officer?' smile.
"Um, since I had this thing (Herc, you owe me) have a nice time!"
"Thanks," Lilith said dubiously. Then taking Hercules' offered arm, she and the besotted half-god headed down the hall.
As Iolaus waved the couple on, idly contemplating the unexpected sacrifice of having to eat lunch in the Academy mess hall, a tall man swathed in a heavy cloak and cowl that hid his face, suddenly addressed him.
Strange. Iolaus could have sworn he hadn't heard anybody walk up. But here the guy was.
"Excuse me," the stranger said with an curious air of politeness, "do you know where I can find the lovely Lilith?"
::What is it with Lilith today?:: Iolaus wondered. She didn't wear perfume, but maybe she had changed her shampoo or something.
"Yeah," he replied puzzledly, "she just left for Kora's."
"No, with Hercules. Why?"
The stranger tensed as if he had just been struck by lightening.
"Hercules," he hissed to himself. "So he got there before me."
There was something naggingly familiar about this strange stranger. Iolaus tried to peer around the heavy hood to see the man's face.
"Do I know you?" he asked suspiciously.
The stranger immediately drew back, pulling his hood even further down over his features.
"No, no," Strife said hurriedly, "just passing through. Hey, look over there!"
"Why?" Iolaus asked, not moving.
The god thought fast. "Isn't that Ares, god of war?!"
That got Iolaus' attention and he swiveled, crouching and ready for action. But there was no one there.
Relaxing, the cadet turned back to tell the stranger just how unfunny that joke had been. But he was surprised to find that he was once again alone in the corridor. Huh. That was one fast-moving mysterious cloaked guy.
Oh well. Dinner beckoned. Squaring his shoulders resolutely, Iolaus headed toward the dining hall and the dread, badly cooked, fate that awaited him there. Idly, he wondered how Herc was faring with the new woman of his dreams.
They'd better be hitting it off, cause judging by the smell coming from the dining hall, Hercules owed him big-time.
"Mm, this is sooo good," Lilith said around a mouthful of spanikopita, "are you sure you don't want anything?"
Hercules didn't answer.
The half-god just kept looking at her with the weirdest expression on his face. It reminded her of the puppy she had had when she was a kid.
And he hadn't even glanced at Kora, even when they had ordered. Weird.
"Hey man, what's with you today?" she asked playfully, hitting him on the shoulder.
Her touch snapped Hercules out of his reverie.
"Lilith, can I ask you something?" he said a little hesitantly.
Hercules didn't answer right away, but after a deep breath, he began.
"Lilith," he said earnestly, "have you ever known a person for a really long time, and then suddenly woken up and realized that you've never really seen them, I mean like really seen them, before?"
A subtle tremor of shock ran through Lilith before she realized what was up.
"Ohhhh," she said knowingly. "So that's what you and Iolaus were cooking up, huh? A little Aphrodite's Day joke? Well, very funny."
Hercules didn't crack a smile. Gradually, Lilith's own expression changed.
"Wait," she said slowly. "You're serious?"
"I have never been more serious."
There wasn't a hint of humor in the half-god's face.
Oh gods. A horrible realization besieged and conquered Lilith. The way Hercules had been staring at her, what he was saying, the way he had been subtly but inevitably scooting closer and closer to her as he spoke. Oh GODS.
"Hercules," Lilith said in the same tone of dread in which she might ask someone to confirm that the enemy troops had just taken the village, "you can't be saying what I think you're saying."
Hercules swooped his arm around her and gazed passionately into her stunned eyes.
"Lilith," Herc admitted. "I think I love you."
In a moment like this, it could have been difficult to sum up the tumultuous feelings such a pledge created, but for Lilith it was quite easy.
She pushed out of his arms.
"NO. You DON'T," she commanded, scooting to the edge of the bench.
He followed her desperately.
"Lilith, I know this is a little sudden--"
"A little sudden! Hercules, this is more than a little sudden. It's impossible!"
Dimly, Lilith realized that everyone in the inn was staring at them. This couldn't be happening . . . .
Suddenly, Hercules was kneeling at her feet saying . . . Aphrodite be cursed, he wasn't really saying . . . was he?
"Lilith, will you do me the honor of accepting my hand in marriage?"
Lilith thought she heard the tray Kora had been holding clatter to the ground at the half-god's words, and Lilith's own stomach did the same.
Maybe she was sleeping. If only this was just a dream! A really bad bad dream . . .
As calmly as she could, she pulled Hercules to his feet and confronted him.
"Hercules, I'm so flattered -- and a little creeped out ," she said slowly, "but I just don't think of you that way. We're pals, buddies. That relationship is so important to me, and I don't want to change it."
Hercules looked so stricken that she almost cried, but before the scene could get any worse, someone interrupted.
"YESSSSSS!" Strife shouted, appearing in a slower of sparks. He had shed his usual safety-pinned black outfit and was clad in a shiny red shirt open to the navel and silver pants.
On the other hand, maybe things could get worse after all.
"It's cool, baby," the god murmured, draping an arm around Lilith. "You've made the right choice. Let's go to my place and I'll show you my hieroglyphs."
"Excuse me?!" Lilith said, astonished.
Hercules' eyes snapped rage at Strife.
"Strife! I might have known," he snarled. "You stay away from her."
Lilith had never seen Hercules so instantly furious. It scared her even more than his professions of love.
Strife, on the other hand, didn't seem impressed.
"Nonsense my boy," he said cooly, delicately smoothing down one eyebrow. "It's a clear matter of superiority winning out. Who doesn't want to be on the winning team?"
"Team?" Lilith echoed blankly.
"She's a girl with taste," Strife taunted.
"Um, am I missing something here?"
"Lilith, you can't be serious about marrying Strife!" Hercules appealed to her.
Lilith gaped. How much weirder could this get?!
"No duh!" she exclaimed. "Take a reality pill, I am not marrying Strife!"
"But I could make you so happy!" Strife wailed.
Hercules brightened. "Then you do love me?"
"No! You're my friend. I mean, you and me, ewww."
Strife struck a pose that looked half like he was about to attack and half like he had just stubbed his toe.
"You heard her, she's mine," he declared.
"Excuse me, do I look like a buy-a-bride?" Lilith yelled.
