Her return happened without ceremony. Granted, she’d neglected to send word ahead, thereby ensuring they’d had no time to prepare, although they weren’t as big on celebration as their Olympian counterparts. To their credit, in Persephone’s opinion. There was far too much ceremony where those gods were concerned.
And perhaps there’d been part of her―a half-forgotten, rebellious part that had so loved catching him off guard―that had wanted to surprise him.
She thought she had succeeded, too, although would have loved to have seen the look on his face when she’d ordered the gates to open on her authority. She might ask Nyx to describe it later, or Orpheus, who would no doubt embellish the description accordingly. Perhaps he might even put it to music. She’d name it ‘Hymn to a Dropped Jaw, Quickly Followed by Begrudging Affection’.
She walked the length of the Great Hall, still in her plain wool peplos and with lavender in her hair, her woven basket cradled in her hands. And even having announced herself as such, she didn’t feel like Queen then, but like she had once, a young, wild thing uprooted from her home, wide-eyed as she beheld the realm she’d so often heard dismissed as desolate and dreary, as though they’d been unable to imagine him living in anything but squalor. She had been surprised then to discover it had been quite the opposite―a House as grand as anything on Olympus, its perpetual darkness eased by the warmth of a thousand candles and its halls and grounds carefully maintained, with marble floors and intricate mosaics that could render even the depths of Tartarus in curiously beautiful detail. An odd place, to be sure, with its particular aesthetic and skeletal motifs, but it had been anything but dreary.
It hadn’t changed, Persephone saw now, lifting her eyes to the towering ceilings. Although…
The warmth of their welcome was unexpected, a palpable excitement in the still air as shades and court attendants flocked to observe their passing, a busier hall than she remembered.
“Well,” Persephone said, her smile startled as her eyes lifted to her lord husband, large and imposing, and unusually tense under the curious gazes of their subjects. “For the House of the Dead, this is surprisingly lively.”
Long ago, that would have tempted a smile to his lips, his whiskers quirking, although not enough for anyone to notice who didn’t know what to look for.
Her disappointment was startling, but of course, it had been a long time since she’d had the power to tempt such reactions from her husband, and yet her awareness of the fact did nothing to soothe the curl of regret in her belly, although more startling still was the note of defiance she felt, tempted to try again.
Looking around the hall, she sought a distraction. And it was a curious feeling, taking in the things she knew, juxtaposed against the new impressions. It was both the same House, and yet somehow nothing like she remembered.
They’d arrived at the lounge. On her first glance she hadn’t even recognised it, observing the wide hearth and the busy kitchen, and more attendants than she could ever recall there being within, although the far greater change was the chamber itself.
Hades' look acknowledged her disbelief, and everything in it, but it was Zagreus who said, with a scoff, “Like he’d know a carpet from a curtain.”
“I would submit to your authority, boy, if your taste in both carpets and curtains were not such an offence to the eyes,” Hades countered, although with far less bite than she’d expected. Zagreus, too, from his lack of an immediate comeback.
Then, and with far too much cheek, “Mother,” he said, with a grin, his eyes trained on his father in cheerful challenge. “Would you like to hear about the curtains?”
Her lips folded to hide her smile, and she shouldn’t indulge this rivalry, but Hades’ look warranted another hymn (‘Lord of the Dead, Ever the Long-Suffering’), and so linking her elbow with their son’s, “Oh, Zagreus, I would love to hear about the curtains. Spare no detail.”
He didn’t, and for all her teasing, she found herself genuinely intrigued as he outlined his vision, pointing to the marbling and the soft cushions, and the lush carpets with prints so bold she almost asked if their choice was some curious form of rebellion, and the look shared with her lord husband found her thoughts shared. Not even the Fates could design a weave so…unique, but it suited the lounge, and the atmosphere within. And she’d been told she’d had an effect on the House, the time she’d reigned as Queen, but Persephone had to wonder if their son hadn’t wrought still greater changes.
The flowers were a curious discovery, bone-white petals strewn the length of the halls. One caught in her sandal as she walked, and she had to stop and look at it, wondering for a moment if it was something she’d brought down with her accidentally. But she saw then the marble vases teeming with midnight lilacs, and the laurels where they spilled like draperies from the vaulting ceilings.
Hades avoided her eyes, but, “The b―our son,” he said, as though by way of explanation.
A glance across the lounge found him handing off a string of fish to the head chef, his expression animated. How odd, to see the face that could so easily look like his father’s in a few millennia, shaped so vividly with feeling, like hers was wont to be. And hadn’t she imagined this once, long ago when her stomach had first started rounding, wondering at their child within, and who it might resemble.
“Another act of civil disobedience?” she asked, with a pointed glance at the carpets.
But, “No,” Hades said, with a curious inflection, and a wry, almost regretful look. “This was before he discovered you.” Then, “The Fates have a…unique sense of humour.” Shaking his head, he conceded, with a snort, “All my efforts to keep you hidden could not withstand our son’s penchant for needless flair.”
Her smile widened, but oh, she’d forgotten he could be funny, when he wished. His brothers prided themselves on their wit, but neither had ever made her laugh like he could, with that wry, deprecating humour, and the blunt delivery that couldn’t care less about posturing.
“I should not be surprised,” Hades continued then, with a look. “Although you had more discretion.”
“Hm,” she mused, observing the petal-strewn floors. “Perhaps. But I don’t think his penchant for flair comes from me.”
Their eyes met. And it was a small step, the gentle teasing; an offering, to see if he would accept.
The noise in the lounge had faded, the din pressing in around them, encased in a bubble of quiet, but then she’d forgotten he could do that―make her feel as though there were no other people in the room.
“To the Queen’s return!”
The moment shattered, their gazes breaking like a tether snapping, but her smile was genuine as she turned to accept the toast. Someone had broken open one of the wine casks, but Hades made no comment, which might have been a surprise in itself, but then she supposed this was a celebration, even if it was still hard to believe they had all welcomed her back so readily. She had not thought they had missed her overmuch, certainly not to the extent that should warrant a welcome such as this.
It was all a little…overwhelming.
“Are you tired, m―Persephone?”
Not my Queen. Another correction, although while his use of their son’s name was an improvement, Persephone didn’t know if she liked this. But she understood why. She had always understood, with him.
And so, “A little,” she said. It had been a long journey down the river, and for all of Zagreus’ assurances, she hadn’t known what to expect, and realised she’d been carrying her tension in her shoulders, as she allowed them to sink. “I think I should like to lie down for a bit.”
She didn’t know if he read anything into that, or even if she'd meant anything by it. Once, it would have been said with more overt teasing, leaving no one doubting what she meant, including their onlookers, but their rhythm was stilted. Awkward, as though they were newly wed, and unsure of how to proceed. Except they hadn't needed much encouragement, back when that had actually been the case.
Hades inclined his head, a gesture of silent acknowledgement, before taking the lead, which was a small relief, as she made to follow, a look shared with Zagreus, but at least their son did them all a favour of not asking where they were going (for his own sake, perhaps most of all; it wasn't something anyone liked to think about when it came to one's parents). Not that Persephone knew where they were headed, at least not beyond their literal destination.
The little flutter in her stomach caught her by surprise, so much that she nearly gripped it with her hand, startled by the sensation, one it had been so long since she’d felt, she couldn’t even recall the last time.
