It happened when he was halfway across the ocean.
Jason doubled over in his seat, clutching his chest and gasping as the special connection he'd thought cut and dead suddenly snapped taut, sending his heart galloping as emotion not his own poured into him. Despair, anger, grief. All things he had already been feeling himself coincidentally, but not to this degree. Not even close.
From next to him, Jason's seatmate for the flight, a burly middle-aged man who took up more than his fair share of the armrest, grabbed Jason's shoulder and yanked him upright.
"Hey, buddy, are you all right? You're not having a heart attack are you? You seem a little young for that."
"Fine," Jason managed. He struggled to separate the new feelings inside of him from his own, but they were so intense it was impossible to differentiate what was his and what wasn't. They overwhelmed him. A person should never feel this much pain, and Jason shouldn't have been feeling it at all.
"You don't look fine," said his seatmate.
"Heartburn," said Jason. "Had it forever." He tried to sound nonchalant, but he was too breathless for it.
"You want me to buzz for the stewardess? Maybe they've got some Tums or something you can take."
"Not necessary, but thank you."
The man looked at him doubtfully but settled back.
Jason sat there, trying to look calm while his insides where in tumult. The feelings he was sensing, it could only mean one thing.
Kate was back.
She was back!
The happiness that filled him eclipsed the part of him that could sense her pain. It enabled him to get ahold of himself and not break down in tears over an agony that wasn't his own. How had she returned? Why? And why was she so upset? Something terrible must have happened for her to return in such a state.
The knowledge dampened his joy at having her back, but not enough to ruin his relief that she was home. Safe.
What felt like a small eternity later, the plane landed. Jason had his cell out and was dialing Paul before he'd even finished de-boarding.
"She's back," he said when his father answered.
"Kate. She's back."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive. I'm booking the first flight back. Can you go to the hotel in case she goes there?"
"Of course," said Paul, sounding more than a little bewildered. "But I still don't understand how you know—"
"I just do," said Jason, returning the pilot's nod as he shuffled off the plane along with the other passengers. "And we need to find her, fast. Something's not right. Maybe you can talk the police into doing another search?"
"I'll do my damndest," said Paul. "Call me when you get here."
Next he called his wife. Sarah was nothing but understanding when he told her that he'd made it back to the States, but was leaving again after hearing news that Kate had been found. It would be true soon enough.
"Of course you need to go," she said, "Poor Kate. I'm so happy they found her. Where was she? Is she all right?"
"I don't know details yet," Jason hedged, making his way to the ticket counter. "I'll let you know as soon as I do. How's Elizabeth?"
"Missing her daddy," Sarah said, "But wonderful otherwise."
"You're getting double diaper duty when you get back here though. I need a break, and you deserve a turn."
He laughed. "I'll look forward to it."
In the background, he heard a baby's happy gurgle.
"Elizabeth's looking forward to it too," said Sarah.
Twelve hours later, Jason was back in Rome. He called Paul as he stood waiting for a taxi outside the airport.
"We found her," Paul said, but his voice was quiet. Hesitant.
"Is she all right?"
"Physically? Yes, for the most part. She's in X-ray right now getting her hand checked out. They think she might have broken it. But other than that she looks okay. I'm taking her back to my place once they get done. You can meet us there."
Jason waved to an oncoming taxi. The driver saw him and pulled the vehicle up next to the curb. He got in and gave the man Paul's address.
"Where did you find her?" Jason asked as the taxi returned to the traffic. "Did she tell you anything?"
"I didn't find her. Some tourists did."
"Yes." His father paused. "They found her down in the ruins of the coliseum. One of the unstable areas no ones supposed to be in. It took security over and hour to get her out. The news is saying she fell in."
"Yes. 'Missing Tourist Found in Rome's Coliseum.' They're having a field day with it. It's why I'm taking her home with me instead of staying at a hotel in the city. She'd be mobbed there."
"What did Kate say about it?"
"Nothing." Paul sighed. "She won't speak to me. She won't speak to anyone."
"She's grieving." Jason could still feel her pain, though he'd managed to suppress the worst of it so all he felt now was a dull ache.
"How do you—never mind. Are you on your way?"
"Good. They're bringing her out now. See you in a bit."
Jason beat them to the house. It was on the outskirts of the city. A great sprawling building with more space than a family of three could ever need. Paul's wife was out and his son away at college, which Jason thought was for the better with Kate coming.
He waited for them on the front steps, anxiously tapping his foot so long he got tired and had to stop.
When his father's car finally pulled up, Jason felt his happiness ratchet up along with his anxiety. His sister was back, but she was by no means well.
Paul got out first.
"I'll wait for you two inside," he said.
Jason nodded. "Thank you."
Paul gripped his shoulder briefly, then let go and went in. Jason started for the car.
Kate stepped out of the vehicle. Jason's heart constricted. He'd never seen anyone look so defeated before, especially not his spitfire of a sister. Her shoulders were slumped, her head bowed. She looked up as he neared her, and the anguish in those big brown eyes was devastating.
She made no attempt to hug him or speak. She just stood there, looking broken and lost. Paul had given her his jacket to wear over the strange robes she had on. They were wrinkled and dirty, with bloodstains here and there. Her hair hung in a tangle and her right hand was in a cast.
Jason attempted a smile. "You're a hot mess, sis," he said with forced levity.
Nothing. No smile. No insults. He sighed.
When he reached for her, slowly, Kate showed her first true signs of life. She jerked away, saying in a hoarse voice, "Don't."
The connection to her thrummed, one sorrowful note. It made him want to weep.
Jason caught his sister by the shoulders and hauled her into his arms, locking his muscles when she tried to pull away.
"Let go," she said.
"Please, Jason. I can't—" Tears welled. She pounded on his chest. "Let go, damn you!"
"He's gone, isn't he?" Jason murmured. "It's not just that you're here and he's there. Something happened and he's gone."
Kate sagged against him. A single sob broke free.
"I'm so sorry, Kate."
She shook her head, trying to deny the words.
"They killed him right in front of me," she whispered. "We had won. They should have let him go, but they didn't. They killed him while I watched, and I couldn't do anything to save him."
"I'm so sorry, Kate," he said again, knowing it wasn't enough.
"Not your fault."
