Seed, Like Pearls by Rhi
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Author's Notes:
Disclaimers: Not mine, drat it. Hugh FitzCairn and all other familiar characters from Highlander: the Series belong to Rysher: Panzer/Davis. The Greek gods, of course, are far beyond any power or control of mine or anyone else's. A theory herein is mine, but that's all right, too. No money made or exchanged in the writing of this. Profound thanks are due to Vanzetti and Taz who helped with some sticky plot points, and to Misha, Alyss, tarsh & devo for the beta reading. Any and all remaining mistakes are, of course, to be laid at my feet.

Rated: PG-13 (This is Fitz, after all.)






Unlike some of the others, Hermes still has power in this world.

Hestia's lost ground badly these last few years; the microwave and 'Super Mom' diverted attention from the hearth and she's been trying to recoup ever since. (Although even Hestia refuses to accept Martha Stewart as one of hers.) Hera is faded and quiet, little help to her favorite sister. The Queen of the Gods is only now recovering from the Catholic church's long promotion of celibacy. The slow drive towards gay marriage, oddly, has been good for her. Hermes has been wondering how long it will be until Zeus finds himself searching for a new queen, and which of the goddesses Hera might take up with. His step-mother has never appreciated her husband's numerous affairs.

Apollo has always had his sun-worshipers, and the spread of psychology in the last century has kept his name known and that of his half-brother Dionysus. Artemis is doing surprisingly well. There'd been a few centuries after men took over childbirth when Hermes was afraid she'd fade, but Wicca and the feminist movement have been very good for her and Athena both. Grey-eyed Athena still shakes her head sometimes, however, and looks at her skin, and murmurs disbelievingly, 'Black?'

Death and sleep, as ever, are universal. Hades and Morpheus have simply adapted to the times and enjoyed the rise of the Goth movement. War, too, does well, on all the battlefields large and small. Ares is constantly busy, constantly invoked, and as likely to wear varying colors of camouflage as his favorite red and black. His brother, Hephaestus, is willing to help the others, as always, and in these technological days has aid in plenty to offer.

Poseidon and Amphitrite, of course, never lost their worshippers. Sailors worship the sea, and love her, and fear her. Prayers for safety come with every storm, with every leave-taking; thanks for safe return are just as common. As for Hecate, well, there will always be those who need dark deals and darker vengeance. There will always be fervent prayers over crops, too, although the slow spread of large farms, manufactured fertilizer, and genetically engineered crops seem to leave Demeter quieter every year. The vegans are some help, but Zeus was a god of crops and the sky, both; those prayers go to him as well, and cost him, too, apparently. He's lost some of his power as the secrets of the weather have been fathomed, but he regains some ground each storm season and as the threat of global warming spreads.

Some things have changed; others have stayed the same. Where necessary, the gods have shifted their priorities and powers as best they can, tacking on the currents of mortal ideas and needs, and beliefs. Hermes has always done well, though, with little need to change. He finds that ironic, when he stops to think about it.

Everyone knows the tricksters, the tale-carriers, the quick-witted and quick-tongued. They don't always know who he is, but the silhouetted profile of the figure with helmet and chiton and the winged sandals is known in any number of lands, not just Greece. His silhouette delivers flowers across the States, and his staff, with its coiled serpents, rides the back of ambulances everywhere. It was his symbol before Asclepius used it, but Hermes doesn't begrudge sharing that power with his nephew.

Hermes does what he's always done: carries rumors and whispers, steals this and that, stirs mischief here, negotiates peace there, and keeps a hand in everything and an alibi always. As a result, unlike some of the gods, Hermes still receives power -- in steady trickles and tiny currents and sometimes in the mad, overpowering spikes that sire new children. Hermes watches over those children when and as he can, and worries about them. Too many of the other gods don't, but Hermes knows his own and cares for them as best he can. Some of them, though -- the ones most like him and occasionally the ones who have nothing in common with him at all -- Hermes loves. Which is why, this once, he's in Tartarus on his own business.

"Hades."

Bare moments pass before his uncle appears. Danger wreathes Hades, dark as the graves and caves that form the source of his power. Hades' greatest power flows from blindness and blind folly, death threats, or worse, the refusal to grant death. Not even Zeus ever dared to challenge this brother. The underworld might have seemed the worst of the choices to draw when the three deities diced for their shares of the world, but Hades learned long ago how best to use its powers. Now he looks young and nearly innocent in black leather and denim, black hair and pale skin and finely wrought platinum jewelry. Those dark eyes see everything, however, and the set of his mouth tells Hermes his uncle hasn't lost his aversion to giving up what's his. Worse, Hades thinks everything in the underworld is his.

