Happy Birthday, With Love
By G.T. Shue

Cupid and Psyche were too preoccupied with the decorations and preparations to keep an adequate eye on their precocious progeny. Neither parent noticed when Baby Bliss slipped out of the room, or that his father's favorite bow and quiver mysteriously vanished. There was just too much to do.
Iolaus sat on the edge of the well in Corinth looking moody and borderline despondent. He tossed bread crumbs to the birds and sighed at regular intervals. At one point, he pulled out a dinar coin and rolled it around in his fingers. He wasn't sure how long he sat there, but that was where Hercules found him sometime later.
"Iolaus! There you are! I've been looking all over for you."
The man barely looked up. "Why?"
"Why what?"
"Why were you looking for me?"
"Because...I needed you?" Hercules responded with a 'well duh' look.
"Oh, okay," Iolaus said, slowly getting to his feet. "What is it this time? Monsters? Warlords? Demons? Gods? Damsels in distress?"
"No, none of those."
"Then what?"
"You'll see."
Hercules headed off out of the square. He simply assumed Iolaus followed along right behind him. He was wrong. Iolaus paused to study the coin in his hand. He clutched the coin tightly in his hand and looked to the sky before pitching it into the well. Hercules picked that moment to look back.
"Are you coming or not?" he demanded.
A gong sounded loudly. "We're coming. We're coming!" Cupid huffed as he came into the room. "All right, Mother, you can come in now."
Aphrodite popped in with a pink shimmer. She carried a small wrapped bundle. "Where's my favorite grandspud? Where's the cute little birthday rug rat?"
"Good to see you, too, Mother."
"Oh, pooh, Cupid. You know it's a special occasion. Come on. I'm giving it a really good shot here. Can't you cut me just a little slack? I actually brought the sprat a gift."
Cupid softened a little. No one could stay miffed with Aphrodite for long when she was making a sincere effort. Especially when she stood there looking pathetic.
"Come on, Mother, Bliss is with Psyche."
"Who's with me?" Psyche asked from the doorway. "Cupid, dear, have you seen the baby? I thought he was playing with you. Where's your bow? I thought you left it by the door."
"Not again."
Not again. Iolaus' funk deepened as he followed his boyhood friend. It was his birthday, and no one really seemed to care. No one had even wished him a good day, and he didn't feel like reminding people. Normally it wouldn't even matter, except today he was feeling just so stinking old.
"What's the problem, Iolaus?" Hercules finally asked. "You've been moping all day."
"Nothing," he replied, making a half-hearted attempt to make everything seem fine.
"You might as well tell me what's bothering you."
"There was this girl in the market today..." he began.
"You're telling me this is all about a girl?" Hercules asked with a snort.
"No, it's not all about a girl. It's just mostly about a girl. And it's not what you think."
"I stand corrected. What about the girl?"
"Anyway, this girl in the market, she was absolutely beautiful, so I went up to her, struck up a conversation. You know, a little talking, a little flirting, maybe a little bit of dinner over candlelight...I was so good. Laid on the charm, and gave her my most devastating smile."
"And?" Hercules prompted, trying to get the story over with.
"I'm sorry my misery bores you, I won't tell you any more," Iolaus said, lapsing into a sullen silence.
"Come on, Iolaus, what happened then?"
He heaved a deep sigh. "She said, 'Can I help you, Sir?'"
"What's wrong with that? Sounds very polite."
"You don't see it?"
"See what, Iolaus?"
"It was the worst insult a person can give, Herc!"
"What are you talking about?"
"She called me, 'Sir!'" Iolaus protested. "Sir! Me!"
"What's wrong with that?"
"It means I've gotten...that I'm...that I'm...old!"
"Iolaus, you are not old. You are the same age I am."
"Your point being?"
Hercules sighed. "At least we're almost there."
"Where is there, by the way?"
