Hero

bydellagordo©

This is a work of fantasy. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, and the actions contained herein should not be duplicated. All characters are 18 or older. It's all pretend, folks.

This story takes place in the "Crusader Universe," first appearing in "Ultimate Woman." You don't have to read one to understand the other, I just like putting stories together in the same setting.


*****

Leonard Karameikos stood six foot four in his socks, weighed in at nearly three hundred pounds, and made it into college based on his expertise in baseball, soccer, and basketball. He had been bullied once, in grade school, by a kid even bigger than him, whom Leo had summarily punched in the nose, breaking it. That sent Leo straight to the principal's office, but no one had ever dared to pick on him again. Throughout high school he had made it his business to step between the nerdy kids and his fellow jocks who thought pushing around someone weaker than them was acceptable behavior. On the soccer field he was fearless and unstoppable. On the court, he was the rebound king, easily shouldering aside even players that were taller than him.

But on this day, as he aimed his truck towards the family home at the start of spring break, he felt an almost foreign sensation in his gut. Something akin to anxiety or uncertainty.

For all his accomplishments, Leo had always been shy and awkward around people, especially girls. His mother didn't allow him to date in high school or grade school, forcing him to focus on academics and sports instead. And the few dates he did have in college had usually led nowhere, mostly because he had no idea what to do or say.

But all that had changed in the last few weeks. Leo met a girl. A woman, really, named Helena. She was gorgeous and smart and funny, and thought Leo's stammering and blushing were cute instead of pathetic, and he thought the world of her. He had met her in his ancient history class just at the beginning of the semester. He was surprised he had never seen her before, as campus wasn't that large. Be that as it may, they'd been inseparable ever since. They hadn't progressed past the kissing stage, but that was strangely alright with Leo. He just liked spending time with her.

In fact, he was going to miss her terribly over the break. Neither of them had even suggested the idea of going home with one or the other. That wouldn't be proper, at least for Helena, and Leo was content to be patient.

Still, he knew that he was going to have to finally tell his mother about Helena. He doubted she would approve.

Holly Karameikos could be a tad overprotective. She and Leo had epic arguments when he insisted on going to college a few hours away. She preferred him sticking closer to home, believing it would be safer if he did. But Leo had grown tired of the one-horse town in which they lived and wanted to see the wider world. Somehow, he had convinced her or worn her down, because one day she made an about face.

But she still kept close tabs on him, or at least as close as one could from a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and hours from school. Leo would find it overbearing if he didn't think it came from a good place. Holly loved her son and wanted what was best for him, which is why she ultimately backed down and let him go.

Still, she could be both annoying and intimidating in equal measure. If he wasn't the target of her ire, he might be able to see the humor in the situation, a big strong young man like him being chewed out by a woman nearly a foot shorter than him and half his size. But he was the target of her sharp tongue and her anger, almost as often as he was the target of her hugs and the beneficiary of her home cooking. And he didn't find it funny at all.

Leo allowed an explosive sigh to erupt as he turned onto the long dirt driveway that led to the house. It was just about lunch time, and though he had not called ahead, he figured his mother would be expecting him. He let himself brighten up, as the prospect of one of Holly Karameikos' hearty, home-cooked meals after months of cafeteria food would be very welcome.

They lived on a modest forty acres, much of it wooded, but a considerable amount cleared for pasturage. Holly kept two cows and a small clan of goats. Once there had been a bull, but for some reason that Leo couldn't quite recall the bull had been sent away. That was fine. Leo and the big horned animal had never gotten along.

There were also two hutches, full of chickens and rabbits respectively, and always three peacocks and three peahens. The cries of the peacocks were worse than a rooster's, but Leo had grown accustomed to them long before his first day of kindergarten.

In fact, Leo found that he rather missed having the animals around while he was at college. Some part of him actually looked forward to mucking out stalls, scattering chicken feed, and letting the cows out to pasture.

He parked his truck behind his mother's Forerunner, beside the lightning scarred stump of an old oak tree. He had slept right through the storm that blew the tree into kindling, but the stump always drew his eyes when he neared it.

