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Pride and Blood

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Change happened slowly in the Underworld. Growing up, Zagreus had been led to believe it didn’t happen at all―that it couldn’t, by virtue of its very nature. Death was permanent, was inflexible, and so must the realm of the dead be, and its sovereign lord.

But he'd witnessed firsthand that change was possible, even in his father’s realm, and not in a small part through his own powers, once he finally learned how to maneuver around the biggest obstacle. He suspected it was the reason he’d started involving himself with the House renovations, not just because it had given him a purpose but because it had given him control, and a way to change things, little things, on his own authority. His father could disagree with his hunger for the surface world, for his wanton ransacking of his realm, but once built, he would have to accept the new sconces, and the marbling, and the draperies. He had too many other things to oversee to spend time reversing his decisions, however superfluous he found some of his renovations.

And sure, some of them had been minor rebellions, as his father no doubt (and rightly) suspected, but then it took one bullheaded god to recognise another, although it took meeting his mother to understand that he hadn’t just inherited his stubborn streak from Hades himself, and to realise that it was doubtless his mother’s perseverance that had ultimately swayed the unswayable, not merely in terms of decor and draperies, but eternal pacts, lifted and rewritten, with his father’s grumbling consent.

The seeds of change had been sown already before his mother's return, and maybe that was why it felt so different, so quickly―because Zagreus had already laid the groundwork, the hard, unyielding soil tilled through sheer and relentless obstinacy. And yet there were some things his mother could do that Zagreus could not, but of course, even his stubbornly inflexible father would have found his match in the goddess of verdure; of spring and growth and new beginnings, herself the daughter of the goddess of seasons, of change. He sometimes wondered if that wasn’t what had drawn his father to her in the first place, and Nyx had told him Persephone’s lightness had affected them all, his father included, but it was something else to hear it than it was to see it with his own eyes.

The first time he heard his father laugh―really laugh, and not with mockery or condemnation―was after his mother returned.

He hadn’t thought much about the absence of laughter, growing up. Like the surface sky and the sun, he’d heard it described, but it had been as foreign a concept as Helios’ chariot, at least where his father was concerned. Zagreus could laugh, and had done so, at first because he just couldn’t help it―Nyx had told him many times he’d been so easy to cheer, as a child―before it had, as so many other things, blossomed into a form of rebellion, witnessing his father’s aversion to it.

Death is no laughing matter, he’d snapped, before going on to explain, at length, why it was not befitting of a House such as his, and that as his heir, Zagreus was expected to maintain the image of a stoic, grim-faced Prince, whose lips could not be compelled to lift even a fraction for all the jokes in the Underworld.

He knew his father was capable of mirth; it had simply used to be at his expense, or as a result of his failures, and ill-fated attempts at living up to his expectations. On one rare occasion, such as while court was in session, he might let slip a scoff at a particularly outrageous claim, but nothing that would readily answer to good humour.

The first time he heard that, it was a startling sound for several reasons. First of all, the sheer volume of it, a guffaw so loud, even if he hadn’t already been looking for his parents, the sound would have drawn him across the hall towards one of the balconies.

Although even stranger than the laughter itself was the discovery of what lay behind it.

“You never could abide this drink,” his mother’s voice spoke, softened with a fondness she reserved for his father alone, and yet a hint of challenge teased behind her gentle inflections.

His father’s reply was swift, although devoid of its usual bite. “It is an affront to this House.”

“You’ll have some more, then?”

The soft clink of glasses answered the question, and his surprise was already so great from hearing him laughing, Zagreus might have taken this in stride, except there was just no way he could, presented now with such an inconceivable image, his jaw actually dropped.

His father, drinking ambrosia?

His mother had mentioned sharing it with him―had asked him for permission―but Zagreus had never actually thought his father would agree, let alone that he’d be present to witness such an event (albeit from behind the convenient placement of a drapery, but that was entirely beside the point).

He was so shocked by the discovery of the drink, he almost strode onto the balcony right then to deliver his accusations―and that list was long, although the most pressing now began with ‘you hypocrite’―but was held back by his mother’s voice, and the tenderness in it.

