Luke and Jyn stumbled slowly together back the way they'd come, tripping through the undergrowth, pushing agains the boughs of the trees that hung low in their path, their movements trembling, unsteady, no longer marked by the confidence that was so natural to them. Luke glanced down at Jyn every few seconds or so, saw that the paleness of her features had not diminished, and squeezed tighter the hand she had placed within his own. Backbiter quivered in his grip, raised warily in defense of any new attacks, though he knew that none would come. He was shaking, the blade following suit, his heart pounding, and he hoped beyond hope that Jyn could not feel it through his skin.
He hovered protectively beside her, careful not to trip into her, still examining the sheet-white features that stared unseeing into the darkness of the forest about her. And so they moved, a fumbling party through the trees, shaken and distraught, and Luke's thoughts scrambled about to reorder themselves. For Jyn's sake, no word of what had happened would pass his lips, and for his, well, he'd do his best not to think about it.
There was firelight flickering before them as they neared the campsite, and Luke realized that Rowan and Cassian would have returned, and it was only then that he was comforted. Of any of them, Rowan was the one that he would be able to trust with the images that raced behind his eyes, the images that he knew for a fact she, too, would understand, and so it was with this comfort that he squeezed Jyn's hand once more and looked down to her.
"It'll be okay," he told her, promised her, and she looked up into the conviction of his eyes, sealed her lips and swallowed carefully, nodding.
"I know," she told him, and he gave her a sad smile as they reached the radius of the firelight. They stepped into the clearing together, loosening their hold of each other's hands, and then Luke met Rowan's eyes, and knew that something had gone wrong.
The light that had been blooming in them was gone, replaced with a cold devastation, a despair of infinite depth, and she was sitting, poking at the fire listlessly. Beside her, Cassian watched her movements, an anguish to his eyes that lingered, wrenched at him, and Luke's heart dropped for his sister, and for the darkness they would soon find themselves wandering into. She looked up when they arrived, but her gaze only drifted to him, passed, glazed, over him, and then looked to Leo, his features restraining a profound concern for Cassian and Rowan, who had emerged with the firewood silently, movements leaden, despondent, and had wordlessly begun to light the fire.
At Leo's question of whether or not anything had happened, his tone jesting with an assumed lightheartedness, Rowan had only met his eyes, anguish bursting up in hers before falling dead, and told him that everything was fine. It was an answer meant to silence him, and he obeyed it, only meeting Cassian's eyes then, confused, to see that the same grief lingered in his, too. Leo's first thought was a wish for Calypso.
Luke met his eyes also, when they arrived, and there Leo read a more pressing dread, an urgent dilemma, and he could distract himself from the heavy silence that hung over them all.
"What is it?" he asked, standing and moving to him.
"Jyn and I need to get to Tartarus," Luke said flatly, and then the life returned to Rowan's eyes. She shot to her feet, the stick she'd been prodding the fire with falling from her hands. Beside her, Cassian perked up, raising his head and meeting Luke's eyes with incredulity.
"What?" Rowan asked, advancing around the fire toward him.
"We ran into Eros," Luke told her, and did his best not to meet Jyn's eyes. He noted the flicker in Rowan's focus; she'd looked to Cassian, and Luke had no doubt that the reason for their morose silence was an encounter with the god themselves. It would account for the agony in her eyes, as well as, Luke realized with a warming compassion, the agony in Cassian's. He regarded the man then in a new light, the expression of dread clearing from his eyes for a moment, replaced with a burgeoning respect. His eyes fell back to Rowan, and he knew that she had observed all that had passed through his mind.
"He was rather convincing," Luke explained. "It's the only way."
"Only way for what?" Rowan's voice was sharp, hard, masking a deeper anxiety.
Luke looked back to her, countering the intensity of her gaze with his own steel. Watching them, Leo remembered the strength in the both of them, wonderfully useful in a battle, but when turned against each other, a devastation for all around them, and he stepped forward to intervene. On the log, Cassian stiffened, recognizing the flash in Rowan's eyes, ready to steady her should she need him, even if she was marked for death.
"Does it have something to do with the prophecy?" Leo asked, stepping closer, and then meeting Jyn's eyes. She was watching him, and he noted a harrowed horror in her eyes, and he wondered what, exactly, the meeting with Eros had entailed. From what he had heard, to encounter Eros was to encounter the unyielding intensity of love, and he knew that love could be ravaging.
Luke's eyes fell to Leo, and there was a relief glimmering there in the depths of him. Any fight that he could spare his sister was a fight won, for there was still a hurt that ran deep there within her, and he could not bring himself to scratch it for her. "It does," he answered Leo, then glanced to Jyn for reassurance. It was there within her eyes, but hesitant. "He said that the hope we were looking for would be there."
