Achilles stood up. He had been expecting the stranger since Megaera had stalked past him, elegant despite the anger and blood dripping from her. If he could send a fury to the Pool of Styx, he would make short work of the shades of Tartarus eventually.
What Achilles had not expected was that the stranger would be so short - almost human, in fact. Was this not some great new god, sent by Olympus to wreak destruction on the Underworld for reasons unknown? Regardless, he would go no further. He was already limping; Achilles twirled his spear idly.
“I congratulate you on making it this far, stranger,” said Achilles. “But none may enter the Master’s halls without permission.”
The godling’s eyes - one green, one red - were transfixed by the spear’s arc.
“Are you… Achilles?” he said hesitantly.
The godling’s face broke into a wide smile and Achilles was taken aback. Did the best of Greeks still have a friend on Olympus? Or did the gods speak so fondly of Achilles’ wrath that this new one sought a chance to prove his mettle?
“I’m glad to finally find you, sir,” said the stranger. “Patroclus is well and he sends his regards! I’m only sorry it took me so long to pass on - ”
He continued on in that vein but Achilles no longer heard him. Rage. Rage. The sort he had thought he’d left behind in his rotting flesh. The sort that pulsed through him, drowning out all other sounds like the waves of earth-shaking Poseidon. How dare he make a mockery of Achilles - of Patroclus, who was lost to Achilles for eternity?
“...Sir?” came the godling’s voice, faint and loathsome.
Achilles moved. A blink of an eye and he was on the godling. Another blink, and his spear was in the godling’s gut.
“No, wait - !”
But he was already fading. Achilles twisted, and the stranger was gone completely. Dissolved into a shower of spring rain. Achilles panted harshly as he collected his thoughts. As always, after the fury came the self-recrimination. It was no longer his job to get angry; the Master would be displeased.
Still: feet soft as snowflakes, a sword like a wicked icicle, and now sweet-smelling rain. This was Demeter’s work. He had something concrete to warn the lord and lady of, at least.
And the stranger would be back. That kind always was. Achilles sat down once more to wait.
The next time, the godling eyed him warily. No more wide, bright smiles from him. Good. He looked better, his skills clearly improving with every attempt. No mortal could improve like that: a mortal would have to pull back when the godling could leap forward instead. Unlike mortals, he could always try again if he failed.
Was that a note of jealousy in his old age? Achilles laughed silently at himself. He had never pulled back in life either, and he most certainly would not in death. He had a job to do.
“Halt, stranger,” Achilles said. “You will go no further.”
The stranger sighed.
“Sir, must we do this? Getting out of the Underworld is forbidden, but I’m trying to get in. Won’t you let me through?”
He had a point, this soft-spoken lunatic. Nevertheless…
“The Master’s orders are absolute. Turn back now, stranger.”
The godling’s voice was half plea, half oath: “I can’t.”
“Then you will need to pass through me.”
An unsettling green-red flash of eyes. Where had Achilles seen those colours before..? Ah, no time to think. The godling was fast and well-trained. That thrust was Ares’, that side-step was Athena’s. One day the godling would grow into such power that mortals would press their faces into the dirt at his ice-blue feet. But for now, he could not match a man who'd fought for ten long years at the walls of Troy.
A spearpoint to the heart, and Achilles stood alone again in a quiet drizzle.
It took longer for the godling to come back. Rumour was that the Master had sent Megaera’s sisters, either to replace her or to back her up. It was only whispers - nobody was fool enough to speak of Megaera’s failures too loudly - but Achilles believed it. The fury was in a rotten mood and he took care to stay out of her way in the halls.
But the stranger managed to make it past Tisiphone and Alecto eventually. Achilles greeted him with a nod.
“You are very persistent,” he remarked. “Only two have come this far before. One to seek his own wife, and one to seek Lord Hades’.” And what do you seek? Achilles had meant to continue with. But he had seen the godling’s flinch.
So. He was here for the queen, was he? The queen, who stayed the worst of the Master’s anger. The queen, who had a kind word for everyone who served in Hades’ halls. The queen, who was weak still from the loss of her child, and cried bitterly when she thought no one heard.
The anger that filled his veins this time was as icy cold as the godling’s sword. It left Achilles remarkably clear-headed.
“Ah,” said Achilles. “Then come closer, stranger, so I can cut you down once more.”
The godling was too used to fighting stupid shades. He had not expected Achilles to sweep his legs out from under him. His neck crunched satisfyingly under Achilles’ sandal. With a delicate sneer, Achilles stepped out of the puddle of cool spring water.
In Greece, Achilles’ anger could blaze red-hot for years on end. Here, with no mortal vessel to fill up, it ebbed and flowed like the tides. That was lucky for the godling. Achilles, alive, might have torn out his tongue to shut him up; Achilles, dead, listened with a raised eyebrow.
