Welcome to the special Halloween edition of Thursday Thousand! In February, I began a short project where I had to post a short story every week, on Thor’s Day, that had only one parameter: it had to be, had minimum, 1000 words long. It could be any genre, any length beyond that, and could even contain mild cliffhangers!
Why? Because some of those definitely turned into novels, let’s be honest here. It was in an effort to get myself working, and, suffice to say, it worked. Two of my last posts for the project were first chapters of finished novels that Thursday Thousand helped me get back to.
However, with Halloween celebrations in full swing on the blog, I wanted to bring this back for a special four-week look into some of my spooky stories. In the next four weeks, you’ll get a look at two short stories from my Greek mythology retelling, the first chapter of my faery novel, and another edition of planet people!
This week’s is the fourth in my Greek mythos series. The first, The Ferryman, is about Charon, gatekeeper to the underworld and guardian of the river Styx. The second, The Queen, is about her majesty, Persephone, goddess of spring and queen of the underworld. And third, The Messenger, is about, you guessed it, messenger to the gods, Hermes. At this point, this will definitely make more sense if you’ve read the others. Charon, you could get away with not reading, but Persephone’s ties in directly to this one, and there’s a little bit of Hermes in here that hurts more if you’ve read his. Because today’s? The King himself, Hades, god of the underworld.
If I could spend every morning with this one I love—
Her voice was like the falling of flower petal—beautiful at first; transfixing, almost; a dance of palest pink drifting away from its sisterhood to settle upon freshly dewed grass. But in its tumble, sorrow crept around the edges, for it was no longer part of the whole, no longer breathing in sync with the rest, no longer anything but a falling flower petal, something destined to die; dying, even, in its last glorious dance.
It wasn’t always like that.
On days where the pale sun shone bright, where the throaty cawing of the crows sounded more like the gentle chirping of twittering birds, where the air was a living thing, exhaling something floral and tantalizing and full of ecstasy—on days where the world was a place to wake up in, to let lazy smiles unfurl in, her voice was like the steam rising from a mug of still hot tea. Warm, full of comfort, like silk sheets sliding over bare skin and dark fingers threaded through hair like the endless stillness in the deep midst of night. Her voice was like love and ease and inhales that didn’t hurt.
Once, when they were still new to this game of sorrow, Hades liked to pretend she was still here. He would wake with her parting words still settling into his bones, and he would turn over onto his front, one hand extended out, as though reaching for her. Once, she’d claimed to do the same, sprawled out on a bed of flowers and slowly stretching grass, one arm flung out as though she could reach through the layers of the world and find him. Once, Hades had pretended that he could feel her, that what twisted between them was so fierce that she really could reach through the layers, that time and distance and hell could not separate them. Once, he’d believed in hope.
Now, Hades opened his eyes to an ashy ceiling, the thick gloom holding any possibility of a grey day at bay. He’d replaced the soft lace curtains she liked with heavy black ones that blocked the light. He’d left them in a heap on the floor, but he knew they would be gone now because that was what Persephone did.
She fixed as many small things as she could so that he would wake easier when she was gone.
It never worked, and though she knew that, she still tried.
The only thing that remained of her was this bed, the sheets still warm from her body, the pillow still smelling like the lilacs she’d stuck in her hair. Hades closed his eyes as something with barbed edges rose in his throat. He could still see her as she’d been—laughing freely, one of her hands splayed over her throat like she did when she enjoyed who was making her laugh like that. Charon was before her, the twins flanking him, and bright spots of joy high in his cheeks. She had such a fondness for her little ferryman, and though Hades had nothing but respect for Charon, it was amusing to watch him try to offer Persephone, goddess of spring, flowers, of all things.
Hades knew that laugh, the one reserved only for those she doted on, the one that could not be mistaken for anything but joy, and Charon seemed to know it, for Hypnos was jostling him, a wide grin plastered across his face. Even Thanatos was smiling, though it was a small, quiet thing.
“I don’t know that anyone’s ever thought of blue lilacs,” Persephone said as she took the bouquet. She gently slid one of them out, and though she didn’t look at Hades, she turned subtly toward him, and he took the bouquet from her so her hands were free to thread the lilac through her hair. She’d gathered it up when the dancing started, and it hung in a long braid down her back.
“Most people would go with bird of paradise,” Hypnos said jovially, and Hades froze.
The bird of paradise flower, something exotic with its sharp orange and purple petals, was for joy.
