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The Art of Yearning (Or: Letter Writing for Dummies)

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The surface is chaotic, and painful, and bright, and all manner of other tiresome things. Thanatos tries to be as quick as he can, but work is work and the day is rarely done quickly when it comes to something like death-bringing. Those that die violently are not his to take on, and that at least is a weight off his shoulders, considering the masses and masses of them lately — but there is starvation, and sickness, and even the simple act of passing, all of which he has to herd into less messy business. It all takes bundles and bundles of time

And time is something he’s finding that he values very much. More so than in the past.

“Delivery!” 

Guh—” Thanatos very nearly fumbles his scythe, which would have been horrific for the poor soul he’s extricating. He whips his head around to glare at Hermes, who is looking not at all rueful for interrupting him. “What are you doing here? I didn’t request any help.” 

“Didn’t I just say? Delivery.” 

“Delivery,” Thanatos echoes in confusion, then snaps his jaw shut when he sees no souls peering out from the depths of Hermes’s bag. “Just…wait here. ” 

As Thanatos delicately escorts the soul away, he half-watches Hermes roll back and forth on the balls of his feet, like he’s pressed for time. Probably he is. Well, it’s not Thanatos’s fault that Hermes has decided to drop in while he’s busy. Only once Thanatos is finished sending off the dead does he face Hermes again, who appears particularly frustrated. This is a lovely coincidence, because Thanatos is finding himself also particularly frustrated.

“What is it?” Thanatos asks flatly.

“Think you might be more interested in who it’s from, actually,” Hermes says, taking out a sheaf of parchment. “Zagreus sends his regards.” 

Thanatos was only reaching out, but when Hermes says Zagreus’ name, he snatches the parchment from the smug Hermes. Quickly glancing over the message, Thanatos feels his shoulders begin to drop from their tense posture, and even the height at which he’s floating lowers a little. The letter appears to be only chatter, a short stream of thoughts about the current run to the surface that Zagreus is on. Nothing critical, just notes on Tartarus modifications and Asphodel’s flooding, and… 

“Why?” Thanatos asks, stumped. He looks at Hermes for help.

“Uh,” Hermes says, before waving the question away. “No clue, didn’t ask. And I’m in a bit of a rush here, Than, so I’ll just be...you know...seeing you!”

And like that, Hermes is gone, leaving just the slightest hint of sun and dust in the air he’d just occupied. Thanatos stares at the letter, then at the vacant spot where Hermes’s bright presence was only a second before, and then at the letter again.

A moment later, and the dead tug insistently at the very peripheral of his attention. He doesn’t really have a chance to spare the whole thing any more thought. 

Later, Thanatos thinks as he tucks the parchment safely away, scythe hoisted again. Always, always, later.

 


 

Than,

Eurydice sings beautifully, have you heard? Were you the one to bring her here? If that’s the case, we should talk about it. Between you and me, I’m trying to see if I can’t break whatever contract or clause or whatever blasted rule is keeping her sentenced to Asphodel like this. I think at this point I’ve earned the administrative right. If not to write up a new contract, at least to burn the existing one.

Aren’t you due for a longer break sometime? Surely Charon or Hermes can pick up your slack.

— Zag

 


 

Zagreus writes in the same way that he always has, that looping scrawl of handwriting that used to cause Lord Hades grief whenever he tried to parse what Zagreus had written down during his short time on the job. Thanatos finds himself utterly captivated by every excess ink blot and each trailing letter.

He reads the letter six times in the day, and then proceeds to keep it hidden afterwards, as if Zagreus might somehow know that Than has been staring at his writing for an embarrassingly long amount of time. Zagreus has an odd intuition about things that Thanatos finds extremely embarrassing, after all.

Finally, he returns to the Underworld, ready to seek Zagreus out for a time in the lounge, or maybe a stolen moment in his room —

But Nyx tells him that Zagreus is midway through an escape attempt, and judging by his recent performance, won’t be back for a while yet.

“I see,” Thanatos says at first, almost turning on a floating heel and disappearing, but… “Do you know where he is?” 

Nyx blinks at him, slowly, just the once. And her smile is soft, barely-there, but understanding. Thanatos’s skin crawls with the horrible revelation that Mother Nyx knows very well what they’ve been up to as of late.