Iolaus eyed the dilapidated old building suspiciously. It was ramshackle and dark. It didn't seem like anyone had been there in a very long time, and when they'd left, they'd not gone gently. "An old tavern? Why here?"
"No way of knowing until we go inside."
Iolaus shook his head in resignation and headed for the door. He didn't hesitate to yank open the sagging door and stepped inside. His eyes didn't have time to adjust to the darkness before a torch flared off to one side and a hand gripped his shoulder. Instinct took over. He lashed out with one foot at the torch and then flipped the body attached to the hand over his shoulder. His efforts were rewarded with a grunt and a distinctive, "Ow!" Iolaus paused. Silence fell as more light filled the room.
"Joxer?" Iolaus gasped as he recognized the man laid out at his feet, wrist bent painfully back. "Is that you?"
"Uh, yeah, and ow," Joxer the Mighty yelped from the floor. "You know you can let go any time now."
"Oh, sorry." Iolaus release Joxer's arm and helped him to his feet. "If you're on the floor, then who did I kick?"
"Uh, that would be me."
Iolaus turned and suddenly grinned. "Autolycus! Hey, man, sorry about the kick. Why are you guys here? What's going on?"
He finally noticed the rest of the room. It was full of his favorite people and food. He was surrounded by his loved ones shaking off their shock and wishing him a Happy Birthday. He couldn't believe it. Hercules had managed to plan a surprise party for him and actually pull it off! He wouldn't have thought it possible.
Suddenly everyone was singing. Xena and Gabrielle carried in a large cake with a seemingly improbable number of burning candles on it. Iolaus almost teared up with joy. Unseen by the other party goers, an uninvited guest joined the celebration. Baby Bliss, drawn by the noise and lights of the party, got into the spirit of the occasion.
"Make a wish before you blow out the candles, studmuffin," another distinctive voice caroled.
"Widow Twanky?"
Sure enough, slightly behind him stood Widow Twanky near Salmoneous. Iolaus thought he'd caught a glimpse of the brash trader when the cake had been brought in. How had Hercules gotten all these people here without him getting some kind of hint? Iolaus took a deep breath and blew out the candles. Amid the cheering and laughing Baby Bliss let fly. The arrow flew straight and true. Unfortunately, just before the arrow hit its mark in Salmoneous, Iolaus came up from blowing out the candles. The arrow touched his shoulder in a gentle, glancing blow before thudding home in Salmoneous.
Iolaus looked up from his cake into the eyes of his best friend. Hercules was handing him a knife to cut the cake and something in Iolaus snapped.
"Happy Birthday, buddy. You didn't think we'd really forget, did you?"
Iolaus found he had to clear his throat before replying, "I wasn't sure. But how did you...? How did you...? How...did you do this?"
It wasn't easy, but Twanky helped a lot. In fact, she did most of the work," Hercules admitted.
"I propose a toast, to the Widow Twanky! A most remarkable woman!" Salmoneous cried out from the crowd. The partiers echoed the toast, punctuated with the widow, herself, twittering like a giddy school girl.
Iolaus went through the rest the party being pulled from one conversation group to another, opening gifts and drinking. As much as he enjoyed talking with his friends, he felt his eyes always going back to Hercules. The son of Zeus was having a good time himself. Iolaus briefly wondered what was suddenly different.
A tug on his arm broke his thoughts. He turned to see a bright eyed Salmoneous holding the hand of a blushing Twanky. The pairing caught him a bit off guard, but Iolaus hid it well. "Yes?"
"Great party, Iolaus, really. Had a great time," Salmoneous said all in a gush. "We should really do it again. Soon."
"I have another birthday coming up in a year."
"Great. Fine. Wonderful. It's a date. Well, so long. Come along, my sweet," Salmoneous said in one more long breath.
Twanky resisted the pull on her arm just long enough to say, "I just love a man who takes charge, don't you?"
"Uh, yeah, sure," Iolaus said, wondering why his gaze went back to Hercules. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. "I wonder what they've been drinking."