“Do you remember when I was pregnant with him, how he would kick? Like his feet were on fire even then." Her sigh held a laugh, softened with a note of longing. "How I used to dread the day I'd have to chase him through the halls.”

A heavy beat followed, before his father sighed, and said, his voice a low rumble, “I remember.”

Zagreus listened, rapt. It was the first he’d ever heard anyone mention the time before his birth. Even when he’d asked her, his mother had been reluctant to linger on the subject, keeping it brief, to say she had loved being pregnant; that she could coax even the most stubborn of soils to yield life but that it was a unique feeling, to sense something growing within you. But she’d grown distant when they’d touched upon it, as though even seeing him alive, she couldn’t bear the memory.

Another beat, and then, “You kept his name,” Persephone said. “I had meant to ask you why.”

This time, his father sounded surprised, and there was a roughness in his voice when he spoke. “Need you ask?”

“You could have changed it is all I mean," Persephone countered calmly. “I left. I would have understood.”

“I could no sooner have changed his eyes,” Hades said, but then to Zagreus’ surprise, “Nor would I have wanted to.” Then, “He is yours,” he said, roughly, and with a conviction Zagreus had only ever heard spoken from atop his throne. “Even now, I would not change any part of him.”

Her voice wavered, but her reply was firm when his mother said, “I think Zagreus needs to hear you say that more than I do."

She got a grumble, but Hades didn’t deny her, which might have struck him as a monumental admission if Zagreus hadn’t already been reeling from the first one.

They lapsed into silence, although there was nothing tense or awkward about it, just a natural lull. And he’d often wondered who could stand to be in his father’s presence outside their duties to the House, least of all as his wife and Queen, and even his mother had admitted he wasn’t much of a conversationalist, but he thought he understood then why that hadn’t mattered to her.

He heard the sound of a bottle being poured, before his father’s voice warned her, “You will not speak of this.”

Persephone snorted. “Need I remind you of what happened the last time you tried to ban the mention of something in this House? Our son came stumbling into my lavender patch.”

“That should say more about his stubbornness than it should about my authority. A trait which he got from you.”

Me? I am the goddess of meekness and obedience,” Persephone countered, which yielded such a loud, barking laugh from his father, it eclipsed the first one.

Then his mother said, and with a tenderness he'd never heard anyone address the God of the Dead, “It’s been a long time since I heard you laugh, Hades.”

His father made a noise―not quite a scoff, it was too soft for that, which might have been as surprising as his laughter if he hadn't already known he spoke differently around her. “I never had the disposition for it.”

“Liar.” So easy, that comeback, spoken entirely without fear. So like him. Zagreus had never heard anyone speak to his father that way, unfearing of the consequences. Not anyone but him, anyway. “You just haven’t been letting yourself be happy enough to do it.”

A long beat of silence passed, before his father spoke, and, “He laughs like you,” Hades said then, surprising him. “Zagreus.” And still more surprising, his voice rougher, he confessed, “I could not stand it.”

Hidden by the draperies, Zagreus shifted his weight, stealing a glance at the hall, but the others were in the lounge, and Achilles was on break, and yet it didn’t feel right, to infringe on their privacy like this.

He should probably leave them alone. His father wouldn’t be pleased if he caught him eavesdropping.

“You will be better,” his mother’s voice said then, stopping him before he could leave. And it was said calmly, not a demand but a simple truth, although even gentler than his father would have made it, it was no less unyielding in its authority. “You will try your hardest to be better. Not for me, but for him. Because he is our son. That is not a suggestion, Hades.”

A heavy sigh, and then to Zagreus’ surprise came a discovery even more shocking that his capacity for laughter; a concession unlike anything he’d thought he’d ever hear from his own father’s mouth―

“I will try.”

 

 

As it was, his eavesdropping didn't go entirely unpunished, although the punishment was delayed, and delivered not by his lord father’s authority but the Fates themselves. No one else could be so cheerfully vindictive.

