Susan smiled. “Survive. Not, for example, to do anything about this end of the world-”
I rested a hand on Susan’s shoulder as several of the gods turned unpleasant looks towards her. My father took a step forward, his shoulders bunching and muscles standing out like cables, between her and the gods. “A kind offer. Do we have accommodations while we’re here?”
“Of course, my son,” said Zeus, and smiled. “Please, settle in. Enjoy yourselves. There is a feast tonight, in your honor.” He stepped up to my father, and I noticed that Zeus was taller. A moment before, he’d been about as tall as me. Now, he was a couple of inches taller than my dad, and that made me feel just a little bit disturbed. I couldn’t tell whether I’d misjudged his height, or if he’d changed it. He embraced my father in a manly hug, and squeezed him once, quite firmly, before slapping him on the shoulder. “Now, please! Settle in.” He paused for a moment, and then turned towards Megara. “Echidna.”
She drew herself up, her back straight, her eyes meeting his without the slightest trace of hesitation. “Zeus, who marshals the thunderheads.” I couldn’t quite tell whether that was an insult, a compliment, or a careful mix of both. “We meet, at last.”
“We do indeed.” He smiled brilliantly, pearly white teeth flashing at her. “All is forgiven. Please, find yourself welcome here.”
This seemed to catch her entirely off surprise, a single eyebrow arching delicately. “I cannot say I ever expected to hear that from you.” After a long moment, she nodded her head. “But we all of us change in the face of adversity, don’t we? Thank you. I shall strive to be as gracious a guest as I can be.”
There was, at this, a lessening of tension, a subtle lowering of shoulders. It couldn’t have been just that; I wasn’t so absurdly perceptive that I could read a room effortlessly. There had been something in the air, crackling like ozone. A tension that was gone, now that mom had shown she wasn’t angry. The gods dispersed in crowds, save for one who strode forth, a grin on his face. I’d been reading some of my father’s novels on Greek mythology, and had grown confident in being able to identify gods, at least when they wanted to be identified.
I certainly wouldn’t have had to do that for this particular god. Hermes was noticeably nude save for a cape and a cap that reminded me of a World War 1 soldier. I tried not to stare, and in doing so, noticed that both Susan and Isabelle seemed entranced. I gave Isabelle a little nudge, and then aslightly harder one. “Wha?” She looked at me, and flushed red. “I was just…”
“It’s alright, it’s alright, it happens all the time,” said Hermes, a grin on his face. “God of Athleticism and all, comes with the territory. I don’t get to run across the world much anymore, it’s good to know I’ve still got it.”
“He actually looks a lot like Dean,” murmured Susan. Isabelle’s flush grew just a little bit worse. I coughed into my hand, and Hermes did the same, looking- for just a moment- genuinely surprised.
“I believe,” said Harry, “that we could use a guide to our quarters.”
“Of course, brother. Come along.” Hermes gestured, and turned, which seemed to break the hypnotic state that Susan was in. I heard Megara grumble something under her breath, but not loud enough for any of us to catch it. “I must say, it’s thrilling to see you. I’ve spent precious little time in the mortal world for- Well, too damn long, obviously. I…” The god began to walk at a brisk pace, up the side of the hill. “I don’t imagine you’ve heard. But. My great-grand son… Neither of you have happened to see Odysseus, have you?”
Megara let out a soft sound of disconcert. “He’s not here? I’d have expected that if any of the heroes were… I never met him. Never waylaid him.” She shook her head. “I hope he is safe. I always liked him. A hero who never slew monsters.” She chuckled. “Only men.”
“Yes, well, I suppose I can see where that would endear him to you,” said Hermes. “He left. A long time ago. Said he had a mission. I’ve never heard of him visiting one of the cities…” Hermes’ lips twisted into a frown. “I suppose it does no good to worry about him, but-”
“We can hardly help but worry about our kin, particularly when they are so eager to get themselves into a mess, can we?” asked Megara, and there was a certain warm kindness in her voice. Hermes tossed a bright, pearly smile at her.
