Thanatos can feel them from the moment he’s born.
Each one of them flickers. Some burn brighter, harder than others. Others emit a dim, steady glow. Yet all of them flicker. And, soon enough, all of them grow quiet. All of them grow cold. All of them, if not slowly and surely, then all at once, fade away.
Mother Nyx tells him it is life: the force residing within every living being.
“For you are the god of death, Thanatos. Death is to be impartial. And life will be the currency of your trade.”
It’s an extension of his sisters’ power. No one is privy to the tapestry they weave, nor when the thread of each life will be snipped. But Thanatos is welcome to the aurae of their designs, so they have decided.
Hypnos gently snores, curled up in a ball and floating next to them, but all of Thanatos’s attention is on his mother. For all her big words, she looks serenely beautiful as Thanatos looks up at her with wide eyes, her hum soporific. Ever patient, as Thanatos barely reaches her knees when he grasps a fistful of the billowing skirt of her dress, the chiffon crumpling in his grip. The ceiling of the House might be high above them, but Mother Nyx manages to look so much taller, still.
“But I feel lots,” he mutters. “Lots…and lots of it.”
His grip grows a little tighter, the beginnings of a crease folding between his brow. The hand that isn’t holding onto his mother’s dress is holding onto his stuffed Chthonic mouse companion, Mort, his soft body giving way to his one-armed hug.
“...It is because there are many mortals you will tend to, my child,” Nyx murmurs again. It's soft, warm, and tinged with sympathy. “But be at ease, for you are but a godling, now. You will learn, in due time, what you must do.”
“I’ll…learn?” Thanatos chews on his lip. He hugs Mort tighter. “On my own?”
“Yes. But in the same way Hypnos learned to sleep on his own, and as you’ve learned to see and shift, all on your own,” Nyx says, as gentle as the ghost of her smile. “And you’re quite talented at that, aren’t you, my son?”
“I... Yeah. Yes, Mother.”
His hair falls in his face. He sputters, pushing silver strands away from his eyes. He’s sure one wormed its way into his mouth. But he blinks, and Nyx’s cool fingers brush away all the offending hairs tickling his face, tucking the locks behind the curl of his ear.
Thanatos doesn’t tell her how he can feel her life. How the flames residing within the gods make the combined light of all mortals feel like a hopeless candle in a storm. Next to him, Hypnos’s is not like a flame on its own, but like the glow that comes off of one. If that glow could exist on its own, that would be what Hypnos’s is like. On the other hand, Mother Nyx’s is cool, soft, and steady. Like the Pool of Styx that Thanatos likes to touch, sometimes, when no one’s looking. But hers is nicer and wider. Thanatos likes hers.
Suddenly, the House of Hades starts to rumble. Granules of debris pitter-patter the great hall as Cerberus yowls, his stomps rattling Thanatos to his teeth. He only catches a glimpse of Lord Hades’s afterimage as he shifts, before he has young Prince Zagreus in the crook of one elbow, staying Cerberus’s growling and whimpering as smoke curls off a singed patch of his tail. When the lord of the House turns to address the prince, his look is no less withering.
“Cease stomping on the dog’s tail with those flaming feet of yours, boy...!” He barks that before lowering Zagreus on the ground. “That will be the last time I ferry you out of danger like that. Know better.”
Thanatos doesn’t hear Zagreus’s reply. He sees him scuff the heel of his yellow-hot feet on the floor, sullen as he mutters something that prompts barely a nod from Lord Hades. Zagreus goes to hug one of Cerberus’s closed maws before he runs off to play elsewhere, looking happier with every step he takes away from the grand desk on which Lord Hades works. Though he can’t see Zagreus very well after he jogs away so far, Thanatos keeps staring after him.
The life in Zagreus shone.
“You haven’t talked to Prince Zagreus yet, have you, child?”
Thanatos jolts. He looks back up to Nyx—fearful, for some reason, when he’s never had any reason to fear her. But her gaze upon him is as placid and soothing as ever.
“...No, Mother.” Thanatos looks back to where Zagreus was standing. Where he scuffed his flame feet against the marble flooring. “Am I...supposed to?”
“No, not as in there is an obligation that you must act upon. But you are free to do so if you wish to, Thanatos.”
“Oh.” He looks back up at Nyx. Then down at Mort, and then at his feet. “Would it be...partial, of me? To do so?”
“Not at all, child. You are to be impartial when delivering mortals to this House, when you rise to your role. But who you make friends with here is not a part of that duty. If you wish to get to know Zagreus better, then it is up to you.”
The word friends sticks with Thanatos. Hypnos turns over once in his sleep, and keeps snoring. He remembers those bright, fiery laurels glowing against the prince’s inky spikes of hair. The way his features loosened with every bounding step he took away from the great hall and his Lord Father. It nags at Thanatos, for some reason, as he stays rooted, floating close to Mother Nyx and next to his slumbering twin brother.
But he can’t tear his eyes away from the very spot Zagreus was in. The way he could feel the heat of his life, from all the way across the hall, burning with every bounding step the prince took.
“You’re Thanatos, right? That your new scythe, there?”
Thanatos stiffens, his grip on his scythe growing knuckle-white, for a beat. He didn’t think anyone would bother him as he watched the River Styx just beyond the balcony ledge. He lets out a long, controlled breath, before turning around, holding Mort close with his other hand.
There, before him, stands Zagreus. The prince to the House he serves. With laurels and feet of flame like his father, with a dark, blood-red left eye, and the clearest, most startling green Thanatos had ever seen for his right one. It reminds him of the Light of Ixion, which shone on the House itself. But brighter, still.
The life in him felt so incredibly warm, from this up close.
“Y-Yes.” Thanatos fights the urge to clear his throat. He swallows instead, hugging Mort close as he holds his scythe slightly behind him. “It is.”
“It looks really cool,” Zagreus insists, the beginnings of a smile growing on his face. Just as Thanatos fixates on it, it quickly fades, and he watches Zagreus cock his head. “Did you cut your hair, Than? Can I call you Than?”
“I—Than?—wait, I mean—” Thanatos squeezes his eyes shut. Takes a quick, deep breath, in then out. “I...I did cut it. Prince.”
Zagreus scrunches his nose, complete with a hum of displeasure.
“You don’t have to call me that.”
“But...you are the prince.”
“I mean, I know I am. But it sounds really...I dunno.” He shakes his head. “Could you just call me my name? I can call you Thanatos, if you don’t like me calling you Than.”
“I...I never said that you can’t.” Thanatos’s grip twists on his scythe. He purses his lip. “I can... Can I call you Zagreus, then?”
Zagreus hums in thought, his fist squishing his cheek as he does so. Thanatos watches him think.
“That’s okay,” Zagreus tilts his head back and forth like a pendulum. “I do wish I had a nickname, though.”
“Then, uh...” Thanatos starts speaking before he thinks, and he feels almost as startled as Zagreus looks at his own outburst. “How about...Zag? Because, um,” he gulps, and hugs Mort tighter, “you called me Than, which is short for my name, so…I mean, I thought about saying Prince Zag, but you said you didn’t like that—I didn’t think you would—and—”
“That’s perfect! I really like that!”
Thanatos blinks again. Zagreus is beaming at him. His cheeks raise when he grins like that, squishing up against the bottom of his eyes. Thanatos can’t seem to look away, when he does that.
“O...Okay.” Thanatos nods, slowly. Then he mouths the name, like trying on the feel of a new robe on his skin, with the way the long vowel drags on a little in his mouth. “...Zag.”
Zagreus laughs when he says it, and Thanatos can feel his own cheeks growing hot. It feels somewhat embarrassing, having the prince parrot just a diminutive of his name. But there’s something about the melody of his laugh that sounds like fingers gliding over harp strings. It’s like Thanatos can feel something like Lady Hestia’s presence, right here, within the House’s Chthonic chambers.
“So you did cut your hair, then, Than?”
Thanatos is shaken from his train of thought. He finds himself blinking at Zagreus’s inquisitive eyes, and finds himself unsure of which coloured one to look into when his mouth closes, then opens.
“I... Yeah. Yes. I said I did.”
“You cut it yourself?”
“Was it with your scythe?”
“It was. It...got in my face a lot. So.”
“Ohh, okay. Shame, though.” Zagreus shrugs. “You looked better with long hair, I think.”
Suddenly, Thanatos doesn’t really care all that much about how bright the prince burns when he squints hard at Zagreus. Very hard. Zagreus seems to notice when his own eyes widen.
“Whoa, Than, you look really scary there. I didn’t mean it in a bad way, or anything. Honest!”
“...Sure you didn’t.” Thanatos turns away from him, his cheeks tightening along with his lips. “I’m gonna go.”
He doesn’t wait for Zagreus’s response when he shifts back to his room. All Thanatos needs to do is turn around when he sits on his bed, crossing his arms with a pout, his scythe staying afloat and Mort tucked in the crook of his arms, as ever. The conversation plays back in his head, and Thanatos still feels the embers of annoyance still flickering in his chest.
“...I don’t know if I want to be friends with him anymore.”
He looks down at the gold cuffs around his ankles, and gives a huff. He plops sidelong onto his bed, so his feet still dangle off the edge, but he’s laying down, still frowning. The prince really has no sense of courtesy, he thinks, from criticising his hair to his face. Or even giving his opinion on how he looked better before.
Thanatos realises, with an intake of breath, that that would mean Zagreus had been thinking about how he looked before they even talked.
After a moment of stillness, Thanatos frowns even harder, and buries his face into his bedsheets. The heat of his face still lingers from the warmth the prince radiated from their talk as his voice leaks out of his quilt, for no one else to hear:
“Hey, Than! Wait!”
Thanatos freezes, then curses himself for it. Before he can go anyway, prince of the House’s wishes be damned, Zagreus manages to run up just behind him. Thanatos frowns just as hard as last time, but he decides to stay. But also decides not to turn around completely, when he just looks over his shoulder.
“I’m really sorry for last time—for what I said,” Zagreus barrels on. Begrudgingly, Thanatos decides to reserve judgement and listen. “I really didn’t mean anything bad by it, but I know it wasn’t nice of me to say all that. You do look good with short hair, now. I just thought you also looked nice with longer hair, too. I didn’t mean to make you upset, Than. I’m sorry.”
Thanatos bites his tongue. He never imagined that the prince could sound so apologetic, with the little tiffs he sees between him and his Lord Father. But for some reason, rather than filling him with mortification, it feels almost funny in a way. He has to chew on his lip so a smile doesn’t come out, because it would be incredibly inappropriate if he laughed at the prince for this.
“...It’s fine.” Thanatos turns around, finally. When he sees the concern on Zagreus’s face instantly morph into what looks like sheer joy and relief, Thanatos fights the urge to turn away again by opting to glance aside instead. “You don’t talk about my hair, and I won’t talk about yours.”
“Sure! Of course! ...Hey, wait a minute.” Now it’s Zagreus’s turn to frown. “What’s there to talk about with my hair?”
“Like I said. I won’t talk about it.”
“Talk about what?” Zagreus demands. Thanatos just looks away, floating off slowly with a smile on his face that the prince can’t see, and glances upwards when he hears his sizzling footsteps coming after him. “Than...!”
Zagreus all but chases him into the lounge, but Thanatos lets him know it was only a joke by the time they get there. Neither of them feel like sitting when they get to one of the tables, opting instead to, respectively, float or shift their weight between the balls of their fiery feet.
“Your scythe is really big and cool, though,” Zagreus insists, gushing again. “That’s what you use to, like, reap mortals’ souls, right? And bring them here? Or, what you will use, anyway. Nyx told me a little bit about it, and I think I got most of it.”
Thanatos doesn’t know how to feel with the obvious awe glowing in the prince’s eyes, nor the implication that the prince asked Mother Nyx about himself. So, he just shrugs mildly.
“I guess so. Mother Nyx says I’ll also need to go through training with, uh, a sword as well, soon. Apparently some mortals might not go down without a fight? Something like that.”
