Tine always said it was the guitar that made him fall in love with Sarawat. Sarawat likes to pretend that's not why he kept playing it long after he needed to, but since he quits the day Tine dies, the lie doesn't work, not even on himself.
He should've known it wouldn't last. With Sarawat, nothing good does.
They met because Boss, bewitched by a dancing oak nymph, dragged Sarawat into the woods. Tine said, in that funny bright voice of his, “You're the one who plays the guitar in the meadow.”
“Yes,” Sarawat said, a little startled.
“Well then,” Tine said, his smile still on his lips. “Play.”
“Why don't you try to do something about it?” Man asks.
“No one comes back from Hades,” Sarawat says. “It would be a waste of his time. He'd just wind up disappointed.”
“I mean, mortals don't come back from Hades.” Man levels a long look at Sarawat. “Wat, isn't your dad Apollo?”
“We don't have a dad,” Phukong replies, and then frowns and turns to Sarawat, too. “Wait, our dad is Apollo.”
Sarawat stares back at them coolly. He and Apollo haven't spoken since Apollo dropped this stupid guitar in Sarawat's lap and taught him to play it. Apollo has too many children to bother with the defective ones, probably. The son of a god and all he has to show for it is a stupid instrument.
“Hercules had a god for a dad and a mortal mother,” Man says. “He went to the Underworld. Why can't you?”
“Hades doesn't let anyone out,” Phukong says. “Especially not someone like Wat.”
“He's probably in love with him,” Man says. “Maybe you can play that up or something.”
“It's worth trying,” Boss says. He talks almost as rarely as Sarawat does now. Maybe he blames himself.
Sarawat stands up and leaves the room.
Tine died on their wedding day.
It was stupid. Boss drunkenly challenged him to a footrace. Tine, ever-competitive, accepted. Sarawat remembers leaning back on the grass, not annoyed, lightheaded and lighthearted, sipping wine and letting Man talk into his ear about some sport.
Then Boss running back, tripping over his own feet, face white. “It's Tine.”
Sarawat doesn't remember standing up or running into the woods, which is strange because he remembers everything.
He does remember Tine on the ground.
“It was a viper,” Boss said. “I don't know how to help him.”
It was too late anyway. Tine was dead before Sarawat reached him.
“At least he wasn't in pain for long,” Man said when Sarawat brought Tine back. “He didn't have to suffer.”
It took all Sarawat's self-control not to stab Man where he stood.
“I mean, yeah, sure, you can go if you want to,” Apollo says when Sarawat requests an audience with him. Apollo doesn't even look surprised to see him. Probably a lot of his children show up demanding things from him. “Hades will obviously let you come back, we're family. Not like you and your brother, either, he actually likes me. You still play the guitar?”
“No,” Sarawat says.
“You should take it with you. Persephone is a huge sucker for some good music. I think they must not get any down there.”
“How do I get Tine back?”
“He's a mortal, right?”
“A wood nymph.”
“Hm, that's a tricky one. You should just go ask. I'm sure he'll do you the favor, it's no big deal, I mean, like, a thousand people die every day or something, right? You guys—well, not you guys, but mortals and semi-mortals in general—die all the time. From any shit. How did Tine die?”
“A snake,” Sarawat says. “Hades will let him come back?”
“You'll probably have to make some kind of deal with him. Be careful, though, he's a tricky bastard. Don't bullshit either of them, just tell them the truth, you know? Your lover died. It's a shitty situation.” Apollo chuckles. “You know, I kind of miss him. Hades, I mean. Maybe I'll go down there with you, say hi to old Uncle Underworld. What do you think?”
Sarawat wouldn't know. He leaves the temple.
Being the son of a god has rarely done anything for Sarawat. He doesn't burn in the sun, and he plays the guitar pretty well, and he's always been good with a bow and arrow. That's about it.
Except now. Apollo gets him into the Underworld with relative ease. There's no river crossing or torture to go through. He just walks out of the temple, and walks into Hades' court.
“It's not often we see one of you here,” Hades says. “Usually, Apollo's sons stay out of trouble. Well, not out of trouble. Just out of the way of death.”
He doesn't look how Sarawat imagined him to look.
Sarawat says, “I want to play you a song.”
Hades opens his mouth, but next to him, Persephone says, “Oh? Then play.”