He pulled his bags, mostly dirty laundry, from the truck bed and wandered across the yard toward the house. The barn was all locked up, but the chickens were out strutting around their pen. One of the peacocks had somehow gotten himself up on the roof of the barn. Presently, he surveyed his kingdom with a keen eye, letting out a mild croak as if he recognized Leo.

Leo returned the peacock's gaze with a baleful look of his own. He just knew he'd be the one to fetch a ladder to rescue the dumb bird.

He circled around to the back of the two-story, brightly painted farmhouse in order to enter through the mudroom. He kicked off his boots and dumped his bags near the washer. Shouldering his backpack, he stepped into the kitchen, half-expecting there to be lunch already waiting for him.

But the spacious, ultra-modern kitchen was empty. It wasn't fair for him to feel disappointed, but he couldn't really help it. He set his bag on the kitchen table and called out "Hello!" to the house. No one answered. Leo frowned.

His mother's car was just outside. She should be around somewhere. Maybe lying down? He poked around the house, checking each room in turn and even the basement, but the only thing he found there were jars of preserves and his old weight-lifting set.

Maybe she was out for a walk? She usually did that in the morning or late afternoon, though. Standing in the middle of the kitchen, Leo pulled his phone out of his back-pocket and was about to call her cell when he caught himself and chuckled. He'd inherited too much of her overprotectiveness, it seemed. He placed his phone on the table next to his backpack and decided to raid the fridge. His mother would turn up eventually.

Leo was just sitting down to eat the huge sandwich he had assembled out of Swiss cheese, ham, salami, olives, lettuce, tomatoes, mustard and mayonnaise, with an ice cold glass of Coke to wash it down, when his whole world turned upside down.

In the middle of the kitchen a golden light appeared, a single mote that rapidly expanded as Leo sat, sandwich in hand, mouth agape. As the light grew, it coalesced into a human form. By its curves, the shape of a woman. As Leo blinked, the form of light gained substance and solidity. And just like that, a strange and yet familiar, achingly gorgeous woman stood in the middle of Holly Karameikos' kitchen.

She stood very tall, only a few inches shorter than Leo himself. Long strawberry blonde hair that fell in ringlets to the middle of her back. Lush curves and long, tanned limbs barely clothed in an abbreviated purple tunic style dress that left one shoulder bare. She wore golden sandals that laced up to her knees, golden bracelets and arm rings and a diadem on her brow that held a multi-colored gem in the center.

Her eyes were the purest blue Leo had ever seen, beneath finely drawn brows that widened in surprise and alarm. An aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and a heart-shaped face with full curving lips that now hung open in shock. Her features were ageless and yet mature, bearing both youthful beauty and knowing wisdom.

It was the eyes more than anything else that made Leo realize who this strange woman truly was and why she looked so familiar, but the rest of her was so similar that it only took a half-moment for the realization to hit him.

"Mom?"

"Leo!" his mother stammered. "I wasn't expecting you so early today." She forced a laugh, looked down at herself, and allowed her chuckle to trail off. She stood awkwardly, shifting on her golden sandals, which made the muscles in her long, luscious legs move enticingly. She looked at her son through her lashes, seeming to be conducting some kind of internal debate.

Leo put his lunch back on his plate and stood up. "What is going on?" he asked slowly. He felt strangely calm. Some part of him, deep inside, was neither surprised nor alarmed to see his mother magically appear in the middle of the kitchen, dressed like an extra from Xena. The greater part of him was too stunned to form a coherent thought.

His mother stepped around the table and put her hands on his arms. The tight tunic gave no indication that she wore a bra beneath it, and it was hard not to notice the size of his mother's breasts, nor the way they moved beneath the thin garment. She looked up into his face, drawing his eyes back to hers, and tried a reassuring smile. "I didn't mean for this to happen this way, but I did plan on finally letting you know." She took a deep breath and looked into his eyes. "My real name is not Holly Karameikos. My real name is Hera."

Leo stared dumbly. "Hera?"

"Which makes you the son of the Queen of the Gods," she added, as if that explained anything.