No. But it didn't stop him from feeling like he should have been able to do something. He was her brother. He was supposed to look after her.
Kate withdrew from him and Jason let her go. He felt completely useless in the face of her pain, as if he was once again that helpless child who couldn't protect anyone, not even the people he loved. He'd promised himself he would never be in that position again, and yet here he was.
He hated it.
"We should get inside," he said eventually. "Paul will start to worry."
The old Kate would have made some scathing retort about how she didn't care if their father worried or not. But the Kate before him now only nodded and led the way inside, wiping at her eyes as if the tears burned her.
Jason followed silently behind.
The Elysium Fields were more beautiful than Crispinus had imagined.
Gently sloping hills exceeded his sight, every inch covered in a thick blanket of fresh grass and a colorful scattering of flowers. Great trees with limbs longer than he was tall fanned out to create perfect pools of shade in which to rest. The air was warm, the breeze fresh and cool. Faintly, he could hear laughter and the sound of other souls enjoying their afterlife, though he couldn't see them from where he stood.
It was all so idyllic, but without Kate there to share it with, he might as well have been in Tartarus for all the peace he felt.
It hadn't hurt to leave his body. When the god of the Underworld had crashed into him, his soul had slipped free as easily as a sword from its sheath, and he'd landed here, in Elysium.
All his pain, gone.
The turmoil of life, gone.
Hades had solidified back into the man he'd first seen and introduced himself, apologizing for the inconvenience—the inconvenience, as if that term even began to describe it!—and regretfully refused Crispinus' repeated demands to take him back. A few minutes later, the goddess of Spring had appeared and made similar introductions. When it became clear that neither was going to return him, there was nothing Crispinus could do but listen to what they had to say.
They proceeded to explain everything to him, apologizing—profusely for immortals—throughout their account. They told him how they'd wanted to reward him for all his great work in the arena. How they had gone to Aphrodite with their idea, and watched as she'd found Kate, and brought her back. And then, how upset the Fates became when they found out what Hades, Persephone, and Aphrodite had done. How they had made them undo it. All of it.
Crispinus had to acknowledge that what the god and goddesses had tried to do for him was an honor, and if it hadn't been for them interfering he never would have met Kate at all. But now he was here and Kate had been returned back to her own time per the Fate's commands, and he was finding it hard to care whether the initial intentions for all of it had been for good or ill. His life, and his time with Kate, was over.
"No, no!" said Aphrodite, and Crispinus realized he'd spoken that last part aloud. "You see, we made our own deal with the Fates. We agreed that Hades would take your soul to make it look as if you had died in the arena, as they wanted, so long as we were allowed to return your soul after so that you may live on, as we wanted. It was the best we could do, not being able to go against them directly. You will have to live quietly, of course," she told him. "It would be best if you left the Empire altogether, but it's up to you. I've already gone and had your body taken and healed for you, so it's ready whenever you wish to return."
He should have been grateful that they would go so far for him. It should have been a relief to find out his life hadn't been cut short. But his heart only felt dull at the news.
"What about Kate?"
Persephone looked beseechingly at Hades. The god sighed. "She is back where she belongs. There is nothing we can do about that."
Crispinus's temper spiked. She belonged with him. That's were she belonged!
"Then take me to her then, if you can't bring her back."
Now it was the god of the Underworld's turn to look beseeching. Persephone said, "We do not have the power—"
"Bullshit. If you can enchant plants to chain people, rip a person's very soul from their body then put it back, surely you can—"
"We're powerful, not omnipotent," said Hades, Crispinus' tone making him curt. "Our gifts are limited. We have… specialties, you could say. Aphrodite was able to pass through time and collect Kate only because it was a love match. Her soul was connected to yours and as the goddess of Love Aphrodite was able to work through that. However, that is not part of our abilities."
"Then get Aphrodite to do it. Call her here. Make her send me."
"We've already thought of that," said Persephone.
She shrugged helplessly. "She won't answer our summons. She was quite distraught, afterwards. Apparently Scipio is no longer speaking to her—"
That brought Crispinus up short. "Scipio? My friend, Scipio?"
The goddess of Spring nodded miserably. "She'd taken him as her lover, and the Fates threatened to kill him if she didn't do their bidding. That's how they got us to cooperate with them. From what I understand, the gladiator didn't take the news well when Aphrodite told him. He even came to the coliseum to try and stop her, but…"
She trailed off. She looked worried, as if she was afraid Crispinus might fall into a rage at the news. But he didn't react. He was surprised, certainly, but it was a detached kind of surprise, hardly belonging to him. When it came down to it, the how's and why's of what had happened were irrelevant. All Crispinus cared about now was getting to Kate.
"So Scipio broke it off with her and now the goddess of Love has gone missing? Have you no idea where you might find her?"
"None that we haven't already checked," said Persephone. "We will keep trying, of course, but if she is as upset as we think she is, it could be months, years—"
"Decades," said Hades.
Too late for him, in other words.
Crispinus began to pace. He struggled for another plan, anything that would get him to Kate. He could feel the god's radiating pity; see the goddess's remorse whenever he glanced her way.
Think! he commanded himself. How can I get to Kate? What could I do that would enable me to reach her?
But nothing came to him.
His pacing became increasingly agitated as he failed to come up with a solution. After several minutes of this, Persephone was unable to stand it anymore. She wrung her hands together, saying, "There's always… the Lethe."
Crispinus stopped. "Isn't that the river of forgetfulness?"
"Yes, but it is also the river of rebirth."
Hades nodded. "Yes. If you drink from it, you will be reborn in a new body, a new life."
"A fresh start," said Persephone.
Crispinus didn't want a fresh start. "Would it get me to Kate?"
The god of the Underworld shrugged, noncommittal. "It's possible, though unlikely. Many centuries stretch between the two of you. The odds of such a fateful alignment…"
Yes, the Fates certainly hadn't been on Crispinus' side so far.
"Even if you are reborn at the right time," said Hades, "you wouldn't remember her."
All Crispinus had left of Kate were his memories. Would he give them up too, for something that would, likely as not, work?
"No," he said, shaking his head.
"But wouldn't it be easier than carrying so much pain?" said Persephone.
"I don't want easy," Crispinus snapped. "I want Kate! I want her love and her body and every last painful reminder of her! If you lost Hades, would you drink your time with him away just because remembering him was difficult?"
