The entrance to the locker room slams, and I thud against it. The clanging sound echoes in the cavernous, empty space. Hugging myself tight, I tremble. Alone. Always alone.
Screw this school and screw older men who lead me on like I’m a...a stupid virgin.
I growl in exasperation, realizing I am a virgin and probably stupid to boot. This is all my fault for letting my imagination run wild.
Freshman year in college started off so well. My biology TA was tall, dark blue, and handsome. We had chemistry (didn’t we?), but I just found out he’s had a girlfriend this whole time! For weeks I flirted with him, badly it seemed. To add insult to injury, I know the girl! The snarky junior is a fashion major in my business class - 6’ tall and rail thin. The opposite of me in every way - science geek, short, and chubby.
“Young lady, where are youuuuu?” The familiar sing-song voice only irritates me further. Ares. Ugh. So embarrassing. My dumb lab partner instigated the whole awkward interaction only moments ago.
“Hey dude,” Ares elbowed our TA in the ribs. Hades' tall frame leaned over the table to check my calculations, pushing black rimmed glasses up his nose. His fresh piney scent was like a drug to my system. But Ares always broke the spell with his stupid, rumbling voice, “You and your girlfriend coming to my party this weekend?”
Girlfriend?! The word sent a hot, sharp pain through my stomach. Hades didn’t even have the decency to answer Ares’ question. His gaze snapped to me, mouth gaping like a fish. I couldn’t breathe and everything felt hot. The...the nerve of that two timing jerk to lead me along. Or was it...was it me that saw something that wasn’t there? It had to be.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said and scrambled away just as Ares mentioned her name. Minthe.
At least I can catch my breath in here. I look at my watch. The class would end in...20 minutes. Gods, what a mess. Could I really hide in here like a coward?
“I can’t finish the exercise without my lab partner.” Ares’ voice is closer, just down the hall if I had to guess.
I wipe the angry tears from my eyes and sniff, tugging my skirt down. My fingers ghost over my peter pan collar just to make sure it's still buttoned all the way up to my throat. If only I could put a bag over my head to hide the stupid, dark blush I know must be mottling my cheeks and ears. I'd always worn emotions painfully obvious on my face.
“Persephone?” Ares voice is right at the door to my back, quiet, almost...tender. “Are you okay?”
I sigh and turn around, determined to face my childish naivety and its resulting humiliation. If I can get past him, the man who teases me about literally everything, I can make it back to class with my dignity intact.
I fling open the door and lift my chin. “Do you always follow girls to the bathroom, you big boar?”
His worried expression morphs into a familiar, teasing smirk. “Only when they want to be followed.”
“Well I didn’t, so leave!” I move to close the door again. “I’ll be back in class in a minute.” My lower lip trembles and eyes begin to water just thinking about going back and seeing Hades again. Which would be worse - regret or complete obliviousness?
Ares slaps a large golden palm on the door and keeps it pressed open, a serious expression on his face. “I’m not leaving when I can see you’re upset.”
“Oh, and you know everything about what makes me upset, you big bully?” I push against his broad chest. “You’re my friend all of a sudden?”
“Of course I am.” He maneuvers inside the locker room and shuts the door quietly. Leaning against the wall a few feet away, he crosses his legs and folds his arms.
Somehow his huge body seems less intimidating in that posture. Ares is a star athlete - rugby captain and a champion swimmer. Every girl in our small liberal arts college drools over him. I won’t deny the fact he’s attractive. It’s just...jocks never appealed to me. They’re too unattainable, never interested in my, shall we say, unconventional body type and quirky personality. As my lab partner these past couple months though, I've grown to see Ares as less of a local sports god and more of an annoying older brother. But could he also be a friend?
I collapse on the nearest bench and rub at my throbbing temples. “I won’t lie. I could use a friend.”
College is good, but exhausting. I'm just so busy all the time and still feel behind. My mom hates cell phones, so I can't talk to her whenever I want anymore. My roommate is a total badass, but her brother really creeps me out. And Hermes is sweet, but it's Hades that-
“Hades isn’t your friend.” Ares glares at me like he could read my thoughts.
“Yeah, I’m coming to see that.” I groan and slump forward. I realize in a flash that I’d pinned all my hopes of a real connection on Hades, my older TA with a hot girlfriend. “I’m pathetic.”
“Hey!” His voice turns sharp and he strides forward, dropping to one knee in front of me. “You’re the furthest thing from pathetic. You’re a fucking freshman in advanced molecular biology.”
His warm grip on my hands feels so good, just to be touched by someone. A tremulous smile tugs at my lips as I glance up. He smells kind of good too, like a clean sweat and something spicy I can't place. The mask of red around his eyes fades, and his tight expression turns soft at the edges.
“In fact, you’re kind of a genius.” His soft voice sounds nothing like the teasing one I'm used to. Is that a blush on his cheeks? Wait...a genius?! I blink in shock, watching his face turn hard again. “I know a thing or two about assholes, little lady. Don’t let my cousin get under your skin.”
“Cousin?!” My voice squeaks on the end. Hades is his...his cousin?
“Yea, he’s a big dummy despite the book smarts. Not like you!” He grins and tugs me up, dragging me out of the locker room and down the hall.
Oh Gaia be merciful, we’re headed back to class. You can do this, Persephone! Keep it together.
Before opening the door to the lab, he looks back and winks. “What is it my ex-girlfriend always says?” Twisting the knob and pushing me forward, he leans next to my ear and whispers, “If you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em jealous.”
ONE WEEK AGO
I down another shot of whiskey and shake my head. Family functions are the worst. The three-tiered crystal stand full of shrimp is the only redeeming part. I pop another cocktail sauce-covered bite in my mouth and peer around the assembly.
Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus stand front and center beside Ouranos. The whole crew came to the royal estate near the mountains for grandpa’s early retirement party. The three oldest cousins, bright jewel colors, are always out in front. The family already treats them like the kings they will become one day, the chosen heirs to Ouranos’ three realms.
Me and my sisters - Athena and Hebe - stand on the sidelines. We serve as cupbearers or guards if we’re lucky to be noticed at all. The most thanks I get from gramps is when I patrol the realms as muscle to rough up folks who don’t pay on time. Ares, the god of war or the god of tax collecting? Ugh. Compared to Persephone, a farmer’s daughter, I still have major privilege. My apartment is paid for and we have a tight family network, even if a bunch of them are total dicks.
I’m an outsider, never able to impress the elders no matter how many headlines I make in rugby or swimming. To them, I’m only good for what I was born to be - a warrior. It would have been easy to hate the three sons of Kronos if Hades hadn’t always been such a fucking decent guy. At least, until recently. The way he plays games with my new lab partner really grinds my gears.
When everyone starts shouting along to karaoke, I find him on the balcony, fingers ghosting over a freshly bloomed white rose. The flowery scent hangs heavy in the air.
“Hades.” I lean against the railing with a sidelong glance in his direction.
“Ares.” He straightens and tugs at the lapels of his tailored jacket. “Nice night. You’re doing well in the biology exercises.”
Straight to the point, then. I quirk an eyebrow. “Mostly thanks to my sweet peach of a lab partner. Seems the goddess of spring knows a thing or two about science.”
“Yes, of course.” He coughs, lips pinched tight. “Persephone has an impressive intellect.”
“Stop jerking her around, Hades.” I stand and turn fully to him, crossing my arms. “Ask the freshman out, or cut it out.”
“Cut what out?” Hades hand slices through the air at nothing. “She’s not interested in me. She’s nice to everyone - personalized cookies, thank you notes for literally anything. She only tolerates me because I’m the TA.”
The personalized cookies really sent me. She’d decorated mine with a rugby stick which I promptly compared to a dick. Hades made the right move, clutching his heart and offering profuse thanks. She was a goner from then on.
I mock his voice in a whiny tone, “She’s nice to everyone. She only tolerates me.” I grab him by the collar and pull until I can feel his cool breath on my face. “Man to man, she’s into you. And if you don’t fucking act on it, I’ll end her misery. Ignorance is not bliss, dude.”
Hades eyes narrow, red in an instant, and I can feel that cold, tightly leashed power roll off him in waves. “End her misery? What the fuck does that mean?” His grip on my forearm is painful, the conflict its own kind of intimacy. Finally, some emotion!
“Get off my brother, you bully!” Zeus rushes forward and pulls us apart. “You need me to put the beat down on this ingrate, bro?”
“No.” Hades tugs his brother to the side, but glares at me on a harsh whisper, “Don’t you fucking touch her!”
I grin. So he does care.
I’ll give him another two class days. If he doesn’t fess up about his girlfriend or cut the cute guy act, well let’s just say, I’m not a man to make idle promises.
You and your girlfriend coming to my party this weekend?
Yeah, it was a dick move, but it was also the truth. And when it comes to honesty or cowardice, I always choose honesty.
Hades paces at the back end of the room when we walk in. Brows sweating, twisting a handkerchief between his hands, his worry turns to anger directed straight at me.
You and your girlfriend coming to my party this weekend? I doubted my words as soon as I said them seeing the adorable pink freshman’s face fall. But it was the right move. Watching Persephone smile at him, clueless day after day, tore at my cold, dark heart. It’d been a week and Hades still hadn’t said shit.
Oh, I’d seen him think about it. When she left class the other day, he walked fast behind her, but something stopped him and he turned away.
I hover over the little goddess, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Serves Hades right. She clearly needs a friend.
I smile at him.
