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If You're Going Through Hell

Chapter Text

Steve woke up in a hammock, swinging in a light breeze, the scent of salt water an aftertaste in the air. It smelled a little like Fort Lauderdale: ocean mixed with the bite of fresh foliage and the complete lack of London smog. He had only been there once. Cousin’s wedding, big shebang, flowers everywhere. It had been hot as hell and he’d had one or maybe ten too many fancy east-coast beers and he didn’t even remember where he was the next morning.

He didn’t remember where he was now, much like that time in Florida but without the sluggish throbbing of a hangover. It was a foreign, awkward feeling.

Wiry ropes were digging red marks against his cheek and sun beat down against his back. Steve burned like a paper under a magnifying glass; being out in the sun for thirty minutes would leave him as red as raspberry. Despite the direct sun and however long he had been laying there, his skin lacked the tingle of a burn. It was just heat. Like an overhead light. He hesitantly tilted his head from side to side. No pain. Huh. He never woke up without a crick in his neck. It just didn’t happen.

“It will not hurt. You needn’t be careful.”

Steve nearly gave himself whiplash looking up. “Pardon?” he said, thrown when his voice didn’t carry the slurs of sleep.

A man blinked at him. He looked like a Greek statue: curly hair, tanned skin, flowing tunic that almost didn’t cover what needed to be covered. He sat cross legged on the ground and his face was uncomfortably close to Steve’s elbow. He thought about sticking his hand on the guy’s forehead and pushing him away.

“You need not be pardoned,” he said, smiling. “It is the way of things. Not for most, especially not for those without Olympic parentage. But you are favored. He rarely chooses heroes, but He is, occasionally, swayed by the marriage of hearts. I believe my mother may have had some part in the decision.”

Steve shook his head. The man’s words went in one ear and out through the other. He caught marriage, which he was sure he knew nothing about, and he really didn’t want to ask who He was. His mom had been Catholic. Steve sure as hell wasn’t. And after meeting Diana, he was pretty sure that his mom’s He was not the same as this guy’s He.

“Huh,” he replied. “I’m having a little trouble catching on, here.”

Mr. Muscles nodded sympathetically. “I am Aeneas of the Argonauts, son of Aphrodite,” he said, standing and offering a hand. Steve took it. He was lifted into a sitting position like he weighed two pounds.

“Uh, I’m Steve.”

“I know,” Aeneas told him. “Everyone knows.”

As ominous as that was, Steve chose to ignore it. “Alright, I’ll bite. Where the hell am I?” he asked, rubbing at his face experimentally.

The man raised his eyebrows. “Do you not know? Elysium. You lie in Elysium, Isles of the Blessed. Only those who gain favor from the gods may hope for it upon death.”

“Right,” he replied vacantly. He was pretty sure he had done everything he could to destroy people’s favor in the last few weeks.

“It has been a long time since one has been assigned to this place.” Aeneas continued, seemingly unconcerned with Steve’s growing disconnect. “Times have changed, that I understand. I saw the fall of the Grecian empire and the rise of Rome.”

“Of course you did,” Steve said. He picked at the loose wrap of cloth that was bunched at his shoulders. It fell about him like a bedsheet tied on in haste. Pants were seeming like a much better option than the drafty wrap. “You know what, I’m just gonna take a walk around. Get my head together a bit.”

Sand squished between his toes as he stood. He hardly had a moment to catch his balance before everything came back to him. Diana, the boys, the gas. Fuck, I killed myself. His hands stung with the pressure of his watch against her palm, shouting I love you even though he knew perfectly well that she couldn’t hear it. Fire, and the twisted silhouette of a man inside it, blades flashing faster than the gold whip could follow.

“Diana,” he gasped.

Aeneas steadied him. “Both daughters of Zeus, though I do not believe you speak of Artemis.”

“No,” he said, tearing his shoulders from the larger man’s grasp. “No, my Diana. Is she alright?”

Of course she wouldn’t be alright. She fought a god of war, for heaven’s sake, there was no way she’d be alright. Even if she won, she was so naïve, so hopeful…her face when she realized that killing Ares wouldn’t change anything had been enough to crush him. If she won, and of course she had, she’d get that hope back. And someone, someday soon, would take it from her again. Steve knew that she’d look at the bodies and the wounded and carry the weight of them on her shoulders. She’d find the bits and pieces of his plane and blame herself for that, too. He clenched his teeth. It was Diana. She was stronger than he had ever dreamed to be. Still, he harbored a hope that she’d go back to her island when the war was over. Maybe, just maybe, she’d live with the people who only knew peace.

But she wouldn’t.

“Diana lives,” Aeneas affirmed. “The whole of the underworld felt Ares today, driven by the force of his own energy into Tartarus. Hades will keep him there for as long as he is able.”

“As long as...you mean he’s coming back?”

“They always do,” he said, eyes in the past. “But it will be a very, very long time before he is strong enough to rise again. And by then, everything will have changed.”

Steve stared at the eerie blue at the edge of the sand. It didn’t look like water, not really. It left no mark on the sand as the waves swept up and down the gentle slope of the shore. It was too translucent, too misty to be water. There was something that told him that he shouldn’t touch it.

Ah, hell. He was dead. What could it do?

 

---

 

Ten bodies on the boat, nine coins.

The entrance to the territory of Hades was much colder than she expected it to be.

Hades. Uncle. How strange.