“But Charon is not most people,” Thanatos finished dutifully.
“Don’t be like that,” Charon muttered at them, and Persephone’s smile was so wide, it overtook her face. Charon shrugged one self-conscious shoulder. “May you find happiness while you’re away,” he said softly, “And peace knowing that we’ll be here when you return.”
None of them looked at Hades, standing there with flowers meant for happiness and peace in his hands, but Persephone’s smile faltered at the edges, falling away from her eyes, and he knew what Charon’s words meant, knew what they were all thinking.
Every year, Hades wanted to die a little more.
The lilac made it through the night. When the feast, and subsequent party, started to wind down in the early hours of late night, Hades smelled the lilac a breath before Persephone’s knuckles brushed across his lower back. He knew he’d become more reclusive as the night spun by, but he hated these hours more than anything. The feast was a tradition now, and while Hades understood the benefits of it, he still despised the actual thing. Yes, the citizens of the underworld should be given a chance to say goodbye to their queen, but what of her husband? What lingering hours would he be allotted?
And so, as new night drifted into full bloom and wavered into the coming dawn, Hades started to retreat. There was something like desperation in his bones. His hands, if he wasn’t careful, started to shake. He couldn’t breathe.
When first the smell of lilacs came, and then Persephone’s fingers trailing across his back, Hades felt his eyes close, felt his shoulders slump a little. For the one thing he hated more than this feast was this moment, right now, when Persephone started to say goodbye.
One year, he’d tried to swallow the mounting sorrow—and fear, but he would never put a name to that ugly feeling—with anger, and all of it had come out wrong.
“Leave me,” he’d spat, jerking out from under her touch.
And Persephone, his queen, his wife, his love, did as he’d asked. She walked away from him, and come morning, Hades felt like he’d torn his own heart out and thrown it to the wolves.
He never cloaked it again, and so when she came to him now, he was what he’d become over the years—cracking into hundreds of small, sharp pieces.
Hades finally abandoned gazing at the ashy ceiling—it was a pale white normally, bumped stone that looked like the bleached insides of a cave, but when Persephone left and no one was there to reign in the sorrow, Hades started to let it bleed out all around him—and turned over to bury his face in her pillow. That barbed thing in his throat threatened to overcome him, so Hades hit the bed beneath him with a closed fist. Once, twice, and before the third could land, the barbed thing came undone, and a ragged sob yanked itself out.
She was gone.
It was worse every year.
He wished death was a thing he might accomplish.
A season was too long.
She was gone.
Hades let the barbed thing out, let it heave through his shoulders, let it crack against his ribs, let it run him ragged until, as it faded, his hands were shaking, and he couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t breathe, and his hands were shaking, and this felt like dying, but some rational part of him knew that it wasn’t, and that made it worse.
If only he could die, he might wake at autumn’s crest to find that he was alive again.
Hades didn’t hear the door shush open, didn’t hear the soft feet dart across the room. He never did. In the moment of its happening, the king forgot the smallest thing his queen had tried to fix. He would remember after, when he woke again, but when a thumb flitted against his temple, all Hades could think was that maybe, maybe, the weight of it all had brought her back.
Hypnos let out a hard breath.
He was late, and it showed.
His thumb was the first thing to find the king’s temple, and then, as the gold exhale of his magic burst out through his hand, the rest of his fingers fanned over the side of his face, a few of them slipping up into his dark hair. He waited, watching, an inhale trapped in his lungs, the line of his shoulders rigged high, and the door to the king’s chambers still open a crack. He glanced quickly from the king’s face to the door, willing it to stay cracked, for no one to notice it open, for no one to come looking.
When he woke this morning, he’d done it languidly, toes stretching and spine popping. He was a little hazy on the details of last night—he remembered the stricken look on Charon’s face from before the feast started, and the wildness of Icarus, a legend, trapped in hell with them, but much after that was only a warm sensation of hands and food and wine. And then, as he let his head tilt over to look toward his window, something cold slid through him.
The sun had risen.
Hades was probably awake.
Hypnos didn’t make a sound as he raced out of bed and out of his room. He couldn’t wake Thanatos, or his brother would ask where he was going so early. Charon was zonked out on their sofa, too, and wouldn’t stop at asking; he’d just follow if Hypnos tried to ignore him. He didn’t notice that Icarus wasn’t there, but he did remember to shut the door on his way out.
