“And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.” -The Song of Achilles
It takes doing. He has to find three fucking trolls right off the bat and those bastards don’t grow in caves the way they used to. He has to climb a mountain in Iceland with nothing but an axe and the clothes on his back. He barely feels the cold as it whips across the rocky ground. And that is just the first one.
After the trolls heads, he needs rune sticks, carved out of bones of a loved one. He finds the spot in his parents' backyard where his childhood dog is buried and digs it up under the cover of night.
He gets shit from everyone. No one understands. He doesn't stop. It won't matter if this works, and if it doesn’t work it won’t matter either.
It takes six months and twenty days for him to get everything he needs. Brad stands in the dark in a forest in Norway and puts the elements of the spell on the ground and hopes that the seer wasn’t a lying bitch because he intends to take his axe to the All-Father’s throat for this.
Besides, this is what Demigods do, try to kill their parents.
“Just try it, Sargent,” Fick rolls his eyes at him. Brad grinds his teeth in response.
“I’m not fucking Thor, sir,” They have been over this time and time again. Norse Demigods do not work the same as the Pansy-ass Greeks.
“The Aesir were not ‘one trick ponies’ as you so often point out, so you are bound to have more than just a resistance to cold and super strength,” Fick insists.
Eventually, Brad relents and stands outside in a thunderstorm just to appease LT. Fick. He doesn’t call down thunder no matter what they try. They even have Fick throw a spear at him thinking that maybe it’ll spark the power in him.
“You sure you got a God in your lineage, sir?” Brad teases. Fick responds by stomping on the edge of the spear, making it jump up into the air, grabbing it without looking, and twirls it around his body.
“Pretty sure.” Fick smiles like he knows he’s hot shit. Brad struggles to disagree.
Turns out Demigods are a semi-regular occurrence. The sick fucks in their Eternal Halls have learned that they are losing the fight for believers, so they are winning the war of children. Having bastards around the world so that their children can be their power base. The twisted monsters that they are. Living breathing human batteries.
The rare thing is for a mother to give one of them up. Something about the power a Demigod radiates, meaning that the mothers are almost always attached to their unborn godling. It’s how the system is supposed to work. Breed her, leave her, come back ten years later and collect your new battery. (Brad will allow for the fact that there are female gods that apparently just find sperm donors, but that’s not the point here.)
Every last one of the asshats has some kind of training center, or some shit. He learns the Greeks and Romans have straight up camps, like joining the godly military is some kind of endless summer vacation for the demigods. What a load of bullshit.
The point was baby mama broke tradition and put Brad up for adoption. He didn’t get the pick up at age ten. In fact, the fuckers didn’t track him down until he was already enlisted and it was only an accident then.
Turns out Valkyries are real and he can see them. So that’s fun.
“I thought Leprechauns were supposed to be redheads.” Brad squints at Ray Person who looks two seconds away from spontaneously combusting.
“Fuck you, Colbert! Fuck you and your Iceman routine! I am going to outlive all of you so you can suck my dick!” Ray stops off.
So maybe his second encounter with a fellow demigod wasn’t a glowing recommendation.
The new LT has been with Recon for about three days when he pulls Brad aside after chow for a quick word. Fick narrows his eyes at Brad for a moment and chews on his lower lip, clearly thinking.
“Sir?” Brad tries, getting worried.
Fick opens his mouth, and Old Norse spills out. “ Hail and well met, Odinson.”
Brad is so shocked he can’t move, can’t breathe. He’s met others before. Hell, Ray is practically his best friend at this point. But that right here was something Brad hasn't seen before. A showing of real power, not just strength because all of them have that.
“ To whom do I address?” Brad asks back because he has no idea what type of Godling Lieutenant Nate Fick is.
What Fick says in response is gibberish to Brad’s ears. Odinson he may be, however he still has both his eyes meaning the gift of All Speech is not his.
“Sorry.” Fick clears his throat. “My line is that of Athena.” Fick holds out his hand and Brad takes it without thought. “It's a pleasure to meet you properly, Sargent.”
“And you, Lieutenant,” Brad parrots back.
He kicks open the doors to Valhalla. It seems like the thing to do in this situation. The feasting hall is filled to brimming with men and women. They are covered in blood, eating, drinking, and laughing, until he arrives. Their eyes pivot to him, his lifeblood and godhood making him a shining star on a moonless night. They appear wraiths in comparison to him in this hall.
“WHERE IS HE?” Brad bellows at the throne.
Odin doesn’t look up from his meal. Brad storms past the feasting tables until he stands in front of the king of the Aesir, the All-Father, Odin, his father, and holds his axe to the man’s neck. Odin doesn’t even blink. Doesn’t even flinch.
“I asked you a question,” Brad growls.
“Of whom do you speak, young warrior?” Odin sighs like there isn’t a blade pressing into his neck. Like he doesn’t know exactly who Brad is looking for.
“My shieldmate.” The words rip through his throat and lungs. He’s come so far. He’s not stopping now.
“If he is yours and he fell in battle then he is here, in my hall. Otherwise, your quarrel is with Corpse Ripper and Hel.” Odin speaks with food in his mouth, the words garbled. It’s plainly meant as disrespect to his son.
“He’s not here. The Valkyries did not take him. Corpse Ripper has not tasted his flesh and Hel has not laid her hands on him.” Brad opens the pouch on his belt and holds out the stone he got from the Queen of the Underworld. Its smooth white surface glitters in the firelight of the hall. His arms bare the fang marks from the snake who will one day eat the world. He has been thorough. “I ask again. Where. Is. He.”
Odin finally looks up from his turkey leg to gaze at Brad with the look of a man who is about to explain something to a child.
“Ask his mother’s people,” Odin intones. “Your claim must have been weak for them to take him from my Valkyries.” The All-Father shakes his head like he is disappointed in Brad, like he isn’t a living half mortal standing in the eternal hall with an Axe made by dwarves in his hands.
Brad smashes the table with a single blow of his axe.
“The Greeks are fond of their trials, Bradley Odinson,” someone calls out as he leaves. “Their tricks are more devilish than Loki could devise. He is lost to you!” The voice shouts as the doors shut. Brad doesn’t bother wondering which of the Aesir it was that called to him. He doesn’t trust any of them.
“It’s cheating,” Brad argues.
“No more than you breaking a steel rod in half with your hands is cheating,” Nate whips back, amused.
“I’m not the one with six superpowers,” Brad points out, Nate rolls his eyes but because he’s a little shit he still picks up the axe and twirls it around like he is practicing for a color brigade.
“They are not superpowers, and there are not six.” Nate smirks. “I have to have a least seven.” Brad glares but it only makes Nate laugh and give him one of his sunshine smiles. “I have to compensate for the lack of semi-immortality somehow.”
It’s an old argument between them. Brad complaining about Nate’s ability to read or speak any language he thinks about, to pick up any weapon and be good at it, and his fucking aim . Not even mentioning his photographic memory. Or his ass.
Nate’s counterargument always being that he had to make up for being second generation somehow. He wasn’t a true Godling, not in the sense that most of the community at large measured by. Nate was just an enhanced mortal. He would die of natural causes at some point.
It had started as a joke.
It was less of a joke now.
Brad would outlive him by centuries.
