Earning Your Keep

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Chapter 1: Isabelle

I took a deep breath, and it didn’t seem to fill my lungs. I tried again, and found a great weight on my chest. There was a gray mist all around, and a strange plant. The world was gray. I was among the asphodel-

I sat up sharply, throwing nearly a hundred pounds of serpent coil off my chest. The bed resembled a stormy sea, the covers flowing over something moving beneath them. Specifically, my girlfriend. The White Snake Maiden. She lay on her back, wearing nothing more than a camisole, and there was a twisted expression of pain on her face, her lips pressed so tightly together that her pale skin was flushing red.

“Isabelle!” I shook her gently, and she convulsed once. “It’s okay! It’s just a dream!”

Her eyes opened, and the convulsing stopped almost instantly. She was breathing hard, her eyes wide, shaking slightly.  Pale white hair hung around her face, matching the color of her scales. She flicked her gaze down, and back up again, and her entire face turned red. “Oh, god. I’m sorry, Dean.” She shuddered, and frowned down at the legs. “This is…” She shivered. “It’s getting harder to control. Harder to look… human.”

I rested my hand on her head, and smiled. “It’s okay. You were just having a bad dream. And you know I don’t mind the way you look.” I leaned forward, and kissed her cheek, before running my finger along the pale white plates that covered the stomach of the long snake tail. “That’s why we got the bed that was already on the floor, so there was no danger of breaking it.”

She looked down at herself, frowning, and I took her hand, beginning to run my fingers down the knuckles, brushing them very lightly with one hand. Her breathing grew more steady as I did, carefully squeezing her hand in mine. She shuddered for a few seconds, and then relaxed. Slowly, the coils of snake tail evanesced into the hotel’s air, like mist breaking up under sunlight. Leaving her looking human again. “I was dreaming about my mother. Fighting Mister Nash.”

“You saw that?” I asked, curious.

“No. But I heard about it.”

She shivered. I didn’t blame her. We’d gone through a lot last summer.

I died. A heart attack, of all things, which had been embarrassing when I’d found out about it. I had woken up, turned on a lantern, and found Isabelle like this. My senses distorted by a toxin in the wine we’d drunk, I freaked out, and died. And because of that, everyone I loved had nearly died. It had been an entire fucking mess. But I, ironically enough, had gotten through it mostly unscathed. Because someone was there to save us.

It had been about stories. That was the strange thing, really. I’d died because of three different stories that said I had to die. Because my father was Heracles. Because my girlfriend was the White Snake Maiden. And because some insane goddess- or something above a goddess- had groomed my closest friend to murder me out of jealousy.

“Where’s Susan?” I asked, frowning. She’d been staying in our room, but there was no sign of her now.

“Maybe she’s getting breakfast?” asked Isabelle. She climbed out of bed, and smiled. “Maybe it was a night for bad dreams. We do have a big day coming up, after all. A lot of stress can root itself in that.”

“Yeah.” I smiled.

Everyone around me had given up so much because of my death. My father, my adopted mother, my girlfriend, my best friend, everyone in the city had nearly come to blows over my death. Actually, there was no ‘nearly’ about it. The old Tower B of the apartment complex on the lake front was still missing its top three floors from when my parents and Isabelle’s mother had fought. They had nearly died. Isabelle and I had nearly died. Susan had nearly died. Everyone had nearly died. But we’d been saved.

“I’m going to go see if I can find her, okay?” I leaned forward, and gave Isabelle a kiss on the cheek, before moving to pull a fresh set of clothes out of the luggage. “I’ll meet you downstairs for breakfast in half an hour, alright?”

London is a beautiful city, at least since the clean air acts were passed. We were in the outskirts, in a fancier hotel than I’d ever seen before mom had begun dipping into her old savings. When Zion had fallen apart, she’d wanted to do something. This trip was a part of it. All of us, together, seeing the world. We’d been to half a dozen great sites on the world. The month spent in Greece had been fascinating. But now we were here for business. My dad had been called, and when the messenger is via owl, you answer. We would be going to Avalon later today. But for now…

“Susan?” I asked. “Are you okay?”

She stood on the edge of the rooftop, staring down. “Yeah.”

“Okay, you just looked in kind of a dramatic mood.”