Persephone looked at the god of the Underworld. "No," she whispered, contrite.
Seeing that she understood, Crispinus let his anger go.
"I won't take that risk," he told her. "Not yet, at least."
He turned at Hades. "Send me back. If the next time I see you, I still haven't found her…"
Crispinus then looked back at Persephone. "I beg of you, please keep searching for Aphrodite. And let me know if there's any sign of her."
He took a breath. Let it out.
"All right then. I'm ready."
"We're sorry about this," the goddess of Spring told him. "We never meant for it to turn out this way."
Crispinus nodded stiffly. "I know."
"Good luck to you."
Hades stepped forward, his form becoming light and ethereal. This time instead of rushing Crispinus, he held out his hand.
Crispinus took it.
Evodius lifted the jug of wine to his lips only to find it empty. Cursing, he tossed it aside to join the two others in the corner of his apartment, nearly hitting Scipio.
"Out?" he asked, lifting his head to peer blearily at Evodius. He had fallen out of his chair an hour ago and now lay sprawled across the floor.
"Unfortunately." Evodius slouched in his chair, letting his head fall back to take in his dirty ceiling. There was a cobweb in the corner.
"Damn. Need to go get more then." Scipio made to stand, only to teeter and collapse into the small pile of crockery.
Evodius jerked upright. "No! No more wine. It's time to talk now."
Scipio used the wall to prop his drunken self up, mumbling, "Don't wanna talk. Already told you everything."
"Not with me, idiot. With Aphrodite."
"Don't wanna talk to her, either."
"She's the only one who can fix this. Crispinus—"
"She promised me he'd be fine," said Scipio, cutting him off. "Should be back any time now."
Scipio blanched. "Nothing we can do for her."
"But Aphrodite—" insisted Evodius, getting frustrated now.
"Does whatever the hell she wants!" Scipio snapped. His hands fisted. He pressed them to his eyes as if to shove out whatever painful images lurked there. "I told you how well she listened to me the last time. I told her not to do it. I told her to leave Kate alone. And she went off and did it anyway."
"That's why it's called trying again."
Scipio let his hands drop but kept his eyes closed tight. He sighed. "You don't understand."
Evodius smiled wryly. "As much as I would like to claim not to, I believe I understood your little story quite well. Who knew a scarred up gladiator like you could win the heart of the goddess of Love."
"That creature doesn't have a heart! And you're not exactly a prize either, my friend."
"True," Evodius conceded.
They fell quiet. Evodius sat there and listened to the bustle and chatter going on in the streets outside. Between the death of Valerius' daughter and Crispinus, the city was buzzing with rumors and witness retellings embellished to the point of absurdity.
"Why don't you hate me, Evodius?"
Scipio's whispered question had Evodius raising his eyebrows at him. "Why should I hate you?"
"Because! I'm responsible for Crispinus' death and the loss of his beloved. You should be running me through with a blade right now. Instead you're drowning me in wine and telling me to make amends!"
Evodius rolled his eyes. "You drowned yourself in the wine. I didn't tell you to drink so much."
Scipio just shook his head in despair.
Evodius had had enough of this. Getting up, he grabbed his friend by the front of his tunica, and hauled him to his feet.
Scipio's eyes flew open. "What are you—?"
"Wouldn't be honorable to hit a man when he's already down."
Evodius punched him in the gut. Scipio doubled over with a shocked grunt.
"There," said Evodius, "I've punished you. For your appalling lack of foresight when it comes to women. Do you feel better now?"
Scipio clutched his injured middle. "That wasn't what I meant," he wheezed.
"No?" Evodius forced him to his feet again. Scipio tensed for another blow, but the one-eyed gladiator only clapped him on the shoulder, saying seriously, "Look at me, friend."
Warily, Scipio did so.
"What happened wasn't your fault, do you understand me? So stop beating yourself up about it. You of all people should know that the gods do not take orders from mortals."
"And as angry as you are with your goddess, I know you still love her. So even if you can't fix things with Kate and Crispinus, fix them between you and Aphrodite."
Scipio stared at him. Evodius just stood there, waiting.
Abruptly, Scipio barked out a laugh. "You're a bastard, you know that? You could have said all that without punching me."
"Yes, but maybe I was a little mad at you after all. Now I feel better and you should feel more sober."
Scipio snorted. "Not hardly."
"Ah, well, I tried."
But despite his words, Scipio stood straighter and didn't wobble when Evodius cuffed him fondly over the head.
"You'll go talk to her now." It wasn't a question. Scipio's jaw hardened. After a moment, he nodded. "Good." Evodius let him go. "Now you may go get me some more wine."
Scipio gaped at him. "Whatever for?"
"Well what else am I supposed to do while I wait for you to return, if not drink?"
"You can sit here and worry about me while properly sober," said Scipio, crossing the room to where he'd dumped his cloak. Shrugging into it he said, "It will serve you right for making me go after an angry goddess."
"You want to go," said Evodius confidently. "And she wants to see you, I'm sure."
Scipio headed for the door, saying darkly, "That I very much doubt."
Kate sat with her brother under one of the bigger trees on her father's property, glad for the shade and even gladder for the privacy. Paul had over three acres, but most of it was open field, exposed to the sun's eye and whoever happened to pass by a window.
Paul and his wife, Melissa, had been nothing but kind to her and Jason over the last week and a half. Melissa especially, fussed and pampered Kate into exhaustion. She made her tea, brought her snacks—even when Kate insisted she wasn't hungry. If she thought Kate was cold, she got her a blanket; if she thought she was hot, she ran to turn the air down. She suggested books Kate might like to read to help take her mind off things. She didn't ask questions. Didn't look at Kate with anything but sympathy. In short, she was wonderful. Kate had expected some cold businesswoman. A tall, leggy thing that would look at her and Jason with open disdain. They were her husband's bastard children from another woman after all, why wouldn't she resent them? But instead, Kate had found herself being cosseted by a softly rounded woman with graying hair and unjudging eyes crinkled with laugh lines. It was as surreal as her trip back it time had been.