Charon swept a great oar through churning blackness beneath them. He did not look at her. He did not speak to her. She knew that his essence itched to pull her into the Styx, to send her back to the surface, to do anything at all besides charter her to the judgement hall. The others were figures as still as dolls, bodied waving with the swell of the water. She wondered if they even could speak. It was cold, not to the touch but in stimulus, as if she had lost a sense upon entering: it numbed her hands and ate at her confidence. Diana clutched at the watch in her hand. The faint pulse of gears clicking together helped her steady her breathing enough to concentrate. Hidden beneath her cloak, her sister’s arrow tried to wiggle free.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you’ll be alright? You can stay with me if you’d like. I’d even lend you the bed. Not that my couch isn’t comfortable, it’s just that it probably smells a little—”

“Etta,” Diana sighed. “I will be perfectly comfortable here.”

Etta pouted. She was the type of individual that pouted with her entire body, and then for several hours with her actions. Diana feared that the secretary would offer to buy her more food. She had learned that mince pies were not her favorite, and that if she had to drink another tankard of bitter celebratory beer, she’d vomit. It didn’t even make her drunk. It just tasted like what all other yellow water tasted like. She preferred wine.

“Are you sure?” Etta asked, her gloves twisted from all the worrying of them that she did.

“I am sure. I want you to get a good night’s sleep.”

“Oh, I’ll do that no matter where I am,” she said, and it was probably true.

Etta always looked a little bit tired, but her bubbliness made up for it. Now she seemed wilted. Her hair was flat, her clothing wrinkled, the feather in her hat had blown away. There was an ink stain on her forearm. Diana felt guilty. She had taken most of the attack of the gratitude from the public, but Etta was getting the worst of it. The letters, the behind-the-scenes hate that nobody knew about. Blame for not saving loved ones, angry propaganda, tired pleas for help. Worst were the apologies. Diana couldn’t even pretend to handle those. Mostly they were people saying “I’m sorry that I stood by while people were killed, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Truth be told, she could understand why they didn’t. That in itself proved that she had changed, and she hated it.

“Goodnight,” she said with a smile, closing the door to her hotel room.

She hadn’t gotten an apartment no matter how much people insisted. Nor did she want to smuggle things with Chief or ‘shack up’ with Sameer. She knew he was joking, but it still got to be a bit much. Now, she moved around. She would be happier in a tent in the forest, really. At least then the crickets would replace the sound of dogs and automobiles and drunks. It was exhausting, living like this. Learning what everyone else already knew by age four. She could speak plenty of languages but she didn’t know what a powder room was. Or a clock. It was nearly one in the morning, she could read that much by now. Steve’s clock was still doing its job, only now it told her when to go to bed. She rarely obeyed.

Diana was halfway into her nightclothes when she felt the call.

At first she thought it was a fever. Chills ran up and down her spine and she couldn’t draw a full breath. Then there was the sound: a whistle, an animal call that she was certain was meant for her. Someone was looking for her. She was sure that she hadn’t left her window open, but she didn’t mind. In fact, the breeze seemed awfully nice. It should’ve occurred to her that leaving her room without her armor and her whip was a bad idea, but the air didn’t smell like London anymore, it smelled like pine needles and mountain air. It’d be fine. She would just leave for a little while.

The windowsill crumbled when she pushed off, but she managed to spare the roof that she landed on.

Angry thunder rippled through the night, though only she could hear it. A week after the end of the battle and there was not yet respite from the war. She ran toward the sound, though now it was only buzzing in her ears. She ran until smog could no longer obscure the stars. Civilization gave way to a field. Trees grew in number and mushrooms began to blossom from decomposing leaves. She passed towns, crowded night bars, young couples in love until something inside of her knew exactly where she had to go. Finally, there was nothing. No moon, no stars. Heavy leaves weighed down by night mist shielded the undergrowth and a small fire illuminated the lines of the bark. That was where she found Artemis, sitting on a camp chair, legs crossed under her skirt. A bow lay discarded to the side.

“Good evening, sister,” the girl said. She looked…well. There was no question how they were related. It was like looking into a mirror from the past. A younger, softer Diana still under the wing of her fellow amazons stared back at her. Only the eyes differed.

Artemis was a girl. She knew that. The myths told her of that. But this girl was not what she expected.

“Hello,” she said quietly. Diana wasn’t quite sure what to do. Sit down? Join her next to the fire? Would that be rude? Would it be incorrect not to?

“I’ve just put the venison on. It should be a few minutes yet,” Artemis said. “Sit down with me.”

Diana shuffled forward and curled up next to a fallen log. Moisture from the moss crept into her cloak. She felt underdressed, even though she didn’t believe that there could be such a thing while sitting next to a fire in the middle of a forest.

“I was told the gods had been defeated,” she said.

The girl chuckled dryly. “Defeated, yes. Dead, no. We scattered in the face of trials, I’m afraid. Some of us didn’t make it out so well. Me? He can’t kill what he can’t catch.”

“I am glad,” she said softly.

“As am I.”

There was silence. It felt like there was something being said in the quiet, but it was in a language even she couldn’t understand.

“I did not expect…” she waved a hand at the fire, “you.”

A nightbird trilled next to them. “You did not expect me, or you did not me to be the way that I am?”

“A little of both,” Diana admitted.

Artemis snorted. “Everyone thinks that I’ll be like a man. I tried that once, I’ll admit. It didn’t suit me.”

“You tried being a man?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Gender is not solid with our people,” she said. “With any people, really. I thought that maybe if I possessed male attributes, they would stop…well, you know. Trying to chase me. That didn’t work as well as I expected it to. And I didn’t like it. I enjoy being a woman, just as you do. I enjoy the colors, the clothing, the art. Apollo once mocked me for hunting in a skirt. I shot him in the leg.”

Diana felt her lips twitch into a smile. “I bet he didn’t do that again.”

“He did not!” Artemis agreed. She reached over her fire and turned the tinfoil-covered roast. It steamed lightly. “You know, I watched you for a long while. My youngest sister, named after me. You were so brilliant and strong. I even hoped that you would join me, once. But I can see that is not possible.”

