[this fic was born from Albafica's angsty backstory. I love him and I love that story with his master - I guess spoiler alert for the Albafica gaiden, if you haven't read it. But I also love my precious asshole Aphrodite and I thought it would be funny if he just… didn't care about his master dying. Just didn't give a shit]
Aphrodite had never felt the cold too keenly. The nuns had always said he was born on the coldest day of the coldest winter in recorded memory, and then added, quietly and when they thought he couldn't hear, that maybe that was why he was so odd. He'd never really gotten along with the other kids and, worse offence of all, hadn't cared about it. There were other misfits at the orphanage, but they at least garnered sympathy by suffering from it; Aphrodite, instead, did not concern himself with the others. If they called him names, he did not respond. If they pushed him, he pushed and punched and scratched until he was left alone. No one had ever seen him cry.
This didn't mean he never did.
Greece had been a brief, overly bright interlude. Aphrodite hadn't thought a person could sweat that much and still survive. Soon after being shown the thirteen temples, he had been whisked away once more, this time bound for Greenland, where his training would take place.
His master hadn't been happy about that. He had been raised in the Sanctuary, and only ever left Greece for his own training. And he loathed the cold, which Aphrodite didn't really understand.
"I'm going to miss this place," he said, talking to Aphrodite as if he was his peer. There had been a lot of that, since the moment he'd left the orphanage. People had stopped talking down to him, and he quite liked that, but he didn't always know how to respond. What could he say to that? He had grown up somewhere too, but that didn't mean he missed it at all. Maybe people had liked his master at the Temple. Maybe he had liked the people there too.
"But I don't envy your role, Aphrodite."
"What do you mean?"
"The Holy War is getting nearer. You might have to fight."
"Isn't fighting what you will be training me for?"
Dark brown eyes pinned him in place, considering. Silence stretched between Tham, and Aphrodite worried he had displeased master Resha. What kind of punishment would he get, he wondered? He didn't much fancy the idea of getting slapped by a guy that strong.
(He would learn later that had been sadness in his master's eyes. And later still he would learn what it meant to be sad for someone else's fate.)
But master Resha was kind. That had been a surprise. After a few months, Aphrodite had stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. Resha was exacting, but never unpredictably cruel or unreasonable. Aphrodite would take bleeding knuckles and aching muscles over the unknowable absurdity of the society that had surrounded him in Stockholm, the children and the adults both.
To Aphrodite, kindness was having his own bed and never getting denied food as punishment. Of the spirit of his master, he understood little and cared less, and it would take him much longer to learn what kindness really was - probably until his meeting with Andromeda and his first death.
Master Resha went back to Athens only a couple of times. The first time, he left him to his own devices. Real, complete solitude was surprisingly harsh, and Aphrodite let out a relieved breath when his master was back a few weeks later.
The next time, wether he had noticed something in his student or simply wanted him to see the Temple again, he took Aphrodite with him.
Most of the Temples were empty, their future guardians away on training. The Gemini Temple was already occupied, and the resplendent aura of its owner distracted Aphrodite on the way up, leaving him a few steps behind his master. He left without seeing the Gemini Saint, a little disappointed, and climbed up the stairs to the next Temple.
A young boy in tattered clothes was sitting on the stairs, eyes closed against the sun and a stalk of grass between his lips. Taking him for a common soldier, Aphrodite thought that he would be in for a stern talking to whenever his superior officer found him out of uniform in the temple proper. But a purple-blue light danced around the boy, twirling around his finger and then evaporating into nothing.
"What are you staring at? Run along, pup, your master will be waiting!" He said, without even opening his eyes, in the harsh voice of someone unused to polite conversation.
Aphrodite didn't dignify that with a response and passed him by, ignoring the sudden chills running through him. So that was the power of the Cancer boy, living on top of a door to Hell.
Their visit was brief and they were soon back in Greenland.
"You are ready to begin the next step of your training," Resha seemed tired. A streak of white had appeared in his jet black hair since the time their training had started, as if the snow had permanently lodged itself there. He had aged in other ways, too, but it was difficult for one so young to notice: all adults looked ancient.
"You think have pushed your body and your soul past their limits, but this is nothing compared to what will start now. You know how to burn your cosmo, but you will learn to control it, to shape it to your will. And you will learn the secret techniques of a Pisces Saint. In order to do that, you will first have to learn to weather the venom of our roses. Only then you will be able to use their full potential."
He could already make flowers bloom in the freezing cold with bright bursts of cosmo, but he could either focus on that or on fighting. The boundless energy within him was just barely out of reach, a maelstrom or raw power that he could only scoop out drops of.
"You will need to remember always how dangerous you can be. There is no room for mistakes as the Pisces Saint."
Killing came easy to him. And maybe Mater Resha would have said something, if he had more time, if the shadow of Hades wasn't pressing down already. Maybe it was better like this, to have a student who wasn't weighted down by the harsh choices required of a Saint, maybe Aphrodite could face the coming war head on.
(No faithful servant of Sanctuary could even imagine a civil war.)
Drop after drop of poisonous blood went from Resha to Aphrodite, the heavy inheritance of a Pisces Saint ever since the time of myth. And once the student became more deadly than the master, the apprenticeship was over.
