Thanatos is thirteen when he lays his eyes on the prince for the first time.
The encounter is so incidental and so fleeting it doesn’t even seem right to call it a ‘first meeting.’ Ordinarily, it would not be worth remembering at all.
Thanatos remembers, though.
He is barely a week into his apprenticeship with the royal guard, and he is lost. The palace is enormous and labyrinthine, the largest building Thanatos has ever seen, and every hall seems to look identical to the last. The other palace staff members are a serious, ruthlessly efficient bunch, and he is too nervous to stop and ask for directions. He still holds himself awkwardly in his pressed, high-necked, silver-gray uniform.
Somehow, Thanatos manages to turn a corner and find himself walking down the corridor that runs alongside the palace’s massive, colonnaded training courtyard. One side of the corridor is hemmed in by solid wall, the other ringed by a waist-high barrier that affords passerby a full view of the open-air courtyard. The familiar sight of the weapons master, Achilles, gives Thanatos a better sense of his bearings; if he’s right, then his destination should be just on the other side of the courtyard.
As he passes by, head ducked and shoulders stiff, a flash of movement catches at the corner of his vision. He jumps, hand flying reflexively to the hilt of his sword. Then he stills in startled awe once his brain catches up to his eyes.
The boy battling Achilles is about Thanatos’s own age. He wields a massive, sunset-colored sword and moves so quickly Thanatos can barely keep track of him, his feet nothing more than a blur. He has a crown of pitch-dark hair, his limbs long and teenager-lanky, and there is a grin on his face that is so broad, it looks like it must hurt. He carries himself with none of Thanatos’s almost painful self-awareness - he is fearless and unhalting in the way he steps, the way he dodges, the way he swings his sword. When Achilles is forced to shift his footing and go on the defensive, the boy lets loose a whooping, exultant laugh that rings out through the courtyard.
Something inside Thanatos’s chest performs a feat of acrobatics. Quite without his say-so, his feet drag to a halt on the palace corridor’s fine marble floor. He stands there, struck dumb, until Achilles knocks the sword out of the boy’s hands with a well-timed twist of his wrist.
“Well-fought, your highness,” Achilles says, clapping a hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the shock of the title is enough to spur Thanatos back into movement. He drops his gaze and speed-walks away, barely remaining long enough to see the prince’s night-colored head turn in his direction.
After that day, the prince seems to appear around every corner. He is everywhere - laughing in the dining hall, wandering through the gardens, seated beside the king during his majesty’s weekly audiences with the public. Sometimes, as he stands with his fellow guards in a motionless line, Thanatos finds himself turning in the prince’s direction, the way flowers tilt their heads toward the sun. Sometimes, the prince’s eyes flick toward Thanatos in return.
Thanatos always looks away, face hot with embarrassment and something else he cannot name.
In terms of his apprenticeship, Thanatos is a quick study.
He is far from a perfect soldier: slight, antsy, prone to long stretches of sullen silence. He is a hard worker, though, and he was not accepted into the palace’s prestigious training program for nothing. Within a year, he finds himself reporting directly to Charon, the towering, reticent head of palace security.
To learn directly from Charon is an exceptional honor, rarely bestowed upon anyone, much less upon a young boy from a distant line of obscure, long-forgotten nobility. And, it transpires, Charon and Thanatos suit each other well, both serious and quiet and work-obsessed. Before long, they have developed an almost entirely nonverbal means of communicating with each other.
Thanatos knows he is lucky, that the Fates have handed him blessing after blessing. So he gives thanks, and minds his manners, and reminds himself that it does not matter if his promotion has left him isolated from the other palace apprentices. If the others choose to keep their distance, that suits Thanatos fine. He is not here to befriend the palace staff, after all - he is here to serve his king. Anything else is simply a distraction.
Thanatos is fourteen, and it is terribly lonely, sometimes.
He misses his mother. He misses his brother, too, even though he and Hypnos spent most of their time together engaged in some kind of low-level argument. He misses their little house, tucked into the outskirts of a forest of pines. He misses what it felt like to have someone turn to him and say his name and smile.
He knows it’s a childish habit, but Thanatos takes to carrying around the tiny, patchwork-cloth mouse his mother made for him in his infancy. At this point, Mort is barely more than a scrap of fabric, worn and threadbare after nearly a decade and a half of use. It makes Thanatos feel better to reach into his pocket and feel him there, though. It’s almost like his mother is beside him, her voice warm and familiar in his ear.
That is why, when Mort goes missing, Thanatos feels as though the world is crashing down around him.
To his credit, he mostly keeps his emotions in check as he combs through the palace. Time passes, though, and the dinner hour comes and goes, and still Mort is nowhere to be found. Misery and panic are rising like a tide in Thanatos’s chest.
It’s just a little toy, he reminds himself sternly. I am a servant of the king, and nearly grown besides. This is beneath my dignity.
And then he turns a corner and, finding the corridor ahead completely deserted, he folds over onto himself and starts to cry.
He does not know how long he crouches there, arms curled around his legs and face buried in his knees. Minutes, most likely, though it feels like hours. He is taking slow, deep breaths, finally starting to get his tears under control, when a gentle voice above him says, “Are you all right?”
Thanatos jerks upright, mortified, and the top of his head makes violent contact with something hard. He reels inelegantly and tumbles onto his backside, one hand flying up to cover the throbbing crown of his head. The newcomer has gone to their knees on the floor, their face cupped in their hands, swearing quietly.
“I am so sorry,” Thanatos gasps, one hand half-extended. “Are you-”
And then the newcomer lifts his head, hands falling away from his chin, and Thanatos realizes that he is staring directly into the eyes of the kingdom’s crown prince.
This close, the prince is somehow even more handsome, even at the universally-ungainly age of fourteen. The mismatched colors in his eyes are startling, refracted in the dying evening sunlight, like the tilted reflection off the insides of a geode. There’s something open and kind in the shape of his features, even with the angular line of his jaw and the high cut of his cheekbones. His hair is dark as spilled ink and looks as though it hasn’t seen a brush in years.
Thanatos wishes, fervently, for a lightning bolt to descend from the heavens and strike him down.
“Your highness,” he begins, his voice soft and strangled, but then the prince does something unexpected.
He starts to laugh.
Laughter transforms the prince’s face. It lights him up, sets him aglow from within. Dimples fold deep into his cheeks, his eyes curving into half-moons, the bridge of his nose scrunching ever-so-slightly.
Thanatos blinks, dumbstruck. He feels a little dizzy.
It’s the head injury, he thinks. It must be.