Her smile faded. “I’m sorry,” she said.

The goddess shrugged. “You fell in love. Can’t be helped, really. I’ve had many girls leave because they found a man or they found each other. I used to be…worse…about it. I considered it to be a betrayal for a long while. I would kill them, turn their lovers into game to be hunted, let them live the remainder of their life as trees. After a time I just banished them, and now I do nothing at all. I realized that my lifestyle isn’t right for everyone just as theirs is not right for me. You found yours. I’m sorry you had to lose him.”

Diana nodded appreciatively, fists curled loosely in the soft cotton of her nightgown. She had fallen in love, hadn’t she? But she didn’t realize it until he had been replaced by smoke, until she looked over her shoulder with a joke to share with a ghost. Everyone’s eyes were on her at the end of the war. Grieving hadn’t been an option. Diana could see how the gods had been corrupted by the worship of thousands, but she just wanted to hide. Now thinking of him felt like a dream that was interrupted halfway through. She wanted to reach for the ending but she knew she wouldn’t find one.

Artemis tilted her head, pity in her eyes. “I didn’t come here just to say hello, I’m afraid.”

“I thought not,” Diana admitted.

“I like to think I know you well enough to not bother with the warnings.” She reached around for her pack. It was a huge thing, a modern camping bag almost as big its bearer. It contrasted oddly with the blue of her skirts and the belt that held so many knives. She fished through a dozen containers, some revealing odd artifacts, others much more mundane. Out of a zippered canvas quiver she pulled an arrow. It was far too short to fit her bow, but it was no less elegantly crafted. “I’ll give you something helpful instead. Take this,” she said, holding it out by the tip.

Diana hesitated.

“Oh, come on. There’s no catch. No price. I don’t want anything from you. It’s a gift, and if you don’t take it I’ll be offended.”

She reached out her hand and accepted the offering. It was lighter than she expected, made of a smooth material that looked like bone. Even the feathers of the end were intricately carved. “I was told not to accept things from gods,” she said.

Artemis nodded. “Normally that would be the case, but you’re our kin. I’ll admit that Olympians haven’t been altogether kind to demigods in the past, but we’re running low. In numbers, in strength. Hera is going to hate you simply because you’re one of Zeus’ children that isn’t hers and Aphrodite is…well, I know she helped create your people, but she can be a piece of work. Most of the rest should mind their own business.”

“Aphrodite,” she repeated. “Is she…” Diana waved her hands about her chest.

“Bodacious? Yes.”

“And—” She half expected Artemis to answer before she said it.

“Pretentious? Also yes. She’s likely to be wearing pearls.” The goddess answered the last bit with a sneer of distaste. Diana wasn’t so sure what was wrong with pearls.

“I think I met her,” she said. Just after he was killed, there had been a woman a little older than her, too beautiful to be real. She had an outfit that showed more than it covered and yes, she had worn pearls. Very many pearls.

Artemis sighed. “What did she tell you?”

Diana gritted her teeth. “That she was sorry for my loss, and she was sorry I had failed my queen. And then she tried to give me a necklace that would ‘help men look my way’.”

“She’s a bitch,” Artemis said with a shake of her head. “Did you take it?”

“I told her to choke on it,” she said.

Artemis beamed “Oh, good girl! You are officially my favorite. My gift is better, anyway. Tie it to your belt and if you’re in danger, release it. It will lead you to safety.” She tossed over a strip of leather. Diana caught it and ran her fingers along the age cracks.

“Thank you.”

“Any time, dear.”

They ate the venison with roasted potatoes and dried cranberries and for the first time in weeks, Diana’s heart felt light again. Artemis reminded her very strongly of home. She laughed with her stomach like an Amazon, made jokes that would make modern ladies blush. She ignored the pleasantries that the women Diana had met in this new world were so eager to uphold. They talked until she finally felt her eyes drooping, until she scooted closer to the fire and fell asleep to the smell of cedar burning and the feeling of fingers in her hair. When she awoke, all evidence of the fire had disappeared, but a blanket was tucked around her and the arrow was digging into her thigh. Scrawled in the dirt was a message in ancient Greek.

“Do what makes you happy, little sister,” it read.

She frowned. World peace would make her happy, but that was a goal that was looking farther and farther from attainable. Seeing her friends again would make her happy, but going back after failing to end the war was unacceptable. Seeing Steve again…that would make her happy. Unfortunately for her, he was dead. You couldn’t—oh.

Oh, yes, she could.

 

---

 

Well, it wasn’t the afterlife he expected, but it wasn’t too bad, all things considered. No circles of punishment (not for him, anyway), no fiery horned guy (as of yet), and no bloodthirsty demons trying to sink their teeth into his flesh. There was Aeneas, though. For a hero of the Trojan war, he was a huge bleeding heart. At least three times a day he asked if Steve was ‘doing alright’. It was nice, but it made him think that maybe not everything should be alright, and that made him paranoid. As if he wasn’t already.

Added to that, he was going a little stir-crazy. The Isles were nice, really nice, but they were incredibly isolated. He an Aeneas were like roommates in a huge apartment building of islands, each one like an environmental bubble. Some never got dark. Others maintained the same schedule as earth days. Theirs was more like an Alaska summer day, with a musky pale light in the late hours of night and early morning that made everything into a tinted grey. He didn’t dislike it at all, but they never saw any of the other “heroes”. It was depressingly like solitary confinement.

On the ninth day, he found the boat.

As much as he complained, Steve had read the Iliad and the Odyssey. He knew plenty about Theseus and the Minotaur, about the Argonauts. He knew that Greek mythology was a bit skewed, and after seeing what he had in recent weeks, he was convinced that he should take Homer’s words as gospel. Meaning he could take nothing at face value.

