When the clash of swords scrapes at his nerves, Asterius comes to the bend in the river. It isn’t always behind the same doors, but he learns to listen for the quiet of it.
There’s a shade here, who sits on the stones and talks to a statue, or to the air. To someone who isn’t there.
“—and what of glory, in the end? I never wanted to share you with it. Was that greedy of me, when I knew from the start you’d never be just mine? But glory is hollow, if only you’d seen how— oh. Hello.”
His tone changes abruptly, and he’s no longer staring vacantly ahead, but half-focused on Asterius. His eyes still seem far away.
“Who are you talking to?” Asterius asks, and the shade laughs bitterly.
“A man who doesn’t listen.”
Asterius snorts. “I have no patience for riddles,” he responds. “I want to ask you a question.” He grips the shaft of his axe loosely in his hands.
The shade appears to consider. “No,” he says.
Asterius considers him, sitting down there in the grass and dirt and stone. He isn’t Cretan, neither sounds nor looks it, but his skin is the earth colour Asterius knows from his earliest memories of his own family, not brass like Theseus. There’s an ashen pall over him. Perhaps he has a little of Erebus clinging there.
“You are not like the others here,” Asterius says finally.
“That’s kind of you to say,” says the shade.
“Disrespectful,” mutters Asterius, and the shade shrugs his shoulders. They are strong, for those of a human, and Asterius thinks perhaps he fought with a spear in life, because they resemble Theseus’s.
“Do you belong here, Bull of Minos?”
Asterius’s nostrils flare, he moves the axe down from his shoulder, then stops just as suddenly. The shade has made no movement at all, not even braced himself.
“No,” Asterius says. There’s a long silence, during which Asterius hears the river moving and the light breeze in the grass. He ends up breaking it, as the stranger is back in his reverie.
“Will you fight me?”
The shade of a soldier laughs again. “No.”
“Don’t you get tired of it?”
How could he? That is what Elysium is, the reward he's been unjustly given, and this fallen warrior earned. Neither of them should tire of fighting without flesh to bring them down. But Asterius thinks of the dull souls, who move the way they did in life again and again.
“Sometimes,” he admits. “But you are not some Lethe-drunk shadow. You, I would like to know through battle.”
The shade sighs, and closes his eyes. “You wouldn’t know me by fighting me.” His hand is on his wrist, which is decorated with a bracer Asterius doesn’t recognise. As his fingers touch the leather, he seems to relent.
“Let’s try this instead. I’m Patroclus, if it still matters to anyone. Did you have a name when you were alive?”
“Asterius,” says Asterius, and they sit in solitude together for a while.
“Asterius, you met Patroclus?” Theseus is shocked, or awed, and Asterius wonders if he should have known who the shade was. It would explain some things.
“That was the name he gave.”
“And he was alone, you say?”
“Yes, my king.”
“That’s why he shirks the fight! The bonds of his brotherhood are broken, and he’s left bereft! Why, I should offer him assistance, reignite his passions. If he’s lost his dear partner-in-arms, he has a hole in him larger than any spearpoint could leave.” There’s the slightest pause, too short for Asterius to gather his thoughts. “Or, a quest for the absent Achilles?”
Theseus takes a long enough (non-corporeal) breath for Asterius to speak. Theseus seems to be anticipating a reaction to the idea, perhaps inviting?
“You forget the life I lived. These names mean nothing to me,” Asterius says.
There’s a hand on his back, and a clap that would have sent a smaller being sprawling forwards. Theseus judges Asterius’s strength well, however, and the impact merely warms his skin.
“Oh, but they were past my time too. I knew the father of Achilles, King Peleus, after I met you—” after you killed me, Asterius thinks “— and I glimpsed his son as a youth, but the war they fought wasn’t mine.”
“Still, you do know of it.”
Theseus, who cannot see the simplest things before his eyes, never needs much prompting to tell a story.
“It began with a beautiful woman, a contest for her hand, and a binding oath …”
Asterius returns to the glade when he feels the need to. If Patroclus minds, he doesn’t say, and Asterius sometimes offers him things he’s been awarded, things that are of no use to him like dried meats.
He still challenges Patroclus to fight. The more he grows to appreciate the gloomy shade, the more Asterius wants to see him rise up and leave his misery in the dirt for one glorious battle.
The more he grows to know Patroclus, the more he realises it won’t happen.
This time, Asterius comes without a reason or excuse, and he’s stunned to see Patroclus is not alone.
At first, he thinks the two shades are deep in conversation. Each sits on the soft grass, and they lean so far towards one another that their foreheads touch. Their voices are soft, too soft to hear, but Asterius’s keen ears do catch grunts and ragged breaths.
He wonders if one, or both, are hurt. Some of the shades of Elysium tend to one another after a fight, as they would in life. The Fields themselves will heal their wounds, in time, but Asterius understands that the cleaning and dressing is both a habit and a beat in the rhythm of their eternal battles.
There’s a similar sense in the air, but the salt smell that catches in Asterius’s nostrils is not blood, or its spectral equivalent. As he peers at them from his considerable distance, he sees that each is working his shoulder, doing something vigorous under the green cloth of his friend. Asterius catches glimpses of the finely formed muscles of human bodies moving under bare skin, and hears a rustling of fabric that only grows more urgent.
“Pat— oh, yes—please, there, oh—” the one who is not Patroclus says, his voice rising enough that Asterius can pick out words in the murmur.
Oh, Asterius echoes. Cold and heat wash over him in equal but uneven measure. The moment draws out like a thread stretched taut, and he retreats from it the way he came.
There are warm fountains of soothing water in Elysium, a fact that many shades take advantage of. Theseus is no exception, and has a particular enthusiasm for soaking in them after battle. He always invites Asterius, who does not always go. This time, Asterius appreciates the chance to talk.
“Does Achilles have yellow hair?” he asks. Not the gold colour of yours, he thinks, but a shade lighter. Like wheat.
“According to the poets,” Theseus affirms. “Though he shore the youthful locks from his head and placed them on the pyre of Patroclus.”
“I have seen him, then.”
