The second time is when it hits him, harder than it did the first.
As Styx's long, bloody arms embrace him and the brave, longing smile of his mother goes blurry and black, something inside Zagreus' chest cracks.
He feels like a shade when he returns, floating and heavy at the same time. He drags himself out of the pool as he always does. He shakes out his hair, as he always does. These moments are usually filled with emotion: anger, accomplishment, often a bit of both. Now, there's nothing.
He made it. He won, yet he strides defeated down the procession. Hypnos pretends to be asleep. Nyx turns her gaze to the floor. At first Zagreus thinks they simply wish to avoid awkward conversation, but then he reaches his mirror and sees that his mismatched eyes are wet with tears.
He can't remember the last time he cried. It was probably over something childish. It didn't hurt. It can't have hurt, not like this, or he wouldn't have forgotten. With the quiet of his room ringing in his ears, he stares at himself. His single green eye mocks him through his reflection.
Zagreus slams his fist into the mirror. The sound is flat and unsatisfying, but his knuckles burn regardless. His reflection ripples at the impact, then settles back into shape. Unable to bear the sight, Zagreus hangs his head. A dull ache travels up his arm.
The bed dips, and Zagreus knows it's Thanatos. Anyone else would have said something by now. Zagreus keeps his tear-streaked face hidden underneath the sheets, doesn't move, doesn't speak as he waits for him to leave.
He counts to twenty, and then to twenty again. He counts to two-hundred. He counts his shaky breaths. He counts the beat of his pounding headache, knocking at the front of his skull.
Zagreus isn't sure how long it's been. Thanatos is still there, weighing down the edge of Zagreus' bed, still as death itself. So still in fact, that Zagreus begins to doubt. Maybe Thanatos left, and he simply didn't notice. Maybe he was never there at all.
Carefully, Zagreus emerges from the blanket grave he built himself, bleary eyes peering over the top of his sheets. There, exactly where Zagreus imagined him, sits Thanatos. His hood's down- his white-gold hair catches the room's dim lighting like snow catches the sun. Zagreus nearly chokes on a new set of tears.
Thanatos must have heard it, because he turns, shifting slightly to look at Zagreus, who immediately crawls back beneath the covers. Just the thought of facing Thanatos makes him feel sick with shame. After everything they've been through, to end up here, like this.
(If only Styx could hold onto him a bit longer, hide him from all three worlds.)
Zagreus imagines Thanatos' thoughts. They scold him, berate him, taunt him through the silence: they were right, he was right all along. Weight shifts on the bed and Zagreus squeezes his eyes shut. Holding his breath, he waits for Thanatos' sigh of disappointment. Waits for the I told you so.
Thanatos' hand finds him overtop the sheets. His fingers fit themselves around the shape of Zagreus' shoulder, tenderly, his thumb strokes back and forth. The friction against the fabric between them kindles a comforting warmth. When Zagreus releases his breath it shatters, escapes him in a fit of barely held-back sobs. Thanatos' hand slides around his back, pulls Zagreus' blanket-bundled body closer.
"I'm here," Thanatos says gently.
Zagreus bursts into tears.
He cries into Thanatos' shoulder. Tirelessly, Thanatos strokes up and down the space between his shoulder blades. He doesn't shush him, he doesn't tell him it's alright. He just sits there, holding him, catching all of his sadness, all of his tears.
Every now and then Zagreus feels a soft kiss ghost his temple, every now and then careful fingers card sweetly through his hair.
They sit like that, together until Zagreus' waters calm, until his breathing straightens out into something even. He feels it, feels the sharp pain dull, feels a sense of calm reinhabit the vacancy in his heart as Thanatos holds him close.
"Are you," Zagreus tries, but his throat still hurts and his nose feels stuffy. "Are you sure it's alright for you to be here?"
"Yes," Thanatos answers.
Zagreus wants to believe him, but, "What about your work?"
A moment of quiet. Then Thanatos asks, "Do you want me to go?"
Zagreus tightens his arms around Thanatos' chest. He shakes his head. Thanatos kisses his hair.
"She…" Zagreus then starts, having to clear his throat midway through, "She told me to come back."
Thanatos doesn't respond right away. He leaves space for Zagreus' feelings, for the weight of his words. Then, gently, he asks, "Tell me about her?"
Zagreus draws a breath, no trembling, no tears. Some of the heaviness inside of him lifts, evaporates under his memories of the sun. "She's so, nice, and where she lives, there's so much color, and it's bright, it's so bright and…"
A day must have passed, or a night, or both. Zagreus cried again somewhere in between, just a little bit, and Thanatos listened as he spewed his frustration, vented his anger, cursed the Fates. He held him as exhaustion lulled him to sleep.
When he woke up they made love, Thanatos' kisses as a rain to wash away the salt of Zagreus' tears. Radiant with afterglow, a smile finally found its way back to Zagreus' lips. Thanatos immediately dove in to taste it, offered a smile of his own in return, and the sheets Zagreus had used to hide got kicked to the floor, now hiding their discarded clothes.
Entangled and still somewhat out of breath, Zagreus stares up at the ceiling with newly lit stars in his eyes.
"I'm going to do it," he says, determined, before rolling onto his side, towards Thanatos' naked body. "I'm going to see her again."
Thanatos smiles. "Can't you wait until we're clothed before mentioning your mother," he says. Zagreus laughs.
A sea of dark clouds parts to a brief, beautiful sunrise.
And life, as well as death, begins anew.