Title: From Order, Chaos
Author: Jade Sabre
Notes: So I read the summary of the fanart "Megara: She Needs a Gyro" by steevinlove over at DeviantArt (link in my profile), and decided to fic it. Or perhaps its prequel.
That I have furthered bastardized the already bastard mythology of the film, I freely admit; I have taken the pieces I needed, acknowledged that this is an AU of Disney's AU, and put things together as I thought they might fit. My apologies to any and all fans of Greek mythology and history in general; I include myself in this apology. I also apologize to Rick Riordan, because I borrowed one of his ideas, and his meticulously researched and perfectly presented works shouldn't wallow in the mud I've made of the primordial waters.
I also shouldn't be allowed to write author's notes again, ever.
Dedication: To my dear Ariel, who showed me the picture in the first place, who not only indulges but encourages my love of all things Disney, and who is pretty much one of the strongest, sweetest people I've ever met, even when she's being sassy. Merry Christmas, dear. 3
Disclaimer: I do not own the specific iteration of the Herculean myth from which I borrowed the characters you find in this fic.
from order, chaos
It had taken a while to claw his way out of the sea of dead people, a difficulty compounded by the fact that no one really wanted to get out of the way and more souls came in by the second. He didn't know how long he'd spent lying on the cliff once he finally shook off the last desperate hand, too exhausted even to make a mental note to build a wall around the thing that not even super-strong demigods could destroy. Of course, it would have to be a clear wall, so that he could still see what was going on, but the Fates had said Plexiglas wasn't even a spark in the collective mortal consciousness and oh for Gaia's sake he was a god, wasn't he? He could just make it, mortals be damned (and damned and damned again). It might not be as good as anything they came up with, but at least he'd have something.
If he were the type to be frightened, he would worry about how long it took him to unclog his senses of the apathetic lethargy of the dead, but he'd swum the ocean and waited around and lost everything he'd ever wanted and failed to get it back too many times at this point to care. Zeus was still sending dead people to the Underworld? None of them had somehow escaped? No mortal sorcerers had asked another deity to bring anyone back from the dead? Great. Fantastic. Yet another reminder of how really indispensible he was, no, really, Hades, watching the dead swim in circles down a metaphysical toilet matters just as much as ensuring there's a sky for the sun to move across. Whatever.
All of this was besides the point. The point was that somewhere along the line as he started to think about getting up and putting some weight back into his limbs two souls floated over his head and slipped into the sea and looked familiar, though why mortals should look familiar to him was beyond his grasp. But curiosity got the better of him and he put the effort into the thought of being upright, and then he peered over the edge and watched as the souls—boys, children, one perhaps younger—made a space for themselves, their hair curly, their eyes wide open as if they'd died awake. Souls didn't really reflect the state in which their bodies had stopped; they reflected what the person had thought of themselves, when they were alive, and they lost their shape as the soul forgot who they'd been. In the deepest depths of the sea of souls they were nothing but goo, formless matter that had once represented a life with hopes and dreams and which now had nothing but existence—because mortal souls were as immortal as a god's. Mortals simply didn't have the stamina to last as long.
And why not? he wondered, looking down over the edge, though the easy answer was that Kronos had realized if he didn't drown them, the souls would overtake Olympus and start a new world order, and maybe he didn't want Hades ruling but anything was better than the malleability of a mortal soul. Gods, at least, were cast and then left to fill the mold; mortals could be anything, and that made them dangerous.
Of course it was highly doubtful that Zeus had realized this, and again Hades wished he had some—flexibility, in ruling the Underworld. If he could convince the souls to follow him—if they had realized, if anyone had realized, that he was the only one who knew anything about them—things might have been different. But the world was a system, and part of that was the sea of souls, and so he left the dead mortal boys to their slumbering fate, and went to see if anyone had bothered to feed Cerebus in his absence.
They hadn't; he found the three-headed dog gnawing on what looked like the bones of a Fury, and looked around to call for someone to bring him a steak, but of course no one was there. Pain and Panic were gone, fleeing his wrath, and as he had no particular need for them he pushed them from his mind and ran his hand through his flame, reveling in the warmth. He suspected it would be a long time before he could entirely banish the cold slick feeling of souls from his metaphorical bones, but having his flame back helped.
He left the dog to its gnawing and skimmed the vast river of souls, flying back to his central chamber and summoning up a view of Olympus. It looked fine—but then, they'd had who knew how long to get the place back up and running after his attack. And judging by the fact that Zeus hadn't sent anyone to make sure he drowned, he could be reasonably sure that he had been written off as a "punished, lesson learned" incident. It was a very Zeus thing to do; when you got right down to it, Zeus really believed all that brotherhood nonsense he spouted off. "I saved everyone for a reason," he'd say, his deep voice booming echoes of unfelt pain. "Whatever else happens, we're family."
Of course, enjoying the benefits of being in the family meant obeying the family's rules. Look at what happened to Prometheus. Almost as nasty as spending eons amidst a bunch of humans' disappearing dreams, he thought, checking that the Titan was still safely chained to his rock. The vultures flew away when he approached, settling on Tityos's stomach, and there was Sisyphus's boulder making its way up the only hill in all of Tartarus. There was also a giant pit that he normally avoided—speaking of family—but he figured he ought to check, and so he went and stood on its edge and looked down, down, down, striving to see beyond mortal or divine sight despite the fact that the whole point of this prison was that no one, not even a Titan, could see a way out of it. He'd explored its depths once, back when he'd first found himself trapped underground with nothing else to do, but he was always careful to keep the metaphorical light in sight. No other sense could be trusted; sounds echoed off walls with a madman's design in mind. For now, the pit was silent; if his father sensed his presence, he chose not to make any comments, and it was with an equally silent relief that he left the pit and went to the shore, and discovered Charon waiting for him.
"Oh," he said. "You."
The decrepit old…thing, all stringy beard and skin stretched over bone, bowed. "Where would Master like to go today?"
Pure formality, of course, but it was nice to hear someone address him with something like respect. "Oh, the usual tour," he said, settling himself in the boat, summoning up a martini and leaning back as the boatmaster dipped his oar in the water and pushed away from the shore. Charon seemed happy enough to have him back, not that he had had anyone to ferry in his absence—you only got the ferry if you were going some place nice when you died, and that rarely happened. Generally, the Underworld consisted of Charon, his master, a handful of people and gods suffering eternal torment, and a whole lot of primordial goo in more-or-less distinct soul shapes; and frankly, Hades hated it.
It was Cerebus who told him he had a visitor, although not in the usual way. There wasn't much to arrange in the Underworld—no paperwork, very few prayers sent directly his way—but he was tidying up the place by hand, because doing it by hand took up time that otherwise would be spent counting the space between seconds until he could search out someone to talk to, when he noticed a sound. He stopped scrubbing ectoplasm and listened, hearing everything happening in his realm until he found the sound that bothered him—Cerebus, chewing contentedly, on what?