“Oh, same! Though Father says it’s because I lack discipline, whatever that means.” Zagreus waves a hand dismissively, and Thanatos swallows down a graceless snort. “He says it’s just about finding a suitable trainer. Then I’ll be starting right away.”
Thanatos watches Zagreus shrug, then realises he has nothing else to say. He looks down at the plain stone table, and the silhouette his hood casts upon it, basking in the warmth of Zagreus’s life.
“Who’s your friend, by the way?”
Thanatos looks up, startled at Zagreus’s smile. “My—My friend?”
“Yeah!” Zagreus juts his chin to his arms. “Him! Or her. I’m not sure. Your Chthonic companion, I mean.”
Thanatos looks down. Mort is nestled in his arm, his mousey, patchwork ears sticking out. He relaxes a little from just seeing him.
“His name’s Mort,” Thanatos says, hugging him close. “I’ve had him since I was born.”
“That’s really nice. Father said I don’t have a need for a Chthonic companion, and Cerberus is already really great. They seem really cool, though, still.”
“It’s...They are. Mort is. He’s really important to me.”
“I can tell!” Zagreus laughs. “I never see you around without him.”
Once again, Thanatos realises the unwitting implication that Zagreus has remembered seeing him around, and feels complicated about it. He doesn’t know what to say. He only knows that Zagreus feels incredibly warm; the energy and life he gives off, at least. Thanatos is responsible for tending to those that fade, but he never wants to stray away from this. From his.
“Hey, Than?” Zagreus tugs on the sleeve of his robe, and Thanatos struggles not to start. “Could I try holding your scythe?”
“What? Um,” he glances from side to side. “Why?”
“Just to see if I can lift it. You make it look really easy!”
“Well, yeah. It floats. Or, well, I make it float.”
“Oh, what? Is it heavy, then?”
“I mean, I guess? It’s just hard to balance, I think. But it’s okay.”
“Could I try? Without the floating, I mean.”
“It’s sharp, you know. Mother—Mother Nyx told me to be careful with it.”
“That does make sense.” Zagreus rears back a bit, smiling. “I don’t have to try it if that would make you feel uncomfortable.”
Thanatos holds the scythe with two hands, Mort between his chest and arm as he eyes Zagreus with apprehension. He looks around again, at all the shades glancing at them, whispering, and looks back at Zagreus.
“You...can try, if you want,” Thanatos murmurs, but before Zagreus can say anything in his excitement, he quickly tacks on: “But not here. Where everyone can see.”
Zagreus looks around at the shades milling about. His mouth turns into a small ‘o’ of understanding, before he nods, short and swift at Thanatos.
“Got it. Let’s go to my room, then!”
“What—?” Before Thanatos can even voice his shock, Zagreus already has his hand around his wrist, and he doesn’t know what to make of anything. “Wait—!”
He’s already floating at high speeds as Zagreus repeatedly shifts while dashing towards his room. Thanatos can feel his heart pounding, thinking maybe Mother Nyx or even Lord Hades spotted Zagreus sprinting off with himself in tow. But then he finds himself by the prince’s bed, looking untouched yet homely in comparison to his large, messy quarters. The lighting feels a little warmer, at least. But he doesn’t know if he should even be here, or how nervous he should be at all this.
“Oh, sorry—I should’ve asked first before dragging you here.” Zagreus’s brows go upturned, trying to form a little bridge in worry. “But, I mean, no one will bother us here. Not even my Father—he said he’d only shout if he needs to see me for anything, but he’d never barge in here without permission. Promise.”
“I... Am I allowed in here?”
Zagreus’s concern fades instantly from his face, replaced only with the most innocent confusion.
“Of course. I mean...why wouldn’t you be? I want you here.”
Thanatos doesn’t realise how his own breathing goes still. He searches Zagreus’s face, the mesmerising depths of his eyes. But it’s sincere all the way down. He doesn’t understand it. But he does know that Zagreus wants to try holding his scythe.
“Here.” He holds out his sacred blade, an arm’s length away from the prince. “You can try carrying it once. But that’s it.”
“Yeah, of course!”
For all the enthusiasm in his voice, Zagreus reaches out for it in an exceedingly deliberate manner. Even when he grasps along the handle, it is with a great amount of care and respect, which Thanatos appreciates. It shows him that Zagreus knows the weight with which Thanatos’s gesture holds. It makes him relax.
“I’m going to let go. And then I’m going to make it not float, when you’re ready.” His hand drifts away from his scythe, his eyes not leaving Zagreus’s for a moment. “Okay?”
“Yeah.” Zagreus nods, in jittery little motions. He looks to the scythe’s blade, and back at Thanatos again, nodding harder. “Yeah—got it, Than.”
“Okay.” Thanatos’s arm relaxes completely by his side now. “Do you have a good grip on it? It’s really important that you do.”
“I do. I do.” Zagreus looks up and down the shaft of the scythe. His gaze lingers at the top, where the candle light in his room glints off the silvery swoop of the blade up above. “...It looks kind of like a creature, with the purple eyes on it.”
“I...” Thanatos looks up at the scythe. “I guess.”
The last time he looked at it from afar was when Mother Nyx presented it to him for the first time. It looks slightly surreal, seeing the grey and purple adornments of the scythe alongside the prince’s crimson-coloured apparel.
“It is pretty light,” Zagreus notes airily, motioning the scythe as if he were weighing it in his palm. “I suppose that’s because it’s still floating.”
“Yeah. Hold on—I’ll make it stop. Floating, I mean.”
Zagreus simply nods at him, and Thanatos takes a small breath. He tugs on the energy that keeps his scythe aloft. Then, gently, gently, he strips it away. Layer by layer. Until none of his power surrounds it anymore.
“That’s... That’s all of it, now.” Thanatos’s head tilts forward a bit, eyeing Zagreus nervously. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, yeah... It’s...lighter than I thought it’d be? But I can really feel its weight, now.”
“Yeah? It is pretty big.”
“It’s more than that, I think...” Zagreus looks up at the scythe once more, visibly swallowing before he holds out the scythe to Thanatos again. “I think that’s all the scythe-holding I wanna do. Thanks for letting me do it, though.”
“Oh. Oh, that’s... No problem.”
The moment Thanatos takes hold of the scythe again, the energies that he carefully peeled away wind themselves all around it again. It glows softly, recognising its owner, before the handle drifts home into his palm once more. Thanatos doesn’t dwell on it, though, just as he doesn’t dwell on the way he blinks or floats or manages to shift wherever his heart desires. He keeps on watching Zagreus, expecting him to be more persistent on whatever draw he saw within his scythe. But, like earlier, he showed a sensitivity to its power that, bluntly, Thanatos hadn’t expected to see from him. Not when most of the interactions he had usually seen the prince engage in was with his Lord Father. Not to mention one of the first impressions he had of Zagreus, to boot. Thanatos doesn’t think he’ll let go of that anytime soon, no.
He looks down, content to stay quiet again, before he notices the palms of the prince’s hands.
Zagreus’s hands and fingers are...pink.
Thanatos blinks. Focusing, he notices that they’re a tiny bit more swollen than before. It’s not permanent—it does fade back to normal—but it’s startling. He’s never witnessed a ruddy complexion on any part of any god or goddess before. Because it’s not possible; ichor runs even brighter gold than the obols he knows his brother is so fond of. He doesn’t know what runs in Zagreus’s veins.
He doesn’t know, and the thought of not knowing haunts him.
“Are you busy with anything, Than?” Zagreus asks, breaking him out of his stupor. “I’d hate to be keeping you.”
“Pardon? Oh. I mean... I do have to talk to Charon, at some point. And then Mother Nyx. But, that won’t be for a while.”
“Oh. Oh, great! Can...we hang out some more, then?”
“Uh… Okay.” Thanatos nods. “I’d be happy to do that.”
“Really? Nice! Hey, let’s go play with Cerberus, then! Have you met him properly yet? I’m sure he’d love you!”
“I—Not really, but—” Thanatos feels it again, and looks down. Yes, Zagreus’s hand is warm and firm his wrist once more, and his feet are glowing even more hotly than usual. “Wait, Zag, I can get there on my—!”
It’s too late; Zagreus is already dashing off again, pulling Thanatos along like how mortals would describe a balloon on a string. But for all his complaints, the both of them know just as well how easily Thanatos could shift to places himself, and do so at a moment’s notice if he felt like it. When Zagreus is jumping up and down, introducing his hellhound to him as if they hadn’t already crossed paths multiple times before, Thanatos notably fails to bring up any grievance he has with the prince’s boundless enthusiasm. Maybe because he lacks any in the first place, as he readies himself to give Cerberus pets at Zagreus’s fervent demonstration and gesturing.
“I don’t think you’re my brother. Is that weird?”
The next time they hang out, it’s in the fighting hall next to Zagreus’s bedchambers. They have full view of Tartarus bathing in Ixion’s emerald light as Zagreus stands around, jogging in place, or leaving burn marks across the floor once again. Thanatos is content to float and watch him dash around like a Numbskull chomping at the bit to torture some wayward souls.
“Not to me,” Thanatos says simply.
“But shouldn’t it be?” Zagreus huffs, standing with his arms akimbo for one second before he’s on the move again. “It’s like...I’m pretty sure that I’m not related to you, Charon, Hypnos, or Meg, even. Even though Nyx is my mother.”
“Is it...because Lord Hades is your father?” Thanatos ventured. “And not ours?”
“I’m not sure. I just...I can feel it. I can tell. Whenever I talk about Nyx in front of father, he looks...different. Like something’s not quite right.”
Zagreus looks off into the middle distance. Into where the green flames emanate from the chambers of Tartarus, where the souls of the very damned reside. Thanatos stares at his profile. At his right side, where his green eye glimmers brightly with the Light of Ixion reflected from it. There is something about his whole demeanour, which holds very little of Mother Nyx’s laconic grace. About the very blood that runs through his veins. Maybe that’s how Thanatos knew. How they both knew.
“I mean...” Thanatos’s hands twist on his scythe again, unsure. “Do you want to be brothers, Zag?”
“...No. Not really.” Zagreus looks down, before he paces, then speeds up, and slows down again. “It was just on my mind. I thought it was just me thinking that. You know?”
“I... I know.”
Zagreus gives him a resolute nod, a kind smile following shortly after.
“We’re great friends, though, Than,” he adds, still smiling. “Make no mistake about that.”
Thanatos digests the words. It takes a while for them to settle, for some reason. Despite all the obvious signs Zagreus has given him, indicating his friendship and affection.
“...I...suppose we are.”
“You don’t sound very excited about it,” Zagreus quips. He dashes up in front of Thanatos, which makes him startle, but less than when he initially did it, at least. “Is something the matter, Than? You can let me know.”
“I’m fine, Zag. It’s nothing. Really.”
Zagreus studies him for a moment. Then smiles with a nod again, satisfied, before he zips around the training grounds once more.
Thanatos thinks over the words Zagreus told him, still, and feels himself smiling. He looks down at Mort in his arms, who smiles back at him in a cross-stitch, and hugs him tighter.
There are only two times in dying memory where Thanatos has cried.
The first time was when he lost Mort. His upper lip wobbled with how stiff he kept it, but the tears he dammed up in his eyes overflowed anyway. Zagreus searched the whole house high and low after hearing about his loss. Even his siblings contributed to the cause. Hypnos tried offering one of his sleep toys as a substitute, which did not go well with Thanatos, and earned him a light whack of Charon’s oar. Charon let him know that whatever Chthonic companions he wanted in the future would be on sale to him and him only. Mother Nyx hugged him without asking. He felt a taste of what mortals would feel, maybe, when their loved ones left their mortal coil. Never knowing when they would see each other again.
The second time was lesser known, and when they had grown just a little older.
The shade of mortal fame Achilles was the prince’s personal martial instructor. Thanatos had made progress with his own scythe, as well as his sword on occasion. One day, on Lord Hades’s orders, they found themselves in the training grounds outside Zagreus’s bedchambers, overseeing the shifting structures of Tartarus. Thanatos finds himself bereft of his scythe and sword; only a wooden mock-up of a training blade in hand, and a matching one in Zagreus’s as they stand across from one another.