The trees surrounding us were apple trees. I had grown up in upstate New York. I knew apples. These were not the simple, stunted mortal apple trees. Apple trees in an orchard were, at most, about 15 feet tall, and carefully pruned to keep them manageable. These were great, primeval things, towering over us on either side, growing so thick that they created a dense canopy. Despite that, golden light streamed down between leaves, dappling the ground with pools of warmth, and giving the entire place an ethereal feel. And perhaps most striking was the color. Golden apples, normally, have a yellow-ish color; Something between red and green. These apples were had the lustrous shine of metal. Susan stared up at one of the trees. “Are these safe? They’re not going to cause sudden shame about nudity or doom mankind if we eat them, are they?”
“They’re the Golden Apples,” said my father. “They show up a lot in myth. Greek, Norse, Irish…”
“There’s a reason the island is called Avalon,” said Hermes. “It was said that apples grew here better than anyone else. On an island in the far west of the world the Greeks knew… Sound at all familiar?” He smiled. “It’s always the question, isn’t it? Which came first, the stories, or the reality? The apples are safe. They grant an immunity to age, and disease, to any who eat them. Of course, the mortals who stole them would find that small comfort, considering what the gods would do to them for the theft, but that’s so often the way, isn’t it?” He smiled brightly. “You, however, are guests. Immortality, and health, are what you might call… table stakes.”
“Immortality,” said Susan, frowning dubiously. “Seems like kind of a commitment.” She reached up, and gently tugged on one of the golden apples, hanging low on the branch. With a soft snap, the branch lifted up into the air, leaving the apple in her hands. It was close to the size of her head. “So, you bite into one of these things, and you live forever?”
“Barring accident or misfortune. Sadly, a very limited immortality, particularly in our line of work. But it ensures that your last moments will be glorious- or at the very least, hilarious.” Hermes smiled. “Would you like to try it?”
“Hmm.” She stared at the surface for a long moment. “Nah. Hey, Dean, Isabelle, think fast!”
Susan had a good arm. The apple swished through the air, and my hand came up automatically, at the same time as Isabelle’s. It struck my palm, but would have bounced out if Isabelle hadn’t caught it from the other side. The apple wasn’t quite as heavy as I would have expected from its size, but it had a certain weightiness that was thoroughly metaphorical. Harry frowned over at Hermes. “A panacea? A cure to aging?”
“Yes,” said Hermes, nodding. “You’re thinking, what a wonderful thing it’d be for the humans to have, right?”
Dad crossed his arms. “I’d considered it. I’ve known many good men who could have done a great deal more good, had they survived long enough. There are quite a few humans who are worthy of this sort of thing.”
“It wouldn’t work. Believe me, I agree with you, and I want humans to survive. It’d put that smug bastard Apollo in his place, sure enough, curing all disease. But humans don’t work that way. You give them everything they want, and it just destroys who they are. If every human were immortal, there would be wars over resources; If only a select few were immortal, there’d be even worse wars. Humans have to mature into immortality. You can’t go interfering with them, you can’t just give them what they want. They have to earn it. Otherwise, they won’t ever really have it.”
“Is that why this is the first time I’ve seen any of you?” asked Harry, his voice soft. “You know what my life has been like, I presume.”
“Yeah. I watched. You survived.”
“Because of others. I kept thinking…” My dad was quiet for a moment.
He never talked about growing up. I’d learned a little bit more of the story since I had died and come back, but he’d always held his tongue. I knew that he’d been in Africa, which is where he’d met my birth mother. I remember her telling me stories about the two of them robbing a casino, or a club or a bar, or something- the details were never consistent- and then arriving at the States. Hermes finally spoke. “Why didn’t we help.”
“Not to put too fine a point on it,” said Harry.
“I know. I wanted to help. We all wanted to help. But we can’t. We… tried interfering. Tried getting involved. But we’re only… Well, not human, obviously. But we’re limited in the good that we can do, Harry. You think I didn’t want to help your son, to lead him out of Hades? Even Hades could only do that when he was given the right chance.” He turned towards us. “So. You kids want immortality?”
“I think I need to consider it more,” I said, and Isabelle and I set the apple down on the ground with the reverence that it deserved
Hermes was quiet for another moment as he approached a large, Italian-style villa. It reminded me of the ones we’d seen in Fiesole, standing atop a terrace, great grape vines growing up its sides, the walls immaculate white, the terra cotta roof tiles brilliant in the sun. “And if I may offer some advice… While you are here, try not to talk about Silas Nash. The subject is still a very sore one.”