He chose not to use Charon, preferring stealth to make his way to the entrance of the Underworld—and what he saw would have taken his breath away. If he'd had breath.
This, he told himself sternly, was why one should never make deals with mortals.
Her hair hung down her back in unwashed clumps; her pale robes were in tatters, her face bruised, her hands bloody from carrying whatever animal Cerebus now devoured as she scratched behind one of his ears. The monster had always liked her.
He watched them, the jaded traitor and the tamed beast, looking at the subtle changes time had brought to her face: plumped cheeks still round, if thinner; curves softened, heavier; and if he bothered to look closely, lines trailing from the corners of her eyes and her lips. If he bothered to look closely, he could see her soul, bright and free; he could trace every change in its form, perhaps even see the markings her bondage had left, but he did not bother to look, because while her mortal flesh was easy to ignore, her essence was not. No matter that it was made of the same stuff he'd been swimming in for years. Something about Megara was different, and it did not do to dwell on the differences between mortals.
"Well, well, well," he said, landing on the ground several paces away from the pair, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. "What have we here?"
Cerebus's ears flattened against his skulls, though each of his three jaws continued to chew on whatever she had brought; she turned and said, in a voice striving to be as dead as the souls off the shore, "Hades. It's been a long time."
Her tone may have been flat, but it was full of a quality the Underworld fundamentally lacked, one he hadn't heard since a well-aimed fist landed him amongst its denizens, as seductive as her soul, no matter how she meant it to sound. He stopped listening. "Well, you know, down here, we have all the time in the world, so whatever—"
"I'm here to make a deal," she said, and the Muses couldn't have sung a sweeter tune.
He stared for a moment, his quick-talking skills momentarily stunned. "You're here to what?" he said. "I'm probably shooting myself in the foot here, but are you serious?"
"As an earthquake in Athens," she said.
"Oh, really." The obvious question came to mind. "And what does Wonderboy think of this?"
They looked at each other then, and her eyes were tired and hard and alive and then she said, "I'm going to get him back."
"So, wait." He rubbed his forehead. "You want me to help you get back the guy who singlehandedly stopped my takeover of the cosmos?" He glanced at her from under his hand; she was nodding. "Seriously?"
"Because," she said, and Gaia help him—Gaia would just as soon laugh in his face—she was serious, leaning forward, daring to look him straight in the face, "you and I have something in common."
"Oh?" He pushed off the wall and floated closer, until she had to tilt her head up to look at him. Nearness did not affect him; if he'd wanted to, he could have floated straight through her, and she would have been nary the wiser.
Judging from the neutrality of her expression, it didn't affect her either. "Olympus," she said. "You have enemies there. So do I."
"You hate Zeus," and hate was a mild term compared to the all-consuming pain and bitterness that had haunted his steps for centuries, but he let it pass; she did the best her mortal tongue could do. "I hate Hero. We find Hercules, we hurt Hera, we hurt Zeus. Sound good?"
"I don't follow."
He laughed, and she took a step backwards, though her determination didn't waver. He could feel it rolling off her in waves; he could make himself immune to physical sensation, but metaphysical feeling was as powerful as the splash of cold water at high tide. "Look," he said, "not to burst your bubble of joy or anything, but I just got out of an extremely long bath, so to speak, and I don't think making a pass at Zeus's wife is really the way to get back into—"
"You can blame it all on me," she said. "I won't tell them who helped me."
"You're serious." She didn't bother to nod. He took in her appearance once more, and finally said, "Am I the first person you're asking?"
"No," she said. "I told Phil I wanted to go after H—him," and she stumbled, as though nearly saying his name from habit was a sin she didn't dare commit, "and he told me he didn't train women because there aren't any female heroes, though he was nice enough to say that I was the closest he'd ever seen, fat lot of good that did me. Artemis only deals with virgins, and I haven't been one of those since I was twelve, so she's out, and I went to talk to the Amazons and they were excited until they found out I wanted to rescue a man, and I nearly died trying to get away and thought, hey, haven't visited the Underworld in a while, why not go back?" She reached out and scratched one of Cerebus's heads, right above the nose, and he made the deep giant-three-headed-dog sound equivalent to a happy growl; Hades glared at him. "Love what you've done with the place."
"Oh yeah, you know, eternally dark, and you can't get rid of the mildew, and what, you're just going to sell your soul—"
"No," she said. The word brought a flush to her cheeks, her hands clenching into fists. "We'll be partners."
"Partners." He had to laugh. He'd forgotten how funny mortals could be. "In case you haven't noticed, I work alone."
"And how's that been going for you?"
And it wasn't even true—he'd had her and Pain and Panic and various allies, though he'd been the one in charge; more servants than allies, yes, but he'd needed people on his side to try to carry it off. (It was supremely unfair that his gathered forces could be single-handedly defeated, but such were the Fates.) But she had seen how he ran his operation, and she'd watched as he fell—well, she hadn't watched, she'd been dead by then, but it had been all her fault, and now she was mocking him, and he couldn't just dodge the half-truth with one of his own. "Not great, but—look, I'm the Lord of the Underworld. Solo's sort of my schtick, you know, no one really wants to work with you, and it's not like there's even enough things for two to do, there's a lot of sitting around doing nothing—"
"So you're just going to hide here until you figure it's safe to go out and see if anyone still wants to talk to you?" She rolled her eyes at him. He was certain she was the only being—mortal or immortal—who had ever done so, but it was such an automatic gesture he'd never thought to comment on it. She was Meg. She rolled her eyes at the world, and the world fell to its knees and apologized for presuming her to be an idiot. "Look, I'll do whatever you want, if you help me. But I don't own you and you don't own me. We're equals."
Eye-rolling or not, that was going too far. A mortal and a god, equals. "Are you nuts?" He wasn't going to get involved in that kind of cosmos-rearranging. "Forget it. I'm not your man."
"No," she said, with a wry smile, tinged with admittance, and before he could turn his back on her and forget her existence with a wave of his hand, she said, "You're my god."
He was doomed and she was damned, but they were standing together in the Underworld and those terms lost their meaning once you'd already sunk as low as you could go. "I'll think about it," he said.
She crossed her arms, though she lost some of her composure when Cerebus nosed her, looking for a treat and nearly knocking her off her feet. "Take your time," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Fine," he said, spreading his arms wide and floating back across the sea, shutting out the slosh of souls and their quiet keening and even the sultry sound of her voice, waiting until she was a speck on the shore (a burning beacon of life), "make yourself at home."
