Achilles remembers worship.
They made a god of him while he was alive, and there he was, fool enough to think it made him untouchable. He’d disdained them at the time, the faceless masses and fool kings, when he’d bothered to think of them at all. He pities them, these uncountable years later. He’s not sure he’s forgiven them.
It had surprised them both, he thinks, to find that there’d been a little left over of that adulation in his lover. Patroclus’ own fatal flaw, just enough to break his heart when he’d had expectations and Achilles hadn’t lived up to them. Hadn’t wanted to. After all, he had his own expectations; they did not involve Patroclus leaving him.
Perhaps that’s why he finds young Zagreus’ attentions so discomforting. Not because it reminds him of that adoration, but the opposite. He cannot forget the price of Patroclus’ disillusionment.
(“I’m tired.” Calloused fingers cup his face, a cradle, a cage. “Love, aren’t you tired? You know you can end this. Wouldn’t that be infamy enough? Achilles, who stopped the war time itself couldn’t defeat.”
And Achilles had laughed. Taken those hands in his, kissed first one palm and then the other, because he was in love, because he took too lightly the grit of teeth, the clenched jaw. Certainly, he had seen Patroclus angry before, but at him? The thought was laughable. So he laughed.)
He sees the break coming long before it happens. Zagreus might be rash, stubborn, a little foolhardy, but he has a soft heart. His father takes no care with it, fractures forming with every fight and Achilles is long past telling too-powerful men about their mistakes. A younger, more alive Achilles might have told the lad to shrug it off - what’s a tyrant to a hero?
But Achilles is dead, and Zagreus is no hero, though he would be hurt to know Achilles thought it. Heroics are the purview of the loud, the arrogant, those who are too concerned with their own tales and not at all with others.
Achilles has learnt the folly of making promises, so he makes a fool of himself and keeps this one a secret. This lad, powerful and hurt and somehow sweet despite both, does not deserve what their world does to such people. He has already failed Patroclus; he will not fail Zagreus.
Hades mistakes kindness for weakness. Achilles suspects that’s why the god of the Underworld misses what’s coming.
(“Where is my fierce warrior? I remember you chomping at the bit for the taste of blood, and here I have this toothless old man urging me to bow to the arrogance of a feckless king.”
“That warrior fled home to Greece when taste turned to gluttony. I would very much like to join him.” Patroclus wrests his hands from Achilles’ grip, and Achilles, startled by the rejection, is too slow to draw him back. “It’s not Agamemnon’s arrogance I care about, love. Your pride will be the death of us all.”
Eons later, he doesn’t remember what he said in response. The awful truth is, it hadn’t mattered. Achilles’ pride had withstood the death of thousands, and it would have held against the thrashing of the gods themselves. There was only one death that could move him. And so, he might as well have painted a target on Patroclus’ back himself. At least then he wouldn’t have suffered from the shock of it.)
The lad can hardly lift his sword, body sweat-slicked and trembling with effort. To his credit, Achilles is hardly better off himself - if there’s anything left for him to teach Zagreus, it doesn’t have to do with the martial arts.
Achilles grinds the butt of his spear into the cracked Tartarus tile, leaning heavily on the weapon. He has no breath left to catch, but his physical form goes through the motions anyway, chest heaving. He doesn’t miss the flicker of Zagreus’ gaze, a quick glance down before ricocheting back to his face again. He does ignore it.
“You won, lad. Take a certain amount of pride, but you didn’t strike me as the type to rub it in.”
Instantly, the swordpoint drops. Moments like this, Achilles has occasion to wonder where Zagreus picked up such an open, earnest face; he can read the anxious horror written behind the exhaustion as easily as any of his own Codex entries.
“No,” he says quickly, “No, that’s not - I didn’t mean--”
Achilles chuckles, reaching out to slap him on the shoulder. It strikes him as a strangely reticent gesture, given the length of their acquaintance, but he hasn’t missed the way Zagreus shies away from more intimate touches lately. Achilles can admit to some curiosity, but has learnt over the years that it’s best to wait for Zagreus to come to him with his troubles. He is trying to accommodate.
“I know. I’m only teasing. But you’ve done well for today. The benefits of taking a rest are just as important as the benefits of training.”
“I...forgive me, sir, but Tartarus won’t be giving me a rest, will it? Nor the rest of Father’s domain, should I get that far.”