Later, on the way to the Little Warriors Room, Iolaus passed a bevy of young girls whispering and giggling in a corner. As much as it shamed him to admit it, he paused to listen.
"Well, yeah, Iolaus is cute," one of them was saying. "I would love to run my fingers through some of those curls..." Her sentiment caused a burst of giggles. Iolaus didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted. "But...Hercules! Now there is a man!"
"If only his pants were just a little tighter, we'd know just how much a man," another said, causing whoops and hollers this time, rather than just giggles.
Iolaus listened to the girlish gossip a moment longer before heading for his original destination. The last thing he heard was, "And the way his vest shows off his chest..."
The rest of the evening went by in a blur. Before anyone knew it, it was very late. Most people either had rooms in the tavern or headed for their homes. Those who remained all pitched in to help clean up the mess the party had made. Iolaus, Joxer, and Gabrielle picked a section to clean. Somehow in the course of things, he found himself asking, "What do you guys think of Hercules...as a...man, not a hero?"
"What've you been drinking?" Joxer asked, picking up some trash. "And why do some people think a party is a good excuse to act like pigs?"
"I don't know," Iolaus answered both questions with the single response. He turned to the young woman. "Gabrielle?"
"Well, it's awfully hard to separate the man from the hero, Iolaus," Gabrielle answered seriously. "They're pretty much all part of the whole."
"What do you think of him...physically?"
"Well, hey, if I were a woman, I think I'd find him one very studly, hot hunk of man," Joxer answered. Then he amended quickly, "Which I'm not, so I don't."
"Joxer!" Gabrielle sighed in exasperation. She turned to Iolaus. "You're trying to set him up, aren't you? Iolaus, I didn't think you guys went in for blind dates! Well, you tell whatever lucky girl you've found, that Hercules is one of the most handsome, smart, wise, caring, generous..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I...I get the point," Iolaus finally interrupted. "Thanks."
The next morning everything went seemingly back to normal. Hercules and Iolaus were once more on the road about to find wrongs to right, injustices to fight, and people to help. Hercules seemed totally unaffected by the party the night before. Iolaus followed a few feet behind, trying to block out his friend's cheerful whistling. Though Iolaus didn't think he'd had all that much to drink, but the throbbing in his head begged to differ.
Hercules did move like a Greek god, which was convenient since he was half of one. Iolaus wondered where that thought had come from. He shook his head and immediately regret the move. His brain tried to make a mass exodus through his ears with each motion.
"How're you doing back there, buddy?" Hercules called over his shoulder.
"I'll survive," Iolaus replied. "I think. What was in that punch anyway?"
"I'm not sure," Hercules answered. "I think that's why they call it punch. Never drink anything that sounds like it might hit you back."
"Good advice," he responded. "I'll try to remember that."
They discovered a secluded village just in time for lunch. The villagers were excited to get travelers through their tiny town and welcomed them enthusiastically. When it slipped out one of the visitors was Hercules, the villagers began coming in some cases even touch him.
After helping repair two roofs for widowed households and assisting an elderly farmer to mend a fence, Iolaus and Hercules finally bid the villagers goodbye. They still had a good hour of daylight left, and both men wanted to get on the road. Nor did they go empty handed, as they were given a hefty sack of food to take with them on their journey, a payment for their services even Hercules could accept.
That night they made camp near a deep, but slow moving, stream. While Hercules gathered wood and built a fire, Iolaus filled the water bottles and set out dinner and bedrolls. They'd camp by the tree line near the stream. Close enough to the trees for protection, but far enough away to be able to see the clear night sky filled with millions of stars.
Iolaus studied Hercules over a piece of chicken. Little details he was never aware of before now jumped out at him, the fine chiseling of his features, the silkiness of his hair, the hard lines of his muscles... Iolaus started to choke. Hercules looked up, immediately concerned.
