Zagreus stepped out of the pool into the House, his ignoble death not overwhelming the general pride he felt at beating his father yet again. He gave a little wave to Hypnos and Cerberus as he passed them on the way to his chambers. Good to ride this wave, try again. He was halfway through his room when he heard his mother’s voice call out behind him.
He turned to see her standing in the doorway, basket resting against her hip, and in the peplos she’d worn back up on the surface. A frown crossed his face as his mind began to scramble. “Are you leaving?” He knew that part of her deal with her mother to save the mortals meant she will leave, if not forever. But even knowing she would come back it hadn’t been enough time, would there ever have been enough time? So many things he’d forgotten to say to her, to…
“Zagreus!” He blinked to see her now standing in front of him, a warm hand on his shoulder. “I’m not leaving,” she emphasized each word, as if to make sure he heard her correctly. “I was on my way to go work in the garden, and my other clothes are far too nice. I was wondering if you’d like to join me, though?”
“Yes,” he perhaps answered too quickly, but he really would like to spend more time with her. And if it annoyed father, well, that was alright too.
“Good. Here then.” She pressed the basket into his hands and he took it without thought, following her out into the gardens.
To his surprise she didn’t stop in the area he knew, but went deeper. “How big are the gardens?”
She looked back at him before turning her attention back to the pomegranate she was picking. He watched it plump and ripen in her hands as she returned to him. “It did only used to be the entryway, but after I came here, I told your father I wished to have a place where I might grow things. So he made them bigger. Hmm, I have to ask him what happened to Ascalaphus, it would be nice to have his help again.” As she spoke she cut open the pomegranate.
Zagreus took the perfectly cut slice she offered, carefully eating the seeds one handed as they continued deeper. It was a little strange to be eating one without any boons, it didn’t quite give the same rush, but was good none-the-less.
Finally they came to a stop in an area far more withered and dead looking. His mother looked over everything with a critical eye. “Let’s get to work then.”
Thankfully his mother was more than willing to teach him what, exactly, this type of ‘work’ entailed. Carefully showing him which plants were weeds to be piled up to be thrown out later, and which were going to be replanted, piles of bulbs, corms, and seed pods growing around them.
“Couldn’t you just...wave your hands and fix it all?” He asked as he dug another small hole for her to press a bulb into. Not that he thought this was boring, though in a way it was mindless the same way a fight could get sometimes.
“I could,” she agreed. Setting the bulb in she covered it with loose dirt. “But even your father understands there’s a certain satisfaction in doing the work with one's own hands.”
Zagreus ducked his head at the reminder. He should have guessed, really, didn’t he always feel the same sort of satisfaction when he managed to escape to the surface?
Persephone nudged his shoulder with her own. “Why don’t you go and cut back all those roses for me?” She tilted her chin over to the next area, overgrown and bearing nothing that resembled the rose Aphrodite gave him. “The canes can be tough, so these’ll help,” mother pressed a pair of shears into his hands. “Cut them down to about a handspan from the ground, and be careful of the prickles, they can bite quite fiercely when you least expect it. I’m going to go get a basket for the weeds, perhaps on your next trek you can take them up to dump them in the Phlegethon.”
“It would be an interesting addition to the Pact,” he found himself joking. Though he doubted his mother would care if the weeds were destroyed by shades, or whichever Fury he came up against at the edge of Tartarus.
She laughed as he’d hoped, rising up and brushing some of the dirt from her peplos before walking back towards the House.
Taking up his new weapon, Zagreus went to do battle with the deadly rose canes.
It had a different rhythm than weeding had, less dirty too. And despite his mother’s warning, he found the prickles didn’t really hurt that much, scraping him rather than doing any real harm.
As he worked he found himself getting lost in his thoughts, wondering what this would all look like when it was finished. Like her garden on the surface had? Though he supposed it wouldn’t look anything alike, Ixion’s feeble light nothing compared to the sun.
Still, her having a little bit of her home above might help her feel even more comfortable here than before…
He yelped, jerking his fingers away from the cane he’d tried to grab without thinking, the prickles doing their work. Zagreus shook off a few drops of blood before sticking his thumb in his mouth to clean it off. Darkness, that had hurt.
Rushing footsteps sounded behind him, and he turned to see his mother hurrying, a ball of fire in her hand. “Zagreus?”
Pulling out his thumb he gave her a comforting smile. “Sorry, mother, wasn’t paying attention and the roses got me.”
“Good,” the fire in her hand died away. “I had thought perhaps…” She drifted off as her eyes drifted over his shoulder, widening in surprise.
Intrigued, he turned back around. Letting out another brief yelp of surprise to see a bush growing out of the ground it’s woody stems growing thin green leaves and pale purple flowers that he recalled from the surface, mother had worn them in her hair…
“Oh, Zagreus,” she knelt beside him, wonder in her expression. “How did you...” She plucked a sprig of flowers, holding it to her nose to breath deeply.