“Sorry,” the prince tells him, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh. I shouldn’t have been looming over you like that. It was my mistake.”
“No, no, it - I’m sorry I struck you. I hope it won’t bruise.”
“I don’t care if it bruises! I just wanted to make sure you were all right,” the prince proclaims. “You’re Thanatos, right? I see you training with Charon, sometimes. He told me you’re the finest apprentice he’s had in decades.”
Thanatos does not have time to process the fact that the prince knows his name. All he can do is nod, slowly, and curl his fingers tightly into the fabric of his pants.
“Yes, your highness,” he hears himself say.
The prince sighs heavily and slumps backwards, keeping himself propped in a seated position by his hands. “Please don’t call me that. Call me Zagreus. Zag, even! I think Zag would be a good nickname, don’t you? I’ve always wanted a nickname.”
“You could,” Zagreus says, firmly, and that is that.
“All right,” Thanatos says, his mouth feeling suddenly strangely dry. “Z… Zagreus.”
“We’ll work up to the nickname, then,” Zagreus decides. “Why were you crying, Thanatos?”
Thanatos blinks. In the chaos, he’d nearly forgotten about the loss of Mort. At the reminder, he has to force himself not to curl up into a pathetic little ball again, right smack in the middle of the hallway.
“It’s nothing. I just… lost something dear to me. It’s very silly, your hi - um. Zagreus. Please don’t let it trouble you.”
Zagreus tilts his head quizzically, his strange, two-toned eyes heavy on Thanatos’s face. “If it’s dear to you, then it’s not silly. I can help you search!”
“I couldn’t possibly-” Thanatos begins, chagrined.
Zagreus shakes his head and gets to his feet in one smooth, graceful motion. “Yes, you could,” he says again, and Thanatos finds his resolve crumbling, just as it had the first time.
Zagreus extends a hand to help him up. Thanatos hesitates, then takes it.
Zagreus’s skin is very warm, his fingers broad where Thanatos’s are narrow and delicate. Their sword-callouses match. Thanatos’s hand is trembling slightly by the time he lets go.
For the first time since he saw the prince, almost a year ago, Thanatos considers the possibility that perhaps Zagreus is just as lonely as he is.
They find Mort within the hour, Zagreus emerging triumphantly from the arms store-room with the little scrap of fabric held aloft. He passes Mort to Thanatos carefully, as if it were a priceless treasure he was handing over instead of a weather-beaten, fourteen-year-old toy.
Thanatos clutches Mort to his chest and very determinedly does not cry.
“Thank you,” he tells Zagreus, as emphatically as he can manage.
“It’s nothing,” Zagreus tells him, beaming, but it is not nothing.
Thanatos will remember this, too.
The years pass quickly after that.
Thanatos is kept busy with his training, but this does not prevent his path from crossing the prince’s with increasing frequency. Thanatos would never dare to call them friends, but they are… something more than strangers, at least. Something separate from lord and servant, as well.
Zagreus’s face lights up whenever he encounters Thanatos in the halls. Without fail, he falls into step at Thanatos’s side to regale him with stories of recent misadventures - his rare triumphs over Achilles in the training courtyard, his increasingly-frequent fights with his father, his abysmal attempts at lyre-playing with palace song-master Orpheus. When Zagreus can slip away from official duties, he and Thanatos eat breakfast together, seated on a palace balcony that overlooks the sunrise. Occasionally, when Charon can spare Thanatos for the afternoon, they train together under Achilles’ watchful eyes.
Thanatos can never force himself to fight wholeheartedly, so Zagreus wipes the floor with him, every time. It’s embarrassing, but when Zagreus reaches down to haul Thanatos to his feet, palm warm against his own, Thanatos can’t bring himself to care.
Both Thanatos and Zagreus grow taller, Thanatos inching closer to Zagreus’s height before finally overtaking him the summer of their sixteenth year. Zagreus fills out, shoulders broadening. He grows into the length of his limbs and out of the ungainliness of puberty. Heads begin to turn toward him as he walks down the palace hallways, chin lifted and back straight.
Thanatos cannot pinpoint the moment he falls in love, if it is a single moment at all.
Sometimes, looking back, he thinks it began that first day in the training courtyard, Zagreus a blur of motion like the antitail of a comet. Or perhaps it began on the floor of that empty corridor, his head still smarting from its violent introduction to Zagreus’s chin. Or maybe it had simply been the gradual product of every day since then, the cumulative effect of every smile, every burst of sudden laughter, every fleeting touch.
This is all incidental, though. In the end, Thanatos knows that the when and the how do not matter. He is a servant of the crown - his oath was to serve and protect the royal family, not fall in love with them.
So, he tucks his feelings for Zagreus away, buries them deep, with the careful touch of someone parting soil to plant a seed.
He’ll grow out of it, he’s sure, the same way he has grown out of his old boots and the uniform they handed him when he first arrived at the palace.
Under Charon’s dedicated tutelage, Thanatos progresses quickly.
At sixteen, he is promoted to a full member of the royal guard, the youngest member of his cohort to drop the title of ‘apprentice’.
At twenty, he is awarded a position in the king’s retinue, a deeply prestigious honor and one reserved for only the kingdom’s very best.
And, at twenty-three, the king summons him into his administrative office. Without looking up from the roll of parchment he’s looking over, Hades announces, “I am appointing you as my son’s personal bodyguard. You will report to his chambers beginning tomorrow morning.”
For a moment, Thanatos is certain he must have misheard. “Your majesty?”
Hades looks up from his quill and ink, raising a single pitch-dark eyebrow. “I am sure you have heard by now that my son has been sneaking out of the palace at night,” he says, his voice a rumble like distant thunder. In his years of palace service, Thanatos has often remarked on the differences between Hades and Zagreus, and this is one of them - Hades speaks like an earthquake, while Zagreus speaks like a smile.
Thanatos very determinedly does not look away or start shuffling his feet, no matter how much he would like to.
“I… have heard a rumor similar to that, yes.”
Hades clicks his tongue impatiently, tossing his quill aside. “Indeed. Gods forbid the entire kingdom not be informed.”
“I am sorry, your majesty-”
“Despite his many shortcomings, my son will someday inherit this kingdom,” Hades interrupts, waving off Thanatos’s apology. “His safety is of paramount importance, but he refuses to cooperate with the previous bodyguards I have appointed. He runs off, shirks his duties, wreaks mayhem in my palace. Not to mention the recent nighttime… escapades. I cannot allow this behavior to continue. He has always held you in a certain esteem. Perhaps he will treat you accordingly.”