Rowan snorted mirthlessly. "In Tartarus?" she pressed, and Luke looked back to her, his brow furrowed, his eyes scouring hers for the source of her bitterness. "There's no hope in Tartarus," she said, her voice growing low, the words drowning, choking.
"How do you know?" Luke returned. "Have you been?" he was fumbling for the words, working hard to get them out, to combat the frustration building within him, to convince her of the rightness of their path. "We don't know what's down there, and it's at the heart of Tartarus's territory. Chances are we could strike a blow there."
"As a matter of fact," Rowan began, her voice quivering, her expression drawing itself up. "I have been."
Luke fell a step forward, catching himself quickly, reading there within her eyes something harder than he had expected, a nightmare long hidden, and his brow furrowed, breath sticking in his throat. On the log, Cassian raised himself to his feet, taking a single step toward her, his mouth parting in confusion. Bohdi's eyes flickered between the three of them, but Leo's were steady on hers, mouth agape in horror, remembering the stories Percy and Annabeth had told him of their time there. It was true that Nico had also gone, alone in the depths of the deepest darkness, but he had almost lost his mind, and Rowan seemed far steadier than he had.
"When?" Luke asked, his voice urgent and low, taking a step toward her.
"Before I left Earth," she told him, then glanced to Cassian, met his eyes, and he read there some significant look, not an apology, but an explanation begging to be unravelled, but short by necessity in the moment. She turned back to Luke a half-second later, and the hardness had dissipated, replaced only with that burning anguish he had known in her for years now, the churning grief of a shortchanged child turned to the sunken agony of a wounded woman.
"Alone?" Leo couldn't help the question that dropped from his lips, involuntary, horrified.
She bit her lip, and looked to him, and the iron scaffolding of her expression fell with a clamor to the dirt, crumbling as her posture, once drawn up and readied, now slouching, her breaths shaky. "Yes," she told him, kept the tremor out of her voice.
"Why?" It was Luke's responsibility to ask the question; Luke was the answer, or so he thought, but there was finally the glimmer of her former mirth in her eyes.
"It wasn't for you, if it's any consolation," she told him, her eyes steady on his, then shifting to Cassian. "I had some dues to pay," she explained simply, her gaze lowering to the fire, then lifting themselves up with a wryly amused look to Cassian's once more. There was anxiety in his eyes. "You're not the only catalyst here, mate," she said, her voice choking a little on the words.
Leo stepped forward. "What do you mean?"
Rowan shifted her shoulders, rolled them backward, then turned to him, swallowing. "The war with Gaea," she said, breathing heavily, her eyes clearing of the emotion that had been surging within. With dread, Cassian realized the implications of her words, remembering what the manticore had said on Jakku: But I guess I have to thank you for starting the war with Gaea; without you, I wouldn't have been able to escape the Underworld. He shuddered, took a step toward her.
"The exile," he said, understanding.
She nodded mutely, then took in the gazes of the others there, leveled heavily upon her, finally coming to rest once more upon Luke. "You've always believed I've had a penchant for working with shadow," she told him, then sucked in a breath. "And maybe that's true," she shrugged, "but only to an extent. The force of the power that I used to heal you on Olympus did not come from me."
Luke's heart bottomed out, and he fell back a step, but her eyes did not waver from his, her gaze only growing greater in strength.
"I," she breathed, "was shown in a vision that you would soon die, unless I saved you. I opened the Doors of Death. With the current that came from the Underworld, and from Tartarus, I was able to gather enough strength to heal you."
"You should have died there," Leo said, stepping forward. "No one can pull those open."
Rowan let out a small, bitter laugh. "Gaea did, didn't she? But yes," she nodded. "I should have died."
"So why didn't you?" Luke asked, resisting the chill in his bones. "And why the hell did you do it? You had to have known what that would cause."
"I did it for you, Luke!" Rowan's eyes flashed, and her form tensed, her voice sharp and searing before she was able to calm herself, breathing steadily in and out. "I didn't know that it would help Gaea," she told him, looking defeated. "I just needed them open- only for a few seconds, only enough to heal you. I didn't know that Medea would follow me, and I didn't know that she was working for Gaea."
She was breathing heavily, staring him down, begging him to believe her, and, after a moment, the steely glare of his expression was lessened, and he read in her eyes the haunted horror of what she had done, what she had seen, and he nodded then, relaxing his shoulders, settling into his stance. Cassian and the others began to breathe easier, and Cassian's eyes lost the harsh look to them, fading a little, compassionate now.
"But how did you do it?" Leo was still stunned, eyes wide.
Rowan's expression faded to an emotionlessness that Cassian knew all-too-well, the mask she used so often. "With the help of the Arai," she told him, then swallowed, clarified. "My Arai."