Theseus displays no disbelief, only delight. “The great Achilles himself, returned to Elysium! We’ll train tonight, then, for he’ll surely challenge my place as Champion.”
“Why would you say such a thing?” Theseus squares his shoulders, and his voice takes the tone he uses when he’s addressing the crowd. “Perhaps we’ve had some defeats, but merely because that vile hellspawn fights without honour! I am still undefeated by any man. The shameful daemon has a chthonic nature on his side, and yet he still cowers from my spear! And your axe, of course.” The latter is enough of an afterthought that Asterius might find it offensive, but he knows Theseus does need him in their fights.
Asterius lets the king burn himself out before replying. It’s easier than redirecting him.
“Neither of us are at fault. He was visiting Patroclus. They are not friends, my king.”
“Don’t say such terrible things! I should doubt a man like Odysseus on the subject, but I have heard it from the noble Hector, and why would he lie when they were mortal enemies in life? You must have seen someone else, if they were on bad terms.” Theseus chops the surface of the water with his open hand, punctuating his words with splashes.
Asterius’s lips part to speak, then he closes them.
The maze had been dark, his mind an animal, and Asterius had not known to feel naked when they fought. Theseus himself was barely clad, like all the sacrifices.
Now, Theseus is again the same as he, with rivulets of water flowing down his forearm. Perhaps he squares his shoulders when Asterius hunches, and lets his legs splay out when Asterius is forced to fold his, but they are equals in their nudity.
Asterius feels exposed anyway. Theseus’s bright eyes do not falter on him. He jerks when Theseus nudges him with a knee.
“You are hardly yourself today,” Theseus says. “I insist we spar and break this mood.”
They do spar, with their weapons rather than wrestling this time. Theseus’s footwork is excellent as ever, stepping around Asterius’s charges and deflecting the double headed axe with his shield. Asterius knocks Theseus down once, twice, three times before he yields, and takes the broad, downy-furred hand offered to help him up.
Practice means caring for their blades afterwards, a task Theseus has introduced Asterius to with enthusiasm. While a hero king might have had someone to do it for him in life, in Elysium a warrior’s particular weapon is a part of himself, and should be wiped down by its wielder. Asterius does so with efficiency, while Theseus lavishes both oil and attention on his spear.
“I owe you an explanation of what I said before, about the heroes Achilles and Patroclus,” Asterius starts.
“Nonsense, Asterius! You feel better now, do you not?”
“No.” Theseus’s eyebrows lift, and Asterius snorts. “Yes, I feel better. No, it is not nonsense.”
“I know little of friendship. If we are friends—”
“We are! From the depths of my heart, we are!”
Asterius casts his gaze away briefly, focusing on the axe under his hands instead. Theseus is sincere as the sun, and can be equally difficult to look at.
“If we are friends, they do things we do not.”
Theseus is quite silent. Would that Asterius had known this would shut him up long ago.
Though, he might have preferred staying monstrous and unmoored in Erebus to an eternity of this conversation.
“But what do you mean?” Theseus asks plaintively. Asterius can see him plotting, planning to conquer this new act he must fear he’s forgotten.
“I saw them touching each other,” replies Asterius, and Theseus chuckles in relief.
“Do we not wrestle?”
Asterius recalls pinning Theseus down with a shoulder to the back, hooking under his elbow so he could grip Theseus’s wrist and pull his arm back tight. Theseus had been slick with phantasmagorical sweat, and Asterius could feel hair on his forearm that was too pale to easily see. Theseus called it pankration, not wrestling, but Asterius hadn’t paid much heed to the difference.
“They were clothed, not at sport,” Asterius counters. “Clothed, and touching beneath the clothes.”
Now Theseus is truly laughing, a loud peal of thunderous delight.
“Asterius, you— what a fine jest! You had me, you truly did.”
Asterius grinds his teeth, and Theseus stops as suddenly as he began. “Oh,” he says. “Oh, my friend, I’m sorry—”
“I have no use for apologies. Tell me what’s amusing, my king.”
“Merely that of course they were lovers. That needn’t be said! All Athenians of noble birth know what it is for a man to take a fancy to a beautiful youth, as the poets say Achilles was, and that soldiers are wont to select the most beloved of their comrades to share their beds.”
Asterius thinks of the Athenians in the Labyrinth. If they came to his chamber in the dark, it was to fight. That was his purpose, and the reward that awaited them beyond all passages. They were compelled to challenge him, and after hearing them blunder through the doors and galleries, Asterius would be ready to charge. The hunger gnawed at him always then. It was gone now, left behind with his life.
“I am Cretan,” Asterius says instead. “And a monster.”
“Hmph, I won’t have such talk! You’re here in Elysium, where you fight in the light. Besides, their friendship — nay, their brotherhood — is what matters. That’s what’s glorious, and famous. Don’t trouble yourself with the acts, if they disturb you so.”
“Short one. I have a question for you.”
Prince Zagreus, godling son of Hades, has brought him nectar. Asterius has no use for the stuff, not really, and he’s declined the gift more than once. Now, he has the bottle in his hand, where it feels impossibly light, and Zagreus is perched on a wall with his bare burning feet swinging in the air.
“Does it have to be ‘short one’?”
Asterius is not having this debate again. Zagreus didn’t understand the first time, and he hasn’t found better words.
“You know the shade called Patroclus.”
“That’s not really a question, but— wait, you’ve been talking to Patroclus? I thought he avoided all the fighting here.”
“Yes. I thought him perhaps a coward until I learned more of him. He is not.”
“No, he isn’t. I don’t think he likes fighting unless he has to, but that’s different. Anyway, he’s happier now with Achilles coming to see him.” There’s some pride in that statement. Asterius can tell Zagreus enjoys being able to help his friends.
“That is what I mean to ask. What occurred between them, to change their bond.”
Zagreus blinks mismatched eyes. “Er,” he says, and his red blood rises to his cheeks. “You’re asking me how they got together, or …”
“No. Patroclus told me you were instrumental in that. I want to know why they started having sex with each other.”
