When she was younger, Sasha had never given much thought to how she might die. Not peacefully, she knew that. Probably meeting the wrong end of a knife somewhere no one would find her, if anyone even came looking. She’d sneak off to her death just like she had through life.
And then she’d gotten older, and she heard the laughter of the children whom she loved and protected, felt the warmth of love and kindness freely given to her, saw the fields that she planted come to life because of her, and over hundreds of quiet sunsets that she no longer assumed were her last, she realized that it didn’t have to end that way. That there might be peace for her, right to the end.
She never thought about what might come after, though. She didn’t know much about gods, especially not in these old times she’d found herself in, where they seem to have made themselves scarce. Grizzop had always said that good people go somewhere, and she hopes he found a nice place with his god. Maybe somewhere that she could find him, but with no one around to tell her how, there’s not much she can do but hope.
So when Sasha falls asleep for the last time, surrounded by a family, a home, and a peace that she never could have imagined as a child, she meets death with that same curiosity for the unknown that had brought her out of London a lifetime ago.
And when she wakes alone in a dark, empty tunnel, she’s not frightened.
She rises to her feet in a single fluid motion and then gives a small laugh when she realizes that the knee that’s been giving her problems for ten years no longer hurts. Instinctively, she reaches for the knife she still keeps by her side and, finding it, winds it through her fingers with a quickness she hasn’t had for twenty years. She sheathes it again in satisfaction and takes stock of her surroundings.
Sasha can see perfectly in this darkness, though there are no obvious lights of any kind around. She’s in a narrow corridor with dirty brick walls to each side and worn, grimey stone floors. Above is a high, dark roof, with only tiny pinpricks of lights breaking through like stars. She’s underground, and it’s been so long that it takes her a moment to recognize Other London.
But no, not quite Other London, she realizes as she starts walking, winding her way through twisting, branching alleys, choosing her path randomly. There are no parts of Other London this quiet or empty, not even in the no man’s lands between gang territories. And something about it feels different, too. Not in the smell — that dull, dampness that she breathes in deeply now — nor in the windless warmth that envelops her, but an emotion that she rarely felt there. Safety. Reassurance. A strange certainty that there’s no one here to trap her or hurt her, no one watching or following her. Looking up at the ceiling, she somehow knows without doubt that if she wished, she could find a staircase and climb into the bright skies of Upper London, and nobody would be there to stop her.
She could, but she doesn’t want to. She wants to stay in these familiar tunnels that still feel like home. She keeps walking.
She’s not sure when she becomes aware of the pink glow. It’s sourceless, the whole tunnel bathed evenly in a warm, soft light that seems to slowly grow brighter the further she walks. Curious, Sasha doubles back on her path. The light gradually begins to fade, and something deep inside her tells her that she has no obligation to continue towards the glow. There are no wrong choices here, wherever it is. After a moment’s consideration, she turns around again and heads back in her initial direction. Although she still senses no danger here, she keeps one hand on the hilt of her dagger. There’s comfort, and then there are habits too deep to break.
As the pink light glows brighter, she realizes that its colour seems familiar. Old memories stir in her head: armour, blushing pink, soft on someone so strong. A prickly heat through her whole body, restoring strength to her. The silence of her friends’ hushed voices, standing around Fairhands and waiting for her to be —
“Aphrodite?” Sasha says cautiously, stopping in her tracks. She’d never thought about what Aphrodite’s… place might look like, but from the clean halls of the temple in Cairo, she didn’t reckon the goddess would mess around down here.
As soon as the name leaves her lips, however, she feels a change. The pleasant warmth of the tunnels seems even more comfortable, the pink glow is brighter, the sense of reassurance in her chest grows deeper, and she knows she’s right. She waits for a response, unsure what Aphrodite will sound like. In the stillness, Sasha’s fingers wander to the pendant held on a string around her neck: a wooden heart, carved years ago in the likeness of Azu’s. A reminder of what might have been. When several minutes pass in silence, she tries again.
“Uh… so is this like, where I’m supposed to be? Forever?” she says, trying not to sound ungrateful. This isn’t such a bad place, after all. Probably better than what a lot of people get.
The presence inside her, surrounding her, finds that funny, she thinks. Not in a cruel way — Sasha doesn’t feel that rush of embarrassment she still sometimes gets when she fails to follow a conversation — but as if it’s sharing a private joke with her. And Sasha smiles too, because she also knows that it’s funny. This is a waiting place. Her waiting place, until…
“Right, so like, after this one, where am I gonna go?” Sasha says, and suddenly she’s remembering her doubling back, and she knows the answer is the same. Wherever she wants. Back, forward, up, down, nowhere at all. It’s her choice.