“I’m sure you would’ve heard already, but the Lord of the House wishes to see the fruits of your training in a friendly sparring session,” Achilles explains, standing next to where Stygius floats idly by him. “Given your respective progress, and my own experiences, I thought this would be a good way for you to practise with something more resembling the real thing, if you catch my meaning.”
“Loud and clear, Achilles, sir. Although,” Zagreus glances at Thanatos, looking uneasy. “I don’t…have to fight Thanatos for real, in that way. Right?”
“While I expect you to give it a reasonable effort, I don’t expect you to seriously intend nor inflict grievous harm on your friend, no.”
“Right.” Zagreus nods hastily. “Just. Wanted to make sure of that, first, sir.”
“Of course.” Achilles gives Zagreus a fond, if fatherly smile. “Now then—assume your battle stances,” he calls, his voice reverberating in the hallowed training grounds. “Ready?”
He looks over to Thanatos, who, if he isn’t already frozen, is pinned even further to where he’s standing. Not floating, but standing. His feet all too much on the cold, stony floor. He glances at Zagreus, whose eyes look intently upon him, his blade on his grip tightened a shade, the faintest flush of pink filling his fingertips.
Thanatos can’t cut him. He might bleed. He won’t cut him.
But he has to. He might.
Would Zagreus bruise, like he’s seen mortals do? Would the bleeding stop in time, if he did?
If Thanatos did this, he would have to take it seriously. Lord Hades would know. Mother would know. But taking it seriously would mean hurting him.
He couldn’t hurt him. He can’t.
But he might.
Thanatos blinks. Finally, with the prince’s voice, the look on Zagreus’s face registers with him. His eyes are growing wide and soft with shock. Thanatos glances down, and realises, belatedly, his grip is shaking. His grip, which never wavered on his scythe, nor the hilt of his blade, trembled on a dull, wooden practice sword. Pointed at Zagreus.
“Thanatos?” Achilles asks. That’s when Thanatos’s breath hitches in his throat. “Are you alright there?”
“I…” He swallows, but his throat is parched. His body’s starting to quake. He can’t speak right. His eyes and nose feel oddly hot. The wall-less training grounds were beginning to close in. His ichor could boil in his ears. “I…”
“—Achilles, sir, can we have a moment alone, please?” Zagreus looks sharply at him. “We’ll resume training shortly. I promise.”
“Yes, of course, lad. Take your time. I’ll give you some privacy.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Achilles teleports away, presumably to his usual post in the West Hall. Thanatos doesn’t know. He only hears the dull clatter of Zagreus’s wooden sword falling to the ground, and the tell-tale sound of his short bursts of shifts as he bolts over to his side.
“Than, what’s wrong? Are you hurt? Or unwell?”
The warmth with which the prince’s voice bleeds aches Thanatos to the core. His eyelids slide shut, and his breathing—he tries to right his breathing, but it stays endlessly choppy. He can’t form the words through the hitching gusts of his breath. His tears race down his cheeks. The air he inhales won’t enter his body.
“Your breathing… Than, breathe with me, okay?” Zagreus gets a hand out, and holds one of his, as insistent as his tone grows to be. “Breathe with me.”
Zagreus squeezes his hand, firm, even when Thanatos’s grip is limp. But his other hand starts letting go of his practice sword, as he feels Zagreus’s breathing. But, even more so than that, he feels the life within Zagreus. Waxing and waning, like the tide of the sea. Glowing bright and steady, even when Thanatos’s eyes are closed, he can feel it in his core. How close, how warm it is. Like it always is.
His breathing steadies, just barely. His lips struggle to shape themselves.
“I…” Thanatos’s mouth quivers on the word. He squeezes his eyes shut, to a painful degree, hissing in a breath. His nose and eyes grow so sour, when he shakes his head. “I can’t…I don’t want…to fight you…”
“—Then we won’t,” Zagreus declares. He holds Thanatos’s hand tighter, his other hand cupping the top of it. “We’ll fight practice dummies, then. See how many each of us can take out—like a contest. We won’t ever have to fight each other.”
“Ever…?” Even as Thanatos’s chest is heaving, his trails of tears growing tacky on his cheeks, he still seeks him out in doubt. “But, we…your father—”
“We won’t. Not ever. Not even my father can make us; I swear it.” His hands clasps onto Thanatos’s tight. “…Not when it makes you this upset.”
Thanatos’s tears fall more freely. Mostly because he pushes them out in blinks of disbelief. “Zag…”
“I’ll talk to Achilles. Let him know of a better solution, like the contest I just thought of. If my Lord Father happens not to like it, why, he can just take it up with me, then.”
Thanatos wants to say something, at the surety and bravado in Zagreus’s voice. But the undercurrent beneath it all—as calm and steady as his life, effortlessly radiating from him during his every waking moment—renders Death speechless.
“Just think of it as me wanting to show off during training, Than.” Zagreus smiles at him, and the sight is so kind and warm that Thanatos is glad his body doesn’t want him to talk right now. “You wait right here, and don’t worry about a thing. Alright?”
Zagreus’s brows rise, his hands squeeze Thanatos’s, at the prompting he gives him. Briefly and mortified all at once, Thanatos wonders how long Zagreus has been holding onto his hand like this, before he gets out a hurried, broken nod.
Zagreus only nods at him once before dashing away.
It’s quiet, finally, in the training grounds. Thanatos only realises then that he’s on his knees on the ground, his arms limp by his sides. His hand, though—the one Zagreus was holding—pulses with a warmth he’s not used to. Not when he runs cold, generally, by himself. He brings it up for inspection, but nothing about it is out of the ordinary. Other than the slight callouses he’s developing from holding his sword, if not his scythe, for so long, it’s nothing but his hand.
But the shape of Zagreus’s fingers and palms pulses like a brand. Thanatos grabs his own hand and tucks it into his chest, curling in on himself. His tears soak into the knees of his robe, even when he’s long stopped crying.
When Thanatos reaches godly maturity, sooner than Zagreus does, he becomes infinitely busier.
It’s always tugging on the back of his mind. The calls of mortal souls, waiting to be released. The skull on his gauntlet quivers with the energy, the thirst that his scythe emanates. It’s short work to shift to whomever calls, to reap their soul, rinse, and repeat. But the sheer amount wears on him, initially.
Thanatos knows he’s already ineloquent, as far as gods go. Perhaps not to the same extent as Charon, but at least the boatman stayed succinct with relaying his messages. But when he sees a mortal, suffering gently, constantly, with how their soul writhes out of their decomposing flesh. When every prayer he hears is to please stay away, to do anything but come to them and do what needs to be done. When he sees the next, and the next, and the next; Thanatos doesn’t know what to say.
Occasionally, at the start, he would seek out the life in the gods he knows. The anchors that steady him. His mother calms him most. Zagreus’s…he checks on even before he starts working. It’s inspiring and grounding, all at once. It’s a pocket of comfort for Thanatos that he makes sure the prince will never know. Lest he makes him self-conscious about it.
At least, when a mortal prays that he be gentle with them, Thanatos silently vows to always honour that. At least, for all their suffering in the mortal world, every one of them seem finally at peace, when he takes their soul with him to the Underworld. Mother Nyx warned him it would be a thankless, but necessary job. One that ensured the running of the House.
Thanatos knows. He reaps, and takes. Reaps and takes. The prayers of mortals fade to background noise, in a way. All he learns is that when their life runs dry, and finally flickers away, he will always be there.
Even though Thanatos has always preferred being alone, it helps that he develops some connections in his professional life. He and Charon develop a friendly, competitive partnership. From Charon, he gets to know Hermes, by extension, with the increasingly frequent drop-ins and messages that the god of swiftness delivers them. But the Olympians generally don’t go out of his way to make niceties with him. Save for Ares, who holds him—or his station, at least—in high esteem. The way that the god of war chooses to deliver death unto mortals makes Thanatos fight back some choice remarks, if not an entirely disgusted expression altogether. But he does acknowledge the obvious respect Ares shows him, and how their disagreements remain intellectual and good-natured, above all else.
The connections are a new, not entirely welcome, yet not entirely unpleasant addition in Thanatos’s life. But his work is never done.
Thanatos brings them to something eternal. Something much greater than mortals themselves will ever know. He knows this. Day in and day out, he tells himself this.
When Charon unwittingly tells him how he’s able to ferry so many souls on his boat, Thanatos figures out an adaptation that works with his own powers. He finds himself back at the House of Hades, and, for the first time in a long while, he’s able to stay for a moment.
After studying the River Styx with newfound professionalism, he wonders where Zagreus is.
As if by his siblings’ design, he overhears the shades chatting amongst themselves about the prince’s new regimen. He can sense a burgeoning admiration from them on the prince’s dedication, and how he would do his myrmidon trainer proud.
Thanatos shifts into Zagreus’s bedchambers with ease. He already hears the tell-tale clang of Stygian iron before he ventures more gradually into the training grounds, Achilles’s voice measured yet projecting with authority and clarity as he remarks on the prince’s form.
Thanatos wonders to himself when he last heard about Zagreus’s day, the latest chore his Lord Father saddled him with, or what weapons Achilles plans to train him with. He doesn’t mean to interrupt anything. He only means to check on Zagreus, in ways that his life alone won’t say.
The light of the training grounds bleeds into the hallway between them and the bedchambers. Thanatos stays in the shadows, peeking out just where he can see the middle section of the grounds in action. For a moment, he only sees the shade Achilles, the prince himself just out of view.
“Strike again, with agility and precision in equal measure. You understand, Zagreus?”
It’s his voice. Thanatos can’t see him, but he knows. He sounds a little different, more tired, but he knows.
“Alright,” Achilles readjusts his lance in his grip, otherwise staying rooted. “Once more, with three wretches.”
Wretches spawn in Hades’s insignia, senseless sounds spilling from their maws. Thanatos startles, for a moment. He doesn’t remember Zagreus training with anything but practice dummies. He wonders again just how long he’s been away.
But then comes a war cry.
It’s a dash of flame and the zing of a blade, the air itself being sliced in twain. It’s once, twice, then a final third time. A slash before the Wretches dissolve with a groan of agony, exploding in a crackle of light and cursed energy. Then, all at once, all too soon, the grounds grow quiet again, save for Zagreus’s laboured breathing. Thanatos’s mouth goes agape as he watches his profile, crouched low in an offensive position, still.
That is when Thanatos realises: Zagreus had transformed.
The prince rights himself, his chest filling with a deep, flowing breath. His red chiton nearly rides off his shoulder. Where Thanatos can see the patches of his skin, shining with sweat, the way his body shifts with every move is captivating. There’s a new breadth to his shoulders; an aesthetic order to the proportions of his stocky build that Thanatos knows wasn’t there, before. His hair doesn’t look so big for his head, now, his jawline having filled out and leaned down at the same time as he talks in quieter tones with Achilles.
But then he notices Achilles catching his eye. A smile barely gracing his thin lips, before he glances back at Zagreus. Who, Thanatos swears on Hades’s name, looks like he’s about to turn around.
He knows better than to shift right away—it only took a thoughtless remark from Hypnos for him to realise it was actually very conspicuous when he shifted somewhere else. He glides rapidly into the bedchambers instead. Then, wondering if he should shift right then to the balcony overseeing the Styx, or to stay put to catch up like he’d initially wanted, he finds that Zagreus makes the decision for him when he dashes into the bedchambers.
“Than! Achilles said you were here, but I nearly didn’t believe it—it’s been ages!”
His gauntlet is mercifully silent when he clutches onto his scythe with a tight grip. He takes his time to turn around, not wanting to betray anything. Precisely because there is nothing for him to betray in the first place, when he’s paying a visit to his longtime friend. No more and no less.
When Thanatos turns to look at Zagreus properly, he notes that his eyes and face look almost the exact same. Kind, and utterly warm, as always. They may just be framed in a way that makes them, or all of him, seem even more well-defined. If not classically handsome.
Zagreus is a man, now. A full-fledged god.
Which doesn’t surprise Thanatos. It shouldn’t.
