As long as there is life, there is death, and Thanatos always has work to do. The gods on Olympus wage their wars, and it is of course the mortals that suffer for it. The clash of spears, the spilling of blood on earth: this is Ares’ domain, not his. But it is not only soldiers that are taken by the red tide of war, and few deaths are heroic or glorious. There are those whose homes are razed by passing armies, whose farms are turned into battlefields, whose cities are only the backdrop for a squabble between gods. He goes from battlefield to battlefield, sending souls down to the underworld. Mortals speak in whispers of his mercilessness, his pitilessness. There is always work for him to do.
This is why it takes a summons from Lord Hades himself to learn of the turmoil at the House. The call comes as he is in the midst of escorting two souls to the underworld: an old couple, together even in death. He hands them off to Charon, and steps through the fabric of space and time into the dark depths of Hades. He appears among the lingering shades and marble columns of the hall only to find himself in the middle of a confrontation between Megaera and the Lord of the House.
“... I won’t let it happen again”, Megaera is saying, standing before the throne, her back perfectly straight. “I was caught off guard, that’s all. He has the power of the Olympians—”
“Do not speak of them in this house!” Hades says, his voice booming through the hall. “The Olympians and I divided our domains long ago. They would not risk my anger by sending one of their own to fight his way into the underworld.”
“Of course, my Lord.”
‘We’ll see if your sisters fare better than you.” Lord Hades turns his attention away from her, a clear dismissal. Megaera nods stiffly. Her shoulders are drawn taut as a bowstring as she turns to leave.
“Thanatos,” Hades says. “As you’ve heard, we have an unwelcome visitor in the house. A godling or other, determined to fight his way into the underworld. I’m sure Megaera can explain.”
“I will deal with him, my lord,” Thanatos says. He wonders what godling could fight his way past the first of the Furies. He supposes he’ll find out soon enough.
“Go and be quick about it. We don’t need him stirring up any more trouble here,” Hades orders, already back to flipping through his parchmentwork.
News of their strange new visitor seems to have spread throughout the house. As Thanatos walks through the hall, he overhears whispers of him fighting past the heroes in Elysium, the countless shades of Asphodel and, of course, the fury Megaera herself.
He finds her sitting in the corner of the lounge, clenching her whip with one sharp-nailed hand and staring into the polished granite of the table with an intensity that leaves a good ten-foot berth around her.
Her head snaps up when Thanatos approaches. “Come to gloat over me?” Her voice is as sharp as ice.
“No, that was uncalled for. I know I failed,” she says, softening. “Perhaps you’ll have better luck with him. I've never dealt with those from the surface.”
“Tell me about him. Who would try to fight his way into the underworld?”
“He’s a minor god,” she scoffs, her eyebrows arched in perfect disdain. “Says he’s here for his mother.”
Thanatos frowns. “Another Orpheus on our hands?”
Megaera shrugs. “He says she’s a goddess. That she’s down here, in the House.”
“That’s impossible.” The only goddess in these halls is Nyx herself, and none of Thanatos’s siblings would need to fight their way into Hades.
“You think I haven’t tried telling him that? A fool, to keep fighting his way into the underworld, but a stubborn one.” She shakes her head. “I grew complacent. It won’t happen again.”
It takes a minute for Thanatos to find their visitor among the multitude of shades in the underworld. It’s not as hard as expected; he can feel the swathe he cuts through the wretches of Tartarus. He pinpoints him to a room near the gate to Asphodel and appears beside the crumpling columns behind him. The toll of bells announces his appearance, a stillness in the air. Their visitor whirls around, raising his sword as he takes him in.
Thanatos is aware of the figure he cuts: his hood pulled over his head, the unblinking scythe. Death only comes for mortals, of course, but even other gods tend to shy away from him. But though his eyes narrow in recognition, this god does not seem afraid; he only gazes up at Thanatos, a stubborn set to his jaw.
He’s … not what Thanatos expected. He had imagined something along the lines of Theseus or Hercules himself, the sort of godling who would be arrogant enough to try to fight his way into the depths of Hades. This one is shorter than Thanatos, even if he joined him on the ground, where he stands barefoot on the stone tiles. His dark hair is messy and crowned with laurels. There’s nothing to mark him as obviously divine. Nothing except his eyes, which are startling green: the green of life, of the surface. There is something familiar about them, a memory Thanatos cannot quite grasp. He is ill-suited here, in the labyrinthian mazes miles below the world of the living.
“You should not be here, godling. No one comes to the realm of the dead on their own accord.” Thanatos says, tightening his grip on the hilt of his scythe, an obvious threat.
This only makes him set his jaw harder. “I’m here for my mother. I know Hades took her. I won’t let you keep her down here.”
Who is he, to think he can make such an accusation against the master of the house? “There are no other gods in these halls. You’re mistaken, godling. Go home.”
He frowns. “You’re lying. I know she’s here. I will find her, whatever you say.”
Thanatos can feel the call of souls on the surface. There will be work to catch up to, after this.
“Fine. If you wish to die so badly, I’ll gladly oblige.” He lifts his scythe.
The godling is fast. Faster than expected, for someone who seems no more than a half-mortal descendent of a minor goddess. He wields his sword with evident experience, and his footsteps are light on the worn cobblestones. But Thanatos is death himself.
His blood spills bright red against the grey stone, seeping between cracks and dripping down Thanatos’s blade. Thanatos wonders if he’ll have to escort his soul — but no, he is not under his domain. There is enough godly blood in him, it seems, that he would never have had to see the underworld had he not chosen to walk into it himself. It explains how he had managed to get past Megaera, at least. He wonders how many times he had thrown himself against her whip before Thanatos had to be called in. It doesn’t matter; he has a job and it doesn't involve putting down foolish godlings. Hopefully, this will be the last time he’ll be needed down here.
It isn’t, of course. The godling seems to be set on his quest, though he finds deaths at many hands other than Thanatos’s. He falls to the shades in Elysium, to the Hydra, to Megaera and her sisters. But he comes back, again and again. His tenacity would be impressive if it weren’t infuriating: a god from the surface, thinking he could just wander into the underworld, ransacking and looting at will. He’s managed to get halfway through Tartarus this time before Thanatos is sent after him. Alecto had stalked angrily out of the pool, muttering about redbloods .
“Go home, godling,” Thanatos says, already hefting his scythe.
“My name’s Zagreus . And I told you already, I can’t. Not until I find my mother.” His repeated deaths have left no apparent mark on him, have inspired no hesitation as he faces off against Thanatos.
He’s faster this time, but not fast enough. He manages a lucky strike: a thin slash across Thanatos’s ribs. But Thanatos has already lifted his scythe before he can strike again, and he crumples to the ground. His blood is as red as the river that it drips into.
Thanatos presses his fingers into his own wound, where golden ichor drips sluggishly out of the slash on his chest. A mistake, to have let him get that close. He’ll have to be more careful next time.