“Right. Right. And I guess I won’t know what that is until I… right,” she says, and starts off again down the tunnel towards the light of Aphrodite.
As she walks, still wandering through Other London’s empty side streets and back alleys, memories come to her, as vivid as they were sixty years ago. Their first meeting, outside the temple of Aphrodite and a promise, so quickly and genuinely given, to save her. Awkward conversations in Hamid’s home and, amid moonshine drunkenness, a realization of Azu’s beauty when she laughed. Her strength in fighting and the tenderness with which she held out the Heart of Aphrodite. A goofy grin when she realized that she’d jumped from a moving vehicle for no reason. Her panicked face at the kidnappings, and Sasha’s knowledge she’d need to follow her to Rome. The last moments before their last planar shift, not knowing that when she opened her eyes again, Azu would be gone.
“Aphrodite, mate,” Sasha says. “I don’t know what you want, showing me these things. I know I lov… I know I could have loved her, if I hadn’t, like, fallen. But I did. And I had a life, and it was a good life, probably better than I deserved, if you ask some people. Can’t go back and change that now.”
Unless I can, she thinks, and she’s so surprised at the thought that she stops walking again.
“Wait, what? How? I’m not, y’know, I don’t really know magic and stuff, but I don’t think… I, mean, I don’t know, but…”
And then somehow, suddenly she does know. She knows that there are people connected by the possibility that they might love each other, fated by Aphrodite to be in the right place to fall in love, if they want to. That she and Azu were like that. That the fates of love had gotten a little messed up when she went to the wrong time and they never got their chance. But that fate is strong, strong enough to give them another try if plane shifts ruined it the first time. Strong enough to bring someone back, even if they’d lived another life. She only has to choose that path.
“Oh,” says Sasha, and is quiet for a very long time. She keeps one hand on her dagger and the other fingering her pendant as she turns over the possibility in her head. “Yeah, I reckon, like, that would be… but it won’t be for a long time, right? Cause she won’t actually be alive for… yeah. I guess, yeah, I guess I’ll wait and… come back?”
There is, as always, no response. The pink glow, brighter now that she’s walked further, remains silent and impassive, and Sasha’s sure that it’ll wait patiently for her until she returns. Muttering a quiet, sincere “thanks,” Sasha turns around again.
Sasha’s not quite sure how time works here, but she knows she has a lot of it.
Time enough to find Grizzop, to hunt with him in his moonlit forest and laugh at old stories beside a warm campfire.
To walk with Cicero in endless green fields, so like the ones surrounding their old villa.
To greet Maximus, Vibia, Paulla, Hostus — all the children she adopted — as their times come, and to ruffle their hair with pride at all they achieved.
To sit in Aphrodite’s pink light and think of Azu and all those she loved, in so many ways — Zolf, Hamid, Bi Ming, Wilde. To hope that she might meet them again, when she comes back.
To find Brock in the alleyways of her Other London, and to hold him in the longest hug she’s ever given. To play dice behind Butcher Jones. To let him win this time.
Although she can’t see the material plane, she knows when to return — when the world has been saved and there is time for uninterrupted love.
She finds herself once again in empty tunnels, walking towards pink glow. With every turn, the light becomes brighter, until the corridors are soaked in Aphrodite’s love. As it becomes blinding and Sasha begins to feel the familiar prickly heat of renewed life, she closes her eyes and keeps walking, each step a choice to go back.
She doesn’t stop until the pink light behind her eyelids has turned to yellow. She opens her eyes to sunlight. Around her are large, ornate buildings and, in the distance, pyramids. Although it’s free of the sand that covered it when she was last here, Sasha recognizes the main Cairo strip.
It’s just as crowded as it always was, and several people glance at Sasha, standing still on the busy street. She reaches for her dagger and finds it in her jacket pocket — her studded leather jacket, the one that she’d given to little Maximus when she’d stopped going out on jobs so much. She looks down at her old clothes with a smile and feels for her wooden pendant. Her body, once ageless in the afterlife, feels firm and material, and the scars that she’d gotten while younger are less faded than they’d become in Rome.
She breathes deeply and starts walking to the Temple of Aphrodite. The woman behind the desk shows her to the high priestess’s office despite Sasha’s awkward mumbles about knowing the way. She stands in front of the familiar door for a moment, fear coming to her for the first time since before she died. Eventually, as clerics and paladins pass her by with strange looks, Sasha works up the courage to knock.
Azu opens the door. She’s different than Sasha remembers — older, with new scars and a battleworn face that has not diminished the kindness of her smile. She’s traded her armour for long pink robes, but the replica of the Heart of Aphrodite still hangs by a chain around her neck. She stares at Sasha, a mixture of shock and joy on her face.
“Hi,” Sasha says, grinning.
She steps inside, and they try again.