“I was just… thinking.” She turned her head towards me. Those brilliant green eyes shone. “I wasn’t sleeping very well.” In many ways, she looked nothing like Isabelle. Brown hair, green eyes, sharper features, skinnier, more laidback. She wore the Arch-Senators t-shirt that I’d bought for her at the concert a little more than a year ago. “I was thinking, if I jumped off of this roof, I’d probably be fine. You know? I probably wouldn’t even break anything.” She stared down at the drop, a good ten stories. “It’s so weird not being human.”

I stepped closer, moving slowly, carefully. “That’s probably true. But you’d definitely fuck up that T-shirt, and I put a lot of work into getting that thing for you. You remember that guy who tried to tackle me for it?”

“Hah. I, uh.” She was quiet for a moment. “Dean. Do you ever wish that I’d shot myself?”

“No,” I said, without a trace of hesitation. I reached up, set my hands on her hips, and lifted her carefully off the short wall, and set her down firmly on the roof. “You’re scared.”

“Yeah. I…” she looked away, her arms crossing tightly. “You remember what happened to Mister Nash. When they found out he was a servant of the Horsemen. He had done nothing but help everyone, but he was going to be locked in Tartarus. Forever. Because he was tainted by them.” She was quiet for a moment. “If-”

“If they tried to do the same thing to you, we’d bust their heads. We’d call Mister Nash and drag down Olympus on top of them.” I wrapped my arms around her, and kissed her softly on the forehead. She stiffened for a moment, and then warmed to the embrace, clinging to me hard enough to crack a rib. I broke the kiss, and smiled. “We’re all in this together. Now come on, breakfast is waiting for us.”

She smiled, and gave me one last, desperate squeeze as the two of us made for the stairwell.

“You know,” remarked my dad, from his place at the table, “there was probably some seminal moment in your life, my son, when I should have put my foot down and said ‘No polyamory’, and yet, I never quite got to that moment, and now, here we find ourselves. All of us bearing the embarrassing brunt of my failures as a father.” He sighed, and shook his head. “When I was your age, I was working as a mercenary in North Africa. You know. A good, moral life.”

He was dressed loosely, as usual. A black T-shirt bulged around his shoulders. I’d always been built as tall him, but it’d be a few years still before I could claim to have anything like his build, if I ever did. I took more after my birth mother in that respect, wiry rather than built like a brick house.

Mom, on the other hand, was dressed elegantly as always. A delicate blue dress hung around her shoulders, exposing more of them than would ever be appropriate for someone I thought of as ‘Mom’. She was not, as she had once been, a harsh figure of unassailable authority. My death had, quite unexpectedly, softened the living hell out of Megara Drakos.

“You know,” murmured Megara, her eyes languid and amused, “Heracles was often famous for his lovers. There were dozens of them. And he was often not even so good as to warn them first. At least our son was raised well enough to be open and honest about his perverse sexual lusts.”

Softening had its downsides.

Isabelle sat with her face in her hands. Her ears were bright pink, and she seemed like she was trying as hard as she could to collapse in on herself. “Dean, please convince them that you and I are not sexual deviants. This has been the topic of conversation for the last ten minutes. They are convinced that we have been… canoodling.”

“Canoodling?” asked Susan, an eyebrow raised. “*Canoodling*?” She gave my parents a shocked look. “That’s a ridiculous assertion! Besides, we can canoodle legally-”

“I was just cheering Susan up,” I cut in. “She was scared.” I gave a look to the side, and Susan looked vaguely embarrassed. But she didn’t stop me. “I’ll be honest. I kind of am, too.”

“Well, not entirely unreasonable,” said Megara, and a melancholy expression crossed her face. “I have been to Avalon a handful of times since it was formed. It has never been a pleasant experience. Most of the Gods of Europe have been traditionally honorable and noble beings, if given to their passions. But…”

“The Greeks,” said Harry, frowning.

“I shall not speak ill of the Dodekatheon, where any of them might hear it.” She sighed, and picked up a slice of bacon. “But I will say that if this was about a desire to punish us for some slight, real or imagined, they would not have provided us a guarantee of hospitality. They’ve made an extremely important guarantee with the way they phrased this. If they hadn’t, I would not be taking us here.” She tossed the slice of bacon back down, frowning. “God, the English. They still fry everything. They discovered oil-based cooking and decided that anything less would never again satisfy them. I can’t stand the smell.”