Thanatos considers this. “I understand, your majesty, but I do not think Prince Zagreus will stop making trouble just because I am there.”
Hades returns to his parchment, expression unaltered. “That may be so. However, I believe you may serve as something of a moderating influence. Am I to understand that you are protesting because you do not want the position?”
Thanatos ducks his head in a bow, trying to ignore the frantic fluttering of his heart. “Not at all. It would be an honor, of course.”
“Well, then,” Hades says, waving his hand. “You are dismissed. Oh, and, Thanatos? Do ensure that my son never leaves this palace without my say-so again. I am counting on you.”
Thanatos finds Zagreus in the training courtyard, hacking furiously at a training dummy. He leans against one of the columns that rings the perimeter of the court and waits, arms crossed over his chest. After a few minutes, Zagreus lets his sword fall to his side and turns to look at Thanatos, rubbing sweat off his brow with his forearm.
“Father told you, then,” Zagreus says, and there is something strange in his face. Trepidation, maybe? Thanatos has never seen it there before.
“Yes,” Thanatos agrees.
“And… what did you say?” Zagreus asks.
“I said yes, of course,” Thanatos says, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “When have I ever turned down a promotion?”
Zagreus pauses, blinks. The odd expression slips from his face.
“Oh,” he says. “Really? I… thought you wouldn’t want to do it, honestly.”
Thanatos frowns. “Why wouldn’t I want to do it?”
“I have been informed by reliable sources that I am, and I quote, ‘hell on earth to work with,’” Zagreus says, swinging Stygius halfheartedly. “I think I actually made Meg cry once, she was so angry. Alecto didn’t even last a week before punching a hole in the wall and quitting. I figured you wouldn’t… you know. I didn’t think you’d want to put up with me.”
“I put up with you nearly every day, your highness,” Thanatos points out, bemused.
“Zagreus,” Zagreus corrects immediately, and then he winces. “Yes, but not in a professional capacity. It’s different.”
“If you say so,” Thanatos says, slowly.
“I just,” Zagreus says, and then he stops. Scuffs at the ground with one foot. Swings his sword again, just once. “You know. I don’t want you to get sick of me.”
The idea is so preposterous Thanatos almost laughs. Instead, he says, “I do not think that is particularly likely.”
Zagreus looks at Thanatos for so long, Thanatos feels the tips of his ears starting to heat. He wants desperately to look away, but he forces himself to hold Zagreus’s gaze. He knows, though he cannot explain why, that this is important.
Finally, Zagreus says, his voice uncharacteristically small, “Promise me.”
“Promise you won’t get sick of me.”
Without hesitation, Thanatos says, “All right, then, I promise.”
Zagreus looks startled for a second before a smile blooms across his face, radiant as the goddess of the dawn.
Zagreus lasts a month under Thanatos’s supervision before his first nighttime escape.
As soon as Thanatos approaches the door to Zagreus’s chambers, he can tell something is amiss. He wouldn’t be able to put the feeling into words - just a vague sense of unease that opens up inside the pit of his stomach.
He knocks on the door three times and, when there is no answer, pushes it open.
Zagreus’s bedchamber is dimly lit by the glow of the dying embers in his fireplace, but Thanatos does not need light to know that Zagreus is not here. The room is quiet and still, sharp with the smell of fresh, chilly night air; Thanatos crosses the room to the balcony doors, and finds them ajar.
“Of course,” Thanatos whispers.
A few emotions battle their way to the forefront of Thanatos’s mind as he stands in Zagreus’s empty bedroom.
The first is pride-adjacent, just on the border of being impressed; going a full month in between problem-causing is something of an accomplishment for the wayward prince, as Thanatos well knows.
The second is annoyance, because a missing prince means Thanatos can officially kiss a quiet night off and an early bedtime goodbye.
The third is a small, private, bruise-tender ache. As if, somewhere very deep down, Thanatos had hoped that his presence would stop Zagreus from wanting to leave at all.
Shoving each of these emotions aside in turn, Thanatos opens the door to the balcony and steps out into the autumn-chilled night. Once outside, it’s immediately obvious how Zagreus keeps making his escapes - the wall is crawling with branch-thick vines, rough with bark and half-embedded into the stonework. It would be child’s play to climb down; Zagreus could probably do it in his sleep.
Thanatos looks across the gardens below the balcony. There’s no sign of Zagreus, of course, but he can see Cerberus. The king’s massive guard dog is sitting beside the garden’s exit, as always, but he appears to be lying on his belly and chewing frantically on something.
Thanatos sighs and turns on his heel, striding back through Zagreus’s bedroom and into the hall. He pulls on a simple black coat over his uniform, buttons it to the throat, and heads out into the garden. Leaving through an actual door, unlike some people, he thinks, a little mulishly.
Thanatos follows the garden’s ambling stone pathway, past the grand and delicately carved marble fountain in the center of the court. The garden has always been one of Thanatos’s favorite places in the palace; it is strange and winding, the flora almost overgrown in places, a world of contained chaos wholly unlike the strict orderliness of the rest of the palace. The air smells minty and floral, and a little bit like fallen leaves. The stone walls are crawling with the same vines that have morphed with the palace architecture, permitting Zagreus’s escape. Privately, Thanatos wonders if Zagreus would have turned out quite so untamable if he hadn’t grown into adulthood overlooking this wild place.
Cerberus waits at the end of the path. He is chewing on a greasy bag of something that smells strongly of raw meat. He lifts his head as Thanatos approaches, a growl revving up inside his chest, but immediately goes back to his snack when recognition dawns.
“Gross,” Thanatos tells him, pleasantly. Cerberus barks a throaty little woof in agreement.
This particular royal exit is the palace’s least imposing. Honestly, it’s nothing more than a heavy door set into the garden wall. It was added for the ease of the gardeners, allowing the transport of plants and equipment in the spring and summer without a messy and exhausting trek through the palace’s main entrance and pristine halls. Thanatos tests the door, and the handle gives beneath his hand - unlocked.
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Thanatos tells Cerberus. “Really makes you feel good about palace security.”
Cerberus offers a cheerful bark in response.
Thanatos sighs again and makes a mental note to inform Charon about the unlocked door once he returns. Then he slips through the door and out of the palace, into the night-quiet streets of the King’s City.
Thanatos doesn’t get out much. It’s the nature of his job. He simply doesn’t get a lot of time off, and, what time he does have, he uses to travel home to his mother and Hypnos, rather than to explore the city.
Even if he spent every weekend here, though, he doesn’t think he would ever become accustomed to it.