He’d been looking for the Resources Director―had been in a hurry, greeting Achilles in passing but without pausing to hear his response, even as he caught his voice raising to call after him, but by then it had already been too late, as he’d pushed open the doors to the master chambers―

―only to scramble back out the way he’d come with a shout, nearly tripping over his own feet in his hurry to backtrack, and he might have accidentally stepped in the Phlegethon for how he reacted, swearing so loudly it bounced off the walls of the West Hall, before his father’s voice overtook it.

Zagreus!

Speed-walking past Achilles so fast he thought Hermes himself would have been impressed, he didn’t stop to tell him his amusement was entirely unhelpful, and not at all appreciated. Ever since being granted leave to visit Elysium, his general disposition was much lighter, and his laughter never far, although however happy he was to see it, Zagreus was tempted to say that presently, he’d rather he shove his amusement somewhere else.

His voice called after him, holding a chuckle, “I would have warned you, lad, had you but slowed down a moment.”

“Yes, thank you, duly noted!

 

 

For all his attempts at avoiding such an encounter, it didn’t take long for his father to confront him about it, tracking him down in the garden, and Zagreus might have drawn some comfort from the fact that he looked about as uncomfortable as he felt, and wondered if it was at his mother's behest that he was even acknowledging it.

Still. “I don’t want to hear it.” Mnemosyne, let him just forget. He’d pluck out his own eyes if he’d thought it would make any difference, but it was there when he closed them, something he had never in his whole, immortal existence thus far counted on ever seeing, and could have lived forever and it still wouldn’t be long enough without ever seeing it.

He’d used to believe his father as being above such vices―mortal vices, or the sort that his uncle Zeus was known for indulging in, often, and in his father’s own words, to the detriment of all their reputations―and while aware that his mother was back and that they shared a room, and a bed, he hadn’t actually given much thought to what that would entail, so deeply rooted had been his perception of his father as cold and passionless, and generally removed even from the painfully simple concept of desire.

So much for that image.

He wondered idly if Lethe would allow him to forget, if he just drank enough.

His father had yet to speak, and only stood observing him, but that was somehow worse than if he’d stormed in already ranting. Zagreus tried very hard not to notice that his hair looked dishevelled, and to forcibly expel the image that accompanied the observation, a particularly compromising position he did not want to associate with either of his parents.

“Please,” he said, and didn’t care that he was begging. “Please just―don’t. I don’t need to hear it. Can we just pretend this isn’t something that happens, ever?”

He’d half-hoped he would agree and leave it at that, but Hades surprised him by scoffing. “Don’t be a child.”

He had to swallow the petulant urge to retort that he was not, thank you very much, recognising that such a reaction would, well, frankly just prove his point.

“She is my Queen,” Hades continued, unrepentant. “And she was that long before you came into this world. It should not come as a surprise that we partake in natural activities between husband and wife.”

By the grace of the Fates, he managed to keep from wincing at the last bit, although didn't feel particularly inclined to sing their praises at the moment, given what he'd just witnessed.

Zagreus didn’t answer, even with the flippant remark that he’d grown up believing Nyx to be his mother, and yet had never even so much as entertained the thought that she’d had any kind of relationship with his father. For all their mutual respect, to imagine his father even harbouring a capacity for such a relationship was too much to believe, let alone the desire to pursue one, and there was a part of him that had held on to this assumption of his father’s character so fiercely that even acknowledging―and encouraging, no less!―his affection for his mother, he hadn’t stopped to think about what his parents getting back together actually meant.

To make matters worse, but then that was arguably in character, “How did you imagine you came to be created?” Hades asked him then, and before he could choke out a protest―to say he’d been trying not to think about that since learning he had a birthmother and hadn’t simply appeared out of the ether like Nyx’s other children―he'd continued, this time with a snort, “Do you suppose she pulled you from the earth like a vegetable?”

“That’s a much better image, actually,” Zagreus muttered.

His father said nothing, not even to remind him to show her respect, and frowning, Zagreus chanced a glance at him, only for his brows to furrow. Was he…? No. It couldn’t be. And yet―

“Are you―” he began, so shocked by this discovery he couldn’t even form the words, before he blurted, “Do you think this is funny?”