It becomes a routine. In the House of Hades, the days are marked not by Helios’s journey across the sky, but the newest attempt by their visitor in his hopeless quest through the underworld.
He can see Megaera’s building frustration each time she steps out of the pool, though her sisters don’t seem to be doing much better. The godling’s quick, and he’s improving fast: his footwork surer, his strikes stronger. Thanatos knows what his master says, that Olympus has no desire to incur his wrath, but where could his strength come from, if not the gods on their mountain? The swiftness of his dash, the deft deflection of the wretches’ blows, the currents of cold wind that ruffle Thanatos’s cloak the next time they meet.
The godling is strong, but Thanatos is death , and their visitor has shown that he can die easily enough. So far, he has never made it through Tartarus, past Thanatos and the arc of his scythe.
He seems to have accepted it as routine as well. Thanatos is used to the fear that follows in his wake, the dread terror he inspires in those he fights. But despite all the times the godling has faced him by now, his determination only seems to strengthen.
“You know, Thanatos,” he says, the fifth time they meet. “Hermes has spoken of you. Your dedication to the job is impressive.”
“Flattery won’t make me go any easier on you, godling.”
“Oh, I certainly wouldn’t expect it to. The underworld is different from what I was expecting, is all. The way it all runs … it’s very orderly. Not as many screaming souls as expected.”
Thanatos doesn’t bother responding, simply raises his scythe.
“Well I hope I’m not keeping you from your duties,” the godling says, after Thanatos runs him through. There’s blood staining his teeth. “I’ll see you next time, Thanatos.”
There is nothing admirable about being a stubborn fool, Thanatos thinks. If this godling wants to die so badly, then Death will oblige. He brings down his scythe and watches him bleed out again and again. He has reaped thousands of souls. This one will be no different.
Perhaps it’s complacency that gets him in the end.
It’s been nearly a dozen times that they’ve faced each other in the endless mazes of Tartarus. The Styx rushes in the distance and the grasping hands of the damned reach hopelessly towards them.
Zagreus is in better shape than Thanatos has seen him before, seemingly unmarked by his journey through the underworld. A charm hangs from the clasp of his cloak. An innocuous-looking acorn, but Thanatos can sense the power in it; it brings to mind the rustling of leaves, the solid, steadfast strength of an oak. A gift, presumably, from one of the spirits dwelling in this place. Unexpected, considering all that Zagreus has struck down on his journey here; Thanatos had not expected him to show mercy.
“I know you won’t acknowledge it, but I know she’s here,” he says as Thanatos alights in font of him. “My grandmother calls her Kore, but … I know that wasn’t what she called herself. I remember her eyes were green, like mine.”
His eyes, the distinct shade of green, reminiscent of verdant gardens in sunlight that hurts Thanatos’s eyes. There’s a memory there that he cannot quite grasp. But this is not the time.
“It doesn’t matter, Zagreus. Nothing makes it out of these halls, and you will not make your way in.”
Zagreus only grins. “I knew you remembered my name. Shall we?”
Perhaps it’s because his mind is still caught on that line. Kore, no, that wasn’t what they called her. Perhaps he was caught off guard by the speed of Zagreus’s movements. He’s definitely grown stronger. Perhaps … (Thanatos does not think about the way his smile had crinkled the corners of his eyes, the red flush of exertion on his skin.)
However it happens, it ends like this: he falls to his knees, Zagreus’ blade in his chest. As his vision begins to swim, turning golden and indistinct, he can only stare into his eyes. He doesn’t find the expected triumph, the gloating, the arrogant remark. Zagreus seems almost apologetic, mouthing something that Thanatos is too gone to grasp. His eyes really are a familiar shade of green, he thinks, as Thanatos uses the last of his strength to shift himself out of the searing heat, into the cool embrace of the Styx.
Death is … unpleasant. For all that he has dealt out, Thanatos has never experienced it before. He drags himself out of the river, grimacing. His body is unscarred and whole, but he can still feel the phantom pain of the sword sliding between his ribs.
Perhaps he should have expected it, been more on his guard. Zagreus had grown strong and skilled at predicting Thanatos’s attacks. He had defeated Megaera, after all, and she had prided herself on her martial skills in a way that Thanatos never had.
The Fury in question stands at the end of the hall, wringing out her hair. She glances at him for a moment, brows furrowed in what might possibly be sympathy, before turning away.
The only other witnesses to his failure are a scattering of shades, and his brother who is, of course, dozing. He startles awake as Thanatos passes him, blearily muttering a greeting before he seems to recognize who he’s talking to.
“Thanatos! Hey! What are you …” he glances down at his list. “Oh! Stabbed, huh? Sorry to hear about that.”
Thanatos ignores him; he hardly has time for Hypnos’s antics. Lord Hades has finally glanced up from his parchmentwork and turned his expectant gaze on him. He keeps his steps steady as he makes his way to the front of the hall.
“I’m sorry, Lord Hades,” he says, standing before him. “Zagre—the godling—was stronger than I —”
“What did you say?” Hades interrupts. He rises from his seat with a clang of metal, glowering at Thanatos under the shadow of his brows.
Thanatos suppresses his instinctive urge to step back. Hades is not known for his clemency towards those who fail him. But he meets his eyes steadily, his face impassive. “He struck me down in— “
“His name , boy. What did you call him?” Hades’s voice booms through the hall. Several shades decide that their business here wasn’t that urgent, after all.
“Zagreus, my lord.”
He watches as, wordlessly, Lord Hades grabs her spear, and heads towards the gates. His footsteps are thunderous, echoing through the hall. The shades press themselves to the walls as he passes them.
The suspicions that Thanatos had been harbouring about who, exactly, Zagreus had come to seek suddenly become a lot more reasonable. He had been young then, and spent little time in the house, but of course he remembers Lord Hades’s bride. Queen Persephone, with her golden hair and green eyes, every part of her reminiscent of the budding shoots of spring, fields of wildflowers and the warm, too-bright rays of the sun. She had always looked a little lost in the darkness of the underworld, diminished, somehow, and out of place. Then she was gone, and Lord Hades had decreed that none of them would speak of her again.
He somehow doubts that any of this knowledge will cause Lord Hades to show any mercy to Zagreus. He doesn’t envy him, facing the wrath of a god that once slew the Titans.
The gates of the House close with a resounding crash.
Thanatos, of course, does not witness the confrontation. He joins Megaera in the lounge, where groups of shades are huddled together, already coming up with stories to explain what they’ve witnessed.
“So, he got you too, finally?” Megaera says, appraising him as he sits down across from her.
Thanatos nods. “A mistake. One that I won’t make again.”
Megaera snorts. “He’d truly be a fool to come back, after this. Lord Hades himself heading after him? I’ve never seen that before.”