"Hermes. I thought you'd brought someone who needed my personal attention." Hades smiles, danger hidden behind surprisingly red lips, red as pomegranates, as he asks, "So what brings you to my realm?"

"You have one of my sons."

Hades winces at that. "I have several of your sons, Hermes." His voice is unexpectedly gentle on the words, soft as sleeping in snow or relaxing into bathwater turning pink. "Some of them keep Persephone company when I'm busy."

Hermes has to smile. On business or not, calling due old favors from a more powerful god or not, some ideas are just too ludicrous. "I guarantee you that you don't allow this one to keep her company." His smile goes as edged and dangerous as his uncle's. "And you do owe me a favor or twelve, Hades."

Hades nods, sleek hair falling over his eyes and sliding away again as he does. "I do. But there are always complications with retrieving the dead, nephew...."

Hermes just grins at his uncle. Negotiations are among his particular masteries, after all and Hades hasn't said 'No.' Therefore, so far as he's concerned, they're only dickering over ways, and means, and price.

"Of course there are, Uncle Hades. But I'm sure we can work out ways around any problem. Shall we discuss it?"

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Hugh FitzCairn had thought at times that if a man had to lose his head -- even to an utter bastard like Kalas -- at least he'd ended up in a heaven a man could appreciate. Good company, fields and rivers if no sun, and now the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen had come to talk to him. He felt quite sure of that, even if he hadn't been able to force words out just yet. She'd threaded her way through the other spirits directly to him, after all. He'd watched her. She was more real than anyone else there, impossible to miss, and not just because of her looks, although those were glorious.

It wasn't the sea-shaded eyes, right now a Caribbean turquoise, that made her so beautiful, or even the angle of cheekbones over full, luscious lips. Her hair was the white blond of sea-spray, caught up in a tumble and spill of curls and tendrils that made him want to run his hands through it and take it out of what little order the pearl strand had imposed, but that wasn't it, either. Coral-tinted lips smiled at him and if he'd had a heart it would have stopped. As it was, Fitz found himself on his knees, gazing at her feet and wanting to worship her with hands and mouth from her toes to her crown, and so hard he wished he still had a body that could touch hers. She was too substantial and he felt truly a ghost next to her.

Her smile tinted her voice, a husky, purring pleasure in her tone that brought his head up as surely as his name had. "Hugh FitzCairn, surely you're not going to kneel to me?"

If she'd sounded truly upset, Fitz might have babbled. As it was, he turned his sunniest smile on her, looking up from under an unruly mass of blond curls of his own. "Have we met, my lady?"

She laughed, and he sighed in contentment at making her so happy, then blushed when she apologized. "I'm sorry. Here."

Somehow she muted her effect a little and Fitz felt the lust ease its grip on him. Which didn't mean he wouldn't find her a comfortable spot in the field if she looked interested.... And he'd lost a few minutes staring at her, apparently. She only looked amused and pleased in a 'cat that lapped up the cream' way-- Fitz, old boy, she's going to slap you at this rate. Lord, what an image though.

Her chuckle eased his concerns. "Lovely man, another time, I will take you up on that. You think the sweetest things. And the not so sweet. I'm truly flattered. But this isn't the time or the place. Listen to me, Fitz. Do you want to be able to worship women with that sweet body of yours again?"

Fitz blinked and wished, again, for his pipe. "Dear lady, my body's in truly regrettable condition by now, isn't it?"

She only smiled. "Ah, but that part isn't your problem, Fitz. Someone else would handle that. What you need to tell me is, do you want to live?"

"Well of course I do," he said. "Wine, women, song, friends to laugh with, enemies' graves to dance over. Hundreds of women who've never known me, tales still untold.... Plenty still to do."

She laughed, low and pleased, and it stirred parts of Fitz that refused to admit they might have rotted in a coffin somewhere else. "Ah, you're still mine, Fitz." She sounded very satisfied by that. "Good. The price for this is paid, but someone had to make my part worth my while. Now you have."