For the son of a god and a wood nymph, Sarawat and Tine lived a humble life. Sarawat whittled wood and took on occasional carpentry projects; Tine maintained a store of herbs to help people with a variety of problems, from illness to a desire for love.
Tine always said Sarawat could probably earn great riches if he played for some king or queen, and Sarawat always replied that the guitar was boring and that if they needed riches, they'd steal them.
“I've stolen gold before,” Tine said, reclining on their couch.
When they were alone, Tine always dressed down, legs and shoulders mostly bare. He covered the scars around other people, but around Sarawat he never cared. After all, Sarawat had seen them all before and been indifferent.
Tine continued, “My mother and I needed to eat, and we were close to the sea. No woods to forage.”
Not really indifferent, of course; if Sarawat thought about too much, that little kernel in the pit of his stomach that could still feel rage would start to pulse, and he would stare a little too much at the burn on Tine's shoulder or the scarred skin on his face. So much of what Sarawat remembers about Tine is just that feeling, that need to protect him, a desire to build a moat and a dozen towers around their house so no one could ever get in and touch Tine
“I don't like saltwater fish. We stole gold instead, and then we used it to buy bread at the market.”
“Why not steal the bread directly?”
“I would have,” Tine said. “When I was younger, I did it all the time.”
“It was easier to steal gold when I was older. Nobody at the market suspects a child with his mother. Everyone suspects a dirty teenager. So I went to pubs, picked drunkards' pockets, and used the winnings to buy us a feast and a bed for the night.”
Sarawat could imagine it. Tine the nymph leaning close to some drunk merchant, spinning his lies with that unearthly beauty. The poor drunks never stood a chance. Tine probably didn't even know that was why his lies worked so well. Who wouldn't want to believe some gorgeous boy found them charming? Who wouldn't let him cop a feel and steal their money?
“Not because of some sense of nobility then,” Tine said. “Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.”
Tine laughed. “I didn't care about any of them. I just cared about not getting caught.”
That was the irony of it all. In the end, it wasn't Tine's father or one of the people he stole from that got him. It was a snake in the woods, and wasn't that exactly what Tine had been the whole time? A forked tongue, always lying, could barely keep his stories straight; and always in the woods. Sometimes when Sarawat woke up he'd see Tine just coming in from some long nighttime trip to the forest to do whatever it is wood nymphs do.
Sarawat could have built a hundred moats and a thousand watch towers. He could've hired a whole army to keep Tine safe, and Tine still would have gone to the woods to race Boss, and he still would have died.
He plays for so long his fingers go numb. He plays every song he knows, and when he finishes, makes new songs up.
Persephone closes her eyes and smiles. Then she stands up, curls her fingers around Hades', and twirls around the room with him. She makes up words to sing along. She sits back down and weeps.
“Your music is so beautiful,” she says, “but it is so sad. What has made you so sad, son of Apollo?”
“I love someone who died.”
“Death is no cause for grief,” Hades says. “It is simply a new journey.”
“It isn't my death I care about.” Sarawat's throat is surprisingly dry. He swallows. “It's Tine's.”
“You want to switch places with him?” Hades says. “That is easy to do. Your life is worth a little more, since you are the son of a god, but—”
“Don't be ridiculous,” Persephone says. “He wants to take Tine back with him.”
“Oh. Well, that's a good deal more difficult.”
“He would not be the first person you gave back to the upper world.”
“But if he looks at him—”
“Yes, everyone knows that.”
“It is impossible.”
“Can't we try?”
“Why bother, if it won't work?”
Sarawat watches them, and, desperate, starts to play again. His fingers are clumsy: he hadn't played at all in the last year, and has now played for longer than he's ever played before.
Persephone and Hades turn to watch him. She gestures to Hades, who nods slowly.
Sarawat doesn't know what else to do. He says, hating the word even as it comes out of his mouth, “Please.”
“There are rules,” Hades says. “You have to walk back to the upper world.”
Something in Sarawat's chest gives. It has become suspiciously difficult to breathe.
“You can't look at him. He has to stand behind you.”
“How will I know you aren't lying?”
“You won't,” Hades says. “You will have to trust that he is there, and then walk until both of you reach the upper world.”
“I'll give you a tip,” Persephone says. “Don't turn around at all, even when you get back. Wait until he catches up to you.”
That's it. He's supposed to trust the lord of death and his wife. He just has to believe that Tine is there, and if he isn't, Sarawat will get to the upper world and wait and wait and wait.