Before, an accusation like that would not have gone over well (the Lord of the Dead, amused? Unthinkable), but where he expected a scolding―a tirade about his carelessness, and the sanctity of one's private chambers, followed by a lecture for good measure on respecting his parents, his Queen in particular―Zagreus was surprised when all he got was a wry look, as Hades turned and simply said,

“Knock next time.”

He was walking away before Zagreus could splutter out a protest―to deny there ever being a next time, and that he would be checking twice before entering any room in the House from now on―but by then his father had already left.

So great was his mortification that he hadn’t even stopped to consider the anomaly that was his father’s show of restraint, before he did, although wished he hadn’t a second later, as the answer quickly presented itself, as to what could have possibly left the King of the Underworld so at ease he didn’t even feel like snapping at him.

His groan was muffled against his palms, as he scrubbed his fingers furiously over his eyes.

Maybe he should give Lethe a try, just to check.

 

 

His father thankfully didn’t mention the incident again, to Zagreus’ relief, although in hindsight, he probably should have known better than to count his blessings so soon.

“Like this,” his mother said, as she carefully extracted the plant. “Mind the roots, but there’s no need to be too gentle. Nature is resilient, and I’ve found the plants that manage to grow down here to be particularly stubborn.” Her eyes found his, bright with an affection he was still getting used to, as Persephone added, “One sprout in particular, which just so happens to be my favourite thing that I’ve ever grown.”

His grin was stupid, and he saw how her eyes softened at the sight of it. Her voice sounded a little rough when she asked him, “Hand me that pot over there, would you?”

“It’s not for me, is it?”

She threw her head back with a laugh. He loved her laughter; the unapologetic loudness of it. “I think we’ll need a much larger pot for that, with how big you’ve gotten!”

“I’ve always been told my stature leaves something to be desired, so it’s nice to hear that for a change,” Zagreus said. “If it weren’t for my feet, I don’t think anyone would believe I was father’s.”

The look he got told him she disagreed with that assessment, but she did him the favour of not saying it out loud. Instead, “Well you came out of me,” Persephone said, with a pointed look that had him swiftly averting his gaze to the boughs of the pomegranate tree above them, “so I’m quite happy you don’t take after your father in that regard. Fates, just the thought!”

Zagreus cleared his throat. He had been trying very hard not to think about the process leading up to his birth. “Yes, well, er, glad I could help?”

Another loud laugh left her, rising up under the branches where they bent. The sound warmed his chest, a contentment he hadn’t known what to call, the first time he’d felt it, but while the novelty had worn off, he liked this better―to have been allowed to grow used to this, and knowing that all he needed to do was make her laugh.

Handing her the pot, Zagreus observed her as she worked. She was beautiful, and mesmerising to watch, so different from the gods and shades he’d grown up around, a grounded air about her that made him feel safe, and a radiance that had not dimmed in their eternal darkness but that only seemed brighter here, in their realm. Or at least it felt that way, observing her now compared to how she’d been on the surface, and she’d been radiant even then, but nothing like she was now, her verdant eyes alight as she finished repotting the plant.

A red veil fell from her hair, pinned up with a heavy gold coronet and her crown of red laurels, her dress adorned with ivory and jewels, bone motifs and bloodstones, so different from the threadbare garments she’d worn when he’d found her, even as they looked no less natural on her. And even kneeling by the beds, her gold-adorned hands buried in the soil where she tucked it around the plant, safe within its new pot, she looked every bit the Queen his father had spoken of, and with a reverence Zagreus hadn’t heard him use for anything. That the Lord and Master of this realm should defer to anyone had seemed too wild to even imagine, but then before he'd found her, it had been hard to imagine his father even taking a wife, least of all a tiny, half-mortal woman. For all his attempts, Zagreus had been unable to picture what she would even look like, and meeting her hadn’t made it any easier to believe. Quite the opposite, in fact. And his stature had always been noticeably different from his father, and so he had naturally assumed he must have taken after his mother, but even knowing that, it hadn’t prepared him for what she would actually look like.