They left the lounge, down the crowded halls of her husband’s House, and she tried not to notice the stolen glances, and the reverent whispers sprouting in their wake. She had been used to this once, when she’d come from Olympus; a different kind of court, but a court nevertheless, and busybodying was universal, regardless of realm. But she had grown accustomed to solitude, to her reclusive lifestyle, and had forgotten what it felt like to be weighed by the eyes of her subjects. This wasn’t her little cottage; her solitary court that had asked nothing of her, for better or worse.
Hades had noticed, but then no one had ever seen her with such clarity, and that startled her, too. That so many things should feel different, but that had not changed, even though she had.
A firm look had their eyes turning away, and she felt the reprieve, her hands shaking where they gripped her basket, and her gratitude was as unspoken as his understanding. And for a spell, their rhythm was as it had been, requiring no conscious thought. They simply existed, together.
They’d arrived at the doors, as towering as she remembered them being, the first time she’d stood here, a new bride brimming with anticipation. Her hands shook now, although Persephone wondered if it was for the same reason.
The doors opened, and Hades allowed her to step through first. Once, he would have offered her his hand, an unnecessary but endearing gesture she had loved, and she felt its absence now, and so starkly it, too, caught her by surprise.
The room didn’t look as it had when she’d left. Instead, it looked like it had the first time she’d stood at its threshold, observing his private chambers and thinking that at least he kept things reasonably tidy. A bit impersonal, perhaps, his work brought with him from the hall, in rolls of parchment tucked between his sparse personal belongings.
Her vanity was gone, and the mirror she’d loved had been covered. As Queen, she’d had more garments than she’d known what to do with, a new one seeming to appear in their wardrobe every time she opened it, sometimes to her chagrin, others to her delight, when she suspected him to be the culprit.
They were all gone now, replaced with what looked like an assortment of the exact same cape. Persephone wondered, saddened, if they were simply there to fill the empty space.
“I will have them returned,” Hades said, and when she blinked, elaborated, “Your belongings.”
She didn’t ask where he’d put them, or voice her surprise that he hadn’t had them permanently removed. Because she thought then of her garden that he’d kept, to the best of his ability. The portrait sitting on his nightstand, her likeness where it looked back at her now from across the lavish chambers. Things he had not relinquished, even as he’d let her go.
No, she wasn’t surprised he'd hidden them somewhere. He had hidden her, after all, and their son, and had removed himself in the process. Safer to keep his distance, and for their son to resent him for his own actions than to dare to grow attached to the heir he had not been meant to have, like the wife he had not believed meant for him, until she’d been there one day, with her wilful roots and her affection. Straightforward, both in their own way, but rather than clash over their differences they had found a common ground; a likemindedness she had not felt with anyone, in any realm.
But even with her candour, it had taken time to win him. The portraits don’t do you justice, she’d told him once, sincerely. They had captured the broadness of his shoulders, the chiselled cut of his jaw, but never the tenderness that could soften his eyes. They pictured him as fearsome, crowned in bones, always so severe. Never like his brothers, whose portraits rivalled Theseus’ in terms of vanity, for all that her husband was their superior in all respects.
But he had not believed her, when she had told him. It had taken time for that, and for him to bear her unflinching gaze as she stripped him bare, and to believe her when she touched him, her desire worn as openly as all her other feelings. Even now, he was doing it, a careful distance between them where they stood. He preferred it that way, the long haft of a spear between him and his enemies and a wide desk between him and his subjects. Few got closer, and none as close as she had, once, when they’d been husband and wife, in the truest sense.
Her smile was small, and, “There’s no rush,” Persephone said. And before she could second-guess the impulse, “If you recall, I’m quite adaptable,” she added, like she’d told him once, although that time with a coy little smile, his belt coming apart under her small hands, cheerfully in spite of his wary approach to intimacy. Not for the intimacy itself―he was many things, her husband, but unfeeling had never been one of them―but for what he’d called, and with that wry bluntness she’d so admired: the minor obstacle of your diminutive size.
If he remembered, Hades didn’t show it, although she spied a note of tension in his brow that betrayed similar thoughts, but couldn’t rightly guess why. They’d found their way around that obstacle, frequently and successfully, as demonstrated by their son’s existence, but even disregarding her actual impregnation, sex had never been an issue. Certainly not his willingness to have her, which had not required more encouragement than a meaningful look, or a gentle touch to his arm.
I would do anything that you would ask of me, he’d told her, not an hour ago, but that had been no fluke; it had been his marriage vows to her.
“I―” Hades began then, as she cocked her head gently, before he made a sudden about-face, “―will see that the baths are prepared for you.”
The words were on the tip of her tongue, to ask if he would join her, but he was already gone, the great doors slamming shut behind him, leaving her standing in the empty room with her basket.
She looked over his―their chambers, although it resisted that designation now. Aside from her portrait, there were no signs she’d ever set foot within, or that they’d ever shared this space, as they had shared so many other things. A single, solitary pillow cut a lonely figure on that vast bed, so different from her tiny cot on the surface, and yet similar in one respect.
And perhaps she had been naive to think it would go smoothly, and that it would be easy, coming back, coming home, after everything. But she realised then that she had believed it would go smoother; that it was the one thing she had counted on, no matter how long they’d been apart.
The mortals had songs and poems of great heroes returning, telling of desperate embraces, and of hands that could not keep still. And it wasn’t as though she’d harboured any illusions that their reunion would play out quite with the same reckless abandon―they were neither of them mortal, for one, or prone to such displays―but it wasn’t quite disappointment, the feeling that found her now, familiar even after all this time.
She had returned to the House of the Dead, and while her welcome had been warm, it would take time yet, to reclaim her place as Queen. And if she knew her husband, not a small amount of stubbornness.
A huff―a little suffering, and painfully fond, not the first she’d ever made of the sort and it wouldn’t be the last, but there was something comforting about it; a small, familiar thing that had not changed, even if so much else had.
He didn’t return to his―their chambers, and after soaking in the baths, she passed a restless sleep in that enormous bed, as soft as any mattress could be, and yet as lonely as her cramped little cot had been, but then choosing to be alone was not the same as being left alone.
She didn’t know if it was morning or night as she emerged, and she’d forgotten what it was like to have no sky or sun to tell the passage of time. Someone had put in a sundial, although it kept giving her the same time, and so was of little use to anyone, but she had adjusted to this once, and was determined to do so again.
The wardrobe had been filled while she hadn’t been looking. Not her old garments, but gowns in finest wool and silk, and jewellery, coronets and necklaces in gold, inlaid with bloodstones and garnets and rubies.
She selected a peplos in silk pale as bone, simple but elegant where it draped from her small shape. Her measurements had not changed; only while she’d been with child had her wardrobe required adjustments. Hades would have remembered them all.
She smoothed her hands over the front of the dress, recalling her belly, how heavy it had been, and how fierce her hope. How vast and yawning her grief, in the aftermath.
Her crown of laurels sat by the vanity, the one he’d brought down for her when they were first married, carved from the same tree that had been meant for their firstborn’s crib. She didn’t know what had happened to that, but resolved to ask Nyx about it later.
She didn’t know when the crown had appeared, but like her new garments and her jewellery, there it was.
Hesitation stilled her fingers, observing herself in the uncovered mirror. No lavender in her hair today, weaved simply in a length of green ribbon, and yet she couldn’t bring herself to summon her handmaidens to fix it to better accommodate her crown, or to touch any of the jewels laid out so neatly, as though she'd never left them.