"I think there's only one way to solve this, Strife," Hercules said stiffly.
Strife's eyes glinted. "A duel?"
"To the death at sunrise!" the god added.
Hercules nodded shortly. "I'll be ready and waiting."
"What are you two talking about?" Lilith tried again. "Hercules, have you gone suicidal?"
Still ignoring her, Hercules and Strife shook hands with intense formality.
Strife grabbed Lilith's hand and kissed it noisily before she could pry it loose from his grip.
"Until tomorrow, my cupcake," he said, and disappeared.
The customers at the inn, apparently deciding that they had been watching a new cabaret show, burst into appreciative applause.
Vigorously wiping her hand on her pants, Lilith rounded on Hercules.
"What in Tarterus was all that about?" she demanded.
Hercules cupped his hands around her face. "Don't worry, I won't let Strife lay a finger on you."
"On me? Hercules, you just challenged Strife to a duel to the death! That means Zeus' protection order doesn't count. It's not me who's in trouble here, it's you!"
Kora came rushing up.
"Hercules, are you crazy?" she demanded without preamble.
"Oh, just because he likes me now you think he must be crazy?" Lilith asked, eyes narrowing.
"I'd rather die for my love than live forever," Hercules declared passionately.
Lilith stared at him.
"Are you crazy?!" she exploded, pique forgotten.
"How could anyone be crazy for loving you?"
Stumped, Lilith met Kora's equally astonished eyes and found no help there. Clearly, the innkeeper had as little clue as Lilith about what was going on here.
"Hercules--" she began.
"I've handled Strife before," he reminded Lilith tenderly.
"Not like this!" Kora snapped, anxiety threatening to crack her famous cool.
"By tomorrow," Hercules swore, taking Lilith's hand, "this will all be over. I promise you."
Lilith watched him stride determinedly out of the inn and thought to herself ::Yeah it'll be over. Because you'll be dead.::
And the worst part was that she didn't have any idea how to stop it from happening.
Iolaus entered the inn just moments after Hercules' dramatic departure.
The lure of Kora's cooking had gotten the better of him when confronted by the offerings at the Academy. He'd happily fight off a griffin or two for Herc, but eat boiled cabbage? There were some things a man just couldn't do.
Lilith and Kora accosted him the moment he stepped inside the building, demanding to know what was going on with Hercules. In return, they told him the staggering events of the last few minutes.
"So Herc's going one-on-one with Strife?"
"To the death," Kora confirmed grimly.
"We've got to stop him!"
Lilith shook her head. "Yeah, but how? Even if we tie him up so he can't duel, it'll just make it that much easier for Strife. Strife's a god. There's no way we can hide Hercules, or protect him."
Iolaus looked as serious as either of the girls had ever seen him.
"Let me get this straight. Both Herc and Strife are madly in love with you?" he said at last. "No offense, Lil, but there's gotta be something weird going on here."
Lilith had figured that much out for herself.
"You know," she admitted to Kora, "sometimes I've been envious of you, you know, the way everybody pays you so much attention. But this is crazy! It's like the gods have put some kind of curse on me!"
Iolaus suddenly snapped his fingers. "Maybe they did!"
Iolaus was moving toward the table where the cadets had breakfasted. "Herc has been whacko ever since this morning, right? And apparently so has Strife. And where there's Strife--"
"There's Discord," Lilith finished, beginning to understand.
It was a good idea. Iolaus had quite a mind for strategy, although the way he avoided homework like the plague and continually joked around, it was easy to forget just how smart he was. But no one could fail to see his dedication to his friend.
The question was, would knowing who did whatever Discord had done give them the key to what had happened and how it could be stopped?
It was Kora who had spoken, and now the innkeeper dropped to her knees to fish out a small leather bag out of the space between a table leg and the wall.
"What is it?" Lilith asked eagerly.
Kora sniffed at the bag, and sudden understanding dawned across her features. "It's a love potion," she announced.
"Love potion!" Lilith and Iolaus repeated incredulously.
"And a very potent one. Really more like an obsession potion."
"How can you tell?" Iolaus asked.
Lilith wasn't sure, but Kora seemed to hesitate and almost blushed.
"Uh, someone once taught me how to recognize them," the innkeeper said diffidently, not wanting to reveal her close association with Artemis.
Then she smiled, not her usual cold, shielded smile, but a pleased, sly one as she added: "And how to make the antidote."
"Thanks the gods!" Lilith said with complete sincerity. She had meant what she had said to Hercules about being happy with his friendship and not wanting to complicate matters. And as for Strife! As if!
"So we unenchant Herc before he and Strife fight and everything's back to normal," Iolaus said happily.
"Can we make the antidote before tomorrow morning?" Lilith asked.
Kora nodded. "If we hurry."
She raised her voice. "Okay, everybody" she announced. "Kora's is closing early, so you'll have to leave."
The customers groaned and protested.
Iolaus watched their slow progress impatiently and decided to take matters into his own hands.
"FIRE!" he hollered.
Immediately, the customers stampeded. In moments, the inn was empty save for the glaring innkeeper and the two cadets.
"All right," Iolaus said simply, "let's get to work."
Discord watched the trio set about collecting ingredients and smiled to herself. Stop the duel? It wasn't going to happen. Not if she had anything to do with it.
Sure, things hadn't gone exactly to plan. She had been a fool to involve Strife in the first place, but she had wanted someone to pin the blame on if Aphrodite ever figured out where her love dust had disappeared to.
However, having Strife kill Hercules in a duel was good enough. Not quite as fun as having Zeus' goody goody son hopelessly in love with her would have been. He really was a cute little innocent. But as long as he ended up dead, she would be satisfied.
And Ares would be so grateful that her place as second-in-command of War would be guaranteed. And then one day when he got sloppy . . . .
Goddess of War. It sounded good.
So, no way was she going to let these irritating mortals ruins her plans again. Briefly, she considered simply zapping them, but the innkeeper was a favorite of Artemis, the other girl had to stay alive so Hercules and Strife could have someone to fight over, and for unknown reasons, several of the other gods, notably Hermes and Aphrodite, were beginning to take an interest in that sidekick Iolaus.
They had no real claims of protection, but there was no point in ticking off any of the Big Twelve unless it was really necessary.