He watched her now, smaller than even him, with soft hands and gentle lines at the corners of her eyes. She barely reached his father’s waist, and wore her half-mortal legacy in her gentler movements, and yet the ethereal grace of the chthonic gods couldn’t compare to the one she exuded, and as naturally as she drew breath.

His father’s reverence was no longer baffling, having seen with his own eyes the notice she compelled, even up to her elbows in newly tilled soil. The Queen of the Underworld.

“This is a special tree,” Persephone said then, smoothing her fingers over the crooked roots of the one above their heads. “The soil is blessed. Plants thrive at its feet that won’t grow anywhere else in the garden.” There was a curious little smile on her face, as though she was remembering something, and he’d nearly opened his mouth to ask her when she mused, “I like to think that this is where you were conceived. We did try an awful lot here.”

It took a second for the comment to register, and then another for mortification to flood him.

He stared down at the soil where his hands were buried.

Lifting his eyes to his mother’s found them glittering, and he didn’t know if this was payback for not knocking before entering or something else, but thought it might be the former, although, “I jest, of course,” Persephone assured him with a laugh. “It would have been terribly awkward, your father on this little patch!”

His own laughter left him, sounding winded, and a little strained.

Then her smile softened, which might have been reassuring had it not been for the gleam that entered her eyes. And he forgot sometimes, with her kindness and easygoing nature, that it was his father who'd once said his Queen had commanded fear as much as awe and reverence, but Zagreus knew what he'd meant now, as his mother pointed across the garden and chirped,

“It was beneath that big one over there.”

 

 

It got less weird after a while, seeing his parents together.

It happened bit by bit, and while he wasn’t looking, between security runs and briefings with his father, which his mother had taken to attending, along with her own suggestions for improvements to the realm; and working in the garden, and no longer finding himself surprised at his father’s presence among the pomegranate trees. He’d rarely partake in the conversation, but would listen to them talking as they worked, and there’d been a time where he would have found his presence stifling, but while the first time had been spent with his shoulders tense, bracing for a derisive remark about his gardening skills or disappointing lack thereof, he felt at ease now, but then he’d learned that his father’s silences could hold more than just disappointment.

Of course, if they were alone, he gave the gardens the widest berth possible, but there’d been no more incidents, and he was thankfully spared having to be reminded of his own creation and the activities prior to, by skilfully avoiding his parents and any public―and private, especially private―displays of affection.

His mother’s visits to Olympus provided some assistance with the latter, although if given the choice, Zagreus thought he could have endured any displays of affection between his parents if it meant she’d be home.

But life continued, in their realm of death. He kept busy, running security checks and reporting back to his father, and they took turns sending each other down the river. And it was an unexpected discovery, that his slightly rounded edges hadn’t simply been a result of his mother’s immediate proximity, but seemed to be a more permanent improvement, even as her absence was still felt, in his father’s larger piles of parchmentwork and thinner patience, but he made attempts at keeping his temper in check, although this time, Zagreus felt understanding for his situation.

He was worried. And at least there, they’d found a common ground, even if they’d yet to acknowledge it in quite so many words. Easier to draw their weapons, and see who could send who down the Styx first.

His mother’s eventual return from Olympus was a welcome change, and while it wasn’t as grand of an entrance as her first, Zagreus thought he preferred this; a quieter reunion as they welcomed her at the dock, his hand extended to help her out of Charon’s boat.

She’d barely stepped ashore when he drew her in for a hug, her laughter soft and delighted as her arms came around him in a fierce grip. Small hands touched the hair at his nape gently, and she breathed out like she was letting something go. “Zagreus.”

Drawing back to look at him, she touched his cheeks, her expression wrought with a feeling that recalled a different reunion, when her eyes had been wide and hurt and she’d accused him of lying―that he couldn’t be the babe she’d lost; that he was too old, too changed, too grown, and all of it missed, which was a grief all its own, and one he knew she still carried.

Now she was smiling, and her voice shivered with joy when she told him, “You haven’t changed.”

