Patroclus waited. His steel-eyed gaze roamed across the rolling landscape of Elysium, the mist of the Lethe pooling at his feet. The act of waiting for was foreign to the shade, but it was not wholly unwelcome. Much more pleasant than the listless melancholy that had swallowed him whole before the stranger dashed into his unlife and wheedled him until his beloved, somehow, returned into his arms. So now Patroclus had something to wait for.
Footsteps approached his chamber, the tell-tale sound of singeing grass identifying his visitor. Patroclus hailed the prince with a rare smile.
“You’ve returned, stranger. How fares your attempts to leave this place?”
The stranger, though he is no longer much of a stranger, laughs, “Well, sir, they’re not attempts so much as security surveys now. Officially sanctioned by the House of Hades.”
Patroclus hummed, “I see. How grand it must be to have a purpose in this eternal afterlife.”
Something flashed before the stranger’s eye, the indicator that a spark of Athena’s inspiration had graced his thoughts. “Say, sir, we’re always looking for help over at the House of Hades. If you want, I can put in a good word. Don’t think you like it here much, if I’m honest, and you would be with Achilles for longer stretches of time.”
“Ah,” Patroclus muttered, taken aback by the idea, “Well, I...I suppose that could work. I’ll have to talk it over with my Achilles, stranger.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” the stranger said, confident in his conviction. Ah, such was youth. He supposed him and Achilles were once like that, too. Look at where it got them.
“Don’t become too excited yet, stranger. Here. The customary gift for your troubles.”
“Thank you, sir!” The stranger quickly grabbed his premium kiss of Styx before dashing off to the next chamber. He must be having a pretty tough go at it. Well, it wasn’t like Patroclus was going to use any of these trinkets anyway, holding no interest in the sporting duels favored by Elysium’s exalted.
The shade looked down at his ephemeral feet. How long has it been since he last sat? Fatigue was no longer an issue, with no physical body to feel tired. He wondered how Achilles was doing. He wondered if Achilles was thinking of him. Patroclus mulled over the stranger’s words. To work in the House of Hades. Not exactly a bad proposition, he supposed. With Achilles so close, why, it would feel as if they were alive again. Yes, perhaps he shall ask his Achilles for his opinion, but it was not a bad idea.
Achilles returned sooner than expected. They reclined in the grass, a tangle of limbs and hair, Patroclus idly running his fingers through his beloved’s scalp. Sometimes, he wasn’t sure if this was real or a trick played by his lonely mind. Achilles would laugh when he voiced his concern, teasing the cerebral nature of his thoughts.
“I can’t help it, beloved,” Patroclus muttered, “We’ve been apart for so long, why, sometimes I worry this is all yet another ploy of the gods. A taste of happiness before they wrench it all away.”
Achilles chuckled, “Pat, do not worry. I am a servant of the House of Hades. That comes with its privileges.”
He could feel Achilles sigh into his chest. “And restrictions.”
“The stranger was here earlier,” Patroclus ventured tentatively, “Your lad. He told me he can, ah, find me a position within Lord Hades’ House.”
Achilles sat up so quickly his forehead collided with Patroclus’ nose. A flurry of apologies followed, Patroclus casually waving them off. Not like the dead had much use for blood.
“I’m truly sorry, Pat, I–”
“It’s quite alright, my love,” Patroclus cooed, “It’s only a flesh wound.”
A melancholy sadness flashed over Achilles’ eyes. “Right. Only a flesh wound.”
Even the unfathomable years they’d spent apart had not dulled Patroclus’ ability to sense every minute shift in Achilles’ demeanor. The myrmidon pulled his lover into a hug. He hummed, the rumble deep in his chest, hoping the sensation would comfort Achilles in lieu of a beating heart.
“What’s wrong, Achilles?”
Silence. Then, “It would seem I’m only ever good at hurting you.”
Patroclus bit back a bark of laughter. It seemed his lover’s old unrelenting rage had transformed into an affinity for melancholy. It also seemed Patroclus’ attempt to hide his amusement had been rather unsuccessful.
“Were you laughing at me?” Achilles whined, his pout indignant and much too unfitting for a man of his stature.
“Perhaps,” Patroclus answered, planting a kiss on Achilles’ temple, “But perhaps not.”
“What is it were we talking about again?”
“Ah, that. My potential employment at the House of Hades.”
Achilles nodded, “Right. The reason for my unfortunate outburst. I think it’s a wonderful idea, Pat, but only if it’s something you truly want. Something you’d trade eternal paradise for.”
Patroclus rolled his eyes and nuzzled into Achilles’ hair, “My Achilles, there is nowhere in the universe I would not go for you. From the heights of Olympus to the depths of Tartarus. Where you go, I will follow.”
Something soft and wet passed between them then, and Patroclus allowed his beloved a moment to collect himself. There was no shame in crying, of course, but Achilles had always been sensitive about the perceived reduction in his attractiveness when he allowed the tears to fall. Except, Patroclus supposed, for when he died.
“Will you ask the stranger to lend us his assistance?” Patroclus asked, finally, after a finite eternity of Achilles in his arms.
“Aye, of course. We owe the lad a great deal, don’t we?”