So Thanatos tries, “I have something…pertaining to work to speak to him about—” A beat, a huff, and Thanatos drops his shoulders and all pretext. “Never mind. Just tell me where he is. If you know. Please.” 

“Of course, child.” 

Thanatos chases him to The Temple of Styx; it’s a labyrinth, but Zagreus works fast. As he’s following the trail of rat pieces and Satyr remains that Zagreus has left behind, Thanatos feels that overfamiliar tugging, just out of reach. How many dying breaths should have been taken above? And how many await his arrival? 

It smells acrid and rotten here, the stench overpowering, but Thanatos has smelled death too often to be bothered by it. And again — a tugging, a reflex, pleading sobs from close ones of all the departed. They need to be given solace as the dead need to be put to rest.

Zagreus is only a room away, but Thanatos pauses. He stops, he shuts his eyes, and he heads to the surface.

It feels as if a part of him has stayed below.

 


 

Than!

I got out again this time around! That Pact of Punishment is nothing to scoff at – Meg and her sisters have been giving me trouble, but I suppose it’s deserved. Anyway, I made it out, and watered my Mother’s plants for her. Though I think I might have dropped the watering can on them when I died. Is that bad for flowers, a watering can on top of them? You have more experience up there than I do. Maybe the most out of us all.

Why don’t you ever appear to drag me off to my death? I’d like that better. When the Styx takes me, it’s like all the air rushes out of me. It’s like drowning. I’ve never drowned, but at this point I’m beginning to think I can imagine it well enough.

See you soon (...hopefully?).

– Zag

 


 

“We still fight each other. It’s nothing personal,” Megaera tells Thanatos nonchalantly. It’s their approximately weekly get together in the lounge to discuss matters of the House, approximately weekly because there’s no real telling how long they go between chats, and discussing matters referring specifically to gossip. 

“So when you see him outside of that…it’s like nothing’s happened? No bad blood?” Thanatos prompts.  

Megaera snorts. “We don’t ignore it if that’s what you mean. It’s basically foreplay, Thanatos. We enjoy it.” 

Thanatos knows enough about Zag that he’s sure Zagreus would take the death on the chin without a real issue, but Megaera… “You enjoy it?”  

There’s a pause, and Thanatos meets Megaera’s sharp glance with a quirked brow of his own. Their expressions resolve into equal flatness. “I don’t enjoy the dying part, no,” she says then. “But I like the part that comes after. When we see each other again. It’s a good spark to have, the challenge. It’s like that for you, right?” 

“He’s good competition,” Thanatos agrees. “I don’t usually do any fighting, so given the chance…”

“It’s fun,” supplies Megaera.

“It’s…fun. Yes.”  

They sit in satisfied silence for a moment, unbothered by the other’s presence. And then, Megaera’s eyes roll over to Thanatos again and she says, “You worry about him too much.” 

Betrayed at the fact that Megaera has decided to make it known that she sees right through him, Thanatos gives a subdued protest in the form of a frown. “He can take care of himself. And he’s shown he has the propensity to adapt. What’s there to be worried about?”

“You keep staring out there.” She tosses a look off to the side, through the threshold that Zagreus commissioned not terribly long ago. From here, they can see the main hall, the dozing Hypnos and bustling Shades. But no sign of Zagreus, wet and red with the Styx. “And you look grim. Who died?” She smirks.

“I’m always grim,” Thanatos points out. “It comes with the job.” 

“More grim than usual. Which is impressive, even for you.” Megaera sighs, rolling her shoulders back. “Alright. My sisters are waiting on me. And if I keep them waiting too long, something bad will happen. So. Parting words...take it from someone who’s been grim over Zagreus before. Talk to him.” 

Thanatos raises his eyebrows. “Has talking always gone well for you two?” It isn’t a mean jab, but an honest question: they both know from experience that Zagreus and talking can go very well, or very poorly. But he’s been especially good lately now that he has this lovely outlet to burn his restlessness on, this constant challenge set in front of him. So perhaps there’s something to the advice.

“That’s the thing,” she says, smiling unkindly. “We didn’t talk before. That was part of the problem. Things are better now. Take advantage of that.” 