"I'm afraid I don't understand." Fitz didn't have so much as a hint, actually, much less a clue, but that was all right. He did have a lovely view.

She only laughed again. "It's simple enough, gorgeous. You have a chance to walk the world again, breathe real air, taste real wine, worship real women." She watched him, mouth curved with that same knowing smile. "All it will take is two things. Follow your guides -- we'll hand you off, one to another, don't worry about that -- and speak no word 'til you feel sunlight on your face and have your sword in your hand."

"Damn," Fitz said mildly. "No escaping the Game, hmm?"

"Beautiful man, you did escape." A graceful, foam-pale hand cut through the air to indicate the spirits nearby and the pallid attempt at sunlight in the fields. "The question is whether the escape was worth the cost."

Fitz laughed. "Oh. Well, if that's the way it is... the Game is a small price to pay for real wine, real women, and new songs. Follow you and the guides you pass me along to, and not a word, you said?"

She nodded, unexpectedly solemn. Fitz wanted to wipe that from her face, replace it with her smile. "Yes. Not a word until you have daylight and sword hilt in hand. The chance will only be offered once, Hugh FitzCairn, and your father paid dearly to get it for you." She smiled briefly. "He offered to pay me to guide you, but, well, how could I not if you were still mine?"

Fitz stared then, blue eyes wide. "My father? I have one? I always thought we immortals just... hatched or something. Found under a cabbage leaf maybe."

She only smiled and shook her head. "No, Fitz, and I can't tell you more than that. It's not safe to know. But I thought you'd like to know that your father loves you this much."

Fitz tucked that away in the same part of his mind that heard her say she'd show up in his bed one day. He'd ask again then. In the meantime, he had another question. "I say. Haven't I heard something like this before? Orpheus, it was, and Eurydice?"

The lovely woman -- goddess, Fitz was starting to realize, and he had acquired a few ideas about which one she was, too -- nodded. "You have. Which means you know how that turned out. Remember, Fitz. Not a word. No matter what, or for what matter." She smiled suddenly, looking him over from head to toe and lingering with a very flattering interest at parts in between. "I'd be truly disappointed not to be able to show up in your bed one week."

Fitz chuckled. "I'll look forward to dying a happy man, sweet lady. Should I ask your name?"

She only smiled. "I think you already know it." Her chuckle was warm wickedness, chocolate sin, and he wanted to roll in it. "Think you can follow my ass out of here? I'll even guarantee the other two you'll follow will be just as much fun to watch. You never did mind watching hips swaying in front of you." She giggled. "I'll admit, we were counting on that when we set this up."

Laughter bubbled out of him, and mischief, and a joie de vivre that might yet translate back into life. The other shades slowly approached him, trying to bask in the warmth that now emanated from him, however faintly. "When do we start?"

"If you're ready, now." She set a finger across his lips and for the first time since he'd died, Fitz felt someone's touch. It burned through him like brandy on an empty stomach and he barely heard her warning.

"Not a word, Fitz. Barely a sound. When we reach the stream, I'll point to your new guide, who'll do the same at the next leg of the journey to introduce your last guide. Make no sound, accept no further gifts. Eat no food, drink no wine, and stray not from the path lest you be lost."

There was no mistaking her warning.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


The first temptation caught him by surprise, Fitz had to admit later. His mind had been busy observing the swing and sway of Aphrodite's hips and the lovely terrain below that. In fact, he'd been contemplating bedroom acrobatics he hadn't tried since the night he and Amanda had seduced a pretty little Chinese circus contortionist together... when he smelled the tobacco. After numberless, undifferentiated days without his pipe, well, it did catch his attention.

Fitz swung around and only then realized the sweet scent under it was sun-warmed metheglyn. Their path apparently went past the post stamp-sized garden of St. Julien's and Darius sat on his heels on the flagstone patio. Mud lay under his nails, covered his hands, and spackled his arms to the elbow, under the rolled up sleeves of his habit. A small stack of weeds lay beside him, withering in the sunlight

-- How? Fitz had to wonder. It's not that hot, really.... --

and Darius smiled at him, fond and familiar.

"Thirsty, Fitz? Or did you run out of tobacco again?" he asked.

Fitz paused, hand reaching into his pocket automatically for the pipe that, once again, wasn't there... and he realized that the sound of Aphrodite's feet was steadily fading away. An exasperated breath hissed out but he kept any words behind his teeth as he ran to catch up with her.

