The cave faded away behind me. I strode out onto the beach. I’d have stomped, except it’s a little hard to stomp on sand. The frustration and anger simmered lower with every second, leaving only worry behind.
Letting a ragged breath slide out, I stopped, pressing my hands to my face. With the rocks rising around me, I might as well have been in another world. It was still Ebb’s domain, I was confident - I’d gone straight out the back entrance, and there didn’t seem to be another way out of...I let my hands drop slightly, for the first time getting a look at the place.
Ebb had been holding out on us, I decided almost immediately. A sandy beach stretched out along the waterline, with craggy cliffs rising behind it. Trees poked from among the rock, clinging to life. All in all, the place looked like something straight off a travel brochure. I hadn’t even had to make nine easy payments of three hundred dollars for the privilege of making it here.
Just a lot of blood. The money sounded more appealing, if I was being honest.
As I took it all in, though, my eyes stuck to an unexpected feature - the dark silhouette of a man, seated on a rocky outcropping with his feet dangling into the wave.
Ebb. I blinked, momentarily nonplussed. I hadn’t expected to run into him back here. Sure, he’d vanished out of the cave, but yet...I was sure he had plenty of places he could go, and I didn’t think the aspects needed to exist at all if they didn’t want to.
But here he was, watching the ocean.
Before I quite realized what I was doing, I was walking picking my way between water-soaked rocks and sand. I was stewing in my own head, anyway.
Amidst the regular gripes and worries that filled my thoughts, something else rose to the surface. Something I could address here and now.
He didn’t look up as I approached, keeping his eyes on the horizon. Seawater had already started to soak through the hem of his pants, rising higher. I chuckled softly. That mystery had been explained, then.
I dropped to the stone with a groan, scooching forward until my wooden ‘feet’ dipped into the waves. It wasn’t quite as satisfying as it’d have been with flesh and blood, but I wasn’t in any position to complain. My hands went to my thigh, massaging the place where wood met skin.
“He left, you know.”
I glanced up. It was Ebb talking, even while he hadn’t moved. His stare was as disinterested as ever. “What’s that?” I said.
“My follower. Poseidon.” His chin turned, then, and his gaze met mine. The eyes that had been so black and cloudy a few short minutes before had returned to a soft, milky blue-grey. “He’s departed, back to Olympus I’m sure. And even if he returns again-”
“Oh,” I mumbled, dropping my head. Right. This wasn’t some sort of long-deserved vacation. I wasn’t in a tropical paradise, chilling by the sea. People were trying to poke holes in me still. “I know,” I said. “I’m...I’m not that worried about it.”
His eyebrow arched. “Oh?”
“That’s a fucking lie,” I said, starting to laugh. My head tipped back, letting the sky fill my vision. “I’m definitely worried. But it’s pretty far down there on the list. If…”
I stopped, trying to work through exactly what I was trying to say. Ebb turned back to the ocean, but I could tell - he wasn’t done. He was listening still, even if he didn’t show it.
“If you were going to let him skewer me, you would’ve already,” I said slowly. “It wouldn’t make any sense for you to step in and stop your own follower, like you said, only to let him have me the second go-around. So…”
Again, I let my words dwindle to nothing. The quiet pressed in around us, punctuated by the steady rolling of the waves.
Ebb chuckled. “You don’t sound happy about that. What has you so confused, child of Avani?”
“It’s Terra,” I said, my eyes darting over to him. “Not...It’s just Terra.” I belonged to me. Not to Olympus, not to Avani. I’d been defined by other people since the moment I arrived.
I was my own. That was all.
His arched eyebrow raised farther, but he only inclined his head in tiny nod. “Terra, then. Do you have something else on your mind?”
“You keep saving my life,” I said, blurting it out. My hands balled up, clenched about my ruined legs. “That’s...That’s twice now. The first time, okay, maybe you didn’t realize what you were getting into.”
