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The Curiosity of Grief

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It’s a quiet, slow morning. Tomura wakes to the early sun’s rays warming his face and remains in bed for a few minutes to shake off the drowsiness, which doesn’t quite leave even as he gets up to make a coffee. His stomach clenches at the thought of breakfast, so he drops that idea for later. He climbs the ladder to the roof, leading from one of his windows to the small garden he prepared himself over the past years. It’s colorful and quiet, and Tomura sips at his coffee, sitting in a plastic chair that has seen better days already, but he found it in front of the house one day and decided it was better than sitting on the floor after all. Beneath him, the city starts waking up as well and he listens to the sound of cars rushing past and bits of conversations drafting up to his place on the roof, the people on the street unaware of their attentive listener. It seems to be a pleasant start into another uneventful day—that is, until a flaming portal opens up right in the middle of his petunias.

Out of the corner of his eye, Tomura realizes a faint glimmer disturbing the air, the picture distorting as if moved by intense heat. Then, the flowers around it begin to sizzle and rot, and Tomura thinks that’s a bit odd for this time of the year. Before he gets a chance to investigate the decay of his freshly-planted flowers, a ring of blue fire appears where the air had been moving with heat, growing until it must have been visible even from the street down below. The ground shakes as the ring touches it, the earth rotting before burning away, leaving coal-black patches in the middle of his flowery garden. The middle of the ring is complete void, vast blackness leading to nothingness and there’s dread tugging at his guts as Tomura looks into it—but then a figure seems to form, the light around the ring of blue flames being sucked in, the world seeming to lose its color as a shadow steps out of the portal. 

There’s smoke covering the figure from head to toe, looming above the garden and the flowers that refuse to die just like that. Tomura watches with his mouth slightly agape as the smoke dissolves, dropping to the floor like a satin robe before disappearing into nothing, revealing the figure before him. A young man, at least he would describe him as that, despite the horns protruding from his temples and the blue flames replacing the skin of his arms and legs, clad in a dark and loose tunic, ruffled around the middle with an assortment of golden chains. There are more chains hanging from his horns, draped around his head like a mock halo, disappearing into messy, black hair. But what strikes Tomura most, apart from the claws, blackened as if burned, are the man’s eyes—the void of the portal seems to live inside them, nothing but a bottomless blue sea devoid of an iris, framed by dark lashes. They speak of things Tomura doesn’t want to know about.

“Hello?” he asks, because he can’t think of anything else and in his book about how to approach challenging, social situations, there was no chapter about horned young men appearing in the middle of his flowers.

Vast blue eyes land on him and Tomura’s very core shudders at the unusual attention.

“Shigaraki Tomura,” the man speaks and his voice seems to come not so much from his mouth but within Tomura’s head. “Finally, we meet. I have been anticipating this encounter for a long time.”

Many weird things have happened in the span of the last few minutes, but the first which Tomura consciously accepts is that his coffee has completely gone cold. He sets it aside. Then, he leans a bit back in his plastic chair, eyeing the strange intruder. The portal is still open behind him, licking at the remains of his petunias which now resemble dry kale.

“Um,” he begins, trying to remember any social situation which might have been comparable to this one. His unnamed guest doesn’t make any attempts at helping him bridge the awkward fumbling for words either. “That’s nice,” Tomura says.

“I have been watching you for a long time, and you fascinate me,” the man speaks, and Tomura realizes he must have a habit of getting to the point quickly.

“That sounds fake, but alright,” he mumbles, a hand reaching up to rub over faded scars on his neck. “Well, and who are you? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.”

A smile spreads on the guest’s lips and Tomura realizes they’re darker around the corners than the rest. “My name,” he begins, and the voice in Tomura’s head licks at his skull in waves, “is Hades, god of Death, ruler of the Underworld. I have come to take your soul, Tomura.”

The voice hasn’t fully left Tomura’s head when dread spreads in his gut. “Oh,” he mumbles. “That’s not good.”

“But,” the man—Hades—says, “like I said, you fascinate me, so I want to offer you a chance. I’ll give you three days to convince me that you’re indeed worthy of life. If you succeed, I’ll let you go. But if you don’t, you have to follow me to the Underworld by your own free will.”