Despite his fierce expression, he’s a fucking coward for not stopping his shit or telling the truth.
Hades doesn’t break eye contact, as though his fury at me is greater than his interest in her. If so, he’s a fool. Even though she isn’t an object to be fought over, my lizard brain and his are on the same page. It can’t be helped.
Mine, Mine - We both seemed to say as she and I circle back to our table. He walks up the opposite end to his desk, just staring me down.
Persephone sits on the stool next to me. I set my chair to its lowest setting and slide my arm over her shoulders. When she doesn’t stiffen, I can’t help but smirk. It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
A student shuffles up to Hades with a question, and the tension between us breaks.
I lean down and slide my cheek against her pink one. “You alright?”
“Fine, thank you.” She takes a shaking breath. “I-I’m glad I came back in. It was a stupid misunderstanding.”
My exhale is loud and growling to hear her so torn up over my dumb cousin. If I’m honest, I’m also annoyed at myself for doing it on purpose.
“Please forget what you saw in there.” She leans back to stare at me with a serious expression, “W-whatever you think is going on, it’s nothing. Really. My bad.”
“First, it wasn’t a stupid misunderstanding. Second, nothing is your bad. Third, don’t lie to me.” I hold her hands and raise my brows. “If you can be honest with anyone, be honest with me.”
A long sigh shakes through her whole body, releasing tension she must’ve been holding tight this whole time. “Okay, Ares. Thanks for being a friend.”
A friend. My chest tightens at the words like they’re a final judgement. A friend. If only she knew. As I lean down to her ear, my eyes meet Hades. The red has nearly swallowed his pupils and his knuckles are white where his fists rest on the table.
I whisper, “If we play it cool, act real friendly, let’s see if we can motivate the dummy to finally drop his asshole girlfriend and make a move.”
“Y-you don’t mean…” The sensitive hint to her voice makes me even more determined to protect her fragile heart. She didn’t deserve to be jerked around.
“We’ll jerk him around a little. Call it payback for flirting with you and not saying shit. I know he likes you, Persephone. I’m sure of it.”
Her gaze falls to Hades, and she gulps. “You said he wasn’t my friend.”
“Because he’s not. He wants to be a lot more than friends. I’m just not sure he deserves you.” I lean an elbow on the table and watch her. Every emotion - confusion, adoration, hurt - plays across her adorable face like a movie screen. “What do you see when you look at him right now? Is he calm and collected? Totally unaware of you?”
“No.” She chuckles, the sound like a sweet siren song. “He doesn’t look too happy.” Her smile falters and she whips to me. “I shouldn’t want him to be unhappy.”
“He doesn’t deserve to be happy.” I smile, all sharp teeth and flushed skin. “Anger is my specialty, and sometimes it’s warranted. You aren’t wrong to think he was flirting, but he was wrong for leading you on.”
“Leading me on…” Persephone bites at her lip and scribbles a squiggly doodle on their worksheet. “I don’t like playing games. I-I’m not very good at them.”
“You wear your heart on your sleeve, Angel.” I chuck her under the chin, and she grins at the endearment. “It’s what I like about you.”
That blush is real. I may not have her heart, but I sure as shit can get a response out of those dark, rosy cheeks. She feels safe with me, and after being the instigator of this whole mess, I’ll take it to soothe my own frayed nerves.
“Friends, right?” I ask, committed to the game, even if she isn’t. I want her to be happy, no matter what she chooses.
“And here I thought you were just a big brat.”
When she puts her head on my shoulder, it’s like my chest breaks open. The yoke lifts. It’s a small shift, but I’m not who I was a moment ago, the facade others see. A new vulnerability wars within me. Anything seems possible, seems deserved, so long as I keep this goodhearted woman safe. Unharmed.
The soft weight of her trust resting against me means more than it should. I know it’ll be nothing more than fake flirting, but I don’t care. It feels right.
Hades claps loudly, announcing in a booming voice to the class, “Back to work. No dawdling. Five minutes and your exercises are due.”
Desperate move, dude. I narrow my eyes at him.
I pick up Persephone’s phone and text my number, saving my name in her contacts.
“Hey!” She grabs it from me, and stares at the screen, shaking her head with a secret smile.
We’re both typing, but I’m faster on the draw.
“How can someone be a brat and a daddy?” She peers up at me, a smile all the way at the corners of her eyes.
Well, if that doesn’t shock my socks off. Tonight is going very well.
“And what do you know of brats and daddies, young lady?”
She blushes a deeper shade than I’ve ever seen, turning back to scribble at our lab exercise. Genius unleashed, she writes a mile a minute, biting her lip and making silent calculations. I twirl a pen in my fingers and mean mug my cousin.
When the bell rings, she drops our work on Hades’ desk. Every movement is fluid and confident. He says something, but she doesn’t even pause. A quick turn has that schoolgirl skirt dancing at her knees.
What a fucking cutie. I can watch her play it fast and loose all day long. Somehow, this side of her is more alluring than her tender vulnerability. She seems stronger.
“Seeya later, big guy.” She grabs her bag and sweeps out of the room. The heady scent of honeysuckle fades by the second.
Maybe it was stupid, but I give myself a little credit for the extra sparkle in her eye. Grinning like a fool, I head for the opposite end of the room. On my approach, Hades rises up, fists braced against the desktop. He looks for all the world like a fire breathing dragon trapped in the body of a blue nerd.
Knocking on the wood as I pass, I wink at him. “May the best god win.”
Chapter 3: The Deep End
Content notes: Brief moment of potential for domestic violence (does not happen) and description of anxiety & mild intrusive thoughts.
Song on Repeat: "War of Hearts (Acoustic)" by Ruelle
Chanel No. 5 permeates the air, and I could choke on it.
I enter Minthe’s workroom and walk to the end of the table where she drapes piles of shiny fabric on a dress form. My steps are quiet. She’s so easy to upset these days.
Meeting Persephone was a summons, a hint of a future I hadn’t dared to dream of until the day I met her. In the weeks since, my fantasies always begin the same way.
I place her palms on my cheeks and inhale her warm scent. Soft fingers snake across my scalp and pull me closer, so my face rests against the cushion of her chest. My hands hug around her waist and draw her closer, as close as I can get.
A finger snap cuts the daydream short.
“What are you smiling about?” Minthe asks, eyes narrowed with suspicion, a pin stuck between her teeth.
I’m suddenly aware of how much she doesn’t like to see me happy. Since the first time we met for the fashion department’s year end showcase, she pokes and pokes and pokes. The arguments felt like passion, and sometimes they did turn into intimacy, rare and fleeting. Those moments felt like a treasure, but now I see them for what they were - dog treats meant to pacify me, keep me hungry for more. For something real.
I swallow. How to start this, the conversation I’ve been considering for months but can never seem to begin? I think of Ares on the balcony last week. Straight to the point, he’s always been blunt. I take a deep breath.
“It’s over, Minthe.”
She’d gone back to her work putting pins in the hourglass form. Her hands still, and she looks up at me. The sharp heat in her eyes makes me afraid to walk closer.
“What exactly is over?” Each word is precise. She stabs a pin in the dummy’s fabric shoulder and stalks toward me.
“Us.” Breathe in, breathe out. It’s all I can manage, tracking her unpredictable emotions before they lash out. “You don’t even like me.”
“What the fuck does that matter?” She sprints the last few feet, spittle flying. Just as her arm rears back to strike me, I grab it and push against her chest to stop her. She’s angry, but there’s something tender trying to break out and it confuses me as she screams, “Why don’t you love me anymore?”
The shout echoing in my ears is too distracting to really focus on the words, so I growl and pin her arms in front of her with one hand and grip her chin. There. Now, I can think. It kills me a little that bound and defenseless she always calms so quickly. Like a hare in a trap, only her eyes move as her heartbeat flutters against my fingertips. Why don’t you love me anymore?
“Did we ever love each other?” My question is honest, more honest than I intended.
“We’re good together.” Her voice is soft. Always hot and cold with her. I hate it.
“We look good together. That’s not the same thing.”
She’d tailored a suit for me for her fashion show. It was a beautiful dark grey and fit like a dream. Somehow, she wound her way into my life with the flurry of a dozen compliments and a hundred glancing barbs. Each kiss felt like an honor after enduring the disregard leading up to it. I grew to believe I deserved her treatment, that she was the best I could hope for.
Her lip quivers, even though her forehead is lined with tension. She’s trying to stay angry. It’s her way.
“You said you’d buy me a designer bag.”
I close my eyes on an exhale. A fitting parting gift, something expensive and empty. “You’ll have it by tomorrow morning.”
Her eyes rove over me, calculating, trying to think of something to draw me back in, but I let go and walk away at a brisk pace, yelling over my shoulder.
“Lose my number.”
My luxury condo is situated next to my brothers’ units with high coastal views. We call it the family ‘village’ where all the young cousins are given free room and board until we grow into our powers and our destinies.
The dark facade is familiar but devoid of any warmth. It isn’t until my key turns in the lock, and I hear the sound of my dogs' nails clattering across the floor that I finally heave a sigh of relief.
I’m home. Alone. Or as alone as one can be with a pack of animals. I get them all fresh dinner from the fridge I use specifically for their food, then set about to make a mushroom risotto and a medium-rare sirloin. Comfort food is sorely needed after today. Breaking up with Minthe was almost a relief. It’s imagining Persephone with my hulking cousin’s golden arm slung across her shoulders that almost makes me break the glass of water I’m holding. He’d smirked at me like a cat who got the cream.