“Maybe not too surprising, considering …” He breaks off. Megaera’s loyalty to the House is indisputable. The first fury, flayer of liars and oathbreakers, and they had all sworn an oath about this particular subject. She meets his eyes steadily.
“Figured it out, haven’t you? Zagreus doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
In the distance, there’s the sound of columns falling, the clanging of blades. The dishes in the kitchen rattle as the ground shudders under their feet.
“He’s a glutton for punishment, isn’t he?” Megaera murmurs.
“Maybe he’ll finally learn his lesson. He’s interrupted my work enough times.” If Thanatos feels a twinge of loss as he says this, it’s only because of the sting of his failure, the regret that he won’t have the opportunity to do better the next time.
“Perhaps,” Megaera says, but she looks as convinced as he does.
It’s not long before the gates are thrown back open, the hall immediately falling into silence, and Lord Hades strides in, cloakless, ichor running from a wound across his arm. The tip of his spear is stained a rich, dark red. He sets it down and sits at his desk, resuming his parchmentwork as if nothing has happened. No one asks any questions, least of all Thanatos.
He says a farewell to Megaera and heads to the surface. He has work to catch up to.
Except he’s hardly escorted the first of the souls to Charon before he senses the familiar presence cutting his way across Elysium. Is it filial loyalty that drives him, he wonders, or is life on Olympus so awful that this is preferred? The grass shifts under him as he appears in the green meadows where sure enough, Zagreus stands.
“You’re back,” Thanatos says, and the roughness of his voice is only from the exertion of shifting himself through the planes of reality.
“Than! I didn’t expect to see you up here,” Zagreus says, looking up at him in surprise. “Eager for a rematch?”
“I didn’t expect you to return. Surely you aren’t so foolish as to face him again?”
“Lord Hades? Well, we had a lovely little chat. He had some choice words for me, before he ran me through with that spear of his. But he also said some things about my mother. She really isn’t here anymore? She just … left?”
“I’ve told you that dozens of times. Why are you still here?”
“Well, I’ve got to find out where she is, haven’t I?”
Thanatos will not be distracted this time. He has failed Lord Hades once; he will not do it again. Zagreus seems set on this impossible task, to throw himself against Lord Hades’s spear until … what? He gets answers that no one can give him? Thanatos will put an end, at least, to this attempt. He keeps his eyes on the shining edge of his blade, instead of meeting Zagreus’s overly earnest gaze.
He grips his scythe. “Not this time, Zagreus.”
Thanatos does not hesitate this time, and he will feel no sympathy as he watches Zagreus fall. His blood seems even brighter against the green meadows of Elysium. He watches the rushing waters of the Styx rise to encompass his body, and when they fall there is nothing left but a patch of red-stained grass. Thanatos stares at it for a long moment before shifting away. He has a job to do.
“I just wanted you to know, Than,” Zagreus begins, the next time Thanatos tracks him down. They’re in Asphodel, and even Thanatos can barely stand it. Beads of sweat form on Zagreus’s forehead. Thanatos keeps his gaze on them, so he doesn’t have to acknowledge the paths they trace down the cords of his neck, the dip of his collarbone. “I really have nothing against you. I know you’re just doing your job, so no hard feelings here.”
Thanatos blinks at him. “I hardly care what you think about me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to, but I realize it’s been quite a lot of destruction I’ve been causing around here, so …” He smiles sheepishly as he reaches into his cloak.
Thanatos can only stare—and is it apprehension, that’s causing the roiling in his gut, butterflies beating frantic wings, or something entirely different?— as Zagreus pulls out a rounded bottle of golden nectar, holding it before him like an offering, a gift.
“I know you don’t get much of this in the underworld, so I thought you might enjoy some. You’ve been awfully hard at work here and— “
“You know the reason that there isn’t any nectar here is because it’s banned, ” Thanatos interrupts, finally snapping himself out of his shock.
“I know. Meg said the same thing,” he says. Of course he would be like this with her as well. He doubts she’s been nearly as accepting of it.
“Are you trying to bribe me out of killing you? You know it won’t work.”
“Of course not! I wouldn’t expect any less from you.”
He looks expectantly at Thanatos, his arm still outstretched. The flush on his cheeks seems excessive, even in this heat. Thanatos wonders wildly if this is some sort of joke. A mockery, somehow, of Thanatos's failures to stop him, of his station in the underworld. But, despite all the times they’ve killed each other, Thanatos finds himself believing Zagreus when he says no hard feelings.
He’ll dispose of it later, he thinks, reaching forward to snatch the bottle from Zagreus. Their hands don’t meet, but he can feel the warmth radiating off him. He tucks it quickly under his cloak.
Zagreus picks up his sword and nods.
He knows that he won’t win this time. Zagreus smoothly dodges his strikes, and the killing blow is decisive and swift.
“No hard feelings, right?” Zagreus says, panting. “I can bring more nectar next time.”
As he drags himself out of the river, Thanatos feels the smooth neck of the bottle tucked under his cloak.
Zagreus keeps returning, and Lord Hades is always at the gates to greet him. The House rings with the sounds of distant fighting, a cacophony of clashing blades and crumbling stone. Thanatos drags himself out of the river and into the lounge. Zagreus and Hades have their regular meetings, and he and Megaera have theirs, each time they find themselves taken by the river.
She frowns at him as he sits down across from her. He realizes, too late, that he’s still holding onto the last bottle that Zagreus gave him. He had apparently been serious about his promise to bring more nectar, and Thanatos, against all his good sense, had continued to take them.
“Contraband, Than? On you, of all people?” Megaera says, and something on his face must give him away, because she gives him a long look. “Ah, it’s from him, isn’t it?”
“You know how he is,” he says, wary.
Megaera scoffs, but her tone is light. “I’m all too aware. Let’s dispose of it then, before anyone catches you with it.”
She reaches out, snatching the bottle from him before he can react. She signals a nearby (terrified) shade to bring them cups and pours him a generous helping.
“Cheers,” she says. “To our unfortunate benefactor.”
The nectar is smooth and honey-sweet, melting on his tongue like the snow in spring.
By the time they’re halfway through, they’ve given up on cups, and are passing the bottle back and forth.
“I’ll admit, he’s grown on me,” Megaera says, taking a swig. “He’s not as arrogant or careless as I first thought. And I’d almost enjoy our little fights, if he weren’t a threat to the House, if every failure didn’t lead to this .”
As if to punctuate her point, the cups rattle on the table as something heavy crashes to the ground outside.
Thanatos snatches the bottle back. It’s empty, and he stares into the dregs. “Do you think he could actually win?”
“I don’t know, but they’re as stubborn as each other. Lord Hades won’t give him what he’s looking for, but he’ll keep fighting, the fool.”
“A fool,” Thanatos says, and thinks about green eyes and red blood and a smile like sunlight breaking through leaves.
