She's lost all of them to the sky, one by one. How does the virgin goddess feel about her supposed lovers? Written as a response to the death of Zoë Nightshade, very belatedly.
Author's Notes: Completely the fault of Neko Kuroban and Sheva Das. They know it, too.
Number the Stars
By Sister Grimm Erin and Neko Kuroban
Number the stars, Huntress. Number the stars, eternal one. Number the stars, silver one.... Seek what you will, find what you wish. Count yourself and your pain and your hatred and, most of all, count what you gave them, every one a beautiful, shining face in the night sky. Every scar you left upon them. Every blow that took their lives. Their deaths were your fault, blood on your hands, and so number the stars, the faces of everyone you have ever loved. Young one, number the stars.
Artemis's narrow shoulders shake with the force of silent, furious tears. Her bow tumbles from her hand as she surrenders to the sobs of despair, consumed by anguish and rage and pain and grief and (above all else!) guilt.
I could have saved her! I should have saved her! She shields her face in her hands, her breath hitching in a whimper in her throat. If only I'd been faster... If only I'd let Annabeth die... If only I'd not been so proud to think I could do it alone... An endless litany of regrets. Zoë! Are you there? Heed me, brave one. Heed me! Come back, come back, come back!
"I need you."
Whether the words are voiced aloud or only thought, merely a shield against the pain that ravages her impure heart, she neither knows nor cares. She sobs and cries and loves, loves with all her pain and her want and her need and her uselessness. She longs to be alone, eternally alone, cloistered forever within a prison of marble walls, never to see the light of day or candle or sun (there's another pain, a different pain, an older pain, a forever pain) or even to feel the moonlight bathe her face. Perhaps then she cannot be hurt anymore.
She longs for death, for an end to this cycle, for an end to forever.
Number the stars, the goddess muses bleakly. Zoë, my lost one, I loved you! I swear! Forty thousand brothers... I kissed you; I held you; I felt your breath by my side every day for three thousand years. I loved you, Princess Nightshade, more than my brother. More than forty thousand brothers! Never doubt it. Hear me!
She cries desperately, for once the little girl lost in the wilderness she appears to be.
A thousand old pains wrap a vice around the goddess's shattered heart, and a wicked voice within her whispers, how are you any different? The silver-eyed girl-goddess shudders at the realization and gazes out at the cliff. You have done it thrice before: betrayed, failed, pained... all in the name of your worthless love. What makes Zoë so different from him or her or your own brother?
She knows, deep in her heart, that love is worth naught. Even so, it is love she does, and it is love she remembers, the three—now four—imprints on her heart forever: one at childhood, one on the cusp of rebellion, one in the prime of her eternal adolescence, and one for three thousand years. I hate love. But I could never hate them.
The first was her own brother, her beloved twin. The one with the bright disposition, the dreamer, the Peter Pan, the eternal youth, her companion from birth. Never would she forget the look on his face when she had sworn her eternal maidenhood. If she had simply married him as he had wanted, defying their father and stepmother and all the court, would her life have been less painful? Sometime she entertains the thought, but in her heart she knows the truth: Phoebus betrays in his own ways. Always.
The pain of losing Orion still singes at her heart, an old wound that had never properly healed. It never would. How could her brother—her darling brother, the dearest of all her companions, her light—have betrayed her like that? How could he have thrown the hunter into the fire without any semblance of mercy? How could he have watched the son of Poseidon burn without emotion, his features aloof and the all-consuming flames washing over his marble skin? How could he have held back her screams? The cruelty and joy in her brother's eyes that day was what caused her heart to harden forever against Apollo, though the layers of ice had cracked, even thawed, over the years.
Her heart aches to remember Orion, sure and strong, a wry tilt to his brow, every inch as beautiful as the sin she could never quite commit. She still flinches from the memory of his brown eyes burning with the need and desire she could never fulfill, the trust and hope and love she could never confirm. What had she ever given Orion but a swift, painful death? He had never asked for a thing from her. The gifts of her company and her smile had been enough for him.
My almost lover, she thinks, starlight reflected in her eyes. She lays in the dry nettles on her back, arms flung out as if crucified. It is the kind of night where the stars smolder intimately, as if watching from above. The tip of her slender fingertip lifts to trace the line of the constellation. Do you know how sorry I am?
Then there was Callisto. Worse, even worse! With her own hands, she had slain the bear for a perceived betrayal, fiercely jealous over an imagined slight. Once the she-bear had been a lovely, nubile young woman, sensual and graceful. At seventeen, she had been older than most of the goddess's companions and the mysteries of blossoming femininity had danced in Callisto's jade eyes, reflected in the swell of her generous breasts and the sway of her hips. Her hair was beautiful and luxuriant, a rich shade of cinnamon, and her ready smile reassuring and lovely. How could she have believed her loyalty was for sale? The goddess drew in a single, shuddering breath of horror. No questions. No answers.
Zoë. We were supposed to be forever. Their relationship had been simple and pure: loving and being loved, eternal days defined and made memorable, soft caresses and gentle whispers of I love you before bed every night. No doubt. No pain. No insecurity.
Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? The Huntress's small, slender hands tremble on her useless blade. If only she could die and meet them all in Elysium... Not that I'd end up there. Why doesn't it end?
Sunlight tears across the sky, pink and gold burning away the tapestry of the night sky. She knows it is her brother's attempt to comfort her. She knows that he knows her better than he lets on. She knows that he loves her.
And she knows, better than he, that she can never have him, not the way she had Zoë or Callisto or even Orion's stolen kisses, time outside of time.
For she is Artemis, daughter of Zeus. Haven't you heard? His family doesn't get happy endings.
For now, she whispers a final apology and tries not to hope to die. A goddess must smile, after all, even when the stars haunt her.
"I loved you all," she whispers. "Otherwise, I would be able to forget."
She trudges back to her chariot—mourning still in her movements, each step marked by a strange hesitation rather than her typical confidence, her heart weighted with sorrow, and her ivory cheeks still glistening with the pain of farewell.
Number the stars, goddess, and there you will find your own loving cruelty.