“It hasn’t been that long,” Zagreus pointed out, withholding the truth, which was that he’d felt every second. “If you go by the sundial, it hasn’t been any time at all.”

Her palm cupped his cheek, and the understanding in her eyes told him she’d seen right through him, but, “Any time apart feels too long,” Persephone said simply.

Her gaze drifted over his shoulder to where his father stood, silent next to Cerberus.

Smiling, Zagreus kissed her cheek. “It’s good to have you home, Mother.”

Touching her shoulder, her small hand gripped his, before he took his leave of them, knowing better by now than to linger, but still couldn’t help himself, and on his way out he chanced a glance over his shoulder.

Their embrace was different to how he’d welcomed her back. His mother was the one who reached for him, pushing up on her toes gently, but her laughter flung out when his father suddenly lifted her off her feet, and he didn’t know which was more surprising―the unexpected demonstration, or the startled grin he found on his own face, observing them.

Shaking his head, he retreated to find Than and Meg, and gave the master quarters a wide berth for the following days and nights, although he had learned his lesson now, to knock.

 

 

Change happened slowly in the Underworld, and when it did occur, it was subtle. So subtle, in fact, that the majority of its denizens might not even make note of it, and for most, nothing really did change―mortals died, and their souls went to Tartarus, to Asphodel and Elysium. Eternity was, by its very nature, eternal.

But things had changed, at least within his father's House. He had an official posting now, his ransacking sanctioned by the Lord and Master of the realm, which was still an adjustment, to be addressed not only as Prince but as a productive member of the House of Hades. They’d reconnected with their Olympian relatives, and while still not thrilled about his mother travelling to Olympus (an opinion he and his father shared, for once), that, too, was different.

But the biggest change for Zagreus came in the form of a very small one.

“―and you really should do something about the Barge of Death. Right now it’s a useful means of transportation rather than anything more sinister. I feel like I should be paying fare for all the rides I’ve hitched.”

His father acknowledged that with a grunt. “Noted. And Elysium?”

“Everything tries to kill me, but at least it looks pretty. I also noticed you’ve added more butterflies. Doesn’t have anything to do with me mentioning that I hated them with a burning passion, does it?”

“Entirely unrelated events.”

The corner of his mouth jutted, entirely in spite of himself. He hadn’t believed his mother when she’d assured him his father’s wit was not dead, you just had to know what to look for, and didn’t know if it was a recent change, or if he’d just not been looking for the right things before. Probably a little of both.

His report had concluded, and it was still strange, this professionalism without the expected derision, or blunt remarks about his repeated failures to live up to his position. And he wasn’t being showered in fatherly pride or anything, and by most standards it couldn’t even be called pride, but his father's acknowledgement was…something. And Hades had told him the changes would be too subtle for his tastes, that he was too inflexible, and while his expectations had been spectacularly low, Zagreus couldn’t simply blame that for his surprise now, that his father was, believe it or not, trying.

“Anything else you need from me, Father?” he asked, as he turned to leave. He already knew the answer, and that he would have informed him had it been the case; his father was, in addition to the dead, the god of sufficiency. But he still asked; another little rebellion, perhaps, but even his father couldn't deny that one of his strongest qualities was that he cared.

Hades didn’t look up from his parchmentwork. “No, my boy, that should suffice for now.”

Such a little thing, and yet it made Zagreus pause.

He’d always been boy, nothing more or less. He’d only ever been ‘my’ in the rare instances his father saw fit to remind him of whose son he was, and then usually only when he failed to live up to said legacy―you are my son/heir, and as such there are certain expectations et cetera et cetera. And Hades himself had acknowledged he only deserved the title of ‘Father’ in a strictly technical sense, but then Zagreus could have said the same―that he’d only ever felt like his son in the technical definition of the word; his heir apparent, their connection unavoidable with his flame-licked soles and dark hair, and however much his one green eye belonged to his mother, the red was just as much a part of him. But other than being sired by him, he’d never felt that his father had acknowledged their relation in any terms beyond the strictly technical. At least not before now.