“Yes, we do. You raised him well, my love.”
Patroclus felt Achilles’ smile rather than saw it. “He would’ve turned out alright either way.”
Patroclus never thought he would ever set eyes on the magnificent gates of the House of Hades. The gem-encrusted double doors gleamed with light, reflecting and re-reflecting the shine as if a piece of surface sun had found its way to the lowest depths of the underworld. The stranger had reassured him that he would be guaranteed a spot amongst the working shades of the House, but Patroclus could not help but feel anxious. Much was riding on this first impression. He dreaded what could happen if the Lord and Lady found him unsatisfactory. Perhaps they would punish his Achilles too, guilt by association, something he had come to expect from the fickle whims of the gods and their ilk. The stranger was the exception, not the rule.
He waited in the procession of shades, as he was instructed, resisting the urge to seek out and run into the arms of his Achilles. Time begat patience; he’d had plenty of time for his to mature. Might as well put it to good use. The queue inched forward, punctuated by the occasional booming voice repeating the same statement. Denied. Denied. Denied.
An eternity of waiting later and Patroclus found himself facing the Lord of the dead himself, in all his imposing finery. Cerberus languidly lounged to his left, two heads in deep slumber while one panted in the direction of another room. The beast was, surprisingly, endearing. Patroclus focused his attention on the monster’s drooling maw as he prepared himself to stand before the Lord Hades.
“State your name and your request.” The god’s voice was authoritative, oppressively so, but Patroclus could sense an undercurrent of boredom beneath the mighty visage. He supposed the gods had their own monotony to contend with.
“Patroclus. I, ah, want to inquire about a potential job opening here in the House?”
The god regarded the shade with cold, steely eyes. “And why should I accept a nameless stranger such as yourself into my House?”
Dread settled at the bottom of Patroclus’ incorporeal stomach. The stranger did not speak of his lord father often, perhaps their relationship was even rockier than he once thought. Best make his exit now, before he could be traced back to Achilles and the man condemned with him. Where, where was the way out?
“Wait,” a voice resounded, with a lightness mismatched to the depths of the underworld. Patroclus strained his eyes, making out a figure by the Lord Hades he must have overlooked. “Are you Patroclus?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“My son has told me much about you,” the lady said softly, “And so has Achilles.”
Patroclus chuckled, “All good things, I hope?”
“Of course.” The lady leaned up and whispered something to the king of the underworld. Then she motioned for Patroclus to follow. There was a queenly air about her, a quiet, regal elegance that trailed the woman as her quiet footfalls led him down the halls of the resplendent House. She seemed to straddle the cusp between both the mortal and the immortal. Despite his misgivings concerning the latter, her presence was comforting.
“Here,” she said, motioning to a set of decorated doors, “This is the administrative chamber. Our head accountant will instruct you on the necessary skills.”
She leaned in conspiratorially, “And just between you and me, well, the warrior that stands guard here is on break at the moment over in the lounge. And I’m sure he’d love to see you right about now.”
“Oh,” Patroclus said, none too eloquently, “My Achilles...I don’t know how to thank you, my lady. “
The woman laughed, “Just call me Persephone, Patroclus. My, I suppose formalities are still a big part of the culture here. Well, I am looking forward to looking with you.”
“Likewise, Lady Persephone. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
“Of course,” Lady Persephone said, “Now, go spend some quality time with your love. There’s plenty of parchment to file, and plenty of time to file it.”
Patroclus did not need to be told twice, ghostly feet already pattering off in the direction of the lounge.
“And how was your first day, or night, I suppose, here?” Achilles asked, leaning against the lounge’s bar. Patroclus had been surprised by the gaudy interior of the House of Hades, but the lounge somehow managed to best the rest of the House in garishness. Passing gossip from the milling-about shades revealed the decor to be the result of the stranger’s meddling. Patroclus could not say he was surprised.
The shade smiled at his companion, “Well, the work is not challenging, really. The real difficulty is not growing fatally bored as the endless stream of parchment arrives.”
“Good thing we’re already dead, right?”
Patroclus chuckled, “Yes. I suppose so.”
He saw his Achilles reach into the folds of his robes. “Ah, here it is.” A glistening bottle Patroclus recognized as ambrosia materialized in his love’s hand.
His eyes widened, “Achilles, where did you manage to find something so valuable so far beneath Olympus?”
“The lad gave it to me. Asked me to share it with you.”
“He’s got a good heart, that one,” Patroclus mused, “So different from the other gods.”
Achilles shook his head as he poured out the shining drink into two appropriately garish chalices, “Don’t let them hear you say that, love. Who knows what other tortures they may devise for us?” He slid a glass over to Patroclus, the encrusted gemstones refracting the light from the kitschy ball of mirrors dangling in the middle of the room.
“Well, I doubt the gods have much interest in the hubris of the dead.” They could not worship Olympus from below, after all, no matter how hard some of the denizens beseeched their favored deities. Olympus’ reach was not absolute.
“Cheers to that.”
They clinked their glasses in a makeshift toast. Patroclus took a swig of the amber drink. Though the stranger had already gifted him a bottle of his own, the shade had never felt the need to sample the contents.