King’s City was built into the rocky face of a mountainside. The palace perches at the slope’s pinnacle, grand and imposing, a masterpiece of black granite and white marble. Its size and its height ensure that it remains visible from all points within the city limits. From the palace, the streets spill downward, cobbled and narrow. Apart from the single, broad road utilized by the royal family, which cuts an almost direct line from the palace to the city gates, the streets are winding and strange. They double back on themselves, twist and turn, following the invisible and long-forgotten logic of those who built them centuries before. The buildings are pressed tightly together, built from red brick and brownstone, window-ledges lined with flowers and faces crawling with ivy.
It is a strange time of night - too late for the shops to be open, but too early for most to have gone to sleep - so the city’s windows glow golden with light. The streets are mostly quiet, but far from deserted, the quiet night punctuated by bursts of laughter, shouts of greeting. A few houses away, down a side alley, a woman is singing; the autumn breeze carries the melody, floats it skyward.
Where could Zagreus be?
Thanatos is once again swept with the complicated mix of emotions he’d felt earlier - grudging respect, frustration, hurt. This time, though, they are buffered by a dawning sense of concern. Zagreus has conducted his daring escape from the palace, fine. Now where could he be? Is Thanatos doomed to comb the streets for him all night, hoping he’ll happen upon the right place at the right time? What if something happens before Thanatos finds him? What if Zagreus gets hurt - or worse?
Won’t it be Thanatos’s fault?
King Hades was wrong, something inside Thanatos’s brain informs him, tiny and nasty and mean. Zagreus clearly doesn’t hold you in any kind of esteem, if he’s willing to do something like this. What are you to him, anyway? A useful way to pass the time?
Thanatos presses his eyes shut and wills the voice into silence. He tries to brainstorm, to imagine where a prince would go after slipping away from his guard and out of the palace walls. He presses down the fear, shoves it away - and then he hears the voice, drifting from down one of the crooked side streets.
“There you go! It should work like a dream now, miss.”
The voice is Zagreus’s. Thanatos takes off toward it at a sprint.
He rounds the street corner and finds himself on a quiet block outside of a darkened storefront, painted with the words GORGON LAUNDRY SERVICES - KING CITY’S FINEST. A slight, round-faced young woman is standing on the stoop outside the shop, an apron over her dress and her hair tied back with a handkerchief. Beside her is a portable cart stacked with large baskets. And beside the cart is Zagreus, dressed in the simple earth-toned clothing of the common folk, standing with his hands on his hips and looking down proudly at his handiwork. Thanatos comes to a halt, heart pounding in his throat.
“Just don’t overload it too much until you can find a full replacement for the wheel,” he’s telling the woman, who is looking at him with something akin to adoration.
“Oh, yes, thank you so much,” the woman enthuses, reaching forward. Thanatos’s hand flies to the hilt of his sword until he realizes that she’s simply clasping Zagreus’s hands in an affectionate squeeze. “With this fixed, we can get back to making deliveries right away. W-won’t you please let me pay you, sir? You’ve been so, so very helpful-”
Zagreus smiles and extracts his hands gently from the young woman’s grip. “Absolutely not. It was my pleasure, really.”
“Oh, n-no, but really, it wouldn’t be right not to - oh! Hello! I’m, um, afraid we’ve closed up shop for the night, but we’ll be open bright and early tomorrow if - if you’d like to come back!”
Zagreus turns to follow the young woman’s gaze, which has landed on Thanatos. His face has half-folded into a friendly smile by the time he recognizes Thanatos. When realization dawns in his eyes, his jaw drops, the smile melting away.
“Hello,” Thanatos tells him dryly. “Hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Oh! Is this a friend of yours, sir?” the woman asks.
Zagreus seems taken aback by the question. “Oh,” he says. “Yes? That is. We know each other.”
Thanatos rolls his eyes and looks at the young woman. “I’m his b-” he begins.
And then Zagreus opens his mouth and blurts, “ Boyfriend . He’s my boyfriend. Fiance. We’re engaged. Ha-ha.”
Thanatos stares at Zagreus, aghast.
Zagreus stares back, doing something with his eyebrows that Thanatos thinks is meant to convey, just go with it.
“I see!” the woman says, a little uncomfortably. “All right, then, I’ll just, um. Get back to work and leave you to it! Thanks again so much for your help, sir. H-have a great night!”
And then she slips through the door to the shop and shuts the door behind her, leaving Thanatos and Zagreus alone on the darkened street.
“Boyfriend, huh,” Thanatos says, flatly.
Zagreus groans and drops his head into his hands. By the light of the moon and the glow of the apartment windows above Gorgon Laundry Services, Thanatos could swear his cheeks have turned scarlet.
It must be a trick of the light.
“I’m sorry. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. People down here don’t know I’m the prince, and ordinary people don’t have bodyguards,” Zagreus says, voice muffled by his hands.
“Right,” Thanatos says, slowly. “Of course. And what do they think you are, hm? A friendly deity who appears at night to fix wobbly cart wheels?”
Zagreus winces and lifts his head. “I suppose.”
Thanatos huffs a sharp breath out through his nose and smiles without humor.
“So, you’ve been sneaking off at night for the past half a year, driving your father insane, in order to…”
“In order to meet the common people!” Zagreus says, his voice slightly too loud for the empty street. He winces again and continues, much more quietly, “Did you know I didn’t leave the castle until I was twelve? And even then, it was only to attend a wedding in a neighboring kingdom. I was twelve years old, and I’d never even seen the country I was born to rule. I’ve spent my entire life learning languages and administrative duties and diplomacy, and I had never even spoken to someone outside the palace before. Until I started doing this.”
Thanatos opens his mouth, and then he closes it again. Something is snapping into place inside his brain, wires connecting and reconnecting.
“Your father,” he begins, but Zagreus shakes his head.
“My father doesn’t understand, Than. He won’t even let me speak during the weekly public audiences. I sit and I rot in those administrative chambers. I’ve thought about running away more times than I can count, but I can’t do it. All I can do is this.”
Zagreus looks at him, chin lifted and shoulders square, and Thanatos looks back. And suddenly, Thanatos is jolted by the impression that he is no longer looking at a boy, at a prince. At his friend.
He is looking at a man who will be king.
For almost a decade, now, Thanatos has been at Zagreus’s side. They had been changing, gradually, together. Somehow, though, he missed this.
At some point, when Thanatos was not looking, Zagreus had become someone with the eyes of a ruler.
“A king,” Zagreus says, “should know his people.”
And Thanatos says, softly, “All right.”
Zagreus blinks. The surprise on his face disrupts the sense of strange, quiet dignity he’d been exuding, pushes Thanatos back onto familiar footing.