With that, Hermes gave a brief bow at the door of the Villa, and was then off like a shot, sprinting down the hill with a speed that made it clear that he’d been going quietly mad with the pace of our walk. “What do you think he meant by that?” I asked, softly.
“Nash saved your life. Probably saved the lives of everyone in the city. But he was given power by War, he defied Hades and through him Zeus, and worst of all, he’s strong enough to scare them,” murmured Harry. “You’ll notice that if there’s one thing in myth that worries the gods, its mortals who can stand up to them.”
“He saved my life. He saved your life. He saved literally all of our lives. You’re not going to just let them think that he’s some villain, are you?” I stepped a little bit closer, and tried not to let the heat enter my voice. “You know, sooner or later, that he’s going to come here. And you know, if he does, and they treat him like he’s a monster, things are going to get unbelievably messy. We can’t just let them think that.”
“Of course we can’t,” said Megara, firmly. “We shall simply have to be…” She let a smile run over her lips. “Persuasive.”
A golden plaque was inscribed over the entrance to the villa; Villa diEracle. The five of us split up. The villa was large enough for at least a hundred people to avoid ever seeing each other. I found myself a room, and began to lay out my clothes there. The formal suit and tie seemed strangely silly, in light of what we’d seen the gods wearing, but it’d have to do. I set it out on the bed, and stared down at it for a moment. The first hint I had that someone else was there was when cool hands slid around my shoulders.
“Are you mad at me for staring?” asked Isabelle.
“No.” I smiled. “I mean, how often do you get to see gods nude? It’d probably be a shame if you didn’t peek. I know I’m going to be hoping to meet Aphrodite tonight, rowr.”
She slugged me in the shoulder, and chuckled. “Just be careful, you might run into Artemis instead.” She leaned against my back for a moment. “You’re angry.”
“Not at you, or Susan, or any of them.”
“I know. You’re angry at them.”
I sighed, and felt her arms tighten a little more around my shoulders. She was warm, and her head rested against my back, the scent of her perfume filling the air as she squeezed me a couple of times. “He saved me. You know? I still remember how it looked, when he arrived in the Asphodel, when he told me what happened, when he encouraged me to come back. He was an asshole, but in that kind of way that showed he cared. And he was the one who actually helped. He didn’t have to do any of what he did.”
“He’s frightening, Dean.” Isabelle was quiet for a moment. “I’m not sure you know how frightening. I’m not saying it’s right, he was the one who saved us, but… I can understand why he’d scare the people here. He scared me. He scared Susan. He’s… something else. You heard about that attack that they said he was responsible for, on the Secretary of the Treasury, last year. He might have gone bad.”
“I don’t believe that,” I said, and rested a hand on hers. “And I know you don’t, either.”
“No, I don’t. You’re right that he saved us.” Her voice dropped a little. “He saved Susan. She…” She shook her head. “Do you know that she tried to kill herself, on the rooftop?”
“I didn’t,”I murmured, and frowned. “She never told me.”
“She told me about it. She thought it was the only way to make things right, and he stopped her.” Isabelle was quiet for a second. I thought about the day before, when I’d found Susan on the rooftop. “She’s still guilty about what she did. I’ve tried to convince her that it wasn’t her, that it wasn’t her fault, that it was a manipulation. That she’s nothing like that. But…” Isabelle sighed, and sank down onto the bed. “It’s hard to get her to see sense sometimes. You know? She acts so cool about everything, but…” She rubbed at her eyes, and I noticed a little moisture on her fingers. I sat down beside her, and squeezed her gently. “I worry about her.”
“Maybe the two of you should spend a little more time together? I want to keep my father company tonight. The two of you could have an evening to yourself. I…” He frowned. “You know how it is. It can feel a little bit like I’m intruding sometimes, with you two. You’ve been friends for a long time. I don’t mind giving you your space for a bit.”
“I-” She was quiet for a moment, and then smiled. “I don’t think that’s what she needs. I don’t think that’s what I need, either, for that matter. But that might be what Harry needs. This sounds like it’s going to be kind of… tense.” She frowned down at the clothes on the bed. “I wonder if it’s more polite to be shaped like a human, or a snake, while I’m there.”