Turning away from her reflection, she made for the doors. There were doubtless other, more pressing matters to attend to than her wardrobe choices.
Achilles was standing guard, and acknowledged her passing with a bow. “Your Majesty.”
Across the West Hall, she spied the long line of shades. Her husband’s booming voice echoed between the chambers. “A long line today?” Or was it night? She really should stop thinking about it.
“It never ends, Your Majesty.”
A gleam of humour in his eyes, but oh, she did like Achilles. Acknowledging his look with her own, Persephone asked him, “Have you seen my son this morning?” Or―blast it. Night. Whatever.
She’d heard from Zagreus that he’d been a formative influence, and a steady mentor where he’d lacked the one he should have had. And while it saddened her still that his father had not been what he’d needed, she was happy he’d had someone who’d seen him, and who’d taught him more than just to wield a sword and shield.
“I last saw the Prince speaking to the House Contractor,” Achilles informed her, with that gently conspiring smile that had witnessed far more mischief than he’d ever cared to inform his Master. “Something about a towel rack.”
“Important business, then.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty.”
She was about to excuse herself when she spied a familiar shape, having materialised from the shadows of the West Hall, and her grin blossomed across her face. “Nyx!”
Night Incarnate greeted her with curious deference, her head bowed with ease despite her elaborate trappings. Persephone had always admired her effortless grace. “My Queen.”
“Oh now,” Persephone chided. “We were never on such polite terms before.”
Almost a smile, that little thing that swept across her mouth. “Nevertheless, it bears speaking, now that you have returned to us.”
Her own smile softened. “So I have.”
A glance in the direction of the Great Hall, and the line of shades. She heard Hades’ voice, the deep timbre finding purchase within her. Next!
“He’s always working,” Persephone observed.
“He has not stopped since you left,” Nyx informed her, with a curious inflection, but then in spite of their different outlooks, she had always respected Hades’ work ethic.
Persephone gave a short hum. “Didn’t leave much time for being a father, I take it?”
“I cannot voice my opinion on child rearing,” Nyx said simply, “having not been present for many of my own.”
Persephone sighed. “Right. I’m sorry.”
“There is no need,” Nyx said. “I have many children. They do not all require supervision, although some...perhaps.”
“You were there for my son,” Persephone pointed out. Complicated as Nyx’s particular family tree was, that fact remained painfully simple. “I will always be grateful for that.”
“A necessary ruse,” Nyx said, although there was a curious emotion in her endless eyes when she conceded, “But I did not mind playing the part. He is a sweet child.”
“You were his mother,” Persephone said, firm. “Ruse or not, it does not change what you were to him.”
The slight incline of her head could be many things, simple deference to the Queen of her House, and yet their friendship had long since left such displays unnecessary. Something Nyx was well aware.
Then, curiously, “He was the first to hold him,” Nyx said. “Hades. When your son first drew breath.”
She hadn’t been prepared for that any more than the image, and her smile trembled. Her voice, in spite of her efforts, was tellingly thick when she asked, “Was it terribly awkward?”
Nyx’ expression didn't change, and yet, “As much as you can imagine,” she said, with that almost-smile.
She tried to imagine it―to superimpose the image upon the one she had not been able to forget, of their stillborn son in her husband’s arms, so big in comparison. Zagreus had been so small he’d fit into the palm of his hand; a charming detail, had it not been for his stillness, and his cold little feet. The grief etched into her husband’s face, indecipherable from his rage.
She looked across the hall, her eyes straying towards the throne, but she could not see it from her vantage point. But it was for the best, perhaps, that he did not see her. Persephone did not think she could control her expression enough to hide her feelings, and while it might have prompted a welcome reaction―he had always taken his vows to protect her happiness so terribly seriously, her lord husband―there was a time and a place for this conversation, and in the middle of the Great Hall while court was in session was not it.
Nyx met her momentary weakness not with understanding but without judgement, although Persephone preferred it to the sympathy anyone else might have offered. But then there was a reason their friendship was such as it was.
A commotion in the Great Hall drew their gazes to Hades' departing shape, the line of shades dispersing as he cut through with long, powerful strides. Confusion widened her eyes where they followed him out; she'd never seen him get up and leave his work in the middle of a session.
It was Achilles who provided an explanation. “The Prince is nearing the surface, Your Majesty.”
It took her a second to understand what he meant, before she did. “Oh,” Persephone said. “Of course.”
“What will you do?” Nyx asked her.
She considered the question, not only for its immediacy, but for its meaning in the long term. What would she do, now that she was back? Resume her duties as Queen of the Underworld, as though no time had passed, and as though nothing had changed? She could not read her husband anymore; Persephone doubted she’d have more success inserting herself into his duties than she had getting back into his bed.
“I don’t know,” she said, but with defiance instead of defeat, her gaze fixed on the towering desk where her lord husband had left it unattended. “But I will figure it out.”
As it was, she went about being Queen the way she went about planting a new garden plot―strategically, and with her sleeves pinned back.
Hades had remarked once, long ago as he’d watched her working, that she was a more efficient administrator than the Olympians gave her credit, whose admiration had been for her beautiful gardens, not her keen mind, which had surprised him, back when they’d first met. She’d been a waif with poppies in her hair―the choice had been deliberate, for him, the red of blood, of his river and realm―but he had not loved her for her gardens, although it had been his first gift to her, when they’d married.
She had not forgotten. It was there in her hands, which were as comfortable buried in new soil as they were with feather pen and parchment, and statecraft wasn’t such a long leap from gardening. It required patience, and a keen understanding of how things fit together, which soil for which seeds, and how to carefully nudge proceedings in the directions she wanted them to go, like vines coaxed to grow around a trellis. And of course, a little stubbornness was due, but timidity had never been a particular facet of her personality, and she never had been finicky about getting her hands dirty.
By the time Hades found her, she’d retreated to the garden, having commandeered and completed a sizeable chunk of his unanswered correspondence―barring the ones from Olympus, which would be left for a time when she had the patience to deal with that lot, and their excessive prose―but she’d been rather adept once at forging her husband’s pen and tone, down to the contentious flourish in his signature and aggressive punctuation. Once she’d perfected it again, it had been dangerously tempting to answer one of his brothers’ many missives, if only to tell them to go fuck a goat. Then again, Zeus might take it as encouragement.
There’d been a delightful amount of letters about Zagreus; a recent development, she gathered, from the subjects in question, detailing a creative variety of security breaches (‘after the Prince’s frequent involvement, the Barge of Death now has a regrettable emphasis on ‘barge’ instead of ‘death’’), assistance offered to the tortured denizens of the Underworld (‘the Prince has been seen distributing nectar, again’), the Bone Hydra (‘it only answers to Lernie now’), and offers from the stadium in Elysium, declaring 30% off on Prince Zagreus memorabilia.
She’d been preparing to plant the seeds she’d brought down from the surface when she heard him approaching. He’d always had such a distinct gait, especially in her garden, mindful of his steps in a way he never was anywhere else. Persephone spied his towering shape in the corner of her eye, but then he was impossible to miss, with his size and stature.
She supposed she’d looked better. Or more queenly, anyhow. Her hair was coming loose of its ribbon, and the hem of her peplos was ruined, the fine silk stained from where she’d been kneeling in the bed, but glancing over her shoulder found Hades' expression wrought with a tenderness few would even believe him capable.
If set to music, it would be a melancholy tune, as was his preference. She would name it ‘Lament to an Errant Queen, For Usurping Her Lord Husband’s Parchmentwork’.