"Iolaus, are you all right?"
"Uh, yeah, never better," Iolaus managed to sputter. He gestured wildly. "It...it just... went down the wrong way."
"Okay, then, if you're sure."
"I'm...I'm fine," Iolaus gasped.
"Good, then I'm going to take advantage of having running water handy. I'm going to get really clean after working all day." Hercules stood and started stripping off clothes. He turned to his friend. "You want to come?"
Iolaus had to clear his throat before answering. "Uh, um, maybe later. I...I...I need to clean up dinner first."
"Suit yourself."
Iolaus got real busy, real fast. The very thought of Hercules naked, wet, and in the moonlight was almost more than he could bear. In fact, by the time Hercules got back from his bath, the campsite never looked better.
"Wow, what got into you?" Hercules commented. "I wouldn't have had the energy."
"Amazing what a good meal will do," Iolaus said quickly. "How's the water?"
"Perfect. I'll be back." Iolaus all but bounded down to the stream.
"What's gotten into him?" he asked himself aloud. Then he shrugged and went on about his business.
Iolaus sat neck deep in the cold running water, letting everything shrivel. He wished his thoughts would shrivel as easily as his skin. He'd always been a sucker for a pretty face and a great body, but when had his best friend fallen into that category? In one, last, vain attempt to drown his thoughts, Iolaus took a deep breath and went under.
Hercules was starting to worry about his friend when Iolaus finally returned, shaking water out of his hair like a wet puppy. "Feel better?" Hercules asked.
"Yeah," Iolaus responded. "Yeah, I do."
"Good. It took you long enough. Come on, sit by the fire before you catch cold."
Iolaus followed Hercules over to the fire. He sat off at an angle instead of next to his friend, hoping distance would help, though he watched the firelight play off the planes of the half god's face.
"By the gods..." Iolaus breathed. "How beautiful."
"Did you say something, Iolaus?"
"What?" Iolaus was startled. He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud. He covered quickly. "The night. It's beautiful. I don't remember the last time the stars looked so bright."
Hercules glanced up at the sky, stretching his neck out. "Yeah, nice. Ow."
"You okay, Herc?" his friend asked.
Hercules rotated his neck. "Yeah, just a stiff muscle. I must've lifted something wrong back in the village. No big deal."
"Bet you wish we were back in that spa town, huh?"
"Actually, I wouldn't say no to one of their massages," Hercules agreed.
"Well, here, let me."
Iolaus shrugged. "I may not be a professional masseuse, but I've been told I'm a very talented amateur. And if you want something done, I'm your only option."
"I wasn't arguing, Iolaus. It's just that you've never offered before. I'm a little surprised, that's all."
"Oh, right, well?"
"If you want to, then, yeah. It would be a big help."
Iolaus moved over to Hercules' log as he pulled off his vest and turned his back on Iolaus. Hercules never saw his oldest and dearest friend pause before he even touched the finely muscled back. Slowly Iolaus reached out and lightly touched the skin. When he wasn't struck deaf, dumb, blind or dead, he moved up to the shoulders and gently began to knead the tense muscles. Then feeling bolder, Iolaus dug in harder.
"Wow. You really are tight.. You'd think you were carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders rather than Atlas."
"Sometimes I feel like I am Atlas, Iolaus," Hercules admitted as he relaxed under Iolaus' touch. He let out a long, contented sigh which turned more into a moan of a pure pleasure. "By the gods, you are good at this."
"I told you I had good hands. You didn't believe me?"
"This is definitely something you have to experience to believe. I knew there was some reason I kept you around."
"You mean besides my razor sharp wit, amazing good looks, and unique fighting style," Iolaus asked, trying not to let the slight musky scent of Hercules distract him.
"Yeah, right, whatever," Hercules mumbled. "You doing all right back there?"