Zagreus has hardly arrived at any of their meetings unscathed, but this time he’s barely standing, leaning heavily on his sword as he turns towards Thanatos. There are numerous bruises on his chest, as if something very large and very angry rammed straight into him. One hand is clutched against his side, and Thanatos can see blood dripping from between his fingers.
“I suppose it’d be too much to hope that you’d go easy on me,” he says, with a harsh laugh, then winces, face twisting in pain.
“No,” Thanatos says. You know I can’t.
“No, I suppose not, I’m sorry. Brought you another bottle of nectar as well, but I don’t think it managed to survive the encounter with the … chariot-thing.” He sticks his sword into the grass and pats his chest. “Unless …”
He digs around in his cloak for a moment, and triumphantly brings out an unscathed bottle, a wry smile on his face.
“Huh. Look at that. If only my ribs were that resilient.”
Thanatos takes it before he keels over without the support of his sword. Zagreus leaves behind a bloody handprint on the neck of the bottle as he lets go.
Thanatos closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. “Come on Zagreus. I’ll make it quick.”
“Hey, maybe I’ll get lucky.” His smile is belied by his wince as he leans down to pick up his sword.
Thanatos will not fail in his duties, no matter what he thinks as he watches Zagreus struggle to stand up straight. He has killed him dozens of times before. Why should this be any different?
It’s quick at least. Zagreus is on the verge of death already. He stumbles, and Thanatos brings down his scythe. A clean strike. He wouldn't have felt anything.
“You should be more careful next time,” he mutters. Zagreus stares up at him with unseeing eyes as the crimson waters swell around him.
Thanatos finally does what he should have done long ago: he talks to his mother. He finds her, as always, in the corner of the hall, under the shadow of the columns, the darkness surrounding her like a cloak. If Nyx is surprised to learn that lord Hades's long-lost-wife’s long-lost son is battling his way into the underworld in search of her, she doesn’t show it. Perhaps Lord Hades had discussed it with her already. Perhaps this is just another of the things she just knows .
“Lady Persephone, yes. She was the Queen of the House, a long time ago. There are many things I cannot say; I am bound under the same oaths as you, but I will try my best to answer. What do you wish to know, my son?”
“Did she come here ... willingly?” Thanatos asks.
Nyx looks away with the soft whisper of fabric, “It is more complicated than that, my child. I know she did not look on Lord Hades … unfavourably, if that will reassure you.”
It’s hardly an answer, and he tells her so.
She sighs, “I know what Lord Hades is doing may seem unreasonable, and I cannot say I approve entirely of his methods, but there are webs of secrets here, of power, and he is doing his best to ensure we do not become trapped in them.”
“Do you truly believe he’ll give you the answers you seek? Even if you defeat him, he’s as stubborn as you are.” Thanatos says, and how many times has it been, since he first watched Zagreus’s blood drip down the stones in Tartarus?
“What choice do I have? My mother … she’s all I have, and she left me on Olympus. I need to know why .” And there’s a tone in his voice Thanatos hasn’t heard before. From others, but not from him.
Thanatos is death. Most mortals he escorts are those that know that their time has come, but there are always those who refuse. Those who beg and plead. Heartbroken sons and mothers and wives who promise him anything for another moment with their loved ones. The mortals call him iron-hearted because those pleas have never stirred him. Death does not make exceptions.
That certainly will not change now.
“Mother, you and the queen were close, weren’t you? Did she talk much about him? About her son?”
Nyx sighs, and the stars that surround her blink in and out of existence. It is a mortal trait to fear the dark, as it is to fear death; Nyx has only ever brought Thanatos wisdom and comfort, and he finds himself in need of it, as of late. “Yes, she did. I know how it must seem to him, to you, but she loved him, and she missed him very much.”
“But she couldn’t see him, even after she left this place. Do you know where she went?”
She smiles sadly. “As I said, Thanatos, there are many things I cannot talk about. Promises and secrets that are not mine to tell. Perhaps Zagreus will be able to pry them out of Lord Hades.” But even she looks doubtful.
Of course, he tries to explain to the mortals that death is only a change in scenery, that it is only time and space that separates them from their sons and mothers and husbands; eventually he will come for them as well, and in Hades they will have all the time they desire. He does not give in to their pleas because their fear is born of ignorance of what awaits them, and though comfort is not his strength, and the mortals rarely listen, he tries, nevertheless.
Of course, everything has changed with Zagreus. Their endless deaths and revivals, the bottles of nectar he presses into his hands, the stories he tells him, sometimes, about his endless, idle life on Olympus, of Demeter’s icy rage, Zeus’s newest indiscretion, the few, precious memories he has of his mother.
Lord Hades steps into the hall, and each time he looks a little more frustrated, a little more wounded, ichor running from wounds on his chest. Drops of crimson spill from his spear onto the spotless tiles of the House.
There is an idea forming in his mind. It’s traitorous and foolish and he cannot stop thinking about it, though he tries. He pushes himself into his work. There are always mortals dying, after all. It hardly matters if he misses some of Zagreus’s visits; Thanatos rarely manages to stop him, anymore.
It’s only proximity, he thinks. Spend enough time repeatedly killing someone and they start growing on you, like mold, or something like that. He’ll leave Zagreus to his business of spending eternity throwing himself at the gates of the underworld.
But he finds himself coming back, anyway, when he senses that familiar presence. He appears in the green fields of Elysium, in the boiling plains of Asphodel, in the depths of Tartarus. Zagreus gives him more nectar than he knows what to do with. He sits with Megaera and they share bottles of it and listen to the foundations of the House shake.
And every time, he starts to think.
Something needs to change, and it seems Thanatos is the only who sees it. It’s his duty to the realm, he tells himself. Lord Hades and Zagreus are both stubborn to a fault, and either they will be at each other’s throats for eternity, or, one day, Zagreus will best the lord of the underworld. And where would they be then?
It’s in all their best interests, he tells himself, to ensure the stability of the underworld. He’s only doing his job.
(It’s for the realm. It has to be for the realm. It has nothing to do with the expression Zagreus wears when he brings up his few memories of his mother, nothing to do with the apologetic smile he gives Thanatos each time he brings his sword to his chest or his neck or his gut. It has nothing to do with that because if Thanatos goes through with this, Zagreus will leave and never come back. He’ll go back to the surface, in the blinding sunlight where he belongs, not a shadow among the dead, and surely Thanatos is not so stupid as to commit treason for something like that .)
He’s not sure how much of this sentiment he manages to express to his mother, only that she stares at him for a long time after he finishes his speech.
“Oh my child,” she says, finally. “I did not expect you to come to me with this request. I have told you that there are things you do not know, consequences that you cannot expect.”
She breaks off, looking away, towards the gates that Lord Hades has stepped through dozens of times by now. “But perhaps you are right. There are too many secrets in this house, and Lord Hades is stubborn. I trust your judgment on the matter, my son. Perhaps this is what it will take for things to be set right.”