“Personally, I have always favored my true form. But that may mean something different for you than it does for me.”
The two of us turned. Megara stood in the doorway. She was dressed in a bright jade-green tunic, and her skin was a shade of pale blue, contrasting with the green. Her dark hair hung curled around her face, and her tail was the color of rust. It glittered in sunlight. A delicate skirt hung around her waist, concealing her modesty somewhat, the tail coiled behind her. Isabelle smiled, and bowed her head. “You look very lovely, Mrs. Drakos.”
“Echidna might be best here.” Mom smiled warmly. “And I know that you have been feeling some uncertainties about your body.” She paused for a moment. “In honesty, I do not know precisely how that would feel. I was born as I am; I have never been otherwise. But I know that I have seen it happen in my own children, when they were reborn. The clash between human and monster. The strangeness of the mix of sensations. The uncertainty of which side to embrace. I have seen them make every choice on the spectrum between the two. None of them have made a wrong choice, if you catch my meaning. Whatever you want to be, be it with conviction, and you will be fine.”
“That is… good advice, which I may find difficult to follow, Echidna.”
“Good advice always is. If all we needed to do was follow it, the world would be a simpler place.” She smiled. “Now, if I may. Dean, do you mind talking with your father? He’s in a pacing mood.”
“Oh, heck.” I stood up, and grabbed the clothes. “Yeah. I’ll see if I can help” I moved to step past Megara, and then stopped, halfway through the doorframe. I gave her a peck on the cheek, and squeezed her gently around the shoulders. “And you look great, Mom.”
“Go, go, there’s no need to make your girlfriend jealous,” murmured Megara, but she smiled as she did.
True to her words, dad was pacing in the large master bedroom. He looked over half a dozen ties, picking up one, and then another. “Dean. Your mother sent you here?”
“Yeah.” I looked over the ties. “I’m going to be honest, Dad, you could probably wear a lion skin and get away with it.”
“I should be so lucky as to have a lion skin on hand,” he murmured, checking himself in the mirror. Anything my father wore, no matter how well tailored, looked like it was about to tear apart at the seams if he moved too quickly. He tried the tie again, and again it came out like a mess. “Son, help.”
I stepped in front of him, and began to tie the tie. I frowned. “You’re really worried about this?”
“Just a touch.”
“Dad, you’re one of the greatest heroes of western mythology, finally returning home after conquering a literally millenia-old nemesis. I’m sure that they’re going to be thrilled with you.”
He nodded slowly. “Son… How do you call Megara mom?”
I frowned at that. “I’m… not quite sure what you mean.”
“I still remember Acanit. How do you not feel… disloyal? I know you wouldn’t do it if you thought it meant forgetting your mother. But…” He was quiet for a moment. “The only father I ever knew died, burning. Zeus was not there. He wasn’t there when Acanit died. He wasn’t there when I fought Megara. He hasn’t taken an interest in me for a long time. It’s…” He sighed. “It’s odd that I should ask you for advice on this, but the situation feels familiar. How do you acknowledge someone as family when you think of them as anything but? The man was never there for…” He paused, and looked over at me. “God, son. I was never there for you, was I?”
I squeezed his shoulder. “You were there for me when it really counted. And for mom… for Acanit. You were there for her when it really counted. But you couldn’t be there all the time.”
“That’s not who you were. I was angry at you for that, for a long time. But… What’s the point of getting angry about those things? You were doing what you thought was right, and the fact that you cared was part of what she loved about you. I can be angry about that, or I can understand it, and appreciate it about you. That’s what you have to do with Zeus, I think. Understand him. He’s still the father of the gods. And either he’s someone who can be your father, or he’s not.” I paused. “And if he’s not, we should probably still be respectful.”
“Yes. That certainly adds a certain note of terror to the evening, doesn’t it?” Harry smiled warmly. “Well, we’ll just have to see if we can get through the evening without any faux pas.”
“I’m just saying! I’m just saying. I think they should wipe them all out.”
“Ah,” said Harry, delicately. “And who is this, again?”