“How far behind me will he be?”
“He's fast,” Persephone says. “He'll catch up fast. That's not the hard part.”
Sarawat gets it. It's a test of self control.
“If you look at him, he'll be dead for good,” Hades says. “That's how it works. If someone living sees a dying soul, the soul stays dead. So you can't look at him until he's alive again.”
“Just bring him.”
“He's already here,” Persephone says, smiling. “He's right behind you.”
Sarawat's reflex is to turn. He barely stops himself.
“How do I know?” he says.
“It's me,” Tine says.
Sarawat exhales all at once. There is no way it can possibly be Tine. It's a trick. It's bullshit. Apollo warned him.
“I know you think I'm a liar,” Tine says, “but it's really me. Trust me. Just this once.”
“Go that way,” Persephone says, pointing to a door off the side of the hall that Sarawat didn't notice before. “Walk until you see the sun, and then walk until you see your home. Don't turn back. Don't look at him.”
“If you see him, he is dead for good, and no amount of guitar-playing will save him,” Hades says. “No matter how much my wife likes it.”
“Why don't you play while you walk?” Persephone suggests. “To take your mind off the distance.”
Sarawat's fingers are raw and chapped. He doesn't want to touch this guitar ever again. He wants to set it on fire.
“Please,” Persephone adds. “As a thank you present, for our generous favor.”
Sarawat hates the idea of owing anyone anything, especially the god and goddess of death. He plays.
Sarawat walks. Tine is behind him. He has to believe that. They don't talk much, but he has to believe it. Those footsteps aren't his imagination. That slightly labored breathing isn't just his own echoed back at him.
They walk through layers of dead people. Some of them notice Sarawat's guitar. Some of them notice Tine. That's the other way he can believe it. No one fawns over Sarawat's beauty.
“What a sad song,” a dead girl says, reaching out, inches away from Sarawat's guitar. “Why are you so sad?”
Sarawat ignores her and keeps playing. His fingers have blistered. He's never played this long before, but he keeps at it anyway. It's a good distraction from the actual act. It's a good way to keep Tine behind him, even when they pass through the darker parts of the Underworld, even when it's too dark to see.
Sarawat walks, and he doesn't look back.
Sarawat sees the sun.
He keeps walking.
Sarawat sees their house.
He stops just short of the door and waits.
“You should bandage your fingers,” Tine says. “I think I have some agrimony inside. Come on.”
Sarawat squeezes his eyes shut. Tine is so close that Sarawat can feel his body heat. He thinks he hasn't stood this close to anyone in a year. Actually, he doesn't think he's been touched at all in a year.
“I'm here,” Tine says. “It's done. You did it. Open your eyes. This isn't a trick.”
Sarawat keeps his eyes closed. “How should I know you aren't lying?”
“I don't lie to you,” Tine says. “You know that. I haven't lied to you in years.”
Sarawat does know that.
Slowly, half-sure it'll be the biggest mistake he's ever made, Sarawat opens his eyes.
Tine has never looked like this before, at least not when Sarawat knew him. Death renewed him, unblemished his skin, restored the smoothness of it before his father's torture. His eyes look brighter, somehow; his hair is longer. He's wearing less clothing than Sarawat has ever seen on him in public, legs bare, arms bare, shoulders uncovered. The scar from his father's arrow is gone. All the scars are gone.
“You did it,” Tine says. The corners of his lips drag upward. The sight is so unfamiliar that it takes Sarawat too long to figure out that it's a smile. “You brought me back.”
“Are you real?” Sarawat asks. He didn't mean to. It slipped out, a lapse in self-control—perhaps he expended all the self-control he's ever going to get by not looking back. Perhaps he's just untethered now, and he'll be like this forever.”
“As real as I've ever been, I guess.”
“Your scars are gone.”
“I know. They went away after I died.”
“If I dug you up,” Sarawat says, “would there be anything there?”
“I really wouldn't know.” Tine takes a step closer. “Maybe we can go back to Hades and ask him.”
“Don't say stupid things,” Sarawat says, and then realizes Tine is joking. “You were dead for a year.”
“A year,” Tine says faintly, reaching for Sarawat's jaw and waiting for Sarawat's okay to actually touch it. “It's been that long?”
Sarawat wraps a hand around Tine's. “Yes.”
“You were alone for a year.”
Sarawat opens his mouth to say, I hate you. It won't come out. He kisses Tine instead.