The flowers at his feet have stopped sizzling and the wind carries away little heaps of ash which used to be Tomura’s beloved flowers. He may not be too good at people things, like going out without his heart rate turning rabid as soon as he shuts the door behind him or needing three hours to psyche himself up for a phone call, but he’s good with plants. This little garden has been his secret hideout and he doesn’t appreciate an ancient god trampling all over it. But the damage has been done, and the scars on Tomura’s neck are itching, and he sees no harm in trying. He stands, because maybe Hades wants to shake hands and it seems more respectful anyway than gawking at him out of a plastic chair. 

“I accept,” he croaks, heart thumping inside his chest. Before him, Hades’ smile grows and he nods his horned head.

“The trial starts tomorrow,” he says. And before Tomura can utter another word, the portal behind Hades closes and he himself seems to burn away at the edges, until he turns to a single, sapphire flame, lighting up and vanishing into nothingness right before Tomura’s eyes.

He’s left behind with smoking footprints in his patch, a cold coffee and the question if maybe all of this should have freaked him out more than it did.

⊱ ────────── ⊰

It’s another quiet morning and Tomura wakes to the sun’s rays warming his face—and the god of death sitting next to his bed. Realization kicks in with the gentleness of a fist to the face, and Tomura bolts upright in his bed. Hades doesn’t so much as flinch.

“It’s day one,” he says, sitting on a chair on which Tomura threw on his clothes from the day before. Despite Hades burning all over, his Final Fantasy shirt doesn’t catch fire and Tomura can easily say he’s seen weirder things by now.

“Yeah, okay,” he mumbles, voice rough from sleep. “But, let me get a coffee first.”

While he prepares his coffee, Tomura can feel Hades’ eyes on him. When Tomura shuffled into the kitchen, the god was right behind him, all but peeking over Tomura’s shoulder until he muttered do you mind? It prompted Hades to sit at his table, and Tomura hopes this doesn’t go down as a minus point somewhere. The first thing Tomura noticed about Hades—apart from the horns, the fire and the absence of irises—is that he has no smell at all. Tomura expected soot, the smell of smoke—like a bonfire maybe. But there’s nothing. He makes no sound when he moves and seemingly doesn’t have to blink either, because he keeps staring at Tomura out of those bottomless eyes while he sips at his black coffee.

“Can you,” Tomura begins, vaguely gesturing towards his face, “not do that? Act like we’re in a staring contest? You look like a fish.”

“Does it make you uncomfortable?” Hades asks and Tomura swears there’s the hint of amusement in his voice. At his silence, Hades blinks—or maybe tries to, but instead he squeezes both of his eyes shut for a second, his nose scrunching up as he does so, before opening them and looking at Tomura with a grin. “Like that?”

“Now you’re fucking with me,” Tomura grumbles into his coffee. Hades laughs, a sound like crystals being clashed together and the light shines brighter just as the shadows darken.

“So,” Hades begins, putting his chin into his hand and looking way too charming for someone who entered the realm of this existence to take Tomura’s life, “how do you plan to persuade me, human?”

Tomura muses over his next words, deciding on the truth eventually. “I don’t know,” he admits. “This is like asking someone what music you listen to, and suddenly you don’t remember any of your favorite bands. To be honest, I don’t know what you expect of me.”

“Like I said,” Hades says, ocean eyes wandering over Tomura’s face, “I find you incredibly fascinating.”

The coffee is still steaming in his hands, and so Tomura blames the blush that creeps into his cheeks on his drink’s heat.

“Alright,” he mumbles more into his beverage than at Hades. “I could take you to the library. Would you like that? If I go out, it’s usually there. It’s nice and quiet.” Tomura eyes the god over. “But you might have to do something about your looks. Can other people even see you?”

“Of course they can,” Hades says.

“Yeah,” Tomura mutters, “obviously, I guess. Then, can you … I don’t know, be less godly?”

Just as he finishes his sentence, the flaming god before him is gone in the blink of an eye; no more blue flames licking at the wood of the kitchen chair without burning it, no more horns and excessive jewelry. Before Tomura sits a young man with the same ocean eyes as Hades, but now with pupils, strands of jet-black hair framing his face. Hades smiles and the freckles sprinkled across his nose move with the motion. Tomura delves a little deeper into his coffee. 

“That’s … that’s good,” he babbles, suddenly feeling self-conscious in his The Clash shirt and blue boxers.

As soon as the cup of coffee is emptied, Tomura gets up to dress, pointedly closing his bedroom door into Hades’ face. Ancient gods seem to have no sense of privacy, but maybe that’s a cultural thing. When Tomura steps out, bag slung over his shoulder, Hades stands exactly where he left him and Tomura thinks in a way he’s always wanted a puppy. The entire way to the library, Tomura fidgets nervously with the cord of his jacket; he’s more nervous about Hades being bored than not being able to persuade him. His stomach clenches, but Tomura ignores it, realizing belatedly that he didn’t eat any breakfast. The lady at the reception gives Tomura a warm smile, and then a slightly surprised one to Hades trailing behind him.