"Never better," Iolaus replied, unable to resist letting the silky strands of hair run through his fingers as he applied his talents to Hercules' neck. The vein in his neck throbbing gently with his heartbeat cried out to be kissed. Iolaus leaned in to surrender to the impulse. His hands slipped further down the front side of Hercules' shoulders, feeling the taught skin of well-defined pectorals. Suddenly Iolaus tore himself away.
Hercules became more aware of his surroundings. "You okay?"
Iolaus smiled gamely and lied through his teeth. "Hand cramp." He shook his hand in what he thought would be a convincing manner and went to sit on his own log.
"I'll be fine, really." Iolaus yawned hugely and stretched. "Well, it's been a long day. I think I'll get some sleep. Good night."
Before Hercules could blink, Iolaus rolled himself in his bedroll and pretended to go to sleep. "Good night." Hercules sat and watched the fire a while longer before turning in himself.
Iolaus watched him through mostly closed eyelids, wondering why he was suddenly noticing these things about Hercules. What was he going to do with these feelings starting to well up, almost overwhelming him? Previously they'd only been addressed to nubile young women. It thrilled and frightened him at the same time.
He drifted off to sleep, eventually. Almost immediately the dreams came, and they were almost exclusively revolving around Hercules. He awoke without having rested much at all. In fact, his dreams disturbed him so much he was jumpy and irritable all morning. Hercules never even commented on it.
By noon they'd arrived at another good-sized town. One they'd helped out before, for they townspeople greeted them by name and warmly. They had friends here. Iolaus felt a stab of something uncomfortable as he watched people swarm lovingly around Hercules. It took him a moment to identify the feeling as jealousy, and not the normal jealousy of Sidekick to Hero. This was a different kind of jealously. The jealousy of a love...
Iolaus broke off that thought pattern quickly. He hurried out of the square to find some place private. There was only one person he knew who could fix this and he needed some place quiet to make contact.
Back in the square, Hercules turned to say something to his friend, but he was gone. "Iolaus?" he called out. When there was no reply, Hercules shrugged and went on with his business.
Iolaus ducked into an alley on the edge of town, then, making sure he was alone, began calling out, "Aphrodite! Aphro - Dite - Eeee!"
In a spectacular spray of pink glitter, the goddess of love made her appearance. "Hey, Curly, studmuffin! How's it hanging?"
"How's it...? How's it...? How's it...?" Iolaus sputtered. "You should know, you did it!"
"Did what?" Aphrodite asked innocently. "What're you talking about?"
"Don't play dumb blonde with me, goddess!" he exclaimed in an intense whisper. "You know exactly what I'm talking."
"Look here, Attitude Boy! Don't take that tone with me!" Aphrodite spat back, waving her finger under his nose. "So chill and explain or I am out of here!"
"Okay, okay, okay," Iolaus said, getting a hold of himself. "You're the only one I thought of who could be responsible."
"Responsible for what?" Aphrodite demanded. "Spit it out already, wouldya?"
"The feelings I'm having, okay? Feelings of attraction. Feelings...of...oh, all right, I'm in love with my best friend, okay! You happy now!"
"But your best friend is Hercules. Isn't he?"
"That's my point!"
"It has to be a spell, Aphrodite," Iolaus persisted. "This...this...I like girls. You know I like girls."
"Of course you do, sweetie," Aphrodite soothed. "But what does Hercules think of all of this?"
"You think I had any intention of telling him? He doesn't have a clue."
"Ah, isn't that just like my baby brother?" she giggled. "When it comes to love, he can be such a dunce."
"Can we stay focused here?" he demanded. "Take the spell off me!"
"Hold on, studmuffin. I can't."
"Can't or won't?"
"Don't get that attitude thing happening again, or I'm outta here. I mean it."
Aphrodite made a move to leave, but Iolaus stopped her, pleading. "Please, Aphrodite! Don't go."
"Oh!" the goddess pouted. "I never could say no to you. Oh, okay. When did you first start noticing this?"