Really, he thought, feeling no little aggrieved. Bad enough to keep a man from talking to Darius, but to add metheglyn to the bait.... Well. That's simply underhanded. Still. Can't say She didn't warn me. Drink no wine indeed. But it's going to take the devil's own luck to find some metheglyn when I'm back and damn it, I can still smell it!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Even with much of his attention on the lovely sight in front of him, Fitz had leisure and thought to spare to his surroundings. Woolgathering had nearly gotten him in trouble once now; Fitz didn't want to give way too easily, although he suspected he'd only get in more trouble before it was over, if he was right about the opponent trying to trick him out of his chance at life. Oh, well, the field had been growing boring. This, though. This was a proper challenge.

Besides which, the goddess was fascinating to watch.

So far, they'd passed through olive groves and lavender fields, a rocky promontory that ran to a sea-lashed beach by way of the Athens agora, and every other type of terrain in between. Sometimes Fitz had three or four paces before the terrain changed; other times, like the beach, a reality might last a quarter mile. Fitz looked up from picking his way carefully across a shale slide and Aphrodite had turned around to smile at him. As he took the last step to her side, the rocky mountain pass faded into a high narrow meadow full of late summer wheat and a narrow blue-green stream.

Aphrodite smiled and pointed to the stunning black-haired woman waiting with a patient, too-knowing smile. Fitz swept them both his best bow and as he straightened the goddess blew him a kiss and vanished. His new guide laughed softly and reached up to tuck a strayed curl back up into the tumbled black mass of her hair.

Fitz had to pause and study her. This one wasn't a goddess. She was gloriously human and had quite obviously been the mold for every Mediterranean beauty since time began, or Aphrodite had emerged from that sea, at least. Olive-skinned with chocolate eyes, and those lashes were thick enough to make looking up through them seem new and alluring again. Slender with muscle everywhere she wasn't curved to remind a man why he wanted to roll around with a woman, long feet and toes that only looked elegant in the sandals and long fingers designed to caress a man -- Fitz could have watched her walk until the moon set.

She had clearly been waiting for him to finish his appraisal, but she was smiling at him and he grinned about the light it put in her eyes and the way it shifted the lines of her face. Her chuckle was low and husky, and she gave him the most speaking, 'come hither' glance Fitz thought he'd ever seen before she turned away.

Fitz hoped, and prayed, that he'd be allowed to remember her after he made it out, even if he was quite sure there'd never be another woman quite like her. If he could, he'd have to name his next ship after her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


The only possible excuse for the second diversion catching him off guard was that it really was less distracting to watch the lovely lady's rear view. The earth was stable under their feet -- depressingly so, really, in monotonous expanses of grey shale and blue-grey slate and brown-grey dust -- but the sky wheeled and spun like a kaleidoscope. Now grey and storm-covered as if to match the ground, then blue and dotted with white puffs of clouds that promised a lovely day this land would never see. Purple and pink, sunrise or sunsets in glorious hues and shifts, or the sickly yellowish-green of approaching tornados that would never arrive... the shade of every horizon ever seen seemed to haunt this land. It was enough to make a man wish, desperately, for sun glasses, or just a good public house with a pint of bitter and some shepherd's pie.

"Pub, whorehouse, or church lunch, Connor MacLeod could start a bar brawl faster than any man I've ever met."

"Ah," came the husky, burred retort, "but he could charm the ladies, too. You never met his wife."

FitzCairn turned to find the speakers, their voices as familiar to him as his own from taverns the width and breadth of the Mediterranean. Rocks and boulders had been piled together to shape a primitive but efficient open-air forge. Some shade, a water trough barely a hand-span deep with scummy water, and an anvil near a cold fire bed. Sunda Kastagir was standing over the anvil, a small hammer hanging apparently absently in one hand and maybe it really was -- the Moor was a superb blacksmith when he liked you. With two sharp, careful blows, Kastagir set the pins through the hilt and tang, hammering them down onto the caps.

As Kastagir swung the blade up to guard, Ramirez stood from the wall he'd been lounging against. Supervising the work in progress, or arguing, depending on who you asked, Fitz didn't doubt. Ramirez' brown eyes were normally merry; at the moment, he looked both skeptical and exasperated. He held the sword's sheath in one hand: scarlet leather, worked in gold and black threads and polished steel bolts. A black and scarlet belt hung from his other hand, clearly awaiting the weight of leather and steel.