The breakfast that had been served was nicer than I would have expected. I’d been to more than a few god-awful hotel buffets in my life, and the food was usually just this side of inedible, either because of salt, fat, or general neglect. This place was different. I also noticed that everyone else had been more than happy to eat heartily. Isabelle gave a guilty glance at her food, of which there was a great deal. Black and white pudding, several large sausages of an uncertain heritage, and a hefty serving of bacon, with a mound of eggs beside it. She looked faintly guilty.

“Oh, damn,” murmured Megara. “I’m sorry, dear. You shouldn’t feel worried about your food. You need to make sure you eat properly. You’re still young, and take it from one who knows, growing into an adult takes a great deal of energy.”

I reached out, and squeezed Isabelle’s shoulder. “I understand,” she said. “It’s just… another weird thing.” She licked her lips slowly. “But, ah, I wanted to wait for you two before we ate.” Her eyes flicked to Susan, and then to me, concern visible. I smiled, and her shoulders loosened.

After Susan and I had gotten our food, we sat at the table. My eyes flicked around the table. Everyone in my family tended to eat a lot. My father was built on a scale 20% larger than most human beings. Susan, Megara, and Isabelle all shared a certain… predatory nature that lent itself to large meals almost exclusively of meat. I knew that Isabelle was bothered by it. She’d been a light eater most of her life, preferring salads, soups, mild flavors. And she’d been having a lot of trouble with them in the last few months, as her inhuman nature asserted itself.

Isabelle was the White Snake Maiden. Just as Mom was Echidna, and Dad was Heracles’. Susan was the Green Snake, a part of the story of the White Snake Maiden. None of them were what you could call human. Not entirely, anyway. And me… I was just a human. The White Snake’s lover and Heracles’ son were more props than protagonists. Some people might have been bothered by that. I was not.

I was more worried about Isabelle, and the difficulty she had with changing shape deliberately. Susan had adapted relatively easily, though that brought its own concerns for her. She seemed to think it was because she was meant for it. Like she was a…

“Thing?”

I looked up sharply. Megara was smiling. “I was asking, do you want to help the girls pick out some clothing, Dean? We will need to dress formally for this, and I know that they’d probably feel most comfortable if you approved of their choices.”

“Oh. Yeah, definitely.” I smiled. “How are we reaching Avalon, anyway?”

“Mmm.” She frowned. “It used to be, not so very long ago, before Zion was destroyed- Well, it was simple. You could cross from the world of men to Avalon anywhere where at least twelve stones, each weighing at least twelve stones, had sat undisturbed in a circle at least twelve score years. From there, you needed only a moment’s passing fancy to step through. But…” She crossed her arms. “They’ve gotten paranoid. We will need to visit Stonehenge. And we will need an escort. They shall provide it, though. We will also need a boat, though, and that we will have to supply. Your father and I will be procuring one during the day. We’ll be heading out in the morning.” She reached into her purse, and withdrew a slender black card. “Have a little fun today, hmmm?” She smiled. “Depending on the state of Avalon, good times may be a little thin on the ground.”

The rest of breakfast passed in relative peace, as we ate. By the end of it, Isabelle stuck out her tongue. “Glah. I feel a little bit greasy myself after that meal. I think you might have been right, Mrs. Drakos. Dean, do you mind if I excuse myself? I’ll meet you at the store a little bit later, alright?” She smiled warmly at me, nodding at Susan, before standing up and excusing herself from the table.

“Subtle, isn’t she?” murmured Susan, as the two of us stepped out of the hotel lobby, and into the warm summer day. “What’s eating her? She’s been… harder to read, ever since…” She went silent. She didn’t have to continue the thought.

“She had a bad dream too, last night.”

“Jeez, everyone’s having nightmares. Did you?”

I shrugged. “I dreamt of the Fields of Asphodel. It was weird, but not really bad, you know?”

She paused, and reached out to my shoulder, resting her hand there gently. “Are you sure? You never talk about it.”

“There’s not a lot to talk about. While everyone I love was fighting and struggling, I was feeling mopey and sorry for myself. I got it out of my system.” I smiled. “But I had an idea. Something to do for her.”