"Excuse me?"
"When did the feelings start?"
"Oh, uh, well, let's see, I guess it would've had to have been my birthday party."
"When was that?"
"Uh, the day before yesterday in the evening."
"Okay, that's...did you say the day before yesterday? Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I know when my birthday is. Why?" Aphrodite looked a little sick. That did not instill Iolaus with any kind of confidence. "What? What is it? Aphrodite what have you done?"
"Not me. Some...one...else, I think. Hang tight a little longer, Curly. I'll take care of everything." Aphrodite paused a moment, then grinned. "But I guess hanging tight isn't really your problem right now, is it? So, ah, hang loose and let 'Dite take care of it."
"And quick."
"Trust me." And then she was gone.
"Yeah, right, like that's going to happen," Iolaus muttered.
"I heard that!"
Iolaus grimaced and headed back towards the center of town. He turned a corner and nearly ran smack into Hercules.
"There you are! Where have you been?" he demanded.
"I had something...to take care of," Iolaus answered. "Why? What's up?"
"Blacksmith's going to let us use his shop to make that new knife we've been talking about."
"Now? Today?"
"Yes, now. Yes, today. Why? You have pressing business elsewhere?"
"What? Me? No!" Iolaus protested quickly and dramatically. "What could I possibly have to do?"
"All right then, let's go." Hercules turned and headed down the street, trusting his friend was following.
Iolaus rolled his eyes and followed, more slowly than his friend probably thought. As he walked, he muttered, "Yeah, great, this is just what I need. Blacksmith...hot...sweat... Aphrodite, whatever you're planning, please hurry."
On Olympus, Aphrodite was having trouble tracking down her son. Cupid was having a busy day, and catching him on the fly wasn't the most effective use of her time. Finally, she finally cornered the archer.
"Mother! What do you want that you tracked me down at work?" Cupid demanded.
"Just how many arrows did you say were missing when we located Baby Bliss the other night?"
"Just the one, and we reversed the spell on that trader and the widow woman. Why?" Cupid asked, somewhat suspicious.
"I think someone else got hit by that arrow, and I promised to do something to help fix it."
"Is it bad?" Cupid asked. "I'm really busy today."
"Cupid, it could destroy a beautiful friendship, and that would be a total bummer."
Cupid took one look at his mother's patented pathetic expression and sighed. "All right, all right. But some day that look isn't going to work on me."
Aphrodite brightened like the sun coming out from behind a cloudbank. "Oh, cool. You so rock."
Iolaus thought he was about to die or explode. He had no idea what was taking so long. If they didn't come up with something soon, Iolaus was going to scream, or worse. The project in the smith was turning out to be just as torturous as Iolaus imagined.
Both men had stripped to the waist almost from the moment they arrived. Now, with the forge heated up and the effort of running the bellows and shaping the iron, sweat flowed freely. Iolaus had to close his eyes and concentrate on the bellows he was working.
"Iolaus?" Hercules' voice cut through his concentration.
"Take over for me here, would you? I need a break."
Iolaus let go of the bellows, grateful not to have the continual up and down motion wearing on his consciousness. Unfortunately, spelling Hercules on the anvil required actual physical contact as Iolaus matched his rhythm of hammer strokes on the iron bar. They were at a critical stage in forging and couldn't afford a mistake now.
Iolaus came up behind Hercules, careful to let as little as possible actually touch the other man. Now would not be good time...
"Come in closer." Hercules' voice broke into his thoughts. "We've got to get this right."
Iolaus gulped silently, but followed directions. He tried not to think of the rhythm they were moving to, like some slow, primal dance. It kept going until Iolaus' hand reached for the hammer, and Hercules stepped out of the way, the next stroke hit without a stutter in the rhythm. Iolaus stepped in to fill Hercules' place.
