“You know you can’t keep running away, right?”
Once Atalanta had calmed down, we returned to camp to discover that Eirene had put together lunch for us. I was a bit surprised, but I thanked her. While I was gone, Berenike had properly set up my tent. She knew how I liked everything arranged. When we arrived, we found the tent with some of my furs spread out over the ground in front with lunch arranged on small tables, just like the morning I had first left camp. Eirene had been waiting for us, insisted on us eating because we were healing, and then left us to our own devices.
I had been a bit exasperated, but wasn’t about to complain. I’d just shrugged to Atalanta and sat down to eat. I was hungry, I could not deny that. For a few minutes, we sat in silence, picking at the meat and fruit. But I couldn’t take my mind off of what Atalanta had told me at the shrine. And so I spoke up.
She didn’t look at me, instead biting some meat off the leg bone she held, tearing it off much like an animal would. “I know.”
Of course she did. Atalanta was no fool. But accepting that and choosing not to fall back on old defense mechanisms was another matter entirely.
“But you’re going to anyway, aren’t you?” I accused. “You’re going to continue to let Meleager dictate your life.”
Atalanta finished chewing, looking up at me with a glower. “And what else am I supposed to do? Tell the whole damn world that I fucked him and had his child? They would praise him for it, I’m sure. Men commit the most despicable acts and are praised as heroes.” She tossed the bone onto the platter in front of her. “Yet women so much as stray from the path given to them, and they are cursed for it.”
I fought the urge to wince. Her words rung true. The Huntresses of Artemis were an obvious example. I could recall the times I was ridiculed as a child for being raised by them. I could recall the people who had scoffed at me during my journey of discovery. If I had a drachma for each time someone treated me differently for following Artemis, I would be rich.
“Then return to Lykosoura,” I told her. “Show them what happens when they curse you. Show them the strength I know you have.”
Atalanta narrowed her eyes, studying me. “Maybe I will.” She picked up a strawberry and ate the whole thing right up to the stem. Once she finished chewing, she continued. “I… have to get Parth away from his father. He deserves better than that.”
I could see the conflict in her eyes. She didn’t know how to feel about her son, did she? I couldn’t really blame her for that… He was her child, but his father was a monster.
My thoughts drifted to his wife. I couldn’t help but pity Alkyone… Did she truly not know the man she married was like this?
“We can do that too,” I said. “We’ll find a way.”
Atalanta looked at the remains of the strawberry, tossed it onto the platter, and then looked back up at me. “You… really make it hard, you know.”
“Huh?” I lowered my goblet of wine. “What do you mean?”
Her gaze flickered to the ground. “Initially, I didn’t want to trust you. I pretended for my mother’s sake, but I thought you would just be another Meleager. But… you’re not.”
I faltered, the shaking in my hands getting worse. I set down the goblet. Of course it made sense, but… hearing her say that… hurt. Even if I had proved her wrong, to know that she had even thought that… My heart ached.
“Time and time again, you’ve done nothing but support me… despite my own behavior.” Her hand clenched into a fist. “You deserve better than that. I’m sorry.”
My eyes widened. An apology? I certainly wasn’t expecting that.
“Ata, it’s… it’s okay.” I managed a smile. “You were hurting. I understand.”
“Gods!” She gave me a glare, but this one was out of exasperation. “Do you realize how fucking hard it is for me to not kiss you right now?”
All the heat rose to my face. It was a good thing I had already put down my goblet, because I was pretty sure I would have dropped it. I was completely and utterly surprised. It was true that I had basically confessed my own feelings to Atalanta not too long ago, but I had never imagined anything would come of it. I had hoped, which seemed futile, but was content to continue being her friend. I never expected to hear this.
I opened my mouth to say something, but no words came out; I was beyond flustered. It took me a moment to find words at all, as my face burned.
“Then just kiss me.”
Atalanta’s eyes widened, a flush darkening her own cheeks. “...Really? You… really want me to kiss you?”
“I…” I managed to meet her gaze. “I honestly would like you to do more than kiss me, but yes.”
“Oh.” She coughed into her hand. “So that kiss… you really meant it?”
“Hades, Ata.” I sighed in exasperation. “Of course I meant it. You mean the world to me, Atalanta.”
She stared at me for a moment. But then she closed her eyes, genuinely smiling. “I… feel the same. I… won’t let my fear of history repeating make me hide that any longer.”
I… was right. I had found what I’d been unknowingly seeking this entire time.
I longed for companionship that ran deeper than friendship. It was something I had denied for years, telling myself I had more important things to concern myself with. A Huntress of Artemis had no time for romance, even if it was with another woman… despite the contrary being evident all around me. Akantha and Eirene, Berenike and her numerous dalliances, and so on. Perhaps part of me had been afraid… Other than the occasional sexual encounter to satisfy my desires, I had no experience with these things. And sex did not equal love, as Atalanta’s relationship with Meleager emphasized.