Susan nodded once, firmly. “Yeah. Just tell me what I need to do to help.”

The department store was a nice one, but not excessively fancy. I’d briefly considered a tailor, but with Isabelle’s current anxieties, being poked and prodded by a stranger while in a state of near undress for an hour or more didn’t seem like the best thing for her feelings.  I met her at the door and took her arm, gently pulling her in close.

The thing was, nowadays, when I did that, she hesitated for a moment. She wound up sinking into my side eventually, but there was a moment’s hesitation. I could feel the moment’s coldness. The way she pulled away.

From what I understood, and that wasn’t much, the way that everyone had saved me had bound her. Our lives were intertwined, now. If we tried to disentangle our lives, it could kill us, or make us miserable, or just be impossible.  We’d be together until the day we died. And there would be a lot of chaos and pain on the way there.

I was fine with that. I had always believed in that. But the circumstances had been forced. She’d made that choice as a way to save me, and I knew Isabelle. I knew that she would hate herself to say that she regretted the choice, because it had been a choice between me being dead, and her being caged. But when you didn’t have a choice about these things, you could become resentful. I wasn’t, and never would be. I was lucky that she had loved me, cared for me, enough to sacrifice herself like that. But if I could find a way for her to be free, I would. In the meantime, I was going to make sure that she had plenty of reason to smile.

“Where’s Susan?” she asked, frowning.

“I sent her out with a grocery list. We picked out a dress for her and got it fitted. She insisted on green. You’re not going to wear white, are you?” I smiled. “There’s color coordination, and then there’s just plain stereotyping.”

“And what do you think I should wear?” she asked, a slight smile spreading over her lips. “And the answer had better not be nothing.”

“I actually had something in mind.” I smiled. “I found something I think you’ll like.”

She stared at the dress. It was not the most subtle thing I’d ever picked. It hung down to the knee, a slit along the thigh that made it a bit more daring. It wasn’t unusually revealing, but the fabric was a silvery material, slightly reflective, a luster that made it catch the light in interesting ways as it shifted. She held it up against her body, staring into the mirror for a moment, shifting her hips to examine the way it caught her skin. “What made you think of it?” she asked, her voice soft.

I was quiet for a moment, and looked away. “It kind of made me think of your scales. I thought that… If you’re in Avalon, you’d be able to… relax. Look the way you wanted to, without worrying about standing out or scaring anyone. I thought it might be nice to choose an outfit that’d suit you that way.” I was quiet for a moment. “I know you’re worried-”

“It’s beautiful,” she said, and smiled. “I want to try it on. I’ll be in the changing rooms, okay?” She slipped through the wooden door, and I took a seat next to the door.

“I feel like… we haven’t talked much, over this last year,” I said, resting my head against the wall.

“Are you kidding? We’ve been around each other practically all the time. We’ve talked more in the last week than we did for most of our time in Zion.” She was quiet for a moment. “This is about the dreams.”

“Yeah. Kind of. I’m…” I thought over the words in my head, and tried to get them to sound right. “It’s been a really good year. But I feel like part of that has been the fact that we haven’t talked much about everything that’s happened. Mom and dad have been happy, but they’re still figuring out what it’s like to not be waiting for the next disaster. Susan’s still struggling with her own self-loathing issues and everything that she feels responsible for, and she’s trying to be a great friend to make up for it, and she doesn’t think she’s succeeding. And…” I was quiet. “I can tell you’re unhappy.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. Her tone was bright, cheerful, off-hand. The tone she used when she was hiding her fear. I’d learned to recognize that tone pretty well in the days before I died.

“Those bad dreams. The trouble you’re having with keeping your…” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Your shape. You’re getting eaten up inside by this. I think that’s why you’ve had trouble looking human. You still haven’t talked with me about what happened while I was dead. You never talk about it, but I can see the way you dream. I want to be there for you.”

“You mean you don’t have a choice.”

I was shocked, at that moment, how dead her voice sounded. How leaden. How empty. She went on, taking my silence for agreement. “You know, I once read the original version of Madame White Snake. It was a horror story. The evil serpent tries to steal the boy’s soul, and is stopped by the heroic Buddhist monk. How do we know that isn’t the story? My mother’s the goddess of death, and you died because you know me, and now you’re trapped in a relationship with me, and there are all of these horrible consequences if you stop.”