He didn't know how she managed to bribe Charon, but one moment he was standing over the whirlpool of souls wringing out a rag, and the next he returned to his central chamber to find her sitting in the corner, a black sheet wrapped around herself while she meticulously ripped apart the tattered shreds of her robe. He watched for a moment, then shrugged and went back to scrubbing the wall. She was silent, but the room echoed with her breathing, and without any other minions to hide the basic paradox of life in the Underworld he found the edges of his temper fraying, his fingers catching fire without a thought. Even if he closed himself to the sound, she was still there, her chest rising and falling with every breath, her fingers tugging on fabric; his rag burned to ash without his noticing, and then he was left without a reason to be in the chamber.
So he took Charon for a tour of the rivers of Hell, and unclogged a backup where Lethe met the Kokytus and too many souls were caught between wailing and forgetting why they wailed; their keening penetrated every level of his sensory input, and he satisfied himself with blasting fireballs until they all fell silent and resumed drifting along the current towards their unseen destination. He sailed around the Elysian Fields, pulling a few intrepid souls off its shores and back into the water. He made a few wisecracks, but Charon was deaf and hadn't had a sense of humor even when he could hear. He was bored, but there was nothing else to do; with a sigh, he made himself another rag, and went back to the center of the Underworld.
She'd brought food with her, and he wondered if it was because she'd expected him not to agree right away. It was a strangely familiar sight; he'd repeatedly offered her the most tempting fruits his garden had to offer, and she'd repeatedly refused, preferring to munch on weeks-old bread while he tested the limits of her hunger before allowing her back to the surface. Now she sat in her corner, gnawing on dried meat as she arranged cloth on the floor, using a bone as a needle, and carefully stitching her robe into something new.
He made a half-hearted attempt to scrub at the floor, but they both knew he was watching her; he refused to be the one to break the silence. So instead he summoned up the old chessboard, and looked at the broken pieces that remained, and she said, "What's your problem, anyway?"
"What, you mean the part where it's impossible to find any dead people who care about personal hygiene?"
"No." She glanced up at him, and then back at her work. "I mean your whole problem with Zeus. What'd he do to you?"
And surely she knew the story—although who knew how the mortals chose to tell it; they knew which side their pita was oiled during life, and probably didn't want to anger the deity who could strike them with lightning at any moment (did they care about their eternal afterlife? Oh, no; at that point, it was beyond their control, right?). But the whole time he'd had her running errands and seducing centaurs for his benefit, she'd never asked. No one had ever asked, and he knew he wasn't thinking clearly in wanting to answer, but it had been so long since he'd had a conversation with anyone, living or dead, and he'd always talked faster than he could think. (Technically impossible, for a god; he knew all the words ahead of time, but that didn't mean he bothered to dwell on them.)
"Oh, nothing much, just handed me the Underworld on a spit-shined platter and said, 'Hey big brother, here you go, enjoy!' without so much as a hey-you-want-this? I mean, we'd only been out of Dad's stomach for what, five seconds, and it's not like we had in say in which of us got swallowed and which of us got exchanged for a rock, and what, do people think I just loved sitting in Dad's stomach?" He worked his jaw, the sour taste of acid rising from the place where it sat stewing in his core, never-quite gone. "Poseidon's the one who got too used to the juices—they went to his head, right, but I just wanted some fresh air, but there's only three kingdoms and Fishboy jumped into the ocean and refused to come out again and next thing you know boom I'm in the underworld surrounded by dead people who're upset with the new management and I'm not even the one who forced the old boss into an early retirement but they don't know that, they're dead! So I'm like, hey, Zeus, can we work out a deal here, switch it up, you spend half the year down here, but next thing you know he's built Olympus and Hera'll just have a fit if he asks her to move and—"
"She seems prone to those." He stopped mid-step—when had he started pacing?—and looked at her wry expression. "Does it run in the family?"
He snorted flame, red and angry, and said, "She spent the entire time whining about it being dark and icky and latched onto Zeusy before she'd stopped dripping acid on the floor. So, she's never going to come down here, she's never going to let Zeus out of her sight, he's a wimp, and meanwhile it's still dark and there's not a strong enough air freshener in the world to make this place smell less like dead people."
"Funny, I always thought it reeked of despair," she said, still dry. "A little eau de hopelessness to help you start your morning."
"You're the one who bathed in the stuff, babe," and she flinched, and it was an empty sort of pleasure, taking comfort in familiarity rather than in any real enjoyment. Her eyes went back to the cloth in her lap. He stood and looked at her; her soul writhed, pain and sorrow and despair dragging at the possibility of eternal youth, but he was the god of the dead, and he had an appreciation for decay.
She won out, of course; she always recovered from the cruelest of barbs. He'd yet to see anything cut deep enough to break whatever-it-was that set her apart. Her voice was steady as she said, "So, a hostile takeover bid was your only option?"
"You got any better ideas for getting out of here?" He shrugged. "Look, an opportunity presented itself, I merely took advantage of it. Besides, I didn't wake up all the Titans. Just a couple." There were a few who were caged and would stay caged, but there was no need to tell a mortal about the fears of a god.
"People still got hurt."
"Sheesh. You've been with Wonderboy too long."
"You're probably right," she said. "Going soft in my old age. Soon I'll be feeble and feeding feta crumbs to pigeons, just you watch."
He doubted it. Anyone living with the strength and fortitude to walk into the Underworld as if they owned it (and maybe she did, but that was a disturbing thought best not dwelt on) was neither soft nor feeble, and anyway the thought of Meg ever reaching that stage was impossible. She'd die first (and then what? But he wasn't dwelling on it). "So what's your deal this time?" he said, distracting himself.
"You're not here bargaining for anyone's life," he said, "you've got your freedom, so no need to persuade me to give it to you, Wonderboy's gone—"
"Oh," she said. She kept her eyes on her work, though it seemed she pulled on her needle with more force than necessary. "Overbearing mother-in-law, homicidal husband, dead children." She shrugged, and nearly stabbed herself with the needle. "I'm sure you've heard it before."
Probably, not that he'd ever actually bothered to talk to the souls moaning their way through his kingdom. "Children?"
"I said dead," she said, and there was the pain again, wrapping itself around her soul and doing its best to squeeze the life out of her—but he also saw rage, cool and blue, its fire burning in her eyes when she raised her head to look at him, and he knew that she knew that she would survive, and be the stronger for it. "Are you going to help me or not?"
"Sure," he said. She didn't smile, but he knew what she felt; to escape the tide of emotion, he left the room. "Try not to get your mortal dirt on my furniture."
The Underworld was dark.
It had been the first thing he'd really noticed; he'd barely had time to be blinded by the sun before descending into hell with instructions to "make yourself at home. Maybe you could liven the place up a bit!" Zeus had paused, taking a minute to process his own joke, and then laughed uproariously; that had been the first moment Hades knew he hated his brother.