The first droplets hit his tongue and suddenly he was on Mount Pelion again, barely a man, struggling to string his bow while Achilles whittled by his side. A summer breeze danced through their hair. Distantly, he could hear Chiron calling their name.
Then the moment passed. A hand was on his shoulder, the ghost of its former warmth still lingering on the fingertips. Patroclus looked up.
“Well, what did it taste like?” His Achilles asked.
There was a momentary pause before the sound of Achilles’ laughter filled the lounge. Patroclus felt himself smile. He had missed that sound, missed it long before his untimely arrival at the realm of Hades.
“I’ve ached for this, my love,” Achilles said, “So very much.”
“As have I.” The understatement to end all understatements.
“Well, now we have eternity to make up for lost time. Well, after our shifts are finished, of course.” His Achilles gave him a peck on the forehead, “Do take care, my love.”
“Likewise. And thank you for the drink, Achilles. It was...enlightening.” He would have to have another sip later, if only to relive those memories again.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
Parchment work was decidedly boring, but it was a simple enough affair that Patroclus found himself not using much of his brain, really. Read the death report, approve the designated dwelling place of the soul in question, initial the parchment with a little capital alpha, and file it away for the rest of time. Occasionally, there were special requests, pacts with the lord not unlike the one his foolish Achilles once took part in. Those required a bit of shuffling, yes, but they were usually manageable. Usually.
Today, however, some Pygmalion had decided to switch his lot in Elysium with some Galatea in Asphodel. However, try as he might, he could not locate the aforementioned woman anywhere in the archives.
Which was why Patroclus was currently approaching night incarnate with the pact in hand, wishing he had a bit of liquid courage in his ethereal system before his inevitable interaction with the primordial goddess. It was basic protocol, really, yet Patroclus could not help the sense of dread creeping through his veins. Must be a consequence of his previous encounters with divinity.
“Mother Night,” the shade hailed, another piece of House protocol he was rather keen to uphold. “I am having some difficulties locating the records of a particular shade.”
The goddess sighed with a primordial brand of weariness, “The archives are overdue for some reorganization, but the logistics of that is...well…”
Ghostly sweat beaded on the back of the fallen warrior’s neck. “It’s alright, Mother Night. I, ah, I can look for the record again.” He’d already spent an entire day, or night, searching for this Galatea, but while fear was for the weak, dread was still a perfectly acceptable emotion to have.
“Nonsense. May I see the request?”
“Here, my lady,” Patroclus said with appropriate deference. The request was handed off, the goddess skimming over the lines with a distracted air about her features.
“This is...complicated,” Lady Nyx sighed again, “I shall see to this matter personally. Thank you, good shade, for the effort you have expended so far in service of the house.” The crease in her brows persisted even after the goddess rolled up the parchment and tucked it away in her robes. The pursing of her lips, the darting of her eyes. Something troubled her. Patroclus knew it was not his place to ask, knew he was supposed to obediently return to his post and sort through the endless mounds of parchment and ink. Well, fear was for the weak.
“Is something the matter, Lady Nyx?”
The goddess seemed surprised that he was still here, that he had asked her a question. Surprised, but not offended. “Ah. I...I suppose it’s just the worries of a mother. My children have mostly scattered beyond my reach. But the few that remain, why, I cannot help but fret, just a bit.”
Patroclus cleared his throat, “At the risk of seeming too forward, may I ask what is it you are fretting about?”
He could swear there was the hint of a smile at her lips, “My Hypnos and my Thanatos, mainly. Lord Hades has been most gracious to offer them positions here in the underworld. But I fear, well, I fear there have been distractions as of late.”
“What kind of distractions?”
“A certain prince’s attempts at escape.”
Patroclus chuckled, “I thought they had been officially sanctioned by the Master?”
“Yes, they have,” Nyx nodded, “But I have a feeling my sons are a bit more invested than they ought to be. They cannot help themselves, just as the prince cannot help his wanton ransacking.”
“I suppose everyone in the House has a leg in the race. You’re...aware of the betting ring?”
The goddess shrugged innocently, “I know not what you are speaking of. But I do have a few spare gemstones lying about with little else to spend them on.”
“I suppose you do,” Patroclus said. He was quickly learning that the chthonic gods were not nearly as vindictive as their Olympian counterparts. He supposed it was how thankless their jobs were. Mortals had no temples to Thanatos, or Hypnos, or Nyx. They did their work because they had to. “For what it’s worth, Mother Night, I think you did a wonderful job with your brood.”
“I could have done to make the Fates a bit less...mercurial.”
“Well, one bad set of eggs does not ruin the whole batch.”
They laughed, a moment of shared transgression overstepping the boundary between immortal and shade. Perhaps there was not much of a boundary in the first place. Here in the realm of death, he supposed they had more similarities than differences.
“I must return to my work, Lady Nyx,” Patroclus said with a bow, “Thank you for all your assistance.”
“And I yours. Give your Achilles my regards.”
Patroclus smiled at the wholly unnecessary statement. Nyx probably saw more of Achilles than he did. Yet he appreciated the sentiment nevertheless. “Will do, good Lady Nyx.”
“I love you, Patroclus. I love you so much.”