Besides, she had always preferred to keep mortals alive. If they were dead, you couldn't torment them anymore. When Hercules' friends watched him die tomorrow and realized that they had failed to save him, their pain would be more exquisite than anything physical she could do to them now.
The thought prompted a safisfied chuckle.
So Discord contented herself with simply slowing down the process of making the antidote, letting an herb go missing here, a vial mysteriously fall to the floor there. If she did anything outright to impede progress altogether, the trio would no doubt come up with another plan. But this way, they spent all of their time working on the antidote without leaving any time for thinking of a back-up plan.
And when they had worked themselves to the bone, she would simply switch the antidote for the second bag of love potion she had stolen with excellent foresight from Aphrodite. She couldn't wait to see the expression on their stupid mortal faces when they realized that all they had done was reinforce the potion.
By the gods, what fools these mortals were!
Imminently pleased with herself Discord stretched out on the chaise lounge she had imported into the Inn for comfort, and settled back to wait for the night to end. She had a feeling that tomorrow was going to be a bright, sunshiny day.
Dawn broke pale and red as watered wine.
Hercules and Strife stood on the Field of Honor and eyed each other resolutely.
"Ready to mix it up, Herkie?" Strife spat venomously.
"Just say the word," Hercules offered, poised to move on any signal.
There was a nagging voice at the back of his head screaming at him that this really was crazy. That he didn't love Lilith. That it was suicide to fight Strife like this. Gods couldn't die. Half gods could.
But he wasn't going to let Strife get Lilith. Not the way Bacchus had gotten Eurydice. Never. It would never happen again.
And then Strife let go with a blast that split the sky with power and Hercules didn't have any time for more thoughts. He threw himself backward, gracefully trucking into a roll and regaining his feet half a dozen paces from his original position.
Laughing maniacally, Strife took aim again.
No thoughts. No thoughts except: Lilith, forgive me if I die.
"We've got . . . go faster," Iolaus panted as he and Lilith ran up the hill to the duelgrounds. Already the sky was being split by lightening that could have no natural cause save a god.
"Save your breath," Lilith replied through gritted teeth.
The cadets and Kora had worked nonstop through the afternoon, evening and night and had still only just managed to complete the antidote. The process had been a shambles, with things constantly going missing, breaking, mixing together and falling apart.
Iolaus had spent the wee hours of the night searching for ragweed in the forest and had come back sneezing and eyes watering for hours. And Lilith had nearly blown herself up when someone she had grabbed the wrong vial of -- well, she still didn't know what it was. Kora had refused to reveal the names of most of the ingredients.
They had left the innkeeper cleaning up her inn, which was definitely the worst for the night's activities. Kora had claimed there was no more that she could do. Lilith accepted that. Kora was no warrior and all that she could do if she had accompanied them to the field would be to put herself in danger.
The last few hours had actually done a lot to strengthen Kora and Lilith's friendship. The last minutes before they had left the inn had done even more, when Lilith had seen the worry in Kora's eyes for Hercules and Iolaus, and (it was surprising to realize) for Lilith as well.
Once this mess was over, Lilith decided, she would make an effort to get to know the innkeeper. She doubted Kora would ever unbend enough to talk about boys or anything like that (not that Lilith was a big one for girl talk anyway), but it would be nice to have a little female company every now and then.
Maybe Kora felt the same way. Stranger things had probably happened.
"Almost there," Iolaus said, pushing himself even faster as if even an extra half second might make the different. Perhaps it would.
Spurred on by the thought, Lilith forced herself to pick up the pace, but when they reached the edge of the field Iolaus was still half a length in front of her. Which is why Discord's blast hit him full on the chest and sent him tumbling backward.
Discord had decided to really put on a good show. It was the theater lover in her. She had still switched the bag just to be on the safe side, but during the course of the night, she had realized that friends fighting (and failing) to reach their dying hero would be so much more intrinsically satisfying than her original plan.
Besides, she loved it when mortals were all brave and noble and stupid. They got the cutest expressions on their faces. Like the one Iolaus had now. Hmmm. Maybe she did know why Aphrodite was taking a special interest in him.
Well, too bad for the goddess if he got in Discord's way. Too bad for Aphrodite? Too bad for *him.*
"Discord!" Lilith snapped.
"Get out of our way, Discord" Iolaus ordered.
Ordered? A mortal ordering her? And while he was still shaking from the shock of her blow, too. Incredible.
Discord laughed. "Or what? You'll bleed on me? Sorry kids, A for effort, but as far as results: F. As in Fiery Death."
"Glad Cheiron doesn't use that one," Iolaus murmured.
Discord struck and the cadets dove out of the way. Her blast left a neat crater in the earth.
Oh yes. Much more satisfying. Just a few more blasts, and then she'd be free to go and watch Strife finish off Hercules.
Nothing like starting off a day properly.
With a bang.
Hercules tried to regroup, but Strife's blasts were coming too fast.
He somersaulted over one blow, dodged another, and caught the third as a glancing blow. He shouldn't be doing so badly, but try as he might, he couldn't concentrate. Visions of Lilith kept intruding and it might very well kill him.
Gritting his teeth, Hercules managed to keep his feet and barely paused in his evasive maneuvers. Strife had gotten him down once already and it had been plain luck that had let Hercules escape premature cremation.
If he went down again, he was going to stay that way and they both knew it.
Unless . . . .
Sucking a deep breath of air into his lightening-bruised lungs, Hercules sprang toward the sky, tucked as he headed back toward the ground, and started a series of flips. Heading straight toward Strife.
The direct assault momentarily confused the god. Hercules was supposed to run, not attack!
It only took a handful of seconds for Strife to alter his strategy to meet the offensive, but it was enough. Hercules' feet hit the god squarely on the chest and Strife went down. Hercules followed, landing on top of the god and making the most of the temporary advantage.
Locked together, the god and half god rolled over and over, each raining blows onto the other. Hercules got more strikes in, but no matter how hard he hit Strife, the fact remained that Strife was a god. He would recover.
And there was nothing in this field that could help Hercules even those odds. No branches, cliffs, nothing. He'd take anything. Furniture, a net, some of Hephaestus' god-proof armor, a rock, a battalion of a hundred trained soldiers. Anything.