“Promise me you won’t go on some kind of suicidal quest to kill Fenrir or something after I die,” Nate whispers in the dark hours of night. “Promise me you will still be magnificent when I am watching you from below.”
“I would never let you go south,” Brad promises. “I hate to break it to you but you can’t go softly into the good night and make it to Valhalla. We go down together, in a blaze of glory.”
Nate kisses him when he says that. It’s desperate and painful with a hint of teeth. They are tied together in every way that matters in the mortal realm and in the eyes of their pantheons, and time is their real enemy. No red string, no three-tiered ribbon on their hands and swords can stop the march of time.
Brad meets his biological father the same day he gets dumped. Looking back he is not pretty sure that the All-Fucker timed it that way. A deliberate choice to come for Brad when he would be at his weakest.
A false assumption on the one eye bastard’s part.
He goes surfing after the conversation is over. So he’s not engaged anymore and is also down a best friend. The only logical thing to do is to go out on the ocean and scream into the abyss for a bit. He doesn’t actually scream, but getting crushed by a few waves feels a bit like his body is screaming.
There’s an older man sitting next to Brad’s gear when he gets back to the beach, perched calmly as if he isn’t violating surfer code 101. Maybe another day Brad would have opened with something witty.
“Move.” He snaps at the man. He’s wearing an eye patch and when he stands Brad realizes he is a little taller than Brad. That’s a little odd but not enough to make Brad forget that this guy was practically sitting on top of his stuff.
“I thought, perhaps, you might like to join me on a journey.” The man begins as Brad pulles off his wetsuit.
“Do I know you?” Brad knows he is giving off ‘leave me alone’ vibes and he has no fucking idea why this guy isn’t getting it. He’s not worried because he can take just about any mother fucker that comes at him. It’s just annoying.
“I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count,” the man says with a smile. Brad huffs, sets down his board so it’s stuck in the sand and turns to properly face this guy who is probably insane. At first glance, Brad would say he has no fucking clue who this guy is. He has never met any one-eyed guys because frankly that is a loss of combat effectiveness and most of his friends these days are in the Corps.
Then something about his smile makes Brad squint, turn his head just a little and make his eyes blur out the details. Huh. Turns out his looks are genetic. That’s unexpected.
“What am I supposed to call you?” Brad asks when he is pretty sure this is who he thinks it is.
“I am guessing Dad is too presumptuous.” Odin doesn’t even acknowledge Brad’s eye roll. “Let’s start with Mr. O. We can move up to more familiarity once we have gotten to know each other better.”
“Excuse me?” Brad isn’t dumb but he is lost right now.
“On our quest,” Odin explains. “I have a wager with a Giant that needs settling and if I have you sized up properly it will be the perfect testing ground for you.”
“Thanks, but no.” Brad shakes his head. “I have deep sea diving training in a week. I have to be on base.” Odin looks unimpressed.
“I understand that you are young and still think your mortal obligations carry any importance. I can promise you that I will make it so your presence is not missed during this… training.” Odin holds out his hand. “It’s time that you joined us, my son. You are strong and that strength needs to be honed. There’s nothing to hold you here.”
Brad had been close to saying yes. Closer than he wanted to admit. Then Odin had gone too far. There’s nothing to hold you here . It was a slap in the face. It stung.
He had been pretty sure the Marines had burned the disobedience out of him. Finally driven that part of him that made him want to hit back any time someone came for him. The muleheaded stubbornness that had landed him in military school as a child. Turns out they just hadn’t gone deep enough.
“I’ll pass.” His voice is icy. “I’m good right here, on my own.”
He doesn’t need this fucking sperm donor telling him what to do. He has a real father for that shit. This interloper has no place in his life. Especially today. Brad isn’t in the mood to forgive people who abandoned him right now, or ever maybe.
“You’ll regret it,” Odin promises.
“Yeah, I might, but I’d rather stay here with my mortal obligations .” Brad retorts. Odin smiles at him or rather bares his teeth like a wolf cornered. Later, a lifetime later, he will remember that smile and know that it was the moment tragedy was written into his life.
“Have it your way,” Odin spits. “My son.”
Niflheim is shockingly cold. Brad has no memory of ever being this cold before in his life. Leave it to his father’s people to make their underworld fucking freezing. He’s dirty, freezing, and fucking exhausted but he is determined.
He’s not leaving Nate in this place.
What’s a snake set on devouring the world in the face of his loss?
What is any of this compared to what has been taken from him?
“Never?” Lieutenant Fick asks, astonished. “That doesn't make any sense at all. None of us get this far in life without meeting another Demigod.”
“Person doesn’t count,” Brad points out. It’s true, according to the Godling community at large Leprechauns need not apply. Something about being nature spirits more than any kind of god. Brad wasn’t listening.
“I just can’t believe I am your first Powered friend,” the LT’s eyes are wide as he sips his beer. He shakes his head lightly before wrapping his lips around the bottle. Brad pointedly doesn’t notice.
“I don't know if I would use the word friend. You are an officer, sir,” Brad teases. He shouldn’t tease but talking to Fick is easy.
“Sargent, we are at a bar on a weekend, during leave, I don't think acquaintances cuts it anymore.” This rabbit holes into Fick defining the word friendship using quotes from nearly every philosopher that has ever lived and breathed. Brad counters with an epic about the fact that only real male friendships are forged in battle.
“If we see combat, I’ll call you my friend,” Brad promises over beer six.
“I’m holding you to that,” Fick points at him with the neck of his fifth beer. “Contract law is in my lineage.”
“No offense sir, but what exactly isn’t in your lineage?” This makes the LT scrunch his face up in thought and he looks a bit like an eight-year-old in this lighting with his face twisted like that.
“Rash decisions?” Fick answers after several seconds of concentration.
“Fairies take us,” Brad curses in response. Fick kicks him lightly in the shin. Brad tries really hard not to blush.
“You bleeding to death or not?” The goddess asks him, petulant.
“Not,” Brad answers, yanking the fang out of his chest and pouring quick wound repair into it.
“That a problem?” She shrugs. If he doesn't look at the half of her that is a zombie she seems like an elegant beautiful woman who is just bored. Her jet black hair hangs is a curtain obscuring much of her face.
“I wouldn’t get to keep you here anyway,” She sighs. “The bastards at the top like to have dibs on anyone interesting.”
“Fucking hierarchy,” Brad curses and applies a field bandage to his arms. Harry Potter really downplayed how hard it is to stab a giant snake in the mouth.
“Tell me about it, the system is rigged.” Hel picks at her nails, regarding him coldly. “You really gonna go kick the door of the big guy about this?”
“I don’t make idle threats,” Brad explains. He made it down two entire realms; it should be very clear now that he is not fucking around.
“Dad would love you.” Hel smirks. That’s a thought: Loki offering him favor. He almost laughs at the picture in his mind, him standing next to the original Ice Giant turned God.
“I’ll make you a deal.” Hel pulls something out of her dress and places it in his palm with her flesh hand. “You make it to Valhalla and hold an axe to The All-Father’s throat, and I’ll grant you a boon.”
Brad looks at the smooth pale stone in his hand. It burns it’s so cold. He closes his fingers over it and places it in his pocket.