He almost thought he’d misheard him, but he wouldn’t have reacted like this if he had, almost viscerally.

Hades looked up from the report on his desk, a familiar note of impatience lacing the heavy boom of his voice, no doubt at his aimless loitering. “What?”

Zagreus stared, still more surprised, having expected him to take it back, or claim he’d misspoken, or even deny he’d spoken the words in the first place. But his father didn’t even seem to realise he’d done it.

And maybe that was why he didn’t point it out, the accusation levelled as much in surprise as in defence, to say it wasn’t enough, not even close, or that he hadn’t earned the right to call him that, knowing his father would react in turn, with similar accusations. Once, it would have been a knee-jerk reaction.

But Hades was still looking at him curiously, if a little warily. And it wasn’t long ago that he’d refrained from even using his name, and yet didn’t seem to have realised what he’d even said. As though it had simply come naturally.

It was as subtle a change as he’d been promised, but even small, it was anything but insignificant.

“Nothing,” Zagreus said, and hearing how rough his voice sounded, cleared his throat. “Was just thinking of new and creative ways to send you down the river.”

He got a scoff, and almost thought he saw a smile lifting his whiskers, and when his father spoke next it wasn’t with the mockery he would have used once, but something that sounded suddenly and undeniably sincere.

“I should like to see you try.”

 

 ―

 

He didn’t know when it had happened. One day or night it was just there, within him―a feeling, startling for its very presence alone, although more than anything, for the fact that it seemed to have been there awhile; he’d only just now noticed it.

The banquet would have been unthinkable, not too long ago, but then they’d hosted the gods of Olympus, and so a smaller feast for the residents of the House was perhaps not such an absurd idea anymore. Now it just felt natural, to celebrate the Queen’s safe return.

A loud laugh rose above the din within the lounge, drawing his eyes towards the head table, and his parents, his father’s characteristic mien of long-suffering faltering under the delight on his mother’s face. She'd pulled their chairs closer together, cheerfully bypassing his insistence on proper decorum for the monarchs of the realm, her hand gripping his as she leaned into his side, doubled over from laughing, although Zagreus wasn't sure he wanted to know what his father had said to prompt such a reaction. From the barest smile visible under his whiskers, it was probably better he didn't know.

The tables were filled, laden with food and drink, and there must have been grander feasts every day during her stay on Olympus, and yet watching her, the centre of attention even as her gaze had not strayed far from the one regarding her like she was the only occupant in the room, he didn't feel fear that she should long for the surface, finding a very different truth in her eyes where they swept the lounge, meeting his briefly with a wink, before his father leaned his head down towards the top of her head, his words inaudible even before she threw her head back with another laugh.

And she did laugh like him, Zagreus thought, loudly and without reserve. Under the sound, his father’s could almost be called gentle. He wouldn’t even have caught it if he hadn’t been listening for it, although even then, it was out in the open. Anyone could have caught it now, not just shameless eavesdroppers.

“Zag?”

Blinking, he looked across the table at his companions. As Prince, he might have been expected to sit with his parents, but while his father had grumbled about appearances and their duties as a family, his mother had told him to go have fun. The fact that his father hadn’t even scoffed at the notion (‘fun, in my House?’) would have been startling once, and yet it was just another little thing that had changed, seemingly without his notice, but like the feeling within him now, he wondered how he could have missed it.

Meg’s brows had furrowed, and he was surprised she managed to sound only a little suspicious when she said, “You spaced out there for a minute.”

“Something wrong?” Than asked.

Zagreus looked between them, before taking in the lounge, so used to the sight of it now, reflective ball included, he’d almost forgotten what it had looked like before.

Growing up, his father’s House had never felt like home, and he’d never thought that would change; had thought the only alternative was to escape, and to go somewhere else. And he was still here, and that would never change, he knew, and yet it wasn't hopelessness, the sensation that filled him now.

“No,” Zagreus said. Across the room, he could still hear his mother laughing, and beneath it, the lower cadence of his father’s.

“Things are actually feeling…right.”