“Can’t you make whatever you want grow?” He asked in confusion, because he didn’t feel as if he’d done it. Not when he’d never done anything like this before. If he had, it might’ve been harder for father to hide who his mother really had been.
She picked a few more sprigs of flowers. “On the surface, and on Olympus, I could create whatever I wished, yes. But here in the Underworld? No. Every seed, bulb, corm, and sapling I tended to here came from your father. He would go up to the surface to get them, and leave them by the garden for me to find.” A soft smile crossed her face. “But he never brought down lavender, I only made that up on the surface.”
All Zagreus could do was shrug. “I don’t know what I did.” It hadn’t felt like he used anything god-like to do it. Just spilled some blood, and it’d certainly never done anything like this before.
“Well, thank you, anyways. Hopefully I can coax more seeds from it, it would be nice to have some more. The smell is quite soothing.” To his surprise she took the stems she’d plucked and wove them into his pauldron, making it look, rather amusingly, like the skulls were attempting to spit them out. “It’s perhaps not your usual keepsake, but you should treasure it.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “Now, you should head back to the House, I think, and tell your father I require his presence in the garden.”
“Alright,” he agreed slowly. Perhaps there was some bleedover from the last Athena boon he’d gotten, because he decided it would be wiser not to ask why.
He was distracted from the task his mother had given him, when he spotted Meg in the Lounge. A grin crossing his face, he went over to her. “Hello, Meg.”
“Zagreus.” She turned to look at him, blinking. “What is that?” She reached up and touched the newest addition to his armor.
“Lavender,” the name sounded a little strange to his tongue, but he liked it. “I grew it myself,” he told her, finding he was actually quite proud of that fact.
“Grew it?” Her tone wasn’t quite disbelieving.
Still, he pouted at her. “I can do more than kill shades and beat you, Meg.”
She arched an eyebrow at that. “I’d like to see it.” He felt a brief tug on his shoulder and was surprised to see she’d liberated one of the sprigs, tucking it into her hair so that the blossoms trailed down the side of her neck quite fetchingly. “Nice enough,” she admitted. “Smells strange.”
“I’ll have you know it’s a smell from the surface,” he said, taking a few steps closer, intent on following that trail with his mouth.
Only to be stopped by Meg’s hand and whip. “Oh, no you don’t.”
“I’m fairly certain we can kiss in the Lounge and no one will be scandalized, Meg.”
She gave him a little shove. “Not when you’re covered in dirt we can’t.”
Now he was the one arching an eyebrow. “I’m fairly certain the last time we met in Tartarus, you kissed me while I was covered in blood.” He felt he needed to point that out. It also hadn’t been the worst way to get pulled back into the Styx, if he was honest.
Meg jabbed him with the handle of her whip. “Your blood. I know full well where that was before I beat it out of you, who knows what was crawling around in that dirt before it got on you. If you want to kiss me, you’re going to need to take a bath first.” She turned back around, telling him the conversation was over.
He heaved an exaggerated sigh, but left.
Only just remembering that he needed to tell father something as he reached the door to the little used baths. Backtracking to the main hall. “Father, I have a message for you.”
Unsurprisingly, father didn’t even look up from his parchment. “Hmm? I’m fairly certain that’s Hermes’ job.”
Zagreus only just managed to keep himself from rolling his eyes. “It’s from mother, she says your presence is required in the garden.”
Which did get a response from father. Eyes narrowing as he assessed Zagreus for a moment. Before he stood up and left his work, to go to the garden.
It was only a little bit of relief for Zagreus to turn around and find that Hypnos was just as baffled as he was.
Zagreus hurried over to the baths again, once more deciding perhaps it was best he didn’t know.
Despite the baths being little used, the baskets of lye soap, scrubbing clothes, and towels looked fresh—he wondered if that was one of Dusa’s tasks. He gathered some up and set them down at the edge of the cold pool. Stripping off his clothes he realized they really were quite dirty.
Leaving them in a pile he dove in, now that he’d been up out in the snow numerous times, the water didn’t feel as cold as it used to, but it was still quite bracing. He swam under the water for a good while, recalling Achilles’ swimming lessons when Zagreus was younger, and wondering what it might be like to swim in the sea by mother’s cottage, if he could survive that long.
When he surfaced, he was mildly surprised to see his clothes were now clean, and neatly folded next to the basket, but it paled in comparison to the fact that Than was seated next to the clothes, a small amphora in his lap, critically studying the lavender spitting pauldron. “So this is what Megaera was bemused about.” Taking great care Than set the pauldron down. “It’s not going to last you very long out there.”
Zagreus shrugged before swimming over to Than, resting his arms on the edge of the tub. “I’ll just have to grab more the next time I’m in the house then.” He grinned. “What’s that you’ve got there?” The outside was decorated with nymphs and mortals, and Zagreus wondered if it would be impolite to ask Eurydice if nymphs really were that limber.
“Oil,” Than’s voice cut through Zagreus’ musing. “Since you forgot,” he chided.