When master Resha died, a quiet emptiness settled over Aphrodite. He had been the first constant in his life, and he'd grown used to the man the way he'd grown used to the landscape of Greenland and to the burn of the freezing wind. But he laid his body to rest and left behind the wind and the apprenticeship without a single backward glance.
"Are you poisoning me or am I poisoning you?" He had asked with childish insouciance at the very start of the process. He wasn't so naive as to believe that the poison wouldn't find someone to hurt, and yet he was still child enough to not take death into account.
Resha couldn't meet his eyes, and Aphrodite wondered what was important enough to walk to your death for. Dying in a battle, the immediacy of self-defense, that he could understand. But this? This, he couldn't fathom. Not yet, and he would not understand until the day he walked to Sanctuary and to his death dressed in a black Surplice, because Athena needed her divine armour and they weren't supposed to let the kids die for this, not this time.
"Have you heard? The Pisces Saint is coming back today."
"They say he killed his master, do you think it's true?"
Deathmask found it easy to believe. The killing didn't faze him. What of it, he'd killed his master too.
The memory of the other children in the throne room with him when they were sent off to complete their training was misty, far away. A flash of an angry cosmo, the memory of tiny, overpowered fists. A small boy, sporting an impressive bruise and an even more impressive sulk. Watchful blue eyes that spoke of someone who always had to watch his own back, none too trusting.
Some of those children returned clad in gold. Some didn't return at all, and it was back to square one, with fresh meat, kids who looked smaller and smaller to Deathmask.
But that one, Aphrodite was his name, that one had made it, so he might be worth remembering, and worth meeting. He and Shura loitered outside the Pope's throne room, waiting for this new Saint to come out in comfortable silence. Shura was in full armour, but Deathmask couldn't be bothered, his light tunic already too much in the Greek summer heat. He was playing with little wisps, making them travel between his fingers like a coin. Shura always looked a bit ill at that, knowing that those were human souls, but Deathmask never had time for his compunctions.
Then he raised his eyes and the blue fires in his hands dissipated into nothing.
They boy who stepped out from the 13th Temple was.
Deathmask forgot how to speak. How to think. His life hadn't had much room for beauty before. He'd been trying to figure out his place here and. He was staring.
At least Shura seemed to have retained his faculties, and said hello.
The boy turned in a cloud of perfect hair and his gaze skewered Deathmask in place. It was no longer the gaze of the stray cat, flitting around to check for threats, but a tiger's stare, a predator surveying his territory. Calm, secure, and still piercing.
The short, choppy hair cut without care were now grown past the boy's shoulders, a few curls falling on his forehead, and framing his cheeks.
"Hello, Alejandro, Anchise."
They both winced.
"I go by Shura now."
"Deathmask," he said, feeling stupid. He didn't pick the name himself, but it had stuck. Until a moment before, he'd found it badass, much better than his old one. Now it just seemed silly.
"Sorry. Shura, Deathmask," Aphrodite smiled and Deathmask was stuck by a sudden need to run. He had never feared anything before.
"It's nice to see some familiar faces. Aquarius is new, isn't he?"
Little Camus was no longer news to Shura and Deathmask, and they barely remembered the boy before. He'd been loud. Then he'd left for Siberia, and never came back. Camus was so quiet they weren't sure what his voice sounded like, but his cosmo was bright and messy. There was no other word for it, when even being in the vicinity of the Eleventh Temple means risking random blasts of icy air. Deathmask hoped they'd either fail him out or send him to finish training soon.
The nod Shura gave Aphrodite was serious. He remembered the previous boy's name, too, of course he did, as if that was important. But Aphrodite barely listened, instead watching Deathmask, and then watching the shimmering sliver of sea visible from up there with the ghost of a smile stretching his thin pink lips.
The new Pisces Saint, it turned out, loved swimming. He'd disappear early in the morning and then come back with his hair so weighted down by water it almost looked flat, cheeks and shoulders barely reddened by the sun.
Deathmask absolutely did not wait outside his Temple just to see him on his way back. Sometimes he just wanted to have a cigarette sitting on the sun-warmed stone of the stairs, by coincidence, at that specific time.
Aphrodite didn't seem fazed. The souls in Deathmask's hands didn't bother him, nor did the masks. Nor Deathmask's heavy stare on him. And while being feared was what he wanted, Deathmask got tired of only ever sparring with Shura, and so cajoled Aphrodite into joining them in the arena. Even then, he was reluctant to do anything but keep them company and exercise by himself, until Deathmask was tired of it and poked and prodded Aphrodite into a fight.
Still, it was rare that they got to try proper hand to hand combat. That day, Deathmask had gotten his way and now was happily sitting on top of Aphrodite. The boy was a slippery bastard, but Deathmask used to the fullest the advantage of his slightly bigger frame, and pinned him down. He lazily pulled on one of the long strands of hair, watching it shimmer in the sunshine. "An enemy could grab you."
"Any enemy that gets this close is already dead," Aphrodite produced a rose, and Deathmask was forced to scramble back, spitting a curse and landing on his ass.