May the best god win.
I have little chance against him, and it’s the honest truth. Ares has nearly every woman at college lusting after him. He’s on posters everywhere, and there are social media fan pages devoted to his various, manly body parts. It’s ridiculous and something I never desired...until now.
Knowing he is only a couple buildings over, in the same family complex, makes me feel like a chump for sitting here stewing instead of confronting him. But what would I fucking say? You were right?
The pups wrestle and play as I open the back door and take dinner outside. I sip red wine and stare at the early sunset over the ocean. Endless sparkling blue topped by a rainbow of pink. And pink just reminds me of her. The goddess of spring. My freshman student. Her 19 to my 25 doesn’t sound that inappropriate, but with my teaching position...gods, it feels like we are worlds apart.
Shame fills me, realizing my outcast cousin did the right thing by telling the truth. He said I’d been leading her on, flirting with her. I guess I had been. I was just so out of practice with it, the whole idea she could be interested in me seemed an impossibility. Why is it so hard for me to see social interactions the way others do?
I know some of it is in the way I grew up. The first 16 years I spent hidden away in the Norse pantheon’s frozen landscape. My brothers and I have different mothers but the same tyrant father - an abuser we all fled. Zeus, Poseidon, and I met first as young teenagers after the death of Kronos. Ouranos offered us riches and his realms if we returned to Olympus and went to college. Well, the money was ours now that we’d all graduated. Yet each of us, in our own way, dragged our feet on really breaking out - undergrad, then graduate school, and now a PhD. Was pursuing a doctorate simply a fear of my darker destiny in the Underworld, or was I truly following my passion?
After doing the dishes, I lie down in bed and buy Minthe the biggest, most expensive tote I can find. Better safe than sorry, I pay for overnight shipping. Three dogs surround me, with two smaller ones on top. Their warm, comforting weight is the best medicine, even if they aren’t normally allowed on the bed. This was an unusual and upsetting Wednesday, and I deserve a little self-care.
My hand reaches for my smartphone, fingers practically itching to do what I imagined all day - find Persephone on social media. The first time I considered it, I called myself a creepy old man enough times that the thoughts died away. Today though, I had to know more about her. All the curiosity that bloomed in the last few weeks with her in my lab class, seemed to unleash from my brain in a storm. Are she and Ares friends? What is her life like? Is she close to Artemis? What did she enjoy doing? Most of all, I wanted to see her - the face that launched a thousand fantasies.
I don’t find her on Fatesbook, but Nymphstagram is another story, though it takes some digging. I’m not ashamed to say I find Ares’ profile and scroll through his likes until I find that pink smile that makes my heart beat like a drum.
I turn to my side in bed, eyes already drooping and sleepy and indulge my harmless crush. I click on her profile. In the lead photo, she wears a cowboy hat and a silly smile. The heat of a blush warms my cheeks. From just a picture? This is ridiculous.
I scroll through more photos, enraptured. Voyeuristic shame whispers in the back of my mind that it’s a violation to peek into her personal photos, captions, and comments. And yet, she seems happy, easy to friendship, and comfortable with physical affection. Of course she is. It’s just what I told Ares - she treats everyone with warmth and kindness.
Seeing an old photo of her with a litter of puppies on her mother’s farm makes my chest ache with tenderness. I click on the photo and try to zoom in. It’s a shepherd of some kind, but...
My blood runs cold. I just liked a photo that's over two years old.
I groan loud enough it wakes two of the dogs, who peer at me with sleepy eyes. Petting their heads calms me a fraction.
To be fair, she doesn’t post often, so I hadn’t realized how far back I had scrolled. Oh Gaia, swallow me whole. I was lurking. I knew it was wrong.
You know what, screw it! I want to be her friend, not a creepy almost-professor who likes her photos late at night. I hit the + follow before I can talk myself out of it.
On a loud exhale, I try and piece together my next move.
A message? Would a coy explanation for my ridiculous digital encouragement of an old photo be more embarrassing or less? I imagine what to say.
I just broke up with my girlfriend, and seeing you with a dog was the brightest spot in my day. No - desperate and over the top.
My finger slipped. No - strange and weirdly sexual.
How about the something closer to the truth? I type, I hope this isn’t a weird question, but does your family raise Groenedael shepherds?
It’s an admission to being a total dork, but at least it’s accurate to my train of thought. I stare at the unmoving screen - no notifications, no bubble to announce typing, just a bright blue light that seems to blind me the more I focus on it. Her lovely smile in the profile photo turns sinister, seems to laugh at me.
I swallow, click off the screen, and close my eyes to the darkness of the room. My furry family around me is the only grounding presence as my mind cycles with anxious thoughts, too fast to hear or make sense of.
Breathing techniques worked before. I exhale all the old air in my body, all the way down to the pit of my stomach. The last bits of oxygen from this wretched day I push out of my lungs. Then, I breathe in. Rise...rise...rise, I count out in three seconds, then a longer exhale. Fall...fall...fall...fall. I repeat the method, the repetitious words of rise and fall crowd out the other thoughts. All I can do is breathe and keep myself alive for another moment. All I can do is breathe.
I fall into a dreamless sleep, because when the phone beeps, the dogs all snore heavily around me. The screen shows 3:56 am and two notifications - KokoP followed you back, and the preview to a new Nymphstagram message - Well hello...
I twist to my stomach, heart pounding like a racehorse, and unlock the phone with trembling fingers.
Well hello to you too. They aren’t Grona-whatever dogs, I don’t think so. Mama calls them her wolf pack. A bunch of mutts, but I love them just the same ;)
Did I sound like a snob who only likes purebreeds? Oh shit, why can’t I ever say the right thing? But wait...the winky face and cutesy greeting. She must not hate me that badly.
Hello. My dogs are mostly mutts too. I suppose I was just curious as they are such beautiful creatures. I hope I didn’t bother you so late.
The unsaid question won’t leave my mind - why are you awake? She types for what seems like an hour but is probably only a couple minutes. The message in return is brief.
You didn’t bother me.
Oh gods, the answer is too brief. I didn’t phrase my previous message well at all, did I? Why can’t I get this right? Communication, especially digitally, always confuses me having grown up with little modern technology. Her answer repeats in my head but the opposite - you bothered me, you bothered me, you bothered me.
I curl up and let the sick, tight feeling in my gut just exist for a moment, but only a moment. These dark thoughts can’t have me again, not after my crazy day. I stood up to Minthe, finally. I can put myself out there. Growling, I slide out of bed and pace at the glass wall overlooking the cloudless, starry night.
Can I call you?
My brief question in response feels like I’ve laid my heart on a chopping block. Something happened in the classroom today. Ares isn’t an idiot. If anything, he has more sense with women than anyone else I know. She was hurt, and he comforted her. I hurt her, even if it was on accident.
Her reply comes quick.
Not tonight...I should get back to bed.
Shot down, just as I expected, though the gentle mercy of not tonight gives me unreasonable hope. I wish I could tell her I broke up with Minthe, ask her out right away, but the idea of even a friendship with her appeals to me too. She could be someone to chat with at the end of the day. And if she got to know me, if she found something worthwhile, perhaps I could push for more when the semester is over.
I send the last message and click off my phone, determined not to wait for a response. She needs sleep, but not me.
Suddenly I feel alive, like I’m on a ship and the wind is blowing through my hair. I have no idea where I’m going, but it’s different than the day before. I’m different. The unknown excites me. I throw on my swim trunks and head to the shared outdoor pool. Diving in, the heavy cold water covers me completely. All sound aside from my living, beating heart drowns away. Every breath is measured. The darkness makes me new.
I’m not on a ship anymore. The choppy waters of a wild sea have me.
I’m in the deep end now.
*just for funsies*
Chapter 4: Tug of War
“She’s trouble!” The wind stole mama’s voice. She must’ve walked to the end of the barley field to get enough service to call. “Are you listening to me, Kore?”
“I’m not a little girl, mother!” I inhale a cleansing breath. The childhood name always rankles me. “Look, I don’t interact with Hera often. It would be super rude if she runs into me at school and finds out I’ve been here for months and never said hello. No one has ever accused me of being rude, and I’m not about to let my own aunt be the first.”
Using my elbow, I open the side entrance to the DSAC (Divine Scholars Activity Center) and wiggle through the doorway. A tupperware container full of lemon cupcakes balances precariously on top of two textbooks. I nearly trip as my backpack gets caught in the closing door. The darn thing is weighed down with lunch, more notebooks, and two changes of clothes.
“I got it, Angel!” Ares steadies me and opens the door. “Give me that bag. I told you to wait until I got the car parked.”
“Hold on, Mama.” I give him a sheepish smile and hand over the heavy bag. The books and tupperware alone make for a lighter load. I wouldn’t have so much stuff if Artemis hadn’t kicked the dishwasher for not working. Now, our apartment is flooded and we’re sleeping over with a friend. She had to deal with the damage and couldn’t drive me to school like usual.
The fleeting thought I could have asked Hades occurred to me, but...that was weird, right? Ares, on the other hand, was convenient. He’d already been texting me memes all night and day.
As we make our way through the dark side hallway of the student center, mama’s voice crackles with static. “My little sister is dangerous, sweetheart.” I readjust the phone at my shoulder, as she continues, “You know I try to keep you out of these things.”