“Maybe I forgot on purpose,” Zagreus shot back. Lifting himself up out of the water he sat and reached for the amphora. “Are you going to rub me down with it when I’m clean?” His grin took an altogether different bent as he opened the amphora, taking a sniff. “That is not olives.” The smell reminded him, strangely, of the sunlight around his mother’s cottage.
Then snorted. “Perhaps,” he allowed, which made Zagreus grin even more broadly. “It’s bey armut. Charon sold it to me.”
Zagreus put the cork back in. “Well I’ve never seen it in his shop before,” he complained lightly as he slipped back into the water, grabbing the lye and scrubbing cloth.
“I doubt it would come in useful during your runs.” Than shot back, shedding his cloak to Zagreus’ delight.
Dunking the lye in the water Zagreus began rubbing it in his hair. “I don’t know, after one of our little contests I think it’d come in plenty useful…” Than’s sputtering was a delight to hear as Zagreus ducked under the water to wash his hair clean.
Than had composed himself by the time Zagreus surfaced again. “I’d rather my brother not know more than he does. By my next visit he’ll have told Hermes everything, and I’m not at all interesting in being fodder for the Olympian’s amusement.”
“Fair enough.” Though Zagreus was pretty sure at least Aphrodite already knew, at least from Zagreus’ end. He reached over for a scrubbing cloth, giving a little sigh when he saw Than still. “Leaving so soon?”
“Unfortunately,” Than agreed. He slipped his cloak back on, before ducking down to kiss the top of Zagreus’ head. “I will do my best to be quick.” Zagreus found himself biting back a laugh as Than made a face. “There’s still a bit of lye in your hair,” Than said, only to disappear a second later.
With no one to watch him, Zagreus bathed quickly. Grabbing the amphora Than had left behind and a towel he went to the hot springs in the next room. Letting out a soul-deep groan as he settled into the water. Carefully he dried his hair, than poured out some of the oil to rub into the strands, filling up the air with the earthy-sunlight smell.
He’d have to properly thank Than for it when he returned, and Zagreus hoped he could convince Charon to sell it to him as well, not even only for sexual purposes.
Bey armut, he repeated to himself. Mother had her sacred plants, and even father did. Would it be rude to just tell the lone priest that had settled himself at the ruined temple that Zagreus quite liked the plant, at least he thought it came from a plant, and would like offerings of the oil—though perhaps Charon would get mad at being cut out so.
Not that the mortals were leaving him offerings yet. Even the ones they’d hesitatingly started to give father were few and far between. Things for mother came more often, though they were usually attached to prayers that she return to the surface soon, so that the mortals might finally start to grow things and have seasons again.
The world turned hazy green for a moment and Zagreus smiled. “Than!” Turning he tried to give an enticing gesture. “The water’s perfect.”
Which earned him an eye roll from Than, but he did begin to strip. If taking far longer at it than Zagreus had the patience for, honestly. Than didn’t need to fold every piece of clothing so neatly. Eventually though he stepped into the spring, and Zagreus happily cuddled closer.
“I see you’ve already used the oil,” Than said dryly.
“Just in my hair,” Zagreus protested. “Not like I’m going to be washing it again. My earlier offer still stands.” Than hummed, wrapping an arm around Zagreus’ waist—one that Zagreus noted was rapidly starting to warm thanks to the water’s heat. “Hey, Than, is there any sort of plant sacred to you?”
He felt Than’s chin settle on his head. “One, “ he answered slowly. “Though as in much things Hypnos and I actually share it. Poppy, a sap can be harvested from the pods it makes, which can produce sleep, or death, depending on how much is used. Why?”
Zagreus shrugged. “I mean if people are going to start worshipping me, like uncle Zeus said they would, shouldn’t I have those things? So mortals know what to give me? Do I just pick them? I like this bey armut stuff, but it seems just telling the mortals that is...weird.” He tilted his head up quickly enough to catch the pleased look on Than’s face at his words.
“Let your mother know,” Than finally answered. “She’ll probably think of a good way to tell the mortals when she goes up to be with her own mother. She could probably bring some of the trees down too, so it can be grown here. Bey armut, lavender, you’re certainly picking up interesting plants.”
Now Zagreus was the one sputtering at the teasing. Though he was also now immensely pleased himself, Than rarely teased anyone after all. “I didn’t exactly choose the lavender. It just...happened, why my blood decided to do that now when it never has before is beyond me though.”
“It would be something to ask Nyx,” Than suggested. He pulled away and gave Zagreus an appraising look. “Now. I’d like to take you up on that offer.”
Zagreus couldn’t get out of the water fast enough.
When the two of them finally emerged from the baths, Zagreus wasn’t surprised to see his father back at work. Zagreus unfortunately also had to notice there was a smear of dirt on his father’s bare shoulder, disappearing into his chiton.
Proving, however, that he was getting better at such things, Zagreus said absolutely nothing at all.