They were alone, shielded from the eyes of the House by the overgrown trellises, and the wide branches of the pomegranate trees where they bent overhead, heavy with their delicious burdens. Wax candles burned in their alcoves, elongating their shadows and deepening the hues of the trees, lilac and mauve, dripping from the branches like their fruit.
“Hades,” she said, after a lull had passed. Her smile shaped his name, made the sounds gentler than most dared. “Come to assist me?”
It was said half-teasingly, because there was a time where he’d helped her, his great, lumbering shape kneeling next to hers as she showed him.
Hades didn’t answer, and Persephone watched him where he stood, trying his best not to loom, and failing, and like his commanding stature, his natural timbre was too loud to soften as he asked her, “How are you settling in?”
So awkward, her big and blundering god. So adept at governing, at commanding obeisance and fear, and yet alone in her presence there was none of that ease. But then he’d never attempted to command anything from her, had allowed her to grow in his court as she saw fit, her roots wild and unchecked. And yet they’d grown deeper than she’d thought, before coming back. Deeper than Hades thought, Persephone suspected, from his hesitance now, as though someone had given him a new cutting but without instructions for how to care for it. And he’d never needed directions with her, had known she’d grow as she pleased regardless, but the stakes were different now than they had been before she’d left.
Hades watched her, cautious. Still wary that she would change her mind―that she would find her marble pot too confining, even with its vast, sprawling halls, and the garden he’d gifted her upon their marriage. Or that even willing to return, that would be the extent of it. That even having come back, it had not been to him.
Fool. She had married a right fool of a god, and he had not changed in that regard, not one bit, and it made her so blasted, inordinately happy, the surge of feeling caught her clean off guard.
Wiping her hands on her thighs, before she remembered that this wasn’t her homespun wool or linen, Persephone allowed her fingers to curl gently, as she told him, “Oh, you know." Pushing to her feet, she brushed her hands over her skirt, this time with defiant purpose. “Bit by bit. It’s nice having something to occupy my hands.”
She thought she spied it, then; a gleam in his eyes. And she could have been referring to the gardening, but he knew her better than that.
She was glad to see it.
“My pile of correspondence has shrunk,” Hades informed her. There was no accusation there, but the observation itself said its part.
Persephone hummed. “Perhaps the dog ate them?”
No comment. And he wouldn’t offer his gratitude. Not because he was ungrateful, but because he believed the work his, as the Fates had decreed it, and that it shouldn't be hers to suffer, regardless of her choice, and her wish to help him shoulder the burden. He would not acknowledge his gratitude for her help any more than he would forsake the work itself, but she found it in his eyes, as evident to her as the exhaustion there.
He looked tired. He had not looked so tired, the last time they'd stood here.
She'd moved to stand before him, under the oldest of the pomegranate trees. They had lain her when they’d first been married, and many times after, and it wouldn't have surprised her to hear their son had been conceived at its roots. Her powers had always been the strongest here, amid the greenery she had coaxed to life, in his realm of death.
He towered above her, but even small, even half-mortal, she had never felt less of anything, with him.
His gaze had fixed on her hair where it had escaped the ribbon. Unruly, her mother had always called it. Her own colour, the pale gold of wheat and harvest fields, but its unwillingness to cooperate was her mortal father’s gift, one Persephone was delighted to have learned she'd passed on to their son, from the way it kept sticking up, almost defiantly.
She saw his hand where it twitched once, and held her breath. There was not so much distance between them that he couldn’t touch her if he reached out, to tuck it behind her ear.
But Hades didn’t touch it, or her, his big fingers curled to a fist. He hadn’t used to wear so many rings, Persephone thought. An odd vanity, for a god who had exactly one type of cape, and whose preferences had not changed in several millennia.
She did not move to fix her hair, a gentle challenge in her look now, observing him where he stood beneath the tree.
Hades cleared his throat. “There is parchmentwork that requires my attention.”
The corner of her mouth lifted. “A good thing you don’t have so much correspondence, then.”
Awkward. So awkward, where it had once been so easy, just existing together. He was the first who’d ever let her breathe, and whose company had not felt constricting, but who she had relished being alone with.
She’d spoken before he could take his leave of her, the words pulling from her mouth with a sudden urgency. “Will you dine with me tonight?” Was it even approaching night? She really had no idea.
Hades paused, even as he didn’t turn his head to look at her, but Persephone saw his shoulders tense, before he said, “I will see if I find the time.”
Then he was leaving her garden, and her, once more with a sense of loss.
He spoke of time as though it could be found lying around in a drawer. You didn’t find time in this House; you had to take it. She had learned that long ago. Mortals never ceased dying, and there was always work to be done, but he had taken the time once, for her.
She looked at her hands. The dirt had gotten under her fingernails, and outlined the deeper grooves in her palms.
“Blast it,” she cursed, her hands gripping the folds of her skirt, uncaring now if it stained the fabric.
She'd fumbled so much today, she might as well get it properly ruined while she was at it.
Zagreus found her later, still tending the beds.
The gentle query found her before he did, appearing where she was kneeling in the newly tilled beds. He wore a look of mild concern, the feeling vividly displayed over his handsome features. “The shades said you were aggressively gardening. Is everything alright?”
Looking up at him where he'd moved to kneel beside her, she thought back to the vagrant who’d stumbled into her garden, soot-stained and tired with his wide, mismatched eyes and flame-licked soles. Her baby, whose feet had once been so small they could fit in the palm of her hand, but they had been cold, no life in them when she’d clutched him to her breast. Even seeing him now, it was hard to believe.
“Quite,” she said, wiping her hands on her thighs. Her peplos were properly stained now; the silk would never recover. “Sometimes gardening needs to be a little aggressive, to yield results.”
“So it has nothing to do with Father’s painfully obvious brooding?”
Her lips folded at his knowing look, before she sighed, “He does brood rather visibly, doesn’t he?”
Zagreus' look softened. Mistaking her fondness for grievance, no doubt. “Are you happy?” he asked her. “How are you settling in?”
She almost laughed, but managed to control herself. But oh, for all their vehement insistence on their differences, he was more like his father than he thought.
She cupped his cheek, a soft smile lifting her mouth. “A new seedling needs time to adjust, is all.” Her eyes glittered, as she quipped, “I’ve found horticultural metaphors apply to most aspects of life, even here.”
Zagreus wasn't quite convinced, and yet his hope made her heart ache, he clutched it so fiercely. That she should be happy here.
“Father isn’t―” He paused, as though unsure, before he asked her, blunt, “He isn’t very good at this, is he?”
She barked a laugh, and so loudly she knew it had carried into the hall. Oh, well. Let them hear her, who had once heard her howling from her grief. “No,” she said, and with such fondness, she knew he'd caught it, from the way he blinked. And there, too, she found Hades, the rare occasion he was caught off his guard. “He’s rather terrible at it.”
And however like his father, she found herself, too, in the grin that split his face a second later. She’d never had any reservations when it came to smiling, and was glad to see their son was the same.
He shifted his weight a bit, ever-mindful of the bed she was working in. She’d had little time to show him anything, when he’d visited her on the surface. Their meetings had been spent talking, to say as much as they could, while she'd had him with her. Now they had all the time in the world, and yet she had a feeling he wasn’t there to ask her for gardening tips.
“You said you grew to love him,” Zagreus said, surprising her. “Father.”