"What do you mean?" Cassian asked, speaking finally, his brow furrowed.
"The Arai are the spirits of vengeance, of curses," she told him. "You heard what Eros said," here she swallowed desperately, her eyes wrestling with the pain within her, pleading almost. "Do you honestly think I wouldn't have cursed him for that? Every damn day of my life? Every one of us has to face death in the end," she continued, and her tone was spiraling, her despair surging within her, the bristling rage at the words that had torn at her from childhood, the wounded, desperate loneliness that marked her ravaged features. "But to face it as I will," she laughed bitterly, a harsh bark of it, "without comfort? I had lived over a decade with that in my head, cursing nearly everyone I came in contact with that might have had a shot at anything better than what I knew I would face. I had an army of Arai by the time I reached Tartarus, and they were waiting for me. And never mind the fact that Percy had seen the cord of your life cut, Luke," here she turned to him, her voice hard and tight, an implosion of emotion, "I was going to stop it- I would have gone to hell to stop it, Luke, and that's what they gave me the power to do," she was breathing heavily again. "But," she slowed, her voice calming. "The Fates needed a string to cut, and I knew then that it would be mine, that it had always been mine, and that was when things went wrong."
There was silence in the clearing, broken only by the crackling of the fire as her eyes fell back to it, her hands balled at her sides as she found the words to speak. "When I realized that," she said, her voice lower than it had been before, calmer, the anguish now a scar. "I lost some of that power I thought I had had. My Arai lost their power, and in the confusion, Medea got out. I saw her go, but I could not stop her; I had to get to you while I still had time, and so I did, and let her be," Rowan finished with a shrug, but Luke's face was an inscrutable wealth of emotion, and he only watched her, his gaze studying her features with a scouring intensity.
"What were the dues you had to pay?" Cassian asked then. He'd moved mostly about the firelight, and was now standing before them, his breath bated. Rowan looked back to him and nodded, understanding.
"Throughout the war against her, Gaea had threatened me with setting my Arai upon the people I had cursed, and so the only way I could help with the fight was subtly. When the war was over, I knew that I could not allow anyone to hold that power over me again, and so I went back before I left Earth. My father and I had returned to the Underworld by then, and I had let him believe that I would be staying with him there, but I knew that I could not. I'd come in contact with Morpheus, and had been maintaining that for years, always under the suspicion that you," she glanced to Luke, "had gone there, but unwilling to leave just yet, not when the Earth still needed rebuilding. Before I left, though, I knew that I had to destroy my Arai. I went down to kill them, and then to meet the Fates. Of course, they had known all along that the cord would be mine, but I needed to know for certain the fate they had laid upon me. Everything Eros had said was true, and with that I was able to leave Earth with a clear conscience." Her eyes were resolute, adamant, and then she turned back to Luke, the worry returning to her expression. "Luke," she said. "There is no hope there. In Tartarus, there is only darkness. It is the absence of hope."
Luke swallowed against the dread building within him, and looked to Jyn, who had been watching it all with an inscrutable expression, her eyes leveled on Rowan throughout her explanation, and then he turned back to Rowan, nodding.
"But we need to go," Jyn said suddenly, speaking for the first time, and bringing the eyes of all the others to her. She remembered the vision Eros had given her, remembered the harrowing images of darkness and confusion, the tugging pull of it at her, and her eyes hardened in determination that cut to the core of Rowan when she met her gaze. "Eros gave me a vision," she told Rowan. "I need to see it through."
Rowan furrowed her brow, cocked her head to the side. "What do you mean?" Her eyes flickered with dread to Luke's, and he regretted how much he revealed in his gaze.
"I-," Jyn faltered. "I can't fully explain it," she said finally, "but he showed me something, and I need to go there. I have to pursue it. And Luke needs to come, too. It involves both of us, according to Eros."
"Did he tell you this?" Rowan's voice was wary.
"He did," Jyn confirmed, and the conviction returned to her gaze, steadied upon Rowan's. Silence reigned in which Rowan strove with the woman before her until Leo finally stepped forward.
"Alright," he breathed heavily a sigh, restraining the quivering that had been building in his limbs at the tension of the past few minutes. "Whatever we do," he began, "we can't do anything now. I suggest we wait to make a decision until we can consult Frank. We give this next day or so to think about it, and then we decide what's next. We'll have to alert Reyna, anyway," Leo finished. "Eros seems bent on either helping us or tearing us apart, and she needs to know this."
Hesitation hung in the air, palpable, and then Rowan finally let out a pent up breath, and nodded.
"Fine," she said, but the grudging tone in her voice was not so well hidden as she would have liked. "We wait till Frank."