As for her father, it was obvious he loved his wife dearly. He was forever asking if she needed help with meals or cleaning, stealing kisses when he thought Kate and Jason weren't looking. The first time Kate had caught them, she'd waited for the usual rise of anger, the stinging bitterness, but nothing had come. Later, when she'd been wandering the hall and stumbled upon their son's room—her half-brother's—the only emotion she could pull out of the molasses of her grief was regret that her father hadn't come to find them sooner. If he had, so many of these scars they wore now could have been avoided. Even her mother, who Kate knew had loved and hated their father equally, wouldn't have begrudged him this happiness he had found. It was too real, and his remorse for what he had done too genuine. Sincerely wanting to make amends, Kate was starting to realize, was just as important as being able to make them, if not more so.
But despite her growing acceptance of her father and fondness for Melissa, she just couldn't be around them today. This morning she'd woken to find that Fate had returned while she'd been sleeping to stab her through the heart yet again. One more concerned look from her father or Melissa and she would break.
When she had slipped out the back door after breakfast, Jason had followed. He'd been her loyal shadow these past few days. He never said much—What was there to say? That everything would be fine? That it was all for the best? Those were useless platitudes he knew better than to voice. They'd heard enough of those kinds of things from others when their mother had passed.
"So are you going to tell me what happened this morning?" he asked, breaking an hour's peaceful silence. "I felt how upset you were when you woke up. Was it a bad dream?"
Kate didn't answer. She plucked at the edges of her jeans she'd borrowed from Melissa. The heavy denim felt odd after so many days wearing light wraps and cloaks.
"C'mon, Kate. You've barely said anything since you got back. Talk to me."
She looked into her brother's pleading eyes. He wanted to take away her pain so badly. She wished it were that easy.
She hugged her legs to her chest, resting her chin on her knees. "I got my period," she whispered.
"Oh. Um…" She could tell by his blank look that he didn't get it.
"Jason. I slept with Crispin."
"Oh! Oooh. Well, that's…"
Kate watched the emotions play across his face. Shock at her admission, then brotherly distaste at the thought of his sister being intimate with someone like that, then, finally, realization. "So you're saying… But, Kate, did you want to be… I mean, did you want to have a… a…"
"It's called a baby, Jason. You should know. Your wife just had one."
He was too stunned to catch the sarcasm. "Kate. Did you want to have a baby?"
Kate shrugged. "It doesn't matter now."
"Don't give me that." He caught her by the chin when she would have looked away and forced her to meet his gaze. His eyes widened behind his glasses. "I'll be damned. You did."
Her gut reaction was to deny it. She tried to shake her head, but Jason wasn't having it. "Admit it. You wanted to be pregnant. You wanted that baby."
She jerked out of his grip. "Fine. I wanted it, okay?" She hadn't even realized she'd been hoping for it until those hopes had been dashed, just like all the rest. "But it's for the best I'm not, anyway. I don't know anything about children. And I don't have the money to support one, or a place to raise it—"
Jason was staring at her with an expression far too close to pity for her peace of mind.
"It's just…" She tried to think of how to explain it. "It would have been something, you know?" Something she could've coddled and loved. Something, maybe, with golden curls and a gentle demeanor hiding a fighting spirit. Something she could've kept with her throughout the years as proof that Crispin had lived.
"It's selfish of me, right?" she said. "That's the wrong reason to want a kid. As if it was a—a momento or something."
Jason shifted so that he was sitting next to her. He put an arm around her shoulders and she let her head drop against him.
"It's not selfish to want to keep a part of Crispis with you," Jason told her softly.
Kate's huff of laughter came out slightly garbled by tears. "It's Crispin."
"Right. Crispin. I knew that."
They sat there, silence settling over them once more as Kate collected herself. After a while, she said, "I wanted to apologize to you, Jason."
She heard the frown in his voice. She'd been chewing on the words for days, but it was still hard to spit them out. "Back… before. That last time we talked. I left you. I know it… hurt you. It hurt me too, but, I was the one choosing to do it, and I know you didn't want me to go—"
"I understand why you did it," said Jason, taking mercy on her and cutting her off. "Just like I understand that you would do it again, if you got the chance. It's okay. That's how it should be."
Kate snuggled closer to him, grateful for his love and understanding. Yes, that was how it should be, but not how it would be. She had lost her chance to be with Crispin, and she was never going to get another one. She might be as lost about her life as she'd been on those ancient streets of Rome, but no handsome gladiator was going to show up this time to make her stand, dust herself off, and continue on. She was going to have to find the strength to do that herself, somehow. Without Crispin's protection.
And without his love.
Persephone had hidden Crispinus' body in a small cave outside the city. When Crispinus opened his eyes to darkness and dirt, he suffered a moment of panic where he feared he'd been buried alive. But then he turned his head and saw that daylight was only a short distance away, and he was able to relax.
It took almost an hour for him to get up and make his way out of the cave. His body felt heavier than before, his bones stiff. His limbs didn't want to cooperate and his muscles heeded him only grudgingly. He felt unaccountably weary, considering he'd only been lying there. He was hungry too, but at least that he understood.
There was a horse outside, along with a pack filled with food and a small purse of money. A sword lay alongside it. Crispinus shuffled over and picked it up, surprised to find that it was his sword. That told him either Persephone or Hades had left all this for him. He made a decent dent in the rations—he wasn't about to turn any of it down—then he packed up and mounted the horse. He did it clumsily thanks to his unwieldy body, but no one was around to see, so it didn't matter. He tried not to think about Kate. But once he'd settled his horse and found the road, there was little else to occupy his mind.
Kate was from the future. He could barely fathom it, for all that it made sense and he knew it was true. She would enter the world long after his bones had turned to dust, and yet he had met her, spoke to her, held her. A miracle.
What he wouldn't give to repeat it.
He made it to his brother's farm by dawn the following day. Word of his death hadn't reached them yet, so they greeted him with relief but none of the shock he was afraid he'd see. He'd barely dismounted when Annia asked, "Where's Kate?" and pain stabbed through him like a perfectly aimed blade. But he owed them the truth, so he put away his horse and joined them inside for a late breakfast, and he told them all he knew.
Annia believed him right away. Being a former vestalis made a person open to those kinds of things. Drusus, on the other hand, had always been a skeptic and practical by nature. At first, he didn't believe his brother at all. Instead, he insisted that Crispinus must have hit his head, or was in denial because of losing Kate—by some tragic but natural means.