“No!” His Achilles slurred, slumped against his body, “Maybe…”
Patroclus was not feeling particularly lucid himself, the three - or was it four? - bottles of nectar dulling his senses to a pleasant buzz. Achilles giggled and leaned against Patroclus’ body, his beloved’s breath sweet against mouth. The room swayed, not too unpleasantly, the other occupants of the lounge giving the rowdy couple a wide berth.
“This is so much more fun when you’re here,” his Achilles muttered, word tumbling over word. He nuzzled his face into Patroclus’ chest.
“When I’m here?”
“Hmmm,” Achilles hummed.
“How exactly did you spend your breaks before?” Patroclus continued pressing, though the sensation of Achilles’ face in the cleft of his chest was awfully distracting.
“You’re so warm…”
“Achilles, I’m dead. You’re drunk.”
Achilles looked up and bit his nose. “So are you!”
Well, Patroclus supposed he could not argue against that. “Alright, yes. I am also inebriated. Now, my Achilles, my question?”
Achilles sighed. He sat up as straight as he could manage, poking a finger into Patroclus’ chest and pouting, “You’re no fun. I only blacked out...four times? Five?”
Patroclus sighed, pulling his foolish Achilles closer. “My Achilles…”
“I know that voice,” Achilles muttered, “That’s your ‘I think you’re stupid but I love you too much to say it’ voice.”
“Well, if I thought you were stupid, I would have told it to your face,” Patroclus teased. “But you’re not stupid, my love. You are a fool, but you’re not stupid. And I love you.”
Achilles smiled, and for a moment Patroclus could feel the warmth of sunlight on his skin again. “I love you too.”
“Maybe go a little easier on the nectar next time.”
Achilles just hummed into his neck. The shade of Patroclus supposed his suggestion had fallen on deaf ears. Well, no matter. This time, Achilles had his Patroclus to catch him if he stumbled.
Rare were the occasions where the court musician Orpheus lifted his voice in song, but on those days, or nights, where he does, the shades of the House stopped and listened. Apparently, the musician’s close relationship with the stranger afforded certain privileges, which meant the shade spent most of his time in Asphodel with his muse and rarely carried out the job he was hired for. Patroclus supposed Lord Hades did not mind so much, since no one worked when Orpheus performed anyhow. Perhaps he was thankful for his court musician’s absences. The work was endless, after all, and too many breaks would just backlog the backlog into oblivion.
Still, this was a chance for Patroclus to steal away for some time with Achilles. The stranger had promised more time together, and that promise did ring true. Greed, however, was a human vice, and Patroclus was nothing but human.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” Achilles muttered, “Puts our poet’s descriptions of his voice to shame.”
Patroclus nodded, “He sounds wonderful. Although, there’s something so...melancholy about it all. I wonder if he sounded like that when he was alive?”
“Doubt we’ll ever know. Although he did suffer as much as we did. If not more. Doubtless his experiences are reflected in his music.”
“My, when did you become such a musical connoisseur?”
His Achilles jabbed his bicep lightly, “Always has been, my love.”
Memories bubbled to the surface of Patroclus’ consciousness. Quieter, simpler days by Achilles’ side. The other man younger then, fingers deftly plucking a lyre and voice clear and bright. How he wished he could return to those slow, lazy days.
The song rose in volume and texture, sweeping the assembled shades and deities along with its swelling melody. Achilles began softly singing along. Patroclus leaned in closer. Perhaps they could have something resembling those afternoons on the shores of Phthia after all.
“You sound amazing, my Achilles.”
His companion chuckled, “You flatter me.”
“It’s the truth.”
The tune switched, then, from a melody celebrating the better aspects of death to a hymn dedicated to the stranger. Well, he supposed the stranger had a name, but it was strange to think of him as anything but “the stranger.” The song rang on, the tales of the stranger’s exploits growing more and more fantastical with each verse. Eyebrow raised, Patroclus addressed his Achilles, “Was the stranger really torn to shreds by the titans?”
Achilles chuckled, “No, love. From what I gathered, the lad and lord Dionysus decided to play a little prank and Orpheus, the poor chap, believed everything he was fed. Composed a whole song with it all.”
A new voice resounded from the main hall, young and indignant, “Orpheus, mate, I told you those things I said were just jokes! You’ve got to, I don’t know, change up the song? Before people start actually confusing me and Dionysus?”
Patroclus eyed Achilles, both shades trying to contain their laughter. They inched closer. Patroclus supposed the prince’s penchant for eavesdropping was rubbing off on them.
“Oh, but Zagreus, you need not be so humble!” came Orpheus’ reply, “Your deeds deserve to be sung of far and wide, my friend, and I would be honored to be the composer of such words.”
An aggravated sigh and a series of dashes later, the exasperated underworld prince was by Patroclus and Achilles with a long-suffering cast about his face. “Hello, good sirs.”
“Is something bothering you, lad?” Achilles asked, the mask of concern. It took all Patroclus’ willpower to not burst out laughing and ruin the farce.
“Just Orpheus, sir,” the stranger sighed, “I was just going to tease him a bit, a prank, you know? I didn’t think this was going to happen.”