So the boat. A little too nice, too perfect. The water left no lines on the rust-red paint and the wood was pristine and un-chipped. He took that as a bad sign. No sail: even worse. An oar (only one) and a padded red cushion were adorned with what he had come to learn was the insignia of Hades and on absolutely everything. His first instinct was, “Oh, a skiff! Let me jump in! I wonder where the currents will take me!”

His second was, “Somewhere in this place is the actual pit of hell.”

Steve stepped slowly away from the boat.

Chapter Text

Steve kept reflexively checking his wrist for the time. It was a new habit, not something he retained as a memoir of his old life. He checked it because it felt like he was going to boil sitting in his temperate bubble. The last thing he expected was the Greek version of heaven to be boring. He had given his watch to Diana, so the only time that existed was in his head.

Aeneas trained. All day long. He did pushups, sit ups, a whole bunch of sword things that would make Diana drool, and then raked the damn sand like a ninety-year-old grandmother. Every day. Maybe there was something in maintaining a strict schedule that helped one’s sanity, but Steve had given the eight-hours-a-day monotony a try once, and he’d pass.

“Seriously,” he said, “do you do anything else around here?”

Aeneas slumped down on the ground, his dark skin flushed with red. He looked at Steve from upside down. “Infrequently.”

He huffed. “Lot of fun you are.”

The man let a little smile escape. “I’m very old, Steve. My thoughts occupy more of my mind than the activities of my youth.”

He sighed. That was exactly the answer that he was expecting. The polite “I don’t do anything at all now please leave me to my own devices.” If he was really pitiful, he might be able to get Aeneas to tell him a story, but that was it. He wanted interaction. A challenge. He wanted to see someone else besides this deceivingly ancient hero.

“Alright,” he said. “I give up. I’ll stop bothering you.”

“You are not a bother,” Aeneas said earnestly. “I am happy to answer your questions.”

Steve plopped down on the sand next to him, grabbing handfuls of the fine-grained white. “Can I ask you something else, then?”

“Of course.”

“That boat. The one next to the eucalyptus. Can I use it?” He wanted to. No matter how creepy it was, he’d do just about anything to get off of this island. He didn’t understand how Calypso didn’t go crazy in the myths. Maybe she did and they never highlighted it.

Aeneas sat up. “It did not occur to me that you would not know how. You must speak to it, tell it where to take you.”

Steve blinked. “What? You mean it’s not going to throw me into the ocean?”

The man smirked. He was getting used to Steve thinking everything was trying to kill him. “It is not going to throw you into the ocean.”

“Well, great. A self-rowing magical boat. Sounds nice.”

“In essence, yes.” Aeneas shifted into a stretch. “Where do you wish it to take you?”

“Anywhere but here” seemed a little bit too clichéd. Steve shrugged. “You’re the only person I’ve seen since I got here. I thought I’d try to branch out a little more.”

“I would not recommend it,” Aeneas said quickly.

Steve narrowed his eyes. “Why not?”

Cracking his neck, Aeneas stood. “This is not the Christian heaven. Being a hero does not make one a good person. The others have morals that are not likely to align with yours.”

“What do you mean by that?” He knew most of the warriors from the myths that made it to Elysium were warriors, and everyone did bad things in war. Hell, he’d done plenty of bad things himself. What had she said? Liar, murderer, smuggler. The boat to be a good person had sailed a very long time ago.

“Many were rapists,” Aeneas told him. “Most were murderers. Some have waited so long for reincarnation that they aren’t the same person that they used to be.”

Steve almost pressed, almost asked after the nervous edge in Aeneas’ eyes, but his people-sense was telling him not to pry. It was true that islands full of rapists and murderers didn’t sound ideal, but sitting in his little shelter away from interaction, human or otherwise, wouldn’t do him any good. If these people were a threat of any kind, getting to know them might be advantageous anyway. Really, though, he just wanted to see other people. To reassure himself that this wasn’t some kind of coma-hallucination.

Aeneas looked at him with pity. “There is someone you might enjoy the company of,” he said, reaching into a clay jar to procure a curved piece of yellow parchment. A piece of charcoal and a few scratches later and Steve was looking at something in ancient Greek.

“I can’t read that, you know,” he said, staring at the letters. They certainly seemed familiar.

“Give it time. All languages become the language of the dead here.” He handed the charcoal and paper to Steve. “Ytide. She’s new. Not as new as you, but recent nonetheless. Her perspective may be helpful to you.”

“Is she a rapist?” Steve asked.

Aeneas rolled his eyes. “She died saving dozens of children from a burning building. One was a child of Hermes, another was a daughter of Phobos. Their godly parents very quickly vouched for her.”

“A decent person, then, huh?”

“She is,” he agreed. “Come, I’ll show you how to sail.”

Aeneas showed him to the boat, smiling like a parent showing his child to swim. He stood ankle deep in the misty water as Steve stumbled over Ytide’s name, looking doubtful. On the second try, it lurched forward, oar motionless against the wooden bench. There were no waves to rock him, no swell to paddle against, so he floated with hesitant faith that the boat would take him to another island. And it did. Although there was nothing in sight, it couldn’t have been minutes before he washed up on another’s shore. He was left with the sinking feeling that without the boat, there was no way on earth he would be able to make his way around. He didn’t like to be so dependent on something he couldn’t talk to.

Steve looked back the way he came and saw nothing at all. No island, no clouds in the pale blue sky. Nothing. He trudged forward instead. The sand was riddled with bits and pieces of dark rock that felt cool on his bare feet. The plants were slightly different: fewer, less trees, more flowers. There was no dock to tie the boat to, but there was no tide to drag it away, either. He dragged it up the beach a bit. A sweet, floral scent clung to the island, and he breathed it in eagerly. Hyacinths grew in pale purples along the edge of a walkway made from the very stones he had been admiring. He wondered if they were whatever was left of Apollo’s lover or if they were simply the flowers that they seemed.