“I didn’t mean literally together, Asterius,” Zagreus says. He’s growing even redder in the face. “I mean, you can ask—”
“If it concerns you, Patroclus himself told me he has no objections. He said you are better to ask about this than he, having seen both sides, and loving more than one soul.”
Zagreus runs a hand through his wild hair. “Wow. Um, I guess news spreads around here. Yeah, I’m— I love a lot of people. There’s supposed to be seven kinds of love, that’s what Aphrodite says, and I’m not always great at telling them apart, but with Than and Meg, I want to try.”
Thanatos, Death, and Megaera of the Erinyes, as Asterius understands it. They’ve appeared in his battles with Zagreus before. They’re both entities worthy of respect, and dutiful. Asterius isn’t sure what led to Zagreus forming sexual bonds with them, but he understands why they appreciate the prince. Zagreus himself is more worthy of respect than much of the Underworld believes.
“How did you know that they, too, wanted this?” Asterius asks. It’s as plain as he can be.
He watches Zagreus swallow again, and offers the bottle of nectar silently. Zagreus takes an appreciative swig.
“Thanks. How’d I figure out they wanted to be with me? Awkwardly,” Zagreus says, with a laugh. “And I’ve been wrong, with people who love me but not like that. I messed up a lot with Meg, too. We broke up — stopped being together — and it was hard. Still isn’t easy, exactly.”
“I am not afraid of hardship.”
Zagreus nods. “Do you have someone in mind?” he asks. “Is it Patroclus?” The thought seems to delight him, as his lips break into a grin. “You have a lot in common, and he might like the company when Achilles is on duty—”
Asterius raises a hand, palm out, to stop the prince before he gets carried away. “It is not Patroclus.” Perhaps they share the distinction of being in Elysium by request, but Asterius prefers not to dwell on that. He must instead live up to the faith placed in him. Besides, as he sees it, Patroclus will fight beside one man, and one alone. Asterius understands this. He will not interfere in it.
“Oh,” says Zagreus, and his mouth twists into a frown. “You really mean him, don’t you? Because if you think you owe him, you definitely don’t owe him that!”
“What I feel is not by any request my king has made of me. He does not know.”
“Yeah, he’s not the perceptive type,” Zagreus comments, as if he hadn’t been assuming Asterius wanted anyone other than the king.
Asterius rankles, his lip curling. “I was wrong to ask you.” He turns to leave, then feels a hand gripping at his arm.
“No, sir, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t understand your bond, but I want to help.”
“The Minotaur came to see me again,” Patroclus says.
“Ah,” says Achilles. “If he still wants to challenge you, I’ll take up my spear on your behalf.”
“No, it’s not that. Not a martial challenge, anyway. He wanted me to teach him.”
Achilles looks utterly blank, and Patroclus laughs. “Is this how you felt, when you were asked to train the godly son of Hades? But your pride couldn’t let you refuse, and I have no such impediment. I told him to ask someone else.”
“Hopefully not Theseus,” Achilles says.
Patroclus sighs. “No, not him.”
“It’s an odd day when you don’t have a sharp word for a king, Pat,” Achilles observes.
“Well, it’s the Champion of Elysium who’s the concern of the Minotaur. He wanted me to explain to him what it means to love someone, because he has the notion he loves Theseus. That, and he saw us fooling around.” Patroclus has no shame whatsoever, only a wry smile.
Achilles clears his throat, though. “He saw us— I suppose that’s hard to avoid, in Elysium.”
“It was hard to avoid on Mount Pelion too, and at camp,” Patroclus agrees. He likes the way this makes Achilles fidget boyishly where his hand grips his spear shaft, a mannerism Patroclus doesn’t recall from life. Embarrassment was not a trait typical of a demigod, and proper conduct may as well not have existed in the world of Achilles as he lived. They’d gotten carried away with passion all the time.
“You were always irresistible to me,” Achilles says, and Patroclus barks a laugh that the sun of his life around which he orbited would say that to him.
“And you to me,” replies Patroclus. He doesn’t know which of them initiates the kiss. It starts brief, impulsive, but it lingers. They have so much time now.
“I confess I’ve wondered about them,” Achilles says, once the kiss finally breaks. “When I was writing my Codex, I heard rumours the Minotaur was with Theseus as a servant, and thought it more likely they had a mutual respect. I wasn’t privy to the negotiations, but I know Theseus went to Lord Hades and asked to have his enemy brought to him in Elysium.”
Patroclus’s mouth twitches. “How romantic, to be moved about on someone’s whim.”
“Point taken,” Achilles says with a rueful look, and Patroclus thinks he might fall in love with him again for it. He’s changed so much since they parted, regrown the old bloom of kindness in him.
It only adds to his magnificence.
“I hear the same rumours. They say Theseus has humiliated his great rival for all eternity, and turned him into a trophy,” Patroclus says. “I don’t believe anything these blinkered shadows say, myself.”
Achilles murmurs some level of half-absent agreement, and Patroclus kisses his cheek just so, deliberately scraping against skin with his beard.
“Cruel!” Achilles teases. When they were much younger, he’d burned with envy that Patroclus grew a fine beard. Envy and, as Patroclus had slowly discovered, desire. Later still, Achilles would often stroke where the hair began on his cheek while they amused each other in their tent.
“Isn’t love always cruel?” Patroclus asks.
Achilles cups his face and makes the old gesture, following the line of Patroclus’s beard with his thumb.
“I thought so once,” Achilles admits. “But no, not always.”
Zagreus appears again, in the chamber where they fight. It should be an immediate invitation to battle, but Asterius is drawn into a conversation instead, albeit one that feels like a battle. He’s losing it; the open care Zagreus displays is not within his power to counter. Asterius answers his probing questions, out of well earned respect.
“I knew little of love when I was alive,” Asterius says, without unnecessary emotion. It’s simply true. “My mother despised me for reminding her of a foul act against her. Her husband, the king, found me shameful. After I proved impossible to tame, I was sealed away. My sister would visit me sometimes. Read to me, or play music. There would always be a door between us. I imagined she had a face like mine.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, sir,” Zagreus says, to a snort from Asterius.