Hercules thought briefly of the Kronos stone, but to keep that kind of power lying would have ended in more evil than good.
Strife got in a good punch to his stomach. Hercules grunted.
::Still, sometimes the Kronos stone would be really really nice.::
Strife's other hand found Hercules' throat and began to squeeze.
::Like now, for instance.::
Strife began to grin as Hercules' breathing became more labored.
Then Hercules' scrabbling hand found a clod of dirt from the torn-up ground. He stuffed it in Strife's face.
The god's grip loosened as he inhaled dirt. It was enough. Hercules grabbed Strife's arm and shoulder and hurled himself backward. Strife came too, and Hercules caught the god's stomach with his foot, pushed and heaved the god over his head.
Strife hit the ground and lost his breath. With a strangled howl of anger, the god shot a final blast toward Hercules.
It missed. But as it hit the ground near Hercules' feet, the explosion of power picked up the half-god and hurled him helpless far into the sky.
Discord was getting bored. And angry. She had forgotten how tedious these mortals could be.
Iolaus had actually had the gall to hit her! It had been centuries since a mortal dared strike her. But one more blast would take care of him. The girl was already stretched out on the ground, unconscious, and this time, Iolaus wasn't managing to get back to his feet.
"I'd say it's been fun," Discord told him, "but it really hasn't been."
"Yeah, no kidding," Iolaus wheezed.
She drew back her hand for the last trump. From here, she should be able to get them both with one bla---
Suddenly, something heavy barreled into her back.
"Incoming!" Hercules yelled as he hit.
The force of his flight send Discord sprawling onto Iolaus. Hercules tumbled after, bouncing off to the side and skidding a little way from the others.
As Discord hit Iolaus, there was a soft explosion of multi-colored dust from the bag he had been carrying as it was squashed and burst between their bodies.
There was a moment of silence while the dust glistened in the growing light. Then Lilith sneezed and groggily opened her eyes. Discord sure packed a heck of a wallop. . . .
The first thing she saw was blond curls.
"Iolaus?" she said worriedly. Then: "Oh. *Iolaus.*"
Her voice jogged Iolaus awake. He opened strangely heavy eyes and saw Discord. Funny. He had never realized how incredibly, amazingly, astoundingly attractive she was. Her eyes were closed, but he could just imagine that baleful fire in those dark eyes.
With a groan, Discord rolled off Iolaus (what a pity, he thought) and ready for murder, looked around for Hercules. And saw him. But suddenly she didn't want to destroy him anymore. Oh no. There were better, much better, uses for such a delectable specimen as he.
"Hercules!" said Discord.
"Lilith!" said Hercules.
"Iolaus!" said Lilith.
"Discord!" said Iolaus.
"All right!" said Strife. "Where is he?"
Then catching sight of Lilith, he added: "Ah, Lilith. Come to watch me clean the floor with pretty boy over there?"
"Yeah, whatever," Lilith said. "Iolaus, are you okay?"
"Not now, Lilith," Iolaus brushed her off, and turned a wide smile toward Discord.
Who was watching Hercules.
Who was trying to decide whether to watch Lilith, or Strife.
Who was getting ready to blast him very permanently.
"Fly now, pay later," the god cackled, energy building up in his hands. "You already flew, so it must be time to PAY . . . !"
Godly lightening struck with a dull thunder clap. But it wasn't Hercules that fell backward. It was Strife.
"Nobody lays a hand on my man," Discord declared, eyes flashing.
"What? You're with him now? Are you kidding?!" Strife gabbled, smoke rising from his clothes where Discord's blast had hit.
"Come on," Lilith urged Iolaus, "let's get out of here while they're busy."
"Go ahead, I'm staying with Discord," Iolaus said adamantly.
"If Lilith say go, we go," Hercules ordered, hauling the protesting Iolaus to his feet.
"Wait, Lilith," Strife whined. "We could be so happy together . . . ."
Lilith took off. Hercules followed closely behind, dragging Iolaus. Discord ran after them. After a moment, Strife crawled off to complete the line of besotted mortals and gods.
And in the now empty clearing there might have been -- just might have been -- the silvery laugh of a certain goddess who had recently had a day named after her.
Perhaps, though, it was just the wind.
Kora had swept, scrubbed, polished, organized and re-organized in an effort to convince herself that she didn't want to be any more involved with this mess than she already was. She hadn't opened this Inn to get involved. She had done enough already.
She was working on re-re-organizing when she heard footsteps approaching.
Heart beating with a fervent hope that she would never, could never, display, Kora dropped her broom and went to stand by the door.
Iolaus hove into view, running fast and craning his neck as if looking for someone.
"Iolaus," the innkeeper called eagerly, "did everything work?"
"Can't talk now, Kora," Iolaus replied without slowing, "I've gotta find Discord. She's my dream goddess!"
"I'll take that as a 'no'," Kora sighed, as Iolaus raced past.
More footsteps and Lilith appeared from around the bend.
"Kora," she panted, "have you seen Iolaus?"
Wordlessly, Kora pointed.
No sooner had Lilith disappeared from view than Strife staggered up.
"Have you seen Lilith?"
By the time Hercules appeared, Kora had decided what needed to be done.
"Kora," the half god hailed her, "have you seen --whoa!"
Kora drew back the foot she had stuck out to trip Hercules, and dragged the cadet into the inn.
Just in time, too.
Discord strode predatorially up to the door.
"Hey, where's Hercules?" the goddess asked, a gleam in her eyes that made Kora want to bristle.
Instead, she simply pointed. Discord took off without a backward glance and Kora turned back to Hercules, who was staring at her with a woebegonely.
"Kora, why did you do that? I was following Lilith!"
Kora crouched down to stare into Hercules' eyes, as if she could install some sense into him by sheer force of will.
"Hercules, listen. You're under the influence of a very strong love potion. That's why you think you love Lilith. We thought we had the antidote this morning, but Discord must have switched bags on us."
Hercules registered nothing but impatience. "No offense Kora, but can you come to the point? I have to get to Lilith before Strife does!"
"Will you listen to yourself?" Kora snapped. "This is not normal!"
To her relief, Hercules paused, as if considering her words.