The petals had been so soft on his cheek.
"Is it true?" Deathmask asked, evaluating.
"That you killed your master?"
"Yeah, but I kicked him to Hell. You poisoned yours. Is it true you're poisonous?"
"Why, wanna take a bite?"
Deathmask was on top of him again before Aphrodite could get another snarky word in. And, frankly, before his own brain could kick in.
"What are you doing?" The Pisces boy hissed, "Are you stupid?"
"You think your stinky flowers worry me? If your master died, it's only because he was weak."
Deathmask was laid in bed a full week after kissing Aphrodite. His only comment was that it had been worth it. Aphrodite might have felt the first stirring of love then.
Or what passed for love to a semi feral teen starved of human connections. It gave him the same rush he got from overwhelming an opponent in battle. It did not, however, made him want to be kind.
"Careful, Deathmask, or do you want to end up ill for days again?" Aphrodite sneered the next time they met.
"So what am I supposed to do? Just not touch you?"
Aphrodite grinned his cruel little grin and Deathmask thought he'd die if he didn't touch him again. It was obvious that Aphrodite had figured that out. "Would that be so hard to bear?"
Deathmask was back two days later. "So what do I need to do?"
"You can sit here."
And so he did, with more patience than he'd ever shown before. With time, he roped Shura in too, and they both spent time in the Pisces Temple or near the rose garden while Aphrodite tended to it. Sometimes, they left a bit lightheaded and Aphrodite watched them wobble down the stairs with smug satisfaction. But they soon grew used to the small amounts of poison they could accidentally come into contact with. Shura always visited like a guest, prim and proper and announcing himself beforehand, while Deathmask, once over the threat of poisoning, spread out like a malignant weed, coming and going almost as if it was his house, unceremoniously dropping his Cloth in the entrance and sprawling on Aphrodite's favourite sofa whether he was invited to sit or no.
Even now Camus was no longer a quiet child with an unruly cosmo, and no cold spells emanated from the Eleventh Temple, sometimes Aphrodite felt the reminder of the weeks alone in Greenland. He'd never felt the cold too keenly, but the silence was another matter entirely. Even the face of his old master was beginning to blur, covered over by time and disinterest, but it was odd how that brief solitary interval had stuck with him. Aphrodite didn't like this in himself, he despised the weakness of needing others. Even the ones he didn't like, such as Shaka, or the ones he barely talked to, like Saga. Or the other Saga. He wasn't stupid, he knew someone else was hiding in the Gemini temple and for that he felt some odd envy at the thought of having a shadow.
So Deathmask was loud and annoying, but Aphrodite only threatened him half-heartedly when he bothered him late at night or when he was particularly obnoxious and used his favourite mug as an ashtray. Because truth was, he liked loud and annoying. He even went down to the Cancer Temple sometimes, and counted the growing collection of funerary masks while talking shit about their colleagues with Deathmask. He minded the screams less than the silence.
One day Aphrodite showed up in the arena with short hair. He was twisting the short strands between his fingers and looked uncomfortable in a very uncharacteristic way. Aphrodite had never shown that much concern for his looks. He went around carrying all that beauty unconcerned - not unaware, but uncaring.
Deathmask was surprised - so surprised, in fact, he didn't even have any rude remarks or jokes. He'd be lying if he said he didn't miss it. Aphrodite looked somewhat younger. Almost childlike, less sophisticated. It was a rough chop, just at the nape of his neck.
"It was hot," he shrugged, "But- ah, never mind."
Instead of answering, Aphrodite punched him. Fair enough, one didn't go to the arena for conversation.
Even so, when they were sitting together after sparring, Shura asked again. Despite the growing tensions between the three of them, he was more attuned to Aphrodite's emotions. "Do you regret it?"
"It's just hair," he replied, defensive, "I let it grow during training just because I didn't want to deal with the upkeep."
"Yeah, but you don't seem happy with it. You looked more at ease before."
"I thought I was supposed to," he shrugged, "More appropriate for a warrior."
There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Deathmask considered leaving, but then Shura said, slowly, quietly: "We get to decide so few things for ourselves," he was looking down at his hands, opening and closing them, "You shouldn't give up the choices you do get."
The first time they kissed without anyone passing out, Deathmask saw a new, hungry light in Aphrodite's eyes. There was something different about the way he grabbed him, too, keeping him where he wanted, like he had just figured out he could get his way. No, like he had just figured out he could want things in the first place, the same way he'd discovered it by looking at Aphrodite on the day he came back from Greenland.
A thrill of fear and excitement ran down Deahtmask's spine. He was the new toy. He was prey and predator at the same time, and the thrill made his knees buckle. Or maybe it was the poison. He still bit Aphrodite's lower lip - not enough to draw blood, but enough to sting. The first time had been pure instinct, an absurd, unexamined desire, a whim. Now, he took his time, pulled closer, nails scratching at Aphrodite's scalp, body heat pressed tight agains one another. He wanted to keep doing this forever.
Aphrodite braided a crown of roses into his still short hair and smiled prettily, as everyone took a wide berth upon seeing him, just like they did with Deathmask and the souls of the damned trailing after him. Death, after all, came in many forms.