Leo sat back down and put his head in his hands. He had memory gaps, he knew. He couldn't remember the storm that blew up the oak tree, nor what happened to the bull, nor the party he went to only a few weeks ago with Helena. He'd tried not to let those gaps bother him, but it was obvious now that he was losing his mind, and the memory gaps had just been a symptom. Here he was now having a psychotic break in the middle of his home. His shoulders slumped.

Holly - Hera? - knelt down before Leo, which did things to her anatomy that Leo struggled to ignore. She put a hand on his knee. "You're not crazy," she said. He felt her fingers against his chin, insistent. "Look at me," she said.

Leo forced himself to meet his mother's eyes.

"I know this is hard to understand," she said, "and I do apologize. In a moment, I think it will be easier for you to believe this is really happening. For now, though, I want to preface what I'm about to do."

Something about this felt familiar to Leo. Or maybe her words just sounded rehearsed.

"There was a prophecy. Apollo foresaw a need for a great hero, a modern Herakles, who could help the Crusader and others defeat a vast, advancing evil from beyond space and time. But the gods are forbidden from directly interfering in the lives of mortals - ancient treaty, long story - so instead of just dressing Herakles up in spandex and sending him to Earth, he and I decided to have a child.

"That child turned out to be you. Herakles is about as dedicated a father as Zeus ever was, so it was left to me to raise you alone. We could have left you with mortal parents and let Fate take its course, but we did that with Herakles and that didn't turn out too well. He was born with the might of Zeus inside him, and it took a long while for him to learn how to really control it. As a young man he was prone to rages, and in the midst of one he murdered his family.

"So I fashioned a mortal identity and raised you as a mortal. When your power consumed you and your rage bubbled over, I did what I could to correct the problem and then..." Hera trailed off and took a deep breath. "I made you forget what you had done. Each time. But now it is time to bring all those memories back."

She reached out and placed her palm against Leo's forehead. It was a gesture that also felt strangely familiar, although he started to feel some measure of alarm as her too-blue eyes began to glow with azure light. He felt something slam into his head right between the eyes and suddenly he was falling backward and darkness closed in around him.

*****

Leo is eight years old. A big kid, still far from the adolescent growth spurt that will fill him out and streamline him. He looks well-fed, like an easy mark for bullies. The broken nose and the principal's office are still in the future at this point.

He is playing in the driveway with some Tonka trucks, in the shadow of the big oak tree. He makes driving sounds with his mouth as he pilots a dump truck and an excavator around a makeshift construction zone. It is a quiet spring day, and he knows his mother is inside the house and he has no responsibilities. Just time to play.

He is an uncoordinated child. He possesses none of the grace he will acquire later in life that will make him an athletic star. He trips over his own feet constantly, seemingly incapable of walking in a straight line.

He catches sight of a cool rock on the other side of the driveway that he instantly knows will look perfect in the bed of his dump truck. Jumping up, he hastens toward it, but knocks his shin against the hard edge of the metal truck and goes tumbling, landing hard on the ground. His chin lands on an exposed root from the oak tree and he bites the tip of his tongue. He also hears a ripping sound. He gets to his feet, tasting copper, and sees a long tear in his trousers, skinned flesh turning red underneath.

He is filled with sudden anger and frustration. At his own clumsiness, at the fact that his mother will have to buy him new pants, at the toy for tripping him, at the tree for making him bite his tongue. He kicks the truck. It sails across the driveway, through the air, to crash onto the lawn a hundred feet away, bent and broken.

He turns to the tree and punches it as hard as he can. Bark flies off in chips at the impact. His knuckles hurt, but that only serves to make him angrier. He focuses his attention on the offending tree, raining blow after blow down upon it. More bark flies off the tree, until he reveals the wood beneath, and still he lays hammering blows upon it.

All he can see is the tree. Redness tinges his vision at the edges. He sees cracks forming in the wood, spattered with blood from his frayed knuckles, and redoubles his efforts. His throat feels raw. He's not even aware that he is screaming. The tree trembles and at last the trunk gives way, shattered into splinters under the eight year old's assault. Only by chance does it fall away from him, the top almost landing upon his mother's car where it sits in the driveway.