So he'd wandered around, staring into the rivers and observing how the waters of death muted the light of even the strongest soul and snuffed many of the weaker ones. He'd expanded to fill the entire space, seeking the upper limits, not quite daring to test the lower ones, memorizing his domain's dimensions in an instant. He hadn't needed to be anything other than himself. There wasn't anyone to talk to—not even another god—and with the dark and the wet he almost thought he'd dreamed the rescue and was in fact still slowly dissolving and if he made a quantum leap or two he'd bump into Hera and she'd make a disgruntled snapping noise and send him on his way. If it wasn't for the brief but perfectly preserved memory of air and infinite space and something akin to freedom, he would have returned to slumbering away his existence.
And then he'd discovered the Elysian Fields, set apart and brighter, less stale, though only a mere approximation of what the mortal world was like, and curiosity got the better of him. To explore it properly, he would need physical senses; for physical senses, he needed a physical form. The only sense he'd ever experienced before was pain, acid and suffocation and bile and his sister's frightened screams, and so it was with some trepidation that he gave himself a shell, as it were, squeezing himself into a shape that sort of resembled the souls he'd looked at, arms and a clothed lower half and a head and eyes and suddenly where before he had simply been aware of the darkness, now he couldn't see at all. And he was cold, freezing straight through his skin, and he'd thought to himself fire, and then it was burning in his hands, pleasingly warm.
He didn't know how Meg could stand it. Sure, when he'd first bought her soul, he'd given her some measure of protection in his realm, but she'd also been caught between heaven and hell at that point and didn't quite belong to the rules of the mortal world. He had a choice, after all, whether or not he wanted to experience the Underworld as mortals did, and even then he had his fire—over time it had simply become part of him, permanently hot and conveniently lighting his way. She shouldn't have had heat or illumination—mortal eyes couldn't see souls the way his did, catching glimpses of murky green reflections and missing the pure light—but she made her way around the central chambers as easily as if she'd been there a thousand times before, her makeshift robes blending in with the stone nearly as well as his did.
(He'd picked his robes in a panic, after a period of time spent staring into the Styx, when he looked up and realized that thousands and thousands of souls had been collecting on the opposite bank without any way of transporting themselves to the other side. He'd needed to be wearing something when he addressed his new subjects, and the only inspiration was the stone around him. They became as much a part of him as the flames and the grey skin—better to blend with your surroundings than stand out; the only place he didn't seem to belong was Olympus, where Zeus had let Hera decorate with whatever garish color schemes struck her fancy. He preferred muted, dark colors, because they were subtle and because they were hard to find and yet even they were brilliant compared to his surroundings.)
She hadn't been so comfortable the first time he'd let her stand on the other side of the Styx. He'd never allowed her into the central chambers, but he'd brought her down to the banks of the Styx and then pointed out the souls in the river and watched her face as she saw her fate rushing before her eyes. She'd been young, then, barely a woman, her eyes still red and her nose still dripping from when he'd come to her, sobbing on the bedroom floor as the man she'd saved walked out the door without so much as a thank you kindly.
It had been one of his more brilliant plans, almost an after-thought dropped amongst the alliances and rituals necessary for releasing the Titans and capturing Olympus. He'd heard the violent shrieking prayers of a mortal who would do anything, anything, if he would save the other mortal they loved; he'd decided to investigate, and found a girl with flushed cheeks and kiss-darkened lips standing on a river bank while its god drowned her lover, a forgettable man by any standard but hers. It was, if he cared to admit it, the flush of her cheeks that caught his attention, caused him to step forward and interrupt the drowning for the chance to study her; she looked warm, and when she saw him she met his gaze with fury and demands on her tongue and her essence blazed out at him. Freeing her boyfriend was an easy task, hardly worth a soul—no mere river god wanted to anger the god of the Underworld, so it only took a few words, worth a sacrificial goat, perhaps roasted over a nice bonfire—but she gave it without hesitation, sealed the deal, her mind apparently failing to grasp that the pleasure of having her lover back in her arms would be a brief flash compared to the eternity of servitude that awaited her. Or perhaps she did, but thought it was worth it, rather like her boyfriend thought it would be worth walking out to find something better, because life had to be lived for happiness because you certainly weren't going to find it in a river of death, not that mortals had ever really figured out what happiness was but hey, he wasn't going to judge. Well, he would—but everyone ended up in the same place, eventually.
He'd left them there for the time being and mostly forgotten about her, and he didn't know whether or not she could feel the chains wrapped around her very being but whenever he did bother to check she seemed fine. And then came the day he simply could not convince a bunch of satyrs to leave their forest so that he could settle a few of his centaurs there, and he couldn't burn the place down because then they'd just complain to Zeus and he'd be punished, one way or another, and he remembered that he had a mortal female at his beck and call. Satyrs liked females. It was a simple equation, though he'd never really bothered to cash in on his souls while they were still living; the dead ones were good for scrubbing the floor of the Underworld, but the living ones were usually too stupid to be of any use in the mortal world. But he remembered that this mortal had seemed less stupid, or at least more awarewhen she had given away her soul for the sake of someone else, and so he went to her. When he appeared in her kitchen (they'd settled down together, and she was keeping house, and it seemed such a waste, all that brightness in such a cramped and dim setting) she had done a very curious thing:
She had refused to go.
He was so surprised he burned down the house without a second thought and left. She survived, of course; she was protected from his rage even before she learned to duck. It hadn't taken too long after that freak accident for her boyfriend's gaze to start to wander; she'd always been more woman than he could handle, and now she was setting the house on fire, and Hades was poised to curl into her bedroom like smoke and whisper in her ear hello, sweetheart, time to pay up.
And so he'd brought her to the Styx and she had stared into the river and it was so deliciously ironic that he couldn't resist saying, "Hey, doesn't this look familiar?"
"I hate you," she'd said.
"Join the club, I hear they've got free togas this time of year." She'd shivered, and he'd leaned down and said, "Cold?" right in her ear, and for the first time he'd had a sense of the natural heat of mortal flesh—
"So I'm your slave," she'd said, jerking away and giving him what he would eventually learn was the arch expression she used when she was afraid and angry and yet supremely unconcerned with what he might think. "What's my first gig?"
"Satyrs," he'd said. "If you could convince them to find…greener pastures, as it were."
She'd rolled her eyes and said, "Guess I better make myself look pretty, then," as if she hadn't been standing right next to a river full of dead souls who would have happily pointed out that looks simply don't matter when you're dead, and when your soul belongs to the Lord of the Underworld, you're basically dead. Everyone knew that but her—or maybe she knew and saw straight through his bluff. Maybe she'd realized she'd survived the fire without a scratch. Maybe she'd thought eternal youth was part of the deal. "You got anything for that?"
"Black, black, and more black," he'd said. She was straight and to the point and had to obey his every whim, and he was finding that he liked it.
"No thanks," she'd said, turning her back on him and walking towards the entrance to the Underworld, not that she'd make it there anytime soon without his assistance, "but I'll try to match."