The man himself went over and threw open the door and stretched his entire body in almost feline proportions. Iolaus, catching a glimpse of the movement nearly lost the hammer, but recovered quickly and well. He bent to concentrate on his work. He didn't notice Hercules leave and return, but he did see him pick up a bucket of water and pour it over his head. Iolaus tried hard not to wish he were the water, having such intimate contact...
His thoughts were interrupted by a dousing of his own. He shivered against the shock of cold water suddenly cascading down his body. He sputtered. "What was that for?"
"You looked hot." Iolaus' heart skipped a beat. "Thought you could use cooling off." Iolaus deflated. Where was Aphrodite?
By the end of the day, the knife was completed and both men were totally exhausted. They ate a nice meal in the inn's common room after taking long, hot baths, and relaxed in front of the fire with tankards of wine. Unfortunately, Iolaus kept wondering what was keeping Aphrodite, which made him antsy.
"I'm going for a walk."
"You want company?"
"No, you stay here, you look comfortable."
Iolaus started off, then turned back, words burned to be said, and he couldn't control it. "In case I've never really told you, I love ya, man."
"No more wine for you," Hercules replied. "Sounds like you've had enough for one day. The walk'll probably do you a lot of good."
"If you only knew," Iolaus muttered under his breath as he walked out the door.
He stopped in the first deserted alley he found and started calling for Aphrodite. After a long, agonizing wait, she finally appeared, this time with Cupid. "Where have you been, and why is he here?"
"He's here because he's the one who can help you." Aphrodite explained. "So be nice."
"How can Cupid help me?"
"The day before yesterday, my son snuck out of the house while we were setting up his birthday party," Cupid explained. "He took my bow."
"So I was hit by one of Cupid's arrows? Is that what you're telling me?"
"Not quite," Aphrodite said.
"What do you mean 'not quite'?"
"This has happened before," Cupid admitted reluctantly. "But this time we found him before he'd shot more than one arrow. We found that couple and reversed the spell."
"One arrow? What are you talking about? Then I wasn't hit by Cupid's arrow?"
"Not quite."
"Would you stop with the 'not quites' and get on with the quites?"
"Okay, okay. You see that's what took so long, tracing the routes and all," Aphrodite said. "But it looks like Bliss came to your party and shot a trader who was near a widow..."
"Salmoneous and Widow Twanky?"
"What has that got to do with me?"
"Well what?"
"It appears the arrow that hit Salmoneous was really meant for Twanky," Cupid said slowly.
"He missed?"
"No. It was...deflected."
"Deflected?" Iolaus asked, then the light of understanding went on. "By me? They were standing behind me. I moved. It deflected the arrow. So I'm infected too?"
"Hey, studmuffin, we're talking about love here," Aphrodite exploded, "not some communicable disease."
"But why Hercules?"
"He was the first person you saw after the arrow hit you."
"How do we stop it?"
Cupid waved his hand, a small dazzle descended on Iolaus. "There. Done."
"That's it?"
"That's it."
"I don't feel any different."
"You will when you see Hercules."
"Oh, okay, thanks."
The two gods popped out. Iolaus returned to the inn, but Hercules wasn't in the common room. The innkeeper was kind enough to tell him his friend had already retired for the evening. Iolaus thanked him and went up to the room they shared. Iolaus had wanted to suggest getting separate rooms this time, but they'd always shared accommodations before, so splitting up now would have only led to embarrassing questions.
He opened the door quietly. The room was dark. All that he could hear was the slow, regular breathing of a sleeping man. He came into the room and eased the door shut behind him. Moonlight poured through the unshuttered window and spotlighted Hercules. Only a light blanket covered enough for decency, but left little or nothing to the imagination. He was obviously sleeping in the nude.
The very sight of him lying there, peaceful and utterly relaxed, so softly illuminated made Iolaus' throat tighten and his heart pound. He couldn't think. Couldn't breathe, the room started to spin. He had to get out of there before he did something...
"That you, Iolaus?" a sleepy voice asked.