He turns, anger beginning to dissipate, looking at his bloody hands and beginning to feel something besides anger again. His mother stands behind him, watching with a mix of sadness and concern. She drops to one knee and opens her arms as he rushes into them, crying and sobbing. She holds him tight and comforts him.

She holds his hands in hers. Golden light suffuses them, knitting together broken and battered tissue. She mends his tongue and his leg and even his pants in the same way. Then she passes her hand over his forehead and he falls away again, forgetting that this ever happened.

****

He is sixteen. Not yet at his full growth, but still tall and powerfully built, with broad shoulders that taper to a narrow waist and long muscular legs. Light brown hair worn long, curling about his neck, his blue eyes hidden behind sunglasses. Just in shorts and a tank-top, he stands in the backyard behind the house with a bucket of balls and a bat, practicing some hits. One of the peacocks, impassive, watches him from the back porch.

He's getting some good distance. Too many pop flies, though. He wishes he had someone to pitch to him, but his friends are all busy that day. Even his mother is out shopping in the next town over. Maybe that's why he gets a little mischievous when a stray ball lands in the bull's pen, irritating the massive beast. Leo and the bull have never got on, although the cows seem to like him. Anything that irritates the bull is fine with Leo.

So he starts aiming his balls in its direction. The bull gets angrier and angrier, snorting and dancing around, until one of the balls actually bounces off its thick skull. "What a shot!" Leo shouts in delight.

Delight turns to horror as the bull rushes towards the fence and shatters it like glass. Leo has gone too far this time, and he's going to get trampled. He stands there in dumb shock as the bull surges towards him, snorting, head lowered and pointing its big curving horns right at him.

Something switches on inside Leo. He casts the bat aside and braces his feet. When the bull reaches him, he is there to catch it by the horns with both hands. He twists hard to the right, and the bull goes down with a surprised bellow. Leo grimaces, angry at the bull, angry with himself for being so dumb as to taunt it so severely, and so pumped with adrenaline that he doesn't notice how hard he is pulling on the creature's head. The neck snaps like a twig and suddenly he is holding a lifeless animal in his hands.

In disgust, Leo picks the limp form up, still holding it by the horns, and flings it back towards its pen. It sails through the air for a surprisingly far distance, but lands short of the goal. Leo stands, breathing heavily, all his muscles bunched up, hands tightening into fists. He grabs the bat again and advances towards the dead animal.

That's when his mother appears in a burst of golden light. She reaches out to Leo and pulls the bat out of his hand. He barely resists, too shocked to object. She looks him over quickly, looks at the bull, frowns, and then passes her hand over his forehead, just like she did when he was a kid. He falls backward, collapsing in the grass, already forgetting everything that just happened.

***

A dozen similar memories bubble to the surface, none so dramatic, but all featuring the same theme. Leonard losing his temper, his mother appearing and wiping it all away. Some damage can be repaired, but the dead cannot be brought back to life. The tree and the bull are his only real victims, though.

Until.

**

He is eighteen. A strapping lad, near his full growth, wearing his hair short now, and growing a goatee. It is late fall, the end of soccer season and the beginning of basketball season. It is his senior year, and despite his facility on the field and on the court, Leo still has no close friends. Certainly no girlfriend, given his mother's opinion on the subject and Leo's own awkwardness.

He is lonely. He wants out of this house, away from this town, a chance to meet people who don't already know this weird big kid who barely talks but seems like a savant at athletics.

His mother doesn't agree. Holly Karameikos thinks he should stay close to home. Despite the offers of far-off universities to nurture his prowess, she wants him to go to the local community college. She doesn't think he's ready for the wider world.

They have argued for weeks now. Some very heated exchanges have passed between them. They usually end with some version of, "I am your mother and I know better."

But this night, a storm rages outside. Wind batters the big windows of the old farmhouse. Thunder rumbles in the distance as brief flashes of light flicker on the plains.

Leo knows how the sky feels.

If only he could think of the right words to convince her. But words have never been his strong suit. He sits in his room, staring at the brochures of universities. Leo feels the walls closing in around him, a prison of his mother's making keeping him confined here. He crumples the brightly colored pamphlet in his hand, feeling sudden anger flaring in his breast.

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