Border Guard Chapter 4: Affection Eight

The entire time, that whole ten years I was journeying home, my wife was in my mind. There were other women, a fact of which I’m not proud, but whenever I considered giving up, whenever I considered accepting my fate, I thought of my Penelope, my Telemachus, my Argos. But history has never favored me. Most countries, most mythoses, have favored brawn over the mind. There is a reason it is the Illiad, after all, named after Achilles and his boundless valor. There is a reason that I was despised by the Romans, and by the Italians. I preferred craft and cunning.

Name one famous warrior or monster that I killed in open combat.

No, every man I killed, I killed through persuasion, craft, silent movements.

I got Achilles killed. Because I wanted victory over Troy, even if it cost him his life in the war.

I got Ajax killed. Because I wanted the pride and nobility of being called the best of the Greek warriors.

I got every man who followed me to Troy and who survived the battle killed. Because I wanted a monster to know who had outwitted him.

I have trouble sleeping, some days, because of that. That is why I sat on the shore, watching as the tower burned to the ground from some distance away. A funeral pyre for what this city had once been. But that was the thing about burning something down to ash: Ash was good for a garden. It cleared away the old growth, and let new things sprout. Something would replace this city. Perhaps a world like the one I’d used to know, where men and gods lived together. Maybe something better than that. A world where gods did not provoke wars out of sport and spite. A world where gods did not drive men mad to humiliate them. A world where gods did not keep men away from their families, while babies grew into men, while dogs grew old and died, while wives pined and put their life on hold.

The sandy dunes at the side of this lake- so large as to almost beggar the imagination- provided a calm place to sit, the sand shifting with each movement I made, tiny avalanches. The morning sun rose in the east, bright and fierce, and bringing with it that peculiar heat of the summer, the sear of it reminding me of countless mornings I had awoken on shipwreck-laden coasts across the face of Greece, feeling the bite of the sun as it rose blazing into the sky, the sting of salt in the back of my throat. The waves that rolled against the shore here were far smaller, downright cute even, but it was the same kind of spirit.

I had returned home to my wife and my son, and sworn, I would not leave their sides again. I lived with them until the day they died. And then…

I frowned. What had happened after that? I didn’t know for certain. I didn’t know if I was the original Odysseus, or if I had once been a humbler man by far. That had all been three thousand years ago. Memories faded over that length of time. I had made one pact and then another, passing on, kept young by my connection. First with Athena, and then… with others.

I had spent a very long time wandering the world. Being a hero. Righting wrongs. And the thing was, I’d never had a home to return to. No father, no wife, no child, not since Penelope. I had always told myself that I would be faithful to her, until the day that I died. Not faithful sexually, confessedly, but I had never loved another woman. I had been prepared to die. And yet, I never did. I had fought my way through war after war, fought bandit, monster, and even the occasional small god. I didn’t kill. I wounded, maimed, humiliated, and beat senseless, but I had gotten good enough that I didn’t kill anyone.

What kind of hero doesn’t slay men?

“Odysseus, good god, man. What are you doing out here? Did you sleep on the beach last night?”

I looked up. Diomedes stood there, concern on his brow. Achilles was sitting on the hood of Diomedes’ car. Not the Achilles I had known. Or the Achilles Odysseus had known.

“Just been contemplating.” I stood up, and stretched, lifting both arms into the air and lacing my fingers together. I leaned to the side, and a series of pops and cracks filled the air. A lock of hair fell across my eyes, and I tugged it aside. Silver. It seemed as though I was perpetually going gray, but never quite reaching it. “I think I need another adventure.”

“Already?” asked Achilles, an eyebrow raised. “We just had one. I mean, you spent a hundred and fifty years in hell. You don’t want to relax and enjoy being home for a little bit?”

I didn’t have a home. Not really.

I suppose that’s why I had volunteered, in the first place. When Echidna pled for someone, anyone, to rescue her daughter from Hell. It could not rightly be called a deathwish, because I could not die- And if I had died, I would have been stuck in Hell, never to see my family again. Never to be with Penelope and Telemachus in the Elysian Fields.

You may be asking yourself, ‘Odysseus, why not go visit them? You have been to the underworld before, you know the secret ways into that place. See your family! Be with them again! Or if life is really so hard- take your own life, be one with them!’

We come again to the problem of the original. Perhaps I am the true Odysseus. Perhaps I am simply a usurper to that heroic title. Perhaps if I go there, I will find the true Odysseus, with his wife, his child. I will find that I am just a hollow shell of a man, a story with no core. Or what if there is not? What if I find my wife and son there, abandoned for three thousand years, left behind once more?