I looked down, and saw the tip of her tail, protruding from beneath the wooden door of the changing room. I reached up, and began to push the door open. It was slammed shut again, hard, with all of the inhuman strength she possessed.

“I don’t want you to see me like this, Dean.”

“Isabelle,” I murmured softly.

“I wasn’t dreaming of my mother. I was dreaming that you and Susan… were going to be together. That both of you didn’t want to be a part of my life anymore. That you were asking my permission to leave, and I kept saying no, and I could see how much it was hurting both of you, and I felt like more and more of a monster, but I couldn’t stop refusing to let you two just be happy. I couldn’t stop being this selfish monster, and-”

The words dissolved into soft sobs. I sat down by the side of the changing room, and held my hand under the door. Several seconds passed before her fingers intertwined with mine.

“I chose you. I want to take care of Susan, but I chose you, Isabelle. I fell in love with you. Before there were any monsters, or gods, or heroes involved in this story, I stood by you. That didn’t change because you died.” I squeezed her hand, and she squeezed back. “When I learned what you did for me… You saved my life.  I was supposed to die. I was supposed to be just this tragic backstory for my father, just this stupid kid whose ignorance destroyed the world because he wasn’t paying attention to War. The only reason we could have a happy ending was because I fell in love with you.” I squeezed her hand again, running my fingers over the back of her hand, caressing the tendons there. She didn’t change back. “I’m sorry. I’m not leaving you. I’m never leaving you. And I’m happy about that, Isabelle. I’m happy that our fates are intertwined, because… I don’t ever want to be apart from you again. And whether you’re a monster or not, I’m going to be here for you.”

I gently released her hand, and stood up, pressing my hand against the door, pushing it open a fraction. She pushed it closed again, but gently this time. “I don’t want you to see me like this. This stupid, disgusting, freakish body of mine got you killed. I…” She leaned more heavily against the door. “I don’t know whether I want to get rid of it, and stop being the White Snake, or if I’d rather just stop being me, stop trying to be human. I don’t think I can be both.”

“If you weren’t who you are,” I said, softly, “I’d still have died, and there wouldn’t have been any way to bring me back. No story, no myth, no fate that would’ve given a reason to bring me back. I owe you everything, Isabelle. I can never repay that debt.” I leaned against the door for a moment, and let a smile spread across my lips, and into my voice. “But, we can have an awful lot of fun trying to repay that debt, can’t we?”

She was quiet for a moment. The door opened a crack, and her eyes were visible through it. As soft and brown as ever, but divided by the black slit pupil of a snake. “Are you really slipping innuendo into your romantic pledge?”

“Maybe. Is it working?”

She reached out, and her fingers were delicate as they twined with mine. “Yes.” She yanked me quickly forward, opening the door for just long enough to pull me into the changing room. The quarters would be tight if we were both of normal human shape. With the serpent tail, the two of us were very close, and the air of the changing room was very warm. “How do I look?”

“Beautiful. Oh, you mean the dress.” I smiled, and she laughed, the tension broken. She leaned back slightly, arms behind her back, the long tail flexing slightly. She was indeed beautiful in the dress, the silver contrasting with her scales and her hair, elegant, and unsubtle. After several seconds, she began to redden.

“Alright, alright, enough staring. I’m going to start thinking that this is all some strange oedipal complex.”

“Hey, I didn’t know my mom was a snake until after I fell for you. Besides.” I squeezed her hand again. “You’re not her. You’re not your mom. You’re not even the White Snake. You’re Isabelle. And I love you.” I kissed her once, very gently, on the lips, and did not bring up the forking of her tongue at all.

Sometime later, the two of us walked out of the department store together, hand in hand, and with Isabelle back to her human shape. I carried the bag of clothes we’d selected, and felt that I was quite discreet. Isabelle was blushing ferociously and giggling the entire time, which thoroughly ruined any cool that we had. In that pleasant state, we returned to the hotel. We got in the elevator together, and Isabelle turned towards me, her expression curious. “So. What did you get Susan to do?”

“You’ll see. In just a few minutes, actually. I’ll meet you on top of the hotel in about… an hour. Okay?” I smiled. “Get those clothes packed.”