Ares grunted. A tall, bellicose man, he was olive skinned, and energetic, his dark curly hair hanging around his face, dressed in armor. I wasn’t sure specifically what kind, but it was made of overlapping plates that didn’t look like the armor I’d seen in museums of Greek artifacts. “Whoever. I feel as though it’s fairly universal advice, really.”
“Ah,” said Harry, for lack of something better. I coughed into my hand, and Thor frowned. His shaggy red hair had been cut into something smoother and more stylish, framing his handsome, rough features.
“I don’t know. I mean, without a good agricultural group to raid, you wind up having to grow everything yourself. I think we can all live in peace, provided we have the occasional chance to indulge in a little pillage and slaughter.” Ares rolled his eyes visibly. “What, you disagree?!”
“No, no. I can just see how barbarians would think such things. Do all the fun of pillaging and taking, but when it comes to the hard work of holding…” He sighed. “No wonder your people became a bunch of slack-jawed egalitarian pacifists. When was the last time a Scandinavian nation fought a war of aggression?”
“Oh, yes, and the Italians and the Greeks have certainly been the scourge of the continent,” said Thor, smirking. “What was it? The only colonizing nation to ever lose a war to an African nation. That’s one for the history books, isn’t it? Ethiopia certainly gave you what for.”
“Ah,” said Harry, smiling. “My first wife was from Uganda, actually. Not quite neighbors, but close.” He paused as Thor and Ares looked askance at him.
“You seem different, Heracles,” said Ares.
“He IS different. You used to laugh a bit more. And…” Thor cast an eye towards Megara, and frowned. “Well, I understand how it is, attractive women and all, but… You’re much more into snakes than I remembered. Three of them?”
“Only one’s his,” said Ares. “The other two are with the boy. And someone’s got a taste for exoticism!” The war god roared with laughter, and slapped Dean’s arm with a carefully calculated force; Sufficient to sting, just short of dislocation. “Well, good on you, I say! No conquest like the conquest of love. Just because this soft Norseman’s got a phobia about snakes!” He elbowed Thor with a degree of violence that, when used on any mortal, would likely have crippled them for life, if not killed them outright.
“I think both of you,” said Harry, “should shut your goddamn mouths and think carefully about what you say about my wife.”
There was a very notable silence for several seconds. Then Ares laughed belligerently. “That’s more like it!” He prodded dad once very firmly in the chest. “It’s unsettling to see you acting all quiet and thoughtful! That’s more like the half-brother I know! Care for a drink? The ambrosia’s good tonight.”
“Oy, son,” said Thor, pointing, as Harry accepted the drink. “Looks like your girlfriend is looking for you. Don’t worry, your dad’ll keep for a minute. I want to hear about this story. Sounds like some good old-fashioned questing.”
I turned, and saw Isabelle, standing with a young woman. She smiled, and waved, and I approached the two. The hall was one of the Norse longhouses, smoky fires billowing, great racks of meat and bread and cheese and other foods, and an overabundance of something hideous, slightly bitter, and gelatinous that the older Norse gods attempted to force on others. I’d heard one of them refer to it as ‘lutefisk’, and after obligingly choking down one of the cubes, had sworn to myself to never again attempt to eat it, as it had roughly the consistency and flavor of snot. Instead, I grabbed a leg of some unknown but likely hoofed animal, scooping it onto a handy platter, and carried it over to the two.
The girl turned towards me, and nodded her head politely. “You must be Heracles’ son. I’ve been talking with Isabelle.” She held her hand up, almost reaching it out to shake, before suddenly withdrawing it. “Ah- sorry. My name is…” She paused for a moment, and frowned. “Artemis.”
“Artemis? The goddess?” I looked her up and down. The headphones around her shoulders, the rather punky black shirt and shorts. It appeared she was a fan of the Arch-Senators, too. She looked a bit pale to be Greek, and her hair was a messy, mousy brown. There was a distinct nerd vibe I got from her. “It’s an honor. But, uh, if I can say-”
“I wasn’t Artemis. These guys… a couple of hitmen, they murdered the original Artemis. Turns out that I won the qualifying match to be the new one. I was…” She concentrated, taking a deep breath. “Penelope. That’s the name. God, everyone here calls me Artemis, they treat me like Artemis, it gets really weird.” She frowned. “It’s nice to have new people here. People who don’t have this idea of what I should be. And, sorry about not shaking your hand. I get… weird, when I touch guys. It kind of… hurts.”
