Paris knows it's hopeless the moment Zeus presses the golden apple into his resisting hand. Either he will die immediately, or his death will be agonizingly slow. The way the three goddesses are staring at him – with calculating looks, like they've just found their next meal – is already making him regret not investing in life insurance.
"You see, ladies," Zeus tells them. "I've done as I promised. Before you is Paris, an impartial judge of beauty. He will decide who gets Eros' golden apple."
Zeus' stress on the word 'impartial' tells Paris a few things. First, that Zeus is too much of a coward to make the decision himself, so he's pawning this unpleasantness off onto Paris. Second, that Zeus and the other gods have heard of Paris' reputation for fairness. Which puts an end to Paris' dwindling hopes that his decision might not be taken seriously.
Paris' consternation deepens. His unease is only amplified by the fact that three extremely comely goddesses are suddenly parading before him like models on a catwalk, very much in the nude.
"I – er – I don't really think that I'm qualified to make this decision," Paris says.
He tries very hard to look up toward the sky, but his eyes are drawn inevitably to the women before him, who continue to stare at him hungrily. Paris gulps.
"Nonsense," says Hera. "The right answer should be obvious."
"Quite," says Aphrodite, tracing a hand down her thigh.
Athena says nothing, but her glare speaks volumes.
Paris tries again. "How can I choose just one among you, when you are all –"
"Don't prevaricate," Zeus mutters, "It'll only annoy them."
Paris' lips clamp shut. He hopes it looks like he's pondering deeply, when in reality, he's trying to think of some way, any way, that he might make it out of this situation alive. Stall for time. "Does not true beauty come from within?" he asks.
He jumps when, a second later, a finger trails across his collarbone. "True beauty," Aphrodite purrs, "is whatever you want to make of it, my dear Paris."
Athena shakes her head. "Technically," she says, "'Beauty' is defined as the visual qualities that please the aesthetic senses, especially sight."
"The golden apple said, 'To the Fairest'," says Hera. "It did not say 'To the Kindest.'"
Her eyes pierce Paris, and in that instant, Paris knows, knows with chilling, bone-deep certainty, that if he does not choose Hera, he will die at Hera's hands. It may not be today, and it may not be tomorrow, but Hera will be the one to orchestrate his death, and it will be exquisitely painful. Hera has a smile of marble and eyes like a coiled snake.
"I can offer you," Hera says, "many things, little mortal. I can make you the richest man in Greece. You could be High King of the mortal realms... if you play your cards right."
Paris frowns. He already struggles to rule one kingdom. He doesn't think dictatorship over all Greece would suit him much. But it seems rude – nay, suicidal – to tell Hera so.
"Ohhh, are we resorting to bribery?" Dimples of delight blossom in Aphrodite's cheeks. She ignores Hera's withering glare and the not-so-subtle twitch of Athena's eyebrow. "Paris," Aphrodite murmurs. "Paris, Paris, Paris! Think what I can give you. You know where my powers lie." As Paris flushes, she laughs low in his ear. "Don't be silly, I'm lovingly married, as you know. But there are so many lovely young women who aren't. Andromeda of Aethiopia. Nausicaa of Phaecia. Helen of Sparta."
"Isn't Helen married?"
"Not happily." Aphrodite rests a gentle hand on Paris' shoulder. "Think of it," she whispers. "The most beautiful woman in the world, lying awake, impatient for you –"
Paris stares at the apple, tracing the words inscribed on its surface. To the Fairest. The secret to godly immortality lies in his hands, and he barely even sees it for the thoughts that swarm his head. He's been with women before, of course. This is Ancient Greece. He thinks about being with the most beautiful woman in the world. She could be dreadfully vain and needy. She could judge him for his imperfections, for not being as earth-shatteringly beautiful as she is.
Athena clears her throat. "This whole game is ridiculous, but since we must play: I offer you military might, power, and wisdom, if you will gift me with the apple." Her eyes bore into Paris. She has always been Paris' favorite goddess, for her temple holds the qualities to which Paris aspires – reason, invention, and most importantly, wisdom. Of the three goddesses, Paris wants to pick her.
But part of being wise is being fair.
Inexplicably, this realization calms Paris. Paris knows Zeus chose him for his task because of his reputation for fairness. In order to be an impartial judge, he should judge the three goddesses impartially, resisting both bribery and his terror of godly repercussions.
Paris rests his chin on his fingers. "Please be silent a moment," he says in his Most Polite Tone. "I must think."
Objectively, Hera is the most lovely. If her eyes didn't promise pain, she would be pleasant to look at, in a thoroughly terrifying way. The chiseled lines of her face sweep down to a perfectly rounded chin, and her mouth is entirely symmetric. There is nothing, no blemish, that mars her skin.
Athena is just not a contender. Paris turns his face back and forth, trying to make the light throw her face into better relief. It's no use. Athena knows. They'll all know, they'll all think that if he picks Athena he'll have picked her for the bribe. What an absurd, objectifying contest. Paris doesn't understand why everyone in this stupid society puts such stock in immutable features like the size of one's nose. It's a shame. Athena is probably the most capable of protecting Paris from the repercussions of this fiasco.
Aphrodite is less aesthetically perfect than Hera. There are a few freckles that dot her face, the dimple only colors one side of her mouth when she smiles. But her confidence, her allure make her more pleasant to look at than Hera. Or maybe that's because she's a lot closer and currently –
"Stop that," he mutters.
"Stop what, hmm?"
"Just – stop. I'm trying to think. Impartially."
Aphrodite's fingers cease their trail on his skin. Suddenly she leans in.
"Let me phrase my previous... offer in ... a different way." Aphrodite's mouth is so close, her breath tickles his ear. "Do you really want to live a life without love? You can weather wars, Paris dear, you can weather the fury of kings, but can you survive without love? Can you, Paris?"
"What are you whispering?" Hera asks.
"Um," says Paris.
"I can make you the happiest man in the world, or the most miserable. I can make everyone you love turn against you. I can make quite sure you die alone. Think on it, Paris."
Aphrodite's laugh whispers against his skin. Paris watches as she slinks back to rejoin the others. Silently, he weighs the golden apple in his palm.
Hera or Aphrodite. Two sides of the same evil. Paris, caught in the middle, knows he will die. It doesn't matter who he picks. He's still doomed, either way.
"Have you decided?" Zeus booms. "I grow impatient, young man."
Paris licks his lips.
The name falls off his tongue.
At least with Aphrodite on his side, Paris thinks, as hell breaks loose around him, he'll have a lover to cry at his funeral.
A/N: The idea for this oneshot just popped into my head one day and I had to write it out. Paris gets a lot of flak for starting the war with Troy, but the gods put him in an impossible situation. There was no way he could have judged that contest without hurting someone's feelings.
Please review! All feedback is appreciated :)