These things is code for the family business . My whole life, Mama sheltered me from it. But now, as an adult living on my own, I wonder if that was the right call. I know so little about my relatives, only that grammy and my aunts are involved in stuff Mama wants nothing to do with.
“I heard you the first time.” The line cuts out briefly as I walk deeper into the stone and metal building, heels clicking on the tile floor. A sharp pinch on my ass has me jumping and I nearly roll my ankle. “OUCH!”
Whipping around, Ares just smirks and shrugs.
“You better watch it, mister,” I whisper.
“Sweetheart, are you okay? Did someone hurt you? Give me names!” The goddess of the harvest is not a woman to mess with. I roll my eyes and tell a partial fib.
“I’m losing service. Can you text me?” I type out a quick rundown of my week and attach a selfie with my roommate’s cat. Mama can be annoying, but I miss her terribly. The tight weight in my chest eases a little each time we speak, even when it’s only a few minutes. “I love you, Mama.”
The line goes dead before she can reply. I huff and drop my things on a trophy display case, trying to catch my breath from the walk. Looking down I realize the heel of my shoe is cracked. Nice...just great. I have flats in my bag for tomorrow. It’s just not the grownup woman look I’m going for. Maybe I can fix the shoe with some glue. I think I have some in my bag somewhere.
Ares twists in front of me. I grab the bag from him and rifle through it. The main meeting area of the DSAC is just down the hall. It’s a space for students to mingle, eat, and host special events. I’m sure my aunt’s auditorium will be nearby, but the only banner reads “Science Fair.” I guess that explains the dozens of people setting up tables.
Ares stands between me and the source of light coming from the huge glass domed student area. For a second, I’m struck by his massive form and golden curls backlit by the sun. He really is beautiful and not just because of his physique. His smile is easy. He’s quick to conversation and more insightful than I’d realized.
“Lemme help you find your aunt.” He pulls out his phone, casting his face in a grey-blue light. “What’s her name?”
“Hera,” I answer, as a Nymphstagram notification pings. The preview shows blinding white teeth in a symmetrical smile with the caption, @QueenBunny has arrived. Perfect timing!
I’ve followed my young aunt on social media for awhile. Only five years older than me, Hera is like a queen at our small university, a grad student with everything going for her. One of her recent social media posts showed her prepping for the business school’s pitch competition this morning. The Olympus government and high profile consultancies would be in attendance looking for new interns and hires.
For too many weeks, I followed Mama’s advice and avoided Hera, even though my gut told me different. At the few family events I attended growing up, Hera was always kind to me. I imagined her as the older sister I never had, but with the distance and Mama’s disdain for the family, we never grew close.
“Hera Juno?” Ares looks up, a slow dawning grin on his face.
“You know her?” It’s probably a stupid question. She’s beautiful and popular. So is he.
“She’s like a mom to me!”
I tilt my head, blinking in confusion. “Mom?”
“She was my freshman orientation mentor.” He laughs and turns his phone around, showing a layout of the DSAC. “I found it. Auditorium One...brb.”
“Weirdo.” I shake my head at his use of chat lingo in spoken conversation and poke his chest. “Don’t make her mad! I haven’t seen her in years, and...and I can come to her. I just need to fix my shoe.”
“Don’t get your panties in a twist.” He leans forward with a wink. “Unless I can watch.”
“Oaf!” I laugh and punch his shoulder.
“Let your Ares take care of this. I’ll scope it out and come back...carry you to her like a knight in shining armor if I have to.” His chest puffs out, and he looks so proud I can’t help but smile. What a turnaround from yesterday. I thought of him as a bully, but it’s mostly just his immature sense of humor. He’s really kind. Almost...charming.
“Well go on!” I shoo him with one hand, while inspecting my cracked shoe. “Times-a-wasting.”
He opens the tupperware and a cupcake disappears down his gullet before I can stop him. Crumbs fall out of his mouth as he salutes. Striding toward the sunlit space ahead, he slows glaring to his left.
I turn. My brain empties, then whirs back to life full of static.
A tall blue profile with a familiar aquiline nose comes out of the men’s room. His gaze narrows on Ares, mouth set in a tight line, before stopping and leaning against the wall. His shadow is larger than life, seeming to reach for me with its darkness. My heartbeat kicks into overdrive as I remember our brief chat last night. It didn’t feel professional or friendly. Seeing him again, it strikes me as the kind of late night conversation that turns into something more.
Sweet dreams. Innocent enough words, but so sexy coming from him, like a promise of loving sentiment just out of reach. But it was the, Can I call you? That really had me rattled all morning. What would he have said? When he asked it, my stomach dropped. I just...wasn’t ready to talk to him on the phone. It seemed too intimate a conversation to be had with the TA I’d lusted after for weeks, the man I just learned had a girlfriend.
Stock still, I realize I’ve been watching him clean his eyeglasses with a small cloth for who knows how long. My hand sits on top of a notebook, the sweaty palm leaving five little ovals in the cover. I pull away and tug at my skirt.
When I look back up, he puts his glasses back on and straightens his navy vest. He turns in my direction. A bright pink handkerchief peeks out of his pocket, triple folded in an intricate pattern.
I try to back into the shadow of a nearby doorway, but he looks up.
His eyes find me, magnets seeking their opposing polarity. He stops for the briefest moment, lips parted. Stepping again in my direction, his throat bobs on a swallow. Long fingers dance at his shirt collar before brushing down his shirt. There’s no lint or wrinkle. He’s perfect, always pulled together. Is he...nervous?
“Persephone.” His head ducks, eyes falling to the floor before locking back on me, somehow more devastating in their intensity. He stops only a step or two away, and the air feels charged. “Good morning.”
My jaw clenches. Good morning isn’t supposed to be that sexy, I tell my stupid nipples, pebbling at just the sound of his voice. I rearrange my scarf over both shoulders to provide some coverage and take a deep breath, forming the courtesy smile I’m very good at.
“Good morning to you!”
“Is everything okay?” he asks, glancing over me with a furrowed brow.
My eyes dart around. Did I sound too cheery? I stare down at my clothes - a graphic tee from my favorite animated show, a knee length skirt, long socks, and tall boots. I run a hand down my lengthening hair. Are my braids messy?
“I-I didn’t mean you looked...It was j-just...umm...” He coughs, shuffling his feet. “You replied back to me so late. I was worried.”
“Late? You mean early?” I chuckle, surprised at his concern. Full of nervous energy after our brief chat, I baked instead of trying to sleep. Bringing sweets is a great way to make friends. “I’m still on farm time, and I wanted to try a new recipe.”
I gesture to the tupperware and study his long, angular face. His lips tilt up slightly at the yellow iced confections. Turning back, he watches me carefully, like I’m a puzzle. Gods, why are we so awkward? In class, conversation used to flow so naturally.
He has a girlfriend, that’s why, the daemon on my shoulder whispers. He knows you have a crush on him, dummy.
“Why are you here?” I blurt out, then cringe. He’s here for a snack. He works for the university. He’s meeting friends...his girlfriend. A thousand reasons crowd my head.
“Science fair. Some of my students have projects. I’m not a real professor or anything, but I wanted to show my support.” His fingers card through his hair, and his bicep flexes, revealing a long, white scar. Looking at me, there’s a hint of red in his eyes. Is he closer now? He’s so tall and smells like a pine-scented candle.
I lick my lips. He's not a popsicle, Persephone. Get it together!
“Science fair.” I blink and look at my books, straightening the stack to keep my hands busy. “I did one of those when I was in elementary school.”
“That’s the idea. Simplify the message.” His easy smile is devastating. “You’d be surprised how challenging students find it to condense a semester’s worth of research into one 3-panel poster and a table display.”
I remember back to the week we learned about his research. Putting all that knowledge and passion onto one poster does seem impossible. When he turned off the classroom lights, all the students gasped in wonder.
“How does the god of the dead become an expert in bioluminescent animal life?” I ask.
He wipes his brow with the hot pink handkerchief. Is he sweating? “It started as simple curiosity. The animals I study fascinate me - glow worms, fireflies, jellyfish. There’s something magical about a creature in the dark who illuminates the world around them.”
I swallow. That shouldn’t have been as poetic as it sounded. His formal way of speaking and the humor and humility that couches every statement hits me straight in the heart. I’m in trouble. “Will you continue your work at the university or do field research?”
I remember that he’s supposed to move to the Underworld, and what I really wanted to ask was - Will you be here for my entire college career? Please say yes. Please say yes.
“I doubt it. I’m supposed to be a king, if my grandfather has anything to say about it.” He sighs, then shakes his head. “Wait...that wasn't meant to sound like a complaint, or-or like I’m bragging.”
“I didn’t think that.” I lay my hand on his upper arm. His wide eyed look makes me wonder why this kind of friendly contact is unusual for him. I swallow. There’s so much about him I don’t know.
“It’s going to be really umm...isolating down there.” His body curls down, closer, and he plucks a tiny blue flower from my hair. Looking back at me, I see a reflection of my outline in his shining eyes. He’s a dark mirror of me. “Without the sun, I have to find a different kind of light.”
I want to press up on my tippy toes and kiss him so bad it hurts. This crush is overwhelming! My breath comes out in tiny pants, for fates sake. I can’t think straight.
“P!” Ares has me up and spinning before I can react. He holds me so tight, I’m breathless again for a different reason. The world blurs around us. All I can see is his smile splitting into a giant grin. He sticks out his tongue, and I can’t help but laugh. When he tickles my waist, I howl and kick. “Lemme grab your books. I know the way to go now.”