Ramirez glanced over and snapped, "Hells, FitzCairn, you met the man. Kindly explain to this overbearing bear of a brawler that my Highlander could charm women as well as his kinsman."

Kastagir snorted. "Ah, but I never met the younger Highlander, remember, Ramirez? So? What is this Duncan like, Hugh?"

"A young idiot," Ramirez growled, "with the luck of Isis and Osiris both."

Fitz began to respond... and felt his mouth snap shut before he even realized he'd bitten the words back. Only then did he see the sharp look Ramirez was giving him. It was the same wordless warning of danger that had driven the two of them out of public houses ahead of press gangs, robbers, and irate husbands in twenty countries.

As soon as Fitz fell resolutely silent, Ramirez saluted him. The triumphant grin concealed most of the pain twisting across the old Spaniard's face, and he and Kastagir were both swirling away like tavern smoke in the breeze of an opened door. Kastagir's laugh boomed out, and his voice, too, calling, "Hugh, enjoy the blade!"

Then they were gone, and that beautiful blade -- That I couldn't have accepted! Fitz reminded himself.

FitzCairn turned to follow his lovely guide again, teeth gritted against an uncharacteristically fierce resentment. Damn it all, bad enough to leave me without their company for however long I've been here -- and the Elysian Fields would have been much more entertaining with those two around -- but to deprive me of a chance to have a good, long argument where I'd win no matter what. That was uncalled for!

Another half-mile or so of walking eased some of his irritation, though none of his determination. The view ahead was superb, after all, if the sky still made his head hurt. Besides. Hugh FitzCairn had lost any number of bets in his life -- frequently by being too drunk to win, he had to admit -- but he wasn't about to concede defeat. Not least because, at this rate, he'd obviously hate not seeing the third guide.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


The sky slowed in its shifts, darkening slowly towards night, and the ground around FitzCairn took in the colors abandoned by the sky. A pine grove shifted into existence around them between one step and another, and the dull earth became rain-worn rock. Ahead of Fitz, the trees opened up and the ground fell away. A breeze shivered water drops off the pine needles onto the earth, stirring up the scent of sun-dried herbs and pine resin. When the draft had made its path across the grove, a woman stilled into place.

Ice-white hair poured back from her crown, shoved carelessly behind her ears and held back from her eyes by a thin strip of black leather. Mostly, though, it was confined by braids. Thin braids and thick; three strands, four, five. Some tied off, some knotted into themselves, and others trying to fray apart into tendrils and mischief. Gold and silver cord twined through the tiny braids until some of them seemed more cord than hair. In the thicker braids, bells and beads of every color and material wove in and out in a random mix of metal, crystal, and cheap, gimcrack iridescent plastic. Like the plastic, her hair caught every shade and tint of the sunset. Her eyes were colorless as water in clear glass.

Fitz shot his second guide a smile full of gratitude when she turned back to him, finally. She smiled back, amused by something, and dropped a low curtsey that made Fitz try not to consider where her mouth now was in relationship to his height.... The mortal woman laughed, richly amused, and waved him towards the waiting goddess. She straightened then and walked away, seemingly off the mountain and into the air.

The bright-hued goddess (and Fitz somehow didn't doubt in the least that she was) smoothed down the fluttering ribbons that made her tunic, then shrugged and smiled over the impossibility of making them something other than what they were: a raven's bait of a distraction, in every color and sheen imaginable, and none of them long enough or concealing enough to keep Fitz from having to bite his tongue. Constantly. Bronze skin gleamed here and there under the ribbons, and now and then there was an occasional glimpse of ash blond curls or copper nipples....

Fitz hadn't realized he'd be so grateful to have a beautiful woman turn her back on him. She's beautiful, Fitz lad, and flattered by the interest -- that was in the eyes -- but so was some kind of warning. Lord. Beautiful as Masamune's blades and every bit as dangerous. Somehow. He sighed gustily and wished for his pipe. And I hate getting my blood on blades.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Fitz had grown used to the constant soft scuff of his guide's sandals ahead of him, to the shifts of color and light glinting from the edges of her tunic and braids, to the chime and clatter of bells and beads shifting in her hair and across her shoulders and back. It was his own slowly building worry he couldn't get used to. Two tests done and passed, and he was trying not to worry about what might come of Ramirez trying to help him. He had one more test, though, if all the stories and fairy tales were true. One test per guide it seemed to be working out to, and he was trying to remember exactly what Aphrodite had said without ever losing track of the lovely lady ahead, whose identity he hadn't quite puzzled out yet.