“I mean the queen no harm,” said the godling, lying with the same earnest, open face as he had about Patroclus. Perhaps he was the god of untruths. “I’m here on behalf of her mother, who misses her dearly.”
“And why did she send a messenger and not herself?”
Curious: here, the godling floundered. “Well - of course - everyone knows the Olympians cannot enter the Underworld without an express invitation.”
“Do you not think there is a reason for that, stranger?”
Green-red eyes narrowed. The godling was loyal to Lady Demeter and her kin. He did not taken slander against them lightly, no matter how veiled. But Achilles was loyal too. Loyal to the Master, who was fair in his dealings. Loyal to the queen, who deserved to grieve in peace. And loyal to Patroclus, still and always, who might not even remember his old lover but who would nevertheless pay the price if Achilles stepped out of line. What was this youngster’s loyalty to those three ties?
“A reason to keep a child from her mother? No.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Achilles. “But there are plenty of reasons to keep a mother from her child.”
He settled the spear more tightly in his grip and swung.
“And what do you get out of it?” said Achilles after a few more of the stranger’s tries.
By now, they barely nodded at each other before getting down to business. One tended to dispense with the pleasantries quickly after killing a man; Achilles imagined that should he see Hector down here, they would not start with formal rites of greeting either.
“I get to see Demeter smile, sir.”
Now that was unexpected. Unlike mortals, gods did not typically wage war for reasons that simple.
“What is she to you?”
“She raised me,” said the godling, like it explained everything. Maybe it did. “She found me dead, or almost dead. Nobody knew who I was or where I’d come from. But she took me in. Loved me like I was her own nephew or grandson.”
Not like he was her own child, Achilles noted. Lady Demeter’s sorrow ran too deep for that. One child could not replace another. But a beloved grandson: was that not even better in some respects? Achilles held no deep affection for his mother, though he honoured her greatly, but he had fond memories of his father’s mother. She’d spoiled him a little when he was young; he’d carried her on his back when he was older.
“I understand,” said Achilles. He did. “But that means we are at an impasse, stranger. I too have someone who I want to see smile.” See being a very loosely applied word here; seeing was not in his contract. “Thus, you must pass and I cannot let you.”
To that, the godling gave one of his rare frowns.
“I still think this is all a big misunderstanding, sir,” he announced. “Olympus and the Underworld have too many secrets. If you’d just let me talk to everyone…”
Or maybe he was the god of diplomacy, some distant cousin of Lord Hermes. Achilles had changed his mind: the godling fought too honestly to be the liar that Achilles had first taken him for. He telegraphed his attacks cheerfully, almost pointedly; there was no guile in his movements. But all that meant nothing.
“I cannot take that chance,” said Achilles. “Now, come.”
The stranger opened his mouth to argue and then closed it again. Once more, they began their deadly dance.
What a dangerous game the godling was playing. This time, the whispers were even quieter. When Megaera had risen from the Pool of Styx last, carefully rinsing her long hair of blood, there had been a most curious look on her face. A delicate pink on her cheeks, a slightly furrowed brow. Megaera, the rumours said, was flustered. Megaera, the rumours said, had a crush.
Achilles took absolutely no stock in them. Not even when he caught Megaera staring into the distance with an odd glint in her eye. Not even when he accidentally overheard Dusa and Megaera’s hushed discussions in the lounge. Not even when Achilles casually mentioned the fury and the godling turned bright red and dropped his sword. It was safer that way.
But he had to stifle hysterical laughter when he stumbled upon Thanatos, death himself, with the same glint.
Death and fury remained cordial with each other, perhaps even affectionate. Achilles comforted himself that at least the stranger was not a complete fool.
“Why… can’t I beat you?” panted the godling, bent over his knees.
Achilles should run him through now. End it quickly, as it always had to be ended. Instead the words rolled off his tongue with no consultation from his mind: “You overcommit on the last thrust in the sequence, lad. Shorten your stance a little, and bend your right knee more.”
He stopped, flustered. This was not one of his young Myrmidons, frustrated that he couldn’t keep up with his commander. This was an immortal god growing into terrifying powers. What was Achilles doing? Judging by the stranger’s stare, he was asking himself the same thing.
The River Styx take him, Achilles had come to like this godling. He enjoyed the matches that grew steadily harder to win. And he liked the friendly, polite smiles that preceded them. Everyone in the halls of Hades smiled so rarely, since.
The godling’s smile turned into a beam.