What Thanatos doesn’t say is that he isn’t grim or worried. He isn’t even bothered by the idea that Megaera might think that he’s grim or worried. It’s that he misses Zagreus, always misses Zagreus, misses Zagreus the most he has ever missed anyone or anything ever before. He wants to talk to him. Aside from their stolen moments, time snatched away selfishly on Thanatos’s part, they don’t get to talk very often. Zagreus spends bare breaths in the House of Hades before rushing out once more to the dark.

Tucked against Thanatos, between robes and skin, he feels the two letters Zagreus has written him. And as Megaera leaves him to his own devices, he believes he might need to call in a favor.

 


 

“I’ve a request,” Thanatos greets, folding his hands behind his back.

In front of him, Charon’s shop lays goods out across a table. Boons are in the process of being arranged, Artemis and Athena at the forefront, a wrapped gyro off to the side — and the one responsible for the arranging is Hermes, not even pausing as he takes inventory. Beside the counter, Charon stands, smoke and essence drifting from the gash of his mouth. Though Thanatos believes his brother might be smiling. They give each other perfectly pleasant nods.

“Mmhm, mhm, spit it out then,” Hermes says to Thanatos, hardly sparing a glance. “This isn’t my only delivery. He’s making excellent time this attempt.”

“Here.” Thanatos tosses out a slip of neatly folded parchment that drifts towards Hermes as if carried by a breeze, though that’s impossible considering they’re locked way, way below the surface. Elysium’s air is thick with oddly lackadaisical battle fever and not much else.

Hermes snatches the parchment without so much as a look, but Thanatos catches the edge of a smile on him. “Figures. Payment?” 

“I’ll cover your time above,” Thanatos says mildly. “For an hour.”

“A whole hour,” Hermes remarks, turning to face him. He hides the parchment away and tap-tap-taps at his wrist as if perhaps one day an accessory might exist that could function as a way of telling time with but a glance. “An hour goes by quick, you know.” 

“I know,” says Thanatos. “But I’m not willing to haggle. I’m not the one on the clock right now.” 

They smile at one another — Hermes, prim, and Thanatos, wry — before Charon interrupts with, “Hrhhnnnghhhhrnhg?”

Hermes rounds on him with a huff. “I’m trying to buy us more time together, what do you think?”  

Nnnngh...hrnnghhhah.

Thanatos blinks and glances away for the sake of propriety, warmth gathering on his nape at Charon’s frankness. Hermes appears to give in with that, and he points at Thanatos. “Fine, fine. An hour! Not a second less.”

“Not a second less,” agrees Thanatos, and disappears to the surface with a death knell.

 


 

Thanatos is still on the surface, making up for his own work, when Hermes finds him again. Hermes doesn’t appear to have a hair out of place, and he flicks a torn piece of parchment at Thanatos the instant he notices him. Thanatos, busy wrangling a soul, nearly loses the attention he needs, and Hermes smoothly takes over directing the dead.  

“What’s this?” Thanatos asks, glancing over the parchment. It’s the same parchment he’d written his own letter on, except...there’s a liberal amount of red on it, darkening the new writing on it so much that it’s difficult to make out what it says.

“Your reply. Dunno what you put in that love letter of yours, but it got him excited. He started writing on the back of it.” Hermes puts a soothing arm around the ephemeral form of the soul. He’s already walking off with them. “Better hurry up,” he adds over his shoulder while Thanatos is still puzzling over it.

“I can’t read this,” Thanatos says, frowning.

“Well, that’s on account of the blood from him dying in the middle of writing it.”  

Blood. He died. And if Hermes is telling him to hurry —

The House. Zagreus must be back at the House of Hades.

Thanatos is not polite enough to stop to tell him thank you, but Hermes is not one for wasting time on niceties anyway.

 


 

Zagreus is in his room, just about to step out the door again towards Tartarus, when Thanatos appears. Thanatos holds his breath as Zagreus whirls around, and he exhales only once he sees Zagreus’s instant smile.

“Hi,” Thanatos says, which feels lackluster compared to the lengthy letter he’d written him.