Don't eat or drink, which is how they caught Persephone. Take no gifts, Aphrodite said -- that lovely sword. I wonder if it was real, or a memory of one Kastagir made years back? He made the most incredible scimitars.... No gifts. No sound. Not until I have my sword and something else... sunlight on the blade? On me? On both of us? I'd better be careful. I imagine the tax bureaus have nothing on a god of the dead who wants to be picky about technicalities. And stay on the path. I nearly walked off to borrow that pipe from Darius.

Fitz sighed, certain that 'It was only for a moment,' simply wouldn't be sufficient excuse to the Lord of the Dead. The list of things he was promising himself when he had a body again was really starting to mount up. Much like portions of his anatomy, following such lovely ladies out.

The frustrated hiss cut across the silence, laid red-plum frustration across the fading light of the sky, and Fitz turned in surprise. He knew that voice, too, and the last time Amanda had sounded like that, she'd been dangling over a wall, Duncan leaning on her feet to hold her while she reached (in vain) for an emerald the size of a baby's fist.

When FitzCairn turned, however, he saw two things, not one. The contrast between them froze him in place as if he'd turned to see Medusa there. Behind him, to the left, Amanda hung from a mountaineer's rig, the tips of her fingers barely an inch too far from a faceted crystal the size of a cantaloupe. Farther to his left, though, and within hand's reach, stood a second goddess. She looked precisely like the one he'd been following, who was within reach of his right hand. Both goddesses were frowning, at Fitz and at the scene before him.

Then they turned, in unison, and began walking again, and Fitz realized he had no choice but to go with them. Even if I stay, I won't see Amanda -- I didn't find Ramirez, or Darius, in my wanderings. He trudged between them, trying not to listen to the noises behind him, and feeling part of his mind still puzzling over something.

Amanda's ropes didn't run to anything, they just faded off. Fitz frowned, following his lovely guide and almost as distracted by his thoughts as by her long, strong legs swaying and tantalizing under those ribbons. The frustrated commentary faded away behind him and he sighed in relief, still feeling faintly guilty for not helping a friend get something she so clearly wanted. Amanda was always sneaky and stubborn, even for one of Rebecca's students -- all that beautiful steel under that lovelier skin was part of her infinite charm.... Surely she'll find something she can use to reach that last inch. If she'd just wear bras, it wouldn't be a problem. He could only hope she'd succeeded though, as he followed his guide out. Hope, and wonder who, exactly, he was following, and who his father might be to have guides like this owing him favors....

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Dawn came slowly, and none too soon. Fitz couldn't remember being this tired since he'd died. His legs ached from the constant climb, and his eyes were tired of straining to see the dim iridescence ahead of him that marked his guide's presence and his path out. Light coming over his shoulders cast the faintest of rainbow shadows ahead of him, warming him with the reminder of the second goddess at his back. But if he didn't get out of these twisting, narrow rock passages soon, he was going to come back to life with a thoroughgoing case of claustrophobia.

Fitz could smell things, now, though, and that was almost a forgotten pleasure, like touch, or taste.... The scent of amber and saffron and lemon drifted to him from before and behind him. Sulfur had been there briefly, although the rotten-egg tinge was long since gone from the air. Old rock and old earth around him, and the indefinable freshness of night air about to heat... it was definitely dawn coming, and fresh air ahead. But they'd been climbing forever.

His feet hurt, his heart ached, and he had the worst case of blue balls in recorded history when his third guide stepped out of the passageway and into a sunlit grove. She cast a shadow across his feet and Fitz almost wanted to stare at the blackness of it after so much grey, but he was much more interested in the surface. As he stepped out of the rock crevice, Fitz felt fabric drag at his skin: cotton, denim, leather, wool. He could almost discern the separate threads and grains of the fabrics and couldn't decide if his skin was crawling or if he wanted to wrap himself up in sensation and roll in it. His first dawn since that damnable duel with Kalas spread around him in all its considerable beauty.