“All right,” Zagreus echoes. “So… you understand? You’ll let me continue on as I am?”
Thanatos closes his hands into fists. “No.”
Zagreus’s brow furrows. “But-?”
“Zagreus. I cannot allow you to continue to sneak out of the palace and go traipsing through the city at night, alone,” Thanatos tells him. “My answer is no.”
Zagreus deflates. He rubs a hand tiredly over his face; the base of his thumb is smudged with grease from fixing the wagon wheel. Thanatos forces himself not to reach out and wipe the stain away.
“Than. I don’t want to fight you on this. Please.”
“It is my job, as your bodyguard and as a member of the royal guard, to keep you safe at all costs,” Thanatos tells him sharply. “If you insist on continuing to do this, then I need to be at your side. That is my condition.”
“You,” Zagreus says. “Wait. You want to come with me?”
Thanatos frowns. “No. I don’t. I want you to stay in the palace where I can protect you. But if it is a choice between finding your chambers empty at night or following you here, then I prefer the latter.”
“Oh,” Zagreus says. And then, slowly, like the progression of a sunset, his face breaks into a smile, the cut of his dimples pressing into his cheeks. “Thank you, Than.”
“Whatever,” Thanatos mutters, heat bursting into life in his ears and the nape of his neck. He turns to go, letting his heavy boots fall a little too sharply on the cobbled walkway, and tries desperately to pretend that he doesn’t pause at the street’s mouth to allow Zagreus to catch up to him.
Much to Thanatos’s dismay, their nightly excursions become something of a routine.
About once a week, Zagreus sends Thanatos a meaningful look over dinner. Thanatos sighs, and rolls his eyes, and ultimately does not protest as Zagreus dresses them both in the soft, worn cotton clothing of Thanatos’s youth and leads them out into the garden. They toss Cerberus a snack, Zagreus shifts through the soil until he finds the key he has buried shallowly in the rosebeds. Then they walk into the quiet city and let the streets swallow them whole.
All things considered, their adventures aren’t particularly adventurous. Zagreus helps repaint door frames. He fixes crooked signs, hammer in hand and nails held between his teeth. He discusses politics on street corners. He shakes hands and memorizes names, and Thanatos simply sits and watches Zagreus, watches the way the room falls into orbit around him like satellites around a sun.
At the end of their third night in the city, during their long walk back up the hill to the palace, Zagreus says, “Thanatos?”
“I’d like to introduce you as my fiance again. If it’s all right with you.”
Thanatos trips over his own feet and narrowly manages to avoid a collision between his nose and the cobblestones.
“Why?” he asks, whipping his head around to stare at Zagreus.
“I just think we’ll get less questions that way,” Zagreus explains. “Is your foot okay?”
“Perfectly fine, yes. Why do you think we’ll get less questions?”
“Well, we’re always together,” Zagreus points out, like it’s obvious. “I’ve been introducing you as my friend, but friends don’t normally go everywhere together like they’re joined at the hip. Plus you’re always, you know… looming protectively in the background. I feel like that might be easier to sell if it’s because we’re recently engaged and you’re the jealous type.”
“I’m not the jealous type,” Thanatos says, affonted.
“I know that,” Zagreus says, patiently. “I’m just trying to avoid attention, for both of our sakes. Won’t that make your job easier?”
No, Thanatos wants to scream to the skies. No, none of this will make my job even a little bit easier. And, in fact, it might just send me to an early grave.
Instead, because he is a fool, he says, “All right, then.”
Their first attempt at the introduction goes almost immediately awry. They are seated at a corner table at Zagreus’s favored tavern. Thanatos nurses an untouched mug of wheat-golden ale that Zagreus insisted on buying him. Across the table, Zagreus is chatting amiably with an enormous, muscle-bound man who Thanatos believes introduced himself as Asterius. The room is pleasantly warm and smells delicious, a heady mixture of spices and baking bread.
Asterius ambles off to join another enormous, albeit much blonder man at the bar. Zagreus flashes a smile across the table at Thanatos. “I hope I’m not boring you,” he says.
“No,” Thanatos tells him, but before he can try to find words to articulate, You will never bore me and I could sit here and listen to you talk for the rest of my mortal life, the tavern’s proprietor arrives at their tableside.
According to Zagreus, Eurydice is a woman with the culinary equivalent of a green thumb and the singing voice of, at the very least, a minor goddess. With the seasoned grace of a veteran server, she sets two bowls of stew and a basket of steaming rolls on their table. She then straightens up and pushes her hair out of her face, one hand propped on her hip.
“Well, now, it’s great to see you again, mystery man! That old oven has been working like a charm since you took a look at it. I’ve been hoping you’d stop by so I could thank you properly. And is this a friend of yours?”
“Yes,” Zagreus answers, just as Thanatos says, “No.”
Eurydice raises a remarkably expressive eyebrow. Zagreus bursts into nervous laughter.
“This is Thanatos,” he says, his voice a little higher than normal. “My. He’s my betrothed.”
Betrothed? Thanatos mouths at Zagreus.
I don’t know! Zagreus mouths desperately back.
“You don’t sound too sure about that,” Eurydice says to Zagreus, her face an odd mixture of amusement and concern.
“It’s a recent development,” Thanatos tells her dryly.
Zagreus laughs again, twice. “Yes. Very recent.”
“All right, then,” Eurydice says, her eyes flicking from Thanatos to Zagreus and back. Something she sees in Thanatos’s face must satisfy her, because the suspicion bleeds out of her expression and her mouth twitches up into a smile. “You boys enjoy the food. And if you need any more, just come see me, got it? It’s all on the house.”
“Thank you,” Zagreus says, with a glowing smile. Eurydice smiles back and then, faster than Thanatos can blink, she’s off again, making her way through the crowd with practiced ease and waving to acknowledge Asterius’ request for a refill of his tankard of mead.
There’s a beat of silence during which Thanatos eats a spoonful of stew. It is stunningly good, even better than the food the royal chefs prepare at the palace.
“You need to start acting like you like me,” Zagreus says, tearing apart a roll even though the steam rolling off it must burn his fingertips.
“I do like you,” Thanatos tells him, perplexed.
Zagreus waves his hand, though not before Thanatos sees his cheeks take on a tinge of pink.
“I mean romantically,” Zagreus says. “You can’t just sit there and brood while I’m telling people that we’re planning a summer wedding, or something. I don’t know if you know this, Than, but you can be kind of hard to read sometimes. When you just sit there and stare at me, it sort of looks like you’re plotting my murder. You have to act like we’re in love!”