“Good afternoon,” said a lovely voice.

He commended himself for not jumping. “Is it? Afternoon, that is.”

She shrugged. “It always is, here. I like it that way.”

She tilted her head. Her eyes were dark, very dark, like ocean basalt, almost as black as her skin. It was the darkest color he’d seen since he had died. Ytide was sitting on a seat woven from thin vines and padded by intricately woven cloth, her hair escaping from its tie. She seemed to shine like she snatched the light right from the air. Whoever her Olympian parent was, he was sure they had to value art.

“You must be Ytide,” he said, offering his hand.

“That is my name. Perhaps you care to share yours?”

“I’m Steve. Steve Trevor,” he said, withdrawing his hand when she didn’t take it. It wasn’t as awkward as it could have been. “Aeneas sent me your way. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea to talk to anyone else.”

She smiled. “He can be overprotective at times, certainly. Would you like something to drink? I’ve been thinking about getting something.”

Steve frowned. He’d been here for almost two weeks, and he hadn’t eaten a bite. His stomach didn’t growl, he hadn’t had to pee. He hadn’t looked in the mirror, he hadn’t needed to shave. No sunburn, no sweat, no hangnails. It was like his body had been suspended in time. He wondered if he still looked like he did when he was alive or if somehow he’d reverted back to his teenage years.

“I…don’t know,” he said, feeling a little foolish.

Ytide looked at him oddly. “That’s alright. There are better ways to pass time. Join me?”

He nodded, relieved when she didn’t press the question.

This island was the polar opposite to theirs. Instead of a simple shack like Aeneas preferred, she had constructed a masterpiece. Flowers grew from every crevice of the building, if it could be called that. Masterful tapestries hung from the arms of painted dead trees. There was no roof, only the sway of fabric in a breeze that wasn’t really there. There was so much color that his eyes didn’t know what to do with it all.

“It’s beautiful,” he told her.

“Thank you.” Ytide crossed her legs on a pad on the ground and patted the one next to her. It looked like she was familiar with the prospect of visitors. He sat down at down and pulled his knees to his chest, trying not to take up too much space. “Choose a color?” she said, motioning to assorted bundles to her side.

“For what?” he asked.

“The sky.” She pointed to a half-constructed slab of pinks and blues. A thin piece of string was dangling to the side, and she lifted it. “I have to start the sky before I finish the figure, but I haven’t chosen a color yet.”

He gaped at the loom, leaning forward but careful not to touch, examining the detail so small he couldn’t have achieved it with a pencil. He saw half of a person, not at all Greek in style. It carried elements that he recognized, but it looked to be entirely hers in composition.

“Maybe orange?” he suggested. “Like that one in the corner.”

She nodded approvingly, hands lifting the spool delicately.

“That’s amazing, you know,” Steve said.

“I have to admit, you seem significantly more interested than others I have entertained here,” she laughed.

He looked at his hands. “I’ve been horribly bored. Just being here is a pleasant change in my schedule.”

Ytide patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, I understand. Part of caring for yourself here is learning to train your mind to focus. Focus on your task, meditate. Some say that it trains the soul for reincarnation, but I’m not too sure that there is reincarnation at all.”

“It’s training, for sure,” he admitted, watching as her hands began to weave the orange he had chosen, looping it with the blue.

“That’s why most of them sleep,” she said. “Their dreams feel more realistic than their life. Or death, if you prefer.”

He raised his eyebrows. “So it’s not just…”

“Not just you who dreams?” The skin next to her eyes wrinkled when she smiled, giving depth to her face that he had not noticed earlier.

“I thought it was some sort of shell shock,” he said. Aeneas hadn’t said anything about dreams, so when they had started coming, it had been an unpleasant surprise. He felt like Charlie some nights, screaming for someone who wasn’t there.

Falling asleep was more out of habit than necessity, but he was used to a schedule, following his clock like a schoolboy waited for the bell. Now when he closed his eyes he saw the bombs falling, blood flowing, clouds of deadly smoke. Then they would morph. To the laughter of a friend, to his childhood. Waiting for his sister to get out of the bathroom, washing dishes.

Or it turned to Diana. To the softness of her skin, the unbearable desire to pull her to him, how wrong he was not to believe her. He dreamed of her hair, flying every which way as she deflected bullets with nothing but her arms and faith. He felt her lips against his and her hands in his and her smile like a caress all by itself. He dreamed of the pain in her eyes.

“Dreaming is different here,” Ytide said.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

She turned back to him with an apologetic smile. He watched the rhythm of her hands. He could certainly see how it was meditative. Over, under, over, under, switch colors, repeat. He started to synchronize his breath with the change of colors. Steve closed his eyes. He didn’t want to dream, but it was like a drug. Russian roulette with his memories. It could be the guns or it could be his friends. He hated it, but he needed it.

“Would you like to learn?” she said, and it took a moment for him to come back to reality. She was holding the blue thread out to him, wooden needle hanging out of the corner of her mouth.

“On that? Are you kidding?” he asked, horrified at the precision of it all. “I’d mess it up!”

She laughed, squeezing her shut and pressing the thread into his hands. “That’s why I’m here. I’ll just undo it if it’s as bad as you fear.”

He was pretty sure it would be. “That would take you forever,” Steve protested.

“Oh, my dear, I have all the time in the world.”

And that, he figured, was the essence of the problem.