“We have to be quiet now,” Tomura says.

“We didn’t talk the entire way,” Hades retorts and Tomura dares an exasperated look. His mood isn’t tainted for long when he finds the Greek history section of the library, walking between those familiar aisles, fingers gliding over the books’ backs as he quickly scans the titles. As Hades walks behind him, Tomura can feel those eyes on him again, and he still makes no sound as he moves. They sit with a handful of books at the nearest table, the section mostly empty. As soon as he flips open the first book, the smell of old but well-cared for pages filling his nose, the nervous energy leaves Tomura’s body and he settles in for a reading session. Now and then, he shows a page to Hades. Every time the god laughs, Tomura’s heart skips a beat and no stranger things have happened than Tomura feeling comfortable in the presence of the god of death.

“Half of those facts are incorrect,” Hades says, leaning back in his chair. “People like to paint their own picture of things.”

“Some of this doesn’t sound too bad,” Tomura mumbles, fingers gliding over a picture of Hades, which, Tomura thinks, doesn’t even come close to the real thing. A smile tugs at his lips when he realizes this has been the easiest conversation in a long time. 

“Sometimes, I feel so out of place, like I wasn’t meant to be here, but somewhere else … maybe some time else even.”

“Maybe you’re right. You could have spent your time worshipping me.”

Tomura laughs quietly. “Yeah, you’re totally not full of yourself or anything.”

When he looks up, Hades regards him silently. There’s recognition in his eyes and Tomura suddenly feels weirdly bare under the god’s gaze. The moment is disrupted by a loud growl coming from Tomura’s stomach. They pack up the books, leaving the shelter of the library to step into the sun. There’s a taco truck nearby and, out of mindless hospitality, Tomura orders one for himself and one for Hades.

“Can you even taste anything?” he asks as they sit down on a nearby bench.

Hades picks at his taco, nudging a piece of tomato back into the shell. “After a couple thousand of years, everything starts to taste the same. Things just stop leaving an impression. It’s more of a blur of things that happened and things that didn’t.”

“Sounds familiar,” Tomura mumbles. He stares at the food in his hands, the bite he took weighing heavily in his stomach. “I’m tired, let’s go home.”

The ride on the subway is a silent affair, Tomura fighting the fatigue that settles into his bones like an obnoxious frequenter. It’s been a good day and he shouldn’t feel this drained. At home, he fills his bathtub with warm water. This time, he leaves the door open and Hades settles on the floor outside of the tub.

“I enjoyed today,” Tomura mumbles. “It was nice being with you.”

The words are sincere. Hades offering him a small smile, but it leaves behind the taste of grief. With a sigh, Tomura slips underwater. Through the rippling surface, Hades is watching him.

⊱ ────────── ⊰

The bus is empty except for an elderly couple and a young family with two kids when it leaves for the forest just outside the city. It’s a small piece of land between two towns that belongs to neither, so nobody bothered to give the forest a name. The thought rattles a strange sadness in Tomura’s chest, and maybe that’s one of the reasons he likes to go there. Hades sits quietly next to him, watching the city pass by their window until it changes to wide, golden fields. Summer’s coming to an end, and the trees are changing colors from a bright green to a warm red. When they get off the bus about twenty minutes later, the couple and family head to the next town while Tomura climbs the stairs that lead into the heart of the forest, where he knows he’ll find a shrine. His thoughts start to wander and so he startles when Hades speaks behind him.

“This is a nice place,” he muses, his eyes wandering over the trees and branches slowly, as if taking in every little detail. “The spirits here are very happy. They’re healing.”

Tomura isn’t sure what he means by that and he doubts he would fully understand, so he simply nods. They continue their silent climb until they arrive at the shrine. A wind picks up just as they step into the clearing encircling it and the small bells hanging from the shrine’s roof chime gently as they sway. Hades inspects them curiously, albeit not touching, as Tomura kneels down. He takes a small bouquet of flowers from his bag which he grew in his own garden. They’re of soft, quiet colors, their subtle scent engulfing Tomura momentarily as he lays them down before the shrine, closing his eyes for a silent prayer.