“I am not a particularly good actor, Zagreus,” Thanatos says, hoping to the immortal gods that his tone conveys just how excited he is about the prospect of play-acting an engagement with the man he has been in love with for a decade.
“You don’t have to start calling me sweetheart, or anything,” Zagreus tells him in a tone that Thanatos thinks is intended to be reassuring. “Just - here, how’s this?”
And he reaches across their table and takes Thanatos’s hand.
For a moment, all Thanatos can do is stare blankly at their entwined fingers. His heart feels as though it has been transmogrified into a swarm of bees. He hopes his palm isn’t sweating.
Zagreus’s hands are very warm. They’re broader than Thanatos remembers.
“I won’t do anything you’re not comfortable with,” Zagreus promises. “If you want me to stop, tell me right away, yeah? No explanation required.”
“Yeah,” Thanatos rasps, with the voice of a man who has been in the desert without water for a week. His fingers curl a little tighter around Zagreus’s, and they eat the rest of their meal in silence.
During their days inside the palace, Thanatos does his utmost to ensure his behavior toward Zagreus is nothing but proper. That he takes on his duties with the same clear-headed poise that he always has. It’s difficult, though - unspeakably difficult, when their nights are spent wandering the city hand-in-hand, Zagreus’s shoulder knocking along his own, any trace of formality fully slipping from their speech.
Soon, Thanatos knows, they will be discovered. Hades will dismiss him from Zagreus’s side, and this charade will end, and he will be forced to go back to stealing glances in palace hallways, to counting Zagreus’s smiles, collecting them inside his heart like trophies.
This is an indulgence that cannot last, Thanatos knows.
Still, though. With Zagreus’s warmth beneath his skin, his fingers tangled between his own, he does not think he is strong enough to end it.
This year, the kingdom’s midwinter festival falls on an unseasonably warm night, illuminated by a full moon.
When Thanatos arrives at the prince’s chambers that night, Zagreus is practically vibrating with barely-contained excitement. Unlike the earthy cottons Zagreus has worn for the rest of his nighttime excursions, tonight he has dressed himself in a coat of scarlet, a crown of autumn-colored laurels tipped unevenly on his head. There’s a smudge of gold liner around his eyes.
He had likely intended to fit right in among the crowds, as sunset-colored clothing is a staple of the midwinter festival. He will not fit in, though; he is the most glorious creature that Thanatos has ever seen, and Thanatos cannot imagine a scenario in which the crowds do not part around him like the sea spreads for the bow of a ship.
“Your crown is crooked,” Thanatos tells him, in lieu of getting on his knees in reverent prayer.
“Can you fix it for me?” Zagreus asks.
Thanatos steps forward and gingerly adjusts the laurels until they sit straight across Zagreus’s brow.
He smells like cinnamon, Thanatos’s brain helpfully informs him.
“Let’s go, then,” he says aloud.
Zagreus smiles and nods, bobbing up and down on his toes. Thanatos hides a small smile of his own and follows Zagreus over the balcony and through the garden. They stop at the garden wall so Zagreus can pet Cerberus, and then they pass through the door and into the city streets.
It feels like stepping into another world.
The streets are lit autumn-bright, lined with thousands of lanterns in every imaginable shade of crimson, tangerine, yellow-gold. Sound echoes from every direction - vendors advertising warm drinks and fresh food, the hum of a fiddle lilting from around a corner, children shouting after each other as they run helter-skelter down the road. The crowd presses around them, close and churning, an ever-changing mass of bright color and fresh faces. Thanatos finds himself shifting closer to Zagreus automatically.
“Let’s look for the bonfire,” Zagreus suggests, looking away from a stall advertising the best mulled wine in the kingdom to smile up at Thanatos.
Thanatos’s heart stutter-steps inside his chest. In the light of the lanterns, Zagreus looks like he was crafted from flame, tempered in the forge of the god of fire. His skin washed warm, his eyes wide and bright and glowing - he is the wick of a candle, a roaring hearth. He is the molten core at the heart of a star.
“Yes,” Thanatos finds himself agreeing, and he allows Zagreus to take his hand and lead him through the city’s winding streets.
They stop a few times on their way toward the public square at the city center. Zagreus buys them each a little cake with startlingly pink frosting, so sugary that Thanatos scrunches his nose up in surprise when he first bites into his, which makes Zagreus explode in laughter. They also pause at a flower stall, and Thanatos stares in confusion as Zagreus selects a single, pale, purple lilac and passes the vendor a couple coins.
“I thought it was pretty,” Zagreus tells him, and then he turns pink, high in his cheekbones, and passes the flower to Thanatos. “The color suits you better. You can have it.”
He steps forward and, quick as a wink, tucks the lilac behind Thanatos’s ear.
Thanatos says something very articulate along the lines of, “Oh.”
The crowd presses close around them. Zagreus takes Thanatos’s hand again and whispers, “So we don’t get separated.” They continue on, Zagreus’s palm warm against Thanatos’s, Thanatos’s heart trembling unsteadily along the fault lines inside his chest.
By the time they reach the city square, the bonfire is roaring and the party is in full swing. The flames are towering, sending sparks spiraling, dizzy, toward the sky. A band is in full swing at the far side of the square, all lilting fiddles and soaring flutes and clapping hands. Dozens of dancers are spinning around and around on the cobbled stones of the square, their stomping feet keeping time, glowing golden in the light cast by the bonfire. The air is full of the heady smell of wood-fresh smoke and the sound of singing and laughter.
Thanatos comes to a halt at the edge of the crowd, but Zagreus tugs him forward by the hand.
“Come on,” he says, smile crooked on his face. “Dance with me.”
“I couldn’t,” he says. “I can’t, Zagreus.”
“It’s okay if you’re not very good at dancing. I’m not that good myself. We can be embarrassing together,” Zagreus tells him, eyes bright and burning on Thanatos’s.
“I really shouldn’t-”
“Just one dance, Than. If you’re refusing out of some sense of duty, then I promise I won’t tell my father,” Zagreus says, squeezing his hand, and Thanatos’s will to protest dies inside his chest.
He allows Zagreus to draw him forward, into the snaking line of dancers. Thanatos stands stock-still, mortified, panic copper-sweet in his mouth. Zagreus just laughs, though, a sound that soars higher than the sparks thrown by the bonfire. He puts his mouth close to Thanatos’s ear and says, over the din of the music and the crowd, “Relax.”
Thanatos shivers. Zagreus steps away from him, drops his hand. Thanatos is acutely aware of his feet, of the graceless stiffness of his limbs.