“I’m not. I’m here now, with my king, forever. That is far more than I earned.”
“That doesn’t mean you don’t have good reasons to be angry.” Asterius knows now that the Prince can never leave this realm, and that this is said out of fellow feeling, not pity from an upstart godling.
“I use that anger when I fight. I let it make me stronger. And at times, I look at him. He sees more than anger in me.”
“I do too.”
One of Asterius’s ears flicks. It may look like annoyance, but when he speaks, it’s in low, soft tones.
“Thank you, short one.”
“So, um. What did you want to know? I’ll try and explain as much as I can.”
Asterius pauses for a long time. He’s pondering how to ask questions he can barely form in his own mind, and it’s like trying to clench his fist around water.
“What should we do together? I have the urge to touch him, kiss him, but I know the breaking point of bone. I do not know how to give pleasure.”
“Oh gods,” says Zagreus, and slides a hand down his face.
They fight instead, after that, which suits Asterius well even if he’s beaten.
Asterius is not surprised that the shade Achilles finds him next. After all, when Zagreus couldn’t teach him, he’d promised he’d ask his own teacher.
“Bull of Minos,” Achilles says, with a bow of his head.
“Hero of Troy,” acknowledges Asterius. Achilles is taller than Theseus, perhaps because he has immortal blood. In the stories Theseus has told, he is powerful, even brutal, and filled with a rage so black and terrible it ends a war.
Before Asterius’s eyes, he looks tired beyond his mostly faded youth, and more soft than stern. He has more or less the same armour and robes as Patroclus, in a different shade. As tall as he might be, he’s short in comparison to Asterius. Still, he does have a certain presence to him.
Achilles clears his throat. “Probably best you call me by name for this.”
“You can do the same.”
“Right, thank you. Well, I suppose the prince told you he and I had this same talk, a long time ago.”
“He did.” Asterius allows this man to look him up and down, though he’s never liked being examined. It makes him feel more bull than man.
“Do you want to sit down?” Achilles offers, and there is a stone games table nearby that he points his spear towards. The dead play a game called petteia, for which Asterius does not know the rules. He prefers the rush of a real battle to waiting for a piece of stone to move.
Still, Asterius nods, and takes his place at the table. They leave their weapons on the ground beside them. Achilles moves the pieces off the board with quick, clever hands, and replaces them with some rolls of parchment.
“You can read Greek, lad?”
He’s not a lad, but Asterius ignores the slip. “I can.”
“Good, good. There are some illustrations, but that’s good.”
Asterius unrolls one of the parchments. The picture is of two men, and one is on his knees. His mouth is on the other’s bare loins. Asterius can guess what this is, having heard heroes crudely boasting about being sucked off.
“He is not like me,” Asterius points out. They both have the flat face of a human, after all, and their parts differ from his.
Achilles nods. “I know, but I’ve seen you in combat. You fight like a man, mostly. You can adjust in the same way.”
He’s so confident that Asterius finds himself agreeing, though he won’t back down easily. “You make it sound simple.”
“Perhaps. It may well not be, and I won’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in your position, but do you trust him?”
“He is my king,” Asterius says.
Achilles seems to bite his tongue, as there’s another pause. “Aye, but do you trust him? Not owe him, or want to serve him.” He swallows. “Mind, some claim to enjoy the latter, but I can’t advise you on it.”
Asterius won’t give a hasty answer. He takes his time to think, as Achilles waits. All he can picture is Theseus calling him to kneel with his hands outstretched, so the Champion of Elysium can step into his grasp and be tossed hard into the air.
“We trust each other,” he says.
“A solid foundation, then. You can build love on that.”
Asterius has the dream again. He is a wild man in a strange land, with a proud king who boasts of his glory, and they are locked in combat. They have no weapons; they’re rolling in the grass like animals. The king catches him in the side with a fist, knocking the breath from him, and before he can react there are powerful hands at his throat.
He closes his eyes, kicks, thrashes. Now there is cold stone under him, he’s pushed up against a wall at his back and the man won’t let go. He snaps his teeth desperately, and gets a mouthful of long hair for his trouble.
Then they’re on the grass again, and the king is straddling him. “Yield, monster!” he commands, though his weight is next to nothing. Asterius tosses him off, flips him and slams him face-down into the dirt, but the king rises again to his feet. He’s shaking, bruised and panting.
Asterius takes a few paces back, and lowers his horns. In the mist of rage, he misses the way the king bounces on his toes, and the set of his jaw.
His wild charge does not meet soft, unresisting flesh. Instead, the king leaps to grasp his horns in those deft hands and pulls himself over Asterius’s head in an impossible arc. He’s tucked into a ball by the time he reaches the ground again, and rolls to a stop.
“Theseus!” Asterius cries. It is Theseus, with green from the Elysium grass smeared all over his chiton.
“That,” Theseus whispers, “was worth dying for.” When he smiles, there’s blood on his teeth.
Asterius wakes with his fur sweat-matted to his skin. It’s so dark it feels like the labyrinth, but there is something soft under him, and tangled sheets stuck to his legs.
There’s also a presence by the bed. Asterius can sense it, but still flinches when a familiar hand touches his cheek.
“Peace, Asterius, it is I,” says the voice of his king. What’s quiet for Theseus is too loud for this dark room, and welcome anyway.
Asterius grunts, and shrugs off the touch by sitting up. It seems Theseus is unperturbed, because he takes the opportunity to climb onto the bed, shaking the mattress and settling in beside Asterius.
He’s never done this before. They don’t sleep together, why would they when they each have their own quarters, and of late if Asterius thinks about Theseus on his bed, it’s in reference to the parchment illustrations Achilles furnished him with. Some of them are very illustrative.
“You were shouting,” says Theseus, with a pat to Asterius’s shoulder.
“I didn't mean to wake you, my king.”
“Pshaw, what does that matter? I care not! I should be woken every time you feel distress, friend Asterius, so I may render comfort.”
The petty sting of ‘friend’ fails to ruin the rest of it.
“It was merely a dream,” Asterius says.