"You're right," he finally said. "That is definitely something to think about. And I will. Just as soon as I find Lilith."
Kora sighed. It could never be easy, could it? As Hercules scrambled to his feet and pushed past her, she withdrew the second batch of antidote she had spent most of the morning finishing up, and hit him in the face with it.
Glitter filled the air.
Sneezing, Hercules stumbled back into a chair and sat.
"Hercules," Kora said urgently. "Hercules, can you hear me?"
Slowly, Hercules opened his blue eyes. "Oh. Kora," he said a little dazedly. "Hey. Um, did you do something new to your hair?"
Kora bit down a smile. Hercules was back to himself. The antidote worked.
Now for the others.
"Uh, Kora, what's been going on?!" Hercules asked, rubbing his temple and looking around gingerly as if he had a prince of a headache. "The last thing I remember, Iolaus and I were arguing about . . . uh, never mind what we were arguing about. And then--"
Suddenly the color drained out of his face and returned in a fiery blush. "Oh gods," the half god whispered. "Lilith. I didn't ask her . . . ."
"You asked her," Kora said briskly but not unsympathetically.
Hercules closed his eyes and gave a heartfelt groan of mortification.
"Lilith's going to kill me! And Iolaus is never going to let me live this down."
"Iolaus has his own problems right now. Hercules, this is more complicated than you think."
Quickly, Kora filled Hercules in on the fact that not only had he agreed to a duel to the death with Strife, but somehow the love potion had spread.
"So Discord likes me, Iolaus likes Discord, Lilith likes Iolaus and Strife likes Lilith?" Hercules repeated, amazed.
"That's the long and the short of it," Kora agreed. But she had other worries pressing on her mind. Artemis had told her stories of how these kind of undiluted potions worked.
"Love potions are dangerous enough with mortals," the innkeeper related to Hercules, "but when you add gods to the mixture, someone is going to get seriously hurt! All the infatuated person cares about is being with the one they love. They'll do anything for that person, and they'll do anything to get at that person. Iolaus and Lilith may be in great danger."
She watched comprehension infuse Hercules' expression. If Lilith thought she loved Iolaus now, then Strife would want to take Iolaus out of the picture, no doubt permanently. And if Lilith didn't succumb to Strife, the god was likely to kill her simply so no one else could ever be with her.
"So what can I do?" Hercules asked immediately, then his expressed cringed again. "Besides die of embarrassment?"
Kora pressed the bag of antidote into his hands. "Administer some of this to each person. And be careful."
"Right. Strife's after me, no holds barred."
Kora gave him a wry grin. "Actually, I was thinking more of Discord."
Hercules winced. "Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten."
"Hurry," Kora suggested. "And don't let go of that bag. They looked like they were heading back to the Academy."
Hercules nodded his thanks, and was gone. Kora only hoped this time things would work out according to plan.
That was, to their plan.
Cheiron and the cadets were down by the chariot strips practicing racing, so the Academy was empty.
Except for Discord, Strife, Iolaus and Lilith. Voices ringing in the stillness, they called for their beloveds as they searched through the maze of training gyms and rooms.
They jumped through doors, raced down halls, following any hint of movement but always ultimately missing the person they sought.
"Hercules, where are you!?"
Finally, Iolaus got lucky and skidded up to the goddess as she peered in the kitchen cabinets in case Hercules was hiding in one.
She stood up and glared at Iolaus as he tapped her shoulder.
He smiled winningly. "Ah, Discord, hi. We haven't really been properly introduced. So, I'm Iolaus--"
"Like I'm supposed to care?"
"Heh, I like a goddess with a sense of humor," Iolaus persisted gamely.
Discord's own smile had the warmth of a swordblade in the mountains. "Then I have a joke for you," she said unpleasantly. "Why did the irritating mortal fly across the kitchen?"
Discord zapped him and the power threw Iolaus across the kitchen. He fell in a clatter of pots and pans.
"Mortals," she sneered.
"Ah," Iolaus murmured, half-concussed but happy. "I think she likes me."
Meanwhile, Strife cornered Lilith in the weight room.
"Mon cheri," he said breathily.
"Who's Sheri?" Lilith asked distractedly. "And have you seen Iolaus?"
Strife was suddenly right next to her.
"I get it, it's the old hard to get routine, right?" he said, wrinkling his face up in a leer.
"No, it's the absolutely uninterested routine."
Strife summoned a love chair with a wave of his hand. "Why don't we sit down and think about this reasonably," he said.
"I am being reasonable," Lilith snapped as she peered around weight equipment in case Iolaus happened to be crouching in a corner.
"So you'll marry me? I've got a great little temple up in Olympus, has a view of the ocean and everything."
When she didn't respond, Strife became more agitated.
"What is it?" he asked plaintively. "Is it the hair? I was thinking of changing it anyway. Why not, I'm worth it!"
His hair suddenly became bright red, then blond, and finally checkered.
"What do you say, I'm begging here!" He began to frown and smile at the same time and added in a darker tone: "And I don't like to beg."
"I'm sorry, it's really an honor," Lilith said helplessly, "but I don't love you. I love--"
"No! We're just friends. Can't anybody get that through their heads?"
With a cry, Iolaus suddenly flew through the doorway into the weight room. He hit the ground, rolled, then came to a stop against a pile of staves. Tiny remnants of Discord's lightening danced in his hair.
Oddly enough, Iolaus was still smiling.
Glazed-eyed, he stared up at the ceiling and sighed. "I love it when she blasts me."
"Iolaus!" Lilith cried and ran to his side.
Strife's face darkened.
"You can't be serious," the scorned god howled. "*Him*?!"
Thunder shook the building.
"Hello? Is anyone here?" Hercules called, glancing quickly around the Academy's sleeping quarters. It seemed like he had covered the entire Academy at least twice, but every time he thought he was catching up with Iolaus or Lilith, they somehow disappeared again.
He froze. That was not one of the voices he wanted to hear.
Discord stood between him and the door. And she was smiling. But not in the usual, bloodthirsty way.
Somehow, this way was worse.
"Just the person I wanted to see," Discord cooed.
Her voice wasn't the same either. Normally it had knives in it. Now it was more like honey. And maybe whips.
The goddess threw up a hand and the doors to the room slammed shut behind her.