She motions for him to lean in. The shadows surround him like a shroud, shielding their conspiracy as she whispers into his ear.
“ Beyond the frozen overlook …”
He finds his brother setting up his wares by the river. Thanatos takes in the carefully arranged trinkets, the pomegranates, the vessels of still-beating centaur hearts.
“What is this, Charon? Have you been helping him?” He says, though he's not exactly in a position to judge. He ignores his brother’s indignant response and closes his eyes for a moment, two.
“Look, that’s not what I’m here about. I know you and that god, Hermes, are often in contact. And I know you two gossip—don’t look at me like that—I have a message, and I’m sure he can make it reach the right ears. So won't say anything about your shop, and you won’t speak of this, alright?”
Charon laughs, low and rumbling like the river behind him.
“It’s a deal.”
Thanatos gives the message to his brother, and he does not look back. It’s too late to regret any of this, now.
As long as there are mortals, there is Thanatos, and Death always has work to do. Demeter’s anger has turned the fertile earth into a barren waste. He is always busier in winter, when the olive branches shed their leaves and frost spreads across fields, crystalizing the surface of ponds. Disease and cold and famine: he is well familiar with their effects. But eventually the season ends, and the first shoots of spring creep from the thawing earth. But the goddess of the harvest can be as harsh as she is generous, and this winter has lasted for a long, long time. It has been a busy season for death.
Thanatos has heard rumours of what has driven Demeter’s grief. The name Kore passed around in hushed tones like a secret, a taboo. He thinks about that anger, the bitter frost, being turned towards the underworld. Except, of course, that this fear will not come to pass. He has given Zagreus the key to finding her, his mother, Demeter’s long-lost daughter, given him a name and directions to a hidden garden on the surface. He has given him the reason for never coming back here , and there will be no more godlings from Olympus at the gates of the Underworld, no bright presence in the dim rooms of Tartarus, no red blood being spilled in the molten islands of Asphodel.
Hades turns back to his parchmentwork, satisfied that he must have finally convinced Zagreus to give up. He must not know him at all, to think that he would ever leave without getting what he wanted.
Thanatos goes back to work. He shifts up to the surface where the sun is too bright and burns his eyes, and escorts the once-living into the depths of his master’s domain. He takes the souls of the old and the young, accepting and angry. They all cower under his scythe. None of them smile or fight back or hand him blood-covered bottles of nectar. It would be ridiculous, he thinks, for him to miss dying . It would be ridiculous to think that there was anything for him to miss. He was doing his job, and now it is done. (Except his actions were hardly part of his job . Except each time he shifts up to the surface, he finds himself wondering if Zagreus has found what he wanted. Except—)
He finds himself coming back to the House, though there is no reason for it anymore. He stands before the railing at the end of the west hall and stares into the Styx, the blood-red waters, their embrace far too familiar by now. It isn’t long before he hears footsteps approaching him, the clink of metal on marble floors.
“You did something, didn’t you,” Megaera says. It isn’t a question. “He hasn’t been back, and neither have you. He would have never given up without getting what he wanted.”
What can Thanatos say? He won’t lie to Megaera, but he won’t make her complicit in his betrayal. He stares into the vast maze of Tartarus in the distance and perhaps his silence is answer enough. He feels her gaze boring into his back.
“Never mind. I don’t want to know. I never thought you’d be so foolish, Thanatos. Of all the people—he really got under your skin, didn’t he?”
“He has a way of doing that.”
He hears the shift of fabric beside him as Megaera joins him, leaning against the railing. “That he does,” she laughs, soft and humourless. “I suppose it’s for the best that it’s all over. Best that we get back to our duties. He’s caused enough strife in this House.”
Thanatos nods. The Styx laps gently at its banks, blood-red waters staining the dark stone.
“You know, I almost miss having my assignments fight back.” She shakes her head. “What a pair we make. Come on Than, spar with me?”
He turns to her in surprise. It’s not something they’ve done for a long time, not since they gained their respective positions in the house. Thanatos should have no time for this.
“Alright,” he says instead.
Fighting Megaera is nothing like fighting Zagreus. She’s strong where he’s swift, unyielding where he dodged around Thanatos’s blows. They dance back and forth in the training grounds, trading whip blows with swings of his scythe.
“You’ve improved,” Megaera says, lunging at him with a twist of her whip. “That’s one thing he’s been good for.”
She must catch something in his expression, a hesitation, and she scoffs, shaking her head. “You’re smart, Than, and you’ve always served the house well. Forget about this. It’s not worth it.”
If she sounds like she’s trying to convince herself as much as him, neither of them will acknowledge it. He raises his scythe again. The fight ends with her whip wrapped around his throat, her grin as sharp as a knife. He finds himself smiling back.
“Let’s do that again sometime.” She holds out a hand to help him up. He takes it.
He tries, truly, to put it all out of his mind. Passing from battlefield to deathbed to the depths of Hades is tiring, even with all his abilities, and he embraces the work, allowing the physical effort of it to clear his mind. Gods do not forget , but his life is long, and this will be nothing more than a brief interlude: a poor decision, a lapse of judgement. (Does he regret it? Would it be better or worse if he did?)
If, sometimes, while on the surface, he thinks about how easy it would be to just shift the distance to a small grove by the rushing river Styx and see—it doesn’t matter. He won’t. He doesn’t.
A bottle of nectar sits in his rarely-touched chambers. He can’t find it in himself to dispose of it.
Time has little meaning in the underworld, days and nights blurring into long stretches of identical darkness. Though Thanatos spends brief flashes of time on the surface, his own existence is infinite and immutable, and he has never thought to pay much attention to the way mortals count the hours. So it could be after days or weeks or months when he feels a jolt in his mind, a disturbance in the vague awareness he always has of the shades in the underworld. It’s achingly familiar, standing out against the muted presence of the dead like a cold breeze through still halls, like drops of red blood against green fields. But—it can’t be. If it is, it means he failed. All of this was for nothing, and nothing has changed. But that doesn’t account for the lightness in his chest, something aching and hopeful rising up inside him.
He’s in Elysium before the thoughts can even finish running through his mind. He finds himself alighting in a clearing, the false light of Ixion illuminating scattered vases and silent statues, crowds of spirits that scatter from him like ripples in a still pond. From behind the gate, he can hear the cheering of crowds, indistinct chanting. And then they open, and the figure steps through.
It’s him. Of course it is. Thanatos had known before he left the House, the same, instinctual way he senses the dead, the way he knows where his own arm is. Still, seeing him again is like being dropped into the Styx, cold river-water rushing over him as he takes him in: the familiar stubborn set of his jaw, the green of his eyes, the sword in his grasp. All of it is achingly familiar, real and present in a way that each of Thanatos’s well-worn memories could never match. There’s nothing noticeably different, nothing changed in his absence. Perhaps nothing has changed, and Thanatos’s message never even reached him. Perhaps that was for the best. Perhaps this has all been a mistake.