But he doesn’t have to come up with anything else to say, because then Zagreus is lunging at him and pulling Thanatos down until his feet touch the floor. Their lips meet in a kiss that starts hungry and only becomes more starved, Thanatos grabbing him at the waist to steady them both and Zagreus sliding a hand under the upper half of his chiton to grab at his unexposed chest. 

Oh,” Thanatos manages breathlessly, muffled against Zagreus’s mouth, and Zag laughs outright, squeezing at his pec. “It’s — you want…?” 

“I’ll stop if you want,” Zag says, smiling into his lips. “But you said you wanted me so much, I assumed…” 

“No, this is good,” Thanatos tells him, urging more so than tugging Zagreus flush with himself. Zagreus replies with an enthusiastic ravishing of Thanatos’s neck, which is...good. Very good. “I...ah. I haven’t been able to catch you at a good time, lately. I wanted…” 

“This?” Zagreus finishes for him, pulling back just to smile. “I kid. I know you, Than.” 

And what a nice thing it is, that he is known by Zagreus. “I’ve kept all your letters,” he says, hushed, and presses forward to nudge another kiss to Zagreus’s lips. 

“Mm, I’ll have to write more,” Zagreus says lightly, words pillowed into Thanatos’s mouth.

“You should.” Thanatos can hardly resist pushing Zagreus until the backs of his knees hit the bed. 

“Than, you like my letters that much?” Zagreus laughs, spreading his legs for Thanatos to settle between, peering up at him, red eye glittering, green eye bright. “You should have said so sooner. I would have gotten far more creative than rambling about my daily work.”

The way Zagreus’s fire-warm foot slides up Thanatos’s calf tells Thanatos exactly what Zagreus means by creative. Thanatos, flushed, presses his face against Zagreus’s neck as he begins parting Zagreus’s top below him. “I would also like it if you told me these things,” he breathes there at Zagreus’s ear, just to feel him shiver. “Your writing is no substitute for your voice.” 

Than,” Zagreus rasps, smacking his back once. “Why do you still have your damn clothes on?

And so they disrobe completely, trading kisses all the while. Thanatos, ever willing to bring Zagreus his satisfaction, sinks to his knees between his thighs and takes him in his mouth, deliberate and thrilled, and the shine in Zagreus’s half-lidded gaze as he peers down from a propped elbow speaks of just how much he’s remembering what Thanatos wrote to him. 

“So it was innuendo when you wrote —”

Thanatos hums to confirm, and Zagreus’s words dissolve into soft sighs as he goes boneless and pleased. Thanatos’s lips stay sealed around him as he teases, touches in all the ways that he’s learned Zagreus likes best, and Zagreus’s heel digs into the center of Thanatos’s spine in the most wonderful pressure Thanatos has ever known. Zagreus’s thighs tremble around Thanatos; Thanatos drinks him down when he spills, intending on staying as he is to coax Zagreus into more, but Zagreus yanks him up by the face and gasps, come here, and Thanatos is impossibly agreeable to that.

Zagreus brings him to his own end with biting kisses and wet licks into his mouth, his hand stroking Thanatos with such fervor and attention that it’s impossible not to come between their bodies, slicking Zagreus’s fingers and his abdomen. Thanatos gasps through it, pleads his name in soft breaths, and Zagreus kisses the corner of his mouth, his cheek, murmuring, “Good, you’re good, Than, look at you.”

It’s nonsense, Thanatos thinks, but he’s blooming warm with the pleasure of it anyway.

 


 

They lay together after that. A break doesn’t often suit either of them, but they both have a fair bit of yearning to work off, and so they remain. Thanatos is pressed beneath Zagreus the next round, their bodies meeting again and again, desperate catches of air the only sound in the room aside from slick skin on skin contact. 

And then —

“I missed you, too,” Zagreus manages to say between sound and another. 

There is a burst of happiness high in Thanatos’s chest at that, better somehow than even the heat of their matching passion. It’s not enough to say I missed you in return. Thanatos did not even say it, didn’t even write it, but Zagreus knows. He’s read between the lines of his writing, and he’s felt it in Thanatos’s touch, and he’s heard it in everything Thanatos doesn’t say. 

Thanatos curls fingers into Zagreus’s hair, watching leaves wisp up and catch aflame before disappearing, and brings him in for another hungry kiss.