Susan was waiting for me, with the full set of groceries. The plates were paper, but it was still a fancier meal than most I’d ever made. “You going to be okay with this?” she asked, an eyebrow raised. “You’re not exactly a cook.”

“None of this is really cooking,” I said. “And I’ll be fine. Go keep her company, and bring her up in-” I paused, and lifted the bottle out of the bag. “Wine?”

“It’s legal here,” she said, defensively. “And I thought… You know, romantic evening and all.” I raised an eyebrow. “What? You can’t spend the rest of your life avoiding wine just because you happened to die one time when you drank it.”

I sighed. “Is it good?”

“How the heck would I know? It’s wine.” She smiled. “I’ll go get her.”

“Hey, wait.” I frowned down at the small table she’d set up for me. “There are only two chairs here.”

“Yeah. I interrupted the last romantic getaway you two had. The two of you need some time to yourselves. A lot of time to yourselves. I can’t always be underfoot, you know?” She smiled impishly, her sparkling green eyes bright as she turned for the door. “I’ll keep myself entertained tonight. You two have fun, okay?” She planted a quick kiss on my cheek, and was gone in a flash, disappearing down the stairwell. I regarded the groceries, and got to work.

It’s surprising how exhausting making a good meal is, particularly for someone you care about, and even more so in the bright August sun. As I shaved slices of meat off the cured leg, and pinned them to small chunks of honeydew, I was surprised by how much it meant to me that she enjoy this meal.

She didn’t complain. Both her and Susan tried very, very hard not to complain about anything. On the one hand, that made life easier. Right up until it made life impossible. And so, they needed someone who could take care of them. Who could recognize when they were hurting. Right now, it was clear that Susan wanted to isolate herself. I’d have to do something to help her, soon. But I also had to trust that she wouldn’t do anything foolish in the short time while I made sure Isabelle was alright.

“Dean?”

I looked up from the delicate sashimi rolls, the salmon glistening in the sunlight. Isabelle stood there, staring. “Oh, damn it. Sorry, I’m almost finished with these. The Caprese salad took longer than I thought.”

“This is nice. This is ridiculously nice. When did you learn to cook?”

“This isn’t really cooking. It’s, like… slicing, at best.” I smiled, and stepped over to the chair, pulling it out for her. She smiled indulgently, and took a seat, one leg gently crossed over the other.

“Is that prosciutto and melon?” she asked, plucking up one of them. She took an experimental bite, and closed her eyes, a slow, warm smile spreading across her lips. She chewed a couple of times, swallowed, and sighed. “Ahhhh… It tastes so fresh.”

“I tried to think of things that’d be… palatable. Meats, cheeses, that kind of thing. Stuff you could eat and feel comfortable with, but which still mixed nicely with the things you like.” I smiled, and took a seat beside her. “I wanted to make a meal that you could eat, that you could enjoy, that would remind you of what you knew. The wine… was Susan being Susan.”

“I suppose we should count our blessings that she didn’t get the snake wine she mentioned seeing at the local import store.” Isabelle smiled, and poured out a glass of wine. “I’m sorry for getting… clingy. Getting worried. There’s nothing more uncomfortable than your girlfriend telling you that she had a dream that you left her, is there? I…” She looked down at the food. “This really is a nice meal.”

“But?”

“No buts. I’m incredibly lucky.” She looked up, and smiled, and wound her fingers around my wrist, squeezing it. “I’m really, really lucky. A lot luckier than I’ll ever deserve.”

“Yeah,” I said softly. “That makes two of us.”

And we ate together under the warm summer sun. Just for a little while, everything was perfect.

We arrived, in the morning, at Stonehenge. The most difficult part of the trip was the speedboat, and me and dad carrying the thing on our shoulders. With the help of the trolley underneath, it wasn’t too hard for the two of us to carry together, but we got a lot of very odd looks from people, and one or two laughs. At this hour, there were very few people around Stonehenge, and what few there were seemed to discover something better to do over the next few minutes. As the five of us entered the circle, there was a slow rush of wind, and a heavy fog began to settle over the circle of stones. We stood in silence for a few moments. Then the sound of lapping waves filled the air.