There was a question there, hidden in the careful construction of that sentence. More than one, if she looked. Do you think you will again? That you can?
That I can?
She could not provide an answer to the last one; that was his choice, ultimately, as Hades himself understood full well. But for herself, at least, Persephone could answer.
“It took time,” she told him, honestly. She'd resumed her work, although mostly just to keep her hands busy. “But I didn’t mind. Things that last…they take time to cultivate.”
“I thought you said feelings faded with time.”
Her hands paused their digging. Persephone considered them, and the lines written across their backs. Not a girl's hands, but then it had been a long time since she'd last been called that. Maiden. Kore.
And she had said that, but then she’d believed they had, when he’d first found her. She’d spent so long not tending to them, not thinking about his sprawling halls, or their newborn with his tiny, cold feet. The grief borne of her love, and that she’d believed had ultimately killed it.
But even left unattended, there were plants that thrived, stubbornly in spite of their neglect. Their son was such a sprout, who'd lived in spite of prophecy, kind for all his father’s unkindness, and caring in reckless defiance of his rejection. And he had not been alone, she knew now, but it hurt her still, to know he had not been raised with the affection that had created him, the way he’d deserved, her kind, beautiful boy.
“When you first found me, I believed they had,” she said at length, meeting his eyes, blood and spring, such sharp contrasts, and yet so natural together in his face. Their boy; the best of their two parts.
Her palm smoothed over his cheek, warm to the touch, and she remembered still how cold he’d been in her arms. “Not for you,” Persephone amended, fiercely, and saw him duck his gaze. “That could never fade. Even when I thought you were―”
She didn’t say it, didn’t want to invoke that particular prophecy of the Fates, when he was here now, alive and grown.
Her thumb brushed his cheekbone, leaving a smudge of dirt. “Love for one's child is…different,” she said. “It is hard to explain. Even time cannot uproot it. Even death.”
A note of bitterness in his smile, that wry slant that was so alike the one who’d sired him. “I think Father succeeded,” Zagreus pointed out.
Her mouth pressed to a line, stubborn, but then so was her conviction where this was concerned, and, “No,” Persephone said, firm, and saw his brows where they jumped. “He did not succeed. He’s failed miserably at showing it, but he did not succeed.” Her palm shifted; gripped his cheek. “I don’t think he ever tried.”
“So all that resentment was him not trying?” Zagreus asked.
Her heart broke at the catch in his voice. “I cannot speak for your father,” Persephone said. “And I don’t seek to alter your perception of him. You have a right to your feelings, but I do not doubt his.”
Then, “I think,” she said, quietly, “that you are a lot like me. You push back instead of fold.” And with a wry smile, “But you are like him, too,” she said, and before he could protest, “He sees a lot of himself in you. Things he’d rather not acknowledge.” His own stubbornness, but more than anything, his capacity for empathy, which he tried so hard to deny but which their son had embraced, and without fear or shame.
“Nice,” Zagreus deadpanned, but when she pinched his cheek in teasing she felt the grin that lifted it.
“You know what I mean,” Persephone said, and felt him let go of his breath.
“Maybe,” he conceded. “But it doesn’t excuse his behaviour.”
“No,” she agreed. “But it might help you understand him a bit more.”
He said nothing to that, picking idly at the loose soil with his fingers. It made her smile. Even a prince raised in lavish surroundings, their son didn’t flinch at getting his hands dirty.
“He owes you much,” she continued, and saw his eyes lift to hers. “Never stop reminding him. But he is proud of you.”
“How do you know?” Zagreus asked, although she heard the bitter note faltering. “Did he tell you?”
Smiling, Persephone tilted her head, and didn’t tell him that when you knew someone so deeply, words weren’t always needed. But their son had needed them, and still did, and she hoped one day he would hear them from his father’s mouth.
But until then, “I just know,” she said.
Zagreus was quiet for a beat. Then, “Did you miss him?” he asked her. And she might have been surprised he wanted to know, but then for all his complicated relationship with his father, he never ceased wanting to know him.
She considered the question, and her own feelings, and another beat passed before she said, “I did not allow myself.”
She had left her longing at the back of her mind, like an untended plot, unable to bear the thought of nurturing it, even just to remember. The little things she’d missed, like the way he’d tuck her hair behind her ear, or how gently he’d cradle her hand. The way he could laugh, if prompted. It had been easier to miss other things―Cerberus, and Nyx and her sons. The distance had been easier to bear, and the loss of their boy, remembering those things, and not the love she had left, but like their boy, it had followed her up, and she was surprised now to find it there, tucked behind her breastbone, not wilted or rotting, just untrimmed. Stubbornly alive.
“One does certain things to survive,” she said, meeting his eyes.
“Yeah,” Zagreus agreed, with an understanding that hurt her heart. “I know.”
Her hand gripped his cheek. And she could not mend this relationship, but that did not mean she would allow it to continue. She had told Hades she would not tolerate it, and in no uncertain terms.
“Give him time,” she said. Then with a firm look, “But not too much. Sometimes he requires patience. Other times, he needs a good push.”
“Into the Styx?”
Her grin split her face. “If it helps.”
It seemed to appease him, to see her smiling, because when he spoke it was with a different inflection. Lighter, and without bitterness. “Will you be alright?” he asked her. “You and Father?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I know how to handle your father.” She smoothed her palm over the bed, patting it down gently. “I have a plan.”
The slight furrow of his brow suggested he knew better, but, “Are you going to give him time?” Zagreus asked.
“No,” Persephone said, as she lifted to her feet, her seeds sown, but the day’s―night’s?―work was far from done, although it wasn’t correspondence she had in mind now.
“I’m going to give him a shove.”
For all their son’s zealous renovations, the royal baths had been left largely unaltered. There was a new towel rack, and gentler lighting; a warm and inviting atmosphere that Persephone had already acquainted herself with, at her husband’s suggestion.
And oh, but she had missed this. Bathing in the river on the surface had not been a luxury, had been a necessity, after long days of working her fields, to wash the sweat and grime from her skin. It hadn’t been a heated pool and scented oils, and warm, fluffy towels, and while she had been alone on the surface, it was a different kind of privacy, here in the marbled halls of her husband’s House.
Torchlight danced over the tiled walls, throwing her shadow large and imposing, a more accurate reflection of the Queen of the Underworld than her small stature normally presented, but then her authority had always been greater than the vessel that housed it, although she’d never needed such tricks to assert it, least of all with Hades.
It had not taken long to reacquaint herself with her lord husband’s schedule―Hypnos kept surprising track, for all that she’d startled him awake from a nap―and his patterns, predictable as they’d always been. He allowed himself few breaks, and was rarely out of sight of the denizens of the House, which didn’t leave many opportunities to catch him alone, something she had a feeling he was taking pains to avoid, and with as much subtlety as he was capable of pulling off, which was precious little.
The baths were the one place in the House he wouldn’t be disturbed, aside from his private chambers, and as they were no longer quite so solitary, well…
The doors groaned as they opened, a satisfyingly authoritative sound, heralding her arrival in the innermost chamber. Not something anyone else would dare, who knew him, but she’d always been a grabbing-the-bull-by-its-horns sort of person, in the mortal way of putting it. And she’d always been rather adept at handling this particular bull.
Her bare feet were silent, and she might have been a shade, gliding over the tiled floors, for all the noise she made.
