Written for ollipop in the Rare Women Fanfic Exchange (2013). Thanks to duckwhatduck for beta-reading.
The descent to Avernus is easy:
night and day the gate of dark Hades lies open;
but to recall your step and escape to the air of the upper world,
this is the task, this is the toil.
-Vergil, Aeneid VI. 126-129
The road upward is steep. She is light at first, still drifting along, her hand a ghost-light touch against his hand. She feels half-asleep, wrapped in a comfortable drowsiness. There is nothing to think about and nothing to decide, only a familiar hand in hers that leads her on and the varying details of rock and earth that surround them.
Something is changing; she tries to push it away but it will not go. The return of awareness is slow but inexorable, like bubbles rising to the surface of the water. She is – she is, and she remembers being. It is a shock, not entirely pleasant. She remembers who she is, and this man with her, who leads her without looking back – but he was told he must not, or the boon would be revoked. She remembers that as well.
As they walk, she begins to feel the weight of her body returning. She stumbles, already grown unaccustomed to the physical world in her brief time as a shade. He starts to turn in order to catch her, stops himself. He waits until she regains her balance, and then they go on.
Bones are so heavy. She had forgotten. They seem to drag her down to the earth. Only a little while ago she rested here, safely hidden in the cool silence and darkness; but now the ground seems to strike against her feet with every step, as if pushing her away. She continues somehow, putting one foot in front of the other. The return of muscles and nerves and flesh is the return of pain. It had hurt to die, as the poison coursed through her veins. She did not know it would hurt so much to come back to life.
She touches her face to see if she is weeping. She is surprised to feel the smooth skin under her fingers, and to feel the touch of her own hand on her face. Eyelids, eyebrows, eyelashes – she blinks to find them all there. Her skin is a fragile barrier between herself and the outside world. When she was a shade, she drifted upon the air and was part of it; the air moved through her. Now, it stops when it touches her. She does not know whether it is better this way or not.
She takes a breath, the first since she died, and she is breathing now, and the air burns like fire in her lungs. She wants to cry out, but she still does not have her own voice back. She shudders, and her heart beats faster – when did it start again, this invisible drumbeat in her flesh? But now it will be with her for ever and ever, never stopping until the day she dies again, and there will be no more peaceful silence.
Bones, flesh, skin, breath, heartbeat – all returned, and so she must be a living woman. The hand touching her face must be hers, since it moves at her command, and the skin it touches is hers, since she can feel her fingers press it. But something is not quite right. She rests uneasily in her new flesh, as in an ill-fitting garment.
A doubt begins to grow within her. Is this because she is not yet fully back in the land of the living? Will she recover, will everything feel as it did before? Or will she walk all her days wearing a body that is almost but not quite hers, that does not seem fully attached to her spirit?
What had they promised, the dark King of Hades and his pale Queen? She wishes she could know. But when they granted his prayer, immortal gods deigning to hear a mortal, she was not present. Had they tricked him, in anger at his presumption? Did they mean to cheat their suppliant with half a bride, and her with a half-shadow existence?
She tries to remember their faces. The memory is fading already, shifting and wavering like reflections in the stream. But she thinks she remembers seeing pity in the Queen's eyes, and that is most frightening of all. Perhaps they have given him (and her) as much as they could. What if even the gods do not have the power to restore life to the dead?
She wishes then she could ask her husband to wait. Let him give her time, at least. It is not easy, being brought on such a journey while her senses are still dazed and drowsy, when she is still used to bodiless drifting. She wishes she could see his face, to learn what this means to him, this bringing her back to the light. But there is only his hand against hers, the movement of the muscles in his back as he walks, his hair close-cropped in mourning.
The air around them is not quite so chill, and the quality of the light is changing. She did not remember sunlight, but now she recognizes that different light reaching into the shadows of the cave. And if she once goes fully into that warm earthly light, it will be too late; too late to weigh the bargain, too late to recall the god's boon, too late for choice.
She remembers now, when she was brought to where her husband stood before the King and Queen of the Underworld, when they placed her hand in his; the King spoke to him then in a voice like the dark places of the earth. Remember well: if you turn back to look at her before you reach the upper world, she will return to the shades forever and nothing can recall her. But the Queen had looked at her, looked with pity, her eyes young and ancient at once. And would the Maiden not know what it was like, to be returned from death to life? The condition, spoken again when she was present – was it a warning for her husband, or for her?
Her husband has seen the daylight also, and his step quickens. She tugs on his hand. He does not heed her, but she leans backward with the weight of her new body until he has to stop. He grips her hand tightly. She can read a volume of arguments in the tense set of his shoulders. If she could speak, would he listen? Could he understand things for which there are no words in mortal language? Can he understand, that to draw her out from the shadow of death is not to set her free of it, that she will never be free?
One hand is caught in his, but she reaches out with the other to cup his chin, as she had on their wedding night, and she turns his face around to look at her. She has one moment to meet his gaze, one moment to tell him with her eyes what she is forbidden to say in words, before the heavy weight of her body falls away again and her shade flutters free, back to rest and stillness.