So Crispinus had shown him his scars.
Persephone had healed him, just as she'd said, but thick white scar tissue marked every spot he'd been stabbed, slashed, and cut. It wasn't until he showed his brother the four long claw marks across his bicep that Drusus finally waved him away, saying, "Enough. I believe you." And went to pour himself a much needed drink.
The next few days were surreal things that passed like snakes through murky water. Crispinus knew he couldn't stay with his family indefinitely, not when he was dead to the Empire. Twice already, he'd been forced to hide in the fields while Annia and Drusus got rid of the visitors who had come to break the news of Crispinus' passing. He didn't relish the thought of hiding out for the rest of his life. He would have to leave soon.
The knowledge pained him. His brother and sister-in-law were the only two people left in which he could find solace from losing Kate. And he had a nephew now too. Annia had had her baby while he'd been gone, and both mother and child were healthy and lively. Drusus was beside himself with pride and acted as if he'd never been worried about the outcome of the pregnancy at all, something Annia often teased him about.
And there was another reason why he didn't want to leave. A reason that had his gaze wandering constantly to the hills in the west. Annia, being the observant creature that she was, called him on it one afternoon as they were taking their daily walk around the property.
"Why don't you just go?" she asked when she saw that his attention had once more drifted in the direction of a certain temple.
Crispinus sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Annia waited, patient. It was just the two of them today. Usually they brought baby Caelus with them, but Drusus had stolen him away for some bonding time alone. The man was every inch the doting father.
"Because I fear it won't work," Crispinus admitted. "Then I'll be out of hope for good, and I don't know if I can live without hope."
"But how can you live without trying?" Annia countered quietly.
And the answer was that he couldn't. Though he was putting it off, he knew would eventually break and have to go—have to see.
That day came a week later. He woke up from yet another dream about losing Kate and couldn't stand it any longer. He packed up his things and said goodbye to his family as if he were confident in his success and not terrified like he was. He kissed Caelus and Annia goodbye, and hugged Drusus hard enough to make his brother curse and grumble about excessive strength before hugging him back just as hard. They would miss him, Crispinus knew, just as he would miss them, but they would be fine without him. They had each other: their partner, lover, life mate.
It was time he went after his own.
The temple was silent and empty when he entered it. Sunlight illuminated the interior in sharply cut streams between the pillared walls, and from somewhere high in the ceiling came the echo of birdsong. The statue of Aphrodite stood where it always did, the stone figure proud and beautiful as ever.
Crispinus wanted to smash it.
In a tone of forced respect he said, "Goddess of Love, I humbly request an audience with you."
He sat down and waited a bit, in case she was simply slow in appearing, but when she still didn't show after a goodly bit of time Crispinus got up and once again went to the statue, calling, "Goddess of Love! Aphrodite! It's Crispinus Agallon, the gladiator. Please speak to me!"
"Are you such a coward, goddess?" Crispinus yelled, startling the birds above him into flight. "Can you not bear to face the man whose life you ruined?"
Perfect silence. Even the chirping had stopped. It was like Persephone said. She wasn't going to answer.
Angry and desperate, Crispinus looked around, if not for an answer, than at least something he could take out his frustration on.
He spotted the offering bowl at the foot of the statue. Crispinus had nothing of value to offer save Kate's earring that he wore on his tunica, and he wasn't about to give it away when he couldn't be sure it would amount to anything. He could sacrifice something, but just killing some random animal wouldn't do it. The offering had to be both symbolic and meaningful, something that would snag an immortal's attention and compel them to listen.
Idea forming, Crispinus knelt in front of the statue, then carefully unsheathed his sword. Holding one hand over the bowl, he slid the blade across the flesh of his palm. Blood splattered into the small bit of pottery.
Only when it was full did he lower his hand and sheath his sword. He stayed on his knees, staring defiantly into the statue's unmoving face.
"Goddess of Love," he said, "I have willingly shed my blood for the honor of your presence, just as I have shed it for the people of Rome and the woman I love. Hear me and obey: Come to me now!"
The bowl of blood burst into dark red flame. Crispinus leapt to his feet and away from the fire. The birds twittered fearfully and fled the temple, escaping into the sky. A female voice came from behind him, cold and ringing with power. "You summoned me, gladiator?"
Crispinus turned. Aphrodite stood in the shadow of one of the pillars, the outside light that framed her making the edges of the darkness she hid in seem to glow, like a blade of black onyx outlined in gold. Beautiful, dark, and deadly.
"I know you sent Kate back to her own time," Crispinus told her. "I want you to send me there too."
"And why should I do anything for you?"
"Because you're the one who did all this!" Crispinus yelled at her. "You're the one who brought Kate here for me to love and then took her away. What kind of goddess of Love breaks people's hearts?"
"Heartbreak is part of love," she told him quietly, and a bit bitterly, he thought. "Or didn't you know that?"
"But you have the power to fix it."
"So you should! You owe me that!"
Aphrodite hissed, a furious snake-like sound that made Crispinus want to draw his sword again. She moved toward him then, into the light. She didn't look any less dangerous without the shadows to cloak her. If anything, she looked more intimidating.
"I owe you nothing," she spat. "I was abandoned by the man I love because of you. I've lost everything. More!"
"That's not my fault."
"Is it not?" She circled him. Crispinus felt the tips of her fingers brush the back of his neck.
"Perhaps you're right," she whispered after a moment of reflection. "Perhaps I do owe you a little mercy. Shall I grant you a kindness, gladiator?"
Her fingers were tracing over his collarbone now. She stopped in front of him and ran her hand down so that it rested over his heart.
"If you find your loss so unbearable, then I'll take it away from you. I'll remove your ability to love. I'll destroy every softer emotion you possess. You'll feel nothing then. Would that not be better for you?" When he didn't answer, she went on, "You could go back to the arena, or hire yourself out as an assassin, or a soldier. You would live the rest of your life without the pain of guilt or sadness. You would be the perfect warrior. And you could go wherever you wanted because no one would recognize you. Stripped of love, even your own family wouldn't know who you were, and you them. What do you think, gladiator?"
"I think you are a cruel and heartless goddess," said Crispinus, "who is too embittered by her own loss to empathize with anyone else's."