“What’s the fine print on this fucker? Nothing’s free.” He’s asking because he knows it’s what Nate would tell him to do, ask the goddess about the catch to her gift. Their gifts always come with a price, their games are always meant to cost us and not them. Never play with a god. Never bargain with a god. You’ll lose . But Nate’s not here to stop him, and that’s the point, isn’t it.
“Get your boy back and then we can talk terms, or not, maybe you’ll die trying and I won’t ever call on you for my half. Just take the stone out, you’ll know when.”
“Ma’am.” Brad nods at her in acknowledgment as he leaves. The climb back to Midgard is going to put BRE to shame with the injuries he is sporting right now.
They are sitting on a berm in the dying daylight watching the men get settled for the night. The heat of the day is about to burn off and turn bitterly cold.
“This is bullshit,” Brad says after a nearly infinite silence. “You are meant for better than fubar clusterfuck, sir.” Fick snorts.
“If anyone is meant for something better, it’s you, Brad,” Fick retorts. “This not a battlefield of valor and glory. No trips to Valhalla in this war.”
Brad shrugs. He doesn’t care so much about that, not really.
Fick used his first name and he’s too busy keeping his legs standing under him because they are close enough to feel the heat of one another. Glory and triumph in battle be damned, Brad Colbert has never felt more alive than he does with Lieutenant Nate Fick at his six.
They share a look that even poets would struggle to describe and Brad gets the distinct inkling that he isn’t the only one having this moment.
“Name one hero who was happy.” -The Song of Achilles
“If I ask you to stop this, to give up, would you?” Ray asks sitting across from Brad. They are in a shit hole in gods only know where. Brad isn’t entirely clear how Ray tracked him down. He should probably feel touched, not attacked.
Ray sighs and scrubs his hands over his face and hair aggressively until he is bright red.
“Man, I need you to stop,” Ray begs. “You went to three other realms. If you keep going now, you are going to die.” Brad can hear tears in Ray’s voice but he refuses to look up and see them. “You aren’t the only one who lost him. You aren’t the only one who loved him. But if you make me watch you kill yourself, suicide by god, I’ll…” Ray trails off in a hiccup.
“I won’t,” Brad starts. He won’t.
“We used to laugh about this homes. Nate would say I had to make sure you didn’t go feral when he died, and I told him ‘no way Iceman would do that in a million years.’ Should have realized he knew you better than I ever could.”
“I won’t die, Ray. I’ll finish it,” Brad promises.
“You fucking better,” Ray half-sobs half-hiccups. “Because if you die I will not be making your pyre. You can go in the ground for all I care.”
Nate is an ass. Brad wants that on record. He hasn’t stopped chuckling into Brad’s shoulder nearly the entire tour. First, he drags Brad to the Library of Congress on a vacation which is practically treason. Second, he has the audacity to laugh about the fact that his Grandmother and her extended family at large are featured heavily in the decoration of this historic building.
“It’s because we don’t have any hot lady gods of poetry. Just Bragi, but he doesn’t look good in a toga half nude according to the heterosexual ruling class,” Brad complains. “I have never been more ashamed to be an American. This is blatant favoritism.”
Nate looks ready to shove his entire hand into his mouth to keep himself from laughing, the bastard.
“Alright, fess up, how many of the fucking founding fathers are related to you?” Brad snaps when they get the Jefferson Library display. “If you tell me that he’s an uncle I will lose my mind right here in front of all these innocent school children and elderly people and it will be entirely your fault for dragging me to a place of learning on what is supposed to be our couple’s weekend.”
“If I tell you he’s a second cousin, what will the outcome be?” Nate grins.
“We are going to Sweden next year. Mark my words Fick. Our vows said we would be equal in all things, this is an imbalance of power. I stand to correct it.” Brad pinches Nate’s arm so the other man knows he’s serious.
“Anything you want.” Nate giggles and then leans forward to kiss Brad square on the mouth in the sight of Congress and at least two million school children.
He’s still an ass, but he’s Brad’s ass.
Brad isn’t even surprised to see that there is someone waiting for him at the mouth of the cave. He has been at this quest for two years. The higher-ups have to start noticing all the noise he is making.
“I’m not stopping,” he tells the supernatural woman standing at the mouth of the cave.
“I know, I wrote your story in the threads myself.” That makes Brad pause. He examines her closely and realizes while dressed like a Norse she is not in any kind of armor.
“I thought all the spinners were old women.” Brad is long past caring if he pisses her, or any of them, off.
“Mortals think wisdom means withering.” Her smile is sharp. It sounds like the kind of shit Nate used to say.
“Side effect of their timeline, and your ministrations, I’m sure.” Brad indicates the cave with his head. “If you aren’t here to stop me then what are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you, in the flesh, so to speak.” She rakes her eyes over him and her expression is unreadable. He is a mess. His hair is buzzed so close it might as well be shaved off, he is covered in scars, and his clothing is starting to degrade. Not even mentioning the remnants of Trolls blood on his hands.
“I’m not some chosen one,” Brad snaps. “I’m not here to save the world or any of that fucking shit.” She smiles at that, with her lips pressed close and her mouth held tight like he’s pleased her but she doesn't want to show it.
“Chosen ones are a dime a dozen. Nearly every one of my brethren has a chosen son or daughter that they send on a quest. I have an appointment with a water chosen child later.” She waves her hand dismissively. “No, I came to see a true rarity. A Forsaken.”
She leans in real close to him until he can see the points of her teeth. His people don’t have Furies, but Brad suddenly wonders if the Norn, the Fates, and The Furies, aren't just three supremely powerful and pissed off ladies. Her smile is bladed with dagger teeth but her eyes are a starless night, a glowing grey in the dawn.
“Do you know your mother’s heritage?” the Norn asks in a whisper as if volume will reveal the secret.
“Will the knowledge get him back?” Brad asks in the same hushed tone.
“No,” Her face is mocking. “He cannot be found that easily.”
“Then I don’t give a fuck.” Brad seethes. He has to get moving. The spell will only last so long. He needs the entrance to stay open. This makes her laugh, a noise like broken glass and crumbling pavement.
“They made a mistake,” she giggles, “Letting you live.” She vanishes like smoke blowing in the wind, with a final call of “Safe travels” on the breeze.
Brad shakes his head and prepares to storm Valhalla.
The first time Brad meets Nate’s mother she squints and shields her eyes while shaking his hand.
“How do you look at him straight on?” She asks Nate with a smile.
“I don’t leave The Sight on for starters,” Nate explains. She snorts at that and then blinks a few times.
“Human eyesight is terribly dull.” She shakes her head and scrunches up her nose in a face that is entirely Nate’s. Brad is oddly charmed by this quirky, easily distracted professor, and he normally hates all academics. Must be the genetic link.
They drop the subject of Nate and his mother’s magic sight. They are in public after all. It's a good afternoon.
The discussion wasn’t over, Brad found out later. He wakes up to find that Nate is missing from the bed so he ventures out of the spare room to find his wayward other half when he hears the sounds of hushed conversation. Brad isn’t an eavesdropper by nature, but something about the tone he hears tells him to stop and listen.
“It’s too much power.” Clara’s voice is urgent. “He shouldn’t be that strong.”
“Mom,” Nate starts and then seems to lose whatever he wants to say.
“I’m not saying no, baby. I’m just…” She trails off. “We both know the classics. I made sure you studied them, so you would know how to defend yourself in this life.” Brad hadn’t known that Nate studied classics because his mother wanted him to. Then again maybe he did just enjoy reading about all of human history.