Zagreus looks up in surprise at his presence. Thanatos never bothered to catch Zagreus this early, before. They’re still nearly at the surface. But if nothing has changed, Thanatos can simply pretend—
“You didn’t find her?” is what comes out of his mouth instead.
“Who? My mother?” Thanatos sees the realization dawning on his face, the questions rising. “Wait, how did you—”
Thanatos should have stuck to his job, like he has done for the entirety of his endless life. Because when he doesn’t, things like this will happen. Foolish, to think he had a solution to this mess.
He turns, ready to disappear, to shift somewhere, anywhere, away from here—
“Wait, no!” A warm hand grips him, burning around his arm like a brand. He twists around, bringing him face to face with Zagreus, who’s far closer than he was a second ago, close enough that Thanatos can see the faint scattering of freckles on his skin, the unfamiliar constellations they trace.
“I found her. She’s … wonderful. We talked and she told me a lot of things about this place. Your master. The Olympians. She said I couldn’t stay because I would bring them to her.” His eyes are bright with determination as he stares at Thanatos. He is still far too close. “But there has to be another way. A solution to all this. I know your mother Nyx, the goddess of night, resides in these halls. I need to speak with her. There has to be another way.”
Another way . It was ridiculous, enviable, the way he stumbled across obstacle after obstacle and kept going. The way he never stopped to think that there were things he couldn’t have, problems he couldn’t fix.
Thanatos’s place in the world has always been clear and delineated: he has his job, his duties, his home. But then Zagreus had crashed through the gates of the underworld, and nothing has been clear or simple since. What is it about him that has changed everything, that has made him consider impossible, foolish things?
He can imagine Megaera shaking her head at him right now.
He realizes he’s been silent for too long, staring at Zagreus’s hand around his arm. Zagreus seems to come to the same realization, stumbling back as if he’s the one who has been burned, a faint red flush rising over his cheekbones
“Right. Time to fight to the death again?” He smiles, though it lacks his usual enthusiasm.
What can Thanatos say? He’s never been good at words. The reasonable thing would be to raise his scythe, as he has done dozens of times. Thousands, for the thousands of souls he has taken. But he has already done so many foolish things. What is one more? If he wants to talk to Nyx, he thinks, he’ll have to make it through Lord Hades first.
The butterfly flutters weakly against his fingers as he unpins it from his cloak. Its wings scatter light in glittering shards as Thanatos reaches forward, sliding the pin through thick fabric, clasping it in place over Zagreus’s chest. For a moment all he can feel is the rapid beat of Zagreus’s heart, as delicate as the flapping of the butterfly’s wings. He tears away his hand.
“This isn't from me, okay? If you speak a word about this to anyone … ”
Thanatos is gone before he has to process the look on Zagreus’s face.
Thanatos does not return to the House for a long time. He stays on the surface for as long as he can stand, in the brilliant light of day. When he finally descends, it long after the storm that is Zagreus has passed through and the dust has settled. He hears of what happens from whispering shades, from Megaera, who had taken in his reappearance in the lounge with a knowing look, sparing a pointed glance at the empty space on Thanatos’s cloak.
This is what he hears, afterwards: that Lord Hades headed out of the hall as always, helmet on and spear in hand. They fought as they had always fought, the sounds of battle hardly even registering anymore to the inhabitants of the house. But when the gates burst open again it was a stranger from Olympus who walked in, trailing red drops of blood, determination written on his features, the shades scattering away from him in terror.
Nyx greeted him, Megaera tells Thanatos. She had risen from the river to see them in deep conversation, and it was not long before Lord Hades himself emerged, the Styx’s blood-red waters dripping down him, physically unharmed but his rage strong enough to be palpable. And yet—
“I don’t know what happened between them, how he managed to persuade even Lord Hades himself,” Megaera says. “But I think the result is obvious enough.”
It is, and Thanatos can only marvel at the sheer force of Zagreus’s will, because there, by Lord Hades’s side, stands the Queen.
Seeing mother and son together, the resemblance is obvious. The Queen is as radiant as Thanatos remembers, with none of the lingering sadness that she bore her first time in the House, and she looks at her son and husband with obvious adoration. Hades looks … not exactly happy , but less severe than Thanatos has ever seen him.
“Not exactly what you expected, was it, when he first showed up?” Megaera says,
Of course not. Zagreus had somehow managed to upturn the entire underworld in between his dozens of deaths. A seismic shift, left in his wake. Thanatos can only wonder what he will do next. Is this what he wanted, to be the prince of the underworld alongside his mother, to leave the sun-bright halls of Olympus for the depths of Hades? Surely Zagreus, fleet-footed, restless Zagreus, who seems loathe to even stand still, would not be content here. (Is it dread or hope that Thanatos feels, at the thought that he might stay?)
Regardless of what Thanatos thinks of Zagreus’s presence, he is genuinely glad to see the Queen return. He had been young the first time she left, but he remembers that she would smile at him, perhaps a little sadly, whenever he found himself in her presence, and that she brought the scent of the surface into the halls, though he didn’t recognize it then—spring rain and blossoming flowers. He remembers the way the silences weighed heavier in the house, afterwards. She looks happier now, the lines around her eyes crinkling when she smiles.
“Lady Persephone,” he greets. “It is an honour to have you back in the house. If there is anything I can do for you, I am at your service.”
She smiles at him brightly, and the resemblance to her son is obvious. “Thanatos, no need for formalities. It’s good to see you again! You’ve certainly grown.”
“It’s good to see you as well, my Queen,” he says.
“Yes, it’s nice to be back. You’ve met my son already, I’ve heard.” She laughs softly at whatever expression he must be making. “Oh, I’m aware of what your job was, and I don’t fault you for it. Things have worked out, haven’t they?
“ I'm glad they have.”
“I am as well. Zagreus has talked about you, you know. It seems that you’ve grown into a fine young man.”
“He … has?” He says, caught on the first part of her statement, thrown out so casually.
Persephone laughs. “He has, though I…”
She trails off, looking past him. Thanatos stands very still.
“Oh, but there he is. I believe he’s been wanting to talk to you.”
For a moment, he contemplates feigning an emergency and simply vanishing from the room. It’s not that he’s been avoiding Zagreus. Not actively , at least. He’s been busy, and with everything settled he has little reason to stick around anymore.
And … where do they stand with each other, after all that had passed? Thanatos had risked his job for this, for him. He could tell himself that it was for the realm, and things have certainly worked out for it. But he knows, has always known, that it had never really been about that. He doesn’t want to examine what that means. He doesn’t want Zagreus to examine what that means. It had been easier before, when Zagreus’s appearances were routine, temporary. When Thanatos was waiting for the day he wouldn’t come back. It had been reassuring, in a way. What use was there in acknowledging what he felt, when he knew it would have to end, one way or another?