“That’s…” I searched for the right words. “That sounds like it sucks.”
“Yeah. Yeah.” She sighed, and then smiled. “But, I’m glad to have new people around here, anyway. And someone who’s my age. Actually my age. Like, even the kids here kind of get to be… timeless, you know?” She smiled. “I was like, 17 when this happened. Only a couple of years ago. I haven’t actually been home since then. Athena brought me here, told me that I wouldn’t be safe out in the wild, and, well, considering what happened to the last Artemis…”
“Does that happen often?” Isabelle asked, her voice kind and gentle, resting a hand on the girl’s shoulder. It seemed that she was able to make contact safely.
“No. Apparently I’m only the second god it’s happened to in, like… a century, at least. It had everyone here really worried for a while, but they say it’s going to be taken care of soon, so…” She shrugged. “They don’t really tell me a whole lot. I don’t know whether that’s personal or not. It’s just a pain in the ass.”
“I’ve been talking a bit with Penelope about my issues. It’s been… reassuring, really.”
“For me, too,” said Penelope, and smiled. “I, uh. If you’d like, tomorrow or something, I could show you a bit more of the island. There’s some interesting stuff. It’s actually about the size of like, Wales or something, though it doesn’t look like it. It gets all weirdly folded up.”
“Yeah,” I said, and smiled. “It’s good to meet you.” Then, I heard a voice from behind me. It was Susan’s.
“Fruit of the poisoned tree, hmmm?”
“Oh, shit,” I murmured, and turned. There, standing across from Athena, with one arm crossed over the other, holding a cup of mead in one hand, was Susan. She had her best ingratiating smile on, her expression warm and pleasant. It was the precise expression she always wore when she was being particularly venomous with someone. I began moving through the crowd.
“It is one of the natural logical progressions. Tainted deeds produce tainted ends. Like an illegal search and seizure, an act must be considered for its origin, its method, and its results; if any of those three are suspect, so too is the deed.”
“You don’t say.”
I elbowed past a Vanr who was setting down another rack of meats and cheeses, trying to accelerate without making it completely obvious.
“Well, it’s something you must consider for the rest of your life. The Horsemen are planners. Even without War’s power, you are perpetually tainted. Every action you take in the future, everything that you might accomplish, everything you might do, may simply be advancing the desires, the ideals, of a creature that is trying to destroy humanity. Your family. Who already has used you once to betray-”
I stepped in. “Begging your pardon, Athena Parthenos. I have someone to introduce Susan to. Begging your pardon-”
“And you, for example,” said Athena, her voice cool, devoid of any heat or passion, as though it was the most reasonable thing in the world, “should have died, along with your girlfriend.”
I froze, already turned away from her, my hands on Susan’s shoulders. Her expression had gone very still. “I apologize,” I said, keeping my tone even, respectful.
“I do not say this to be cruel. It would have been a simple solution to the pin that War created. She used the desire for your life, or the White Snake’s, on everyone. I believe that the young lady even proposed the solution. Making things right. If only that man had not tried to have it all, perhaps the world could have continued on.”
“You think he should have died-” began Susan, heat in her voice. I pulled her physically, shifting myself between her and Athena, and turned to face the woman.
“Why do you feel the need to say that?” I asked, my voice level, calm. I found that despite it all, I was very calm. I had died. I had seen the worst that could happen. And while Athena could be prideful, could do some foolish things, she was being very actively provocative. This was about something else. And it struck me that much like Susan, and Isabelle, and mom, and dad, she had something she needed to say, and she did not know how to say it openly. In that light, she was much less frightening. Still a bit frightening, but I didn’t feel any shaking in my stance as I faced her.
“Because there may come a time when you find yourself making the same choice,” said Athena. “Because of that selfishness, that refusal to let you die, we have been set down a course that will end, almost inevitably, with the death of most humans, and no small number of the gods. This place is a sanctuary. A place to wait out the end. And if the day comes when Silas Nash arrives at this place, I want to be sure you realize the consequences of mindless compassion. Because someone always pays a price for those decisions, those small mercies. A few short years of your lives were traded for the lives of countless billions. That is the weight that is on your shoulders.”