Hades’ reaction came, as expected, booming through the chamber. “I thought I gave specific orders that I would not be dist―”
The lash of his voice broke like a whip snapped in half when he saw that she was no shade, and this was the look she had missed on her return, Persephone thought, taking in the arrangement of his features, his usually-severe expression exchanged with one of genuine and curiously vulnerable surprise, although the most telling detail was his voice where it held her name, with the rough but gentle inflection he used for nothing else.
She didn’t excuse herself. She didn’t even break stride, simply loosened the belt of her peplos, allowing the garment to drop, pooling around her ankles, before she descended the steps into the pool.
The warm water enveloped her, the steam curling from the surface around her bare limbs. And she was no Aphrodite, with her squat little figure, short and slender and nowhere near as generously blessed, her small breasts perking, although thought she might as well have been, from the look on his face.
Gratification was a feeling she’d forgotten, a vanity she’d left behind like the husband who’d once inspired it, with his honest adoration; a worship that needed no temple, but whose offerings had been given generously and often, laid with reverent words at the altar of her thighs.
She really should speak to Orpheus about that hymn.
She felt how his gaze seized her, the look feared by the souls awaiting to plead their case before his throne, but it wasn’t fear that had her skin pebbling, as she took her time descending into the pool, desire curling hotly between her legs at the way his eyes darkened, grazing the thatch of hair at the delta of her thighs, before she dipped under the surface.
Her sigh gusted free as she sank against the tiles, claiming her seat on one of the steps, the slight elevation allowing her to sit comfortably without being submerged entirely. The water was just high enough to reach her breasts, although not so high as to hide them.
Hades was sitting directly across from her, on a lower step, his considerable figure leaving the water around his waist. And he looked no less imposing, stripped of his chiton and laurel crown down to his skin, although granted, the look on his face did add to the image. So very serious, that mighty frown.
His long hair curled around his massive shoulders, damp from the steam and the water. It beckoned her fingers temptingly, but her strategy relied on a different set of manoeuvres. Achilles had had much to impart when she’d asked, but then warfare and seduction were not so distantly related that they could not be called cousins.
The water sloshed gently as she stretched, and saw how it seized his gaze. Leaning her elbows on the ledge behind her, she spread her legs a little. Nothing obscene―she knew her husband, and knew far more effective methods to achieve the reactions she wanted.
Ah yes, like that, observing the tight clench of his jaw. The slight twitch of his whiskers.
“The towel rack is a nice touch,” Persephone observed. Her voice echoed in the chamber, louder than its naturally gentle cadence. Sound carried wonderfully here, as they both knew, and the privacy of the baths ensured nothing travelled beyond the walls.
She had forgotten what he sounded like, when he came undone under her hands.
She endeavoured to change that.
Hades had no comment on the towel rack, but then his silence had always managed to say quite a lot. Like her, he had his elbows leaned on the edge of the pool, and she drank in the thick coils of muscle under his skin where his arms flexed, taut with tension. His hands were fisted, his knuckles white. The rings, Persephone saw, were still on his fingers.
Leaning back, she breathed in the steam, her breasts heaving gently above the water’s surface. Her eyes had slipped shut, but she didn’t need to see him to know it had had its desired effect. With just the two of them, his breathing was rather obvious.
“You know,” Persephone said then, eyes slitting open to find Hades watching her from across the pool. She trailed her hands over the tiles, gripping the ledge gently as she mused, “The last time we were here, we made creative use of these steps.”
They’d eliminated some of their difference in height. She recalled vividly her knees pressed against the tiles, and the warm water rocking against her in deep, steady thrusts, his hands cupping her hips in full. Truly, excellent acoustics.
She saw from the tightening of his features that she was not the only one who remembered, although Hades still said nothing, but then his fortitude had always been rather impressive; almost as impressive as his stubbornness. There was a reason she’d sought him out here, where there’d be no barriers between them, apart from said stubbornness. No big, imposing desk, or even fabric, only the warm, clear water separating their naked bodies.
Speaking of which.
Her eyes lowered demurely, swept down his broad chest before they found what they sought at the centre of his thighs, and while lord of the Underworld and all its subjects, even the God of the Dead could not command his body’s response to her. And she had not doubted his desire for her was still there―she would not be in this chamber, bared to her skin, had she believed differently―and yet it was something else to see it with her own eyes, presented with the unapologetic honesty only an erect cock could truly manage. And his had always struck her as particularly honest, but then it was an impressive sight to behold.
Her eyes lingered on it, before they lifted back to his, along with a gently arched brow.
To his credit, he'd held out longer than she’d thought he would, and she watched as Hades excused himself, lifting to his feet as he strode out of the pool, although not so abruptly that it could be mistaken for fleeing. Of course, she knew better. As did Hades.
Persephone tracked his departure through half-lidded eyes, and the paths of the water where it trailed between the hard ridges of muscle, down his back and lower, where they lingered, but then he had been rather generously blessed, her husband.
She heard the doors groaning, but left to herself this time, she didn’t feel bereft.
She curled her toes, and when she sighed and allowed her shoulders to sink, it was with a grin that could not be withheld. And as far as shoving went, it might not amount to much, but only a fool threw themselves at a boulder expecting it to yield on the first attempt. Better to test its weight first, to find where to apply pressure. And while her bare skin had certainly been effective, it would take something else to tip the balance, and to make this boulder budge, but she knew, now.
Next time, she’d put all her weight behind it.
After the baths, she returned to their chambers. Someone had tidied up in her absence, although had left her gentle clutter where it was, the stalks of lavender on the nightstand and the slippers she’d carelessly toed off when she’d left for the baths. She’d never minded a bit of a mess―like a wild-growing garden, not everything had to be neat and orderly. And they were different in that regard, which could so easily have been a source of eternal conflict, but he had shared his space with her regardless. You could never convince an oak to grow differently, but he had always tried, for her.
It looked a little less solitary now, at least if you excluded the bed.
She’d make a request for a second pillow. If Hades thought she had simply exchanged her lonely cot for a bigger one, he had another thing coming.
Opening the wardrobe, she got to work dressing as one would for war, but then with everything at stake because of their marriage, it was perhaps not such an inappropriate comparison.
The dress was beautiful, and expertly fitted where it draped perfectly from her small figure. Not her usual colours of verdure and flax flowers, but the colours of his House. Red and sable black. Blood and darkness, and adorned with all the trappings of her lord and husband, bone embellishments and gold rings around her fingers, and her wheat-coloured hair pinned up, her red laurel crown enclosing a coronet of gold and bloodstones fastened to a heavy veil trimmed with gold. Beautiful, if hampering her movements somewhat, but then she wasn’t dragging her baskets through a field now, or climbing trees to pick fruit.
Well―not in the literal sense where the last was concerned, and her smile sat, small and clever on her mouth, and a little lewd, because that would have made him smile, Persephone thought, or at the very least startled a reaction from him, and like the weight of her crown, it was a small power she reclaimed now, in that certainty.
A last glance in the mirror, reflecting back someone she had not looked at in a long time, and yet it wasn’t the same Queen she had been, the one who looked back now from her reflection.
A heavy necklace enclosed her slender throat, a choker dripping with clean-cut bloodstones like those in her ears, but her gaze was fastened on the largest jewel―a bright, verdant gemstone, cut like the head of a wheat stalk, enclosed within the gold symbol of his House. She had not given her jewellery a close inspection before, but the detail was hard to miss now, as inescapable as the knowledge of who must have commissioned it, and with those specifications. The exact colour of her eyes.