Better to put it off as long as possible. Better to leave hope there, to leave uncertainty there. As long as I didn’t know, they might still care about me. They might still remember me.

“Yes. The land burns my feet,” I said, and smiled. “Besides. Monsters and gods are beginning to walk the land again. The destruction of Paradise has opened the floodgates. Perhaps heroes, too.” I waved a hand. “We could go out and find something to do.”

“Not right away,” said Diomedes, firmly. “Come on. Let’s go get some breakfast, you morose old bastard. You’re thinking about your wife and son again, aren’t you?”

God, how I hated the people who knew me and cared about me.

I smiled to myself. Not really. “Yeah. Thanks, Diomedes.” I looked over at Achilles. “Well, YOU look in a good mood. The two of you finally got down to business and blew off some steam, did you?” I walked past them, taking a seat in the back of the car. “About fucking time.” I was quite pleased by the sputtering cough from Diomedes. He wasn’t the only clever bastard.

“A hundred and fifty years,” said Diomedes, softly. “More than that for Achilles. What was it like?”

“Dull,” we said, in unison.

“Nobody ever fought me more than once,” continued Achilles. “And none of them could ever make a scratch on me.”

“And I simply avoided people. That place dulled the mind of those who stayed there, through lack of stimulation. Of course, I was well used to such things, and was little affected.”

“Indeed,” said Achilles, his eyes resting on me in the rear view mirror. “You know, I was never harmed. That is why my appearance never changed. No one could wound me. And yet… I cannot help but notice that you were never changed, either.”

I smiled. “I could be very persuasive.”

“On that subject…” Dio looked into the rear view mirror, now, and his expression was curious. “You went for Cerberus.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t have anything better to do,” I said. I smiled. “That was really all it was about. It wasn’t some grand heroic gesture, it wasn’t meant to be doing some terribly heroic, noble thing. It was just… a way to spend some time.”

“Throwing yourself into Hell for the sake of another. You have an unusual sense of how to blow off a weekend,” said Diomedes. “You know that she stayed here to wait for you. She wanted to be sure that when you returned, she could find you. That’s why she stayed here, where the worlds blended. Where she could still see you.”

“I didn’t want her to wait for me,” I said, softly. “God. I had more than enough of that for a thousand lifetimes.”

“Well, that’s damned tough luck,” said Diomedes, nodding at the diner. “Because I think you’ve got someone waiting for you again.”

I sighed as we stepped out of the car. Officer Crupky- Cerberus- stood outside of the diner, a determined expression on her face. She was wearing a chiton, a fine garment that showed off her shoulders, ragged black hair combed into something approaching cleanliness. Diomedes gave her a nod of the head as he walked past her, hand in hand with Achilles. She stood, facing me.

“I still remember that day,” she said, softly. “When you came and saved me. I waited for you.”

“I didn’t ask you to,” I said, wincing.

She frowned. “You said you’d find me again.”

“Oh? I did?” I coughed.

“You don’t remember it, do you?”

“It was a very long time in that place. Time stretches out, as you well know. It was a fight for survival, to keep hold of myself, and…” I winced. “Yes. I forgot.”

“It wasn’t really all that important to you,” she said, softly, lowering her eyes towards the ground.

“You have to understand… I have saved many women from many grim fates. I am a hero. That is what I do. You were no different from the others.”

“That’s why it stuck out to me,” she said, softly. “You were the first human who ever treated me like that. Not like a dog. Not like a monster. Like…” She looked down. “I really thought this was going to go differently. That you’d come back home, and sweep me off of my feet. Show me what a great man you were, and make me feel young again.” She smiled. “I suppose that was a bit silly, wasn’t it?”

“I’m sorry,” I said, looking aside. “It’s… I’m not much of a husband. Not much of a lover. Not much of any of the things you’re looking for. I’m possessed by wanderlust. The bad kind, the kind that drives me out into the world. You waited…” I squeezed my forehead. “Do you know the story of Hachiko?”

“The dog,” she said, softly.

“Waited every day for its master for eleven years, till it died in the street of cancer. Because he never came back. Because he was dead. You know that? I never was afraid of dying, of dying in battle, of being defeated, of shaming my honor or my name or anything like that. What I was afraid of was going out, and disappearing. Having everyone I loved and cared about waiting, suffering, certain that some day I would return. And never coming back. I was afraid that they’d still be waiting for me. I never wanted you to wait for me, Cerberus. I never wanted you to be suffering.”

“Suffering was not waiting for you,” she said, her voice soft. “Suffering was when I thought no one was coming.”