The only object of color he had in the entire Underworld was a bottle of never-ending alcohol straight from Dionysus's presses, mostly usefully for when he was really angry and looking to make a tremendous explosion. Meg always wore purple and her lips were wine-red. It was only coincidence.
He found her again on the banks of the Styx, throwing pebbles at Cerebus. She was kinder than Charon; she only threw one pebble at a time, thus preventing the beast from nearly tearing itself in two trying to pick a target. She glanced at him as he appeared, and then went back to her game. Her throws weren't particularly enthusiastic, but Cerebus enjoyed it, and he could see the calm working its way through her.
"You know what you're throwing, right?" he said, summoning up a deck chair and a martini for show more than anything else.
"Hopes and dreams?" she said, rolling a rock between her palms. It crumbled to dust.
"Eh, deathbed wishes, but close enough," he said, slurping at his tasteless drink. "You really shouldn't make a habit of wandering around the Underworld unsupervised. There's a lot of dangerous stuff down here, places for you to trip, and you definitely don't want to drink the water—"
"I'm not afraid," she said dryly. "I've been here both ways. What's left?"
"There's a rock just waiting to be rolled up a hill," he said. "Eagles eating at your liver, eternally. Chocolate, just out of reach—everything you've ever wanted turning to ash beneath your fingertips—"
"I've already lost everything I've ever wanted," she said. "That's why I'm here."
"Dramatic as always," he said, but she didn't return his grin. "What brings you to the scenic beaches of the Styx? No real waves, definitely not the sun—"
"I came here to make a deal," she said. From the other bank, Cerebus whined; she threw him another stone without looking. "I hear this is the best place to seal them."
"You want me to swear on the Styx?" He recoiled from the thought. He'd seen enough other gods ruin themselves with such promises, never mind the mortal maids for whom they swore to move heaven and earth by a river that trapped people within its boundaries. He hadn't even made her swear on it the first time she sold her soul; but then, in his realm, souls were more easily grasped than ideals and actions. "Are you crazy?"
"Are you in this or not?"
"I said I was," he said. "I gave my word, sweetcheeks. What more do you want?"
"Thanks," she said, "but I've learned not to trust deals from gods."
He rolled his eyes. "Olympians, sure, but I'm not really a deal-breaker, myself. Why bother? Everyone'll come back here eventually."
"So why care either way?" she said, and he laughed.
"Meg," he said, and part of him savored the way her name tasted, tangled the connection of name to soul as if by saying it he could bind the two together and save her from—well, he had a point to make, "you don't actually think they care?"
She stood there, draped in black cloth, her skin the palest shade outside the depths of the soul-infested waters, her violet eyes the only vibrant color in his entire realm, and she had the audacity to look unaffected, and beneath that, brave; she feared neither him nor his domain, and perhaps it was simply because there was still breath in her body and light in her soul; and so he took it upon himself to explain.
"Meg," he said again, and in a moment he was before her, around her, not quite daring to touch her cheeks, acutely aware of the way her eyes tracked his movements, "you're in the Underworld. Living—if you'll pardon the phrase—proof of Olympus's basic inability to remember anything about you mortals."
"There are options, you know. Most mortals go straight into the slimy soup but hey, if Zeus finds somebody he likes, they go to the Elysian Fields. Nice place. Almost sunny sometimes, and you can't really hear the screams," as if on cue, someone wailed from the river's general direction, "from there, and oh, right, you get to remember who you are, and anyone can pop in for a nice chat, maybe a symposium—I mean, you're dead, so the wine doesn't do much for the conversation, if you know what I mean, but I've never heard anyone complain about it."
"Really." But he saw the hunger in her eyes; saw shiny-smooth places in her soul where she remembered forgetting, if she couldn't quite recall what she'd lost.
"Well, except Olympus keeps electing idiots who can't string two words together and forgetting all the rest. You wouldn't believe how many girls I've got down here saying oh, but Zeus or Apollo or Hermes—he gets around more than people realize, it's the speed—anyway, they promise these girls eternal glory and riches, but they never sent me the memo and they don't show up in thirty days and once you're judged, that's it!" He inspected his fingers; he didn't need to look at her to feel the anger simmering again, and he didn't want to think about the familiar echoes he felt in himself. "No one else thinks about mortals, after they're dead. They just send them down to me and forget about them. Let's face it: you're only interesting when you're alive."
A half-formed hand groped blindly about on the bank; he shot a flame at it, and it recoiled back into the river. He grinned. She crossed her arms and said, "Hercules is different."
He'd forgotten how much he hated hearing about Wonderboy, how much any mention of the kid's name filled him with a Zeus-level rage—like father, like son (he wouldn't know; his father had been thrown into Tartarus before they ever had a chance to properly meet, and he'd never had a son), and it irked him to see mortals just as enamored of their freakishly strong demigod as they were of his divine progenitor. It especially irked him to hear Meg buying into the myth.
"—promised godhood at his death. He'll—"
"What, go up to Olympus, and join his mommy, and remember you?" He couldn't not laugh. "He'll have the whole cosmos in his head! By the time he's sorted that out you'll be nothing but the small speck of warmth that used to be the memory of a smile."
It was nothing less than the truth—he'd seen it happen more times than he could count. And he wasn't cruel—at least, he didn't think of himself as cruel—but he was the lord of Death, and death tended to bring out people's worst fears, and he watched as her soul curled in on itself in denial. "He wouldn't—"
"Oh, because his mother, who, by the way, absolutely hates you for taking her baby boy back to the mortal world—" and he hadn't known that for sure, but it was such a Hera-like thing to do, and anyway Meg's expression confirmed it "—isn't going to make sure it happens? He'll spend the rest of his days seducing mortal women and wondering how he, omniscient and omnipotent, could have the feeling of having forgotten something."
"He's not omnipotent," she said, with shades of old arguments in her voice.
"Or omniscient, but it always takes the new guys a few millennia to sort that out." She did flinch at that, and he resisted the urge to—what, pat her on the head and say it would be all right? Lord of Death, not of Comforting The Mourning. "Hey, babe, at least it won't be intentional, right?"
And she looked at him, and he'd been expecting something like pure venom or hatred or anger and instead she was resigned, and her soul was curious. He called up another martini and sipped it and finally said, "What?" when her stare became—well, not too much, because he was a god and the gaze of mere mortals wasn't enough to—
"What about me?" he said around the drink. Apples, he thought, and the taste came but too sweet and he was going for tangy—
And then she was Meg, hand-on-swung-out-hip and lips turned up in a sweet sneer of a smile and eyes alight with a challenge, and she said, "Do you ever feel there's something you've forgotten?"
And for a moment he was fully settled into the form he'd assumed, jaw dropped, wrist slack and nearly spilling his drink, the obvious answer on the tip of his tongue, and warm; but she couldn't see that, and so he tossed back the drink and refused to feel anything and said, "I told you, I had all the time in the world—literally—to work it out in Dad's stomach."