Her breath shuddered out, more fond this time than suffering, although it would always be a little suffering, Persephone thought, and found her own grin reflected back from the face in the mirror. The Queen of the Dead, and it was the very first time she had truly felt the part, and her smile held a challenge now, worn with no less ease than any of her jewels, or the red laurel crown.
To war, then.
The line was never-ending, although presently it seemed unusually never-ending―almost vindictive in its never-ending-ness, as the shades of the court presented their claims, followed by their usual lamentations.
It didn’t help that his thoughts kept drifting back to the baths, the vision of her appearing before his eyes where she’d walked in, a queen without her trappings headed into battle, wearing no weapons but lethal in her unarmed approach, and as shameless as the goddess who held so many mortals under her thumb.
She’d done it on purpose. He’d known within catching sight of her that it had been no mistake, recognising that determined walk, and the lift of her chin. Her small, bare feet, never once breaking stride.
He had forgotten how she’d looked, bared to her skin. Her portrait had not preserved those memories, her small figure covered, and even recalling its shape, he had forgotten how beautiful she was, the warm flush rising up under her skin, so unlike his, and her small, slender limbs. The gentle mounds of her breasts, and the stretch-marks from when her belly had been heavy with their son.
He had not remembered, and now it was all he could think about, but then that had no doubt been her intention.
He didn’t know why he’d even been surprised she’d resort to such measures. She’d always been wilful, and prone to small rebellions. Easy to mistake their son’s obstinacy as stemming from him, but Hades knew better, and knew his wife better than to think Zagreus had gotten it from anywhere else. The rebellious streak, and that defiant chin. And it was easy to think that one green eye, bright as spring, had been the hardest reminder of her to endure, but no, it was the stubborn set of his shoulders, and the way his mouth would flatten, and the gleam in his mismatched gaze that spelled trouble from a mile away that had been the hardest to bear. Like a girl had once spelled the same trouble, his young wife, plucked from the surface but who’d walked the halls of his House unfearing, and who’d sown change so deep into the bedrock of his realm, Hades could ban the mention of her name but her influence had overtaken his efforts, like stubborn vines.
And now she was back, and no less troublesome than she'd ever been, even if she was a girl no longer. And he might have accepted her rebellion as fitting punishment. She had every reason to despise him for his failures, after all; Hades had only expected her to demonstrate it…differently. Certainly with more garments.
He still did not know why she had returned. He’d granted their son allowance to visit her, but he had not expected him to bring her back.
He could still hear the clear lilt of her voice, commanding the gates of his House to open, and with all the authority she'd wielded once. In the name of Persephone, the Queen!
Even then, with the rumble of the gates that had shook his House, and laid silent the Great Hall and all its attendants, Hades more than anyone, he had not dared to hope.
She would not stay. Like their son, she would grow weary of his halls, and of the restricting nature of his House, but unlike their boy, she was not cursed to spend eternity in this realm, and to remain with him whether she liked it or not. And when she left this time, it wouldn’t be from grief, but she would leave him all the same. Inevitable, Hades supposed. The Fates did not need to prophesize this for him to know it would come to pass.
Better then, that she cease stripping off all her garments in his presence, the wilful thing.
How he loved her.
He didn’t know why she was trying. This…wanton seduction. For her benefit? For his? Hades couldn’t guess her motivation. A wife’s duties to her husband had not been part of their marriage pact. He had not asked it of her then, and would not have done so now, of which Persephone was well aware.
It could not be out of guilt. Then, pity? It was hard to imagine, but harder still to conceive of another reason for her baffling attempts to seduce him.
Easier for them both if she left him be. She’d have fewer regrets this time when she left, and Hades…well. He had always been a lost cause.
“Categorically denied. Next.”
And she would leave. It was only a matter of time. She had never felt like she’d belonged here, in his realm. Even now, she wore the colours of the surface, the garments finer but the style the same as she had come down wearing, and no adornments befitting her position. She had not touched her crown, and even usurping his duties, she had not laid claim to it, the way she would have once, wielding her authority like their son did with the House Contractor, with far too much cheek, and no shame.
She did not wish to be Queen. Not his Queen, anyhow. She had made that abundantly clear.
He hadn’t seen her enter the hall. He’d been looking for the wrong things, paler colours, white or green, and so hadn’t noticed her, but there she was, standing to the right of the throne, at ease beside the feared hellhound in a way few others were aside from their son, although it wasn’t the dog's eagerly wagging tail that held his attention.
She wore the colours of his House. Sable black silk, and bloodstones. The laurel crown. Skulls adorned her small shoulders, the crown of her head and her small waist. Regal in that way that could never be described with words or songs, that had to be witnessed firsthand, and demonstrated most vividly in the fact that she had not said a single word, and yet had disrupted his entire court.
The silence had dragged on. The wide eyes of his subjects watched, as stunned as Hades felt, although not for the same reason.
Dragging his eyes back to the line, he cleared his throat. Even the shades looked unsure of how to proceed. “Next?”
The fact that it came out sounding like a question instead of its usual demand was not missed, from the whispers that erupted around the hall.
He caught the small smile fleeting over Persephone's lips, and was surprised at his own reaction―the ferocity of the challenge that seized him, and the depth of his affection.
Counted it as a victory, did she?
Her eyes fleeted to his, green as verdure, as the jewel where it rested at the heart of her slender throat, the symbol of his House as he had commissioned it, long ago. It had not been finished when she'd left. But she wore it now, and the crown of red laurels, bright against her flaxen hair.
The line was―
“What? Fine. Granted. Next.”
The shades were barely paying attention. Even Hypnos was wide awake.
The Queen had yet to speak, observing his hall as if she were a mere bystander, and not the centre of attention.
Persephone had not released his gaze. She held her own like a blade poised at his throat.
Then she turned, and as calmly as she had arrived, took her leave, headed in the direction of their bedchambers.
The Great Hall held its breath. Impressive, given that most of its inhabitants were dead.
The god of said dead did nothing, although his breath held all the same. A heavy beat passed, like the toll of Death’s bell.
Oh, blast it.
The reactions of the gathered attendants were expected, but Hades offered no explanation as he got up from his seat, mid-session, and did not acknowledge their shock as he stalked out of the Great Hall, in pursuit of the Queen.
The doors to their chambers had not finished swinging shut behind her when he stopped them with his hand, enough to allow himself entry, before he threw them shut, and with such force it shook the walls, but they’d barely closed when she was upon him.
One small hand curled around a fistful of his whiskers, and she pulled him down as much as she hoisted herself up, before his hands were there to assist her, gripping her hips in full, and when she kissed him it was with a fervour he had not forgotten, only had not endured recalling, but she gave him no choice now, as she sought to remind him.
She was as he remembered, softness and strength, resilient, a slender wheat stalk bending without breaking, but the moan that left her as his hand cupped her breast through her dress very nearly shattered him.
Breaking the kiss, Hades gripped her chin, tipping it up firmly. Her eyes burned like green flames; the look in them seared him.
His thumb traced the curve of her cheek, seeking the lines at the corners of her eyes. Her lips were swollen, the same colour that left her cheeks flushed like the surface sky.
Tipping her head, she kissed him again, this time so gently it was the barest brush of her lips, but she might have run him through with his own spear for how he reacted.
Smiling lips brushed the corner of his mouth, before a guiding touch to his shoulder directed him to ease her down, as Persephone lowered back on her heels. The top of her head didn't even reach his waist, and yet when she lifted her eyes to look at him she looked anything but small.