He can’t see Theseus’s face, but Asterius hears the quirked eyebrow when he speaks. “Oho, a dream about me? You called my name, you see.” And Asterius feels him shift on the bed, feels him nudge even closer until Theseus is halfway in his lap. He’s more or less perched on one thigh, and rests the back of his head on Asterius’s chest.
“King … why are you …” He doesn’t know how to ask it.
“Have you never been comforted before?” Theseus asks blithely.
Asterius snorts. “I did not live a life of comfort.”
Theseus reaches up to his neck, as far as he can. He claps Asterius above the collarbone, where the bull’s head and human shoulders meet.
“In death, you are here in the splendour of Elysium, and you are my dear companion! You will get all the comfort you need now.”
“Because I dreamed of you,” Asterius says. He can’t still his own tongue.
“No! Well, yes, that’s why I— oh, Asterius, don’t think so ill of me. I heard my name, but it was from your bovine lips.” Theseus is rubbing circles into his back with the heel of his hand, for some reason.
“I don’t have any other lips to speak with.”
Theseus laughs. “Mere wordplay, my friend! You are the bull-headed Prince of Crete, I am the laureate Champion, that kind of thing. Do you have no soul for poetry?”
“You know my name. None of the rest is necessary,” Asterius replies.
“And you, my most beloved companion, should spend time developing your appreciation of beauty.”
Beauty, as far as Asterius is concerned, sounds very much like ‘beloved’ in the voice of Theseus, but the sentiment chokes him and he can’t speak it.
They fight new warriors in the Champion’s Arena. There’s some surface war bringing them here. Each new face is one they see defeated, leaving Theseus crowing and blessed with the spoils of victory. Once he’s done posing for the crowd, they both retire to rest before the next bout.
“I dreamed of you,” Theseus says, most of the way through the bottle of ambrosia. Asterius doesn’t indulge in the stuff much, but he will keep an eye on his king as he turns sloppy with drink.
“When?” Asterius asks.
“When I was alive. It’s why I wanted to know about yours. I wondered if you had the same dreams.”
“That is unlikely.”
Theseus laughs, and spreads his hands in an expansive and frankly wobbly gesture. “We’re unlikely, Ash-terius.”
He’s slurring the name, but he isn’t wrong.
Asterius shrugs, and permits his king to climb into his lap again. This time they’re face to face, and Theseus feels larger than his body would suggest. Like he’s touching Asterius in places his limbs don’t reach.
“I dreamed of you when I was alive,” Theseus repeats. It’s whispered in his ear like a secret, though Theseus has told him many other times before tonight.
“Yes,” he agrees. He rests a hand on Theseus’s back to hold him steady.
“For years, Asterius. Years. All my life, I thought about our battle. Saw your eyes in the dark.”
The confessional tone is strange. Theseus proudly told him this in Erebus, trying to convince him to follow. At the time, Asterius was ungrateful and disdainful, offended that this human king could be so arrogant as to think he’d be impressed that his killer thought of him.
He was impressed, and grateful for his release from the cage of his life besides, but it was nonetheless arrogant.
“I know, my king. I thought of you also, even before we met.”
Theseus isn’t really listening, so it passes him by, and Asterius is relieved he doesn’t have to explain how much he hoped his fated slayer would come for him.
“No, no, you don’t understand. No one else came close to you, in my mind. In my heart. You were so glorious, like nothing else in the world.”
Asterius thinks of the labyrinth, his prison. He was a beast in it, unclean and often bloody. His horns had no pink adornment, his mane was rank with sweat. He had not been glorious to his mother, who mourned for herself and hated him, or her king husband who ringed his nose and locked him away. The tutor he had struck down to the stone floor so hard blood leaked from his ear had found him wanting for any virtue.
He snorts, not unkindly, and pats Theseus on the back.
“You were! And I killed you. I knew I’d be a hero for it, but I kept thinking it was such a waste. That you had gentle eyes, a proud spirit, and a body built by the gods themselves. That you were not a hideous monster, but striking in your unique form. That I’d never felt anything like I did fighting you, knowing we were matched so well to each other. I’d dream of you looking at me again, whole and vital and strong, and wake up hard as adamant.”
Asterius freezes. He tells himself he might not have heard properly, but he also can’t bear to touch Theseus any more. He keeps his hands on the bed sheets, off his king’s body.
“That’s the part I never told you,” Theseus whispers, and laughs. It’s the kind of laugh that threatens to turn into hacking sobs.
“King,” Asterius says. He can’t look at him, and instead stares over his shoulder. As this is Theseus’s private bedchamber, it’s difficult to find anywhere to look that doesn’t, in some way, feature the king. He has their banners, his portraits, a rug with the Champion insignia. There’s so much pride in all of them.
“What? Does it surprise you? Truly? I haven’t lied to you! I’ve made no effort to conceal it, not ever! You say I don’t listen to you, well. Have you been listening to me, when I say that you’re the one I love the most?”
Asterius can barely listen now, past the blood rushing in his ears. He tries to move out of their embrace, but it's to no avail. A stubborn Champion is impossible to shift without pushing hard, and Asterius fears his hands might burn through the chiton and onto raw skin if he does.
“Theseus,” he says, and gets a watery-eyed stare for it. “You are not yourself.”
They’re not the right words. He knows immediately, because Theseus almost flings himself out of Asterius’s lap. He’s shaky, but manages to stand anyway, with great effort. Forget wet eyes, there are tears on his spectral cheeks, and an angry red flush under them.
“Leave me,” Theseus commands. It would sound more like an order if his voice wasn’t trembling, but Asterius does as his king bids.
Asterius wonders what he’s supposed to do in Elysium without Theseus. They should be training, or talking about whatever new tactic the short one has revealed to them.
In fact, he’d be talking about that, and Theseus would dismiss it as irrelevant. Then he’d insist on practicing their shield slam technique until Asterius felt the vibrations linger in his gut, a sweet reminder of the rush of a fight.
He wants to go to Theseus, but when he tried at the king’s chambers earlier, there was no answer. It felt dishonourable to open the door. Asterius did it anyway, only to find the room looking entirely ordinary. It should have been marked, somehow, but Theseus had even stoppered the dregs of his ambrosia and placed it carefully on a shelf.