"I just haven't met anyone worth remembering." Before she could reply, he threw aside the martini glass; it dissipated as soon as he forgot about it. "What's so big about this, anyway? So Wonderbreath left you, boo-hoo, you've survived that before, your kids are dead, kids are like the number one customer down here, not much of a surprise—" The light in her eyes was murderous, but what did he fear? "—so, really, what's going on that you want to swear on the Styx?"
"Oh, right, because I should just trust that a coward like you won't turn tail and run at the slightest hint of displeasure from Olympus." He saw sweat beading on her brow from the increased heat of his flame, but there were sparks in her eyes and she kept going. "You can't afford to anger them again."
"What do you know of the gods?"
"Plenty," she said. "No one—mortal or god—bothers to hide things from their pets."
He could, if he wanted to, know exactly how many times he'd called her pet (as opposed to sweet or darling or sugar or pocket pita stuffed with extra olives). He didn't want to know.
"So," she said, "forgive me if I don't think you're just going to help me waltz up the mountain and—"
"Whoa, whoa," he said. "Who said anything about storming Olympus? I thought you just wanted your boyfriend back."
"He's my husband," she said, and then her shoulders sagged and she sighed. "Look," she said, "if I tell you the story, you have to swear you'll help me."
"Do you want me to swear that I'll swear on the river too?" She glared at him. "So, should I pull up a chair? Is this going to be a long list of everything—"
"Hera put a rage on him."
Hades thought about his sister, and her rages, and waited. "I don't know why—something about the boys—he's always so careful with them, because they're so little and he's so strong but he doesn't realize how delicate he can—" She stopped before he had to say anything, and glanced at him with amusement on the corners of her lips. "But they were just children, and mortal children wouldn't be able to go to Olympus and face the gods. They just…can't." He privately thought that with their parents—a demigod and a woman who'd been little more than a girl herself the first time she came into the presence of a god—they would have been just fine. "And Hera was furious, of course, accused me of not wanting her grandchildren to know their heritage—I just don't understand," she burst out, suddenly, her hands clenched into fists and pressed against the sides of her head.
"You're not supposed to," he said, and when she leveled her glare upon him again, he shrugged. "Mortal and ignorant, remember?"
"You're not omniscient," she countered.
He rolled his eyes. "So Hera got angry—"
"—and put a rage on him and he killed the boys." She blinked, but if she had tears in her eyes, they didn't fall. "He picked the youngest up and threw him against the wall, and he pushed me aside when I tried to stop him from wringing the oldest's neck—"
"Do they have names?"
She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, "They've forgotten them by now."
It wasn't a question, so he didn't bother to nod.
"So I hit the wall and passed out, and when I woke up, my sons were dead, and my husband was gone." Her lips curved wryly, without mirth. "The neighbors disapproved, but they told me he'd gone into the town square sobbing and sworn to leave and never return, and he's doing a very good job of it."
"And you want him back," he said.
"What he did wasn't his fault. I'd be the first to admit you can't help what a god makes you do."
You could, he thought, watching the only being who'd ever told him no and gotten off without even so much as a scorch on their toga. "But that's not what you really want," he said, watching her face for a twitch and her soul for ripples in the pain she refused to allow to consume her. "You'll just look at him and remember that time he killed your kids and hey, wasn't that awful. The word you're looking for, sweetcheeks, is revenge."
"Is it," she said, her eyes tracking him as he came closer, swirled around her.
"You want Hera to suffer as much as you've suffered," he said. "You want to make her hurt." She didn't nod, but there was a dark light in her soul. "You do realize you're mortal, right?"
"That's why I need you," she said. "You said you would help. Swear it."
Meg was hurting and Meg was defiant and Meg would capture hell to storm heaven; it was the very least he could do, handing her the keys. "All right," he said, his grin pointy and insincere, "I swear upon the Styx that I'll help you get your revenge on Hera."
Words such as those were not spoken without ripples, and he felt the promise wrap itself around his essence, the strength of an unending river of primordial stuff flowing over and around him, folding him in its depths, binding him to her.
Of course, it would come full circle like this.
"So," he said, and it felt like an eternity but might have been a mere second; time was not his strength, "what's the plan?"
"Hm?" She was staring into the river, and he thought he knew what she was searching for; he could direct the currents, if he so chose, but he did not.
"The plan? The big idea? How do you actually plan on getting revenge? What're you going to do, kill her?"
"I don't know," she said. "Haven't gotten that far. But that's for me to figure out. You just need to find—him."
"What, am I supposed to wander all over the earth—which, strictly speaking, I'm not supposed to do—"
"Never stopped you in the past."
"Zeus wasn't paying attention in the past, but you can bet if I show my head aboveground I'd better have some excuses planned, and I haven't quite worked those out yet." He rubbed his forehead. "And what will you be doing? Gathering an army to march on Olympus?"
"You're the expert on that," she said. "I don't want Olympus. I just want her to pay."
He rolled his eyes. "Yes, I got that. But how, exactly?"
She finally tore her gaze from the river and gave him a measuring look; he waited for the sparks in her mind to fly, and she finally said, "What would she hate the most?"
"What, am I an expert?" He knew the answer immediately; really, it was the same for any of them, and they wondered why he hated his job. "Being prisoner. Captive. Trapped somewhere wet and dark, away from her precious Zeusy."
"All right," she said. "I'll kidnap her and bring her here."
He stared at her, and her eyes laughed at him; he looked beneath that, and her soul was fixed, sorrow and pain and anger focused into a point, a steel blade waiting for temperance. "Are you nuts?" he said, although at this point—a mortal rolling her eyes at a god, a god sworn to a mortal against another god, a mother descending to the depths of hell not for her children's souls but for revenge, and a god only too happy to see her—crazy was a bit of an understatement. "And what exactly do you think Zeus will—"
"You get Hercules," her voice passed evenly over his name, "to un-exile himself, and Zeus'll forgive you anything. Besides, it's not like you knew I'd be kidnapping his wife and taking her down here. I know my way around from the old days." She grinned at him, but she had the decency not to be sweet about it. "Just like old times! You chumming it up while I do all the dirty work."
"So what, you want me to deliver Jerkules over to his jerk father? I thought—"
"I don't know if I'll ever get my husband back," she said, and her gaze was steady. "I don't know if I want him back—"
"Will you make up your mind?"
"—but he doesn't deserve to be separated from everything else he cares about." There was a glare in her feral smile. "Besides, you said once he's a god he won't care about anything anyway."
It was true, truer than she realized, otherwise she wouldn't be so blasé about saying it; he searched her soul for love, but he'd never really known what it looked like and if it was there she was doing a fantastic job of hiding it from sight. "All right," he said finally. "We'll try it. You'll need help if you want to abduct her. Allies."