“I had no idea if I could get out. When I said I’d come to you, it was to make sure you didn’t try to talk me out of changing places with you. I wanted to make sure that you’d let me… do what I needed to do. I wasn’t certain that I was going to be able to find a way out. And in the end, I didn’t. Someone else rescued me.”

“But,” she said, and her eyes were firm on mine, “you came back. Because you had something to come back for. You’re a dog, Odysseus.”

“Thank you,” I said, an eyebrow quirked. “I think?”

“You are loyal. You are steadfast. You fought through, you pushed, you never gave up on returning home. In the face of great and terrible threats to your life, in the face of tasks that would make any sane man give up and settle for a happy life, you fulfilled your obligations.” She took a deep breath, and let it out. “I hate tricksters. They are liars. Deceivers. They use words to make people do what they want, without ever having any intention of following through. They are betrayers.” She held up a finger, and prodded me firmly in the chest. “You are not a trickster. You lie, you inveigle, but not to those who you are close to. You lie to your enemies, because that is only wise. You told me the truth. And that is why I love you.” She crossed her arms, her expression fierce.

“I… don’t know if I can ever return that feeling,” I said, softly. “My wife- Penelope. She…”

“Odysseus… Penelope returned to the cycle of reincarnation.” Cerberus frowned. “Your son, as well. They have passed through the wheel many times since then. They have a zest for life. They have lived it again and again.” She looked aside, a bit embarrassed. “I may have… checked up, since coming here.”

I frowned. I considered for a moment. Was what I felt sadness, that they had moved on without me? Fear, that I would never meet them again? Pain, that I had ignored it for too long, and so lost them?

They were alive again. And again, and again, and again. Still enjoying the world and all it had to offer. Not missing me.

The world felt a bit lighter, all of the sudden.

“I don’t expect you to love me, Odysseus,” said Cerberus, her expression a bit melancholy. “I just wanted to offer you… a place to come home. Any time that you need it, any time the world becomes overwhelming, I want you to know.” She reached out, and rested her hand on my shoulder. “You will always have a home here, and I will always keep it safe for you, from whatever may come. And I know that may strike you as a terrible responsibility, and it is. I am not doing this to make your life easier. I am doing it so that you stay alive, so that you never lack a thing to fight for.”

“A hero has two duties,” I said. “First, to save the world. And second, to come back to those who love him, when the world is safe.” I crossed my arms, and nodded. Of course, it was good advice. I’d given it myself many times. But somehow, it was always easier to give advice than to follow it. “That is a very kind offer. And I do not think I am being given an option to refuse.”

“You are not,” she said, her voice firm, her arms crossed. Then she looked embarrassed. “I… About the reciprocation. Is it… The dog thing? Or the skin-“

“I can safely say that I would fuck you absolutely cross-eyed,” I said, without a hint of shame or embarrassment. “You are quite an attractive woman; I presume you get it from your mother. It’s the love I’m nervous about.”

“Yes.” A smile slowly spread across her lips. “Because you understand what the word means. You understand what a weighty thing it is. Not to be said without meaning it. That’s why I want you to say it. Because the day you do, I know you’ll mean it.”

“God,” I said. “I really didn’t expect you to be waiting for me.”

“I can wait for a very long time. I can wait until the end of the world. I can wait far beyond even that.” She smiled. “I wonder how long you can wait before reciprocating such feelings?”

I shook my head, and smiled. “I wonder what star I was born under that puts me perpetually in the hands of women who absolutely refuse to take no for an answer.”

“Come on. Breakfast is getting cold.”

We were almost all sat there, together. Ariel standing behind the counter, grilling something that smelled delicious. Diomedes and Achilles sitting side by side at a booth, hands intertwined beneath the table. Megan Smith leaning back in one of the chairs, a cup of coffee before her. Cerberus took a seat next to her, and I took a seat next to Cerberus. Ariel placed a pair of coffee cups in front of us, nodding her head softly. “Did you come to a conclusion?”

“Not really,” I said. “But I prefer it that way. I always liked my stories to end with ‘To be continued’.” I looked up at her. “How are you feeling?”

“Better,” she murmured. “I have an awkward conversation ahead of me with Pearl. And a lot of things to worry about.” She sighed. “There’s a great deal of awkward problems that must be dealt with. And the world isn’t going to give me much time.” She looked around the room. “So. What now?”

“Zion is dead,” said Cerberus. “The Cities are probably going to die, too. Sooner or later, more likely sooner at the rate we’re going through them. So, we have a choice before us. We can sit around and wait for someone else to do something about it, while we crap away the days, or we can do something about it. Whatever that might mean.”