Aphrodite's eyes flashed. The fingers on his chest curled as if she would scratch him, or maybe stab him in the heart with her nails.
"Do not think," she whispered, "That you are safe from death just because Hades and Persephone talked the Fates into sparing you. I could kill you right now, and that would be it for you. No coming back."
"I have nothing to come back to," he said. "Thanks to you."
He thought she would kill him then. The rage on her face was terrifying. But then a voice from behind them said, "Leave him alone, Aphrodite."
The goddess of Love flinched back at the sight of Scipio suddenly standing there. Crispinus had to fight the same reaction, though for a different reason. His friend looked horrible. The mischievous smile he always wore was gone and had been replaced with a solemnity that didn't fit him at all. He had dark rings under his eyes. His clothes hung looser from his body as if he'd hadn't eaten in a while. Even knowing what he knew about their relationship, Crispinus was surprised the break had left Scipio in such bad shape, and he felt guilty for not having wondered.
Aphrodite collected herself first. "You! What are you doing here? Haven't you hurt me enough? Leave me!"
Scipio sighed, not at all surprised by her less than welcoming reaction. "Aphrodite, listen to me—"
"I said go!"
But he stayed where he was. "Aphrodite, you know you need to help Crispinus get to Kate."
"I am sick of mortals telling me what I need to do!" she cried. "And from you most of all! I already did what you wanted, didn't I? And you left me for it! I got rid of Kate like you wanted and you still—"
"It wasn't like that!" said Scipio, while Crispinus' heart stuttered at her words. Scipio had wanted Kate gone?
"I asked you!" cried Aphrodite. "I told you what the Fate's wanted, that it was me and you or Kate and Crispinus. And when I asked you to choose, you picked us, Scipio. Us!"
"No! I told you to help Kate!"
"Meaningless words! I looked inside you and saw the truth. You wanted to live and stay with me. That's what you truly wanted. I only listened to your heart and you left me!"
Scipio looked at Crispinus, his gaze filled with regret and silent apology, and Crispinus knew what Aphrodite spoke was the truth.
"You play unfairly," Scipio whispered to her. "If you ask me something like that, of course I'm going to want to live with the woman I love. But if you had listened to me before running off, or if you had looked a little deeper, you would have seen that I also would do anything to keep my friends from being hurt. You saw only what you wanted to, to justify doing as you wished. Of course I left you. You betrayed me, Aphrodite."
The goddess seemed to diminish under that sad pair of eyes. The furious power that had enveloped her dissipated. "I just wanted to be with you," she murmured.
"And I with you," said Scipio. "But not like this." He gestured to Crispinus. "You need to send him. It's what's right. I know you know it."
"But the Fates," she said.
"I do not fear them killing me." And here, Scipio even managed a wry smile. It made him more look like his old self. "Even if they go through with their threat, you would come visit me in the Underworld, wouldn't you?"
"I would live there with you if I had to," Aphrodite told him fervently, and Scipio's smile turned warm and genuine. The goddess of Love smiled back, hesitantly. It made her look younger, sweeter. Scipio reached out and took her hand. His weariness seemed to vanish at the contact.
He turned to Crispinus. "I am so sorry, my friend. It was never my intention—"
Crispinus waved him off. "I understand. It's all right."
Scipio grinned at him, his relief evident. Aphrodite's expression when she looked at him was cool. No apologies would be forthcoming from her, Crispinus knew, but at least she was no longer beside herself with rage at him.
"I will send you, if you wish it," she said.
He nodded. "I do."
"Then come. If we are going to do this, we must be quick in case the Fates are watching us."
"Yes," Crispinus said, "of course." But he didn't step forward. He reminded himself that Kate was only moments away. He could be with her again, for good this time. He could spend the rest of his life with her. And yet… "I don't know if I can do this."
"Sure you can," said Scipio. "Just stand there. Aphrodite will handle the rest."
"That's not what I mean." Frustration snapped at him. Crispinus looked at his friend. "I can't go if the Fates will kill you for it."
"Try to kill me maybe," Scipio said with a wink. "I'm tougher than I look. Which is saying something, because I look damn tough."
Crispinus would have argued more, but before he could, three figures appeared from the depths of the temple, women who rivaled even Aphrodite in beauty, though by the charge in the air it was clear their powers were far greater than hers. By the fear in the goddess of Love's eyes, Crispinus knew these were the Fates.
"The arrogance of gladiators know no bounds, it seems," said the dark-haired woman in front. Crispinus recognized her as the one who had been there when Kate had been sent away. Which meant she had to be Lachesis, the Fate of Time. Her two sisters flanked her. The tall, dark one on her right he guessed was Atropos, Fate of Death. She was far too somber to be anything else. That made the smaller, blonde one who looked around with curiosity Clothos, Fate of Life.
Clothos met his gaze, smiled, and waved at him.
"You dare try to pull something like this again?" Lachesis said to Aphrodite. "Goddesses! You never learn, no matter how many times we tell you!"
"She's only trying to do the right thing," Scipio defended, stepping between them. "You should try it for once."
"The right thing? We are the Fates! Everything we do is right. There is no 'wrong' for us."
"You threaten and kill people if they don't do what you say!"
Atropos sniffed at this. "All we do is for the betterment of mankind, even if you're mortal brain is incapable of comprehending how."
"Who cares if it's for our betterment," Crispinus said. "We just want to live our lives how we want to, without you twisting our decisions or putting out traps to keep us in line."
"It's for your own good though!" said Clothos. She looked genuinely confused that he didn't understand it.
"At what cost? It wasn't good for me, or Kate, or Aphrodite. How many lives have you ruined for the sake of what you thought was best?"
"You don't know what you are talking about," said Atropos. "Humanity would fall into darkness and chaos without us."
"Then let us fall! And let us enjoy the freedom on the way down."
"And when you reach bottom?"
"Who says we will?"
The Fate of Death shook her head. "Such an outcome would be inevitable if we didn't control—"
"Then what about me and Kate?" Crispinus asked, switching tactics.
"What about you?" said Lachesis.
"If you let me go to her—"
"We cannot allow that."
"But if you did! How much damage could it possibly do? If I stayed out of the public eye, if I didn't cause trouble…"
Clothos cocked her head at this, expression turning thoughtful. "The repercussions…" she murmured. Then she blinked, surprise crossing her youthful features. "In truth, they are not so bad. In fact," she added with a cheeky smile, "they are arguably beneficial."