“Uh, Than?” Zagreus waves a hand—in front of his face, nearly—and Thanatos merely blinks. “You alright there?”
“I’m fine. I was distracted—with work matters,” he supplies quickly, wishing he didn’t admit to his distraction in the first instance. “It has been a while. How are you, Zagreus? Zag, I mean.” He shakes his head. “Sorry.”
“Hey, no worries. It’s not like my name’s off-limits, or anything,” he chuckles. “I’ve been alright, yeah. I’m really going places with my training—I can tell Achilles has been pushing me, but it’s ‘cause I’m ready for it. At least, that’s what I’m thinking, at any rate. Hey, did you manage to take a look at me out there? Achilles said he spotted you, but I don’t know how much of that you caught, if any of it.”
“I…did manage to catch just the end of it there, yes. I hope I didn’t interrupt you and you’re supposed to be out there sending more Wretches to their second reckoning, as it were.”
“Not at all, not at all. You didn’t interrupt a thing.” Zagreus brushes off his concern with ease, all smiles as he shifts his weight from heel to heel. “So you saw me going at those Wretches, yeah? I forgot I hadn’t told you—that’s what I meant by Achilles pushing me as of late. How do you think I did?”
“How do I—you’re asking for my opinion?”
“Of course. If you’re willing to give it, that is.”
You looked incredible.
“You looked decent,” Thanatos says drily, the beginnings of a smile coming on. “While I wouldn’t say I’d like to be in their positions, I’m sure I could do a faster job of it.”
“Oh, of course you’d say that, wouldn’t you? We’ll have to put your money where your mouth is with one of our contests, sooner or later.” Zagreus grins at him, the corners of his eyes crinkling in his smile. “But seriously, mate, how are you? Every time I’ve seen you here, you’re delivering reports to my father before disappearing off to your next appointment. It makes me worry, you know?”
“I’ve heard mortals worry about death, but this is a kind I don’t usually receive,” Thanatos remarks. He means that entirely seriously, but Zagreus chuckles like he’s told a good joke anyway. He doesn’t mind it. “Thanks for the concern, Zag. But I’m alright.”
“You’re sure? …Well, if you’re sure. If there’s anything I can do that can lighten the load for you in any way, just say the word. I’ll come running.”
“Doubtless you would, if you aren’t running already,” he replies, smiling an inch wider. “I’ll be sure to let you know if anything comes to mind.”
Just stay as you are, Thanatos thinks to himself, when he returns Zagreus’s smile. Just as you are.
“Great. You can tell me anything, Than. You remember that.”
“…I will.” He studies the smile on Zagreus’s face taking on a new quality. A more solemn quality. “I will.”
The prayers grow louder; the tugging, stronger. Thanatos only says that duty calls. Before he can think to apologise, Zagreus sees him off with a smile. Tells him to come back when he’s next free, whenever that may be. It relieves Thanatos, but there’s a gentle melancholy to it. One that recalls how Zagreus would use to pout and whine when he would have to go, even for the briefest of moments. But Thanatos remarks nothing of the sort. He only smiles back, and goes.
He glides out of Zagreus’s bedchambers, first. He’d just like to catch a glimpse of the River Styx, before he has to visit the mortal realm. He positions himself just at the mouth of the archway leading to the West Hall, where his vantage point grants him the darker depths of the Styx’s current. He already feels the life in him calming. Yet it invigorates him as well, to know how Charon may already be out there, ferrying shades to populate the Underworld yet some more. He steels himself—feels how he’s settling into his role, one he will continue to carry out in a way that only he knows how to do.
He feels for the Chthonic lives around him, that only he can feel. An almost ritualistic act, for how often he does it before leaving for a job. His siblings all fare well. Mother Nyx, despite her absence in the House, is ever present. And Zagreus…
Thanatos hears Zagreus chuckling before he feels the life in him.
He swivels around, and sees Zagreus laughing by the path splitting his bedchambers and the lounge. He’s with Megaera, one of the Fury sisters. Mother Nyx comments that they played infrequently when they were godlings, but Thanatos can’t say he recalls. But Thanatos knows of her. And of all the times he’s ever crossed paths with her, he knows he’s never seen her look so unguarded. Smiling, as she looks upon the prince with a naked sort of adoration, as he elicits more laughter from her, and her, him.
The shades near him whisper of the scene. How the prince is seeking to gain the Fury’s favour. How he seems to be succeeding. What a pleasing, if unexpected couple they make.
Thanatos wonders how much time his sibling Fates have allotted to target him, when he recalls the whispers that used to be about him and Zagreus. When they were younger. When they had more time, even if, technically, they have time in ample supply, even now.
The souls of the dying call him stronger. Pleas for seeking a gentle hand home; louder, this time. Thanatos closes his eyes, and warps to a mortal dwelling, paying no heed to the shockwave of light he would leave behind.
He reaps the soul of a butterfly.
The fibres of its wings are a gorgeous, homely violet, taking almost Chthonic inspirations in its form. The residue it leaves resembles a glittery powder. Incredibly fine on the fingertips. Its passing was incredibly peaceful, as it rested on the petals of a daisy, spores of pollen still clinging to its needle-thin legs,
Thanatos usually doesn’t linger, when he reaps the souls of the erstwhile living. Still, with all the animal souls he’s tasked with caring for, this butterfly stays with him. Or, perhaps, it was the mood with which he left the House, after his first visit back there in a long time.
He has no quarrel with Megaera. He feels none. But Zagreus reminds him that he can tell him anything. Yet, once again, Thanatos finds himself at a loss. He doesn’t know what there is to say. He doesn’t know if he’s able to say it in words, for how clumsy he is with them. How silence is so much more comfortable, so often.
But Zagreus makes him want to try.
Thanatos purses his lip. It feels like dipping his hand into water, when he interacts with the corporeal world. When he picks up the butterfly, pulling it out of the mortal realm so it enters his. He appraises it once more, before he uses his power to crystallise it. In this way, the butterfly would never decay. In some sense, in one that mattered to Thanatos at that moment, it would remain undying. Dead, but undying.
He stores the preserved butterfly in the inner folds of his chiton. It would take a little more work later. He’d need to imbue it with some power—pierce it in a way so it could be carried more properly. Vacantly, he reaches out, checking on the life in Zagreus. It pulses as brightly as ever.
Another soul calls him. With his butterfly at his breast, Zagreus’s life warming his soul, he shifts away.
Thanatos is death incarnate. Any growing pains he had in the role swiftly come to an end. He manages to visit the House more frequently than he did when starting out, even if it still is for only the briefest of spells each time. It means more time with his family. And more time with Zagreus.
Thanatos settles in. But things change within the House. Especially with Zagreus’s new job.
With his martial training with Achilles coming to a close, Lord Hades posts Zagreus in the administrative chamber, with highly mixed results. The friction between the prince and the Lord of the House sends sparks spitting all the way to the other chambers. The rumour mill churns about the prince’s good cheer disappearing, his countenance wearing somewhat thin.
Thanatos visits the lounge on time to check in on his old friend. In the distance, he spots Megaera giving the prince a pat on the shoulder. A fleeting comfort, a lingering consolation, before she warps off to some bowel of the Underworld, onto her next duty. Thanatos gives it a moment. Watches Zagreus slump at the table as soon as Megaera leaves, before he enters the lounge himself.
He has heard only a fraction of it from Zagreus. The tardiness, the bureaucracy and red-tape that he received little introduction to. He recalls Nyx reassuring him that he would learn what to do on his own, in time, as naturally as he shifted. But with Zagreus’s struggles, he doubts that he’s the god of administration like he himself is the god of death.
“How goes it, Zagreus?”
He decides to open up the conversation; somewhat rare, in their friendship, but it signals that Thanatos is coming from a place of concern. Yet, when Zagreus reacts to the sound of his voice, he immediately perks up, the spikes of hair on his very head seeming to rouse with his grin.
“Oh, Thanatos! It’s so good to see you… I’m glad you’re here.”
The happiness on his face is hard for Zagreus to counterfeit. Thanatos knows all too well he’s being sincere. And all too well that he acts like this every time Thanatos shows his face in the House, or they come to talk. It’s a reliable observation; one that makes him a little nervous, whenever he sees Zagreus beam at the sight of him, time and time again.
“Likewise. You didn’t answer my question, though.”
“Oh, how are things, you mean? Well…same-old, same-old, I suppose. Father’s intolerable, I’m trying to fumble less at my new post while he keeps being intolerable. Training with good old Stygius makes for a good stress relief. The usual.”
“The usual…” Thanatos echoes, doubt laced in it. “…Would you say you’re alright, then?”
“Would I?” Zagreus pauses on this, pondering. “…I’d say so. And, well, even if I weren’t, it feels like admitting that would mean I’d lose to Father, and the ridiculous number of expectations he places upon me. So I’m alright, I’d say.”
“Right…” Thanatos mutters. He recalls how Zagreus keeps telling him he can confide in him about anything. The prince isn’t stonewalling him in the least, but the roundabout ways in which he discusses his troubles nags at him anyway.
“Honestly, though, Than, it is good to see you. I know you’re around more often than before, but it feels like a little practical joke of the Fates that suddenly I’m the one who’s too occupied to make time for you.”
“Nonsense, Zag. It’s only expected that you’d have your own duties to tend to, like I do with mine. I… I just enjoy the time we get to spend together. No more and no less.”
Thanatos expects him to follow-up with some reply on his own fairly quickly; he knows that Zagreus is good with filling the silence when he’s so inclined to. But, for some reason, he only finds Zagreus gazing upon him, smiling gently. A fondness in his eyes that Thanatos doesn’t expect, here in the lounge. One that feels somewhat exposing.
“Did...I say something strange?” Thanatos asks, after a moment of chewing on his inner lip. “You’re awfully quiet.”
“No, no. Sorry, Than, it’s just… What you said just reminded me of a conversation I had with Meg earlier.”
“Oh,” Thanatos mumbles. He doesn’t know what to say again. “That’s nice, then… Isn’t it?”
“It’s… Well. It’s complicated,” Zagreus admits softly. Thanatos's eyes widen. “It’s more like you’re reminding me of what I wished Meg would’ve said, in that conversation. I’ll spare you the details of it, though. I don’t mean to be coy about it—I just think she wouldn’t like me mentioning it any further, is all. You understand.”
“No, of course. Of course…”
For the first time in a long while, Thanatos witnesses him sitting down in a chair, slumping into it, and giving a long, low sigh. It almost alarms him, given how Zagreus is up and on his feet at all times. There’s a twisted humour in how a few sessions in the administrative chambers can drain Zagreus more than any sparring sessions can afford to.
Thanatos decides to sit with him.
“Where does the time go, Than? An entirely rhetorical question, I know, but—” he heaves another sigh as Thanatos settles in his seat. “Things feel so different, now. You know what I mean? It doesn’t feel all too long ago that we were godlings running amok in Father’s domain—”
“You were running amok,” Thanatos interjects, reminding him. “I was trying to get us out of trouble for the most part.”
“Too true, too true. Let the records show.” Zagreus gives a breathy laugh. But it sags into another exhale out of his nose again. “…I know we’ve all the time in the world, being immortals, and all. It’s just…I don’t know. Perhaps Father’s constant badgering has given me some newfound appreciation for the freedom I had before I…you know.” He gestures vaguely to the air. “Started working for him.”
“Maybe. But, reminiscing isn’t all that bad, I’d say. It’s fairly normal.”
“I suppose…” Zagreus head swivels so he studies Thanatos with a frown. “Say, Father never gave you a hard time like he is with me, has he? He’s always been fairly awful to me, but if he’s been even remotely like that with you, then—”
“I assure you that Lord Hades has always treated me with courtesy and professionalism.”
“Good… Good. But, it also figures, really. You do some damn fine work, if Father’s constant remarks on why I can’t be more like you aren’t just another one of his tactics to get under my skin.”
“Oh. Zag… I never—”
“No, no, it’s fine. Well, not fine in terms of what my Father says. Or does. But I don’t hold it against you in the least that you’re good at your job.” Zagreus smiles at him again, his whole face seeming to shine. “It makes me really proud of you, actually. How far you’ve come.”