“Well, maybe this is a lesson on the consequences of actions, lad,” Achilles said, “I should know.” His eyes darted to Patroclus. A surprisingly aft piece of wisdom, uncharacteristic of the man Patroclus loved when he was alive. Well, he supposed death wizened everyone. Patroclus rather liked this more thoughtful version of Achilles, though he would probably like most versions of Achilles anyhow.
“Although,” his Achilles continued, eyes glimmering in mirth, “There’s something rather fetching about this melody, is there not, my love?”
A look of pure, unadulterated fear dawned on the stranger’s face, “No, not you too.”
“Sing, of Zagreus, o Muse.”
Patroclus chuckled before joining in, his voice weaving with his beloved’s to turn the stranger a color not too unlike his chiton. Achilles’ eyes glimmered in the artificial light. Patroclus knew his voice was not as pleasant as his Achilles’ or, gods forbid, Orpheus’, yet Achilles was always insistent on badgering him to raise his voice in song more often. Well, now’s as good an occasion as any. Especially when the reward was Achilles’ adoration and, to some extent, the stranger’s mortification.
“I hate this House,” the stranger muttered, dashing towards his room in a hasty retreat.
“I see you’re still just as vicious as you were in life,” Patroclus said, wrapping his arm around his Achilles’ shoulder.
“Was that too mean?” Achilles asked, “I don’t often tease the lad.”
“You are doing a fine job,” Patroclus grinned, “Besides, I tease you all the time and you still love me, yes?”
“I love you too.”
“What’s this?” Patroclus asked. His Achilles, across from him on one of the small tables decorating the House’s lounge, was ladling a shining, red substance from a small container onto a pair of overly decorated plates. It smelled divine, though Patroclus was a tad wary of food in the underworld that was not nectar or ambrosia. Often, the items served as tools to boost one’s combat capabilities as opposed to food. In Elysium, being seen just nibbling on a piece of jerky was tantamount to a challenge, and invitation for a duel to the death.
“Ah. Just something the lad picked up in Asphodel as a show of gratitude. Pom porridge, he called it. A bit of home cooking from Eurydice, Orpheus’ muse. Thought I’d share it with you.”
“You’re much too kind,” Patroclus said, “Shall we tuck in?”
The food was still warm, probably a result of some arcane trickery devised by the nymph. Patroclus took a bite. The sensation was not overwhelming, not like the euphoria of nectar or the reminiscence of ambrosia. Tangy, sweet, a mild hint of spice. Not wholly unlike the food he ate while he was still alive. Patroclus reached for another bite.
“Delicious, is it not?” Achilles asked.
Patroclus nodded, “It tastes...like food. Delicious food, but food.”
“Is it not strange, my love, how we crave the simplest pleasures of life when we are down here?”
“Such luxuries are rare, is all,” Patroclus answered, “Though I suppose the simple act of sharing a meal with you, my Achilles, is already the simplest of pleasures.”
His Achilles shone, the softest of smiles curling around his lips. This Achilles, anger tempered with death, somehow seemed more full of life than the Achilles he once knew. Patroclus found himself not missing the sunlight as much anymore. How could he, when his sun was right here?
“Send the stranger my regards,” Patroclus requested, “I do not have a chance to see him much anymore, he rarely visits the administrative chamber.”
Achilles chuckled, “He may be a little sore about the past few failed attempts. Something about picking the wrong conditions from the Pact.”
Patroclus smiled along, even if his grasp of the details surrounding the stranger’s infernal occupation were hazy around the edges. He took another bite of the porridge, savoring its sweet, tangy, mortal taste. “Shall we do this again, my Achilles?”
Patroclus quietly settled into life at the House. The work was easy, his employers were surprisingly lax, and his co-workers left him alone, for the most part. Being able to match his breaks with Achilles was a plus, although their time together still felt much too short. Well, he supposed this was the best it was going to get. No use being greedy, even if human nature dictated the need to ask for more. Patroclus knew his limits.
He was on his way back to the administrative chamber with another armful of parchment to be sorted when he saw the fury Megaera and death incarnate deep in conversation. He did not mean to eavesdrop, really, but he supposed the stranger was rubbing off on him and he was straining to reach the handles of the chamber doors anyhow. If only his Achilles was here to help, but the other shade was off with the stranger, an impromptu training session of some kind.
“I don’t know, Meg. Zag is...well, he’s Zag. There’s a part of me that will always be afraid of losing him, somehow. These security checks...well. The rational me knows he will be fine, but just imagining his deaths is, well... And what if he tires of it all one day, and finds a way to leave? Forever?”
“Not sure if I’m the best person to be talking to about that, Than. It’s my job to try and kill him.”
A crash of fluttering parchment pulled the west wing occupants out of their conversation. Patroclus looked sheepishly at the two chthonic entities, mumbling his apologies and stooping down to gather the discarded scrolls.
“You’d think they’d start using canvas for the administrative couriers,” Thanatos said, leaning down to help.
“Wait, you don’t need to do that,” Patroclus muttered, “I was clumsy.”
“You’re also only one person,” the deity said.
“Thank you,” Patroclus conceded. He hesitated for a second before continuing, trusting in the forgiving nature of the divinities of the underworld, “If I may overstep, I could not help but overhear your conversation.”