“Welcome, travelers,” murmured a woman’s voice. She stepped out of the mist, and the water lapped around her feet. Even as I watched, though, I saw that it never quite touched her, seeming to recoil just as it was poised to rush over her sandals. She was tall, nearly as tall as me, and her platinum blonde hair hung around her shoulders. She seemed strangely slender, and her hair was braided into a single long braid, hung around her shoulders like a mink stole. “I am Ethniu. I have been sent to guarantee you safe passage across the Vale of Tears.”

“A calculated insult?” asked Megara, her eyebrow raised, her arms crossed. “A minor goddess. And one of the Fomorians.”

“A peace offering,” said Ethniu, smiling, calm. There was a slightly unsettling quality to her calm, nothing seeming to phase her in particular. She seemed not quite a part of the world. I’d never seen anyone in Zion seem to have quite that level of detachment; not even my mother. “I am, if nothing else, the symbol of coexistence, between two forces thought inimical. Congratulations on your marriage, Heracles.”

“Yeah. I’m guessing you’re not about to tell us what all of this is about?” asked Harry, even as he began dragging the boat forward into the water.

“I’m afraid that is something Zeus wished to discuss personally. Don’t worry, though. It is good news.” Ethniu smiled pleasantly, and stepped forward, carefully guiding the speedboat into the water along with dad. “I was also sent because I spend somewhat more time among mortals than the others. I must admit, I enjoy the occasional touch of modern convenience. It’s not a short trip to Avalon by water.”

“Glad to know you approve,” murmured Harry, as he started the engine. The six of us all crowded aboard the speedboat, and it hummed out onto the water. Before long, there was no sign of land, the heavy fog restricting our view to only a handful of feet in any given direction. “This is the right direction, isn’t it?”

“If you are welcome in Avalon, any direction is the right one. If you are not, every direction is wrong. Now. We are almost there.”

“How can you tell-” I began, and was cut off by the sun.

It glowed, glorious and golden, above the island. I stared, my mouth open, and felt Isabelle take my hand, the two of us staring up at the island. Susan’s fingers curled around my shoulder.

Zion had been beautiful. I’d never realized quite how beautiful, had never appreciated it. It was the quintessential American town, in a more literal and metaphysical sense than I could have ever imagined. Avalon was not more beautiful, but it was a different quite of beauty, exotic, and all the more stunning for it.

Great fields of apple trees grew in wild abandon across the island. Vines were visible from here, grapes the size of fists, apples the size of a man’s head, the distant cry of fowl. Fish teemed around the boat, practically begging to throw themselves into a net. The golden sun shone down on Avalon, the bright light sparkling among the small Italian villas, the occasional castle, the great Yorkshire mansions, the longhouses. The distant sound of laughter and goblets meeting.

The gods were celebrating.

As we arrived at the long slip, we could see dozens of figures standing at the docks, bright smiles on their faces. welcoming expressions. Out from them swept a man. A toga hung over his shoulders, and his face was whiskery, his beard and hair immensely curly, bright white. It was impossible to mistake him for anyone else. He held a scepter in one hand, and smiled brilliantly. “My son! And just in time.”

Dad seemed unsure of how to take that. “Zeus,” he said, inclining his head, falling into the familiar certainties of military respect, his back straight, his hand held out to shake. Zeus took his hand, and gave it a single shake. “Please, allow me to introduce my family. Megara Drakos, or-”

“Echidna.” Zeus inclined his head. “Welcome home. To all of you, welcome home. And I am glad you’re here.”

“Home?” Isabelle asked, her voice soft.

“Ah, yes,” said another voice. The god that walked forth from the crowd was scarred, one eye missing, a long beard hanging down nearly to his waist. He wore a hooded cloak, and leaned heavily on a staff. I flicked my gaze down, and saw that the staff ended in a wicked looking spear head. “That is why we have invited you back. The world stands on the brink of destruction. I am glad you can be here. It is Ragnarok.”

“The world’s going to end?” I asked, my eyes widening. I looked among the gods. “What are you going to do? What’s the plan? How can we help?”

“The plan?” asked a woman. She crossed her arms. Her eyes were gray, and an owl stood atop her shoulder. It was a small owl, even rather cute, and she held up a small nibble of some meat for it. “We intend to survive. And we are glad to have you here for that.”

2 thoughts on “Earning Your Keep

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