But if Zagreus has decided to stay, Thanatos can’t avoid him forever. He sighs and turns around.
“Oh hey, Mother, Than! It’s good to see the two of you,” Zagreus says, walking up to him. He’s dressed in new clothes, deep reds and blacks. There’s something different about him, beyond in the clothing, the flame-red leaves wreathing his dark hair. He’s whole and unharmed, Thanatos realizes, not a scratch or bruise on him. What does it say about their relationship, that Thanatos had grown so used to seeing him on the verge of death, that to see him like this is a shock?
“Zagreus,” he says, his voice carefully modulated.
“Glad to see you here. Meg told me that you’re around sometimes, but I suppose I haven’t been able to catch you.”
“I’ve been busy,” he says.
“Yeah, I suppose your work never ends, does it? Does that mean you won’t have time to be chasing me down again?”
Zagreus opens his mouth to reply, but is interrupted by a quiet cough. Thanatos snaps his gazep back to Persephone, who he had quite forgotten was standing there. “Well it’s good to see you, my son. I’ll be in the garden if you need me. I’ll let you two catch up, alright?”
Zagreus flushes as he turns back to Thanatos, and he gets the distinct impression that he isn’t the only one who forgot.
“Oh, you haven’t heard? Lord Hades—my, uh, stepfather —has put me in charge of testing the underworld’s security. Says they’ve really had to step up the defenses since I’ve been breaking in, that it’s good practice.” He laughs, “I think he just wants to get me back for last time.”
O f course, he thinks, with dangerously familiar exasperation, Zagreus would take a job involving endless, repeated deaths. It takes a moment for the greater implication to sink in. “So you’re … actually staying?”
“Yeah. My mother says she’s happy here, and this way I have an excuse to see her—we’ll have to sort things out with the Olympians, one day, but she wants to stay, and so do I. It’s not so bad down here.”
“You prefer this to Olympus?” he responds. He can’t keep the doubt out of his voice, can’t help resist reminding Zagreus of what he is giving up.
“Well, the view is nicer up there, I suppose. But you get used to it after a while,” he says. “I never had much to do. It’s nice, having a purpose. Seeing my mother. And I like the company here.”
“Right that’s … good. That everything’s settled, I mean.”
“It is. Thank you, Than.” He smiles and pulls a bottle. “Here, for old time’s sake. I’ll be seeing you around, yeah?”
“Yes,” Thanatos says, and vanishes in a flash of green light.
Zagreus stays. The house is livelier than Thanatos ever remembers it being. He had known, intellectually, that it was not a welcoming place, the halls cold and dark, the conversations hushed, the decorations falling into disrepair. But he had never minded, never really noticed, until it began to change. The gardens of the house bloom lush and verdant under Persephone’s care. Zagreus puts the fruits of his ransacking to productive, if inexplicable, use, and now when Thanatos and Megaera drink together, it is with plush carpeting underfoot, the fireplace burning cheerily beside them. Though he’s rarely in the house, the signs of Zagreus’s presence are everywhere, in the new drapery, in the baffling amount of rugs, in the flowers placed in the corner that Thanatos has seen his mother gently examine. The shades whisper about him, Cerberus whines in his absence, and Dusa seems absolutely starstruck . It’s part vindicating and part exasperating to learn that Zagreus has ingratiated himself with the other residents of the house as easily as with him. His friendliness should be baffling, considering all he has suffered in his quest to reach this place, but Thanatos cannot find it surprising at all.
He finds Thanatos still, regaling him with stories about his newest adventures in the underworld, handing him more bottles of nectar. Thanatos doesn’t ask where Zagreus manages to get them. He doesn’t ask why Zagreus is still doing this, giving him gifts, asking him about the underworld, about himself. He doesn’t know what he wants the answer to be.
He joins Megaera in the lounge after an assignment, stepping past the newly refurbished tables, an intricately woven rug plush under his feet. She wordlessly pushes a bottle of nectar towards him. it’s already half-empty.
“We should probably talk about him. Zagreus.”
Thanatos would rather talk about any other subject, but he slowly sinks into his seat. “What about him?”
“I think he’s been showing … interest in me,” she says, looking at him carefully, the question unsaid but evident. He could pretend otherwise, could try to tell himself otherwise, but he knows what she’s asking him. He wonders how obvious it had been, from the moment he dragged himself out of the river.
He takes a drink from the bottle. He's hardly surprised. Megaera is formidable and beautiful. Thanatos has heard the way Zagreus talks to her, seen his expression when she’s brought up. Mortals care deeply about this sort of thing— wars have been raged out of jealousy, after all, and Megaera is the fury who punishes infidelity.But they are gods, and Thanatos has never particularly cared about mortal customs. If this will make Megaera happy, then he’s glad. “If you’re wondering if that will be a problem between us, of course not.”
“Good,” she says, looking away. “It’s a terrible idea, anyway.”
“You may have gotten reassigned, but it’s still my job to kill him, Than. I can’t let him compromise that.”
“I don’t think anyone could. Not that I think he’d try in the first place.”
She spends a long moment staring into the fire, before a soft laugh escapes her. “Maybe you’re right. Strange, to think that after all this, that it could work out somehow. Though don’t think this doesn’t mean Zagreus doesn’t—you should hear the way he talks about you. ”
He doesn’t know what to say to that, doesn’t know what expression he’s making, but Megaera gives him a look. “Don’t you know? I know what I said before, but things have changed, especially between the two of you. There’s no reason to deny yourself.”
Thanatos remembers the first time he went to the surface. Everything had been so bright and loud . The sun had seared his eyes, and the mortals had been just as overwhelming, with all their fears and hopes and needs.
Being with Zagreus is a little like standing in direct sunlight, all his wants and desires laid out bare in the day, his longing so obvious, threatening to spill out between his teeth. But it’s also easy and familiar in a way that being with others rarely is for him. Zagreus has never from him more than he can give, never begrudges his silences or disappearances, never faulted him for doing his job. It scares him, what he inspires in Thanatos. He wants to do ridiculous things for him, risk all he’s worked for.
He knows what this is, has known for far longer than he’s let himself admit. Somewhere between the sword blows and the blood and bottles of nectar, Thanatos had stumbled straight off a precipice, unawares. And now he finds himself thinking about green eyes and clever smiles as he sits in a quiet corner of Tartarus and breathes in the stale air. Aphrodite has a sense of humour, he thinks.
Megaera’s words ring through his head. She meant well but … Thanatos is not Zagreus. He can accept that there are things he cannot have. What do he and Zagreus share, anyway, besides a couple dozen deaths at each other’s hands? It’s hardly a basis for any relationship. Zagreus is friendly to everyone. If Thanatos had risked his job because of a few bottles of nectar, the smiles that accompanied them (his boundless determination, his surprising kindness)—as long as Zagreus doesn’t acknowledge it, neither will he. Things have already turned out better than he could have hoped, and he will not be the one to ruin it.