"I'll get them."
"It won't be easy to reach all of them," he said. "We're talking mortal danger on a regular basis, not to mention the ones that live places mortals can't even go without being roasted, and you're not exactly the typical paragon."
She acknowledged this with an impatient nod. "So what can you give me?"
He thought about this for a moment, then waved towards the river and said, "Behind door number one…"
"The river of death? A little hard to carry around, don't you think?"
"Look," he said, "if you really want to fight a goddess, you're going to have to look a little better than you do now."
She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow because she was Meg and couldn't take anything at face value. "What, are you going to order me a new wardrobe? I'm sorry, I didn't know you had weavers in hell."
"Cute," he said, scowling; he snapped his fingers, and they were precariously close to the river's edge. He hadn't bothered with legs in years, and didn't notice; she nearly lost her footing, and he caught her arms and pulled her upright, holding her while she steadied herself. When she finally looked up from her feet, he jerked his head in the direction of the water and said, "Bath time."
"You want me to bathe in a river of death?"
"Dead people, not death," he said. "Haven't you ever heard of Achilles?"
"Isn't he dead?" He felt his flames turning red, and her lips pursed in a smirk.
"He's dead because an arrow found the one spot that didn't get dunked in the water. You want to be invincible or not?"
"Invincible, huh?" She glanced at the river. "You sure about that?"
"What's the catch?"
He shrugged. "You pick a place that doesn't get dunked. Wouldn't be fair for a hero not to have a weakness."
"I'm not sure I count," she said. "You planning on letting go anytime soon?"
He hadn't noticed he was still holding on. She rubbed her arms where his hands had been—had he been so stupid as to have her practically in his arms, without so much as the barest sensation? That's what came of noble impulses.
She was looking at the river, anyway, and finally she said, "So do I just…walk in?"
"You picked your spot?"
"Yes," she said, placing a hand in the middle of her chest. He reached out—not on a physical level; the Styx flowed in all dimensions, and he could take hold of her in a place she'd never realize existed, let alone feel. That she twitched must have been an accident.
"So walk," he said, and she did, grimacing as her feet touched water—cold water, but she was warm, and alive, she'd survive—and then she waded in waist-deep, took a breath, and slipped beneath the surface. He tightened his grip, and waited, aware of the death-and-not-death of the water and the slippery oily ooze of not-mortal mortal soul stuff as it tried to penetrate his shield, trying to sink into her every pore and thus turn her into itself. Flesh and blood would dissipate and soul—what was one more shining light in an ocean that glowed?
He scowled, and yanked her out. She came onto the shore coughing, her hair oddly slick, sticking to her bare skin. She brought up a hand to cover her mouth, but as soon as she felt the ooze which covered her she jerked away, rubbing her hand compulsively on the shore. He watched for a moment, and then called up a wave to wash it all away; she was left dry, standing on the shore on shaky legs, and he waited for her response.
"That was…unpleasant," she said.
His response was to throw fire at her—not his hottest, and certainly not with all the force he had at his command, but her soul no longer belonged to him and thus she no longer shared his skin. She stumbled back and fell, but when the fire dissipated she was still sitting and breathing, her skin still smooth and perfect.
"Huh," she said, looking at her arms. "It worked."
"Of course it worked," he said, annoyed. Then, because he couldn't resist—"Why so obvious a spot?"
"Hm?" she said, standing, rubbing her arms again.
"Your weakness," he said. "It's the first place people would try to hit."
Her smile was wan and rueful and she simply said, "I tried to harden it once before, and it didn't work." He stared at her. "Better to know you're weak, right?"
"Gods aren't weak," he said, because it really was his last defense.
She snorted and before he could retort she said, "Can you teach me how to do the flames? I'd love to be able to barbecue whenever I feel like it."
"Oh sure. Why not. Just give all the divine secrets away. Fine. Let's go."
It was a few days later when he actually gave her the fire; sure, she was invincible now, but that didn't mean he wanted to push divinity on her all at once. Mortals weren't meant for this sort of thing, but that had never particularly stopped either of them in the past.
She'd finally sewed her purple robe back together; it was shorter, and hung differently, and was of very little interest to him, though she seemed to consider her movements easier when not wrapped in an unformed black cloth. She was putting her newfound mobility towards the task looking for a suitable place to keep Hera once captured—he'd suggested throwing her into the whirlpool of souls, or perhaps the river Lethe, and it was there that he found her, staring into its depths.
He merely appeared behind her, noiseless, but she didn't jump when he said, "Careful. If you fall in that one, I won't be hauling you back out." It wouldn't be worth it; the water would wear away at the individuality in her soul faster than Apollo's sons drove his chariot. In the Styx it was merely a trickle making up the larger sludge; here, in its pure form, the water seemed clear for infinite depths, as though the riverbed itself had forgotten it existed. Hades had never bothered to check.
"I thought about just coming down here and taking a drink," she said.
"A little counter-productive, don't you think?"
"I don't want to remember," she said. "I hate remembering."
Being a god, and remembering everything by necessity (and even some non-things, things that hadn't happened but simply were, remembering things others had once known because they weren't around to remember anymore and someone had to do it), he was inclined to sympathize; being Hades, he squished the inclination as best he could and said, "So, you want the fire thing or not?" She glanced at him, this raised eyebrow indicating interest. "It's better to burn things out, anyway."
Apparently "as best he could" meant very little. (It always did, when she was involved.) "Sure," she said. "Hit me."
He snorted. "Not quite." He held out his hand, and a little white pilot light appeared over his palm.
She stared at it. "That's it?"
"What, you think Prometheus brought the sun itself down? It's called the divine spark, not the divine fireball of death." He shook his hand at her, careful not to snuff the light. "Take it."
Her brow furrowed, and after a moment of consideration she cupped her hands and held them out, and he sort of tipped the light into her hands, where it flickered for a moment before holding steady, small and perfectly still in the breezeless Underworld air. "Now what?"
"You've got to let it in," he said, and she brought her cupped hands into her chest, and the spark leapt to her sternum and white light raced along her veins in a flash that illuminated her body as though for the moment between two seconds her soul was fused to her flesh and she burned—
And then she was Meg, standing before him, her eyes wide with surprise, a new light flickering in their depths. "Wow," she said after a moment.
"Oh, made an impression, did it?" he said.
"It feels…" She paused, and then said, "Familiar?"
"Prometheus had to steal fire from somewhere," he said. "And look where he ended up. This never happened."
"They couldn't chain you up for long," she said, holding out her left hand, turning it over, inspecting it. "No one else would be willing to take over your job."
He snorted. "So, did it work?"
She cocked her head, and then twisted her wrist and fire appeared, licking the air over her skin—not that her skin would burn, even in the hottest flame—small and rippling and blue. It was unimpressive and inconstant to the untrained eye, but the irony was—and no one ever saw this—red-hot rage was the heat of the moment; blue was hotter and burned beyond ash. There was a temperance and a wisdom in her fire; she met his gaze through it, and for a moment god and mortal were nothing more than an endless mirroring of heat and light.