“Yes, but what does that have to do with Brad? With me?” Nate is so rarely confused by anything that it has Brad on edge. The hair on his arms standing up.
“They don’t let the heroes be happy,” Clara intones with a note of finality in her voice, “Not for long, not for good.”
“Shit, Mom, you can’t honestly think either of us is going to go on any kind of quest that would put us in that kind of position? We are smarter than that. We barely interact with anyone else in the community.” Brad can practically hear Clara shaking her head at her son.
“You are in the military Nathaniel, both of you. And some of that is from my side but some of it is from his side. No one that strong, no one that bright, can avoid what will come for him. The poets and the fates never let the powerful ones flourish. And when the threads are cut it will be messy, it will be bloody, and you will be beyond my protection.”
“You make it sound like it’s all done and decided already.” Nate’s voice doesn’t sound defeated like Brad suddenly feels in the moment. “You forget that there are always outliers. The numbers are on our side these days. There are fewer quests, fewer heroes, more of us walking this earth. Our number might never get called.”
“I pray that it does not sweetheart.” Clara sounds broken. “I don’t mean to spoil this day, this momentous occasion. I love Bradley as deeply as I love you, my flesh and blood, because he is tied up in you almost as deep as I am. I am my mother’s daughter. I see things.”
“It’s going to be fine mom, I promise. One more tour and I am getting out.”
“Of course.” Clara’s voice is tight with unshed tears.
When Nate comes back to bed, Brad is already back under the covers as if he never left. He lets Brad hold him tight and press kisses into the back of his neck before drifting off to sleep. Brad lays awake, paralyzed with thoughts of Achilles and how his story ended. Hercules standing over his dead children. The list goes on and on. He doesn’t sleep.
The first Valkyrie Brad ever meets is kind of a bitch. It doesn’t bode well for his general assimilation into this community he apparently belongs to. She was on a mission with his unit to fuck shit up. Not how she puts it but that’s how Brad would explain the Sitrep.
“You have the blood of the Aesir in your veins,” she says to him when Brad breaks off from his unit during watch to ask the glowing woman with a sword what the fuck she thinks she is doing in the Afgan hills.
“The what?” Brad isn’t a stupid man but that’s a word he has never heard before.
“Odin, Thor, Balder,” she ticks off a few other names Brad has never heard off on her fingers. “You might call them the Norse Gods.”
“That still doesn’t answer my question of what the fuck you are doing here,” Brad barks. She doesn't answer him this time and he can’t seem to touch her.
“I have come to the battlefield to claim a boon.” She relents after nearly an hour of Brad attempting to get a grip on her so he can take her into custody. “I will not interfere with you, so cease this, Bradley Odinson.”
He leaves because he needs sleep before they move out at dawn. He thinks it was a dream until the next day when two guys go down from an IED seconds after Brad sees her wave at him from their position.
When he gets stateside he googles the word ‘Aesir’, and then ‘Odinson’, and then ‘Odin’. He checked out five library books and watches all of some show from the ’80s.
He is supremely fucked, is his hypothesis.
The first trial is a maze. Traditionally they are giant stone-walled monoliths that will take the hero days or years to navigate. Brad made sure to memorize the tales of the Greek heroes trials before going this far. A recon Marine to the very end.
This maze isn’t an ancient temple on a mountain or a cavern near the sea. It’s a desert. An endless desert in all directions. Brad laughs the first night, full guttural laughs that shake his entire body as he pounds the earth with his fists.
No ball of twine is going to help him here. His research was pointless because the Greeks clearly intended to tailor each trial specifically to Brad, forcing him to suffer in a unique way.
He makes it fourteen days. His Marine training gets him that far. He doesn’t really sleep, not for long because when he does the landscape shifts around him, like a mirage. The heat is getting to him finally, he is seeing things. Either that or a ghost of Nate is standing in front of him with a disappointed expression.
“I’m trying,” Brad explains to the specter.
“Like a mortal.” Nate is staunch in his assessment of Brad. “This is not a quest for Brad the Marine.”
“It’s cheating,” Brad tries to explain, tries to make a shadow of Nate understand why he never seems to want to use his gifts, why even now he can’t bring himself to use them.
“Un-fuck yourself, Marine,” Nate orders. “The Gods are cheaters.”
Brad blinks, realizes he has drifted off standing up. The landscape around him is slightly different. The hill he was climbing is gone and he stands on flat ground. Something inside him breaks, snaps at the fact that he had a glimpse of Nate and it was ripped from him.
He screams. Or bellows. It's a noise from his center of mass and it doesn't sound human. He closes his eyes and lets it tear through him organically.
When he opens his eyes again the desert is gone. Well, not gone. It’s there, but it's as if he has put on sunglasses and can now suddenly see where the desert truly isn't.
It’s a fucking illusion. Of course, it’s a fucking illusion.
Brad cracks every knuckle in his fingers and shakes out his shoulders. Then the sky opens up, pouring out the contents of an ocean in seconds. A true downpour. When it passes he sees the clear rocky path to the exit of the maze.
He doesn’t think about how he could see the things he just saw, he doesn’t think about the rain or where it could have come from.
“When he died, all things soft and beautiful and bright would be buried with him.” -The Song of Achilles
They have two funerals. One for the Godlings and one for the mortals. Brad doesn’t really want to have either but he understands that he’s not the only one grieving.
Clara Fick stands next to him beside the pyre, her face is wet and yet she is silent in her mourning. Brad is equally mute. His voice is gone. His life is gone. Nate was a fool to think he would go on any kind of quest after his loss, Brad can barely get himself upright.
“He was the brightest of my children,” Clara says into the ashes when they are the only two left. “As a mother, you are not supposed to have favorites, but I knew he needed to be mine because I would have him for a shorter amount of time.” Her voice cracks. “I knew it the first time I held him in my arms. I knew it the day he met you.” Her smile is watery and thin.
“I did everything I could.” He tries to explain, to make her understand that he nearly died trying to make this reality a fiction.
“I don't blame you darling,” she sniffles. “We have jealous parents. They are narcissistic to their very cores, and they won't allow any of us to outshine them, not even for a blink of their eyes.”
Brad feels tears on his face, his face a crumpled mass of flesh in a scream he cannot voice.
“This is our punishment,” Clara continues with her arms around his shaking body. “It’s their way.”
“Both Christianity and Norse have a flaming sword at the end of the world,” Nate points out.
“I will pay both of you actual money to not have this conversation anymore,” Brad tells them. Ray gives Brad a look that says Leprechaun like it explains everything, and Nate gives him a look that says debate mode . “I’m getting more beer.”
“Brad might complain constantly that your fam gets all the press but his is the one that informed nearly all of the major doctrine in media these days. Shit Homes, they took his major holidays and even incorporated the weird shit.” Ray begins anew.
They need other Godling friends. Ray Person and Nate Fick are a two-man debate team when buzzed, and they only get worse.
“Exactly! The concept of two afterlives, the division of souls after death, doesn’t exist in the same format.” Nate jumps in excitedly.
“What about those fields?” Brad asks, he knows that they are called he just thinks the name is dumb. Nate shakes his head with his mouth full, looking a bit like a chipmunk.