She closed in on him. And did she usually swing her, uh, hips that much?
Despite himself, Hercules backed up a few steps.
"Hey, Discord, how's it going?" he asked, attempting to sound casual while fervently fumbling at the knot on the bag of antidote.
Kora's anti-love potion would turn Discord back into her usual murderous self, but at the moment, that seemed like an improvement. Hercules had never really considered himself faint-hearted when it came to women -- but he had never had one bearing down on him like a griffin on a rabbit, either.
She had changed her outfit, too. Now it was black and meshy, and there was less of it. A lot less. Especially in the front.
Hercules swallowed. His throat had suddenly gone dry.
"Uh, Discord, I have something that might interest you," he began, still backing up.
"I just bet you do," she purred.
Hercules hit the wall with a jolt. So much for direct retreat.
He quickly assessed the situation. There were beds -- ouch, beds, not good -- but if he feinted right he might make it to the door before --
Almost as if she had read his mind, Discord leaned forward and placed her hands firmly on the wall on either side of Hercules.
Hercules looked into the goddesses burning eyes, looked down, and then quickly looked up again.
"That's, uh, a new look for you isn't it?" he said, gamely attempting a smile.
Instead of answering, Discord suddenly reached out and plucked the bag from his nerveless grip.
"You're going to need your hands free," she predicted.
"No, wait, that's--"
With a dismissive shrug, Discord tossed the bag on one of the beds and turned her attention back to Hercules, who was industriously trying to sneak to safety by limboing under her left arm.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Hercules froze, innocent grin firmly in place.
"Me? Nowhere. Why?"
Discord traced his bangs down to his cheek. "You've always been sort of cute in a sickeningly goody good way," she told him, "but I never realized just what potential you had."
"Me? Potential? Oh, no, the last thing I have is potential, trust me, ask anybody. "
Very carefully, as if he was touching a Hydra, Hercules reached out and removed Discord's hand from his chest, although this left the danger that her hands would head somewhere else.
At the same time, he subtly shifted his weight to his right foot and began to stretch out his left, hoping to snare the antidote bag with his foot before things got out of control.
"Discord, you know, I'm sorry, but I just don't really have time to talk right now," Hercules said with false apology in order to distract the goddess.
He was almost there. Just another inch . . . .
"Talk?" Discord pushed him back against the wall and wrapped her own leg around his. "Who wants to talk?"
"Oh boy," Hercules said weakly. "I'm in trouble."
"Iolaus is twice the man you are, even if you are a god!" Lilith proclaimed proudly.
Strife began to shake with fury.
"Right, thanks Lilith, just hold that thought while I go look for Discord," Iolaus said.
"Oh, Iolaus," Lilith sniffled.
"You made her cry!" Strife accused.
In his love-fogged state, Iolaus wasn't quite sure what was going on. He just knew he needed to see his beloved goddess.
As it turned out, Strife was about to grant his wish. In a way.
"The thing about me," Discord said as she chewed on Hercules' ear, "is that when I want something, I take it."
"That's funny," Hercules said desperately. "When I want something, I leave it alone for a while. You know, to savor the feeling."
Discord grabbed a handful of Herc's shirt and pulled him close, so they were face to face.
"I'm ready to savor *now*," she growled.
"Yes, I can see you are . . . ."
Discord's lips were less than a finger width away from Hercules. With her free hand, she began to untuck his shirt.
A certain part of the goddess was screaming repulsion, but mostly, she was just consumed with how adorable Hercules' wide, staring eyes were.
"Enough talk," she ordered impatiently. "You may have had the floor show before, but now it's time for the main event."
"In the morning, you're going to regret this --"
Her grip on his shirt tightened. "Shut up and kiss me."
As she bore down with the dread implacability of a tidal wave, Hercules only had time for one thought.
::Help . . . . ::
And the doors to the dorm room exploded open.
Iolaus' god-induced momentum was somewhat slowed as he hit the doors, but he still managed to cross most of the dorm room before skidding to a stunned stop next to Hercules and Discord.
"Iolaus, I so owe you . . . !" Hercules breathed gratefully.
Discord didn't see things in quite the same light.
"Him again? I'm going to fry that mortal!" she snarled in exasperation.
Hercules didn't hesitate. Taking advantage of the momentary lull in ear-nibbling, he dove for the antidote. Discord hesitated, torn between the desire to follow the half-god and the urge to vaporize Iolaus. As it turned out, Lilith and Strife's arrival distracted her from both courses of action.
"Iolaus!" Lilith cried and again ran to him.
"That's it, he's toast!" Strife shrieked.
"Don't you dare!" Lilith ordered.
"If everyone's in love, why am I the only one getting blasted?" Iolaus asked dizzily.
"Love hurts," Discord snapped.
"So do fireballs!" snarled Strife, his fingers beginning to glow with energy. "Want me to prove it?"
"You'll have to go through me first!" Lilith proclaimed.
"If it's between him or me . . . ." Strife threatened.
Lilith and Strife glared at Iolaus. "Yes, you!"
"Listen," Discord stepped in, "I don't care who blasts who, but you'd better do it fast! I was in the middle of something, okay?"
Hercules tried to think. If he didn't figure out something in seconds, Iolaus and Lilith would be ash on the floor and he'd be explaining to Ares just why his new baby nephew looked like Hercules . . . . that was it! Why. The potion!
"Discord," Hercules said quickly, "do me a favor and protect Iolaus, will you?"
The goddess hesitated a split second, her nature warring with her enchantment, then her face split into a forced grin "If you say so. Herkie-poo."
She turned to Strife. "Back off moron."
Strife wasn't about to let it go that easily. As lightening once again filled the air, Hercules anxiously joined Lilith at Iolaus' side. She had the cadet's head in her lap.
"Iolaus, are you okay?"
Iolaus looked up at him groggily. "Herkie-poo?"
Hercules grimaced. "Don't start with me. And here."
Iolaus blinked as the antidote floated down into his face.
"Do I really remember asking Discord to the prom?" he asked.
"Yeah, but I think I was two-timing you."
"Iolaus, lie still until you're feeling better," Lilith cooed, stroking his hair.
"Does she . . . ?" Iolaus asked.