Thanatos blinks. Zagreus and him don’t really talk about his work. Lately, he even takes it for granted that he’s the god of death. He accepts what he must do. But the strange sense of nostalgia and sentimentality that is obviously gripping Zagreus must be infectious, and Thanatos knows he’s no good with dealing with it. Feelings, or words, or anything expressive of the sort.
“I can’t say I know what you mean.”
“Oh, come on, now, Than. I do admit you rightfully saved my hide from gods know what lashings I had coming my way, but you’ve really come out of your shell, you know?” Zagreus smirks. “I remember you holding onto the bottom of Nyx’s dress, and how tiny you looked next to your scythe, and—”
“Zagreus.” In a panic, Thanatos scans around the lounge, where some of the shades linger. There are absolutely more than a few of them in earshot. “There’s no need for—for you to slander me, in front of—”
“Slander?” Zagreus parrots, dumbfounded with a crooked brow. “I don’t think you know what that word means.”
“I know perfectly well what the word means! Just…” Thanatos lets out a sigh, sagging back into the recliner he rests on. “Look, you don’t need to get into the specifics for me to get the gist. I get it. I’ve grown.” Thanatos glances at Zagreus once he cares to look him in the eye again. “…So have you.”
“You think so?” Zagreus muses, humming. “Because I’m not so sure, myself, lately.”
“You have. I’m sure.”
“You sound it,” he laughs. “I’m just fairly sure that I’m the same old prince of the Underworld that can’t seem to find a sense of job satisfaction.” His smile glimmers with curiosity when he looks back at Thanatos. “What makes you so sure, anyhow?”
Thanatos is still looking at him from the corner of his eye. Studying the way that Zagreus leans back in his chair, his fingers laced in a relaxed tent as his elbows sink into the armrests. The way his whole frame fills the width and height of the seat, compared to when he burned it when jumping on it as a child. His laurels fit him better, as his eyes twinkle with the same kindness, the same warmth that Thanatos has always known him to carry.
“…I didn’t say you changed all that much,” he says finally, a wry curl forming on his lip. “I just said you’ve grown.”
“Way to trip me up on semantics, there, Than.”
“You know me, Zag. Full of wit.”
“Of course,” Zagreus laughs.
Thanatos smiles, a puff of air coming from his nose that may count as a sign of amusement. One that Zagreus manages to elicit from him, from time to time. For all his recent struggles, Zagreus does look to be in higher spirits than before. He looks slightly tired, but physically well, still. Thanatos wonders, then, whether it’d be a good time to buoy his spirits. He thought to keep it as a reward for when Zagreus made good strides with his work, but with the butterfly now pierced and ready to wear, tucked in his chiton, he could…
The Lord of the House’s voice booms throughout the halls. Thanatos feels the vibrations even harder now that he’s in contact with the chair that rumbles with the floor. Zagreus startles up to his feet, looking to the door in a panic.
“Oh, blood and darkness—how come there’s not a single timekeeper in this place?” Zagreus shifts once towards the door, before he stops and turns. “Sorry about all this, Than, mate—I’ve got to go, but it was really good chatting with you. Drop back soon, yeah?”
“Yeah.” Thanatos’s mouth opens again, but the House rumbles once more, and he closes it. “You should go.”
“I will, I will. Be seeing you!”
Zagreus dashes off in a streak of flame again, and the floor is barely smoking when he’s gone. Thanatos is left wondering. The butterfly still lies cold at his breast. At least he found his answer as to whether now would have been a good time to give it to him.
He seeks out the life in Zagreus again. It glows bright, as it ever does.
He holds onto the butterfly a little longer.
When he leaves the lounge to go watch the River Styx again, he spots Nyx by the entry to Zagreus’s chambers.
“Thanatos, my child. It is good to see you.”
“It is good to see you, too. As ever.” Thanatos faces her more fully, before worrying his lip again. “Is… You saw Zagreus rushing out of here, right? Do you know if he’s doing alright? I’ve only heard snippets, but it seems Lord Hades is particularly…unrelenting, with him right now.”
“Zagreus is still adjusting to his new role, yes. But whether he adapts fully to what Lord Hades expects of him, and what is to come of the disputes between the both of them, only your sisters know. As much as we all work under the same House, there is little we can do for him at this juncture.”
“You’re…sure about that?” Thanatos wonders aloud. “I can’t help but feel…there is more that could be done. That I am not doing.” Immediately after he admits that, though it is to his own mother, he feels his own face growing warm. “I—don’t know if that makes any sense. I know it’s his own responsibility to deal with, but…”
“You have not misspoken, Thanatos,” Nyx reassures him. “You only disclose your concern for him. No one can fault you for caring.”
“I…” Once again, Thanatos is lost for words. He simply closes his mouth. “Right.”
“I say this from talking to Zagreus and observing him myself: your presence and conversation with him alone allows him to take heart more than you know.”
“I…didn’t know that. Or, maybe I did. I had a feeling, at least. It’s good to know that for sure, now.” Thanatos sighs a little. “I know it’s up to him to do the best that he can, in the end.”
“You should take heart yourself as well, Thanatos. You’re a dutiful, honourable child that I am proud of call mine. And I know that he is more than grateful that you are a part of his life. You mean very much to him.”
Nyx sounds no different when she tells him all this. But Thanatos is wholly unprepared. His insides feel overly hot again, his hand clinging onto his scythe like a lifeline.
“It’s…um…good to know that. Too.” Thanatos inclines his head. As a sign of respect. Or maybe just to avoid looking Nyx in the eye. “Thank you. For your kind words, Mother.”
“You’re welcome. I merely voiced my observations with sincerity. That is all I hope you appreciate.”
“I do. I’ll do my best.”
Nyx gives him a slow, stately nod. “As ever.”
A civil war broils in a minor city above ground; the citizens rise up against the oligarchs who tax heavily and eat greedily. Thanatos bumps into Ares while he’s working there.
Thanatos is tending to the quieter deaths that take place in small homes, in understaffed hospice cares. Ares oversees the bloodshed that starts filling the streets to ferry more shades his way. He stops Thanatos to chat once night falls on the mortal coil.
“There is something very primal about the mortal condition, Thanatos, you must understand. Among the spate of desires mortals have, there’s always involvement of the ruin of others; the desire that the enemy, the so-called other, face their lot of their shared end much more swiftly. An innate desire for violence that, in its raw form, I admit, leaves much room for improvement. Nonetheless, that desire overflows in all mortals. I merely offer my blessings as a way to refine the impulses which mortals have into something much more sophisticated.”
“I don’t disagree with you on how much drive for violence that mortals possess, Lord Ares. You are much more knowledgeable in that field. But there’s the simple matter of fact that there are much quieter, more mundane ends that mortals meet in greater numbers. It might just be the whim of my sisters which deaths come under my jurisdiction, and which ones you oversee a part of.”
Ares appreciates his viewpoint, but has a rebuttal at the ready, to his lack of surprise. It’s another academic debate about the nature of death and the ways to administer it. Thanatos knows by now that the lord of war tends not only to sharpening his weapons but his wit as well, for anyone who would be willing to clash with him. He’s an admirer of bloodshed in all its forms, and a connoisseur and personal fan of Thanatos’s work, which he’s spared no effort in communicating to him at any given opportunity.
In truth, Thanatos is quite ambivalent about these debates, choosing not to reveal that he views his work as merely that: work. A persistent duty he will perform to his utmost. But he does appreciate how forthright Ares always is with him. Compared to his Olympian relatives, with the exception of Hermes, the god of war is almost jovial in his presence. Though Thanatos considers how that reflects more on the Olympian family than his relation with Ares itself.
“Although, for all our differences, tell me,” Ares prompts as they continue their stroll down the war-torn, death-stricken city. “What could be better than dealing death among mortals?”
Thanatos is gazing up at the starlit night, where Selene’s chariot rides high in his mother’s domain. It isn’t as abrasive nor blinding as Helios’s trips across the sky. The glow resembles a shadow of the life he feels of every being in the world. His pierced butterfly grazes against his skin in his chiton, and he wonders, with a soft smile, whether Zagreus would enjoy seeing the moon, too, one day.
“…Little else, I suppose.”
It’s the most noise that shades have made within the House since Thanatos can remember.
Prince Zagreus and Fury Megaera have broken up.
It is inevitable, Thanatos thinks, that it ends up ruffling so many feathers within the Underworld. Especially after Zagreus’s very messy and public termination of employment from the administrative chambers, which makes for the talk of the House, despite Lord Hades attempting to quell the gossip with an authoritative ban on the matter being discussed within his domain.
Thanatos doesn’t know whether to seek out Zagreus or to give him some space. He finds that he doesn’t have to make a decision, ultimately, when he receives a message from the King of Olympus himself through Hermes.
“Chain Sisyphus, the King of Ephyra, in Tartarus,” Hermes reads off his scroll, before he pops it back into his messenger bag like a small mint. “Yep, that’s all it says from Father—this comes straight from the top.”
“That’s...highly specific,” Thanatos remarks, confused as he studies the weighty, enchanted chains he has, as attached to the message. “But, no matter. Tell Lord Zeus it will be done.”
“It...will...be...done—and, done!” Hermes gives the blank parchment in his hand a final stab with his quill, the splashes of ink already dry. “Will get this to him in jiffy, boss—also, let Charon know the next order’s coming, yeah? You won’t need to say anything more; he’ll get what I mean. See you!”
Hermes disappears in a breeze of light before Thanatos can say goodbye back; a customary interaction at this point. He phases to King Sisyphus who lounges in his bedchambers, appearing no different from a particularly well-dressed, well-fed mortal, as he readies his chains in hand. The one thing that has Thanatos on alert is the glint in his dark, beady eyes beneath his oily locks and golden headband. But then he quips things that throw Thanatos off, such as:
“Well now, you don’t seem to be the good boatman, Charon. I did think it was his responsibility to ferry souls off into the Underworld. Lest, of course, we’ve gotten the whole mythos mixed up from the start—wouldn’t put that past us. Would you be Thanatos, by any chance?”
“I am. Your day has come, Sisyphus, King of Ephyra.”
“Right, right, I just wanted to double-check, what with all I’ve heard about Charon. Though I’m well-read enough to know that your Lord Hades isn’t so much in charge of death so much as he is in charge of the dead, mind. By the way,” Sisyphus interjects, before Thanatos can even bristle at how flippantly he, a mortal, talks about the Chthonic gods. “I’ve not heard so much about chains being involved before. What are they for, if I may venture to ask?”
“Binding. Standard procedure.”
“Yes, well, I’m familiar enough with how they work in our plane, here. But I daresay I’ve never seen godly chains in action before,” Sisyphus explains, words flowing silk-smooth off his silver tongue. “Would you care to indulge a dying soul’s final request in the least, and show me how they work? I just want to be sure what’s going to happen, is all...”
Thanatos studies him intently. The good-humoured smile doesn’t leave the king’s face. The chains jangle once in his hands as he grips them. But he has his training. So, he relaxes. He relaxes, and curses himself shortly after, when the tyrant king shoves him into his own chains. They latch onto his flesh, binding him in place, before Sisyphus leaves him alone in his quarters.
He can’t move, can’t shift. The tug of souls on his psyche grows and grows until he’s hissing through migraines. As the chariots of Helios and Selene take their turns riding over the sky. He curses himself. Before long, he curses Sisyphus. For the first time in eons, Death is seething.
The sound of battle cries tickles his senses. A blood-red light fills the opulent room, before Lord Ares himself appears, looking over him once, his gaze hardened. Shame crawls over Thanatos’s face in gold. But Ares says not a word as he brandishes his sword, and cleaves the chains like it were gliding through parchment.
He doesn’t offer a hand for Thanatos to stand up, waiting for him to rise on his own and pick his scythe back up. He quietly appreciates Ares’s respect for his space and dignity; all the lord of war asks is:
“Who should die for this?”
Thanatos’s eyes spark, taking on the coldest edge. Ares doesn’t even try to hide his smirk.