“We only have one place. It's more like a mall or a university with different areas. All the dead Greeks go to one place,” Nate explains.
“’Cuz that’s an efficient system, sure,” Brad agrees noncommittally. He zones out after that. Eventually, they circle back to the topic of work, sports, and friends, and Brad joins the conversation again.
At first, he doesn’t know what he is looking at. He’s not entirely sure he isn’t still in the desert maze. His eyes take a moment to adjust to the difference in lighting, the soft hazy glow of sunlight filtered through glass and columns. He can make out white marble near the ceiling, and as his boots scuff the floor beneath his feet, it seems to be the same stone.
The room, or building, or more likely temple, is filled to brimming with what looks like dirt. Brad walks closer to the pile, wondering when the monster beneath it will appear. He stands there, axe ready, and nothing happens.
The letters along the wall are gold and only because he twists his axe in his fingers does he see them, the sunlight catching his blade and reflecting on the wall.
Sand. Wheat. Barley. Chickpeas.
Under each word is an altar with a wide dish. Brad looks at the altars, and then at the pile in front of him that takes up the entire floor. A memory of a tale, long forgotten, of Psyche in Aphrodite's palace sorting grain with the help of ant’s comes to mind.
“This is some Disney princess bullshit,” Brad huffs, setting down his weapons.
“ Not everything can be solved with brute strength .” An echo of Nate whispers in his mind.
“I do solve things other ways.” Brad speaks aloud to the abandoned temple.
“ Time’s a wastin’, Gunnery Sergeant ,” Nate’s memory teases.
Time loses meaning. He can count the passage of days by the changing of the light in the temple but Brad wouldn’t put it past the Greeks to have false light in this place, tricking him into thinking he is moving slower than he really is. Brad pays it no mind. If they think that they can break him with a menial task they don’t know the first thing about Bradley Colbert or the Marines Corps.
“I am air and thought and can do nothing.” - The Song of Achilles
“Don’t you want to know your limits?” Fick asks when he makes the offer. “You can say no, Sargent, it’s not an order.”
“Fine, but don’t cry when I wipe the floor with your ass, sir.” Brad salutes when Fick rolls his eyes.
That’s how it starts. Sparing to see what they actually have in the tank. Neither of them really ever get a chance to go all out.
“Not since I used to visit the camp,” Fick mentions.
“Sounds like an excuse to me, sir,” Brad deadpans.
Plot twist, the LT is really fucking good at hand-to-hand and if possible even better with a weapon.
“Spears were the weapon of choice for more of human history than is even recorded.” Fick smirks with his weight pinned on Brad and his axe feet away, useless.
Sparring becomes A Thing. They clear out Brad’s living room of everything breakable and block out six hours to tire themselves out. It takes forever some days. They are both stubborn and oddly evenly matched. Brad is a berserker by nature, he gets stronger the longer he goes, his mind going partially offline as his body controls his actions into a deadly storm. Fick has speed, agility, and an encyclopedic knowledge of fighting styles. He can’t match Brad for strength but he can leverage body weight making it nearly even.
They never end without both of them being puddles of sweat on the floor, too exhausted to move.
Then the experiments come. Fick wants numbers and outcomes.
“You cannot be the son of Odin and not have any special powers.” Fick shakes his head in disbelief. “We just aren’t pushing you hard enough.”
“If the Marine Corps couldn’t get lightning or fire or whatever out of me, what makes you think you can succeed where they failed?” Brad queries.
“They didn’t know what they had,” Nate ticks off on a finger, “And they aren’t me.” His self-satisfied smirk should be described as filthy.
Brad might be in trouble.
Brad is nervous. His palms are sweating. Knees weak, mom’s spaghetti plays in his head in Ray Person’s voice because he is fucking nervous.
He pulls up to the restaurant nearly an hour early and spends the next twenty minutes freaking out, silently in his car. Then there’s a tap at the window. Brad looks up to Lieu-Nate standing next to his car with a polite closed mouth smile. Brad’s heart sinks.
“Sir?” he asks when Fic-Nate opens the door and sits down next to him.
“I appear to have made a tactical error Sergeant.” Lieutenant Fick says in a clipped commanding voice. “I always want to listen to the advice of my enlisted men, but in this instance, I think I incorrectly took your choice to be the correct one. After close observation, I believe we have gone the wrong direction.”
“Sir?” Brad asks again because he is too fucking chicken shit to say anything else.
“We aren’t fancy-restaurant first-dinner-date people. Not after everything we have been through together. I never should have let you be in charge of this particular OP,” Nate sighs, “I called the Laser tag place on E 55th and they have room for us for the rest of the night.”
“You want me to play laser tag with you, in my best dress pants?” Brad is incredulous.
“If the mission is successful I am hoping the state of our clothes will be moot.” Nate grins at him and there is just the faintest hint of teeth and it makes Brad’s mouth water.
“Oh thank fuck.” Brad collapses onto steering wheel before turning the engine over and pulling out of the parking lot. Nate snorts.
“Try to keep it in your well-pressed pants until we have humiliated at least a dozen teenagers,” Nate teases.
“Solid Copy.” Brad smirks.
“Please tell me that is not a giant fucking scorpion, Homes!” Ray shouts in the dark. “I need to be hallucinating right this instant. I am not dealing with that!”
Brad grabs the night vision goggles out of Ray’s hands and looks at the desert for himself. Fuck. It is a giant fucking scorpion. A supernatural giant fucking scorpion. He can’t get on the radio about something like this. From the look of it, the other men can’t even see it. Although they are definitely seeing something because they think there are tanks out there.
Brad runs down the Lieutenant to tell him the truth of it. Fick’s eyes nearly bug out of his head.
“Guess it was too much to hope we would steer clear of anything from our world out here.” LT Fick rubs his temple, whether it be due to stress or lack of sleep and food Brad can’t say. “The three of us will have to take care of it. The others won't even know it’s there.”
“Sir,” Brad agrees, excited and scared. He doesn’t have his axe with him, they didn’t let him take it on the plane to Matilda. “You got any of those collapsable spears on you?” Brad really hopes he does, something says bullets aren’t going to affect a scorpion the size of a three-story building that is invisible to everyone but them.
“Only two.” Fick grimaces.
“I can do without,” Brad offers. If he puts his full weight into it there shouldn't be anything to worry about.
“Brad—” Fick begins.
“I’m the strongest of the three of us, and Person might have combat experience but he doesn’t have the kind of force I do,” Brad counters whatever Fick was going to propose. “Sir,” He throws in at the end for good measure. Fick looks at him like he 100% knows Brad is being a little shit right now but he doesn’t have a better answer.
“Get the reporter and the kids packed up with Poke, we are Oscar Mike in ten Mikes,” Fick orders. Brad nods and goes off to tell Person that they are going to fight the giant monster in the desert.
He is a shell of a man when he opens the door to the Seer’s house. He can still smell the funeral pyre in his throat. He doesn’t actually know what he is doing here. He hadn’t even changed before he booked a flight across the country to fucking Wisconson of all places. The second largest concentration of his extended family is here.
Five bars before he had found someone who saw his amulet, saw the cords on his wrists, the ring on his finger, and the soot on his face, and offered him the knowledge he sought. He prays to whatever gods are listening that this Seer is legit.