A morning breeze was rising and it blew his hair around his face, cooled the beads of sweat along nape and hairline. In the edge of his vision, he saw the sunlight halo into sparks and shimmering rainbows along his companion's silhouette, but he was much more focused on the blade lying abandoned on a boulder in front of him. The black leather hilt of the scimitar soaked up the morning light, and the scarlet and gold scabbard looked like Spanish work. The scabbard was Ramirez' doing, Fitz was sure, and wondered how it had come here when he and Kastagir were both dead, and Fitz had been.

He picked up the blade and tested the balance, nearly purring as he pulled sword from sheath. Kastagir's work, down to the maker's mark carved into the hilt, and beautifully balanced as ever. Sunlight cut itself on the edge and Fitz felt himself settle onto the earth beneath his boots with a thump that should have been audible. He was solid again, as he hadn't been in ages... and his stomach was growling.

The twin goddesses smiled at him. "Fare well, Hugh FitzCairn," the first told him and chuckled.

The second one, who'd never entirely left the cavernous path for the sunlit realms, smiled. "Fare you very well. No doubt that we will see you again one day, but do try not to return to those realms too soon."

Fitz smiled at them, looked at the sun on his blade and his hand, and sheathed the scimitar with a single skillful motion. He double-wrapped the belt around waist and onto hip, settled the blade with a dandy's practiced grace, and bowed to them. "Fair goddesses, I cannot thank you enough, but I'll try."

The first one laughed, sparks exploding off her with the motion. "The way you burn through life will be enough thanks." She glanced at her twin, one eyebrow raising, and then they were both simply... gone.

Fitz spun, looking for them, then laughed as his stomach growled again. "A sword, a body, and good boots. And the grace of their memories. What more could a man ask for?" He considered the path down off the mountain, the question of where exactly he was, and who had inherited his money, and winced. Food, and passport, and all the other inconveniences necessary in these times.... "Hmm. Well. Maybe a tad bit more, but I think I'd better prevail on more mortal friends for hospitality."

Fitz stuck his hands the pocket of his coat, wishing he'd been wearing a cloak in the realms below, and resigned himself to the idea that he'd have to find a way to hide this lovely blade. He was not giving it up, though.

He was already whistling as he walked down off the mountain. It was going to be a gorgeous day. But then, they all were.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


The cavern reached up and out, solidly black to the eyes, echoingly empty to the ears. Shades drifted through it to be judged, to beseech favors, to carry out errands that the less mortal inhabitants had bade them perform. Hades sat on his throne, black leather and black silk, blacker hair and eyes that reflected no light at all that morning. The palest of blue-black illumination emanated from the throne, or his skin, as he watched the goddesses reappear in his cavern.

"That there be two of you to guide him on any leg was not permitted," Hades said softly, intrigued or dangerous, or perhaps both. "And you have no twin, Iris. Who presumes to disguise herself in my realms?"

The twin goddesses chuckled in unison. "Who else would have the power?" one of them asked, very amused. Light shifted around her and poured out into the cavern. The edges were harder, but the danger seemed less that way, nonetheless. Persephone pushed a long, wavy lock of brown hair back from her face and smiled at him. "You're sulking, love."

"He was mine, and you helped him escape, Persephone?" Hades watched her, puzzled. With the fingers of one hand -- the nails had been painted deep purple -- he twisted a ring around and around on the other hand. Sparks exploded off the black opal again and again as the ring spun on that pale flesh. "Why?"

"Ah, love, you cheated first. He'd have never seen me if you hadn't made another spirit look, and sound, like his friend. Amanda's not dead. We both know you're not allowed to use her yet." Persephone walked up to Hades -- Ruler of the Underworld, Lord of Death and Dreams, master of riches incalculable, oldest son of Cronos and possibly the most dangerous -- and raised his hand to her mouth to kiss it. Against her sun-gilded skin, his pallor stood out more clearly. Her lips were dark red as the juice of fresh blackberries.

Hades sighed, resigned or pleased, or perhaps both, and touched her cheek with the other hand. His fingers traced her skin gently, reverent as if she were fragile or easily stained, or perhaps both. "Why, though, my lovely wife? If you wished him freed, could you not have asked me? Am I that fearsome to you?"

Iris chuckled softly. "Lord Hades, you never looked closely at that one, did you?"

"He was Hermes' son, Iris. I treated him accordingly, when it came time for judgment. A kindly man, in his own way. What did I not see?" Hades didn't look at the messenger goddess, only at his wife.