"I like it," she said, breaking the moment (and did she, he wondered, count as mortal anymore? It was getting harder to tell). "Very handy."
"You're welcome," he said. "How soon can you be gone?"
"I need a map," she said, "and I need to plan. Why, nervous?"
"It's your mortal stink," he said. "It completely conflicts with the complete lack of odor we've got down here." She laughed, and he said, "Seriously, I spent millennia getting rid of every smell, and you just come down and—"
She laughed and he grinned and for a moment it was spring.
He grew used to her presence. Sure, there was a lot to be done after he'd cleaned his chambers—comb the entire Underworld for errant or overly ambitious souls, count the Erinyes, sort through claims of blessedness and see if the souls in question were still coherent enough to make it worth the effort of moving them to the Fields. And she was busy too, sitting on the floor with his map of the world spread before her, studying the paths to the Amazons, the Hesperides, Diomedes, the boundaries of kingdoms mortal and divine, her fingers pressed together in thought. Occasionally she asked him for information, and he gave it, and she listened. It had been—well. He didn't want to know how long it had been since someone listened to him of their own free will, and so he ignored the thought and answered her questions and if occasionally he cracked an unnecessary joke and occasionally she laughed, that was life. Whether or not life should have invaded the Underworld was a moot point; it had come, and he enjoyed it.
So of course when she said, "I have to leave," he was a little…perturbed. Sure, he was a god and she was a mortal and nothing eternal could ever rely on anything transitory, but that hadn't stopped his brothers from spawning a veritable army of demigods, and it hadn't stopped him from standing before her and allowing himself the barest touch of the heat her body emanated.
"You have to," he repeated.
"Yes," she said, wrapping up her few possessions (cloth, needle and thread, the crumbs that remained of her food). "What's Hera going to do, walk into my arms while I'm sitting down here? I have to leave in order to get her."
"Easy for you to say," he said. "Some of us can't come and go so freely."
"Never stopped you before."
"No one was paying attention before," he said. "I still don't know if I'm going to get zapped with lightning the first time I show my face out there."
"Probably," she said, tying up her bundle and slinging it over one shoulder. "So take it, and apologize, and then get started with the hunt. How long will it take?"
"Depends on how far he's gone," he said, "and in which direction. I mean for all we know he could be planning on just coming down here by the back door, so…"
"All right," she said. "Keep me posted."
She stood there for a moment, and he felt…awkward? Was that what this was? There was nothing to say, though, so he waited.
"Well, Hades," she said, "I can't say it's been a pleasure, but I'll see you around."
"Likewise," he said (he lied), and she tossed him a salute with a fondly sardonic smile. He didn't turn his head to watch her go; he did immerse himself in his form as she brushed by, felt the warmth of her skin and the softness of her hair, and the cool breeze caused by their absence. He forced himself to endure the cold, to remind himself of what it meant to be Lord of the Underworld, to forfeit life and a sky over his head for the power of…what, exactly? Ruling the cosmos, channeled into making sure a few forgetful dead souls didn't start swimming backwards.
And then suddenly he was on the near bank of the Styx, where she stood watching Charon slowly steer his boat towards the shore, saying, "Meg, sweetcake, you know how to contact me, right? Not that—"
"Knock on the ground three times and say your name. I remember," she said, giving him a sidelong look. "What, are you going to see me off?"
"Something like that," he said. "You're invincible, you can throw fire at other people's heads—what do you do when you run into someone who eats fire for breakfast?"
"It's divine fire," she said. "Doesn't that count for something?"
"Divinities eat fire for breakfast," he said. "How're you going to avoid them?"
"Haven't thought that far ahead," she said, which was strange, because what else had she been doing, but anyway, she was looking at him again, amused curiosity glowing underneath her lifted eyebrow. "Why, do you have something in mind?"
He did, and it was a strange thought, a forgotten thought, locked away in a place where he hadn't been Lord of the Underworld, but as soon as he recalled it he plucked it out of the air and held it out to her.
"What is it?"
Aside from the fact that she always sounded skeptical (and why accept anything at first sight, when usually first sight was the only glimpse you ever caught of it?), he could understand her suspicion; it didn't look like much, a reinforced leather cap in his hands, not at all like the imposing bronze helmet he'd seen depicted in mortals' minds. The Cyclopes hadn't exactly had an enormous amount of time to prepare his present; they'd been busy with the lightning bolt, and the trident and the helm had been afterthoughts, patched together after the monsters discovered Zeus had two brothers. Still, it did its job, and he didn't really need it, and it seemed fitting to give it to her, from one usurper to another.
"Put it on," he said, still holding it out; she accepted it and slipped it over her head and vanished.
She took it off a half-second later, but for a moment the Underworld had been dark and empty; the helm's power lay in its ability to hide its wearer from sight on every level, and a part of him didn't like that Meg's soul had so easily disappeared from his sight. He may not have owned it anymore, but a small part of him still felt as though—well, anyway, she was turning it over in her hands with a thoughtful expression, and he focused on that.
"Well," she said finally, "that'll come in handy. Thanks."
"No big," he said. "We have a deal, remember?" But for some unfathomable reason, he continued, "I mean, I've never given it away before, but if you're going to be some big immortal hero you might as well—"
"Immortal hero? Me?" She looked at him as though he were crazy.
He probably was. He chose to play it cool and shrugged. "What, you're on a quest of mythic proportions with the blessing of a god—"
"If you can call it that."
"—guys have gotten into the Elysian Fields for much less, and hey, your jerk husband—"
"It wasn't his fault!"
"—is going to be a god despite what he did, so why not you?"
"So, what, you're going to campaign for me?" Before he could respond, she said, "Why would I want that, anyway?"
"Just a thought," he said. "Besides, Hera has lots of enemies. Maybe I wouldn't have to say a word. Just take the helmet."
"All right, I will," she said, her fingers tightening on it. Tension flooded the air; not that he needed to breathe, but he saw her nostrils flare before she said, tightly, "Thank you."
They stood on the bank and watched Charon arduously shake an enterprising soul from his oar before dipping it back in the Styx.
"The weather nice, this time of year?"
She shrugged. "It's spring." As Charon's boat came nearer, she said, "I get it, you know."
"You're lonely." The boat touched shore, and she climbed aboard and pressed a denarii in Charon's decrepit hand. He lost sight of her face—all he could see was her soul, bursting at its mortal seams with a lightness beneath the anger and the pain, buoyed with something different—hope, and her hope was infectious. "Don't worry, Hades," she said, and he heard the sweetly mocking smile in her voice even as her brightness overwhelmed his senses, drowning him in light. "I'll be back."