Achilles gives him a Look. “Zagreus. You can’t be thinking that you’ll run at the Underworld and conquer it in - what, a day? No need for sleep, or rest, or food? You may be a god, lad, but this is a cage designed for prisoners such as yourself. Far better to expect complications and prepare for them, than to hope they won’t happen and be taken by surprise.”
Patroclus would laugh, to hear him speak so. As though your plan for a war wasn’t to simply throw yourself at it until it ended or you did. Calling it a plan would be generosity he didn’t deserve; it simply hadn’t occurred to him, at the time, that there existed a thing that might end him.
“...ir? Achilles, sir?”
“Ah. My apologies, sometimes my thoughts wander further than my attention. Where were we?”
“I was pointing out that I’m not a god.”
There is a raw, aching thing in Achilles’ chest. A place where something was cut out, and not cleanly; where he was left to heal poorly, or die. In this settled afterlife he has carved out for himself, most days he can tell himself he landed on the side of healing.
He smiles at Zagreus, a gentle, lopsided thing. “All the more reason for you to rest, then.”
It is a glorious day. The sun climbs triumphantly to its noon perch, casting the sea stretching out to infinity in a shimmering white that could blind a man for looking at it too long. Achilles can hear the distant chatter of birds and men alike, and cares for none of it. Not with Patroclus bent at the waist before him, hands braced on his knees and a rueful grin on his face.
His weapon lies on the ground where Achilles disarmed him, not for the first time that day. Ignoring the man’s pleas, Achilles flicks it with a toe, flipping it up into his hand.
“Who are you calling lad? You’re not that much older than me.” He holds the sword out for Patroclus to take, in such a way that the other man’s fingers will have to brush over his if he wants to take it.
The fingers don’t brush. They close over his, calloused and scarred in a way that tells tale of more battles than Achilles has seen, for all his prowess. Patroclus exerts the barest amount of pressure, hardly enough to force Achilles into doing anything, and yet Achilles finds himself lowering the weapon regardless. Even if he does feel his features rearrange in a frown as he does it.
“Old enough to tell you when it’s time to stop,” Patroclus says mildly. “If you don’t like the way I refer to you, I can always return to--”
“No!” Achilles says quickly. ‘Stranger’ had been - well, not perfectly polite, but perfectly inoffensive, and Achilles had grated under the weight of it for months past the point they had stopped being strangers to each other.
Any other man would have acceded to his demands to be called by name. Every other man had, in fact, and women too, all of them falling over themselves to please lion-hearted Achilles, but Patroclus simply ignored any demand he considered too excessive or unnecessary - or worse, laughed at them. Laughed at him.
Even the memory of it suffuses Achilles with a peculiar sort of heat. It’s never mattered when anyone else laughed at him - maybe because he doesn’t think anyone has ever dared - but it matters when Patroclus does it. Quiet, clever Patroclus, who says too little and thinks too much. Achilles has never hated the sound of another man’s joy so much. He’s never craved to hear it more.
A soft chuckle pierces his reverie, sinks a little further into his heart on the way out. “Too often, lad, your thoughts wander further than your attention. Come now; let us put our weapons away. It’s time to return to a kinder world.”
Achilles has several arguments he would like to make about the kindness of the world, actually, but Patroclus hasn’t let go of his hand. He might as well have shoved a fist into Achilles’ mouth, for the effect it has on his ability to form words. Swift-footed Achilles has always been one for running ahead, but he allows Patroclus to lead him to the armory, the baths, the dining hall afterwards. When they part that evening, it’s almost a shock.
He would have quite liked to follow Patroclus to bed.)
Achilles’ heart aches to see the lad return, though Zagreus bears it well. “I’ll give them hell as you once did, Achilles.” He leaves with a smile, and Achilles finds the expression lingering in the long-rusted workings of his own face.
It’s often the case after they encounter each other. He has never seen a person fail with such gusto before; even at his most despondent, Zagreus never speaks of giving up. The Master of the House can mutter about idiocy all he likes, but true bravery has always required a healthy dollop of stupid to maintain itself. How does one dream the impossible, otherwise?
Achilles does his best to aid that reckless positivity, for all that it doesn’t come naturally to him. Zagreus brings it out in him, he supposes, this urge to try for something outside of himself. To wish for a different outcome, even though all signs point to the inevitable.
Patroclus would have liked him, he thinks, off-duty and indulging in the pleasant torture of memory. Nectar burns sweetly on the way down, like the drink has somehow divined that he can’t entirely allow himself to enjoy it, needs the edge to get it down. Patroclus had always been so much better at hope than him.