“I just want to make sure he’s in Valhalla,” Brad tells the woman in her soft reading chair. “I don’t need a message, just a confirmation that they got him.” She’s older, with her grey hair braided down her back all the way to her butt. She gives him a sympathetic smile and pats his hand.
He knows she’s legit when she gets the mushrooms out and a mortar and pestle. Brad watches her mix in the water and waits while she drinks the concoction down. He doesn’t move, barely even breathes while she enters the trance. He’s too highly trained and too hollow to fidget.
It takes over an hour.
When her eyes are clear, and she wipes her mouth, he doesn’t even need her to shake her head because it’s written all over her expression. Nate isn’t in Valhalla. Something is terribly wrong.
He pays her the traditional silver for her services.
Turns out Hydras can live in the desert. Brad wants his fucking money back for all the dumb fucking books on mythological beasts that Nate has made him read in the last year or so. Because not a single one of those fuckers mentioned Hydras in the fucking desert.
“I have goo in places that goo can never be removed,” Nate groans, sitting on a crumbled pillar next to Brad. He is grimy and dust covered mess. In the setting sun, Nate’s eyes look brilliantly bright next to his smudged skin.
He is effervescently gorgeous and Brad suddenly knows this is the right moment.
“Marry me.” He doesn’t say it like a question, because it doesn’t feel like one. Nate pauses in taking a sip from his canteen to stare at Brad like he has suddenly grown a second head. Brad fumbles in his flack vest until he finds the box, flipping it open to show the red string he had ordered off fucking Etsy for this exact moment.
“Bastard,” Nate grumbles, and he digs into his own vest and pulls out a box that looks like it should hold a watch. When he opens it Brad sees three corded ribbons held together with a rune stone at the top. “You had to beat me to it.” Nate’s voice is soft and awestruck.
“Berserker,” Brad says by way of explanation as he leans forward to kiss Nate.
“Show off,” Nate counters as their lips meet.
He scares the kids absolutely shitless when he marches right through the gates to the camp. About a hundred teens turn to look at him in awe and horror.
“I need your version of a Seer for a little chat.” Brad lays down his axe to show he has no plan of attack and then holds out a purse of silver coins to prove he means it. “I need a Greek seer for directions on a quest.”
Eventually, a girl with curly red hair emerges from the crowd of teens and tweens arguing to stare up at him with a determined set to her tiny features.
“I’m the Oracle,” she explains.
“Oracle, that’s what it’s called in this…” Brad stops himself from cursing. “...Camp.”
She is harder to convince that the Seer in Iceland. Something about having to obey a bunch of rules about heroes and quests. He’s not of her Pantheon; he shouldn’t even be consulting with her.
“My shieldmate, my husband, he belonged to Athena,” Brad explains when he is tired of trying to explain that this isn’t one of those quests. “I need the entrance to the Underworld. That’s it.”
“There’s no bringing the dead back.” She tells him solemnly, her tiny hand on top of his massive one.
“I am just moving him to the right afterlife. He was supposed to go to mine.” That seems to do the trick. She gives him the directions without any more fuss.
“Just promise me you won’t try to bring him back,” she asks him at the gate of the camp. “The price for doing something like that, you won't want to pay it.”
“Ma’am,” Brad thanks her. He’s not promising that. He doesn’t trust himself to be held to that kind of word.
They agree early on that they aren't going to be doing any of the Greek traditions. No wrestling match at the wedding with one of them carrying the other off to the marriage bed. No chariot rides. Neither of them was going to wear a veil.
“Handfasting and swords it is,” Nate exclaims, half slumped over the kitchen table.
“Does this mean I get to give you a sword while I have one of my hands tied behind my back?” Brad asks, leaning over to kiss Nate’s neck.
“We are not doing it at the same time. I don't exactly want to end our wedding day in the hospital.” Nate has been more than a little stressed with wedding plans. Not that Brad hasn’t also been busting his ass to get the extended Colbert family in line, Nate just takes it a bit more personally.
“We can still elope,” Brad offers for the fifth time today.
“Not if we plan to get me recognized in your Pantheon we can’t,” Nate sighs. “You better be worth all this trouble.”
“Look on the bright side,” Brad digs his hands into the sore muscles on Nate’s neck and he lets out a noise that isn’t quite a moan but could also be a question. “Handfasting means we don’t have to write our own vows.”
“Excellent point.” Nate does moan this time.
It’s quick. And bloody.
It’s in combat so there is an assumption of risk involved. Not to mention it’s just the two of them against the monster of the week. The sun is high in the sky, and they are a click out from the company headquarters trying to bring down what might possibly be a Chimera.
Brad has a lion head on him, but there seems to be snake parts and a few other animals in there as well. They went with the formation that works best for them, Brad goes in head on and Nate with his weapons accuracy goes around and provides the killing blow when Brad has the monster distracted.
They have honed this technique since Iraq, turning them into a perfect fighting unit. They can tell where the other is without looking, move without needing to speak most of the time. It was more of a dance than it was combat.
Nate should have been quick enough. He was the faster of the two of them. He could get the edge on every opponent. He had the Goddess of Wisdom and War in his blood. He had bested Brad multiple times. There was no reason for it.
Something crunched. Brad didn’t even see what it was. One moment they were perfect, in sync, a whirl of weapons and limbs against a giant. The next he was alone on the field.
He doesn’t remember dropping the Chimera. Afterward, its semicharred body mocked him, but he has no memory of doing that. He only remembers running to Nate who’s gasping for breath and flat on his back in the sand.
At first, Brad thinks he has just been winded, knocked down by the force of a blow. Then he realizes Nate isn’t trying to stand up, can’t. There’s a spike. It’s in Nate’s chest. The other end is stuck to the ground.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Brad whispers as he kneels down. “I got you,” Brad promises. Nate’s mouth is tinged with blood. Brad can’t seem to swallow the rock in the back of his throat.
“Spear?” Nate asks, his hand splayed out, voice weak.
“There’s no need for that,” Brad corrects, “We aren’t there.”
“Better safe than snake food,” Nate huffs. Brad’s voice cracks on a laugh he doesn't mean to sound. He puts the spear shaft in Nate’s hand, closes his fingers over it.
“You are not getting out of this that easily,” Brad orders. “Blaze of glory together, remember, you promised in front of all of our family and friends.”
“I remember,” Nate offers softly. “All of it.” That makes Brad look up at him. Nate is too pale suddenly, too breathless.
“I’m not going to let you go this easily,” Brad vows.
“I’m assured of this,” Nate whispers. Brad kisses him, leans forward to press their lips together and he feels it happen. Feels the lips he knows so well go slack, go empty.
The world goes colorless and empty in an instant.
Brad is left alone in the desert.
Alone in the world.
There’s a place inside of Brad that he has never touched. It feels molten hot when he thinks about it. It shouldn’t be a physical thing, this part of himself but it feels separate from who he is… was.
He stands there, in an arena filled with monsters from legend. There’s a Chimera in there somewhere, several actually. A Minotaur. At least four snakes the size of Hummers. Brad turns, looking at how the deck has been stacked against him here.
The Gods Cheat Nate had said.
He was done playing. He had held an axe to the All-Father’s neck. Níðhöggr himself had given Brad scars with his fangs. It was time to stop fucking around. It was time to be everything he promised himself he wouldn’t.