I felt the shudder run through Susan. I took a slow breath. I shouldn’t react. Should stay calm.
“It’s funny, that logic,” said Susan, and her voice was very calm and very clear. “You’ve been following it for a very long time. And you’ve wound up here, the whole city thing falling apart, and terrified that humans are going to finally start kicking you in the head. That’s it, isn’t it? The reason you’re so bothered by Nash. Because he can actually stand up to you, and your behavior for thousands of years was based on the idea that you weren’t responsible for your actions.”
A vein began to throb in Athena’s head, and her fingers rattled out a staccato beat on the shield slung by her side.
“Well, good news, because not everyone is as much of a heartless asshole as you.” Susan narrowed her eyes. “And you’re going to be really glad that people have compassion, someday soon.”
Athena took a step forward, and there was a fluttering of wings. A woman’s hand rested on her shoulder, a dark figure behind her clad in crow feathers. A spear hung loosely from one hand. Her hair was dark. Her eyes were dark. And her skin was pale as Isabelle’s, though their features were otherwise quite different. “Athena. You aren’t being provoked, are you?”
“No, Morrigan,” said Athena, her upper lip twitching once, very slightly. “You are alive now, boy. There is little point dwelling on the past. Not when there is the future to consider.” She turned sharply on her heel, and left at some speed, the dark feathered woman following her.
“What the hell was that about?” I murmured softly to Susan, as the party returned to its former vigor around us. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understand where you’re coming from, just-” I let my hands stay on her shoulder, and gave her a squeeze. “You don’t have anything to prove, Susan. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do,” she said, and then looked apologetic. “I’m sorry. Just… She got to me.”
I rested an arm around her shoulder, and she seemed somewhat warmed by that, pulling my hand down against her throat, pulling in a bit tighter against me as the two of us walked to join Penelope, and Isabelle. Penelope’s eyes were wide. “Are you nuts? You know what she does, right?”
“I’m pretty sure I’m already a deformed monster,” said Susan. “What’s she going to do?”
“I don’t really ask that question. There aren’t a lot of mortals around here, but…” Penelope shivered.
“I’d think it wouldn’t be so frightening to you. You’re their equal, aren’t you?” I asked, and then paused. “Right. They’re not exactly discriminate. I remember reading about a lot of sniping between the gods. They tiff, so one of them murders another’s lover.”
“That kind of thing, yeah.” Penelope sighed. “The Irish aren’t so bad, the Norse are even kind of friendly, but… It’s hard to let my guard down.” She looked at the crowd. “Athena can be… nice. But she can also be scary as hell. I can’t believe you stood up to her like that.”
“Prior experience,” murmured Susan. “God. Uh, I think I need to go be somewhere… else.” I nodded to Isabelle, who took Susan’s arm. “Oh, come on, guys, I don’t need a chaperone.”
“Actually, I was thinking that I wanted to talk with you a bit, with Penelope’s help. Dean, do you want to come along with us?”
“In a minute,” I said. “I need to check on my parents.” I smiled. “I’ll see you three later tonight, alright? Tomorrow, we can have a nice time together.” I gave a warm smile, and drifted away from them. Susan and Isabelle would do alright together. I wanted to let my parents know about the little encounter with Athena sooner, rather than later. I turned, and spotted them at the far end of the hall, talking with Zeus, and someone else.
“Ah, grandson,” said Zeus, smiling magnanimously. “I’m sorry about Athena. She’s been… Well, the only real word for it is bitchy. You understand how it can weigh on her to be cramped here in Avalon. She always dreamt of ambition and success. She’s worried about all of us, and she can occasionally be slightly callous in expressing that concern. If she should give you any more trouble in the future, you have only to mention it. I am still the sky god around here.”
Megara nodded softly. “Thank you. You can understand, it’s something of a shock.” She looked around the room. “In honesty, Zion was always much… closer to humanity, I suppose would be the way to put it. This feels much closer to the old world. I’m not entirely sure whether I find that comforting or odd, but it is good to know.” She paused for a moment. “Hera, mother-in-law-”
Hera raised an eyebrow. “Am I? I can never remember all the genealogies.”