Iolaus had taken a step or two toward the door. He turned back to see Hercules, not quite awake, looking at him. Iolaus ached to reach out to him, take him in his arms, and stroke the sleep-tousled hair.
"Coming to bed?" he asked, yawning widely.
His mind screamed yes, but his lips said, "In a minute." Iolaus knew he couldn't stay in that room. Another time, another place, another person, and Iolaus would've leapt at the implied invitation.
"Okay, but get some sleep soon. We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow." And Hercules rolled over and went back to sleep.
Iolaus fled. All the way to Aphrodite's temple. Whereupon his arrival, he began bellowing for Aphrodite and Cupid. A few moments later, two very grumpy, sleep deprived gods of love arrived.
"This had better be good," Cupid said, glaring at Iolaus. "We just got the baby down and Psyche was in the mood. Do you know how often those two things happen at the same time?"
"Ask me if I care. You didn't hold up your end of the deal. You said you removed the spell. It's not gone!"
"Of course it's gone! I removed it myself," Cupid retorted.
"What are you talking about, Curly?"
"When I went back to the inn, Hercules was asleep, and it was all I could do to keep from jumping him right there. You didn't fix it."
"All right, all right!" Cupid really wound up and let fly, the dazzle of power caused Iolaus to see spots. "Now, think about Hercules."
"Like what? His eyes which are the color of a cloudless summer day? His flaxen hair? Or his rock hard, washboard stomach?"
"This is worse than I thought," Cupid said to Aphrodite. "This isn't the work of my arrow."
"What are you saying?" Iolaus demanded before she could answer.
Over the next several minutes, they retraced the events leading up to Iolaus being grazed by the arrow. "Wait? You made two wishes," Aphrodite pointed out. "What were they?"
"If I tell you, then they won't come true."
"Darlin', you obviously have bigger problems than that. Now spill."
Iolaus finally told them his wish. It was the same one both times. To find someone to love and grow old with, someone who'd love him in return. He didn't want to grow old alone. Cupid and Aphrodite both groaned. "What?" he demanded.
"You did this to yourself, Curly," Aphrodite explained. "Wishes and arrows don't distinguished between different kinds of love. Your relationship with Hercules is a kind of love, but when you started wishing and then the thing with the arrow, well...it took all the yearnings and, zowie! It turned your friendship into romantic love. Happens all the time."
"What are you saying?"
"She's saying it's the real thing. We really didn't have anything to do with it."
"It happens."
"So what...what...what do I know?"
"Face up to the fact you've got the hots for my baby bro, suck it up and deal with it," Aphrodite told him bluntly. "What? He's not good enough for you? Besides you got your wish. Hercules loves you for you. Like a brother, maybe, and probably not the way you were thinking just now, but he does, and he's probably planning on growing old with you. I'd say on the scale of birthday wishes, you got 'em, baby."
"Who knows, it might all work out for you two. You make a cute couple."
She winked at him, then she and Cupid were gone.
The next day, Hercules and Iolaus finally got out of town. It wasn't until almost sunset and much later than they had anticipated, but they were on the road once more. Much to Iolaus' surprise, Hercules threw an arm around his shoulders.
"You know, Iolaus, I never gave you your birthday present."
"You didn't? I thought the money pouch..."
"And the party..."
"Will you shut up and let me finish?"
"It occurred to me while you were gone last night that I haven't told you lately how much you mean to me."
"Excuse me?"
"We've been through it all together, Iolaus. You have always stood by me. You've been more to me than a friend or even a brother."
"Really. I can't imagine living the rest of my life without you in it."
"Wow. I don't know what to say." For a brief moment, Iolaus' hopes soared.
"I love ya, buddy."
And crashed. Again. "Yeah, me, too."
"Happy Birthday, Iolaus."
As they walked off into the sunset, Iolaus could've sworn he heard Aphrodite say in his head, "After all, unrequited love makes the best theater."