 

 

The door to the underworld was behind a bank teller’s station in Cambridge. She was alone. The woman working it was a pasty thing with dark circles under her eyes that would rival the homeless man down the street, lips pulled into a permanent grimace. Diana thought that if she were working that job, she might feel the same way.

“I request entrance,” she said, striding up to the station.

The woman’s eyes focused on her, finally, and she looked her up and down. With a half nod and no words, she stepped aside.

“Thank you,” Diana told her, bewildered. There was no way it was that easy. But then again, if the gods were so weak, who was there to guard the gates? Maybe she’d be able to walk in and walk out, simple as that.

Her mother had told her that Ares killed the gods, one by one. It bothered her. Had she not known? Had they played dead so convincingly that not even Zeus knew they were alive? Or had they really died and recreated themselves in the stomachs of unsuspecting mothers? More likely, Diana thought, it had been easier to tell a child they had been killed. There was no use telling her the specifics, letting her believe for even a moment that Ares would hesitate to kill. Her mother had been trying to frighten her. It might not have worked then, but the reality of it was heavy on her shoulders now.

Behind her, she heard a customer ask for money from his account before she disappeared through a rickety metal door.

The cold enveloped her like night had set in the blink of an eye. Even her demigod eyes struggled to pierce the dark. The sound of running water hit her like a wall of sound. She could make out the silhouette of an elegant tree in the distance. The sound of oars slapping the water broke through the hiss of a river. That, then, must have been the Acheron. A little farther would be the Styx.

For a moment, Diana thought the place was empty. Wind tousled her hair and she pulled her dark cloak more firmly around her, waiting for her eyes to adjust. Where were the Erinys? Strife? Cerberus and the Gorgon?

In the roar of water she caught the tail end of a sentence, the voice fading back into the clutter of sound. And then there was another one, another, and another, until it was a crowd of shouts and wails and screams. Diana staggered backwards, clutching at her ears, the sound of the river lost among the voices. Another gust of wind, and she felt her stomach turn. She wanted to shut her eyes. She wanted to run right back through the door through which she had come. Something brushed against her elbow, affirming what she had begun to suspect, that the wind was a roiling mist of unburied souls, some from the war, some from wars that had been forgotten. Their turbulent emotion set her skin on fire like it was tangible.

“Calm down,” said a voice much closer and clearer than the rest.

Diana reluctantly opened her eyes. It was the bank teller, the damp of the river pinning strands of her hair to her forehead. She was not one of the Fates, that much was apparent. Something in the back of Diana’s mind told her that it would not be a good idea to anger this woman, just as it was already a bit unwise to be talking to her at all.

“They don’t like too much emotion. It upsets them.”

“You are Eris,” Diana said, the name sending chills down her arms. Her face looked nothing like the tapestry of a winged woman that hung in the temple on Themiscyra, but the aura was unmistakable.

The woman did not smile. “You’ll need this,” she said, prying Diana’s fingers apart with her cold hands. She pressed something into her palm.

Accepting something from the goddess of discord was a horrible idea, she knew that, but she could see desperation in the woman’s eyes. Whatever strife would come of it she was sure she could handle.

“Thank you,” she said, watching relief wash over the woman’s figure. Diana rubbed it together between her fingers. It felt like metal.

“Go,” said Eris, “before the rest gather enough strength to question you.”

She went, climbing into the boat, sitting next to a shade without any recognizable features. Charon did not acknowledge her or her lack of a coin, but he pushed off from the shore anyway, leaving ripples in the turbulent water. Yes, Diana thought, watching the light reflect in arcs, this is the river of Pain. Under her cloak, she traced fingers over the little metal object. It was shaped like an apple. She didn’t know the significance of her holding the symbol of the goddess of strife in her hands, but she didn’t think it was good.

Chapter Text

“Asphodel Meadows,” Steve told the boat.

There was no response. He didn’t think it could go anywhere but the Isles themselves, but he figured it was worth a shot.

“The Fields of Punishment,” he said, confidence wavering.

If the myths were anything to go by, he had some idea of what he’d find if he managed to get there. He wasn’t sure what he would do if the currents obliged by his wish; he hadn’t tried changing destinations while in transit yet, and jumping out of the boat while it was going didn’t seem like the best idea. He was going to have to run tests at some point lest it take him somewhere terrible.

He’d just been to Ytide’s island to help her build a little shelf. The Isles were a strange place when it came to providing supplies. If a hero desired something, say Ytide’s shelf, the materials and tools would be given to them. She wanted it to be painted bright orange and blue. Dead trees would appear somewhere on her territory along with pigmented plants. If Steve wanted a new coat, leather would magically show up, neither tanned nor softened. If he was lucky, a needle with it. Ytide had told him earlier that day the reason for the only constant of all their islands: the fire. It was traditional for demigods to offer tokens of worship to their patron gods through the burning of whatever they were able to create. She would burn weavings, much to Steve’s dismay, and watch as they created no ash upon contact with flame. After he thought about it, he could recall Aeneus offering slips of poetry into the fire with a quiet whisper. Steve knew he ought to do the same, but he had no idea who he should direct his thanks to. Attached to his belt was a knife that he had thought into existence. He’d carve something from soft wood when he returned home, less masterful than the others’ creations though it would be. For now, he had some exploring to do.

“Take me to the island of Theseus,” he tried, no idea at all if Theseus had ever been anywhere but the meadows.

No result.

“Island of Hercules—I mean, Heracles.”

Again, the boat stayed just where it was.

He thought for a moment, head straining to call up the names of heroes he was sure had been blessed in death. “Island of Achilles,” he decided, and with a gentle slide, he glided forward.

“Oh,” he said.