“Thank you, sir. I feel like I learn a lot from you each time.” He hesitated and then took the plunge. “From both of you. Patroclus warned me about my stance too, but he couldn’t pinpoint the mistake as clearly. He said you were always better at that part, when you could be bothered. His words, sir, not mine.”
Breathe, Achilles, even if shades had no need for breath. If this was a feint to distract him, it was a good one. The godling could lop off his head with one swift motion - Achilles was drowning too deeply in his feelings to attempt a block. When you could be bothered. Unlike the first message, this sounded exactly like Pat.
“Sir?” said the godling. One hand outstretched in worry, but staying a good distance away. No threat.
Patroclus hadn’t drunk of the River Lethe. Patroclus remembered him.
“Should we call this one a draw?” offered the godling eventually. Hopefully.
No. No, this changed nothing. So long as Achilles remained at his post, Patroclus remained in Elysium: that was the deal. He would not lose Pat that honoured place, right after learning that Pat - his Pat, the Pat who remembered his lover enough to comment dryly on young Achilles’ mercurial attention - still resided there.
After all this time, Achilles was still a soldier. Later, there would be time to think and feel; for now, an enemy stood before him.
“No need, stranger. But thank you,” he said and charged.
The godling’s movements changed gradually. Here was Athena’s block, there was Ares’ lunge. But here also was Patroclus’ backswing and there was Achilles’ feint. It made Achilles’ heart pound, his blood sing. When was the last time he’d had a battle like this? Had he ever had a battle like this?
And now, too, there was something that Achilles had never seen before, something wholly unique to the godling. Yet tinged with something… something… Something lurking at the edge of his thoughts, a familiar presence that he…
Achilles’ contract did not include thinking. He would not hesitate when his spear pierced the godling’s skin. Regardless of whether it felt like he was fighting his lover, or himself, or that unknown known. The rain felt as familiar as the sea’s spray had once been.
“Is it Patroclus you’re protecting?” said the godling.
Careful, careful there, stranger.
“I’ll think of something,” said the godling. A flash of solemn green and red; a glimpse of who he would grow to be. Even dead, it sent a mortal chill up Achilles’ spine. “I promise, sir, that I won’t let anyone be harmed for my choices.”
A pretty speech, cut off by Achilles’ spear through his throat. The godling’s eyes widened and -
And finally, finally Achilles realised why that green and red looked so familiar. It couldn’t be. It was. Lord Hades and Lady Persephone’s eyes stared back at him from the godling’s face - the long-lost prince’s face.
Cold droplets on his skin as Achilles paced back and forth. He could be wrong. It was impossible, surely, though the immortal gods lived in impossibility. But he could be wrong. Would others not have noticed too? Megaera and Thanatos, surely they had noted the colour of his eyes, if not that the stranger’s sword sweep mirrored Varatha’s arc exactly. He could be wrong.
Achilles’ contract did not include thinking. Achilles’ last mistake had cost Patroclus everything and a second would cost him even more. There were plenty of reasons to keep a mother from her child.
Achilles was not good with hesitation and Achilles was not good with fear.
Even his prince - no, the stranger - noticed the uncertainty of his strikes. Patroclus had once informed him, utterly fed up, that Achilles’ greatest enemy was himself. He was fighting his enemy very hard today.
His gut writhed with shame: at the godling’s look of concern, at his inability to make the right choice, at his fear. The shame slithered into his arms and there turned his attacks wild and furious.
“Sir, wait - ” panted the godling. “What happ - ”
Achilles had no patience for his words today. The godling dodged and misstepped. Hit the ground hard. He rolled out of the way of the spear quickly - Pat’s move, that - and popped up a cautious distance away. But his shoulder was broken. Today’s fight would go quickly.
The godling knew it too.
“Wait, before you…” he said, still backing up. “I have a message. He says that you should act as you will. He says to remind you: fear is for the weak.”
That was all. He raised his sword gamely. The kind, determined prince always fought to the end.
And then he stopped hesitating. If Pat wanted Achilles to plunge a knife into his own heart, Achilles would do so gladly. If Pat wanted Achilles to plunge a dagger into Pat’s, then he would weep and rage and through his tears still do so. Fear is for the weak.
He parried the prince’s first thrust. Despite his injury, the attack was lightning fast. Masterful. The prince had grown strong; Achilles was proud of his role in that, if nothing else. But he was still no match for Achilles. It was no boast: there simply had not been and would not be one such as him. Achilles could still step left and slash the prince from throat to groin.
He thought of Patroclus, who trusted him despite everything.
Fear is for the weak.
He stepped right. Straight into the prince’s sword.
“Well done, lad,” he managed.
It’s only dying the first time that’s hard.
Achilles missed the family reunion. He’d been hustled out of the Pool of Styx and tucked away in a corner by Nyx herself. How much and how early had she realised? From her daughters the Fates, or from the shy smile on her son’s face, or from what she herself saw in her former realm? Achilles had no wish to know.