“Come now,” said Diomedes. “As though any of us have the temperament to let the world end.” He sipped his coffee. “Jason. I intend to seek out Jason, and his Argonauts. The last I heard they were involved in a skirmish in Southeast Asia. Achilles, if you would join me…”

“Sounds like a fun time,” said Achilles. “I wouldn’t mind coming along. How many of the Greek heroes still run rampant outside of Avalon?”

“A fair number, actually,” said Ariel. “Many of them unaware of their nature. The world is in need of heroes.” She smiled. “If you were to seek some of them out, Diomedes… Well, I would be quite grateful.”

“Yes,” said Diomedes, softly. “I think that what the world needs now, more than anything, is heroes. Champions. Someone to give them hope. It seems as good a goal as any, at the moment.”

Ariel turned her head towards me. “And will you be going with them? Once more into the breach?”

I was silent for a moment, and turned my head towards Cerberus, who was hungrily and messily devouring a plate of sausage and eggs. “Thinking about it… No. I think that I could use a bit of relaxation, and rest. This city is still one of the central places for crossing between worlds, isn’t it? That’s unlikely to change.” I looked down at my own coffee. “The plan. The one the Horsemen put together. It’s working, isn’t it? The same old trick that they always used. Let us destroy ourselves. They’re trying to destroy the barriers between worlds, aren’t they?”

“Classic fork,” said Megan Smith, her expression dour. “If we don’t destroy the city after they’ve infected it, bam. The Horseman takes on the power of a City, and can handily destroy us all. If we do… The worlds get pushed a little closer together.”

“And since when did that become a bad thing?” I asked, softly. “Since when did humanity ever shy away from the monsters, and the gods? Maybe things were better back in the old days.”

“The problem is that humans are too strong,” said Cerberus, her head lowered. “The gods can’t stand equals, let alone superiors. They can’t stand the idea that the humans won’t just worship them. They’ll get scared. They’ll get violent.” She sighed, and looked up at the wall. A series of pictures, post-cards from all across the world. Knowing Ariel, she’d taken all of them that very morning. It was the kind of little touch that a man could get used to.

“What a load of horseshit.” I chuckled. “But that’s the gods. They always underestimate what we humans are capable of. The first step, so as I see it, is right here in Zion. What you and Diomedes were doing, but more. We need to encourage more people to cross over. To mix the two sides, supernatural, and mortal. That’s the only way I can see to get around their damned plans.” I smiled. “The easiest way to divide two peoples is with a wall. I should know, they don’t really make you safe.”

“Oh, dear,” said Ariel, frowning. “That was a very political statement to be making.”

“What?” I frowned. “Why?”

“Nevermind. Something you’ll figure out now that you’re back in the world.” She sighed. “I can’t believe you’re back, really. I can’t believe Hell is broken open. I can’t believe there are so many new… things, walking the Earth. Or old things, I suppose. And here you are, asking to give peace a chance.”

“Heroes are good,” I said, nodding a head towards Diomedes. “But trust… That’s even better.”

Ariel leaned back against the wall, and then turned to look at Megan, a frown on her face. “And how about you, Megan? What are you going to do?”

“I suppose that’s a very good question,” said Megan, her voice soft, as she stared down at her drink. “An offer was made to me, not long ago. It was… tempting. A chance to help someone. To teach someone.” She looked down at her pancakes. “I realized, while working with them, how little we sometimes understand of our world. How pacts truly work, what makes something a god, why certain people need certain things. We tell ourselves lots of stories. And maybe, all there is are stories. But I think that there could be answers, out there. I would like to see if I can help find them. Understand why our world is the way it is, and we are a step closer to changing it.” She smiled, and said, softly, “Third time is the charm.”

“Well, I must say,” said Ariel, smiling. “That’s good to hear. Three journeys, three groups of determined heroes, three people setting out on a journey.” She took a deep breath, and stepped forward.

“Wait a second,” I said, frowning. “You lost a great deal of power in Paradise. You’re in no position-“

She kissed Megan softly, chastely, on the lips, insofar as such a thing was possible. She smiled. “What good is power if it is not exercised? What good is strength if it’s not shared? I may be weak compared to my usual self, but I am still the Wind. And for you, Megan, a gift of serendipity. I hope it brings you good fortune.” She stepped towards Diomedes, and planted a kiss on his lips. Achilles gave a dour look, but seemed to accept it. “For you, Dio. A gift of serenity. You will need every advantage in keeping your cool, when it comes to heroes.”

Then she turned towards me.