He completely ignores Hades, though my gaze can’t help but drift to our TA. I have to remember that. He’s our lab teacher. He has a girlfriend. Hades’ tight expression is unreadable.
“Wait...how’s your shoe?” Ares sets me down.
“Your shoe?” Hades drops to one knee and carefully pries the boot with a broken heel off my foot. His large hand almost completely wraps around my calf. Thank the gods I have socks on. I’m already blinking like a computer on the fritz from the intimate pose. His warm touch seeps through the fabric.
“I have flats,” I mumble and grab the handle of my bag. Before I can unzip it, I’m swept off my feet and into Ares’ arms.
“It’s too damn dark in here. Let’s go to the main area.”
Hades is left with a single shoe and a murderous expression. When he looks at me, his gaze softens. “I’ll grab your stuff. Don’t worry.”
I feel like Alice in Wonderland. What potion did I drink? What secret tunnel did I fall through? I’m being carried bridal style into the busy student center by the star jock with my sexy TA acting as valet. Is there a man equivalent of catnip I rolled around in accidentally?
Ares drops me on top of one of the few empty square tables. We’re right next to several science fair setups. Water Pollution Kills is the ominous title of the table in front of us.
Hades drops my shoe, bag, books, and cupcakes in the middle of the table. “What’s all this stuff for?”
“I’m here to see my aunt at the business case competition, but most of this stuff is because our apartment flooded this morning.” They stand in front of me but refuse to acknowledge each other as I pry off my other shoe. “Artemis and I are staying over with Eros tonight.”
Hades coughs and Ares mouth curls up in a shit eating grin.
“The god of sex?” they ask simultaneously, one with horror, one with amusement, both crossing their arms. They really do look related, though everything else is a study in opposites. Silly and Serious. Yellow and Blue. Hot and Cold.
“There’s no funny business. Eros is our friend!” I can feel the burning heat of a blush on my face.
“Suuuuuuure.” Ares leans over and elbows me. “Can I come over for some Netflix and chill ?”
“I don’t think I know what that means…” My eyes narrow on him. Modern phrasing still eludes me half the time having grown up with no TV or internet.
“Listen, Persephone...” Hades’ stern professor voice and hand cutting through the air has me turning to him on instinct, ready to obey. “My family’s complex has empty apartments. You and Artemis are welcome to stay there. Free of cha-”
“Oh no, no, no. No thank you.” I interrupt. Handouts beget expectation, Mama always says. Gifts are one thing, but wading into a sticky situation with Hades of all people is not wise. Even I know that. “It’s best if we stay with Eros like we planned. I’m sure it’ll all be fine tomorrow. I just need to find a ride to his place later.”
“Allow m-” Hades begins.
“I’ll take you!” Ares interrupts. Reaching a rough, calloused hand toward me, he pulls one of my dark pink curls. I smile when it bounces in front of my face. In that moment, my new friend, mischievous brat that he is, does seem to be the safer choice.
“Thanks, Ares. I appreciate it! I’m done with class at four o-clock.”
“Meet me at the pool. I have practice just after that.” He kisses my cheek, setting off tingles. When he hugs my neck, I grip his forearm.
Hades glares at him. This is...this is what we planned, right? Make him jealous? But it feels so wrong on so many different levels. If Hades cares for me, I don’t want to play games with that, even if he has a girlfriend. Plus, I actually enjoy spending time with Ares. Besides all the bluster and fake flirting, I'm so comfortable with him. Even his teasing shows me how to be feisty. He makes me feel...strong, oddly enough.
Hades turns to leave.
“Wait!” I reach out and tug at the crisp fabric of his rolled up shirt sleeves. My hand slips and trails down the bare skin of his forearm. His skin is cool but soft. “Take a cupcake!”
I’m gifted with the tiniest smile when I shove off Ares and hand him two. “You’re a big guy with an appetite to match, I’m sure.”
At his blush, I grin back, surprised at myself. Where did this easy flirtation come from? Forget it. I’m not asking questions...just gonna go with it.
Hades smile fades as he looks up, over my head. He sets the cupcakes back on the table. “Ms. Juno.”
“Mama H!” Ares turns and runs.
Spinning in surprise, I see Hera, the goddess of relationships, caught in Ares' loving choke hold. He looms behind her, chin digging into her perfectly straight hair. They’re as pretty as a picture, two golden gods who shine like the sun. She’s even more beautiful in person. While Ares is grinning, Hera’s face is blank, staring directly at Hades.
“Mr. Kronuson,” she says.
"Doctor!" I lift a finger, correcting her. PhDs don't come cheap.
When her gaze slides from Hades to me, it warms with a smile. “Niece! And where have you been hiding?”
“Wait. You all know each other?” I look between them, then it hits me. Everyone knows each other. Everyone except me. And for a moment, I feel small and confused. How could I ever expect to fit in with gods and goddesses who all grew up in the same world. I'm the goddess of one measly season.
“Oy! Asshole!” Ares yells, jostled off kilter by a guy from my English class who must have bumped into him. The creep was always dropping lewd Shakespeare quotes on girls like it was high art. He sneers and barks something back. Ares releases Hera and towers over the jerk, pointing in his face. “Watch where you’re walking. You could’ve hurt someone!”
“Well, that escalated quickly.” Hera sidesteps the shouting match. Walking to me, she pats my arm and kisses my cheek. A warm citrus and vanilla scent washes over me. “Hold on, honey. I’ve gotta say hello to a friend. Don’t move.”
Hades steps halfway between me and the argument like a human shield. His leg grazes my knee, and I take the rare opportunity to let my eyes trail over his broad shoulders. Even the gold buckle at the back of his vest is beautiful.
“Go on then! Coward!”
The creep, Bradley...no Brock, scurries away, and Ares walks back, plucking at the tablecloth of the Water Pollution Kills table. The cyclops student manning the station sits, unmoving, with a panicked expression.
“What an asshole,” Ares growls and kicks at thin air. The huge, golden god has an instinct to protect that’s as clear as day when I think back to class yesterday. He helped me focus on something other than my unrequited crush. I watch him curse, jaw grinding together, and my face grows overly hot. My hair is down to my waist, messy and barely braided. I know the feeling by now. Arousal. And I think it’s for both of them.
Well...that’s disconcerting. Can a being really have feelings for more than one person at the same time? The two gods are so different. How is that even possible?
I jump off the table and pad over to the science experiment next to Ares. Hades follows and crowds my right side. I’m the filling in a sexy man sandwich. No complaints, but it makes me nervous as heck.
“Looks really great!” With a smile for the student running the water pollution table, I try to put him at ease as I read over the poster and labels. His tremulous smile doesn’t reach his eyes, especially as his gaze darts over Ares and Hades. “Environmental protection is an important cause!”
Five cups lay in a line, showing how a single species of ivy grows in varied levels of polluted water. Each of the five rivers tested has five samples showing length of time the seeds had to grow, forming a giant square of little water cups. Various lengths of ivy grow out of each sample.
One line of seeds sits, cracked and grey, in the samples for the river Styx. No growth.
Idly, my fingers dance over the cup closest to me. Just like at home, I coax the seed with silent praise and send healing energy to the water. Grow, grow, grow, little one. Find the warmth. Find the light.
A bright green seedling sprouts and curls out of the dark water toward my hand. When it wraps itself around my index finger like a tiny snake, I can’t help but laugh.
Everyone else is dead quiet.
Looking up, I see Hades and Ares staring at me in slack jawed wonder. Hera is back too, blinking in surprise.
“Nice job, P!” Ares shakes both fists in the air like I scored a goal.
“That’s so...interesting.” Hera lifts a delicate finger to tap at her lips with a thoughtful gaze.
I shrug, making my voice chipper. “It’s a plant. It’s what I do. Goddess of spring, remember?”
“Goddess. Spring.” Hades blinks slowly, breaths heavy and slow. He shakes his head and readjusts his glasses. His hand reaches out to pet the tiny seedling, and the pads of our fingers touch. Our eyes meet. It’s magic every time. “You’re incredible. I’d love to run experiments on yo-.”
“Experiment on her? Yeah. Not gonna happen, cuz.” Ares grabs my shoulder and pulls me closer to him. He eyes the water samples with a curled lip. “Besides, the water’s not even that bad. Just a little muddy.”
“Are you daft? The river Styx is toxic.” Hades glances at Hera. “Our captains of industry don’t seem to care about polluting waterways that only flow to the Underworld.”
“Pfft. Toxic Schmoxix.” Ares releases me and grabs the tiny cup from my hand. I pluck the baby plant out and drop it in one of the cleaner water samples. The congealed grey water in Ares’ hand wiggles as he leans over to glare at Hades. “I’d drink it. If you can’t handle it with your delicate constitution, I understand.”
“I’m a king, war boy.” Hades eyes blaze red, teeth sharpening. He picks up one of the other samples of Styx. The lifeless, grey seed sloshes at the bottom. “I can handle anything.”
Hera sighs and interlaces our fingers, pulling me away. “Drinking polluted water to impress a girl. Now, that’s new.”
“They’re not...Ares argues with everyone.” I can't take my eyes of the two giant men leaning toward each other. “It’s not like that.”
Staring at each other, the two cups slowly inch their way toward their mouths. I’m too shocked to say anything. They could...they could die. Then again, they’re immortal. I’m horribly fascinated. The student manning the station catches it all on video, mouth open in shock.