It takes all of Thanatos’s self-restraint not to drive his scythe right through the heart of the sly king the moment Ares brings Sisyphus to him on his knees. Luckily, with Hades’s swift judgement, Thanatos relishes in being present as the king is sentenced to futile toiling and eternal damnation.
Thanatos also finds that Megaera is assigned to oversee Sisyphus’s punishment as well. He forgets all the ongoing drama in the House for a moment, as they share a drink in the lounge after a session of torturing Sisyphus.
“Cheating death.” Megaera shakes her head, filling her own goblet again. “They say the gods are prideful, but the hubris that mortals possess... It’s something else. The audacity.”
“I’d only heard of it distantly. But experiencing it...” Thanatos’s jaw already hardens, his teeth pressing together. “I won’t soon forget it.”
“Well, neither will he, with this.” She brings her goblet to her lips, starting to smile. “I’ll even lend you my whip, if you want.”
“Tempting. But my scythe should do the trick just fine, thanks.”
They share a chuckle, a comfortable silence settling over them. The rota has them working a few more shifts together, overseeing the former king’s sentence, having already shared a few yet. Distantly, Thanatos realises this marks the first instance he’s truly worked with, or gotten to know, the Fury sister at all. All he knows is that the one common link they shared before this was knowing Zagreus.
Thanatos’s throat tightens with how abruptly that dawns on him. He holds in a small cough.
“...Let me set things straight, seeing as we’ll be working together for a while yet, and I like you,” Megaera states. She sets her goblet down, looking him square in the eyes. “Zagreus and I are finished. And to say that we won’t be getting back together anytime soon? Is an understatement.”
“I...see.” Thanatos’s nod comes very slow and measured. “I’m...sorry to hear it. Break-ups...can be messy. Or so I hear.”
“So you hear.” Megaera traces the rim of her cup. “The fact is I don’t feel like seeing him now. But whatever our relationship is or was, it’s between me and him. You’re not involved. And it’d be unfair if it started affecting you despite that. So know that it won’t.”
“Right. Thanks. I...appreciate the honesty.”
“Like I said. We’ll be working together for a while now, thanks to that prideful king. That, and you seem nice enough.”
Thanatos lets on with only a quiet hum. He lets the silence sink in to a form a sort of cushion for himself.
“...I’m no good at... Comforting.”
It sounds as awkward as he feels saying it. Mercifully, Megaera simply chuckles into her wrist.
“That’s just fine,” she drawls. “The fact you’d even say that kind of already is, in a way.”
It’s with the same, self-assured tone she holds whenever she speaks. The one that underpins the murmuring, gently raspy quality she has to her voice, when she draws out each sound. Thanatos thinks, with how he’s never seen Megaera really laugh before, he spies a flicker of what Zagreus saw in her.
“Incidentally,” she remarks, “if you want to start anything with him yourself, that’s also fine by me. The split might’ve been a mess, but we’re all professionals here.”
Thanatos blinks. Then blinks again. He hasn’t touched his drink in a while.
“I’ll...keep that...in mind?”
“You sound genuinely confused there.” There’s a tinge of mirth to her voice. “It’s not a permission thing. It’s a ‘if-you-want-to, then-sure’ thing.”
“I—I do get that. I’m just...” Thanatos grasps at straws, to no avail. “...I don’t know what I’m just, actually. It’s difficult. Emotions.”
“Lot of wisdom to be had there,” Megaera quips, resting her chin on her fist. “…You know, I thought you might’ve ended up being with him, too. Maybe I was wrong.”
It takes a moment for Thanatos to form a response.
“What...makes you say that?”
“Little things. Lots of little things, I’d say. At any rate, I was prepared to share toys if you asked. Now... Well.”
She gives a shrug, takes another sip. Thanatos is still digesting everything she’s saying. The only thing that grates was the insinuation the word toy brought with it. He wonders if that was anything to do with the reason why they broke up.
Thanatos wonders why he’s fixating on that point, and cares so much. He remembers what Mother Nyx had told him. That he couldn’t be faulted for caring.
He still wonders.
Thanatos wonders if he should send Ares a token of his appreciation in some form, when Hermes reads out the warning the war god sends in advance:
“Demeter plans to lay waste to mortals through an unending winter.” After reading it out with deliberation, Hermes is rolling the parchment back up in a tight scroll. The message rings in Thanatos’s head, sending his eyes darting. “That’s all my brother said—seems like he must be giving you a warning. A fairly excited kind of warning. I know how much he likes this sort of stuff—it’s his thing, I guess you could say. We all have our things, don’t we?”
“Wait, what? Never mind that, Hermes—For once, I’m in a rush, now.” The prayers are growing; Thanatos presses his temples once. “Did he say why, at all? Does he know?”
“Sorry, boss—no postscripts, no attachments, no nothing.” Hermes says, rifling through his messenger bag once more. “That’s all he wrote. You wanna give him a reply?”
Thanatos curses under his breath. The House had just finished going through a backlog of shades being registered. With this news, the whole establishment would be thrown into overtime again. He’d have to report back to Hades afterwards. He shakes his head.
“Just tell him message received,” Thanatos turns around, preparing to shift. “And tell him...thanks, as well.”
“Now, I’m not one for dramatic pauses—because, you know, pausing, not my thing—but if that wasn’t the best delivery of the shortest message I ever had to send.” Hermes is already tying up a roll of parchment containing Thanatos’s words. “I know you don’t know Dionysus much, but I bet he’d appreciate that. That’s his thing, funnily enough. Huh—never realised how highly specialised each of us gods are. Go figure. Anyway, I’ll dash off now—best of luck!”
Hermes zaps away, and Thanatos prepares to shift much the same. All too soon, the prayers start flooding in. Now, they beg that the cold stay away with him, too.
It’s the longest spell of time through which Thanatos doesn’t come home. Hermes delivers written reports from to him to Charon, who makes for the needed intermediary that hands off the report to Lord Hades. The docks where the dead gather to funnel into the House are densely crowded. The shades appear opaque with how many of their sickly green souls overlap next to each other. But Thanatos doesn’t have the capacity to worry or care; not when the next hundreds of souls cry out to him the moment he drops off tens.
It’s only faster in that the mortals are too cold to beg him to stay his hand, their lips purple with frostbite. Not the women, nor young, nor elderly are spared. His only consolation, if the mortals retain enough presence of mind to hear him, is that it is warm within the House of Hades.
The days pass. Thanatos has a sense of time passing, with how dutifully Helios and Selene stick to their schedules, how faithfully his mother’s great shawl blankets the world above. But that’s only if he focuses. He isn’t tired; he doesn’t have the capacity to be. But he’s endlessly working. Reaping souls, transporting them in front of the House, the light show of life snuffed in great swathes again in his soul. Thanatos mindlessly feels for the godly life he can sense. His siblings, Nyx, then Zagreus, in that order. He does that to centre himself, then moves on.
He does it again after he reaps the souls of a small family whose hut gives way to the bitter cold. His siblings, Nyx, then Zagreus. He finishes, but then stills, because—
The life in Zagreus is flickering.
Zagreus’s life is fading.
Thanatos grows stock-still. He hears rattling, and looks sharply at his scythe, realising his gauntlet is trembling. His grip is trembling. The air itself is. The chill closes in, choking what’s left of it.
But then, the strangest thing occurs.
The life in Zagreus grows. And flickers, once more.
Thanatos is frozen. It doesn’t make sense. None of it does. He feels, for a treacherous moment, his pierced butterfly fluttering at his chest.
But then another soul calls him. Tens, hundreds, thousands more do.
A curse of his duty never leaves his lips, as his eyes slowly, slowly fall shut.
He does his job. Reaps souls, transports them in front of the House. But he only feels for Zagreus’s life, and his alone. Anxiously feeling its heat fluctuate, tickling and parting from his being, as he carries on. As ever.
After the brunt of the chill eases into a weaker, more constant force—after too long—Thanatos warps back into the House of Hades. He holds onto his scythe with both hands, pulling himself up like it’s a cane. When Zagreus’s life vanished the first time before coming back, he darkly wondered if that was what heart attacks were like. The knowledge that Zagreus is an immortal makes the sudden cold where his life used to be no better.
The location of Zagreus’s life shifts in ways Thanatos doesn’t know how to interpret. There’s a new veil around him. One that’s too familiar to ignore. He throws out feelers to Charon in his daily reports through Hermes. There’s no reply, and it makes him warp to the House himself when he has, finally, a free moment.
He travels to the main hall, aiming to see his mother. But as he passes by the shades drifting out the Pool of Styx, it’s with a grander splash and clacking heels that, to his shock, he finds blood dripping off of Megaera as she stalks out of the pool.
She catches his eye immediately, leaving him no room to even ignore his curiosity.
“Where’s Zagreus?” he asks.
There’s an ugly twist to the hot pink of her lip. He realises the disdain isn’t really aimed at him, but he can’t find it in him to care.
“…Right. You’ve been away awhile,” Meg sighs before she wrings out her ponytail of the last rivulets of blood clinging to it. “Ask Mother Nyx. I need to make my report, and be alone.”
They both glance at Lord Hades, whose brows furrow even fiercer and whose fingers drum on his high desk, in a rare show of impatience. Thanatos spares her a glance of encouragement before he goes off to Nyx, leaving Megaera to her uncomfortable conversation.
He spots Nyx, as she ever is, by the entry to the prince’s bedchambers. He addresses her immediately.
“Mother,” he greets, before his mouth closes on its own. He knows what questions would work. But there’s one he’s desperately afraid of asking. But he needs to. A single glance from her clement gaze coaxes it out, like a willing soul who knows their time has come. “…Did Zagreus leave?”
“…He is attempting to, as we speak.”
It’s the simplest confirmation. The brevity and calmness with which Nyx delivers it makes it sound like an inevitability. Like a pithy message being passed on from the Fates. One that Zagreus never left behind for him.
Thanatos’s entire being burns.
“You were not kept in the dark purposefully, Thanatos,” Nyx murmurs, her head hanging lower. “The news never left the inner circle of the House under Hades’s orders. We are bound to secrecy, not to utter a word outside these walls.”
“So he couldn’t leave me any message? Does that mean everyone in the House knows but me?” He thinks of his skeletal brother who always floated by him in passing. “Does Charon know?”
Thanatos’s grip is a chokehold on his scythe. For once, his thoughts swirl even more loudly than the calls of the dead. His lips purse shut again.
“Thank you, Mother, for informing me.” Souls call in droves as he speaks, and he grits his teeth. “I…have further business to attend to. Excuse me.”
Thanatos shifts, not sparing the souls a second look when he reaps them and stores them away. His scythe quivers in his grip; the ichor in his veins is boiling. He views every soul that keeps him away from Zagreus with a piercing, undisguised venom.
It burns. Zagreus’s life is slashed in half, and it all burns.
What is he doing? What is he thinking…?
Thanatos’s jaw is set like stone, his scythe swiping the air as he warps and reaps, warps and reaps.
Why did he leave?
Thanatos’s mind is racing past his panting. Whatever martial prowess he displayed in training, it doesn’t change how Zagreus has always had a weaker constitution. Not one that was strong enough to go through all the chambers of the Underworld on his own.
Why did he leave?
He’ll collect centaur hearts for him. That would help. Thanatos can’t just hand them off to him, though. Hades, lord of all the Underworld, would be watching his domain like a hawk, now, more than ever. He had to bide his time, then. Wait for when Zagreus needed the help. He needed the help.
Why did he leave?
Thanatos kisses his teeth, the smack ringing of frustration. The prince had always been like this. Shirking his duties, looking for an escape. Never truly happy to do as he had to. Now he was trying to kill himself for it. Thanatos swung his scythe again.
Zagreus never tried to tell him. Even when he was at his lowest, he would brush it off and make it about Thanatos and them instead. Talk about silly trifles instead of what was truly bothering him. Around him, there were screams; there were cries. His death knell tolled, loud and long.
He’s leaving us.
He left the House. He left his friends behind. He threw everything he’s ever known behind for something Thanatos didn’t even know. His gauntlet growled, and he swung his scythe again. Again, again, again.