Again, the transit distance defied geographical law. In just as short of time it took to arrive at Ytide’s and with nothing perceivable behind him, land came into view. It was not at all what he expected. This island that was so extraordinary in its simplicity that he stared for a minute. The plants grew where they wished, pieces of driftwood lay washed upon the beach, and armor was strewn haphazardly around the trunk of a skinny floral tree. It looked like someone’s home. Not an island where people happened to live like his, not an art studio like Ytide’s. Steve smiled slightly as he climbed to shore. The same fire that looked so out of place on his was surrounded by a little temple of light tan rock that matched the sand. A bindweed with bright red berries climbed up the side, and an ornamental flask of what Steve assumed was wine lie next to it in the shadow. A lyre hung on a tree nearby. He wondered just how many people lived here.

Any moment, he was sure somebody would notice him. Better announce himself than be caught trespassing.

“Hello?” he said, voiced raised to something beneath a shout, “Anybody home?”

In the house with clay walls and a red roof, a woman with dull eyes stared from a window at him. He wasn’t sure if she saw him or if she was looking for something else entirely. Something in her gaze discomfited him so he walked in the sand, circling a small garden of beautiful, luscious vegetables. No one was tending to it so he moved on, but the draw of food was uncomfortably compelling.

“Hey,” Steve said, glimpsing a figure trimming dead flowers from a tree.

The man stepped down from his stool. He, at least, wore an open expression.

“Steve Trevor, son of no god yet burdened by their gifts, come hither and show me thy face,” he said, long tunic of light brown cloth swishing as he walked. He wore no shoes, despite the prickly vine and the sticks that covered the ground.

He blinked. “Ah, you must be Achilles,” Steve said.

“Yes,” he agreed, head tilted curiously, “I am he. Come sit by the fire. Warm thyself and tell me of thy journey.”

“Sorry to barge in like this,” Steve said, stopping when he could distinguish the blue of Achilles’ eyes. “It was just getting a little too isolated.”

“I welcome visitors,” he said, and it seemed that no other explanation was required. “This way.”

Steve obliged, following the taller man to another fire, this one simple and comfortable in height. Benches surrounded it, their engravings worn by years of use. Steve ignored the butterflies in his stomach at meeting the actual Achilles.

“The arrival of one to Elysium is a thing of celebration; all feel thy arrival. Had I known of thy coming, I would have prepared a feast deserving of Dionysus’s praise. Why didst thee come?”

Steve couldn’t help but believe that this man was truly pleased to see him. His eyes were wide and honest, not darkened at all by the secrets of the other dead he had found. He didn’t have the lines on his skin that Aeneas did from armor, and when he gently grabbed Steve’s arm to guide him forward, no callouses scratched against his skin. It seemed like combat was not the way that Achilles had chosen in death.

“It might’ve been a long time, but everyone still knows your legend,” he said with a shrug. It was better than “I pulled your name out of a hat.”

Achilles’ face darkened. “They persist yet. Name me not a lord over those who have perished; verily a greater reward may have been to remain on earth with my son and Peleus, crossed the Styx now though they have. Rather I would have stood in the Meadows than know not whether they fell in battles past those of Troy or to the snares of infirmity.”

“Yeah, I can see where you’re coming from,” Steve said, wondering how Charlie, Sameer and the Chief were getting along. A part of him pitied Achilles, so desperate for the normalcy of earth life. He supposed that he’d be a little out of it, too, if he had been in the underworld long enough to watch everyone he had ever known die. He dreaded to think that he would have to face the same thing.

Achilles looked at him, quiet for so long that Steve’s palms began to sweat. “I biddeth thee, tell me of the gods.”

“I don’t know that my knowledge will be news to you,” he said. He could only parrot what Diana had said, and that was old stories and parts of legends.

“Long it has been since the quiet was broken by a new soul, longer still since a god fell. Was it thou, a mortal, who vanquished Ares and took from him his godly power?”

Him? Vanquisher of Ares? That was hilarious. “No, shit, that was Diana. My friend, a daughter of Zeus raised by the Amazons, defeated Ares. According to her, the rest were all killed by the time I was born. So I’ve been told, that is, I died before I could confirm it with my own eyes.”

Achilles shook his head. “Gods do not die,” he said.

“Yeah, I’ve gathered that.”

“Thou art living proof of such. How, then, did the gods favor thee if it was not by thy hand that Ares fell?”

Steve frowned, pondering just how to explain. “Do you know what a plane is?”

Judging by the hero’s blank expression, he didn’t.

“Okay, well. I…took a weapon created by the Ares from the enemy army and destroyed it. I was collateral damage, unfortunately.”

“An honorable death,” Achilles said. “It is my hope that those thou died for will thrive as a result.”

“I hope so too. Thank you.”

Achilles just smiled.

“You’ve been here for a long time,” Steve said. “How did you manage it at first? Staying sane. When they’re up…there. Still alive. Or maybe not.”

“Even in death there are battles that must be fought. The realm of hades must remain quiet, but strife and conflict from the surface sink to plague the peace of the dead. I, among others, seek to make visible ripples of tarnish.”

“Ripples? Like that?” Steve said, pointing to the edge of the island where a dark spot had appeared on the horizon. It looked a bit like a storm cloud, black and fluid. Like a drop of ink into a tub of water. He frowned at it. He’d rather not be sailing if there was going to be weather. As he watched, it dissipated into the misty atmosphere.

“What dost thou see?” Achilles said, straightening. “Is it perhaps Theocydes? He was to have returned with Phylace some time ago.”

“No, the edge of your island, way out in the water? There was a little cloud. Or something. Turned a little bit dark.”

Achilles sat up straight, is eyes widening. He did not turn around, but his eyes flickered behind him. “You speak the truth?”

“I just saw it. What, is that bad?” Steve asked, eyes searching after the strange thing he had seen above the water.