(“War with the Trojans?” Achilles raises his eyebrows over at Patroclus, picking at a platter of fruit as he does so. “Why should we care if Menelaus cannot keep a hold of his wife?”
“Officially, I don’t care at all.”
Achilles bares his teeth in something that is half grin, half snarl. It wins a laugh from Patroclus, who has never had any issue with making jokes about his status. An absurdity of the world, to consider Achilles higher than this man.
“Unofficially--” Patroclus smacks his hand away from where it’s absently murdering a fig, selecting a palmful of grapes instead. “The Trojans stole away with Helen in the night, under the guise of hospitality. A man has to stand for something, Achilles.”
And gods, Achilles could not care less about the duty a guest has to his host in this moment, not when Patroclus is pressing one of those grapes to Achilles’ lips. The skin is flushed a deep purple, taut over flesh fit to burst free at the slightest provocation. He parts his lips to make way, catches the barest taste of salt from Patroclus’ fingers before he carefully withdraws.
The grape resists his teeth for a moment, straining under the pressure before it splits, spills sweet juice over his tongue and down his throat. Patroclus, unerringly, does not look away from his eyes. Doesn’t even glance down.
“Then I suppose we go to war,” Achilles says. Somewhere buried deep, he can hear his mother’s warnings. The echo of death and infamy, the promise of life and love.
He opens his mouth for another grape.)
“Hey Achilles, look this really isn’t much, but, here.”
Achilles doesn’t think anyone could blame him for being slow to realise.
“I just happen to think you deserve better than you've got down here, Achilles.”
He has been a shade for a long time. It’s not the sort of existence that leads one to being looked at, period.
“Come on, Achilles, live a little...such as you're able. I won't tell if you won't tell.”
Let alone being looked at with...intent. Interest. The thought drifts across his mind somewhere in the middle of his fourth flask of nectar, and he’s in deep enough to chuckle at the absurdity of it.
Except: it doesn’t drift away again.
The nature of nectar is to induce a pleasant state of mind, but it can’t control how he reacts to the things his own mind produces as pleasurable. Tucked away by himself in a corner of the lounge, Achilles can’t help but think, the lad is kind, and the lad is beautiful, and the lad is not Patroclus.
Towards the tail end of the war, Achilles had been more than old enough and established enough to take his own, younger lover. Another warrior looking to make something of himself, some lordling finding his way in the world. But he’d no need - no interest, frankly - and no care if his men or any others whispered about blazing Achilles’ unusual taste in bed partners.
No one is Patroclus. Not before him, not during the war, and certainly not after all was said in done, in these long and lonely years guarding the door of the god of the Underworld. Achilles had scoffed loyalty to king and kin in life, but the hold Patroclus had on his heart lingered long past death.
Of course, no one is Zagreus, either.
(He’s wine sour and dishevelled the first time he musters up the courage for it. Godlike Achilles, tonight borrowing the aspect of Dionysus, tripping tumbling over an ever-patient Patroclus.
“You, my friend, are drunk.”
Achilles grins broadly, because he is, and because it is impossible to hide his delight at being called friend when he is in this state. “Yes,” he agrees, gripping the broad span of Patroclus’ biceps. They are firm. Not enough to hold Achilles down for more than a moment, but gods, what a moment that would be.
“I would caution you about the effects of overindulging, but we both know that no god ever made you suffer a consequence for your actions.” Patroclus sighs, angling Achilles around a corner, walking him backwards. Achilles has no idea where they’re going. It doesn’t matter, not with Patroclus steadying the bulk of his weight like this, those steady, scarred fingers like brands on his ribs, even through the soft cotton of his chiton.
Achilles imagines peeling the fabric away, seeing the burns. He shudders.
“Not true. I’m suffering right now.”
“Oh? You seem in remarkably good spirits for a man in such distress.”
“One can easily suffer and smile about it. You of all people should know that.”
It catches Patroclus unawares. A little thrill shoots through Achilles at the victory, the way his companion hesitates for a moment, the faint furrow in his brow as he tries to parse Achilles’ meaning. Honestly, Achilles isn’t sure what he means himself; he just wants to scrape at that veneer of placid calm a little, dig his fingers under that careful control. He wants to come away with Patroclus under his nails, beneath his skin, in his very veins. If he is drunk, let it be on this man. He will accept any consequence for the chance.