The god’s eyes narrowed. Not wholly unfriendly, but guarded. “Go on.”
Patroclus swallowed, noticing the fury sister leaning in just a bit closer to hear their conversation. Well, he was in too deep now. “I ah, the stranger often talks about you. To me, to my Achilles, to both of us. He cares about you. I don’t think he plans to leave any time soon.”
Thanatos pursed his lips. Doubtless he was skeptical of Patroclus’ words. The shade continued on, “Not just you. Everyone he cares about is here, Lord Thanatos. I doubt he’ll be scheming to leave any time soon. So go for it.”
“I’m not sure…”
“Fear is for the weak.”
The fury sister nodded her approval, “The mortal is right, Than. You’ll never know if you don’t try. So go, what’s the worst that could happen?”
“He could reject me,” Thanatos pouted.
“Risk is a part of living,” Patroclus said, “And I suppose it is a part of dying as well. Ah, that seems to be the last of the parchment. Thank you for your kindness, Lord Thanatos.”
Death incarnate shook his head, reaching for the accursed handle that had vexxed Patroclus, “No, thank you for your words, my good shade. I...have a lot to think about.”
“Just do it!” Came Megaera’s exasperated voice from the hallway. Thanatos, for his part, managed to ignore the outburst and carry himself with otherworldly poise as he floated down the administrative chamber. The assembled shades whispered amongst themselves, surprised and a bit apprehensive at death’s sudden appearance.
“Just set them down on my desk,” Patroclus directed, “I have to sort through this batch by hand anyhow.”
Thanatos wrinkled his nose, his expression amusingly childish, “Ugh, parchment work. Remind me to pop my head in here next I tire of my job.”
Patroclus chuckled, “Will do. And thank you, Lord Thanatos.”
The god stood, awkwardly surveying the room. He reminded Patroclus of his younger self, longingly staring after Achilles, convinced the other man was forever out of his reach. With a heavy sigh, death spoke, “Well, I must go now. Have a good day, or night, I suppose.”
“Believe in yourself, Lord Thanatos. The stranger adores you.”
Patroclus could swear he saw a blush dart along the visage of death before the god disappeared in a flash of light. Ah, young love. Well, back to parchment filing. Patroclus had a long day, or night, ahead of him.
The topic of the stranger and death incarnate reared its head again at his next break with Achilles, now unofficially dubbed a “lunch date,” though Patroclus was still unsure if their meetings actually coincided with the timetable for luncheon. Their conversation had drawn the attention of a few other House inhabitants, the gorgon Dusa and the head chef joining Patroclus and Achilles at the table he had begun to think of as theirs.
“Did you hear about the, erm, the betting pool?” Dusa asked, her voice ever quivering. Patroclus wondered if she was always nervous, or if the lilt was just a part of her natural diction. “I think the odds are, like, three-one Zagreus confesses first and two-two he gets rejected.”
“Two-three rejected, now,” Achilles corrected, “The house contractor spotted Thanatos blushing after a visit earlier.”
“I’ve heard of the betting pool, Dusa,” Patroclus chuckled, “Hard not to when you’re kissing the ringleader.”
His Achilles whistled innocently, “I know not what you are speaking of. I am simply the messenger. Anyhow, the circle’s been running for quite some time now, my love, and you’re the only person I know who has not yet placed a bet, shade or otherwise. Everyone’s in on it. Lady Nyx, Hypnos, the Broker, the Chef, why, I think even Cerberus and the Lernean Hydra have a few obols in the pool.”
The head chef grinned.
“I see shame is of short supply around these parts,” Patroclus said, “Well, I suppose now’s as good a time as any to throw my horse into the ring.”
“You want to place your bet, mister Patroclus?” Dusa asked. Patroclus nodded.
“You can give it to me,” Achilles said, “I’ll make sure it gets to the right people. Like I said, I am the messenger. But Patroclus, what are you going to bet?”
“Before I came here, I sold the trinkets common to those of Elysium to the boatman for a considerable sum of obol,” Patroclus regaled, reaching into the folds of his robes, “I traded those in for some gemstones, and, well, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to increase my personal coffers.”
The sack was heavy in his hands as he handed it over to Achilles. The inhabitants of the table gaped in surprise.
“That’s so, so much!” Dusa exclaimed.
Achilles nodded, “Why have I not known about this?”
“It never came up,” Patroclus said. In truth, he wished to surprise Achilles with a little gift, but his current gem count was a tad too low to buy what he needed. A little white lie shouldn’t hurt.
The head chef eyed him with suspicion.
“Well, love, what will your bet be?”
“Zagreus confesses,” Patroclus said confidently, “Thanatos will reject him, then will accept a few days, or nights, later.”
Achilles raised an eyebrow, “That’s quite specific, Pat. Are you sure you want to take your chances with that?”
Patroclus carded his fingers through Achilles’ hand, “Trust me.”
A pause. Then a chuckle, “You know I do, Pat.”
The head chef rolled his eyes.
“Welcome to the circle, mister Patroclus!” Dusa said, “Hope you weren’t too attached to those gemstones. I mean...Yeah.”