Just as Ares moves to tump the goopy water in his mouth, Hades gulps his down. They swallow and stare at each other, nostrils flaring.
Then comes the coughing. They double over at the same time, hands at their throats, their stomach. Spittle drools out of their mouths as they heave for air.
Hera chuckles, shaking her head. “Men never cease to surprise me with their stupidity.”
Ares locks eyes with me and falls to the floor, one trembling arm reaching out. “H-help me.”
I rush to him, my hands traveling over his lips, throat, and chest. Could I heal him like I heal plants? Lifting his shirt, I remember there’s no wound, but perhaps I could do something. I place my hands on his broad chest, over his lungs.
“Oooooh it stings. You’re doin’ just fine.” He stares behind me with a smirk. Just as my power begins to sparkle to life, I catch him winking.
Turning around, I see he’s more concerned with Hades than his own pain.
“You tricked me!” I smack his chest. Rock solid bastard.
“Ouch. That kinda hurt.” His puppy dog eyes don’t fool me this time. I stand, indignant and stare at both of them. “Are you dummies alright?”
Hades shrugs. His lips pinch to the side in an embarrassed expression. Even his normally suave hair is mussed and fluffy.
“Your worry touches my heart, Angel.” Ares jumps to his feet, pulls up his shirt, and slaps his 8-pack. Nothing jiggles. “But this iron gut has handled far worse.”
“Idiots! The lot of them.” Hera drags me away from the two most gorgeous and infuriating men I’ve ever met. “Now, let’s talk about these powers of yours.”
Chapter 5: The Battle But Not The War
Coach is running late. I glance up at the oversized clock on the other side of the huge pool. The smell of chlorine is so strong, it seeps into my bones. Weird! The whole team must be running late.
Pain splits across my cheek. A tiny, pink fist barely misses my nose.
“Oh Fates, Ares!” Persephone yelps. “I really didn’t think I’d land that one.”
I lick a hint of blood off my teeth and smile. “Good one! I’m proud of you.”
“Blood!” Her hands shake and flutter near my face but don’t touch.
I grab her wrists and kiss her knuckles. “It’s nothing. I promise.”
“Gods, I can’t believe I just did that.” She’s blushing like crazy, and it just makes me smile more despite the pain in my partly split lip.
She came early to swim practice, and we goofed around, spending the last 30 minutes on self defense fighting tactics.
S-I-N-G . Elbow to the solar plexus. Heel on the instep. Fist to the nose. Knee to the groin. It was an easy roleplay, and I’d deflected them all. Until I got lazy.
“You oughta learn to protect yourself, considering your family’s line of work,” I say. That was the real reason I wanted to teach her today. Knowing Persephone was related to the mob boss Metis and her daughters was a surprise. The family is bad news, but Persephone is a living teddy bear. I can’t imagine her in on their schemes.
“Hera wants me to work with her! She says my powers could really help people.” Persephone’s soft thumb rubs over my lip. When I play at biting it, she just smiles and slaps my cheek lightly. I love having her so close. “But Mama doesn’t want me involved in the family business. I can’t help but want to trust Hera.”
“Your aunt is nice and all, but ultimately, she cares about herself first. Hera is an unrepentant capitalist.” I wasn’t explaining it right judging by her furrowed brow. “I don’t wanna say don’t trust her, but whatever this project is, just get a few opinions before you jump in. Make sure your values align.”
“Values align?” A slow smile creeps across her cute face. “That’s very emotionally aware of you.”
“Eh. Just something my ex used to say.” I shrug and pull at one of her ringlets, still holding her hand. Everything about her is soft and bright. “But aside from trust and emotions and blerrrghhhh...” I make a farting noise with my tongue. “You learned some good moves from your brat daddy today?”
She smiles and nods.
“Remember, being small just means you’re closer to the ground. A different center of gravity can really throw off an unprepared opponent. You’d pack a mean elbow to the gut.” I glance at the crotch of my tight swim trunks and cover my hands over the bulge with mock fear. “Or worse.”
“You’re terrible!” Her tinkling laugh echoes across the vast tiled room as she swats my arm.
“And you love it.” I lean closer just to see her blush deepen. “Don’t lie.”
“I never lie.” Her whispered words encourage me more than I have a right to.
For some reason, mostly because I’m a jackass who wants to hold her, I twist her around, bending her arm behind her back. My other hand grips her throat.
On a sharp inhale, she looks back at me over her shoulder. There’s no fear, not even a little. She’s closer now, completely at my mercy.
“What in Tartarus is going on here?” A familiar, booming voice interrupts my nice moment with a nice girl whose nice, round ass digs into my crotch.
Hades walks in wearing swim trunks.
I sigh and let her go.
“Why are you here?” I don’t bother answering his dumb question, though I feel a little bad at how flustered it made Persephone. She tugs at her skirt, eyes on the ground as she walks to sit at a small table nearby. I throw my arms out to my side. “Where the fuck is the team...the coach?”
Hades prowls down the length of the pool, slow and stalking like a wolf. “Oh! You didn’t get the message? Coach was busy. As his backup, I decided to give the team the day off.”
I walk to my phone at the table and don’t see the message. He purposefully excluded me, arranging this whole awkward situation. Asshole.
“If we don’t have practice, I ask again...” My chest heats with irritation. “Why the fuck are you here?”
His gaze slides to Persephone and the tightness melts away. He seems almost worried. With sad puppy dog eyes watching her, he answers me. “Just checking to make sure everyone got the message.”
“In your swimsuit?” I ask.
The way Persephone’s gaze slides up, her fingers twisting together on the tabletop, like she can’t help but look at him makes my jaw clench. I’m not afraid to admit my cousin looks cut as hell. I’ve got him on bulk and overall sex appeal, but he’s a smidgen taller. There’s a certain visual appeal to his myriad criss-crossing scars. Apples to apples.
“Figured I’d get a workout in before dinner.” Hades rolls his jaw and looks over, tense but determined. “This pool is bigger than the one at our complex.”
Persephone turns to me for a reaction. I know she doesn’t mean it, but the way she looks me up and down, my dick wakes up. I can’t help but feel she’s sizing us up. Down boy!
I could drive her home right now and play it safe, but that’s never been my style. The challenge implicit in the girl I like watching me and my barely clothed cousin is too strong.
Competition is in my blood, whether it’s fighting, athletics, or wooing women.
“Perfect.” I clap my hands together and walk to the lane directly in front of Persephone, turning so she can get a good look at my ass. I wink at Hades. “I could use the exercise!”
He smirks at me, dark eyebrows in a devilish slash. “Great.”
“Wonderful.” I need to throw off his confidence. “Wouldn’t want you to be late for dinner with your girlfriend.”
“I don’t have a girlfriend anymore.” Gaze tinged red, he rubs his hands together and crosses behind me. “We broke up yesterday.”
I say nothing, but my annoyance morphs into irrational rage in a second. Hot power washes over me. A fiery red haze tinges my vision, and my teeth sharpen enough it nicks my tongue. But the metallic tang of blood has never scared me. It sharpens my mind.
This is my strength, and no measly god of the dead would best me.
We glance at each other as we get into our diving stance. Like two boys on the playground, nothing needs to be said.
This is a race.
I watch for any clue or twitch to see if he’ll dive first.
Some reasonable whisper in the back of my mind tells me this is what I wanted - Get Hades to break up with his asshole girlfriend, and make Persephone happy with the guy she really likes.
But I’ve got this crazy idea that guy could be me now. The shortstack goddess sees beyond my teasing. There’s something there. If only I had more time.
Screw it! All I have is brute force and an animal desire to best my opponent. I can’t sink my teeth into his neck and demand submission, but I can swim faster than the big blue bastard.
His eyes search me. For a moment, I worry he can read my fucking mind with the way his face falls, so earnest and curious about my motives. I don’t give him the chance. His hesitation is my opportunity.
My body jumps into motion, shooting forward in a long arc. I slice into the water.
Freestyle is the fastest stroke. His splash resonates behind me, but I have a pace to settle into. Arm over arm, the tilt of my body is mechanical after so much practice. I need just enough air to breath and keep kicking. The water is not a peaceful thing but sludge I fight against to move faster. The wall is coming.
Spin down. Turn. Rocketing off, my feet scrape over the cement side.
On my breaths, I glance over. He’s close, but I’m doing okay. Surely he doesn’t practice daily like I do. I beat the fucking Norse at the Inter-pantheon semi-finals.
Hades is fast though. Over the space of three more inhales, I catch glimpses of pink. Persephone stands close to the pool edge, chewing on her fingernails. As I somersault and twist to push off again, his foot slips over my leg.
Son of a b----! Was he trying to throw me off? No time to get lost in anger. Hone it, dumb ass.
I push harder. He’s parallel with me now. His pace is a little longer which means I need to speed up to gain ground. It’s then I remember he was raised with the Norse. He’s in our apartment pool constantly. Sweet Gaia, I might be fucked.
Do or die, war boy! I pay no attention to the fire in my muscles or the uncontrolled beat of my heart. There is only the need to win. Defeat the enemy. Dominate.
His foot pushes against my leg again. There’s no excuse for such poor form. He’s either losing control or trying to cheat me, just like his shit stain brother, Zeus.
Fuck him up! The daemon on my shoulder is louder. Red hot fury and instinct kick in.
I lunge to his lane and grab his side, twisting him under me. I use his surprise to grab hold of his throat. If he thinks he can play dirty and win, I’ll show the slippery fucker who can fight dirty. My feet kick up, trying to keep us underwater.