“Why are you here?” he suddenly asks. His eyes open to throw a curious look over his shoulder at Hades behind him. “You’re a Greek god. Why would you come to me?”

The fire in Hades’ eyes seems to momentarily dim as Tomura says those words. “You lost your father and your grandma in a car crash when you were just four years old,” Hades begins. Tomura’s brows furrow as his heart picks up its pace.

“Yes?” he says, but it comes out almost questioningly. “What about it?”

“You come here to pray for them now, but one year after that fateful day, you came to me. Do you remember that well in Athens your adoptive father took you to? He gave you a coin, told if you say a wish and throw it into the water, it will come true. Your hurt was still great then. You wished for your own death. When the coin hit the water, it was I who heard your call for mercy, but I was startled at the weight of your very young heart. I saw great sorrow in my time, Tomura, but I never thought to see it all gathered in a child. I could have answered your call back then, fulfilled your wish and taken you to the Underworld. But I didn’t. I wanted to give you a chance to overcome the tragedy you suffered and grow out of your sorrow. I didn’t expect it to grow with you.”

In the moment it takes for Hades to explain, Tomura’s entire world narrows down to the sight of the god’s regretful eyes. The stones of the shrine vanish beneath his knees, the wind brushing over his cheeks turns dull and the sound of birds blurs together to a background buzz. His heart beats wildly inside his chest as realization drips in like a lethal injection and the scars on his neck and arms begin to itch. Without realizing, Tomura’s fingers glide under the hem of his shirt, scratching at the healed skin.

“You knew,” he says slowly. “You knew the entire time and still left me alone.”

“Tomura—” Hades begins, but the sorrow of twenty years finally culminated onto the tip of Tomura’s tongue and there was no holding anymore.

“You knew it all!” he howls. “You watched me suffer all those years. Tell me, do you remember the first time I cut my skin? How I hid the soiled sheets but my father found them anyway and sent me to the psychiatry? How I tried to hang myself but messed it up and just broke my ankle instead? Do you know what it feels like to be a suicidal failure? That was you too, wasn’t it? Every time I tried to leave, you would just grab me by the neck and toss me back into this world like some fucked up science project. Every day and night that I missed my dad and my nana, blaming myself for what happened … you stood in the corner and got off to my grief. Is that what happened? Hades!”

“I’m sorry for everything you went through,” Hades says and he’s too calm, too collected while Tomura’s breaking apart in front of him. It makes Tomura angry, because he doesn’t expect anything of life, but a god as old as time should be able to come up with something that’s not out of a self-help book for people with depressed relatives. He scrapes his knees on the stone as he hurries to get up, standing on shaky feet that have carried him so far, but now ache with every quick step he takes away from Hades. He doesn’t call after Tomura when he stumbles past the shrine and deeper into the woods and somewhere in Tomura’s chest that really hurts. But beneath it all, bubbling with ferocity, is anger. He can’t see where he treads through the blur of tears, branches whipping past him until he finds another clearing. At last, his knees buckle and refuse to carry Tomura any further. The grass is soft underneath his palms as Tomura digs his fingers into the soil, gripping it tightly until his knuckles turn white. He howls. The anger in his veins shakes his every bone, thoughts exploding in his mind like fireworks, but there’s one that flashes above all else: this is not fair. It’s not fair his family left him and it’s not fair of him to be angry at them for it. It’s not fair he turned his own anger against himself, and it’s not fair he’s pitied by the only being who was aware of his pain the entire time. Tomura clutches the scars on his neck with dirtied, blunt nails digging into the skin that speaks of grief Tomura never could.

This is how Hades finds him. His hands are warm as they lay over Tomura’s own. They don’t try to release Tomura’s grip, because Hades knows, and this is the tragedy of it all. 

Eventually, Tomura’s cries turn hoarse, the tears stop running and the anger bubbles down to a bone-deep exhaustion. At last, he slumps in death’s embrace.

⊱ ────────── ⊰

The clouds float past above their heads, tinted a soft orange by the setting sun. Her warm rays caress Tomura’s cheeks and dry away the last tear. Hades lays next to him in the grass, his body laying the other direction but his head is level with Tomura’s. Out of his periphery, Tomura can see that Hades’ chest doesn’t move. Soon, Tomura’s chest will do the same.

“I used to watch clouds with my nana,” he mumbles into the silence between them. “We tried to find shapes in them.”

“That sounds nice,” Hades says.

“Yeah,” Tomura whispers, a new wave of tears blurring his vision, but no hiccup shakes his voice when he speaks. “It really was.”