Brad touched that place inside himself, the molten core of anger that kept him going, and ripped the casing off it. Maybe if he had been anywhere else, on any other quest, he would have felt the power flood his body and it would have been a rush. This felt more like picking up his saw and taking aim on a target. An added weight on his flesh but the cold focus of a task.
The creatures died faster than they could rush him. Fell to him like rag dolls. Paper thin in comparison to what he was now.
When he threw his axe and it came back into his hands without a thought, Brad didn’t even notice. When a thunderbolt struck down a quarter of the arena he didn’t even pause in his downward swing. Plants exploded from the floor and held a Chimera still so he could decapitate it. His axe turned creatures to frozen sculptures at the touch of its blade.
So this is what the Norn had been talking about. So this is why everyone was so fucking scared of him.
He stood the wreckage of the third trial and realized he might come out of this the bigger monster. The thought didn’t bother him. He wasn’t human without Nate. What was one more step into monstrosity at this point?
“There are no bargains between lions and men. I will kill you and eat you raw.” -The Song of Achilles
None of this makes any sense.
Brad once read about the trials of Psyche, Hercules, Theseus, Jason, Odysseus, and Achilles. He had been a fresh-faced grunt desperate to understand more about who he was, what he was. The gods always interfere. He had read the stories again with Nate at some point. The gods always interfere . They had read all the tales of the great heroes over their years together. The gods always interfere .
Psyche is the one he remembers now, her’s is the tale of a lost love. Although if Brad thinks about it he is the wrong half of the equation. Nate is the embodiment of Mind and Soul, not him. But neither is a Cupid.
Still, it’s strange that he’s so alone in this quest. Strange that not a single one of the Greeks have made an appearance since he stepped foot on the path to the underworld. It doesn’t make a lick of sense.
Brad decides to do something extremely stupid. He summons Athena.
Nate’s amulet cracks between his fingers and Brad is momentarily stricken at the sight. He has carried it with him for so long, its loss stings. A lesser man would have cried. A lesser man would have stopped one, two years ago. Brad is not a lesser man.
“Explain, mortal, why you think you have the right to summon my eye?” Athena speaks to him from a vantage on the rocks above him.
“Where’s my deus ex, grandma-in-law?” Brad snaps. “I am too far in my quest for none of you to have noticed.” Brad points with his axe at the archway just down the path. “I am at the door to my final trial and not a single one of you has tried to help me. It’s out of character.”
This whole thing stinks. It reeks of something and Brad is done standing in the stench without proper recon. Maybe pissing on his grandmother-in-law is a bad way to get intel. Maybe he knows enough about these fuckers to know they don’t like being insulted and have the tempers of four-year-olds. After the Marines, a couple of gods really feel like child’s play.
She stands, unmoved, looking down on him like they always do.
“I call bullshit,” Brad enunciates each syllable with his teeth. “Explain yourself.”
In another light, he would say that Athena looks a lot like Clara, like Nate. It’s the nose and the green eyes. Her face is impassive for a moment and then he sees it. It’s the same face Nate would make when there was something he didn’t want to say, some truth that was going to sting.
“Whatever it is you know, I call on my bond.” Brad holds out his palm with the crushed amulet. “Speak.” Athena huffs clearly annoyed to be caught out.
“We have not interfered because we are bound against doing so. You are to face every trial blind. If you can force others or find tools, it is to be allowed but we are not to help you and not to hinder you.” Athena doesn’t seem pleased with this.
“Who?” Brad seethes. His blood runs cold in his veins.
“Wodin,” Athena says his name in the variation. “We were given a tree of eternal apples in exchange for taking your shieldmate from the Halls of Valhalla and hiding him from your sight.”
Athena steps down from her rock cliff to land gently in front of Brad. She reaches a hand out to him, placing fingers on his brow where his third eye would be located if he had the gift of Sight. He sees then a room in a marble hall. Odin stands next to a long table. He stick out like a sore thumb in this monument to drapery and light. His armor a dull copper in comparison to the sleek white of the pillars. Yet he shines like the God that he is. Brad realizes he is seeing the past through Athena’s eyes.
“If he is so determined to exist without my favor, without my blessings, then let us take from him that which matters most.” Odin’s voice echoes in the halls of Olympus. There is a tree with golden apples in his outstretched hand. “Let’s see how the wayward child will live with that,” His father laughs, “and when he comes to my hall at the end of his pitiful life he shall be alone.”
The final notes of Odin’s declaration bounce off the rocks, as Athena removes her fingers, sending a discordant whisper of alone, alone, alone.
“What will you do?” Athena asks when Brad has been silent for far too long.
“It doesn’t change the ROE. The mission remains.” Brad sees nothing for him to do at this juncture. He’s got a soul to find. Dealing with his father has to come after, second to his mission objective.
“I see why he chose you.” Her voice is soft and Brad remembers briefly what it feels like to be loved. Athena gives him a single nod of acknowledgment before vanishing in a sparkle of light.
“What are you doing here?” Brad demands. The Lieutenant looks up from the papers he is reading over.
“Where the fuck else would I be?” Fick counters.
“Out of the military, for starters.” Brad doesn’t know how to say this. “You don't want to be here, you are sick of command and you clearly do not want to fucking be here anymore. So why the fuck are you still here?”
“Has it crossed your mind that maybe you don’t know everything about me, Sargent?” Fick stands, advancing and closing the space between them. “I have as much right to be here as anyone else. More even, given my lineage.”
“That’s not the point and you know it,” Brad growls. This is not going the way he thought it would. This is not going at all really; it's a car crash.
“Then what is the point?” Fick crosses his arms, defensive.
“You’re heart isn't in the fight. Isn’t in the Crops.” Brad shakes his head, frustrated that the words won't come to him now. He can be eloquent every moment but this one. “You are made for more than this and I won't stand by while you squander it.”
“You want to talk about squandering talent? You enlisted . You could have been so much more than you are but you choose to take this path. And don’t think I don’t know you are holding back when we spar. And don’t think you know where my heart is.”
“That’s not a fucking answer and you know it.” Brad feels like he is shouting but he can’t be sure because it feels like something is taking over him.
“What do you want, Brad?” Fick asks, his arms coming up. “What is this about?”
“Why are you still here ?” Brad asks again. It sounds different this time. It sounds like he is asking something else. Something about himself. Something about them .
“You know why.” Fick holds his eyes and Brad finds he can’t move, can’t breathe. There’s a thread that leaves his chest and goes directly into Fick’s, into Nate’s. It suddenly is a real thing, a physical pull, holding them together. It’s what has brought them together. It’s why they are such a good team in the field. It means they could be more. He can see it.
“That’s a bullshit reason,” Brad huffs.
“It’s my choice.” Lieutenant Fick looks vulnerable suddenly.
“Fine,” Brad snaps. “But we are doing something about it.” This catches Fick off guard because his face clearly shows shock.
“A date. Dinner.” Brad scrambles for a place. “That sushi place you are always talking about.”
“Okay.” Fick agrees with a nod of his head.
“Okay?” Brad is not entirely certain what just happened here.
“You have to call me Nate when we aren’t at work.” Brad frowns at that. “Eventually.” Nate smiles at him.
“Solid Copy,” Brad agrees.