I didn’t have any words left. So I just moved around the table between us to pull her into an embrace. But Atalanta pulled back slightly, instead tilting up my chin. My heart skipped a beat as she kissed me. I slipped my arms around her neck as I slid onto her lap, pressing my lips to hers.
That was all I could think about then—her arms around my waist, my knees brushing against her hips, the way her lips felt against mine. I reached up to clasp her face, steadying my hands. Her breath was hot against my skin as we broke apart. But our lips found each other again. She kissed me, slow but sure, leaving me breathless. I ached for her, but I knew I should not act on it. After everything she had been through, she deserved to be loved, not to be treated as an object of desire.
I still didn’t understand why I felt this way so soon. But as I sat here, in Atalanta’s gentle embrace, as our lips met each other again and again, I knew it was right.
“...You know, when Eirene said you needed to eat, she didn’t mean eat each other.”
Berenike’s voice came out of nowhere. I jerked away from Atalanta so fast, I bumped into a table. The table was shoved to the side, knocking over the opened casket of wine. The red alcohol splashed onto me, drenching my chiton.
“Aw, shit!’ Her eyes widened. “Sorry, I didn’t mean for you to get… heh.” Her playful smile returned. “Wet.”
“UGH!” I glowered at her, my face hot. “If not for the burns covering half my body, I would hit you for that.”
Atalanta gave a scowl, though her face was as red as mine. “I can still hit her.”
Berenike laughed. “Ha! Maybe when you’re well, we can have a sparring match, eh? You will be sticking around, won’t you, Atalanta?”
Her eyes widened for a moment. But then her gaze flickered over to me. A soft smile graced her lips and she nodded.
“...Yeah. I think I will.”
“I will go back.”
Due to my clothing and, in turn, skin being stained with wine thanks to Berenike’s relentless teasing, I had no choice but to venture to the nearby spring to bathe. Atalanta had gone with me without a word, having grown quiet since that fateful moment. She’d brought along a platter of meat, a bowl of fruit, and an unopened bottle of wine with her so we still could finish our meal.
And so she sat at the shore of the spring, her back turned to me to give me privacy as I bathed… which was a much more arduous process due to my burns protesting every waking moment.
At her words, I couldn’t help but glance back. She picked at a chunk of brisket, peeling off slivers of the meat almost absentmindedly.
“You’re right,” she continued after a moment, looking at the seared beef in her hand. “I can’t keep running away. Not just because of Meleager. But I… have something to fight for. Someone, more specifically."
I turned around in the cool water. “Ata…”
“I don’t know how in hades I’m going to get out of this race.” She dropped the sliver onto the plate, her hand clenching into a fist. “Gods know I’m the fastest runner on this side of the Aegean Sea. But I have this feeling in my gut… it’s not that simple.”
I winced, closing my eyes. “It’s… not.”
She began to turn around to look at me, but stopped herself. It wasn’t like she could see anything as I was mostly submerged under the water. Yet… it was kind of endearing that she was suddenly so conscious of my lack of clothing. Nudity was not a big deal here in Greece. In fact, the human body was celebrated as a beautiful work of art. But Atalanta… did not want to intrude, it would seem.
“You know something?”
I sighed. “Hippomenes, he… plans on cheating.”
“What? That scrawny coward?” She sounded incredulous. “There is no way he has the brains or the brawn to pull that off.”
I winced again. “Unfortunately. Which is why he enlists the aid of Aphrodite herself.”
This time she did turn around, her brown eyes once again smoldering like a forest fire. My eyes widened in surprise at her sudden outburst.
“How do you even know this?”
“I overheard him… right before Erinys discovered your little visit to the hydra.” I glanced down. “I’d planned on telling you, but other matters have been more urgent.”
She just stared at me for a moment. And another. And then she seemed to force herself to look away.
“I also plan on trying to talk him out of it,” I told her. “I don’t… want him to die. He may be a fool, but he has a good heart and he’s been kind to me. I know he cannot win on his own, but I… fear Aphrodite’s interference.”
Atalanta remained quiet, her eyes once again on the food she brought along.
“But we will find a way,” I said quietly. “I promise.”
Yet again, it was a promise I could not guarantee I could keep. But the gods knew how hard I would try.
“But let us talk of this no longer.” I shifted closer to the shore, grimacing as my burns protested at the movement. “I need help applying my medicinal salve… The healers usually help me, and well…”
Atalanta finally glanced back at me. And she gave me a smile and a nod that warmed my heart.
“Consider it done.”