His fingers brushed the necklace circling her throat, the clink of the jewels soft under the harsher sounds of his breaths. His hands shook, uncertain.
Small hands gripped his with familiar strength, both of hers too small to close around one of his as she drew him away from the doors. There were gold rings on her fingers, and dirt under her fingernails, and she had never looked more like his Queen than in that moment.
“Come to bed, Hades.”
A calm command, in that gentle intonation that would accept nothing but obedience. The sheer volume of his timbre had nothing on her authority.
The line of shades was never-ending; it could wait another moment.
“Yes, my Queen.”
The royal baths were infinitely better with company.
The steam curled and twisted, pulled from the still surface. She thought of Lethe, and sweet oblivion, but even if she had not been able to bear remembering, Persephone had never once wished to forget.
His chest was warm against her back where she sat with her knees pulled up, the sturdy frame of his body caging her. So awkwardly big she’d found him once. Now, all he felt was familiar.
Rough fingers trailed over her skin. He had not stopped touching her.
“I requested an extra pillow.”
Her voice carried over the still pool, gentler than it had earlier, her thighs astride his face where she’d kneeled in the shallow water at the topmost step, her hands buried in his hair as she rode him until she’d loudly reacquainted herself with the acoustics. They really were wonderful.
The careful touches paused, but she was not deterred. “I will not go to bed alone, Hades,” Persephone said. “I’ve had quite enough of that.”
A grumble; she felt it through her back, before the touches resumed, as a broad hand flattened over her shoulder blades. With his fingers spread, it spanned her whole back. “I was giving you space.”
Persephone snorted, but her smile could not be helped. “There is such a thing as too much space.”
He had known that, once―had known her, when she’d required space and when she’d needed him. They had known each other deeply, had understood each other, likeminded in this while they were so different in other respects, but this time, they had not been of the same mind.
It was made clear when Hades began, “I had thought, perhaps―”
“That after living alone for so long, I would not wish to jump my husband?”
He didn’t answer, but that itself was answer enough. Because of course he wouldn’t have thought that. That she should return and the first thing she would want was him. Easier to believe she’d been happier to see the dog.
Well. She had been happy to see the dog, but the fool would of course assume that was all she’d been.
“My Hades,” Persephone sighed, with unbearable fondness. “You haven’t changed.”
A barking guffaw, a laugh so clearly a laugh, she blinked in surprise, and tipped her head back to find a familiar gleam in his eyes as Hades told her, wry, “I have been told repeatedly by our son that I am unable to achieve such a feat.”
She grinned. “He has your honesty. Though a lot more tact.”
She got a snort for that, but she could imagine the fleeting smile accompanying it. He didn’t disagree.
His hand had curved over her knee where she'd pulled it up, the rings on his fingers cool against her skin, and she saw the tendons clenching as she reached to touch them, skimming her fingertips lightly over his knuckles.
He didn't stop her as she moved to gently work one loose, smoothing her thumb gently over the scarring beneath. Old blisters that had not healed right, and her curiosity lasted only a moment before understanding replaced it.
Hades said nothing, but allowed her to remove the rest, until his hands were bare.
She thought of the silver scarring on her stomach; the reminder of her pregnancy that even Lethe's waters could not have washed away. She had not realised he'd had his own.
Her sigh was soft, as her small fingers circled his. "Here I thought you'd just discovered a new fondness for accessorising."
The remark was met with silence, but just when she thought her gentle teasing would not be parried as she'd hoped, "It's been surprisingly effective," Hades said, "in cultivating my reputation. The proportional relationship between my number of rings and the willing deference of the shades is a proven fact. A strategy of their mortal kings, it seems." Then, "The bloodstones are an added bonus."
A beat passed, and when she barked a laugh it bounced off the walls of the chamber. And he didn't join her, but then he had different ways of demonstrating mirth, and his silences were never without meaning, if you knew him.
Around them, the steam continued to rise from the pool lazily. The tension she’d brought down from the surface had bled from her limbs like the sweat from her skin, and leaning back against his chest, Persephone thought she could not be compelled to move for all the duties in the Underworld.
His fingers carded through her hair, snagging a bit in the tangles, but he greeted the small rebellion with familiar persistence, working them loose, like unruly roots, taking care not to pull too hard. His hand was big enough to cup her head in full, but his fingers had never touched her clumsily, as deft as they were curled around the haft of his spear, although it was a different kind of strength he used for this, but then he had always been gentle with her.
It had been ages since anyone had washed her hair, so long that Persephone couldn’t even recall if the last to do it had been him or one of her handmaidens, and with everything that had happened, she hadn't been prepared for how hard that would hit her.
Her voice shook when she spoke, tellingly rough, “Zagreus will have reached the surface by now.”
Hades didn’t cease touching her hair, the circular motions massaged against her scalp coaxing her eyes shut. And she’d spoken no command, or even asked him to remain. Because he would do as she asked, as he had told her, but…there were some things she did not wish to ask for, that she simply wanted, selfish as they were. The rhythm they’d had once, where she had not needed to say anything for him to understand.
The hand in her hair didn't cease its small movements. Beyond the baths, the Underworld had not paused, and on the surface, mortals were still dying. There was always work to be done.
Her husband did not leave.
The Styx released him, striding up the steps from the pool, his sword useless in his hand.
“Um,” Zagreus said, observing the enormous desk, although the most prominent detail seemed to be his enormous father, currently missing, which would not have been so strange, had he in fact been the one to send him down the river. Except he hadn’t been; he hadn’t even shown up.
Hypnos, for once awake, hadn’t looked up from his notes. “What?”
“Where’s Father?” Zagreus asked, reaching to scratch one of Cerberus’ heads. “He wasn’t at the temple when I arrived. How does he expect me to keep testing his security if he leaves the front door wide open?”
No one answered, although to be fair, the second question had been largely rhetorical, but their silence regarding the first was…odd. The shades by the fireplace were studiously avoiding his gaze, although he could have sworn one of their whispers carried a giggle, but when he looked in their direction they chlammed up.
Zagreus didn’t think he’d seen such conspiratorial silence since he’d first started asking around about his mother.
“What’s going on?” he asked Nyx, who chose that moment to glide past.
“Hm? Is something the matter, child?”
It was hard to place her expression. Granted, that wasn’t exactly unusual. Night Incarnate and all.
Deciding to take a different approach, as no one was apparently going to be more forthcoming about his father’s whereabouts, “Have you seen Mother?” he asked her. Nyx would know; she knew everyone's whereabouts. “Is she tending the garden?”
“She is tending something, yes," Nyx said, "although it is not the garden.”
He frowned, confused. Was she…smiling? No, just a trick of the torchlight. Or…?
“Okay,” he said, warily. “I’m going to go and take a bath that isn’t blood. Or molten lava.”
Achilles cleared his throat, drawing his eyes to the guardpost, only to find a knowing smile grazing his lips. “Might give the baths a wide berth, lad. Word of advice.”
Frowning, Zagreus was about to ask if they were renovating them―if so, it wasn’t something he’d ordered―when he shut his mouth.
“Hey, where are you going?” Hypnos called after him, as he made a sharp turn in the opposite direction of the baths.
“Oh, I’m just going to throw myself in the Phlegethon.” Or whatever would purge the image that had burned itself into his mind. The flaming river ought to do it.
“Ohhh it’s been a while since that one got you! Have fun!”