He’s leaving me.
For once, Thanatos is panting with exertion. He looks around at the city next on his docket, swallowing once. All the houses, the communal square, the theatres and the hilltops. Every square inch covered with snow. All as silent as the dead.
Thanatos’s head falls back on his neck, his brow knotting as his sigh snakes out of his lips, fatigue gnawing at his bones.
He remembers a time when Nyx said Zagreus viewed him as an important part of his life. He scoffs out loud, before his eyes fall shut. The winter sun sears overly bright on his eyelids. It aches to breathe, as he stands in the dead city. All alone.
It’s in the fields of Elysium when Thanatos finally decides to confront him.
Zagreus looks less surprised and more cross when he sees him. When he insinuates he’s here under his Lord Father’s orders, though, Thanatos feels as if he could really crack a smile at that. As unamused as he is by the accusation. As much as it stings. He only declares their contest, giving Zagreus an empty threat to play into whatever idea he has of Thanatos in his head, centaur heart tucked away as he turns to the Great Elites that have been hounding at Zagreus for these last few chambers.
The warrior shades advance on Zagreus like Death’s presence makes no difference. Like he’s no deterrent to their goal. Like they don’t fear him. There’s something drily mirthful in Thanatos’s soul at the thought, which no doubt Ares would take a shine to, as their death tolls all sound.
He may be pissed at Zagreus, who’s zipping around, swinging and smashing artlessly through the Flame Wheels chasing him. But as irritating as he may be, the shades that swing at him beg for Thanatos’s ire even more. One that he answers by only raising his clawed gauntlet, Chthonic circles wrapping these once-reaped souls, before he clenches his fist, once. Three, four, five of them fall away.
The exalted champions finish spawning, and Thanatos already knows the count. He and Zagreus tied, to his mild surprise. He tosses out a centaur heart, as he promised himself. One less kill from Zagreus and he wouldn’t have. His tongue feels more caustic than ever when his parting conversation with Zagreus remains short. But before he has any space for feeling regret, a cold spite thinks Zagreus deserves it, and he goes.
There are four surprises that happen in short order after Thanatos contemplates for a time back in the House.
First, Hades comes out of the Pool of Styx. For once, the shades watch in utter silence. Only when the Lord of the House is seated back at his desk, on his throne, do the whispers eventually churn again.
Second, Zagreus’s life, presumably as he lives and breathes on the surface, rapidly fades away.
Third, it’s reborn, just as quick, and he strides out of the Pool, shaking the blood out of his hair with an infuriating amount of swagger.
Fourth, the moment he’s dried off, Zagreus shifts in quick bursts to him on the West Hall balcony, and gives him a bottle of nectar, of all things.
He doesn’t know what possesses Zagreus to do it. Maybe it was in return for the heart he gave to him prior. But he gives him a bottle of nectar, when last they spoke it was nothing but a chilly reception Zagreus gave to his appearance.
His indignation flares, for an instant. Thinking Zagreus is trying to distract from his previous thoughtlessness. A thinly veiled sort of bribery. But Zagreus does anything but laugh in his face to confirm it. It’s a sincere gift from the heart. His heart. And Thanatos, for all his bluster in work, on the field doing what he does best, famously doesn’t know what to say.
He makes sure to give the pierced butterfly to him in return, and swears Zagreus to secrecy on it.
Thanatos warps away from Asphodel to brood over the River Styx, and wonders what in the hell he’s doing.
He’s been doing this under the radar. Helping Zagreus. Collecting centaur hearts for him and killing shades seeking to hurt him. It’s the only way he knows how to help him. It might cost him his job, his entire career. He’s let Zagreus know just as much.
But Thanatos can’t leave him alone. The prince of the House and his childhood friend may be incorrigible, stubborn, and entirely rash. But Thanatos can’t leave him alone when he doesn’t have to. He doesn’t know how to. Maybe that’s why he can never find it in himself to stay long after Zagreus talks to him. There’s a constant pressure for him to stay covert. But, more than that, it feels like he can’t ever stay long when Zagreus appears, when he’s content to stay however long it takes before he arrives. Like the god of death is always about to let slip a secret if he stays any longer when Zagreus talks to him. Smiles at him. Tries to get him to stay, with all his attempts at escaping and conversation.
He doesn’t have any more to give to Zagreus after the pierced butterfly and the occasional centaur heart. The constant influx of nectar Zagreus manages to maintain and hand off to him is thoroughly flustering. Part of him thinks it’s Zagreus’s way of apologising without words. But, at this stage, so far into what he’s risking, Thanatos only feels worry pulse in his core for him. And he only finds himself annoyed, rather than angry, that Zagreus seems to take it for something else.
With every conversation they have, every bottle of nectar Zagreus hands him again, he can hear the shades talking about the two of them. More so than in times past. To an extent that reminded him of more peaceful days, and older shades, when he was stopping Zagreus from stomping on Cerberus’s tail once more, and they hadn’t a care in the world.
At some point, Thanatos finally feels reassured.
It isn’t specifically about his station. He’s made peace with the consequences should he get caught a long time ago. It isn’t anything monumentally special, either. Maybe it’s the fact that Zagreus is staying, despite his repeated escape attempts. Maybe it’s that he’s beating Thanatos more soundly in the shade count more regularly. It’s another one of their contests, and he finds himself nearly running out of centaur hearts to give Zagreus.
Zagreus asks if it’s just because he’s proved himself to Thanatos. Proved that he can hold his own.
Thanatos is unsure. As angry as he was, before, he would never try to stop Zagreus from doing all this, as brash as it is. Not if this was what he truly wanted to do. Not when the fire that drives Zagreus blazes so bright in his twin stars for eyes, and Thanatos is weak to his determination. Weak to the confidence he exudes. Weak to his warmth.
Maybe wherever Life goes, Death simply follows.
Lord Hades finds out sooner than he expected.
There’s no point in lying. When Hades seeks his audience, Thanatos only feels a thick sliver of fear, instead of the full-body petrification he expects from the lord’s searing gaze. He’s frozen as Hades interrogates him in the Great Hall, for all the shades to see.
Then, suddenly, he senses Zagreus. The life in him, crackling close, out of the corner of his eye. Burning bright, despite all the abuses its endured. That he’s endured. As ever.
Perhaps the Fates are testing him as to whether he remembers any of what he is. That Death is impartial. Death only takes. Death can’t protect a single thing.
But, with a clench on his scythe, Thanatos finds that Zagreus always makes him want to try.
It takes a moment for the words to flow. But he’s prepared for any punishment that comes his way. He can’t stand the way that the House is torn asunder over this. How Zagreus suffers for this. What it means, in the end, is that he stands up and announces his loyalties won’t change to Lord Hades. His supervisor. The lord of the whole realm in which he works.
But Hades says it is Thanatos’s realm, not his. Dismisses him. And, with barely an incline of his head and an apology, not turning once to meet Zagreus’s eye, Thanatos shifts away, his heart pounding to his marrow.
It’s at some point Charon hands Mort to him. Something about a shade passing it to him as lost and found, when he was tucked behind one of the pillars of the training grounds.
Thanatos dimly remembers to thank him, before he studies Mort, with all the awe of seeing an old friend transform. The moment the worn tweed gives under his thumb, he thinks of a ceaseless warmth wrapped around his wrist, taking him wherever the Fates willed them to go.
If Thanatos thinks more about his last conversation with Zagreus, maybe he would find it’s because he wanted to find reassurance. Wanted to find solace that, for all of Zagreus’s recklessness, he’ll stay safe. He’ll come back. He won’t leave. And, even if he does, it’s not Thanatos he wants to leave.
Something foreign, and barely familiar, stings at his eyes. Assaulting them with heat, when Mort blurs in his vision. In the privacy of his own quarters, he hugs Mort to his chest, squeezing him tight.
The next time they meet on Elysium, Zagreus actually, properly apologises to him.
“I…assumed Father sent for you, after me. But after that display in the Great Hall, I realised that couldn’t have possibly been the case. I know you said you were risking it all, for me, but, well…I didn’t really…I guess I…”
Thanatos merely watches as Zagreus runs a hand through his hair, clicks his tongue in frustration. There’s a certain warmth blossoming within his soul when Zagreus’s bares his heart to him. But, equally, Thanatos is divinely petty enough that he wants to savour Zagreus’s struggle while it lasts.
“You…?” he prompts, like leading an especially slow and thirsty horse to water.
“What I mean to say, Than, is…I’m sorry. For being a royal twat,” he sighs, finally. “And thank you as well. The way you stood up to Father there, and for my sake… That really was something else.”
With Stygius at home resting over his shoulder, there’s a naked admiration with which Zagreus utters the words. Looks at him with an affection in his smile that Thanatos wonders if he forgot Zagreus was capable of it, for a moment, for how much it strikes him. He swallows quietly, trying to maintain a professional air to the conversation. An appropriately friendly one.
“I appreciate that, Zagreus. Some recognition was all I wanted, and a bit overdue. But, well. It’s done now. No need to mention it again.”
Zagreus looks around them, in another one of Elysium’s fields of paradise, the River Lethe teasing curls of vapour in its current as it flows downstream. Thanatos can tell he’s not especially injured, nor tired. So the sigh Zagreus gives is drawn out, and out of place. Especially with the smile lingering on his lips.
“It’d be nice if we could be in paradise like this for a little longer.” He turns to Thanatos, and the wattage of his smile brightens when he meets his eye, his own red and green crinkling in a gleam. “Right, Than?”
Professionalism. Thanatos chants that to himself as he holds onto his scythe like it’s the only vine he has to keep him above piranha-infested waters. Professionalism.
“…There’s a thought,” is all he mutters, before he turns away. “You did alright, there, Zag. Try not to die.”
He shifts away like he couldn’t do it any faster.
Thanatos has bottles of ambrosia in his room. Bottles, plural, of the real thing, as Zagreus likes to call it. Them. Plural.
He doesn’t have a single clue what to make of it. Of this. Of everything.
Conversations loop in his head. He almost wants to reap his own soul when he recalls the times he’s dumbly uttered the thoughts that he’s more than used to keeping to himself, about him and Zagreus. But the prince is more forward with him than he’s ever been, and it gets Thanatos wondering, and he can’t stop himself from doing so.
It’s different to when they were younger, when Zagreus acted first, stopped second, and talked third. He always keeps a polite distance from him whenever they converse, knowing their place among the Chthonic gods and the constant audience they entertain in the House, to Thanatos’s blessed relief.
He figures it’s no use ruminating on his own. So, in a leap of faith, he seeks advice on it.
“Oh, Thanatos? Wha—I mean, it’s been ages!” Hypnos nearly throws his clipboard up with his hands before they plop back down onto his lap, a scoff of surprise leaving his open smile. “Last we talked, why, that has to be before Lord Hades chewed you out in front of the whole House. Just there, no less!” He actually points at the spot where Thanatos, for once in his immortal life, feared for his own existence. “Man, that was so intense. Made me nervous just watching! All for Zagreus, too, as well? Not that I get it, but I guess he is dying a little less than usual, nowadays, so there’s something. But listen to me, rambling away here. What did you wanna talk to me about, huh? I’m all ears!”
Thanatos narrows his eyes at Hypnos. At the queue of shades forming near to the Pool of Styx. Then back again at him.
“…You know what? I forget. Just keep it up.”
“Aw, you wanted to cheer me on, is that it? Why, thanks, Thanatos! Talk soon? Talk soon!”
Thanatos spares him a nod before floating onwards. He might love his twin brother, but with all his desperation, even he knows what new depths he doesn’t need to sink to.
A ghastly moan escapes Charon’s jaws that sends ripples along the River Styx behind him. Thanatos frowns.
“But Zagreus talks about everyone like that. The man’s practically on a mission to befriend every god and shade within these Chthonic walls, brother.”
An undead cry rattles Charon’s teeth, his bones creaking as he holds his oar out for emphasis. Thanatos worries his bottom lip.
“I mean... Couldn’t it be just because he sees me more often, with me having given him Mort?”