If only he’d done the same thing on his way into the king’s chambers, but he’d been distracted by the awful, muffled noise tripping through the cavernous room. The king was curved in his massive bed, the silk black sheets slipped down around his waist, his handsome face pressed into a pillow on the other side of the bed.
Gods, it was the queen’s pillow, had to be from the way he was clutching at it, sobbing into it. Hypnos dashed across the room, around the bed, and dropped a thumb onto the king’s temple even as he caught sight of the still cracked door. But he waited, his chest aching with the need to exhale, the king’s soft, dark hair tangled around his hand as he watched his face.
Slowly, some of it ebbed away, and as the king settled back into slumber, Hypnos released him. With the exhale came another burst of magic, and Hypnos threw it at the king as he ran back across the room to shut the door. His eyes shone like twin blue stars as he turned back to the king, gold still flitting around his fingers. Hades didn’t stir, but Hypnos still returned, frowning as he came around the bed again. There was still pain in the sharp lines of his face, but at least he was asleep again.
This, at least, Hypnos could do. The queen had come to him years ago and asked Hypnos to ease the king through his first few weeks without her. No one ever told her what Hades was like when she returned to the mortal realm for spring, but there was no way she couldn’t know. The king was like an open book on her last night, and Hypnos was sure it wasn’t just then that she saw the sorrow at her leaving. And so, for years now, Hypnos had been creeping into the king’s chambers to help him sleep, to give him peaceful dreams, to ease out as much tension as he could with rest. He had no idea if the king was aware, though he wasn’t daft enough to think it truly possible. Hades knew everything and everyone, but he’d never said anything to Hypnos, and likely never would.
Still, to see him like this was something that never grew any less strange for Hypnos. Hades was a remote person. He ruled justly, and he was always welcoming to his people, but there was an edge to him that no one crossed. And in the months when the queen was gone, he became something else entirely. He was not unkind to them, but he was feared. His eyes were still dark brown now, but in a matter of days, they would start to redden, and a couple weeks, they would flare with anger and fire. Already, the room had been stripped of the queen’s touch—the lace curtains replaced with heavy black ones, the soft pink sheets black now, and any sign of flowers completely erased.
Hypnos started to sigh, to turn away, and paused.
The gold of his sleep magic did not linger, but there was a light dusting of gold scattered across Hades’ shoulders. He started to reach out, to brush it away, and paused. Perhaps this little reminder of her would not hurt. Hypnos drew his hand back, lingered only a moment longer to be sure the king was truly asleep, and then he took his leave, not looking back. He would wait and watch, and if there seemed more sorrow than usual in the king’s eyes today, he would take even that little touch of the queen.
It was late afternoon when Hades woke again. It was like waking from death, and as he peeled himself out of the bed, he knew it was a gifted sleep. He’d never actually seen Hypnos in his chambers, but the kind of heavy, full sleep was something that came only at the god’s touch, and the whole thing swelled with her touch.
Even still, he was loathe to stay in bed, so Hades threw the black sheets back and swung his legs out. He raked a hand through his hair, dragging the hand down over his face with a loud exhale. His shoulders ached, and his bad leg was throbbing with pain. He was nude still from their last night together, but his cane was toppled on the floor next to the bed. He gently set his feet on the ground, leaning over to retrieve the cane, before he stood up. His fingers tightened over the skull head as his bad leg threatened to give way, his other hand flinging out to press against the bed. When he was confident he would not fall, Hades limped away, the thud of his cane sharp against the ground. The moment he started walking, he heard shuffling outside the door to his chambers, and he nearly hurled a fistful of fury at the door, withholding it only because he could still see her in his minds’ eye, sighing ruefully at him.
Instead, he paused at Persephone’s dressing table where a charcoal grey robe was lying, and eased into it. He leaned against the table as he tied it shut. The door cracked open, and one of his servants softly cleared their throat.
“You may come in, Eliot,” Hades said, his voice coming out hoarse.
The door opened wider, and Eliot took one long stride in before pausing. He was head of Hades’ retinue, and he’d served him longer than Hades could remember. He was tall and broad-shouldered, his dark hair combed back and his olive skin always warm like he’d just come from out under the sun.
“Breakfast, your majesty, has passed,” Eliot said matter-of-factly, and Hades nearly smiled at him. “Dinner is in an hour, if you’d like to take it in the great hall. If not—” Hades waved a hand, cutting him off. Eliot nodded briskly. “I’ll have it brought to the library. Is there anything else you need?”