“Through Typhon. At least in a few of the stories.”
“Oh, yes. I think I remember that. Seems like something you might have done,” said Zeus, a light smile on his face, even as he rubbed at his knee. “Certainly felt like your style.”
“Not at the party, dear,” said Hera, a weary expression on her face. “I can take your word for it, Echidna. What can I help with?”
“It’s… something of a personal matter.” Mom gave Harry a smile. “We’ll be back in a bit. Enjoy talking with your father.”
And then it was just the three of us, in an expanding circle of awkward silence.
“It would be too much to ask for a Father?” Zeus asked, a little hint of a plea in his voice. My dad was silent. “No. I understand. There is certainly some things to be answered for.”
“I understand… most things. Most of the things that you would’ve had to do. I’ve led men into battle. I understand that you can’t always hold their hands. But the thing that kept coming back to me was Echidna. Surely you knew about what she was doing. Millenia have passed, and there’s been no Hercules. I suppose… Why didn’t you interfere?”
“I…” Zeus sighed. “This may sound callous of me. But it was… a sacrifice, of sorts. She began her vengeance, sometime after Avalon was built. And I realized that she would keep doing it. She was twisted by hatred, and killing her wouldn’t change that. It would drive her further into the grasp of the Horsemen. By allowing her to go about her hunt, it… focused her. She was a monster, but one that could be overcome that way. In honesty… I hoped this would come about. That you would wind up taming her. It meant the lives of many decent men sacrificed. But that is, unfortunately, a frequent consequence of being a god.” His features hardened momentarily. “I won’t apologize for what I did. But I hope that you can recognize the act for what it was: One of faith in you. In your abilities, your compassion, and your nature. And I am glad that you, Harry Constantinou, became my son.” He crossed his arms. “I hope that you will stay here. I know it is not in your nature, but in these uncertain times, it would be a great comfort.”
There was a long quiet period in the conversation, as dad shifted uncomfortably in his jacket. Finally, he sighed. “Hell. That’s a pretty good reasoning. And I can’t say I was there enough for my own son, so I can’t be one to judge.” He gave me a brief, apologetic smile before turning his gaze back to Zeus. “So you’re not bothered by the fact that I’ve married the mate of your nemesis? The one who tore your tendons out, and all of that?”
“Honestly, son, and don’t tell Hera or your wife about this, but I consider it something of a point of pride.” Zeus smiled. “I know I have a few bad habits in my history. But I’m glad to see you putting them to good use. You two are in love?”
“I think so, yes. I hadn’t really expected it, but…”
“Then I feel at least that I did not do the wrong thing. I’m proud of you, son.”
“Thanks.” Harry frowned. “I don’t know if I can call you father. Not quite yet. But… I’m glad that I could meet you, at least.”
And that, it seemed, was sufficient to end the night on a positive note. The two of us made the trip back to the villa, the sun set, the moon slowly rising. It was full, and I got the distinct impression that it was always full in Avalon, casting a silvery light that somehow managed to illuminate as well as the sun had during the day. The villa was quiet as we arrived, and I made my way to my own room. Neither Susan nor Isabelle was there, which made me feel slightly uneasy, but I trusted them to be well wherever they were, and lay down in the bed. It was lonely, without either of them there. I’d grown surprisingly used to having their company most of the time. I closed my eyes, and despite the hollow loneliness, I was asleep in a handful of minutes.
The sound of scales awoke me, the gentle but unmistakable rustle. I opened my eyes, and yawned, blinking. “You okay?”
“Somewhat,” said Megara, her voice soft. She stood in the room. Beside her, Hera stood, tall, imperious, her expression mixed. “I am sorry to disturb you, son. I needed someone along to see me, and… no one else seemed quite appropriate. Do you mind joining me? We will not be long, but it would help a great deal to have you with me.”
I nodded, and rubbed my eyes. I was still dressed in the shirt and tie. “Do you want me to change, or anything?” I briefly looked to the side, at Hera, who was looking more than a little bit nervous. “Is this dangerous?”
“Not quite,” said mom, and she sighed. “I am afraid that this is dangerous only on the emotional level. There are loose ends that need to be tied up. We’re going to Tartarus.”