A/N: the title comes from christina perri's song "human." some liberties taken with plot, etc. zoë nightshade-centric.
i can hold the weight of worlds
Who knows where inspiration comes from? Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.
In San Francisco, the stars burn. Zoë's mind falters, swerves, the last embers of consciousness flickering out. Artemis's hand is light on her wrist, her voice soft and tenuous, and her palm is warm, too warm on the lucid skin of a dying girl. Weak, Atlas would have sneered. I raised you better than this.
Her father's face, still after all these years. She shudders, throat heavy.
("You're safe here," Artemis had told her, two millennia, four sisters, and seven thousand miles ago.)
The starlight dips into her eyes.
Look where she is now.
The first death is the easiest.
She becomes a freed slave traveling west, a follower of Alexander's army, a noblewoman journeying to meet her betrothed. The lies come easily to her, the languid syllables rolling off her tongue in fluent Greek, Macedonian, Phoenician.
There had been a part of her that hoped - somehow, somewhere - she would see them again, that her sisters would go after her and ask her to return, that she would beg for forgiveness and they would grant it easily. She dreams of Ladon, his wings flaring into the night sky, her father made free of the sky, the boy -
There is no boy.
Only the crumbling foundations of a dead empire, and another one ready to swallow it whole.
"You will have your family again," Artemis says, her eyes shining with the freedom of perpetual youth. "We will be sisters. Blood is temporary, but the Hunt is forever."
Zoë takes the circlet, and her wrist trembles. She wonders if her father's burden had ever felt so heavy. She wonders how Heracles ever made his decision.
The circlet digs into her head.
A good woman dies, and Zoë wants to laugh. If Hades' own daughter isn't safe, then who is?
"You could leave," Apollo tells her one day. His face is drawn, eyes serious. He touches her shoulder, lightly, like a brother. "My sister would release you if you asked."
"I do not want to be released."
He sighs. There is sadness dipping into the planes of his face, regret in the hunch of his slim shoulders. Zoë can imagine him as a mortal, can see the years slipping past and the body being lowered into the grave. She wonders what he sees when he looks at her. She wonders if he can read her death, if it surrounds her like some sort of invisible aura.
"Two thousand years is a long time, Zoë."
"Not long enough."
His throat works. "What do you want?"
Home. Absolution. Family. Revenge.
"I don't know," she lies.
Everyone is a replacement, she thinks. A life for a life. When one Hunter dies, another one is welcomed with open arms, ready to smooth over the hole and continue the pattern.
She wonders if her sisters had done that, if the Hesperides had asked some wild nymph to join them and heal the wound she had left. She wouldn't blame them.
In the Paris of the Sun King, she walks into an alley and finds a serving maid weeping as an eager man, some minor lord or other, loosens his breeches, his breath soaked with wine, mouth sloppily attacking her tear-stained face. Zoë sees red, feels red, and suddenly there is screaming and begging and at last a dull silence, the heavy thud of his head hitting the pavement, a steady ceaseless rhythm.
When the rage clears, there is a dead man on the ground and blood in the curve of her mouth. Her arm hurts but she's fine. She's always been fine.
She kicks his body, attached to a face that is now unrecognizable. She wonders, detachedly, how his family will react. She thinks they deserved this.
"One thousand years," Artemis says proudly as they walk through the forest, feet light upon the warm earth. Last night's stars are still clear in the dawn sky; Zoë thinks she sees Orion, and glances over at the goddess. Artemis looks straight ahead, eyes unnaturally bright.
"I hope to serve for another thousand," she murmurs in response. The courtesy slips easily from her tongue; she had practiced it the day before. She will never be caught off-guard, not again.
Artemis smiles. "I hope so too," she murmurs. "You have been so faithful to me, Zoë. You have been just what I needed." Her mouth curves.
What about me? Zoë wants to ask. The circlet digs into her head, a crown of thorns that prick into her skull. Such a burden her father had to bear, she thinks, but never such pain.
Why go to hell if the living are already dead?
"He is going to betray you," she tries to warn the girl. "They always do."
"He's different," she snarls in reply. "You don't understand."
This is the same exchange she has had with a dozen different women - Kallisto, Phylonome, and now Thalia Grace, whose electric blue eyes scoff at her in disgust. It is a well-worn role she plays, one that she has repeated and perfected throughout the years.
Still, they never listen.
Atlantic City, 1978.
"Your move, lady," the dealer wheezes through the haze of smoke that curls out of the other players' cigarettes-a heavily perfumed lady, a sleazy businessman, a young college boy waiting for fortune's wheel to turn.
Zoë looks at her cards, and holds them close.
Bad cards, but my cards all the same, she thinks.
She still loses. She expected to.
She dreams of a boy.
She dreams of his death.
She kills a man in Flanders for heaping his lovesick attention upon one of the newer Huntresses. She drowns a woman in Gothenburg for begging to see her daughter, for pleading with her to come home. She strangles a boy in Valencia when he happens on a bathing Artemis, who in her fury had wanted to see him burned to a crisp.
"Just a child, my lady," she pleads. "He will forget he ever saw you; children have weak memories." The boy's hand is cold in hers, his other arm rubbing his dribbling nose. He is confused and frightened; he cannot be more than twelve years old. Zoë's heart aches, even as her hand recoils from his rough, boyish one.
"He will grow to be a man," Artemis says, and her voice is cold. "Niobe's daughters were braver than him. They suffered their deaths as they deserved. So will he."
Zoë takes him to a clearing, tells him to close his eyes, and her arms are unyielding around his neck. When he stops moving, she imagines that he has fallen asleep.
She has already made one betrayal in her life. She cannot risk another.
"Have you seen my death?"
Apollo shrugs, closes his eyes and sighs. His teeth are a knife of white in the darkness of the forest. "Maybe."
"How much longer?"
"I don't know," he lies.
She is tired; her lungs burn and her head spins. 73, 657, 1328, 1865: she can't tell the difference. Faces blur, names change, the events shift and never fall back into place. Sometimes, she glimpses sunlight, a battle, a girl carrying water from the village well, a woman carefully sewing a shroud for her dead son. She opens her eyes, and the snapshots of the past are replaced with the Technicolor of the present. One day, she wakes up and realizes that she cannot remember her mother's face.
Artemis never warned her about this.
She's dead and she's alive, and that's all she can ask for. The blood seeping into the mountain, Annabeth's tears streaming down her face, her heart beating like the prey she had chased all her life-
Almost there, she thinks.
Two thousand years is a long time to wait for a forgiveness that will never come. Artemis looks at her with pity, her mouth pausing over a word of comfort, of love. "You're not alone," she wants to say. "I can help you."
Zoë looks away.
A Huntress died today. They found another one an hour later.
San Francisco, 1906.
"Miss? Miss, are you looking for relatives?"
She turns her head slowly, solemnly, away from the wreckage of buildings and bodies in front of her. The city is dead, but if there is anything she has learned through two millennia, it is that the dead always come back to life.
"No," she says clearly. "I don't have any."
The bar is quiet and dingy, buried away in a seedy part of town, but they don't ask for ID, and that's enough for Zoë. Casablanca is playing, and she stays silent.
"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world," Rick Blaine says, "she walks into mine."
She raises her glass as if it's an old joke. Cheers, she thinks.