Atropos rolled her eyes. "You are only saying that because if we let him go he will inevitably reproduce with the woman, and you are obsessed with creating offspring."
"Of course, I am the Fate of Life," she said, as if her sister needed reminding. "But the children would have a positive affect on society. Can't you see it?"
"All I see is more work for me."
Clothos stamped a tiny foot. "Must you always focus on the negative?"
"Of course. I am the Fate of Death," Atropos said, dryly mocking her sister's earlier statement.
From beside him, Crispinus heard Scipio whisper to Aphrodite, "Is it just me, or is there some sibling rivalry going on here?"
"Enough, you too!" snapped Lachesis.
What little emotion Atropos had revealed was wiped away, leaving her once again unreadable. Clothos stuck out her lip in a pout but fell quiet. Crispinus took advantage of the silence to press his argument.
"You see?" he said. "By your sister's measure, letting me go will cause no harm."
"That's debatable," said Lachesis, but Crispinus caught the brief flash of uncertainty in her eyes and wasn't about to back down.
"I died to fulfill your plan," he told her softly. "Everything you wanted to happen—happened. All I'm asking for in return, is to be with the one I love. Please. Givemethis." He stood there, hand's clasped before him. His passionate plea seemed to unnerve Lachesis. She stepped back, eyeing him warily.
"You realize, if we allowed this, that it would be for good? There would be no trips back. Regardless of whatever might happen in your life, the future will be the time you die in."
Crispinus nodded solemnly. "I understand."
Lachesis gave him another long, hard look, then shook her head, saying, "Fine then," and turned to her sisters.
"Clothos, Atropos, let us decide. Does the gladiator go, or stay?"
It had been stupid to come here.
Kate stood in the ruins of what had once been the Temple of Aphrodite, thinking that the term "ruins" was being generous. Only a handful of crumbling pillars remained to mark the spot of what had once been a sacred place of worship. Grass covered most of the temple's base and the vaulted ceiling had long ago either been knocked down or eroded into nothingness by time, as had the goddess's statue. If not for the metal placard over by the road stating what the place was, she never would have recognized it.
Kate wasn't sure what she had expected to find by coming here. The idea had just popped into her head as they were driving to the airport, and she hadn't been able to resist taking a look. Now she wished she had. She didn't like seeing it liked this. It was too harsh a reminder of how much time had passed, and how far away she was from the man she loved.
She shivered, though the day had to be the hottest yet. From beside her, Jason wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"We're going to miss our flight, aren't we?" she said.
He shrugged. "Maybe. But it's not a big deal." Except that it would cost more money to get new tickets, not to mention she was keeping him from getting back to his wife and newborn, plus work and school. Indulging her need to come here—and for what?—was putting him out a lot more than he would admit to. Kate loved him for it, even as she realized she was going to have to pull herself together and stop being so self-absorbed. It wasn't fair to keep taking advantage, no matter that her life was about as together as this temple was, and just as unfixable.
"Come on," she said, slipping out from under his arm to head back down the hill where Paul was waiting in the car. "If we leave now we can still make it."
"Are you sure? You seemed pretty desperate to come here. Don't you want to look around some more?"
Kate shook her head. "It's fine. There's nothing here to see. I was just having an attack of nostalgia, I guess."
Jason didn't look convinced, but followed after her willingly enough.
Kate trudged down the dirt path, thinking that Drusus' farm hadn't been far from here, and wondering if there was anything more left of that then there was of this temple.
Poor Drusus and Annia. They had to be as heartbroken as she was over losing Crispin. No, had been heartbroken. They were gone now, and had been for centuries. She had to keep reminding herself about things like that. It was like jet lag times a thousand.
They reached the car. Jason got to the door first and opened it for her. Kate thanked him, turning back for one last look at the temple. Why had she wanted to come here? The urge had been so strong, she'd been so sure about it. Now she just felt foolish. Had she really expected—no. It was nostalgia, like she'd told Jason. That's all it was. She knew better than to believe it was anything else.
"Ready?" Paul asked from the driver's seat, reminding her that she was still standing there.
"Yes," Kate said. She started to get in, but stopped at her brother's sudden laugh.
"Would you look at that," he said, pointing in the direction they had just come from. "A reenactor, even all the way out here at such a crappy ruin. They're really serious about catering to tourists in this country, aren't they?"
Kate looked back. "A reenactor? I didn't see anyone when we were up there."
"Me either. But see him? Over there, by that pillar. That outfit is definitely not this century. Neither is that sword."
Kate squinted. There did indeed seem to be a guy stumbling around up there with a sword strapped to his back. Her heart trembled inside her chest but she refused to acknowledge it. No way was that who it looked like.
"He looks a little lost," said Paul, who had gotten out to get his own look at the man. "Think he needs help?"
"Something is definitely off with him," Jason agreed. "But that sword of his makes me nervous. The last thing I want is to get stabbed by some drunk who's gotten too into his inner gladiator."
"True. Maybe we should call someone?"
Kate didn't hear Jason's reply. She was too busy staring at the man and thinking of all the ways he reminded her so much of another broad-figured man with curly golden hair who carried a sword wherever he went.
Don't do this to yourself! It's not him. It can't possibly be him.
And yet she found herself leaving the car and starting up the hill, ignoring her brother and father's startled calls for her to come back. Her heart was pounding now and her lungs didn't want to work correctly. She called herself and idiot. Told herself she was going to get up there and see that it wasn't him, that she was wrong. But that feeling that had made her come to the temple in the first place was back, and like a siren's song, she had to go…
Jason and Paul were coming too now. She could hear them charging up after her, but she was too far ahead. The man at the top spotted her and he stilled. With the sun at his back, she couldn't see his face, but his silhouette was the right height, the right build, even the way he held himself as he watched her approached was perfect in it's familiarity.
Oh please, she prayed even though she knew it was impossible. Oh please, oh please…
That voice. How many nights had she dreamt of that voice calling to her, only to wake up and find herself alone once again?
He shifted just enough so that she could make out his face, and shock and joy exploded inside her soul as she recognized those lips that were spreading in a triumphant smile, those beautiful blue eyes bright with relief and love.