"I guess there's no accounting for taste," Hercules agreed.
"You're just saying that cause she likes me better." Iolaus folded his arms behind his head and winked up at Lilith. "Hm, I could get used to this," he said speculatively.
Hercules smiled and shook his head. "Too bad."
Lilith blinked as the anti-love potion took effect.
"Iolaus, get off my lap!" she said with her customary bite, dumping Iolaus' head back to the ground.
"Well, we know *she's* back to normal," Iolaus grumbled, rubbing his head where it had bounced. "What about the dynamic duo?"
Discord and Strife's war had moved out into the less confining training room. The three cadets watched them for a contemplative minute.
"I didn't know gods knew that kind of language," Lilith said, impressed.
"Yeah. So what are we going to do with them?" Iolaus asked again. His tone suggested that he wanted the gods far away. Hercules could relate. But on the other hand, just how strong was that potion . . . . ?
"We may have an opportunity here," he suggested doubtfully.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you know what that potion can make people do. So maybe they'd reform if we asked them?"
"Reform?" Lilith asked incredulously.
"Reform?" echoed Strife.
"Anything you want, love muffin!" Discord promised, sending out a particularly impressive blast of lightening.
The far wall crumpled into chunks.
"It can't be as easy as that," Lilith predicted, while Hercules did his best to ignore the 'love muffin' crack. No, Iolaus definitely wasn't going to let him live this down. Ever.
"No, really," Discord said earnestly, punching Strife in the jaw. "From now on, whenever I attack someone, I'll make it fast and painless."
"And *I*--" Strife grunted, trying to get Discord in a headlock, "will only cause havoc when it's really important!"
So much for that idea. Even in love, the gods obviously had skewed values.
"Great, thanks, not gonna work," Hercules said. "Iolaus, Lilith, any other ideas?"
"Well," Iolaus said casually, "I just happen to have half a bag of that love potion left." He grinned. "We could, say, make them fall in love with a . . . chicken?"
"That's kind of unfair to the chicken," Hercules hedged.
"Hmm, true. How about with each other?"
"No, we need something to keep them out of trouble for a while, not make them work better together."
Suddenly Lilith's eyes lit up.
"Guys," she said excitedly, "I think I have it!"
The pond lay next to the road to Corinth, and had been the scene of some of the cadets most dramatic adventures during the last year. At one point, Iolaus and Jason had believed Hercules had been drowned there by Ares, another time Iolaus almost was drowned in an effort to lure a fire-possessed Hercules to literally cool off in the water. And then there had been the day when Hephaestus, thrown out of Olympus by Hera for not being bloodthirsty enough, had made a splash landing in the pond . . . .
All in all, it was a pond that had certainly seen some wild times.
Now, it was serving yet another purpose.
Hercules and Lilith had enticed Discord and Strife to the water's edge (after first getting them to clean up their mess and rebuild the Academy training room). Now, the two deities obediently knelt at the water's edge among the blooming narcissis flowers.
It was a quiet afternoon, without even a mild breeze to disturb the stillness of the lake. The faces of Discord and Strife stared back at them, perfect to the last detail.
"Okay, here goes," Hercules said and dropped the last of the deadly love potion on the gods.
Strife and Discord sneezed, blinked and gazed with rapture at themselves.
"Oh, baby," they crooned in unison to their water reflections.
"Seems to be working," Iolaus said with satisifaction.
"So we just leave them there?" Lilith asked doubtfully. Then a slow smile spread across her face. "We just leave them there," she agreed happily.
So they just left them there, murmering sweet nothings to themselves.
"I can't believe a little dust did all that," Lilith said as they walked away from the pond and the besotted gods. "They should keep it locked up!"
"It probably was, until Discord stole it," Hercules theorized. "Now, what do you say to grabbing some lunch before we head back to the Academy?"
"I don't know," Lilith replied archly, "last time you asked me to lunch, you proposed!"
Hercules blushed. "Don't remind me! I don't know what I was thinking!"
"Hey!" Playfully, Lilith punched his arm. "For that, you can buy me lunch. It's the least an ex-fiance can do."
"Oh good," Iolaus chimed in, "then you can buy me lunch!"
This time it was Lilith's time to blush. "Maybe we should just agree to pretend none of this every happened," she suggested.
"I think I'm insulted," Iolaus said.
Hercules clapped him comfortingly across the shoulders. "Think of it this way, Iolaus," he said. "Do you really want to tell people that you were in love with Discord?"
"I don't know," Lilith objected, "I think he was really getting somewhere with her."
"Are you kidding? She blasted me across two rooms!"
"The way I hear it, for you, that's better than average."
Iolaus look comically outraged. "Now I know I'm being insulted!"
"Why don't we just all buy each other lunch?" Hercules suggested, grinning.
Iolaus eyed him. "I dunno, Herc, you're not really my type."
"What do you mean?"
"No offense. You're just a litttle tall."
Hercules glared at his friend. "That is so superficial!"
"No, if I was being superficial I'd talk about the way your hair does that weird thing."
"What weird thing?" Hercules said, hand instintively going up to his hair. "Iolaus, what--Lilith, does my hair--guys, that's not funny . . . !"
And minds once more concentrating not on escaping from life and death romantic situations, but on those far more important matters that let you get involved in such situations, the cadets headed for Kora's.
After lunch, Iolaus reluctantly left to report to Feducious and explain why he had missed his morning tutoring. Hercules went to get his hair cut, vigorously claiming that he had been meaning to do it today anyway.
Coming back freshly trimmed, he bumped into Lilith returning from the inn. She had hung around to talk with Kora and although it might have been her imagination, she thought the innkeeper had been pleased by the chat.
But it definitely could have been her imagination. Lilith suspected there was more to Kora than anyone of them realized, but it would be the innkeeper's decision when, if ever, to let them discover what it was.
"Hey," Hercules said a little awkwardly, his bangs still falling over his eyes, but in a gentler way that made him look both younger and older at the same time. "How's it going?"
Lilith shook her head. "I still can't believe what a fool I made out of myself!"
"Oh," Hercules corrected ruefully, "don't worry, I think I take the prize for complete embarrassment."
"Well, I've learned my lesson," Lilith declared. "If love happens, it happens. But until it does, I'm not going to worry about it."