He almost knees me in the groin, but it hits my gut instead. A flash of white pain bursts behind my eyelids.
We both bob above water and suck in air while grasping at each other. Punches don’t land, they’re just sliding slaps.
White, frothy water everywhere. Splashes and growls. All I can focus on is his starry, midnight skin and those gleaming, red eyes. Bastard son of Kro-
Persephone’s shout, so loud and echoing, stops my heart. We both let go and push away from each other. Hades flickers back to the brighter shade of blue he normally keeps. But it’s Persephone that I’m worried about.
She shakes, hands fisted at her sides. Red eyes pinch with fury. Red vines creep into the water toward us.
“I am not a bone to be fought over!”
Her hair whips out, snaking in the air with wind that isn’t there. Black water lilies sprout along the thorny vines that swim like snakes across the water. I’m in awe of her terrible beauty.
“Slavering dogs, is that all you are?!”
I freeze, chest deep in the pool. Steam rolls off me in self disgust.
“Of course not! I’m sorry. I never want you to feel that way.” Hades rushes out of the pool and gets to her first, kneeling so they’re eye level. He’s never had a problem humbling himself. It’s one of the things I admire about him. That softness will be the nail in the coffin for any chance I had with her. I don’t do soft. I joke, I’m mean, or I get mad. “My cousin just knows how to push my buttons.”
There it is. The blame game.
Persephone watches him, guarded, but seems to soften the longer they speak.
Fuck this shit! I can’t hear anything as static roars in my mind. My fault. It’s always my fucking fault when others lash out.
I slap my face and tug at my hair to shake the self-hate loose. Why can’t people learn to take responsibility for their own actions instead of always blaming me?
Rich. Real rich coming from you. My inner voice mocks me. What are Persephone’s nicknames for you?
Brat. Oaf. Weirdo. Boar.
I growl and splash the water, climb out the side, and stalk past them toward the locker room.
“I’ll be out in a minute to take you to Eros.” I don’t apologize for the fist fight, because I’m not sorry. I’d fight the bastard again if I could. What’s wrong with working out your feelings in a physical way?
The locker door slams against the wall as I enter the large, dark space.
How did I get here with my heart twisted around a freshman no one’s ever heard of? Even thinking about her like that ramps up my self loathing. She’s so much more than that. I’m selfishly glad that, besides Hades, no one else seemed to look twice at her. She’s so honest, cute as hell, and clever. She stands her ground at every turn and that power move with the vines? Holy Gaia.
My tall, brilliant, soon-to-be-king cousin is on his knees in front of her, probably begging for forgiveness.
I need to admit she’s out of my league. Give up already on this schoolboy crush.
“Slavering dogs, is that all you are?!”
The tussle with Hades didn’t hurt as much as hearing her shout those words with such disgust.
Turning on the loud shower, I tear my wet briefs off and put my face straight in the steaming rush of water. If only it could drown out her words. They tumble through my mind on repeat.
“Slavering dogs, is that all you are?!”
We're dogs who treat her like a bone to be fought over. An object. The words cut deeper than any fist fight could.
They hurt, because they’re true.
I kick the handicap shower bench in frustration. It clangs and falls back into position. My fury is futile, like always. I shout obscenities at myself and punch the tile wall. My pulse beating at my bloody knuckles oddly calms me and brings me back into my body. Out of my head.
“I am a beast,” I whisper, laying my palm flat on the wet tile and staring at the damaged knuckles. My forehead thuds against the wall as the hot water rains down my back. I have so little control over my dark side, it scares me sometimes.
“Ares, are you okay?”
Her sweet voice reminds me of a maiden in a fairy tale, the kind who can waltz into a forest of dangerous creatures and change the world with the force of her love. Hebe loves those stories, even if Athena always followed them with long discussions on the subject of women’s empowerment.
Persephone was a princess. I’d held out hope she’d give me a sliver of her earnest attention. Friends or more, it barely mattered if she cared about me. But I am what I am. If she entertains fantasies of white knights, she’ll run fast when she sees the real me.
"Open the door. Please, Ares."
I don’t bother with a towel or clothes as I walk over to pull open the door. My jaw ticks in irritation, and I say nothing.
She’s as pretty as a picture, even when her mouth drops open in surprise. Blinking, her eyes go round as she looks me up and down slowly, then again as if to see if I’m real. Fuck. I go half hard at her perusal, but thankfully she’s looking at my face now.
Her anger surprises me. It’s a beautiful sight. I’d take passion over shyness any day of the week.
“Is this supposed to shock me?” She pushes the locker door further open and stomps in. As it swings shut, she braces her fists at her hips. Her anger cools in an instant, mouth turning down with worry. “You’re crying.”
I lift a hand to my cheek in disbelief. It was just shower water, surely. But no, she’s right. A warm trickle of tears is just flowing down my fucking face. Gods above! I rush forward and press my hands gently over her eyes.
“Don’t look at me,” my voice wavers.
I can feel the smile lines crinkle at the corner of her eyes as she laughs. “Says the man buck naked. You’re trying to scare me away, aren’t you?”
The words don’t seem right. I’d never really want to scare her. Confusion clogs my throat. There’s no way I could explain myself.
She pulls my hands away, my wrists caught in her fierce grip. “Hades coddles me. You try to shock me. I’m just a fragile innocent, hmm. Even to you?”
I catch the unsaid thing right away. Even to you, means she thought I was different.
“Maybe you are,” I growl and lean down so we’re eye level. My nose boops against hers and I can smell that earthy flowery scent. Her red rimmed rage makes my chest heave with excitement. “Fragile as a hurricane. You’re special. Powerful. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“Ares,” she says on an exhale and jumps on me. Well fuck me sideways! She repeats my name, over and over, as she kisses my neck and pulls at my hair.
“You’re not fragile, huh?” I walk over to the shower stall I was just in and press her back hard against the tile wall, closing the curtain with a rough tug. Her cute little outfit is getting soaked but she doesn’t seem to care.
“Ares,” she whispers my name, not his. We haven’t even kissed for real yet, but already her pupils are blown, lips wet and inviting. “You showed me how to stand up for myself...called me a genius. No one's ever treated me like that.”
“Then the whole world is full of total morons. Lucky for you, I already knew that.” I smirk at her. The water isn’t hitting her straight on, but droplets slide down her long pink hair and settle on her eyelashes. She’s like a flower full of dew in the morning.
She leans forward, and her lips press against mine, soft and questing. The faint taste of honey and her warm breath on an exhale ramps up my desire. I grasp under her ass with one arm and sink my fingers into her hair.
“I don’t know what this is!” She breaks away from the kiss, and I can see the start of panic in her eyes.
“Do we need to know? I like you here...” I place my palm over her heart, then move to rub my thumb at her temple. “...and here, but your juicy little body doesn’t hurt.”
“My feelings are all a jumble.” She says the words while kissing at my face and rubbing her cloth-covered breasts against my bare chest.
“We can stop.”
“No!” She pulls back again, startled that I would say such a thing. The insistence makes me smile. “I want to...at least to explore whatever this is.”
“You wanna make out?” It’s something I did plenty of in high school. With her, even just that would be amazing.
“Maybe a little more?” Her sneaky smile betrays the innocence of those wide upturned eyes. If she wants more, I’m not the man to turn that down.
“Tell me if you wanna slow down, alright?”
She nods and leans forward, biting my bottom lip. Little temptress.
I spin around and sit on the fold-down bench in the stall. “Stand up on my legs.”
Shakily, she makes her way.
First, I pull down her panties, watching her for a reaction. The only one I get is rapid breaths and flushed cheeks. I tug her flats, socks, and skirt off next while she takes off her shirt and bra. Everything gets thrown through the gap in the curtain, and there she is.
“Perfect,” I say and gaze up at the feast of pretty curves and soft, pink skin. I gently kiss the inside of her knee, then up her thigh, mirroring the motion on the other leg with my hand. Her tender center I can already smell. My breath ghosts over her there, fingers parting her coarse hair. “Now put one knee up on my shoulder and hold onto that bar for support. I want a taste.”
“This is obscene.” She looks positively scandalized, but complies with obvious eagerness.
“Isn’t it, though? Grab me if you need. I like a little hair pulling. You’ll be fine, though. I’ve got you.” Glancing up with a smile, my nose sweeps back and forth at her apex, barely touching. “You ready?”
She nods, breath hitching. The woman doesn’t have a lot of experience, but I see the wonder in her eyes. My chest grows tight with emotion knowing I put it there.
Gazing up at her, my tongue licks out. When I make contact with her slippery flesh, I grumble in satisfaction. She’s already so aroused and open to me.
Her hips flex forward, eager, and I chuckle. Not to let my hands go unused, one comes up to help spread her lips open and circle her clit. I cock my head and slip my tongue just inside her entrance.
“Oh dear.” A full body shudder runs through her, and I reach up with my free hand to grope and pinch at her beautiful, heavy tits. Her warmth envelops me. In and out, I taste and pluck at her nub until she’s shaking.
“You want my fingers now?” I pull away.
“Yes,” she pants. “Gods. Please.”
“At your service,” I grumble and go back to town, licking up and around her folds before the stiff tip of my tongue finds and flicks her clit, back and forth. My middle finger circles and prods her entrance, and I watch her face. Her hips shift, twitching and tense for a moment, before she settles into the feeling.