Asterius can name multiple other places Theseus might be, but he’s already ignoring a clear message.
He ends up at the glade of Patroclus, which is occupied by both the expected shade, and Achilles.
“— do you remember Odysseus’s face, Pat? I thought at the time he was like a hunter, and I’d been snared.”
Patroclus sighs. “That was the face he often wore, as we found out later. He loved his trickery. I knew which you were without it. You danced like you fought.”
“I’m not so sure that’s the praise you mean it to be,” Achilles says, and Patroclus clasps his hand tightly, bringing it to his chest.
“Learn to take a compliment with as much grace, my Achilles.” It’s wry, filled with some meaning Asterius doesn’t know.
He shouldn’t be spying on them again, should leave and find somewhere else to be, but Achilles spots him and waves him over, bidding him to sit. Asterius assents and is cross-legged on the stone with them, barely glancing at their still-clasped hands.
“You look troubled,” Achilles says. It’s a weak opening thrust to a battle of wills, unlike the decisive warrior Asterius has heard of. He’s still confused by Achilles, and wishes they could fight so he might understand the man better.
“I do not. My face doesn’t change like yours,” Asterius replies.
“The way you hold yourself does," Achilles counters. "To someone who's learned to look for these things as I have."
Arrogant, Asterius thinks. This warrior knows him not, yet has been bidden to interfere and taken to it with enthusiasm.
Asterius takes a long, slow breath, and his spike of temper fades. He knows Achilles sees it, because he has a gentle look about him. Patient. Asterius has never known what to do with patience.
"I am troubled," Asterius admits. "My king said things to me he may not remember in time, but I won't forget."
Patroclus turns his head, perhaps trying to see what his partner sees. "He insulted you?"
"No. The opposite."
Now Patroclus has the hand not all bound up in that of Achilles to his temple, rubbing to soothe some sudden ache there.
He's saved by Achilles, who has been observing intently.
"Did Theseus say he loves you?"
Asterius nods. "And … some other things, things I will keep private."
"So you have heard of the concept," Patroclus mutters under his breath. Asterius has spent too much time around him to take offence.
Achilles is still patient, though. "And do you think he lied?"
"No." Until asked, Asterius hadn't even imagined it as an option. He is a monster, born into ugliness from a great cruelty, but Theseus doesn’t see him that way. Theseus once believed in his worth so powerfully the whole Underworld bent, and has shown no sign of stopping.
"Then I don't see the barrier between you. Do you feel unready? That doesn’t fade any, even with time,” says Achilles.
Asterius does, but it's such a small thing compared to the rest. "He was drunk. He would not have said it otherwise. I don't know what he balks at when he's of sound mind."
Patroclus and Achilles exchange a look, one Asterius is not invited to understand.
"Why do you balk at asking him?" It's sharper than Achilles has been before.
“Fear is for the weak,” Patroclus adds, with lilting irony.
He finds Theseus practicing his spear thrusts in one of the rooms beyond the Champion’s Arena. It’s a motion Asterius knows well, has learned to meet in his own way, and to avoid when they spar. Theseus makes quick jabs towards some imagined enemy, then tosses the spear straight into a wooden target.
It hits and stays, hanging there with the tip buried deep.
“A good throw, my king,” Asterius says stiffly, and Theseus whirls around.
The former King of Athens looks like himself. Perhaps some redness about the eyes, but otherwise his jaw is set firm, and his wreath sits the same in his hair. Asterius isn’t sure what he imagined would be different. Did he expect to see a wound where horns hadn’t gored him?
“It pleases me to hear you say it!” Theseus lies. His voice squeaks like overpolished brass.
Asterius had anticipated arguing. He’d thought of his case, phrased it carefully in his mind despite knowing Theseus would hear what he wanted to hear anyway. He’d tried to practice saying he loved Theseus aloud, until it didn’t stick on his clumsy tongue.
He should have realised that while he thought, so did Theseus. Whatever conclusions his king came to, he has let them settle and made a tight suit of armour of them.
“My king …” Asterius starts, and Theseus turns away, his shoulders tight. He twists his hand, so the spear turns in its place and gouges a hole in the target to free itself. At a thought, it returns to him in a gleaming rush.
“Forgive me any indiscretion, will you, and forget it all? Swallow the whole Lethe if that’s what it takes.” Where Theseus’s words usually soar, he’s flat now. It’s not at all like when they’ve argued before, and Theseus has been all high passions. It’s more like the aftermath, when he was so distressed he couldn’t speak.
“I will not drink from the river. I am not a regretful sort,” Asterius says. He expects Theseus to flinch away when he reaches for him, but it’s worse. Theseus leans into it, his shoulders half-relaxing.
“Nor will I,” says Theseus. “But we will still be on the field together, as brothers in arms …?”
It’s terrible, seeing the sun rise on Theseus’s face. “As friends, who shan’t be parted!” he says, and Asterius suddenly knows what he’s been so afraid of. This man, who braved Erebus and the wrath of Hades himself for his enemy.
“Will you listen to me a moment? Now that you know I am not leaving you.”
Theseus fumbles, and drops the spear. It clatters to the floor with more noise than seems necessary. His face has clouded over.
“Must you be so— so bullish?” Theseus blurts. He puts his hand on top of Asterius’s, where it still sits on his shoulder. His grip is tight knuckled under his gloves. Asterius doesn’t rise to the barb about his nature.
“I must do nothing. I want to speak with you, because I was silent before. Do you understand?”
“I’d prefer you gutted me on the colosseum floor and glutted yourself on my blood and innards before the crowd!” Theseus wails, pulling his hand back to wave it accusingly about. The shield isn’t here, Asterius thinks, and yet he makes his own shield to hide behind, out of spit and venom.
“You know I don’t eat meat,” Asterius says, like it means something, and Theseus laughs the ugly laugh from before.
“Speak and be done with it then, if you have any fellow feeling for me.”
“I do,” Asterius says, and he cups Theseus’s cheek. Theseus is blotchy-faced and does not look like a shining, brilliant sculpture of a man. He leans into the touch, not away.