He had cast his die and now he was grateful to keep out of the way until the dust settled.
Contrary to Olympus’ beliefs, Lady Persephone loved Lord Hades and dwelt in his halls willingly. Contrary to the Underworld’s beliefs, their prince was not dead. Contrary to Prince Zagreus’ beliefs, he had a mother, a father, a grandmother, and myriad other relatives who loved him, wished him well, and were also absolutely furious with him.
It turned out Lady Demeter had not sent him. After hearing an uncle’s off-hand speculation that Lady Persephone might be prisoner in the Underworld, he had armed himself with his grandmother’s sword and cloak and come of his own accord. In hopes of making her smile, yes.
All this Achilles heard as rumours - sometimes it seemed that the shades had nothing else to do but whisper. Achilles had not yet been summoned by the royal family, though he had no illusions that the Master might not know what he had done. And yet, he was at peace. Patroclus had trusted him to make his choice and Achilles had made it.
He would await their fates, content.
Their fates came in the form of Zagreus dashing towards him. There was a familiar smile on his lips, accompanied by soft words of greeting. But then he turned serious.
“My… Lord Father,” Zagreus tripped over the novel words, “has realised you let me win. He’s not too pleased with you.”
“I can’t imagine why,” said Achilles dryly. Commanders did not much like it when their soldiers acted on their own morals and not their orders. It sort of defeated the purpose of giving orders in the first place.
The immortal gods were all-powerful of course, but it had been foolish of Lord Hades to think he could succeed where bull-headed Agamemnon had failed.
“He wanted to declare your contract void,” Zagreus went on, and Achilles marvelled that he felt only the softest touch of dread. Fear is for the weak. His prince would not smile if Pat was in danger. “But Mother yelled at h - uh, talked some sense into him. He can’t punish you for bringing him happiness, she says.”
Oh, but Lord Hades could. It would probably bring him an even greater happiness. The Master had a perverse sense of humour that Achilles rather admired - when he was not its target.
The prince’s thoughts seemed to be heading the same way, so he moved on hastily: “Still, we both thought it’d be good for you to keep scarce for a while, sir. So I… arranged for you to be temporarily exiled. To Elysium.”
Shades had no need for breath. So why did Achilles feel his had been knocked from him? He found he had to lean heavily on his spear as he stared at Zagreus. Could it be that simple? The gods were known to deceive mortals, to spin with clever words their greatest desires into their worst fears.
“I hope I haven't overstepped, sir,” fretted the god who'd casually fulfilled Achilles’ dearest wish.
But not Zagreus, who stumbled over lies of omission and called lowly shades ‘sir’. There was a reason the gentle queen had sent him in her stead. From Zagreus, it could only be the truth.
“N-not at all, my prince,” managed Achilles. “I thank you.”
But that did not seem enough. He bowed low, as he had not bowed to anyone in life and only to the Master in death. Above him, Zagreus waved his arms frantically.
“We should be thanking you! The whole royal family is forever in your debt.”
That was not how it worked between gods and mortals. But the prince was young still and Achilles would hold the kind words close to his heart for all eternity. He straightened, smiling.
“Then I look forward to our next meeting, whenever it may be.”
“Actually, it might be closer than you think,” Zagreus grinned. “Lord H - Father’s asked me to check the Underworld’s defenses. He wants to make sure getting out remains harder than getting in. It’ll be odd going the other way, but I’m glad I won’t have to fight you any more, sir.”
Achilles laughed softly.
“I’m glad, too, my prince. A few more battles, and you would have beat me fair and square. This way I get to keep my pride.”
He would treasure this forever too: Zagreus’ look of pure wonder and delight. He thought of it often on his long, careful journey up to Elysium and finally - finally - to Pat. Achilles could lie far better than Zagreus could, but not to himself. If ‘a few’ was not quite the truth, it was close enough to it. Achilles was only human after all, and he was content with that too.
For a long time - though time was meaningless in Elysium’s green fields - their hearts turned to other matters. But eventually, above the rush of the clear, unfathomable waters of Lethe, Achilles asked Patroclus, “That first time, did you really send your regards with Zagreus?”
“I believe I said, ‘Tell him not to be an idiot if he can help it.’”
Achilles laughed too and brought their intertwined hands up to kiss Pat’s knuckles. That he would have believed. Their sweet, polite, ever-surprising prince. How much trouble he would have saved if he’d been a little less diplomatic.
Ah, well. Achilles leaned in for another kiss: one of the fathomless myriad that eternity together granted them, each one unique. Who cared how many tries it took, when the result was so sweet?