"Sounds good. Although Mrs. Strife . . . .that's quite a catch . . . . "
They exchanged smiles, then Hercules held out a rolled scroll.
"I got you this," he explained.
She took it curiously and began to undo the ribbon. "What is it?"
"It's sort of an 'I'm sorry I asked you to marry me' card."
Lilith grinned at Hercules and thought to herself, :: that boy is going to make someone very happy someday. But by the gods I'm glad it won't be me!::
"And I met a messenger from Corinth who was bringing this to you," Hercules continued, handing her a thin wrapped package. "He said he was sorry it was late, but he couldn't find you yesterday."
"No duh, that's cause I was holed up at Kora's the whole day!" Lilith shook the package experimentally. "Who would send me something from Corinth?"
"I think it's from Jason."
And so it turned out to be. He had sent a delicate-looking fan, colored ivory with intricate brown ink tracings.
"Gee, a fan," Lilith said doubtfully. She waved it around once or twice. "What am I supposed to do with that?"
She gave the fan an extra hard wave and suddenly something went click. The fan froze in extended position.
Eyes lighting with sudden understanding, Lilith abruptly threw the fan away.
"Lilith, I'm sure Jason meant well--" Hercules began.
Then the fan came spinning back toward them and he had to duck.
The fan shot through the air, hit a tree and ricocheted toward an innocent duck that had to desperately take to the air to avoid having its feathers clipped. Finally, the fan struck a stone and whizzed back toward Lilith, who caught it neatly.
With another tiny click, the fan closed in on itself and became once again merely an attractive accessory.
"Now *that's* what I call an Aphrodite's Day present!" Lilith exclaimed happily.
"I guess he figured you could pick your own flowers," Hercules offered, gingerly standing back to his full height.
Lilith smiled to herself. "Well, he was right. Come on," she added, tucking the fan into her belt, "I'll race you to the Academy."
Hercules swept down to one knee. "I'd follow you to the ends of the earth," he declared theatrically. "You walk in beauty, like the night--"
"Oh yeah? Then just watch me run!"
Toppling Hercules with a friendly shove, Lilith took off with the half-god hot on her heels. And that was how things were supposed to be.
"So Feducious said even for me, it was a stretch, so I gave in and made something up that he would believe, which is a sad commentary on the level of trust between student and teacher in this institution--Herc? Are you listening to me?"
Hercules blinked. "Oh, yeah, sorry, Iolaus."
Iolaus looked at him a little more closely. "You okay? You're not getting sweet on Lilith again, are you?"
"No! It's just . . . weird to remember all the stupid stuff I said to Lilith."
"What about me?" Iolaus countered. "I was chasing Discord! Although you know, if I'd married her, I'd be your brother-in-law. "
"Yeah, and so would Ares! Besides, I don't think she's the marrying type."
"That reminds me," Iolaus prodded, "so exactly what did happen between you two?"
Hercules shuddered and tried not to blush. "Let's just say I saw a side of Discord I never want to see again."
Thankfully, Iolaus seemed to accept the half-explanation.
"It's probably for the best," he shrugged philosophically. "I mean, if you two had stayed together, you would have regretted it. Maybe not today, maybe not even tomorrow, but definitely by next week and for the rest of your lives. Which knowing Discord, wouldn't have been long in your case."
Hercules nodded thoughtfully. "Hey, that was kind of catchy. You know, the 'maybe not today', thing. "
::Oh, here it comes::
"Iolaus don't start--"
"You little ol' love muffin, you."
"Nothing happened, okay!"
Iolaus was still looking innocent. "Okay."
"Okay," Hercules said again.
A tiny pause and then: "Hey Herc?"
"Your shirt's still untucked."
Hercules looked down. ::Discord::
"Don't say anything," he instructed Iolaus, rapidly tucking in his shirt, face as red as a sunset. "Just nothing."
Iolaus grinned that grin. "Do I ever?"
Oh yeah. They both knew it.
Hercules was never going to live this down.
"Perfection, pure perfection!" Strife rhapsodized to the water.
"Come on baby, give me a sign here!" Discord urged to the silent face in front of her.
Both gods were wet from countless attempts to embrace their new loves.
"I like the silent type," Strife continued desperately. "Pisces, right?"
"Every time I think they can't get any more pathetic, they reach a new level," Ares said disgustedly.
Beside him, Aphrodite laughed gleefully. "I can't believe Discord actually thought she'd get away with it. Somebody buy that girl a clue!"
"Can you keep it down?" Discord snapped. "I'm trying to have a conversation here."
"So I'm thinking two, maybe three more weeks of this," the goddess of love continued. "Then I let em go."
"You owe me for taking away my two best lieutenants," Ares demanded. "Who's going to get my coffee? Strife is the only one who knows exactly how I like it!"
Aphrodite regarded her brother levelly. "Hel-lo, three weeks without those two? Talk about vacation. You should owe me!"
"You have a point," the god of war finally admitted. "Very well. Three weeks and then you release them to me. I have a few choice tasks for them myself to teach them exactly how much I don't approve of freelancing."
"Whatever. Just tell Discord that next time she messes with the goddess of love, she's going to learn a whole meaning for love-in-a-canoe. Got me?"
And so the day wove its way to a close.
Hercules and Iolaus fell asleep discussing their next practical joke to play on Lilith and slept the contented sleep of the blessedly unsmitten, although occasionally Hercules twitched and muttered 'uh oh, no, got the wrong guy'. . . .
Lilith slept even more peacefully, a private smile on her lips, and one hand wrapped loosely around a certain fan.
Strife and Discord peered into the water to see their starlit reflections, and Aphrodite laughed to herself to see how right on everything had turned out. Oh, yes, she was so good!
And outside of Kora's Inn, a pile of candy, flowers, and cards lay ready to be hauled away at first light. Inside, tucked under a stack of invoices, lay a slightly squashed, single red rose, and a carefully folded scroll.
But if Kora dreamt of anything or anyone, she kept it between herself, her goddess, and the soft curtain of the still, spring night.
DISCLAIMER: Hercules was not taken advantage of during the writing of this story. Also, despite rumors, Hercules and Strife did not fall in love and go to Hawaii. But it was a near thing.