“I said to you once that only you could break our bond. I was wrong. I damaged it, and I’m sorry,” Asterius continues. They seem like such hollow words, when he could act to prove them, but acting has not worked yet. Theseus’s eyes are full of tears. How can he fit so many tears in him?
“You’re sorry? It was I who hurt you, Asterius!”
“No. It wasn’t. You did nothing wrong. You were trying to be brave. I wronged you with my silence. I should know what silence does.”
Theseus swallows, licks his lips, sniffs. Words must fail him, too.
“I fight with you because of you. Because when I’m with you, I can see the way you see me, and I want to be worthy of it. When I draw a weapon by your side, I’m telling you that I love you. Do you understand, my king?”
“No,” Theseus says. It’s not clear to Asterius if he’s answering the question, or just denying. “No, no, you shouldn’t say— why do you have to say it? I know I asked more of you than you want to give! I’ll go back to what we were, without you asking me to! Let me have my dignity, or the tattered remains of it.”
He was wrong to assume Theseus hears what he wants to hear. It’s his own thoughts echoed, Asterius realises. Not so different to the way a bellow reverberates through the many halls of a labyrinth.
Asterius lifts Theseus’s chin, and lowers his own head until his neck hurts. It’s an awkward angle, and the kiss is no more than a dry brush of their lips that turns into a jarring clash of teeth as Theseus tries to respond.
If it were anyone other than Theseus, he might worry that he’d proven himself a poor choice of bedmate. With their faces still close, he can see that Theseus’s eyes are wide, his pupils blown. How he can find that clumsy failure arousing is beyond Asterius.
“Again,” Theseus demands.
They end up in Asterius’s quarters. Theseus wanted his own, but Asterius is concerned enough with only one king’s eyes on him. It will take time before he can do this in front of the banners.
“Off, off,” Theseus says, as though the garments he gave Asterius long ago are personally offending him. He’s much less deft at unbuckling the belt on Asterius than he had been with his own, mainly because he won’t stop kissing Asterius’s face and neck at the same time.
“Let me do it,” Asterius says, pushing Theseus’s hands away. He’s steadier, but he knows his thighs tremble some. It’s not becoming of him, this nervousness, so he steels himself to strip while Theseus watches with heated impatience.
Theseus is, of course, already stripped down to nothing. He’s never displayed any sense of shame in his body, and he must be deliberately showing it off now. He’s tightly sculpted and trained, every bit the heroic figure even in death. Perhaps especially in death, where a shade may look as they prefer.
Asterius wants to look away, but he can’t. Theseus has sharply cut lines from his hips curving downward, to where his prick sits erect and framed with gold hair.
It’s unfathomable that the reaction is for him, but so is everything about Theseus. From his smirk to the way he crosses and uncrosses his legs at the ankles, he’s every bit himself. Each movement shows off the lean flex of his calves.
“Come now, friend— beloved Asterius, don’t keep me waiting so long. I want to see you.”
Asterius pulls the belt from his waist and tosses it at Theseus, who snatches it out of the air before it hits him. He laughs, which shakes his chest and draws Asterius’s attention to the bob of his throat.
“You’ve already seen me when we bathe,” Asterius says, though he’s removing his pteruges.
“I’ll never tire of it! Besides, I haven’t seen every detail yet. There are hidden parts of you I’d like to acquaint myself with.”
“My king,” Asterius groans. He can’t blush, being both dead and covered in fur, but he does feel whatever spectral version of blood he has rising hot to his skin.
“Oh, but I am, I am very much your king,” says Theseus, springing on the flimsiest excuse to say what must be on his mind. He rubs his slightly overlapping thighs to emphasise the point. “Would you like to spend yourself here?” He bends his knees and spreads them, canting his hips up. “Or here?” His hands part the cheeks of his arse, and he openly rubs his thumb over the rim of the hole there.
“I mustn’t degrade—”
“Pah, don’t talk rot! Am I not allowed what I like, in this eternal paradise of all places? I would have you in every way, show you all kinds of appreciation, if only you want it too. I’ve thought about you inside me for an eternity, and the reverse, and every other wondrous configuration our phantasmagorical forms may be capable of.”
Asterius shakes his head, to clear his mind rather than to refuse. Theseus awes him with his sheer audacity, as he always has. Asterius never imagined the heady way that would combine with lust, though. It grips him low in the belly, and he sheds the rest of his clothes carelessly, tossing them aside to Theseus’s delight.
“Slow down. I’ll do what you ask in time,” Asterius says, then kisses Theseus before he can start talking again. It’s easier than the first, and the dozen or so they’d shared after that, since they’re on the bed together and Asterius needn’t bend so far. His mouth isn’t shaped for kisses, and it won’t ever be the same for Theseus as with a human, but their lips and tongues do meet.
Theseus’s hands grip Asterius’s waist, fingers threading through his fur. Taking his opportunity, Theseus wriggles down the bed so he can comfortably delve lower, stroking and touching as he goes. With his face above Asterius’s breast, Asterius can smell the perfumed oil in his hair, all wood and balsam. He presses the end of his nose against the top of Theseus’s head, to a breathy laugh.
“I hope my scent pleases you!” Theseus says. Of course it does. Asterius snorts in amusement, and finds the force of his breath sends a shiver through Theseus, which he almost apologises for. He realises he has no need, as Theseus keeps speaking. “I’d have your hands on my scalp, if you will, when I take you in my mouth. Dig your nails in, perhaps guide me, but don’t pull my hair unless you mean me to stop.”
Theseus is sensitive there? No wonder he always styles his own hair, even after combing and oiling Asterius’s mane into place. Asterius listens with due care, but his assent comes as a wordless groan.
It’s touching, the way Theseus keeps looking back up at him, checking for his response to every caress. Asterius is warmed by it, at least until Theseus weighs his balls in one hand, and he bucks in surprise. The lightest of squeezes feels molten hot, though Theseus is treating him tenderly.