Patroclus smirked. Despite the doubt, he had confidence in his prediction. May the Fates be kind to him this time around.
There were no further developments on the stranger and death for quite some time after that little round table conference. If Patroclus was any other man, he would have begun to fret over his prospects, but there was little that could fluster one as accustomed to waiting as he.
Even without a means to discern the passage of time, Patroclus had developed an internal clock of sorts, an estimation of the interval until his next break with his Achilles. It would be quite some time until then, and the amount of parchment he still had left was insurmountable. His backlogs were developing backlogs of their own. Patroclus wondered why the Lord did not employ more shades, or just the whole population of Asphodel, really, and save them all the trouble.
There was a crash at the front of the administrative chamber. Accidents similar to the one he had a few weeks, or months, ago were not wholly uncommon, what with the monumental parchment-traffic through the chamber each day, or night. Patroclus stood from his desk and moved to the door to investigate the commotion. Somehow, he had become the unofficial investigator of disturbances, a title he did not necessarily ask for yet he did not particularly mind having. More chances for conversation with his Achilles, no matter how fleeting, were welcome.
“Hello?” Patroclus hailed, expecting another hapless shade scrambling after a deluge of rolling parchment. What greeted him, however, was the gorgon Dusa wrangling a bundle of very red, very coarse hair with her dinky feather duster. The hallway seemed to be covered with the stuff and his Achilles was suspiciously absent from his post.
“What happened here, Dusa?”
The gorgon rattled nervously, “Well, ah, Cerberus’ toy got knocked away from his bed and he got, well, really, really excited. Mister Achilles is dealing with him right now. There’s still a lot of fur left so if you don’t mind, mister Patroclus, but I really, really have to go.”
“Would you like me to lend you my assistance?” Patroclus offered.
“No thank you. I gotta do this myself, it’s kind of my job, you know?”
Patroclus eyed the normally dark hallway, now gaudily adorned in canine red from the hellhound’s little rampage. “I do not think you’re in much of a position to refuse help. And it will be my pleasure.”
The gorgon continued her protests with a greater ferocity. Patroclus let her get the rant out of her system, something about job security and not getting fired by Nyx and the like, before trying once more to offer his assistance, “Please, Dusa. I’m saying this as, well, as a friend. Let me help.”
“You sure are stubborn mister Patroclus.”
“And so are you,” Patroclus grinned, “But let me warn you, I’ve had a lot of practice waiting. I can stay here all day. Or night.”
The gorgon frizzled for a moment before sighing in defeat, “Fine, mister Patroclus. I’ll accept your help. With reservations.”
There was, unfortunately, no other cleaning apparati readily available in the House, forcing Patroclus to make do with his old spear. The poor thing was not seeing much use anyhow, might as well put it to work. It proved a surprisingly competent tool. Poke, spin, thrust, and another clump of hair was tamed. They cleaned in silence for what, to his estimation, felt like hours. The shed clumps were piled in the middle of a hall in a terrifying crimson pastiche of a pile of autumn leaves. Patroclus wiped at his brows, a mortal force of habit, and surveyed their work. Save the heap of fur currently stacked in the middle of the hallway, the west wing was clear of debris. Not bad. Not bad at all.
“Thank you for your help,” Dusa said, “It probably would’ve taken me, like, forever to clean up the hall.”
“You are welcome,” Patroclus said. He graciously made no comment on her previous resistance.
“I’ll take care of the pile. And before you say anything, you’re not helping.” The gorgon made a little rattling sound, as if to hone in her point. “You’ve done enough for me already. And, well, I need to do something on my own!”
Patroclus tried his chances anyway. “The work will go by faster.”
“I’m putting my foot down on this!” Dusa hissed, “Well, if I had a foot to put down, I would. Seriously, mister Patroclus, you’ve helped me enough. I really appreciate it. But can you just...um, go?”
Patroclus was not a gambling man, save certain stranger related betting pools, but he knew when to fold, “Very well. Best of luck with the rest of...this.”
“Bye, mister Patroclus!” Dusa said, emphasizing each syllable.
Patroclus chuckled, “Very well. We’ll talk some other time, then.”
“Here’s your payout,” Achilles grumbled, “Fifty-five to one...My love, have you considered a career in soothsaying?”
Patroclus accepted his hefty sack of gems and planted a kiss into his Achilles’ forehead, “Perhaps.” Just like he predicted, the stranger was the one to breach the subject, and Thanatos had ran away only to accept the confession a day, or night, later. From what little gossip he gathered, Megaera was the only other entity to win more than he did, something about a slap and a one hundred to one chance.
He shook the shack. It appeared to be enough for his plans. Good. Achilles eyed him warily, “What are you going to do with all those gemstones?”
“Hmmm. Don’t know yet.” He did know, but it was a topic that directly concerned the gift he wanted to surprise his Achilles. He just hoped the House Contractor took custom requests.
“Was there something you wished to speak to me about?” his Achilles asked, “I do not have much time at the moment, unfortunately.”