The music picks up, the hum of the strings filling the air. He finds himself swept forward, drawn into the twisting fabric of the crowd. And then he is dancing.
Thanatos does not forget himself. It is, he believes, an impossibility - he simply was not built that way. He does, however, feel something catch on the flint inside his chest. The music drips into his veins like warm wine, the rhythm of drumming feet and clapping hands synching with the beat of his heart.
As the world spins around him, Zagreus’s hands find Thanatos’s waist, twin points of contact in an unfamiliar galaxy.
The music tips louder, spills like water through cupped palms. Thanatos hears himself laugh, a startled little burst of sound. Zagreus’s eyes snap to Thanatos’s face, wide and round and glittering like precious gemstones in the light of the bonfire. The look of surprise on his face makes Thanatos laugh again, louder this time.
Zagreus tips closer to him, beautiful, wave-tossed in the tide of the dance, luminous and fire-bright and kind. He looks up at Thanatos with his miraculous eyes, hands warm on Thanatos’s waist as they spin, and for a single sunlit moment the world narrows. Thanatos is nobody, nothing, and it is glorious.
In this moment, he is a man, and only a man. And Zagreus is not a prince or a lord or a king-to-be; he is only the person Thanatos fell in love with, all those years ago and every single day since.
Thanatos cannot help it.
He leans forward and kisses Zagreus, straight on the lips.
Zagreus’s mouth is fire-hot despite the chill of the night air. His lips are soft and slightly chapped and taste of the sweet frosting of the cakes they ate earlier. For a moment, his grip on Thanatos’s waist tightens, his lips parting against Thanatos’s with a sigh.
And then he freezes and leaps backward, his eyes blown wide, reaching up to slap a hand over his mouth.
Something inside Thanatos’s chest pops like a soap bubble.
“Thanatos,” Zagreus says, in a voice of utter horror. “I am so sorry-”
Thanatos does not stay long enough to hear the rest of the sentence.
Like the coward he has always been, Thanatos flees, winding his way half-blindly through the crowd. As soon as he wrestles himself free of the dance floor, he breaks into a run. He isn’t going anywhere in particular, not really - he doesn’t even know where this street will take him. All he needs to do is put enough distance between himself and Zagreus to ensure that he will not hear it when the love of his life, beautiful and lion-hearted and brave, attempts to let him down easy.
Thanatos does not know how long he runs for. It cannot be more than a few minutes, logically. It feels like hours.
He keeps moving until he’s reached an unfamiliar stretch of storefronts. Finally, he stumbles to a halt, slumping against a wall and pressing his hands over his face hard enough to hurt. His breath comes heavy in his chest, his eyes burning with something horrifyingly close to tears.
It’s all right, he tells himself. You knew this would happen eventually. It’s all right.
It doesn’t feel all right, though. It feels like the heat-death of the universe, like every star in every galaxy has burned out.
Zagreus will forgive him, Thanatos thinks. Zagreus will-
Thanatos left Zagreus. Alone, in a crowd of strangers.
A crowd of strangers who could easily murder him. Kidnap him. Ransom him, injure him. Dismember his body and sell the parts.
For the second time that night, Thanatos takes off running. He says a silent prayer of thanks to the gods that his sense of direction has always been good as he sprints back in the direction of the town square, ducking around groups of revelers and shouting vendors and slow-strolling couples. His heart is slamming in his throat, a horrible chasm crumbling open inside his stomach.
Zagreus will be fine, he can take care of himself. He beats you in swordplay at least once a week, Thanatos reminds himself.
He’s not even armed, a frantic voice inside his brain responds. You abandoned him because of your own ridiculous pride, and he’s not even armed.
Thanatos bursts back into the square, one hand pressed against his chest like it will prevent his heart from going supernova. He scans the crowd, lit vividly by the flames of the bonfire, eyes tracking across every single unfamiliar face.
Zagreus is not here.
Zagreus is not anywhere.
First Thanatos accosts the prince, the man he has sworn to protect with his own life, and then he loses him.
The heat-death of the universe would be preferable.
Thanatos spends the rest of the night walking down each of the city streets in turn. In the early hours of the morning, the festival begins to wind down - parents trudge back to their homes carrying exhausted children, vendors begin to dismantle their stalls, clusters of giggling young people make for the taverns. Soon, Thanatos is alone in the streets, accompanied by nothing apart from a few remaining wine-tipsy stragglers and his own fear.
The hours pass with no sign of Zagreus. Dawn drips across the horizon, gray and cold. As Thanatos wanders, it begins to snow - fat, dizzy flakes that melt into nothing on the still-warm stone of the city. Finally, as the city once again begins to stir, Thanatos decides it is time. He makes his way up the hill and slips back into the palace through the garden door.
Bone-deep exhaustion has made a home beside the panic in his chest. He is almost too numb to register the blow when he opens the door to Zagreus’s chambers and finds his bedroom empty.
This is Thanatos’s own fault. He should have followed Hades’ orders from the start. He should have found a different way for Zagreus to meet with his people, one that wouldn’t endanger his life. He should have stayed at a proper distance.
He should have better controlled his unruly heart.
He finds Hades in the throne room, fully-dressed and preparing for the day’s workload. The king stands when Thanatos enters, a thunderous look on his face. He half-tosses the roll of parchment in his hands aside and rises to his full height.
“There you are,” he rumbles. “And where is my useless son? He should have been in the courtyard for training a half-hour ago.”
Thanatos kneels. He bows his head, curls his hands into fists.
“Your majesty, I have made a grave error. I do not know how I can atone. Zagreus-”
“Zagreus ran off for the night to attend the festival in the lower city,” a voice announces loudly from behind Thanatos, at the entrance to the chamber. “But I’m back now, as you can see. No need for the theatrics.”
Thanatos’s head snaps up.
Zagreus has unbuttoned his scarlet jacket, removed the crown of laurels from his hair. His eyeliner is smudged and his hair is a mess. He looks unharmed, though, as hale and healthy as he had been when Thanatos fled the bonfire. A knot inside Thanatos’s chest unravels, and he breathes properly for the first time in hours.
“What a ridiculous thing to do,” Hades snaps. “I had hoped that your… affinity for Thanatos would prompt you to alter your behavior. I see plainly now that I was mistaken.”
“Your majesty, Zagreus didn’t-” Thanatos begins, but Zagreus shoots him a warning look, and he falls silent.
Hades sighs and sits back on his throne, dragging a hand down his face.