When she blinks and stares down, I push inside. Just one finger, but for her it’s a revelation. A new experience this guileless soul chose to share with me. In that moment, it becomes more than sex, something sacred, and I’ll be damned if it’ll be anything less than amazing.
“Beautiful. You’re so beautiful.” I lean back to whisper as my middle finger sinks deeper into her. With a slow in and out, we feel our way into each other from that one point on her body.
Her hips roll against me, fingers curling into my hair. My scalp prickles. I nudge my ring finger inside slowly and deepen the pressure and pace of my tongue at her clit.
“I feel...strange.” She bites her lip, looking down at me. “Cold but electric.”
“You're close, Angel. Let go. Be free with me.” I’m surprised and oddly proud of my coaxing words. The tenderness is super hot. My fingers shuttle in and out, carefully arching to rub at the space most women love.
“Aaaghh!” She cries out, and her body convulses. Tremors clutched at my fingers. I steady her with my other arm up around her back, hand resting between her shoulder blades.
Her knees wobble, so I slip out and guide her down to straddle my lap.
Worried she’ll be freaked out about kissing after being down there, I just smile and trace a line with the tip of my nose up her shoulder blade. Her grip in my hair tightens, and she demands I meet her mouth. This girl is always surprising me.
“Not bad, then?” I ask
“Good, Ares. So, so, soooo good.” Her round, open eyes could be the death of me, and I’d thank her. She’s so sweet, I know my heart is in terrible danger.
“You know the day you first brought cookies to class?” I slide my hands up and down her body just for the pleasure of feeling every part of her.
“I know, I know.” On a long exhale, she leans her head on my shoulder. “Your rugby stick looked like a penis. I won’t make the same mistake again.”
“It was no mistake.” I cup her jaw and pull so her beautiful eyes are looking at me again. “It meant a lot to me. I didn’t eat it for three days. It sat on my night stand like a treasure, at least, until the ants came.”
She laughs for a moment, before her gaze grows serious. “You’re a good guy.”
“People treat me like an ass, so I act like one. Few ever see beyond the jokes or the tough guy act.”
Persephone is an open, aching heart. Every emotion is in plain view, from her easy blush to that quick temper. She doesn’t even bother to hide what wounds her. A welcome fucking change of pace. I’ve started to believe that maybe her tenderness could draw out my own.
Her soft tongue licks at my pulse point before she bites my ear, then kisses it all away. She’s a symphony of gentle, unpracticed intimacy.
I slip a hand between us, pleased at how wet she is.
Her dark blush colors not just her cheeks, but the freckled skin of her chest. A glorious sight. She writhes on me, primed and ready for more. Women are so damn amazing with orgasms. They can go and go and go. It just isn’t fair.
“You want to come again for me?” I ask.
“I can?” She rears back with an adorable double chin and startled expression. “I thought I’d just help you out.”
“Fuck yeah, you can come again. I’ll make sure of it.” Gently, I grasp her slippery clit between two fingers.
“Oh.” Her eyes widen further, mirrored by my smile. “C-can I feel you?”
I groan and nod my head, overwhelmed at the thought.
Her featherlight fingers grip my cock where it stands, hard and wedged between them.
“It’s so hard, b-but the skin is…” She tips her head down to inspect it. “Delicate.”
“Not too delicate, Angel.” The shower mist helps with lubrication, but I have a better idea. Sliding my hand to her tailbone, I scoot her closer and kiss her nose. “Why don’t you rub against me with that sweet pussy. I think it’ll feel good for you too.”
“I can do that?” She stares back at me with a slow smile, wiggling closer. Her legs widen further, knees squeaking on the little bench.
“You can do anything.” After the words come out, they take on another meaning. I swallow. “You’re safe to do whatever you want with me. No pressure. Just fun.”
It was a little more than fun for me, but with how miserably I’d started the whole thing in a rage and fist fight, I need to know she’s comfortable.
“You’re a lot more fun than I gave you credit for, brat daddy.”
Oh, that’s how she’s gonna play it. I groan and pull her tighter, lifting her ass slightly with one hand to demonstrate the kind of slick friction that could please us both. “And you’re a lot more trouble than I would’ve guessed, little lady.”
She smirks and lifts higher on her knees to rub against me to her own rhythm. I try to let her have her way but can’t control the need to rut against her a little. Her body hugs me perfectly. She’s all bountiful, bouncing flesh and cooing, surprised noises. There’s nothing better than a woman riding me, using my body to get herself off.
My fingers dig into her ass and pull her closer against my own thrusts. Her wet folds cover me. With a sinful smile, she lifts a breast up to my mouth. Hot damn. I’m never one to turn that down. I suck her nipple hard and lightly nip at it. Everything is drenched in either the steam, the shower spray, or our combined arousal.
I’m close in no time at all, grasping and whispering encouragement to her.
Her eyes glow brighter.
“It does feel good,” she says.
Our frantic movement increases. Higher.
She slides over me, so warm and wet. A primordial dream.
“Ares,” she cries. Our red eyes shine together, refracting to a warm glow in the mist. It’s a connection that’s almost alive.
“Persephone.” I grunt, shuttling her faster, hoping she’s close too.
Her legs clench at my sides and arms tighten on me.
Still, she moves. I pull and push.
“Fuck!” The familiar tension rises.
Like a crack of lightning, I come on a formless shout. She leans back, smiling as she watches me shake and crumple forward.
“A fuckin’ mess is more like it.” I chuckle.
“We’re in the shower, dummy. You’re fine. And I think it’s…” She holds my face in both of her hands. “I think you’re perfect. That was awesome.”
Awesome. Amazing. A big, freckled smile and genuine joy shines in her eyes. That’s the kind of reception a man could get hooked on after a sexual performance. When I asked her to trust me, to be free, she did. No self-doubt or insecurity. She’s special because she’s so real.
“What does this mean?” she asks. “To you?”
“This means...something I can’t quite put to words, but it doesn’t mean I own you. I heard what you said, that we acted like dogs. It slayed me. You don’t deserve to feel like an object. You’re really special to me.” I sigh and lean back, looping a long strand of her hair in my finger and take a moment to peruse her beautiful little body. “I know you have feelings for Hades. Even with the stupid thing in the pool, I get that. You know what my ex always used to say? Jealousy is rooted in ownership. Stupid huh?”
“That's not stupid!” Persephone’s brows draw together. “It kind of makes sense.”
“I meant jealousy is stupid, silly.” I laugh and tickle her side.
She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “It’s all so confusing. He broke up with Minthe, but he’s still my teacher and...” She opens her eyes again and looks between our two naked bodies. “I can’t help feeling like I’m this silly virgin in over her head...with both of you.”
“You’re safe with me. We’re good.” I put on my best stern dad face and point at her. “And listen missy, virginity is a social construct. The whole concept defines you through a round peg in a round hole scenario. My tongue and fingers was just inside you. What about when you touch yourself or you’re with a woman? If your hymen breaks horseback riding, is that it?”
There’s a smile pinched to one side of her face.
“We have a thousand firsts in life. What’s so important about the first p-in-v penetration? What if you fell on an eggplant or someone stuck a knob of ginger in your ass?”
She laughs and punches my chest playfully. “You’re so different than I ever would have expected.”
“You used to tease me all the time.”
“And now I tease you in a different way.” My fingertips trace over her collarbone. “I don’t know why I do the things I do half the time. I barely know who I am. We're still young and figuring all this shit out.”
She strokes my hair in a casual way “It’s all so confusing. These feelings you and I have for each other aren’t untrue, just because I…”
“Feel them for someone else too?” I grab her hands and kiss her fingertips. “We’re friends first, remember? Do you believe that?”
“I believe you.” Gods, it’s a heady power to hold someone so loose but so close.
“Listen, I'm all about the underdog. That's probably why I respect Hades so much.”
“How is he an underdog? He's a king. He has a PhD. Money. A big family.”
“You really don't know anything about his childhood, huh?” I sometimes forget she lived like a farmer her whole life, probably with little in the way of technology. “His father was a nightmare. His brother, Zeus, made sure he drew the short straw in picking their realms. Hades didn't seem to care. I never quite figured out if it's because he likes staying out of the spotlight or he has a low sense of self worth.”
“When did you become so insightful?” She smiles at me. “Ever think to turn some of that on yourself?”
“There’s this thing my-”
“Let me guess. Something your ex used to say?” She arches an eyebrow at me. “Sounds like you miss her?”
“Fuck yeah, I do.” I crack my neck, realizing how often I must talk about her. “She’s taking the semester off to explore non-traditional employment. We fight like crazy, but...she just gets me.”
Persephone lays a palm over my heart. We’re still naked, but the intimacy feels comfortable. I push my luck and trace my nose down her neck until she shivers and hugs me close.
“You make me strong,” she whispers against my neck. “But Hades makes me weak.”
I feel a hundred feet tall and totally irrelevant at the same time. Trouble is, I know what she means. Weak in the knees. A spark of recognition that can’t be explained, something beyond base attraction or baggage meeting baggage. They share a like to like. I felt that magic once and can’t begrudge her the same.
“This started out as me proving I could be your friend, Angel. Nothing’s changed.”
She exhales, like every worry in the world is tucked inside her lungs.
I won the battle but not the war, and that stings a little. My arms enfold her, hugging tight, and her tension eases. For a brief moment, I’m a part of her, and I know for certain I made a difference in this sweet person’s life.
Not bad for a war god.