“That’s precisely why I’ve come to you, love,” Patroclus said quietly, “A part of me fears I’ve grown too greedy…”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Well, working here has been pleasant. Having the opportunity to spend so much time with you even more so. Yet I…”
“You still want more,” Achilles finished, ever able to read his thoughts. They shared a moment, a quiet conversation for just the two of them. Push and pull, like the ebbing tides. Achilles had his reservations, but there was a glint akin to hope in his eyes. Patroclus understood. Patroclus pushed. Risk it all, Achilles.
“Very well,” Achilles conceded, “I’ll ask the lad.”
“Thank you, my love,” Patroclus said quietly, pressing a kiss on Achilles’ temple. Even in death, he smelled the same. Like the pines of Pelion, like olive oil and sweat. Patroclus savored the moment, tucking it away for all eternity.
“May the fates be kind to us,” Achilles muttered, “Fear...fear is for the weak.”
Patroclus hummed, “You’re not weak, my love.”
The stranger pulled through once again, even more so than the last two times he had lent them his aid. Patroclus had been given a new appointment as a guard of the house, granted he could find a suitable replacement. He suspected that stipulation to be a ploy to make his switch more difficult, but it appeared the stranger had that particular problem solved as well.
Which was how Patroclus found himself explaining the finer aspects of filing to one disgraced king Sisyphus while a giant boulder with a skeletal face stared him down.
“Make sure you double check the signature of both parties of the pact,” Patroclus instructed, “Lest Lord Hades finds a mistake in verification...Well.”
The former king nodded, “Of course. I think I’ve got a handle on this, good Patroclus.”
“Then I supposed I am finished here,” Patroclus replied, finally. The parchment machinery of the underworld was unnecessarily complicated, but Patroclus would not complain now. He would be free of it soon, anyhow.
“Thank you for all your help, good Patroclus,” the king said jovially. Hard to imagine how a soul like him ended up in Tartarus, but Patroclus supposed death changed everyone.
“Very well, then. Enjoy your new employment, king. I suppose I will be seeing you around now.”
“You sure will!”
The doors of the administrative chamber closed behind him, another chapter of his afterlife coming to an end. Achilles was missing from his spot by the west hall. Patroclus should be starting his first day, or night, on the job now, but his supervisor technically was not here. He could afford a detour.
One commission with the House Contractor later and Patroclus was standing at his new post, spear in hand, Achilles’ shoulder rubbing against his.
“So how is your first working day, or night, going?” Achilles asked.
“Quite pleasant,” Patroclus answered, “Helps that my supervisor is rather easy on the eyes.”
Achilles huffed, “I see. Who, pray tell, is this supervisor of yours, so I may give him a few choice words.”
“Oh, someone quite famous for his rage. I hear it ended an entire war.”
“I hear your new supervisor vastly prefers compliments over teasing.”
Patroclus laughed and pressed a kiss to his beloved’s temple. “Come now, we’ll have plenty of time for honeyed words later.”
“Would it pain you so to give me some now?” Achilles pouted. A low blow, Patroclus could never say no to that pout.
“Very well,” Patroclus grinned, and he began regaling his Achilles with compliment after compliment until poor Cerberus had to cover all six ears in annoyance.
“I hate you,” Achilles muttered, gaze transfixed to the newest addition to the west hall, “I hate you so much, my love.”
Patroclus beamed. The House Contractor’s outdone themselves again. The statue he commissioned gleamed in all its golden glory in the west hall, a replica of Achilles, nude save for a tactically flowing piece of fabric, standing triumphant over a gleaming pile of onions. Lord Hades had taken one look at the statue and picked up his spear, determined to end the stranger’s next security check with brutal efficiency. Patroclus will apologize later.
“I think it’s rather charming,” Patroclus said.
“If this is your idea of a gift,” Achilles sighed, “I dread to see the antics you’ll pull on those you hate.”
“Ah, the best is yet to come,” Patroclus grinned.
“Gods have mercy.”
Patroclus reached out to nudge at the statue. Ah, there it was, per his instructions. He flicked the little switch and the statue shook and flipped over, revealing the true gift underneath. Patroclus turned and grinned, letting the expression on Achilles’ face burn into his memories.
“If you hate it so much, I can always return it to the previous configuration,” Patroclus said casually.
He reclaimed his place by his Achilles’ side and admired the House Contractor’s handiwork. Another golden statute of Achilles, this time in his youth, lyre in hand, face lifted in song. A gold-etched Patroclus, still wearing that juvenile naivety, sat at the gilded Achilles’ feet, face in rapture. A little monument to the two of them, before all the bloodshed and war and death. A few thousand gemstones was well worth the final result.
“It’s lovely, Pat,” Achilles said.
“And now,” Patroclus whispered, “we have all eternity to admire it. Together.”
Achilles chuckled and shook his head, “Why would I ever need a statue when the real thing is right here?”
The shade of Patroclus felt his spectral heart squeeze in his chest, just like when he was a boy growing into his manhood all those years ago, trying to make sense of the turmoil in his head. Achilles smiled. It was radiant.
Patroclus was a greedy man, that much he could admit. But, finally, his greed was sated. Forever did not seem so bad with his Achilles here, whole and by his side, with nothing separating them. Achilles leaned in for a kiss. Patroclus could do naught else but answer.