“We will discuss this later. I am not wasting my time by having a conversation with two men who look moments away from collapsing. Perhaps, Zagreus, you might take your time at rest to reflect on your comportment as a member of the royal family.”
“Your majesty,” Thanatos begins again, but Hades lifts a hand.
Thanatos slowly, stiffly, gets to his feet. He bows deeply, and then turns and strides out of the throne room. After a moment, he hears Zagreus follow behind him. The massive, gilded door of the throne room slams shut with a heavy boom, and then they are alone.
Neither of them speak for several long moments.
Finally, Zagreus says, “We are going to have to talk about this eventually.”
The fear and the stress and the tension in Thanatos’s chest boil over, in that moment. He spins to face Zagreus and snaps, “I thought we had moved beyond the disappearing act, but apparently you are still doing your utmost to worry me sick.”
Zagreus’s mouth drops open incredulously. “Excuse me? I’m not the one who ran off!”
Thanatos rolls his eyes. “I couldn’t have been gone more than five minutes, Zagreus. What, were you just waiting for a chance to shake me off this whole time? Glad I could finally give you the opportunity.”
Zagreus throws his hands up. “You’re being mean on purpose because you’re upset, and I’m not going to entertain it. Look, Than, I - wait… Wait. You… you came back? To the square?”
Thanatos snarls, “Obviously . I was awake all night combing the city for you, and you-”
Zagreus’s eyebrows crease together across the bridge of his nose.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” he says, faintly.
“I may be a lot of things, Zagreus, but I would not let a - a moment of weakness get between myself and my job,” Thanatos says, stiffly.
Zagreus flinches. “Of course. Your job. So, what, you knew my father would be furious if you came back without me? That’s why you returned?”
“No. It’s because if you were hurt out there, I would never forgive myself, Zagreus.”
“Because of your job,” Zagreus says, and something strung tight in Thanatos’s chest snaps.
Thanatos whips around to stare Zagreus in the face and shouts, “Because I am in love with you, you idiot!”
The hall rings out with the loudest silence Thanatos has ever heard.
For a beat, Zagreus is motionless. And then he makes a quiet, muffled sound as if Thanatos had punched him in the stomach.
Thanatos’s heart plummets to his toes.
Just when he thought he couldn’t possibly make this worse. He must truly be the stupidest creature on planet earth.
Swallowing hard, Thanatos turns to go, his eyes pressed shut.
He doesn’t make it more than a step before Zagreus’s hand closes around his wrist.
Thanatos freezes at the touch. “I’m sorry,” he whispers without turning. “Zagreus, I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Thanatos,” Zagreus says, and his voice - his voice is desperately gentle, soft…
“Please look at me, Than.”
Thanatos jolts at the nickname and allows Zagreus to turn him around. He blinks his eyes open, and Zagreus is standing before him, and the look on his face is identical to the expression he’d worn at the bonfire. Luminous and wide-eyed and lovely. He reaches out slowly, telegraphing the movement as if approaching a frightened animal, and cups his free hand around the nape of Thanatos’s neck. His fingers push, carefully, through the short, downy hair at the back of Thanatos’s head.
“You are so,” Zagreus begins, and then he stops, and grins, and shakes his head.
“Zagreus?” Thanatos hears himself ask, his voice an unsteady rasp. It is the only word his tongue remembers how to shape. Zagreus’s hand has not stopped its slow exploration of his hair.
“Than,” Zagreus answers, his smile crooked and dimpled. “Thank you.”
Thanatos blinks, feeling a bit like he has been repeatedly battered over the head with a massive chunk of iron.
“I do not understand,” he tells Zagreus, very seriously.
Zagreus laughs at that, a sudden, ringing sound. “So, you ran off last night because you thought you’d crossed a boundary? You thought you’d done something I didn’t want?”
Thanatos frowns. “Yes,” he says. “Obviously. I should never have-”
“Stop that,” Zagreus says, and he squeezes Thanatos’s wrist very gently. “And you never told me that you loved me for the same reason, am I correct? You were concerned I wouldn’t want to hear it?”
Thanatos’s scowl deepens. “Yes. Your Highness, I don’t-”
“Call me Zagreus,” Zagreus says, for the millionth time.
Thanatos attempts to take a breath; it transforms into a cough somewhere inside his throat.
“I do not understand,” Thanatos repeats, a little desperately this time.
“I’m sorry, Than,” Zagreus tells him. “All this time you were holding yourself back for my sake. You wanted to respect my feelings, but you forgot one major thing.”
“To ask me what they are,” Zagreus says, and then he laughs again and - Thanatos’ brain shorts out, flatlines - he presses his palm firmly against Thanatos’s nape and draws him forward, down.
When Zagreus’s mouth lands on Thanatos’s, it feels like the world comes into crystal focus. It is not like the night before, where the universe was a cacophony of sound and scent, of the rapid beat of drums and feet. It is quiet in the hallway, and peaceful, and still. Thanatos is left with only this: the press of Zagreus’s warm mouth, the curve of his smile against Thanatos’s cheek, the burn of his fingers and the taste of his skin. Zagreus sighs against Thanatos’s lips, kisses him once, twice, again and again, until he loses count.
Thanatos is crying. Zagreus draws back from his mouth and kisses the tear off the curve of his cheekbone.
“You were trying to reject me, though,” Thanatos whispers. “You were apologizing-”
“We are fools, both of us,” Zagreus tells him. “I thought I had taken advantage of you.”
Thanatos stares at him.
“That is absurd,” he says.
Zagreus laughs and kisses the corner of Thanatos’s mouth. “I fell in love with you when we were fourteen, and I found you hiding in that empty hallway, crying over Mort,” he tells him, his breath soft, his nose bumping against the shell of Thanatos’s ear.
Thanatos’s breathing hitches. Zagreus’s hands come up to cradle his face, thumbs wiping tears off his skin.
“I would have been content to simply stand at your side,” Thanatos whispers, “for all of my days. For the rest of my life.”
“Stand at my side, then. And I will stand at yours,” Zagreus tells him. “For all my days. For the rest of my life. For as long as you will have me.”
“It will be forever, then,” Thanatos tells him, without hesitation.
“In that case,” Zagreus says with a smile, “forever it is.”
They are married the following autumn, under the orange glow of a harvest moon. Thanatos barely remembers the ceremony, a stuffy blur of noble faces and ancient ceremonies. After, though: he will remember this for eternity. Zagreus kisses the breath from him, slides his hand across the bare skin above Thanatos’s beating heart. Whispers, “Husband,” against the hollow below Thanatos’s throat with the reverence of prayer.
Forever, he thinks, will not be long enough.