“I thought,” I said, my head tilted to the side, “that you only granted your powers to those who were undertaking a great journey. Those who were leaving their comfort zone. I’m volunteering to… stay here. To settle down for a while. This doesn’t seem quite appropriate.”

“Oh, believe me, Odysseus. You are undertaking a very exciting journey indeed.” She smiled. “But it’s not my gift I’m giving you. Just making you aware of a gift you have had for a very long time. Didn’t you wonder how you managed to stay safe in Hell? How you avoided the notice of monsters? How you could stand the threats, and how you could keep fighting in the face of it all? Almost as though you were… at home, in that place.”

“That…” I frowned. “Athena-“

“Withdrew her gift before you left for Hell,” said Ariel. “You walked in there with nothing but your own Heroic mantle- and that alone would not have saved you.” She looked aside, at Cerberus. “One good turn deserves another, doesn’t it?”

“What?” said Cerberus, frowning. “What are you talking about?”

“A pact.”

“… I’m a monster. I didn’t think…” Cerberus frowned. “Can we do that?”

“That’s the thing I hate,” said Megan, softly. “Who the hell knows? Maybe you could only do it if you didn’t know you couldn’t. I pray to whatever higher power may be listening that our world does not run on dramatic ironies.”

“You can’t give a gift without getting something in return,” said Ariel. “You took her place, and though you may not have thought much of it at the time, she did. And that was enough. And some part of you must have reciprocated.”

I stared at her for a few seconds, and then turned my head, deadpan, to Achilles and Diomedes. “A lesson in this. Spend enough time around women, and they will know exactly what you are thinking. Or at least, that is what they will claim, before describing a state of mind that is precisely what they think it should be.” I turned my head back to Ariel, and smiled. “For my part, I think I will just chalk it all up to a hundred generations of fighting and struggling and succeeding, and any supposed pact being a result of our impromptu discussion outside, just now.” I leaned against the tabletop, smiling. “I never take someone’s story at face value.”

“Whatever you say,” said Ariel, and she winked. “You don’t need any gifts from me to be a windbag, Odysseus.”

“Well, everyone! So this is where you’ve been!” said Coyote, striding in with Reynard by his side. I slapped my forehead, trying not to laugh. Megan stared at him, her eyes filled with first shock, then anger, then a cold and murderous regard. “Darling! I was wondering where you were! I ran into this lovely lady, and she told me about that job opportunity, and I think it’s a real winner.”

“You have been fucking around behind my back again,” said Megan, her voice even, much like a guillotine blade.

“Darling! I resent that statement! I can be around a woman- even an admittedly attractive white one- without giving in to my base urges, and-“

“You are wearing her pants,” said Diomedes, quite politely.

Coyote paused for a moment, looked down, and then back up, his lips pressed tightly together. “Mmm. I thought I was both more constrained and more coddled than usual. There is a very good explanation for this, darling-“

“No,” said Megan. “I understand. It’s in your nature. You have done it every time, and it has never changed things before. You were right. You do it, I get angry, I blame you, and then I forgive you.”

“What?” said Coyote, looking bemused. “Well- Yes, of course, but-“

“Almost as though, for example, you come for a quick booty call, get me all hot and bothered by supporting me, and then do something outrageous to break off the relationship before it can entwine you more. A quick round of fun, and then off again after having gotten a hot meal.” She smiled. “It would be silly of me to blame you for that, darling Coyote. You cannot change who, what, you are. The only way a man can change is slowly. Over time. If I simply push you away after you do something objectionable, like fucking this flea-bitten whore, then you will never learn your lesson. I must be more patient. More tolerant.”

“Oh. Well, that sounds quite good-“

Megan moved smoothly. Three steps forward, her hand going around Coyote’s throat. She spun on one heel, dragging him up and through the air, pulling him in a complete circle that terminated in a flat arc through the window, and across the rough gravel parking lot outside. Coyote came to a rolling stop, groaning.

“You’re coming with me to Binghamton, Coyote. And each and every single time that you cheat on me, I am going to throw you through a window. I imagine that, given enough time, and enough attention, and enough broken glass, even you can learn your lesson.”

Coyote burbled what was probably an affirmative, or at least a statement of terrified submission. Megan turned towards us, and smiled. “You know, I think he really has changed.”

Diomedes frowned at me. “Huh. He’s not the only one. Take a look at that.”

The broken window was letting in a great deal more light. I tilted my head, and a lock of hair fell in front of my eyes. I tugged at it.

It was rich and black, not a hint of grey in it.

“Well,” I said, and smiled. “Look at that.” I leaned back in my chair, and drained the rest of my coffee.

Everything ends. But the best kind of ending goes

To Be Continued.

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