“Go,” he said. “Thou must go. Take thy vessel and leave.”

The friendly atmosphere turned sour so rapidly that Steve wondered where he went wrong. He retreated behind the bench, stumbling backwards. He wasn’t quite fast enough to get out of Achilles’ striking distance.

“Mayest thou be safe,” Achilles said, and all but shoved him forward.

Steve backed down the shore, turning only when it looked like Achilles wasn’t following him. He bolted towards his skiff, weaving around the little temple and the house with the blank-faced woman. He could no longer see Achilles but he kept on, diving into the sand with a glance toward the house. Another boat was pulled up next to his, the colors blue and green in contrast to his red one.

“Wait!” said a man in actual pants, “We saw the boat—we were just about to go looking when you showed up. What’s the rush?”

He was followed closely by an older woman with her hair in a braid. “I was just going to get my lyre, are you sure you won’t stay?”

Steve paused. “Phylace and Theocydes,” he guessed.

Theocydes grinned. “Achilles told you about us?”

“It could’ve been Deepthi,” Phylace said, challenge in her eyes.

“It could, except she doesn’t talk,” he taunted, hand on his hips.

Steve raised his eyebrow, the surge of adrenaline from his strange encounter beginning to fade. He could already tell that these two offered a dynamic of modern behavior that he had missed dreadfully. Their bickering was a pleasant break from everyone else’s…oddities.

“Good to meet you both,” he said, “but I think I ought to head out. Your island-mate doesn’t seem to think I should stay here.”

Theocydes winced and Phylace sighed in synchrony.

“Don’t mind Achilles,” she said, “he doesn’t mean anything by it. He is kind, but his overreactions are legendary.”

“Was that a pun?” Steve said, unable to suppress a delighted smile. “I like you.”

“What did he do this time?” Theocydes said, plopping down on the sand and fishing a lump of rock from under him, “claim that you’ve angered the gods?”

Steve leaned against the side of his boat. “No god-angering here. There was something in the air over the water. He told me go get in my boat and go,” he explained, hoping that Achilles wouldn’t come look to make sure that he was gone. He was all for pissing people off, but maybe not someone as powerful as that.

Phylace nodded, patting him on the shoulder. “That happens. He sees things sometimes. I’m sorry that it had to be when you were visiting.”

“What?” Steve said, discomfort beginning to brew anew in the pit of his stomach. “No, he didn’t see it, I did.”

Theocydes narrowed his eyes. “You had better be joking.”

“No, really,” When neither of them answered immediately, he said, “what’s the deal?”

“I don’t know.” Theocydes’ fingers had stopped playing with the sand and instead gripped the hem of his pants. He stared into the water over the bow of his skiff. “He’s been telling us strange things for months, but…well, years ago he was seeing his family wherever he looked. It just seemed like the next stage in a progression.”

“Some of the things he saw…they were frightening,” Phylace said, sharing a nervous glance with Theocydes. Her eyes flicked back to where Steve had been watching, to the top of the hill that Achilles would most likely come from. “Maybe you should go,” she said.

“Okay, frightening? Care to elaborate?” he asked, making no move to get into his boat, despite how much he’d like to be away from there.

“No,” she said simply. “I would prefer not to—”

“He saw people,” Theocydes interrupted. “He saw shadows. He saw things that were neither. Are you absolutely positive you witnessed something?”

Steve swallowed. It could’ve been a trick of the light or the boat arriving on the other side of the island. Hell, he could’ve just been imagining it. “No,” he said. “I’m not.”

Phylace visibly relaxed and Theocydes pursed his lips like he didn’t quite believe it.

“Perhaps it would be best if you went anyway,” she said quietly.

“Yeah,” he agreed slowly, “I’ll just lay low for a few days. Wait it out. But I’d like it if you were to tell me a little bit more about this.”

“Of course,” Theocydes responded, but he seemed much less enthusiastic than he had earlier.

“Hey,” Steve said, raising his voice, half-hoping that Achilles could hear from wherever he was, “if you need anything, I live on the Island of Aeneas.”

“Thank you,” Phylace said. She helped push him into the current as the water swept him toward home.

 

“I am Diana of Themiscyra, daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta. I request an audience with Hades,” Diana said, arms crossed.

Part of the gesture was to hold down the arrow where it was twitching to free itself from her belt, part was to cover how cold she was without taking away from her menacing stance. The downsides of her Amazonian armor: it was nice and warm on their island, and it was not nice and warm here. Even the black cloak couldn’t keep the goosebumps from forming on her arms and legs.

A modern-looking teen in a button-up shirt stared at her.

“Um,” he said, “I’m just a servant,” he said, waving a clipboard like it was supposed to mean something to her. “Maybe ask Tecton?”

“Who is this Tecton?” she asked, hoping her glare would be as convincing as Heracles’ had been.

“A higher level servant, ish,” he tried, scrunching his eyebrows together. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we have protocol for this sort of thing. Last time anybody actually requested an audience was…gods, I don’t know, Tros? Sophia?”

Diana lessened the magnitude of her stare. “If they do not request an audience, then how does one find him?”

The servant shrugged. He had skin that seemed altogether too bronze for a mortal. “Usually they just walk in. That way,” he said, pointing. There was a staircase, next to which a man was trying and failing to push a boulder up a hill. “Dismal view, I know, but I assume there was a reason for that when his palace was built.”

“Thank you,” she said, striding forward.

“No chance of a tip, is there?” said the boy.

“I have no money,” she told him regretfully.

“I figured.” He sighed and walked away, swinging his clipboard back and forth from a pencil attached by string.

Diana took a breath, ignoring the crushing pressure of the underworld, and began to ascend the stairs to meet with Hades. She was going to get Steve back.