The way back to the bus stop drains Tomura of all his energy. On the bus, he leans against Hades, breathing in the scent of smoke and grass. When they climb the stairs to his apartment, Tomura has to stop multiple times, allowing the god to pull him forward by his hand. He doesn’t bother to take off his clothes as he slumps into his bedroom. Without looking at Hades, he closes the door in his face.

⊱ ────────── ⊰

He wakes to his body melting into the mattress. The room is bright with sunlight and Tomura wishes he would get up to draw the curtains shut, but he doesn’t. Instead, he reaches over to his nightstand. The package of his meds crinkles as he pops a pill out of the foil and into his mouth, not bothering to wash it down with water. He turns onto his other side and slips into another restless sleep. He’s woken by his alarm clock going off. And then again five minutes later, five minutes later, five minutes later. Through half-lidded eyes, he watches Hades pick up his phone and turn it off. He doesn’t remember him entering his room.

There’s the sound of his father screaming, metal screeching as it collides with more metal, deforming until it takes the shape of a large glass door. Changes into the edge of a roof and someone howling in the distance as his ankle breaks with a wet sound. The box cutter under his pillow. A coin in Hades’ clawed hand.

The walls of his room are orange with the setting sun’s light when Tomura wakes again. His head feels twice its size, his empty stomach clenching painfully. It takes him some minutes to sit up, more to swing his legs over the bedside. When he finally stands, the urge to lay back down is almost unbearable, but he focuses on every single step until he makes it to the kitchen. Hades sits at the table, watching him. Tomura doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t think he could if he tried. He fills a glass with some tap water, the cold liquid running down his throat and prompting his stomach to clench again. With a grunt, he sets it down, praying that it won’t come spilling up again. The thought of food sickens him, and so Tomura shuffles back out of the kitchen. Just as he reaches the door, he turns around to Hades.

“Look at me,” he whispers through chapped lips. “Is this worthy of life? I never was enough and never will be. Not for you, not for anyone.”

The last part ends in a croak and Tomura hangs his head, lacking the strength to keep looking at the god who heard it first. There’s no heart thumping inside Hades’ chest when Tomura leans his head against it, allowing the arms gently guiding him back towards his bed. His bones ache when he lays back down, but this is the easiest pain to accept. Before Hades can leave, Tomura reaches for his wrist.

“Don’t go,” he says, “don’t leave me again.”

The mattress dips with another body. Tomura regards the face before him.

“What’s it like being the god of death?” he asks quietly. Hades looks at him and at the bottom of his iris, grief swivels in thick curls. It reaches out to Tomura, and when Hades speaks, the case of his pillow is already soaking with tears.

“It’s a lonely affair,” Hades admits.

Through the sounds of his own grief, Tomura listens to Hades humming a low tune. He doesn’t recognize the melody, but eventually, it pulls him into a deep, dreamless sleep.

⊱ ────────── ⊰

When he wakes, his bones still weigh a ton, but the absence of Hades has him sit up with a sigh. Behind the moss-green curtains the sun’s rising. Tomura shuffles out of his bedroom and into the kitchen, but Hades isn’t there. He’s nowhere to be found inside the apartment and so Tomura decides to climb the stairs to the roof. The door is opened, bright light shining into Tomura’s face as he steps into his little garden. Hades stands where Tomura met him three days ago, in the ashes of what used to be his petunias having been carried away by the wind. Hades looks like a god again, his horns creating a stark contrast against the morning sun. Before Tomura can say anything, Hades turns to him, his eyes devoid of pupils but filled to the brim with something else.

“I’ve made a decision,” he begins, his voice low so as not to disturb the stillness of the morning, “I won’t take you to the Underworld, Tomura. In these past few days, I’ve seen you fight the turmoil within you, no matter how hard it might be. You cherish life in your own way, and I see no reason to take that from you. But … I also realized that what I did was unfair, and so I want to make you another offer.”

Hades outstretches a hand and when his claws uncurl, there’s a coin laying in his palm. Tomura recognizes it and a rush of emotions floods his system.

“I will take you to the Underworld, Tomura,” Hades says, “if that is what you wish for.”

A wind brushes over the roof, the flowers of his garden swaying and rustling quietly, as Tomura feels the heart in his chest like he never did before. The air tastes fresh and clear on his tongue, his head almost weightless, no terrible memory gnawing at his bones anymore. With the warm figure of Hades imprinted to his mind, he closes his eyes. He breathes in and out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe—