Fortress Around Your Heart

"Is that good?" Toris asked, raising up the edge of the banner a little.

"Just a little higher," Joxer told him, squinting to make sure.

Toris inched the edge up. "Now?"

"Now," Joxer said, smiling with satisfaction.

Toris tapped the nail into the wail, knocking it into place with a few quick blows. He leaned back to look at the purple banner. "Perfect."

A crash came from behind the two men, and they turned to look at the source of the noise. A hearty laugh came up from around the corner, and Iphicles backed into view, his sword weaving a figure eight in a defensive move. He smiled as he fenced, but not as widely as Solon, whose keen swordsmanship pushed the king backward into the royal courtyard. Iphicles leapt back, his long hair momentarily waving in his face; but he flipped it aside and parried Solon’s next thrust.

"The centaurs really taught you how to fight?" Iphicles asked as he blocked another attack.

"I’m going easy on you because you’re old," Solon said, chuckling. "Don’t forget-- my mom taught me how to fight. After the centaurs were done." He lunged in, then danced away easily from Iphicles’ return move. "There’s not a finer swordsman in Greece."

Toris smiled; his nephew was certainly in rare form today.

"Wanna bet?" Joxer asked as he moved toward the two combatants.

"Hey," Iphicles said, "you can have the winner. At my age, one opponent is enough."

"That’s right, Uncle Jox," Solon said. "Let me take down the old man first."

"Old man?" Iphicles said, raising a greying eyebrow. "You dare insult the King of Corinth, boy?"

"Fortune favors the bold," Solon said, laughing as he slid his sword inside of Iphicles’ guard and knocked the king’s sword away. "And I’m guessing I was more bold."

Iphicles smiled, putting his hands up in the air. "Ten years ago I would have taken you, son," he said, smiling.

"Ten years ago, he was fifteen," Toris reminded them.

"Ten years ago, I would have taken all of you," a voice rang out, and the four men turned to see who the newcomer was.

"Autolycus!" Joxer said, moving over to give the man a hug.

"Where’s your better half?" Toris asked, shaking his hand.

"Tassandra’s off with Ephiny. Apparently they wanted to visit with the bride and her maid of honor rather than partake of our witty repartee."

Joxer pouted comedically. "I don’t think I’ve seen my wife awake for more than five minutes since we arrived."

Iphicles laughed. "Or mine," he added.

Autolycus folded his arms. "Well, now that the Amazon contingent has arrived, I’d expect to see even less of them," he said, smoothing his grey mustache. "The ladies have a lot of catching up to do."

"So do we!" Solon said. "Now that everyone’s here but Hercules and Iolaus."

A look passed between Joxer and Iphicles.

"They’ll be here," the king said, smiling. "Together, I hope."

"You sure?" Toris asked, and Solon shot him a quizzical glance.

"I’m sure," Iphicles said firmly. "The king of Thebes would be terribly upset if his advisor didn’t show, and my brother..." Iphicles allowed himself a lop-sided grin. "Well, my brother may have retired from public life, but I’d bet this celebration will bring him around again."

The king glanced at his companions. "Come on! Dueling is thirsty business. Let’s get some wine!"

As they group moved inside, Autolycus pulled Joxer aside and asked, "What’s all this about Hercules and Iolaus? They’re not coming?"

Joxer frowned. "Of course they’re coming. They’re just a little late."

Autolycus frowned himself. "Why wouldn’t they show?"

Joxer slid an arm around Autolycus. "They’ll be here, they’ll be here, don’t worry. Have they ever let you down before?"

Autolycus raised a finger. "Now that you mention it..."

_ _ _

Iolaus shifted sideways on the horse’s back. "If you change your mind," he said, "you know where we’ll be."

Hercules nodded his head once and waved. "Have a good time. Say hello to everybody for me."

Chryseis arched an eyebrow as she regarded him. "I think they would rather hear the greeting in person." Iolaus looked over at his wife, who was fixing Hercules with a glare.

"Maybe," the son of Zeus said. "This time, they’ll have to make do with my best wishes from afar." He turned his back and started walking back toward the house.

Iolaus slammed his fist on his thigh. "I really thought he’d change his mind," he said to Chryseis.

"You tried," she said, reaching out and grabbing his hand. "This is a pain he has to heal himself. We can’t do it for him."

Iolaus nodded. "Much as we want might want to." He turned to his children and smiled. "Come on, kids, let’s go!" With a yell, he led them off up the road; the children nudged their horses forward as well, following their father. Chryseis gave Hercules’ retreating form one last look before she pressed the flanks of her horse gently, starting the steed on its way.

It was some time before Hercules came out of the house again, and even then, the first thing he did was check to see if Iolaus and his family were waiting for him. He felt foolish doing so; but he’d had enough talk about this last night. He simply didn’t want to discuss it any more. When he saw the road was clear, he walked down to the stable area and checked that as well; but no one was there. Satisfied that his mother’s homestead was secure--it was his now, but he never stopped thinking of it that way-- he headed back into the house.

Hercules rummaged around the house for a while, rearranging things but not really accomplishing anything. His hands ached for work, to keep his body busy while his mind sifted through everything Iolaus had said, or tried to say; while he mulled over the sharp glances Chryseis had given him. Like she’d forgotten I’d saved her life from those pirates. And Iolaus was nowhere to be found then! But he let the thought pass. It was petty; she wanted what she thought was best for him, and so did Iolaus. He was sorry, on some level, that he couldn’t make them understand just how he felt, or more importantly why he felt that way. He made his way down into the cool cellar and puttered around there for a time, running his hands over dusty bottles and jars that would most likely never be consumed. It isn’t as if I entertain all that often, he thought.

"No better time to change that than the present," a voice said, and a body-- quite a body-- materialized in front of him.

Aphrodite took one look around and scrunched her face up. "Euck! Baby brother, don’t you ever clean up?" She ran one hand tentatively along a wine bottle’s top, then grimaced as she pulled it away and wiped it off.

"Aphrodite," Hercules greeted her. No matter how far I live from the city, I’ll never escape my family.

"That’s not nice!" she said, swatting him on the arm.

"Not that I’m not happy to see you," Hercules sighed, "but why are you here?"

Aphrodite gave him the widest of her dazzling smiles. "Oh! Yeah! I need you to do a favor for me."

Hercules placed his hands on his hips. "Yes?"

Aphrodite lowered her brows and moved toward him slowly, with feline grace. "I need you to deliver something for me."

Hercules folded his arms as his sister trailed one hand along his bicep. "To who?"

She laughed, a gentle rolling sound. "Why does it matter who? It’s just this little thing, and I..."

"I’m not going," he said.

Aphrodite pouted. "Not even for me?"

Hercules raised one eyebrow. "Not even for you."

"Come on, Herc, there’s this big party back on Olympus, and I really can’t make it. I have to be with the gods that day. So that why I was hoping that you’d..."

Hercules raised a hand. "Try Iolaus. He’s going. I’m sure he’d be happy to help you."

Aphrodite stamped a slippered foot. "You are so stubborn!"

Hercules allowed himself a small smile. "I hear it runs in the family."

She glared at him but said nothing. At length she unfolded her arms and moved close to him again. "You know what I should do?"

Hercules smiled. "What’s that?"

"I should make you go. I could, you know."

His face was suddenly serious. "Aphrodite..."

"I mean," she said, tracing a line down his chest, "there is a lot of emotion there to work with, and you’re already riding this like major jealousy wave."

"I am not jealous!" he said, raising his voice.

"Hercules, yes you are! Don’t try to hide it from me. Remember my job description? Love is what I do." She stopped to consider a manicured nail. "Not that you’d have any use for my talents."

"Wh--what’s that supposed to mean?" he asked, hands on his hips again.

"Oh, Herc, please! How long are you gonna go on hiding in your mommy’s house? I mean, even I had my own place when I was your age."

"I happen to like living here," he responded.

"That’s not the point," she said, wagging a finger at him.

"Then what is the point, Aphrodite?"

She gave him a serious look. "You know, baby brother, sooner or later you are going to have to go out in the world again. You are going to have to deal with this. Might as well be now."

Hercules spread his hands wide. "I don’t want to deal with this, okay? Why can't anyone understand that?" He moved past her and stormed up the stairs out of the cellar.

She reappeared in front of him in the kitchen. "Everyone’ll really be upset if you don’t show," Aphrodite told him.

Hercules glared at her, but his expression softened after a moment. "Aphrodite, I know what you’re trying to do, and I appreciate it, I really do. I know you’re acting with my best interests at heart. But there’s nothing that you, or anyone else can say, that is going to change my mind. I am not going to Xena’s wedding." He stepped past her and headed out into the yard.

Aphrodite watched her brother from the doorway for a moment, a sad smile on her face as he strode off toward the barn. Even I can’t reach a heart in that much pain...

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