“Have you ever—” Asterius starts, then interrupts himself with a low keening noise as Theseus finds the folded edge of his sheath with a thumb, touching where the short fur ceases and naked pink skin begins. Beyond that, his cock swells and pushes its way out to jut up at a sharp angle, wet with the fluid that eases its way.
“Oh, yes,” Theseus purrs. He’d be confident whether he had any knowledge or not, but Asterius has already guessed that Theseus found plenty of time to explore the bounds of pleasure in his life.
He has not touched anyone like Asterius. How could he? It’s made more obvious when he tries to slip a finger inside Asterius’s sheath. It stretches too tight, with a bright sting of pain that must show in Asterius’s face, because Theseus withdraws quickly, and plants a kiss on one pectoral.
“Forgive me my curiosity! I’d like to know the scabbard to your sword better, but it appears you’re eagerly armed.” Theseus ducks down, faster than Asterius expects, and licks a burning stripe over Asterius’s cock.
He can’t help it, he bucks up, and grasps at Theseus’s scalp with one hand. Asterius drapes the other arm over his own snout. When Theseus opens his mouth and starts to suck at the tapered tip of his cock, Asterius sinks his teeth into his own forearm.
He doesn’t mean to pull at Theseus’s hair, but his hand must have clenched in it. Theseus stops, pulling off him with a pop.
“Mercy,” Asterius gasps. The drawn taut feeling eases, and his toes uncurl. He knows what was about to happen. It’s never come on with such harsh suddenness, though, and nor does he want it to.
For his part, Theseus adapts. He doesn’t take his hands away, but his touches are not so urgent, and he focuses them on inner thighs, balls, hips. He licks his lips, where shiny precome has smeared to mix with spit.
“Another time, perhaps? Tell me what you like, when you satisfy yourself. I’ll gladly do whatever you desire.”
Asterius lowers the arm across his face, threads his fingers gently through Theseus’s hair. “Would you lie down on your back for me?” he asks.
It’s barely out of his mouth before Theseus is supine. He could be mistaken for being yielding if he weren’t gripping the inside of one thigh, obviously struggling not to touch his twitching cock, and lifting his knees to almost the same height he had before.
Asterius knows the way their bodies fit well enough, after all their wrestling. He straddles Theseus face-to-face for long enough to share a kiss, then plants his hands on each of Theseus’s thighs, pushing them further apart until one knee touches the sheets. He finds the right angle to align their hips, though it means Theseus’s face is buried between his pectorals.
“Keep talking,” Asterius says. “And I’ll show you what I like, if you’ll allow me.”
“Yes,” breathes Theseus. “Yes of course, of course I will, Asterius, anything you want, but especially you over me, I want to feel the weight of you ...”
Asterius grasps Theseus’s prick first, and strokes it lightly. The outer skin that shrouds it is velvety, and moves easily, unlike his own. He can roll it back and forth, which must have been what Theseus wanted to do to him. Theseus is still talking, but the individual words are less important than his constant, if muffled, voice.
Asterius catches his thumb on the curve of the head, which makes Theseus keen, and his own cock jumps against the back of his hand.
“Together?” he asks, and Theseus makes a garbled noise that’s nonetheless an unmistakable yes.
Asterius holds both their cocks in one hand easily, and braces with the other. Theseus entwines their fingers, his much smaller hand fitting neatly over the spaces between Asterius’s bones.
It’s not slow. Asterius has never been the type to draw this out, and as much as he’d like to with Theseus, he’s not sure how. He keeps his hand steady and thrusts into it, rather than pumping; every rub against Theseus brings a friction that thrills through him and might overwhelm if he grips too tightly.
Theseus has no problem matching his pace, though he’s run out of breath to do much more than pant against Asterius’s chest. As Asterius grows fervent, he jolts Theseus hard against the bed with every thrust, enough that Theseus brings his knees up again and digs them into Asterius’s sides to brace himself.
The hitch in his belly catches Asterius again. He’s drawn so tight he’s shaking, and he moans low and guttural when everything overwhelms him, splashing his own hand and Theseus’s cock and belly with come.
He can’t keep stroking himself as he starts to retract back into the sheath, it’s much too sensitive, but Theseus seems to anticipate this. He ruts up against Asterius’s hip instead until he’s spilling too, almost silent, then still grinding past his peak. He can bear that, Asterius thinks, in curious admiration.
They tire like living souls, and it feels right to stay entwined. Theseus wipes them both down with his own discarded chiton, saying something about not bearing to be left sticky. He doesn’t seem to mind that Asterius barely moves.
“Did you mean the things you said?” Asterius asks, breaking the warm almost-silence.
“Yes,” Theseus says, without a single thought. “All of them.”
“You answer without knowing which things I ask of,” Asterius accuses, though he feels fonder than he sounds.
“All of them, Asterius,” repeats Theseus. His voice is hoarse and thick with drowsiness, but no less certain for it.
It’s not long before they’re facing the Prince again. Asterius means to thank him outside the arena, but Theseus has no such plans.
“It seems I owe you a modicum of gratitude, which I am generous enough to admit when warranted!” Theseus shouts. He’s standing next to Asterius the way he always does, and points directly at Zagreus with his spear.
“Wait, what? You— what?” Zagreus turns to Asterius, hoping for an explanation from him, but Asterius shakes his head.
“The king isn’t finished.”
“Ah, Asterius, my love, you needn’t admonish him! For all that he may be a dishonourable daemon, he did us a good turn, did he not? I’m prepared to be magnanimous, in the light of that. Without your assistance, Asterius and I—”
Zagreus’s eyes widen. “Congratulations and all that, but I don’t need to know any more, thanks.”
“What, you think I shouldn’t speak of these things? What a wretched, loveless life you must lead in Tartarus! You may not understand it, but I’m deliriously happy, and Asterius tells me you had a minor part to play. I think you’ll find us to be in sync in a way you’ve not seen before, after learning how our bodies—”
“King,” Asterius interrupts. “Not in front of the crowd.”
“Oh, I see! I will save your blushes then, but you ought not be ashamed. There’s nothing nobler than a passionate affection spurring warriors to greater heights! Now, fiend, you may test a bond reforged, if you think you have the mettle for it!”