“Say no.” He takes advantage of the suddenly slack grip on his torso, swaying into Patroclus’ space. “Tell me to stop, and I will. Tell me to go, and I’m gone.”
The moment stretches between them, taut to the point of snapping, but Achilles is gone enough to not fear the recoil. Patroclus makes a sound in the back of his throat, a noise of frustration that Achilles knows like his own name. A fist clenches in the fabric of his robe, jerking him closer until there’s nothing between them but promise.
“Fool,” Patroclus bites out. “Idiot.”
And then he doesn’t say anything at all, because Achilles is kissing him.)
The fifth time, he is prepared.
Not that Achilles anticipates another flask of nectar. Just that, Zagreus has a tendency to throw around objects of immense value without thought, and Achilles has a tendency to be one of the destinations said objects find a home in.
Sure enough, the next time Zagreus sputters his way out of the Styx, he makes a beeline straight for Achilles. He doesn’t even stop to pat Cerberus first, which only adds to the pit of anxiety and - what? Anticipation? growing in Achilles’ gut. Gods, what a mess he’s made of himself. Patroclus would laugh to see it.
Zagreus skids to a stop in front of him, all bright eager eyes and a grin just short of breath. He doesn’t even have words this time, just thrusts the flask out ahead of him like it holds all of the hopes and intentions he can no longer contain.
This is going to hurt. Achilles takes the nectar with a gentleness his hands weren’t made for, like maybe that will offset the harshness of what he’s about to say.
“Lad, all this generosity, I...don't want you to get the wrong idea. I am alone, yes, but my heart belongs to another. Ever since I was alive. I hope you understand.”
Fool, Patroclus says from inside his heart. Idiot.
Tilts his head to one side. Rubs the back of his neck, all awkward earnestness. Achilles thinks of confessing to Patroclus, a golden blur of eternity past, his famous arrogance buried under the weight of his own emotion. Patroclus had laughed at him then, as he always did when Achilles was being absurd, and it had broken his heart right up until Patroclus had gathered his face in his hands and given back the kiss Achilles had stolen that wine-soaked night.
Achilles can’t give Zagreus that gift. Kindness is a poor substitute, but it’s all he has.
“I...somehow knew that was the case, Achilles.” There’s only understanding in Zagreus’ voice, and that’s the difference between the two of them, he supposes. When met with kindness, Zagreus only ever has the same to return. “But - and forgive me if this is too forward, and please don’t think I’ve been trying to buy your affection by any means - but does comfort and companionship have to intrude on that? I’ve no wish to replace any person who holds your heart, but you seem...lonely.”
For a moment, the remembered rasp of Patroclus’ laughter is all that Achilles can hear. He stands there, still, as Zagreus’ face scrunches up with each passing second of awkwardness, the silence between them building higher and higher until it’s clear that the lad can’t contain himself any longer. He knocks it over.
“Sorry,” he says hastily. “Sorry, sorry, that really was too forward of me, wasn’t it? I’ll leave you be, I promise, I - sorry.”
It’s the threat of Zagreus leaving - not just leaving, but leaving him be that finally snaps Achilles out of his shock. No matter what passes between the two of them, he has no wish to lose the lad. Whatever else they have been, are, to each other, he would like to think they are friends. That means something, in the Underworld. It has to.
“No, Zagreus - please.” There’s a rawness to his tone that he can’t quite keep to himself. “You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you.” He swallows, even though there is nothing in the shade-shape of his soul that requires it from him. “It’s not a no.”
“Oh.” It’s like Apollo himself has descended to the Underworld for the sole purpose of lighting Zagreus up. His whole body straightens, shedding dejection and no small amount of fear as easily as a cloak, and the smile that graces his sweet mouth is enough to pull one onto Achilles’ face as well. “Oh! Well, then - I’ll see you later?”
“You will,” Achilles promises. If he can be sure of nothing else, he can be sure of that. “Assuming you make it back here, that is. Once you’ve found your mother.”
Zagreus laughs pure relief, making some obscure gesture with his fingers and thumbs that Achilles reads as either agreement, or desperate avoidance. The sight of him walking off, shaking his head in disgust at himself once he thinks he’s out of sight, is enough to keep the smile on Achilles’ lips long past the start of the lad’s next escape.