“How’d you get across the Styx?” Persephone asks him from her throne. It’s made of branches covered in soft pink flowers, maybe Cherry Blossoms. The throne of bones next to her is empty. Brad kneels. This is the one place he cannot risk being an ass. The last stop.
“I jumped it,” Brad admits. “Your Highness,” he throws in for good measure.
“Jumped it?” She leans forward and props her chin on her folded hands. “Really?” The question sounds giddy.
“I took a running start,” Brad hopes that clarifies enough. The queen of the underworld runs her eyes over him, appraising. The silence stretches between them. He’s finally made it and now he doesn’t know how to ask for the one thing he needs.
“I’m not going to make you beg,” Persephone says just as Brad is bracing himself to start doing just that. “He’s yours to take.” Brad feels light-headed. “If you can choose him from the masses.”
Of course. There had to be another test. There was always one last test.
“It wouldn’t make sense to tell you not to turn around or not open a box that we give you. You have too much discipline for those to work,” Persephone explains.
“I understand, ma’am.” Brad does, in a way.
“They can’t talk to you and you can’t speak to them. Their features don’t exist in this realm, not like on the physical plane.” Persephone gives him a dopey grin. “You’ll have to find him some other way.”
Brad laughs, bows, and walks into the chamber filled with souls of the dead.
This is going to be child’s play. They should have taken his own soul out of him if they wanted to make it hard. Brad doesn’t even have to try. He closes his eyes and walks towards the only gravity in his life. He walks towards Nate.
They don’t speak as they leave the underworld, at least not with words. Nate does that thing he does with his hand, where he squeezes Brad’s hand, then changes his grip, squeezes, and then does it again. Brad had never been sure where he got the habit from but there are messages in the patterns.
I. Love. You.
Brad squeezes back in Morse code as well.
The walk out of the underworld is a lot less eventful than it was entering. They are escorted out by a sulking Hades, who doesn’t speak directly to them but mutters under his breath about this ruining his reputation. They have a leisurely boat ride over two different rivers before landing at the mouth of a cave.
Brad hasn’t looked at Nate yet, is too afraid that if he turns his head this moment will vanish, and everything will be lost. He knows too many tales of heroes and legends. Nate for his part hasn’t pushed the issue.
Now they stand at the mouth of the cave, and as Brad takes a step forward Nate remains solidly in the dark, his hold on Brad’s hand an anchor tugging him backward.
“What’s the plan here?” Nate asks.
“Don’t really have one at this point. I didn’t look too far past the mission objective.” Brad admits turning to face Nate for the first time. He looks the same, if slightly see-through. It makes Brad wonder what Nate is seeing; he’s been months without a mirror, maybe even years.
“I’m not corporeal,” Nate admits softly, “I was down there long enough to know that if I step beyond this point without some other magic I could cease to be.”
“I don’t—” Brad begins and then remembers a cold misty plane and a white-hot stone in his pocket. Nate raises his eyebrows as Brad pats his pockets looking for the stone. It’s in there somewhere. It’s tucked into an inner pocket of his vest. Brad finds it odd that as he pulls the stone out it seems to grow in weight.
The moment the stone is in the fresh air with the sunlight beating down it shifts in a blink of light, it is now a giant flaming sword. The light of it shines out of the blade reaching into the darkness of the cave, bathing Nate is a fire-red glow. For a single heartbeat Brad is sure he has been betrayed, that this is it, and everything he has done until this moment has been in vain.
And then Nate steps out of the light, whole and alive, and more beautiful than anything Brad has ever laid eyes on. They reach for one another….
“Don’t drop it,” Hel commands.
Brad and Nate freeze in motion, spinning to face the threat. He had been close to letting the sword slip from his finger a moment ago, desperate to feel Nate for real.
“If the blade touches the earth, things are gonna get started that cannot be halted. None of us want that.” Hel stands at the mouth of the cave, half concealed in shadows. “At least not yet.”
Nate figures it out first, because he is the grandson of the goddess of wisdom and because Brad hasn’t properly slept in about three years. Four? He stopped counting.
“Why does Brad have Freyr’s sword?” Nate doesn’t pose this like a question; it's much more of an accusation. Brad isn’t sure if he is getting yelled at, or Hel, or both.
“Necromancy is a tricky thing,” Hel shrugs. “Sutr won’t be able to keep his appointment in a few millennia. We need someone else.” She smiles then and Brad thinks he gets it. All of it. Finally the pieces slot together.
“What makes you think I would be able to fill in?”
“Not you, alone,” Hel tsks. “The two of you, together.” Brad and Nate exchange a look. He can tell Nate’s running the numbers in his head but all Brad can think about is the time they are being given. They can be together, forever, until the end of the world.
“What do you say, cousin ? Feel like joining your mother’s side for Ragnarok?”
Odin stands beside the pit of sacrifices, confused. He has been summoned to Midgard and yet he can feel no worshiper. The only truly living thing for miles had been the goat that now lays bloody in the earth.
“Getting rusty in your old age?” A voice from behind him asks. Odin turns to face his son.
“When did you learn to conceal yourself, boy?” Odin tires of this one. He has failed to be a source of power. Failed to join the horde. In the end, this one child had cost Odin a tree from Iðunn’s garden just to teach him a lesson. The boy simply shrugs.
“I would have thought the loss of your shieldmate would have taken the spite out of you but it seems I was wrong,” Odin spits. He will not stay for a second more of this.
“What loss?” A second voice says. Now that can’t be right. He had made a deal, sealed in blood. This one was to stay in the underworld forever.
“Turns out, Father , that my cousins were terribly interested in helping me out on my quest.” Brad’s voice is ice and Odin realizes he has heard that voice before. It’s the sound of Ice Giants coming to the hall.
“None of the Aesir or Vanir have aided you.” Odin knew it to be true; he had taken the oaths himself.
“I meant on my mother’s side.” Bradley Odinson smiled a trickster’s smile. “The Giants.”
Odin does not shake, for he is the All-Father and king of his people and all the realms. He has bested many of the Jötunn in his days. Even Loki was eventually imprisoned. Odin does not fear his son.
“You are a petulant child.” He scorns his child. He should have killed the welp the first time the boy denied him.
“See you at Ragnarok,” the shieldmate calls with the twirl of a flaming sword. “ Father-in-law. ”
“This isn’t over,” Odin promises the fools.
“Of course it isn’t, we have to kill you at the end of the world still,” Bradley Skaðison Odinson agrees.
Brad stands across from Nate under the huppa and presents his right hand. Nate holds out his right hand and places it atop Brad’s. Nate smiles at him; his palm is sweaty. Brad thinks this moment could last forever, and he would be perfectly happy to never do anything else than marry Nathaniel Fick and have him as his husband and shieldmate.
“ One may be overpowered, ” the officiant says, as he wraps a cord around their hands and ties it in a knot.
“ Two can defend themselves. ” A second cord is added to the first, the knot laying thicker on their hands. Brad does think this part is a bit redundant. They have already exchanged swords, but Nate had insisted.
“ Three is not so quickly broken by men or gods. ” The final cord and knot sealing them together.
Brad uses his strength to pull Nate forward with their tied hands. The kiss is more than just a meeting of mouths. It’s a bond. A promise. Nothing can separate them now. Not men. Not gods. Not death.
“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.” -The Song of Achilles