A short, bass scream echoes off the hull of his riverboat of the dead. Thanatos crosses his arms.
“Look, I’m just not sure… But, I grant what you’re saying. I’ll think about it.”
Charon’s neck rattles as he nods. He stretches out a skeletal hand, another unearthly howl leaking from the gaps between his bones. Thanatos glances between his hand and his skull, frowning indignantly.
“I’m not going to pay you because we chatted, Charon.”
“What do you mean a consultation fee?! You know what—this is ridiculous. I’ve work to do.”
“I’m okay with it.” Megaera only throws a hand up with a shrug. “Like I said before, you don’t need my permission.”
“It isn’t a permission thing, Meg. It’s just…” Thanatos sighs. “I can’t…get a read on him. I never seem to be able to. I just…I don’t know if he actually…”
The sentence trails off, unfinished. His lips only squish together as Megaera simply watches him, devoid of any impassioned expression.
“…You know,” she remarks, almost idly. “I’ve been sensing your power from Zagreus every time I fight him.”
Thanatos looks up at her, as suddenly as he is startled. The motion invites a small smile from Megaera, which, in another state of mind, Thanatos would try to have a rebuttal ready for it.
“He gets stronger. Able to break out faster, and more easily, somehow, for all his slip-ups in-between,” she continues. “Looks a lot less injured, too. Heard him apologise to you out loud when I landed a hit on him. And I’d like to think I’m smart enough to make the connection.”
“Every time, Thanatos.” Megaera simply cocks her head. “And what do you think that means, coming from Zagreus, who has enough on his plate when he wants nothing but to break out of here?”
Thanatos stews in the silence. His mouth opens once, but it simply closes again, when he has nothing to say.
“Incidentally,” Meg says, her smile coming back, “I do find this a little rich, given how obvious Zagreus is being. I swear he’s practically throwing himself at you with the ambrosia he’s getting you, of all things.”
“That’s not a sure thing!” Thanatos insists lamely. “He can just be like that…!”
Meg just raises her hands up in mock surrender, before reaching for her goblet. Thanatos sags with a sigh, thinking, again.
“I realise it might be…insensitive of me,” Thanatos adds. “To ask you for advice on him.”
“It’s ancient history, quite literally. And, besides. We’re friends, Than.” Meg gives him a pat on the shoulder, everything out in the open when she smiles. “Also, Zagreus is intent on repairing some bridges, if the bottles of nectar he’s given me is any indication. So don’t worry about us, and worry about yourself some more instead? Got that?”
Megaera gives him a knock on the shoulder that he takes with a laugh. His heart feels a little more at ease. There’s only one kernel left he has to address, after he splits his contraband with his longtime friend.
“Mother Nyx. I…have a question.”
“Yes, Thanatos. What is it you wish to know?”
“Well, I… Do you remember, when I was quite small? Before I really met Zagreus? We chatted a little about it?”
“I do. Quite clearly, as a matter of fact.”
“Okay. I…asked you, back then, whether I was supposed to talk with him. And you told me who I made friends with wasn’t a part of my duty. That it wouldn’t be ‘partial’ of me.”
“Yes. I did.”
“Yes, well…I want to know, if… With Zagreus, I…” Faced with his mother, with the feelings brewing inside him in a cocktail, Thanatos wrings his hands for the first time in ages. “Would it be…improper of me, to pursue something with him? Whether that’d be…a good idea. As it were.”
Nyx merely studies him for a moment. A moment that seems to drag on for an eon, with the golden flush slinking up his cheeks. But then there’s a quality to Nyx’s lip that softens, maybe, into something that resembles a smile.
“You wish for my encouragement so you may make that leap for yourself,” she notes. “Is that right, my child?”
“I…” Defeated, he only nods once. “It… It is.”
“Thanatos. Know that there is no issue, for this House, your career, or otherwise, in you deepening your relationship with Zagreus, despite the impressions that Lord Hades gives. And I, for one, am only fully supportive should you choose to do so. In short, yes. I believe it would be a good idea.”
Thanatos hears the affirmation. He lets it settle in his bones. Spread and soothe his whole being. He feels Nyx’s cool life, next to Zagreus’s. And basks in them.
“…You told me, once upon a time, that Death is to be impartial,” he says, smiling. “There hasn’t been a single day I’ve forgotten that phrase. That axiom I’m to hold.”
“I know. And what I said all those ages before hasn’t changed, Thanatos.” Nyx, in a gesture of unparalleled warmth, rests a hand on his shoulder, her thumb resting on the slope up his neck. “You are a dutiful, honourable child I am proud to call mine. And you mean very much to him.”
There’s something that clicks in Thanatos, with the words echoing the ones Nyx told him long past. He feels like if he turns around, he’ll see the impetuous prince being told off for playing with the dog too roughly. Like that flame of life in him will provide that warm breeze that blew little Thanatos away, and stayed with him forevermore.
He sees his silhouette, larger than ever, aloft in the renovated halls. Cast upon the lilacs that bring out his mother’s eyes, that Zagreus installed for her. How, slowly, yet surely, these eternal Chthonic halls are evolving over time, thanks to Zagreus. Who’s breathed new life into them.
Thanatos’s pulse still thrums lightning-quick, bone-deep. He feels like he’s standing over the yawning chasm of Tartarus. He’s still scared. He doesn’t know what the future holds, if he chooses to bare his heart to Zagreus, more than he ever has. Zagreus’s promise to take his time—for them to take their time—echoes endlessly in his head.
Yet there’s something so familiar in infinite unknown, the fear, and the uncertainty, when he heads into Zagreus’s bedchambers, to wait for him. When Zagreus makes him want to try.
Thanatos drops off the last of the souls he has to reap, before he shifts to Zagreus in Greece.
He gives his signature announcement of his arrival, smirking at how his lover’s jaw falls open as he sits on the snow.
“Thanatos, I—!” Zagreus looks around, then inside his own chiton, feeling his belt like he dropped something. “I mean, I have Mort on me, but I didn’t call you, I—I just beat Father, and—”
“I’m aware, Zagreus. I finally got a backlog of work out of the way, and then some. Thought I would come see you up here, for once.”
“Oh…” Zagreus blinks up at him, a smile beginning to come on in his confusion. “Is this…a date, then?”
“…Sure. Whatever label you want to put on it.”
“Aw, Than, you’re blushing.”
“I will remind you at present I am able to leave you to die here by yourself at any time.”
“Wait, okay, I’ll behave! I just thought it was endearing; that’s all.” Zagreus chuckles, still grinning at him. It’s infectious; Thanatos can only smile back at him. “It’s really good to see you. Sit next to me?”
He wordlessly obliges. The snow parts as he sits on the chilly grass, but the length of his hooded chiton allows him some warmth. He notes the patch of grass conspicuously steaming where Zagreus’s feet rest. They run hot, but the cheek that Zagreus rests in the crook where Thanatos’s neck meets his shoulder runs warm in a very different way. One that affects Thanatos, as he looks upon Zagreus resting quietly, partially lying on him. The smile he catches himself making in the reflection of the water is something entirely foreign. But not one he dislikes, when he sees the one gracing Zagreus’s lips. The evergreen trees sleep next to them in a blanket of cold. It’s as quiet as the dead; comfortably so.
“…Why are you sitting here anyway?” Thanatos wonders aloud, unravelling the silence with a whisper, tone reverently soft. “I thought you liked your mother’s garden. And not sitting.”
“I can’t say. I suppose I never took the time to appreciate this part of the outside, cold as it is. There’s something about the sea in the night… Seeing Mother Nyx’s power manifest like this…” Zagreus looks up, the stars reflected in the black sclera of his red eye. “Suppose I am a little tired, too. Father did a bit of a number on me. Not to mention this always happens, sooner or later.”
Thanatos watches his air rise in condensation from his lips, as he looks almost sleepy, closing his eyes and opening them again. He takes the black cloth he has hanging off his arms, in case of cold places like this. He wraps it around Zagreus’s shoulders and his, tucking them in with the makeshift shawl he turns it into. Zagreus only hums at the gesture, and leans closer towards what little warmth he gives off.
Thanatos looks up at the chariot of Selene, oddly large in the sky. But immaculate, still, as it casts its glow across all the land.
“What do you think of the moon, Zagreus?”
“The moon…” Zagreus looks up at it, considering. “It’s…beautiful. Especially with no fights to the death to distract me from taking in the sights.”
Thanatos chuckles. He kisses the top of Zagreus’s head, pushing down his unruly hair before it bounces back. Zagreus nuzzles closer into him.
“…I wished once I could enjoy seeing the outside with you, Than, love. Just like this. Even if I’ve little time on the surface. Staying still makes me restless, most of the time, but…what could be better than this?”
Zagreus lets out a soft sigh, oozing with contentment. Thanatos relishes in the sound, like it’s his favourite hymn. He looks up at the moon, like the way he did all those times ago, with a similar kind of smile adorning his lips, now.
“Nothing I might think of.”
A stretch of silence passes. Then, a weak cough rattles Zagreus’s ribcage. Thanatos already knows, with the way the life in him withers to no more than ghostly shudders, even right next to him.
“…You’re fading, Zag.”
“Like I said,” he says past another cough, grinning despite himself. “Happens sooner or later…”
Thanatos gazes upon him, torn when he can do nothing but watch. He loops an arm around Zagreus’s frame, protective as he shivers, coughing again. Pain seeps from every pore of Thanatos’s face.
“Does it hurt…?”
“No… No… Just feels…like I’m getting sleepy, is all. Hypnos is…your brother, after all…” Zagreus breathes in after a wheeze. It threads thin, weak and shaky. He clasps Thanatos’s hand, who clasps back with an insistent fervour. “I’m happy you’re here, with me, while it happens. Usually quite a…lonely affair…you know?”
“I can only imagine,” Thanatos murmurs.
At Zagreus’s chest-deep cough, his airless rasp, he tucks Zagreus’s head into the curve of his neck more fully. Thanatos feels his face turn, to which he immediately attends, when Zagreus uses the last of his strength to reach up to his face.
“You know…the snow—the moon, ugh…and…stars. It all reminded me…of you, Than. Is why I…stayed…” He strains to lift his head up, his smirk feeble on his mouth. The sight of that, the sound of his quivering voice, sends Death's heart soaring hot into his throat. “Could you…kiss me. Please…? Before, I…”
Thanatos steals his lips in a kiss. Deep, yet gentle. Zagreus’s lips, for once, are colder than his. He threads his fingers through his wild hair, doing what he can to warm him. To breathe life back into him, all logic be damned, as Zagreus clings onto the front of his chiton, and Thanatos pulls him in by the waist to kiss him like he’ll lose him. Their mouths part a sliver, Zagreus’s chilled breath clinging onto this skin of his lips, before Thanatos kisses him again, like he’ll melt into Zagreus’s fading warmth. He feels Zagreus’s grip on his clothes grow loose, and his eyes part open a hair’s width, as Thanatos clutches onto him, whispering into his lips:
“…I’ll see you at home, Zagreus.”
“Yeah… See you…at home…” His head rests more fully, more heavily onto Thanatos’s shoulder, the last of his life dimming. “Than…”
To any of the gods who might be watching above, Zagreus falls into a deep sleep on his shoulder. The cold air makes Thanatos feels like thorns are piercing his lungs, his heart broken at how the faintest, pink flush filling Zagreus’s cheeks and hands recede all too quickly. Biting his lip, he loops an arm beneath Zagreus’s shoulders and the other under his knees with care. Zagreus curls up without choice, tucked in his hold when he floats up. Gazing upon his lifeless face, Thanatos leans over, his hood shrouding the snow from his face when he leaves a chaste, lingering kiss on his forehead.
“I’ve got you, my love…” Their surroundings glow green, and Thanatos’s lips pull back with a bittersweet smile. “I’ve got you.”
Thanatos feels the last flicker of life, Pandora’s hope, shivering in Zagreus’s soul. He holds it close to his, holds him close to him, before they vanish, the River Styx sloshing in the dark.
The life in Zagreus reignites. Next to it burns a cool flame, which shines just as bright.