It’s so rare that he hears his own name from Patroclus these days, Achilles has grown to dislike the sound of it. He stays curled on his side, staring at the wooden walls of their home for the last decade. After so long, the structures set up on the beach outside of Troy have become more permanent than semi, and they bear all the signs of cohabitation between the two of them. Their armour lurks in the corner, indistinguishable when cast under Nyx’s shadow like this. Agamemnon has treated himself to several distinct rooms, but this space with Patroclus is enough for Achilles.
Any space with Patroclus has always been enough for Achilles.
A sigh, gusting over the back of his neck. “Achilles, love.” Better. “I need to talk to you. About what happens if I die in--”
“What?” Achilles is already rolling over, whatever else Patroclus might say lost in the blankets they share. “You’re not going to - what?”
“Anyone can die. Even you.”
“You’re not me,” Achilles points out. “You’re not just anyone, either.”
A chuckle, tired. A hand on his cheek. Patroclus always puts his hands on Achilles when he wants him to listen. Admittedly, it helps. Reminds Achilles of all the threads that weave them together. Grounds him.
“This is war. A war with the gods, nonetheless. I can’t think of anything more likely to draw their eye than the hubris of assuming oneself to be immortal.”
“It’s not immortality when I would slaughter any man who dared touch you, and the world knows it.”
“So anyone other than a man may have their way with me?”
“Ah, it seems that swift-footed Achilles has finally run so far that he left his sense of humour behind.” Patroclus whispers a kiss over his forehead, and Achilles can’t help but close his eyes. “You weren’t made to be alone, love. If I die in this endless carnage - if, if - then don’t waste your life on mourning me. I chose this path. There are others in this world who are worthy of your love.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Patroclus kisses his mouth. He’s usually so much better with his words than Achilles is, but all that means now is that he doesn’t need to speak for Achilles to feel it. Desperation and love, love and terror. He aches to know the cause of it, to know what he needs to destroy or who he needs to kill, but Patroclus has presented him with an immediate problem that he’s more than equipped to solve.
So he curls an arm around his lover’s waist, clutches him close as he rolls onto his back. Drags Patroclus’ body over his, the heavy weight of him settling there like it belongs, because he does.
“I love you,” he pants in between each hot kiss, sweet counterpoint to the filthy click of lips, of tongue, of teeth. “I’m here.”
Patroclus shudders, biting down on Achilles’ shoulder instead of saying anything in return. Achilles doesn’t need the words. He just needs Patroclus.
In the morning, his armour is gone.)
Zagreus’ quarters being what and where they are, Achilles supposes that the rest of the House will know where he is - oh, by the time he’s crossed the newly carpeted floor. It’s a strange group that serves the needs of the Underworld, but no one could accuse them of being distant.
He sets his spear cautiously to one side. The nature of his job and being a shade with limited attachment to space and time means that the weapon is seldom out of his hand. It’s as he’s stretching out his palm, the pull of skin-seeming over maybe-flesh that he hears the faint hiss of flame-licked footsteps, the clattering pace suggesting Zagreus rather than the alternative (a conversation that Achilles very much does not want to have, actually).
“Blasted witches…” Sure enough, it’s Zagreus sliding through the door at pace, although he skids to a stop when he catches sight of Achilles. Or at least, it would have been a stop, if not for the newly purchased carpet, which slips under his feet.
Achilles reaches out to steady him on instinct, although Zagreus’ reflexes are more than sharp enough to catch him before it’s necessary. He wonders if Zagreus can feel the tremble in his hands, gripping just above the bracers on his forearms.
“Achilles,” Zagreus says, and oh, there’s a wonder in his voice that makes Achilles flush to hear it. “You’re here.”
Gods, it’s almost enough to make him leave. This tremulous possibility, shaking to life between them. Easier by far to kill it now, stifle any hope that it might grow into something strong enough to stand on its own.
There are others in this world who are worthy of your love. Achilles had scorned the idea at the time. Now, he simply wonders if he is the worthy one.
“I am,” he says softly, and then again, firmer. “I am.” He slides his thumb achingly over the unmarred skin of Zagreus’ forearm, not missing the way his breath catches in his throat. Real breath, real skin, but Zagreus doesn’t scar as mortals do. “You were right. I have been - lonely.”
The smile breaks across Zagreus’ face like the rising sun, and Achilles is helpless once again to resist the pull at his own mouth. Zagreus steps in closer, the living heat of him a balm as he slips free of Achilles’ grip. Cups his jaw in a gentle touch, a cradle, a cage.
“Then, please. Allow me to keep you company.”
Achilles closes his eyes, and breathes.