Crying out his name as she reached him, Kate threw herself into his arms. Crispin swept her up, engulfing her in his embrace, and nothing had ever felt so right.
"Kate." His voice was rough with emotion. "Gods, Kate, I thought I would never hold you again."
"How are you here? How is it possible? I saw you fall. They told me—" But she couldn't repeat what they had said. It hurt too much and she was afraid if she spoke the words, it might make them true and he would disappear, never to be seen again.
Crispin knew what she was trying to say. He clutched her to him even tighter and told her what had happened after being killed in the arena. How Hades returned him to his body and how, after saying goodbye to his family, he went to the temple to find Aphrodite and make her send him to the future. How Scipio had shown up, and then the Fates.
"Lachesis was the one who broke the tie over whether or not to send me," Crispin confided.
Kate could hardly believe it. "So you're really here with me."
"We're really together again."
"We are." Crispin smiled and lowered his head to her's purposefully, but a sudden terrible thought had Kate jerking back. "Wait! Is there a limit to this?"
Crispin frowned. "A limit?"
"You're not just going to suddenly poof away at midnight or something, are you?"
"I am not poofing anywhere," he promised her. "I'm staying with you. Forever."
She grinned up at him. "Forever. I like the sound of that."
"As do I." He lowered his head again. "May I kiss you now, Kate?"
"Hell yeah," she responded eagerly.
His lips had barely brushed hers when someone next to them cleared his throat pointedly. Jason. Kate had forgotten all about him. She would've happily ignored her brother, but Crispin's instincts had him reacting to the sound as if it was a warning of imminent attack. His lips disappeared and she was deposited back on her feet. One arm pushed her behind him as, with the other, Crispin drew his sword and faced the threat that was her nosy brother.
To Jason's credit, he didn't show any sign of being intimidated at all, though she knew damn well he was. Paul, who was standing next to him, jumped back and crossed himself. At least he hadn't run away. Kate was impressed.
"So, I take it this is him?" Jason said dryly.
"Yes, it is. So be nice," Kate told him, trying to step around Crispin and finding herself blocked by his arm. "And you—" she whacked at the heavily muscled appendage. "—move over. It's just my brother."
"'Just my brother,' she says. Well if that's how you're going to make introductions…" Jason held out his hand to Crispin. "Jason Gray."
Crispin had sheathed his sword as soon as he'd heard the word brother. "Crispinus Agallon."
Jason made a face. "I was hoping Kate had been lying about the name." He looked Crispin up and down, pausing when he saw his footwear. His lips twitched. "Nice sandals, man."
"Thank you. I admit I am most fond of this pair. I've killed many enemies in them."
Jason laughed. "Message received."
Paul held out his hand, saying when Crispin took it, "Paul Daniels."
"My father," Kate added when she saw Paul hesitate.
If Crispin noticed the slightly awkward pause, he didn't show it. He bowed his head. "A pleasure to meet you, sir."
"I have to say, you speak very good English. Did Kate teach you?"
Kate looked at Crispin in surprise. "You are speaking English, aren't you? I hadn't even noticed."
"A last minute gift from Aphrodite," he told her.
Jason snorted. "The goddess of Love gives you a gift and it's bilingualism? That sucks."
"That's not the only gift she's given me," said Crispin, catching Kate's hand and pulling her close. Kate beamed and kissed him.
Paul chuckled. Jason grimaced, saying, "If you talk like that all the time there is no way you are staying in my house. You'll make me look bad to my wife."
"We'll just have to get our own house then," Crispin said.
Kate cleared her throat uncomfortably. "Yes, well, about that. Despite what that necklace might have made you think, I'm not exactly loaded with money…"
"You know: rich."
Realization dawned. Crispin shook his head, saying quickly, "No, no, that's not what I was thinking at all. I should have clarified. I am rich now. We are rich now."
"We are?" This was news to her.
"Yes." Crispin handed over a small leather pouch to her. "The Fate Clothos slipped this into my pocket right before I left. I do not know how currency works in this time, but I am sure it is enough to see us comfortably settled."
Kate opened the pouch. "Oh my God."
"What's in it?" asked Jason as he and Paul pressed closer to see. When they saw what was inside, Paul gasped and Jason whispered, "Holy crap."
Kate agreed with him. The pouch was filled with gold and silver coins, diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.
"Are those coins from your time?" Paul asked.
"Yes," said Crispin. "Are they usable here?"
"Are they usable? You've got ancient Roman money in perfect condition. Just one of those coins is probably worth more than the rest of those gemstones combined!"
"Why would Clothos give you this?" Kate wondered aloud.
Crispin gave her a decidedly wicked grin. Ducking his head, he whispered to her, "I think she wanted to make sure we had everything we needed to start a family."
"A family? As in…"
"Mmm." Lips brushed Kate's ear, sending hot shivers down her spine.
"Ah jeez, have mercy on a brother's eyes, would you?" said Jason, as Crispin's hands traveled just a bit too low for his peace of mind.
Paul caught his son by the shoulders and steered him away. "We'll just wait for you two in the car," he said.
Crispin waited until they were gone, nuzzling Kate's neck and stroking her arms and back until the sounds of her father and disgruntled brother faded away. Once they were alone, he cupped her face and kissed her softly, carefully, as if they were under a spell he didn't want to break. "I love you so much," he whispered.
"I love you too," she said.
He stroked her cheeks with his fingers, catching the tears that trickled from the corners of her eyes and wiping them away. "Marry me, Kate. I promise to protect, honor, and love you for the rest of my existence, in this life and the next."
Her heart too full to speak, Kate kissed him. He kissed her back, deeply, reverently, but it wasn't enough for him. After a moment, Crispin pulled away, raining kisses on her eyelids, forehead, nose and chin. "Say yes, Kate. I need to hear the words. Say yes. Say yes."
Kate forced air into her lungs. Releasing it on a shuddering breath, she answered, "Yes."
And then her feet left the ground as she was lifted and twirled, her laughter mixing with Crispin's shout of joy and victory. It echoed through the ruins of a temple that was once more a place for hope and love, a place where two people could safely dream of a happy future. And if there were no gods or fates to show them the way and make sure they got there, that was okay, because they would figure it out on their own. Together. And that was just as it should be.