“Are you implying I don’t-”
“I said maybe,” I said, shooting him a twisted grin. “I’m pretty sure you knew pulling a dying god from your waters would start some bigass shit somewhere down the road. But this? You helped me, at the expense of your own follower.”
I fell quiet, then, waiting. He didn’t speak. I clenched my hands tighter, counting off the seconds. “I just don’t get it,” I said, shaking my head. “But all I do know, is...you saved me from getting turned into a kebab. I don’t know why. I know I damn well didn’t deserve the help. So.”
My eyes lifted to his. I smiled, sitting a little straighter. “Thank you. I owe you. Again. And if you want to enlighten me, well, I’d be grateful for that too.”
He stared at me, his lips pursed. The sound of something scratching rose louder. He had something clutched in his palm, I realized - stones, or pebbles of some sort, which he spun around and around.
“No thanks are necessary,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Terra.”
“My seas are traveled every day,” he said, ignoring the fact I’d spoken. “Mortals clamber into crafts and set sail, floating out into the unknown. Some are skilled. Some are desperate.” He chuckled, low and soft. “But, all are lost, in their own way. All are left trusting the wind and the waves, fighting to keep the elements at bay.”
The corners of his lips twitched, curling up. “I believe you’re undertaking a voyage of your own. And I believe you just as lost. I wish to see if you’ll find the far shore.” He jerked his chin in a shrug. “Or if you’ll sink under the waves, vanishing forever. It’s an interesting scenario to watch play out.”
“Comforting,” I said, grabbing for the first comeback I could find. Even if I’d started us down a serious conversation, I hadn’t expected him to turn into some sort of poet. All in all, it left me feeling like a fish halfway through the filleting, cut open and laid bare before him. Not ideal. Far from ideal.
“Indeed,” Ebb said, his grin turning smug. “So do try not to disappoint me. I’d hate to see all my efforts thus far put to waste.”
“You don’t say,” I said dryly. “Hate to break it to you, but that’s kind of a long shot.”
He shrugged again. “I believe your kind say that nothing in life worth having comes easily.”
“Okay, yeah, but like…” I began, my shoulders hunching higher. “That’s a pretty platitude, but what the fuck am I supposed to do with it? What can I do with any of this.”
I jumped to my feet, cutting off anything he might have responded with. “I could double down with the Forsaken. Maybe they’ll make me stronger. But that still means I have to lure her out into the open - away from all her friends.”
Ebb sighed. “I’m sure you’ll-”
“This is what Fortune was supposed to handle,” I muttered. “A contest? Maybe I could have someone deliver a message to her. A challenge. Heracles? He’s been too open with the fact he’s on my side. They’d never let him in. Hermes?” A hollow laugh ripped from my throat. “He’d help me, probably. Carrying messages is kind of his thing. But how can I get a hold of him?”
Ebb sat back on his haunches, his eyes drifting from me back to the entrance. Something passed across his face - a bit of tolerance, a bit of humor. “Miss Terra, I’m quite sure you’ll find some way to-”
“Don’t patronize me,” I said, shooting a sharp look his way. “I just...I just need a little more. I’ve got the juice now. If I can just find a way to isolate her, I can end this. Probably.” I whirled, my hands clasped in front of me and my ‘feet’ rattling against the stone. “I can-”
I stopped. Heracles lingered a few dozen paces up the beach, his eyes fixed on me and his expression serious. “Okay, then,” I mumbled. “Follow me, why don’t you. Whatever. Look, come here. You can join me and-”
When I spun, jabbing a thumb back over my shoulder, the stony outcropping was empty. Ebb was gone. Just like that. I eyed the space he’d occupied darkly, shaking my head. “Never mind. Just the two of us, then.”
He faltered. “Terra, I-”
“I need a way to get in,” I said, clenching my fist for emphasis. “There was that...that barrier, or something. Over the stairs. It let me in back then, but that...that was before everything went wrong. And now they’ll see me coming. I need a plan, Heracles.”