"Ah, love. If I'd asked you to free him, you'd have worried I wished to leave you." Persephone cradled the hand against her cheek with her own, and shifted the one she'd kissed down to rest over her heart, between her breasts. Green silk slid against Hades' fingers as she said, "And he was yours, my deadly love, but he was also ours."

Hades' mouth drew down only the most minute amount, but the light in the cavern began to fade and the temperature slid downward, as well. His wife's nipples were already tight, he saw, and knew it had nothing to do with cold, or at least not the cold of the cavern. " 'Ours,' you say. Who is this 'we,' then, Persephone? Your mother's?"

Iris bowed to him respectfully, brave enough to invite his attention away from his wife. "Not at all, my lord, in the sense you mean. None of our children are fertile, which means the Lady Persephone's mother has but little interest in most of them. Hugh FitzCairn was yours when he was dead, my lord, but in life, he was a worshipper of all goddesses and all women."

Persephone chuckled and slid her husband's hands down over her breasts, purring at such a cold touch against such tender skin. "He was a rake, a womanizer, and a lover of all things female. Aphrodite is still purring over his thoughts for her, and even Helen would have happily bedded him, Hades." Her voice dropped to a husky murmur which Iris tactfully ignored, as a messenger so often must. "Notice to whom I returned, my lord husband. Do feel free to make a most... intimate inspection to be sure I did not bed him."

Amusement had, finally, begun to lighten Hades' eyes. "I begin to understand. Shall we conduct this conversation elsewhere? Where we can discuss the penalties for such trickery and use of power in these realms for which I am responsible?"

"Ah, under penalty does sound so pleasurable of a sudden," Persephone whispered to him, and the two of them vanished away, leaving the cavern lighter in appearance and atmosphere both.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~


Behind them, the second goddess exhaled in relief, and vanished out of Hades' realm. Only after her reappearance in the now-deserted pine grove did she assume her own form.

Hermes stretched, enjoying the feel of his own gender again and the freedom from the jiggle and sway that even so trim a goddess as Iris endured. Female form was fun for mischief, but he preferred his own shape. How his son Hermaphroditus endured the disadvantages of both, he'd never know. The breeze skittered around him, tousling his hair, and Hermes leaped onto it to skim down the air and check that Fitz was in fact headed towards civilization. Once he knew where his son was headed, he could prod a few likely (and deserving) marks towards him.

Besides. He wanted to stay away from the entrances to the Underworld for a day or three, until Hades got over any lingering irritation. It would be safe to visit again after that. Persephone had thought it a waste to leave Fitz in the Underworld, and she'd make her point to her husband. Or make the most of his point, however it should be phrased. Hermes grinned, remembering how smoothly she'd handled Hades and wishing, again, that he'd made a pass at either of them centuries ago. Pity Hades was so involved in her. He was dangerous enough to be fun....

No. Hermes would be safe enough there on Zeus or Hera's business, but over all, it might be safest to give the couple a few days to work out the balance of power between themselves again. No matter how tempting it was to meddle.

Hermes trailed rainbows across the hills of Greece as he went, a thank you to Iris for the use of her appearance, and laughed to have set his son loose on the world again. More mischief, more havoc, more deals made and changed.... The world needed more men like Hugh FitzCairn. So did the women of the world. A wide grin spread across his face as Hermes wondered, again, how well Aphrodite might reward a messenger who could swear that her most faithful follower had made it into the world again....

Oh, yes. It was going to be a gorgeous day again. But then, they all were.



~*~*~*~*~*~*~ An end ~*~*~*~*~*~*~




Comments, Commentary, & Miscellanea:


I once saw a book entitled The Black Athena. Black-haired, I'd believe, but some of the hymns were to grey-eyed Athena....

The sea-foam goddess is, of course, Aphrodite. The human woman who set the mold for all Mediterranean beauties is, of course, Helen of Troy. (If this description doesn't match Homer's, I can only point out that that he was writing poetry and I'm working with myth....) Persephone first appeared in the guise of Iris, the other messenger of the gods and a frequent visitor to the Underworld.

Vanzetti and Taz suggested perils, and Vanzetti reminded me that where Hades is concerned, Persephone is almost certainly involved. Many thanks to both, and to my quick (and encouraging) betas!