He senses a familiar presence cutting through Elysium. Zagreus is eager to get to work, apparently. It’s not Thanatos’s job anymore to care what he does. But he finds that he cannot stay away.
Finding Zagreus is hardly difficult, even with the time that has passed. His presence is bright against the spirits of the warriors he cuts down. Thanatos appears among the swaying grasses of Elysium, his arrival heralded by the toll of bells. Zagreus is in the midst of battle with a group of exalted, barely dodging their spears and swords, but he whirls around at the sound, blinking as he takes in Thanatos’s appearance.
“Than?” he says, breathing hard. “Isn’t this a little unfair? I thought you weren’t going to—”
Thanatos raises his scythe, and the shade that was about to stab him in the back vanishes. (Leaving himself open like that, it’s a miracle that he made it this far.)
“Watch your back, Zagreus.”
Zagreus blinks at him for a moment, frozen in anticipation for a blow that never came, then bursts into a grin. It’s as bright as the sun. Thanatos can’t meet his gaze. “Thanks, Than.”
“Come on, let’s see how quickly you can clear out these wretches.”
He turns, weaving his scythe around him as he strikes the fallen warriors down once again. He is aware of Zagreus’s movements behind him, the familiar way he dodges and strikes, can picture the flash of his blade. It doesn’t take long before the room is clear, falling into sudden silence.
Zagreus turns towards him, pressing a hand against a shallow cut on his arm. Thanatos should have been quicker, caught the shade who had wielded the sword.
“Thank you, Thanatos. I’m glad you showed up,” he says.
“I was in the area,” he says, though it’s far too late to maintain any sort of plausible deniability.
“Wait, before you go—“ Zagreus says, taking a step towards him. He smiles and pulls a bottle out, and it’s not the familiar shape and colour, instead something deeper and richer. Ambrosia.
“Picked this up along the way,” he says, “And I wanted to thank you properly. For everything.”
“You don’t need to do this,” he says, a little desperately. Friendly conversations and nectar are one thing. They’re coworkers now, after all. But this—
“Of course not, but I want to,” he says, smiling at Thanatos, as if the explanation should be obvious. He’s reminded of the first gift, long ago. So much has changed since then, but Zagreus hasn’t lost his ability to throw him off guard.
“ Why ? Is this—do you think you owe me?” The words come out in a rush, harsher than he means to . “I don’t want—" to hope, to think that you could mean something by this.
“What? No!” Zagreus says. “Like I said, I want to do this. I know we didn’t start out on the best foot but … I’m glad to have met you, Thanatos. I want to get to know you better when we’re not repeatedly trying to kill each other.
“Are you … not okay with this? I can stop, if you’d rather—“
“No. I—it’s fine.” He grabs the bottle, their hands brushing as he closes his palm around its neck. He snatches it away.
Zagreus looks at him for a long moment, hesitant in a way Thanatos has rarely seen him. “I want to be clear. I like you, Than. I’ve liked you since I first met you in Tartarus, as unlikely as that might sound. I thought I’d done a better job of showing my affection for you. If you don’t feel the same way—”
The words take a moment to sink in. Affection , Zagreus says, with that look as if Thanatos would fault him for it. He’s still wearing the pin, Thanatos notes, absurdly. The delicate butterfly he gave him because—
“Why do you think I did what I did, Zagreus?” He says. He wants to laugh. All this time, each of them presuming—” I thought you knew. Of course I—do I need to spell it out …?”
“Oh. oh .” A smile breaks across his face, delicate and hopeful. “Okay. I—I’m glad, Thanatos.”
He takes a step towards Thanatos, until they’re face-to-face, mere inches between them. He can see the flecks of brown and gold in the green of his eyes, the freckles on the bridge of his nose. Zagreus reaches up, fingers brushing the short hairs at the back of Thanatos’s head.
“Is this alright?” he says, softly, his gaze flickering down, his lashes dark against his skin. Thanatos is already leaning down to meet him.
His lips are soft, his calloused hands warm. When they break apart, there’s a faint flush on Zagreus’ cheeks. He’s grinning, his hand sliding down so his thumb brushes along Thanatos’s jaw.
“You know, I’ve been thinking of doing that since the sixth time you killed me? You were always so professional .”
And what can Thanatos do in response except to curl in his fingers into the soft fabric of his tunic, and pull him closer so he can kiss him again?
When Zagreus calls him, it’s not with his usual urgency, but Thanatos appears before him anyway. Instead of the dark halls of the underworld, he finds himself in a moonlit garden. His mother’s sky stretches overhead, the constellations blinking slowly. He turns to see Zagreus lazily lounging on the bank of the river, his sword carelessly tossed to the side. He smiles up at Thanatos, the pale moonlight highlighting the gleam of his eyes, the curve of his cheek.
“Hey, Than. Hope you don’t mind me calling for you like this, but you’ve been so busy lately and, well, I thought you could use a break. And I wanted to see you.”
“I don’t mind,” he says. He might have once been annoyed, he thinks, to have been dragged away from his work like this, but he wouldn’t have come if he didn’t want to. And … he’s missed Zagreus, as well.
“Good. stay with me a while?”
He nods and places his scythe carefully against a tree and settles down on the grass, close enough so that their legs brush.
“Look,” Zagreus says, pointing up at the stars, tracing some distant constellation. The moonlight catches the curve of his cheek, his eyelashes. “There’s Heracles.”
“He’s not exactly what the stories make him out to be,” he says.
“You’ve met him? I guess even the greatest of heroes end up in the underworld one day.” He turns back to Thanatos. “You know, my mother told me that when I was born, they weren’t sure if I would be immortal at all. I can’t imagine living a life like that—a single mistake, and … well, that’s it. I don’t even know how many times I’ve died.”
“Perhaps it would have taught you to be less reckless,” he says. “Mortals tend to have a stronger sense of self-preservation.”
“Perhaps,” he says, a wry smile on his face. “But then I would only have met you once, wouldn’t I? Aren’t you glad I got the chance to repeatedly ransack this place, and somehow wear you down by dying endlessly at your hands?”
His tone is light-hearted but— “Of course I’m glad. I think it’s been the best thing to happen to this place.” He glances up at the sky, finding the constellation Zagreus had been tracing. “To me, as well.”
When he looks down, Zagreus is frozen, staring at him, his cheeks turning pink. He opens his mouth, closes it again, and Thanatos finds himself with a lapful of god as Zagreus hauls him into a kiss.
“I love you,” he says breathlessly, as they part.
The stars twinkle above them, Hercules making his way across the sky, and the dead shudder below. In the distance, the mountain of the gods rises into the sky. But in this moment, nothing exists except the two of them, the grassy banks of the river. For this moment, Thanatos lets himself have this.