“You can do it,” he said, and I saw the fire return to his eyes as he straightened and stepped closer. “And I’ll help you. I’ve...I haven’t seen a goddess burn as brightly as you in...centuries. Longer.” A smile curled at his lips, and he came to a stop before me. “Together, we’ll find a way.”
I groaned. “I wish it was that simple.”
“Terra. I wanted to-”
I spun on the tip of my not-feet, whirling as his fingertips brushed my arm. “I had a plan. Where’d it go? Maybe...Maybe Alice will have good news. Or I could...use Shade and…” I clenched my teeth, shaking my head. “I don’t know what good he’ll do. Damn it, I’ve got all this power, and I can’t even use it against her.”
“There’s no sense tearing yourself apart over this,” Heracles said, and I heard him step closer again. “Fortune promised her aid, yes? She’ll come through. You just have to be patient. Until then?”
His hand settled onto my shoulder. “You should rest. Settle your head. Let yourself enjoy the moment before it-”
“How can I do that?” I snapped, my pulse racing faster. I brushed off his hand, continuing to shake my head. “I don’t have time to let this all blow over or worry about my mental state. I have to-
His hand snapped across my vision. In the blink of an eye, he’d grabbed hold of my chin, turning it toward him.
There, with his face inches from mine, I could finally see it - the tension burning within him too. Fear, and worry, and something else that set my skin to shivering.
An exasperated look flashed across his expression, soaked through with amusement. “For once in your gods-damned life, shut the hell up.”
I reeled, shock rippling through my limbs as his lips pressed roughly to mine. He held me in place, his hands rising to clasp around my cheeks - but slowly, he pulled me closer.
I stumbled in, grabbing hold of his arm, and felt him loose one hand from my head. It slid across my hip in the next moment, steadying me.
Fog clouded my head, blurring...everything. His lips moved against mine with slow, deliberate intent, savoring each moment. His breath filled my lungs with the heady scent of him, until all I could smell was skin and salt.
He squeezed at my hip, nudging me closer still. There was a question in the motion, a reservation.
Oh, god. I clutched Heracles, my spine arched to accommodate the pose our heights required. Fires burned across my skin, burning brighter with each breath we shared. His hand explored my lower back, dancing across every inch.
I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t a child, and I wasn’t inexperienced. I knew what he was asking, what he wanted - and the fact he was asking at all was...better than the myths said. But I could feel the need within him rising to a point of no return, underneath it all. His teeth nipped at my lower lip, biting gently. His tongue brushed against mine, more insistent than ever.
If I wanted off this ride, now was the time.
There were...other things I should be worrying about. I was sure of that. I didn’t have the freedom to waste away the hours with...with this.
Even if it’d been months since Toby. And her voice had started to layer over all of my memories of him, pushing them farther and farther away.
Even if I’d been stretched all the way to the breaking point, right to the limit of what a human mind could be expected to take.
He leaned in, deepening the kiss, and the last of my reservations fled before the hot rush of his tongue twining with mine. My arm slid around his shoulders, holding him tight as I tried to see just how close I could meld myself to him.
Fuck it. If I had to have a rebound, I could do a lot worse than a Greek hero-god. How many once-mortal women could say they’d fucked Heracles?
That was the last thing he’d been waiting for, it seemed. His hand gripped down, cupping my ass for a singular, electrifying moment - and then he wrapped his arm around the small of my back.
I squeaked as the world tipped around us, falling away. Something soft pressed against my back in the next instant. The lionskin - and sand underneath. I twisted my hips, trying to maneuver us. If we were going to do this, then I damn sure wanted to be on-
A knowing chuckle echoed through my ears, soft and low, and he pushed me back down. The weight of him settled over me in the next instant. Inwardly, I cursed. No such luck. His lips rejoined mine, wiping out any passing disappointment, and it was my turn to slide my fingers up his cheek. I let my fingers dance across his collarbones, then sank them into the mane of his hair.
Tomorrow. I could worry about Gaia tomorrow.
Tonight, I’d have some fun.