“A bath, please, Eliot,” Hades said, “And water, not wine.”
“Shall I call for one of the healers, as well?” Eliot’s gaze never left the king’s face, never looked to the heavy lean on his cane, but he’d always been more perceptive than the rest, which was why Hades liked him so much.
“If you wouldn’t mind,” Hades said. Eliot offered him a quick, small smile before he turned away, and it was a matter of moments before people were fluttering through the chambers. Hades dropped onto the ottoman at Persephone’s table as a muscle in his thigh twitched angrily. His knuckles went white around the skull head of his cane, and his head bowed forward a little as the twitch manifested into a cramp, as the nerve endings in his leg shot pain through the rest of his body. He stayed like that, trying to breathe through it, his tired, aching shoulders starting to shake with the strain of it, until a hand curled around one of them, and Hades had to bite back an exhale weighted with relief.
“Breathe, my king,” a gentle voice said at his side.
He tried. Though he wanted nothing more than to wither away and die, Hades tried to breathe, but his toes had gone numb and his leg was burning, and it felt like that last gasping breath before Hypnos sank him into slumber.
“Eliot,” he heard, though it was muffled, like something had exploded too close to his ears, “Fetch Iaso, please.” A moment later, the hand left his shoulder and Aceso was kneeling in front of him. Her blonde braids were piled up into a bun atop her head, and her brown face was creased with worry as she looked up at him. “Hades,” she said, and her voice was sharp enough to thread through the deafness dropping around him. Her hands came down on either side of his knee, and her touch was like ice against flames. It stung, and Hades instinctively tried to pull away from her, but his leg wasn’t cooperating, and all he accomplished was knocking his elbow hard against the dressing table. When he looked down at her, there was sadness in her eyes and a frown etched across her mouth.
“Listen to me,” she said softly, and then she was inhaling, a big swell of air rushing through her nose.
Hades waited until her exhale, powerful enough to draw his own out. He breathed with her, letting her lead him into a false sense of calm even as he started to lose feeling in his leg, even as the cramping pain leeched at his awareness, until her sister finally arrived. “Keep breathing,” Aceso said quickly, and though she didn’t move from where she was knelt on the ground, her attention flicked up and behind Hades. “A few of the bones have shattered,” Aceso said, “And I think two of the muscles have torn. I’ve held what I can in place.”
Iaso appeared, dropping down to her knees next to her sister. “Focus on the thigh, I’ll take the lower half,” she said before she reached out and twisted the cane out from under Hades’ touch. “My apologies, your highness,” she said, “But you’re going to break your own hand if you don’t stop. Put a hand on my shoulder.” Hades didn’t bother arguing. Some days, he felt like the goddesses of health knew his body better than he did. They were each within reaching distance, and each offering a shoulder, so Hades set a hand on both of them, and they got to work.
By the time they’d sifted through the pain, through the breaking bones and tearing muscles, a bath had been drawn and dinner was being brought in. When Iaso leaned back, Aceso let out a soft sigh and did the same. Hades had long ago released their shoulders, dropping one elbow to the dressing table and setting his face in his hand. “My king?” Aceso prodded gently.
He was slow in lifting his head, but when he did, there was no more concern on their faces, only distance and careful indifference. “Thank you,” he said.
“Call for us sooner next time,” Iaso said, always the brusquer of the two, as she got to her feet, “Any longer, and you wouldn’t be walking for a few days.”
He nodded, and they took their leave, whispering between them as they went. Hades waited a few moments until he could hear the clatter of dishes being brought in, and then he climbed to his feet, wincing at the prick of knives up his leg as feeling started to drift back in. He was unsteady crossing the room, but he made it to the bathroom successfully, where a steaming bath had been drawn. He disrobed, set his cane against the side of the wide, black stone tub, and carefully stepped in, sinking down until the gold across his shoulders disappeared beneath the hot water. He was covered in it, the glitter Persephone had dashed across her collarbones now shimmering across his body, her touch lingering everywhere.
Hades sunk fully beneath the water, and when he surfaced, it was to rake his hair back from his face and exhale long and slow. Something settled inside him. He didn’t bother sitting with it, didn’t want to let the weight of it escape with indecision. “Eliot,” he called as he rolled his shoulders back, and tipped his head against the lip of the tub.
“Your majesty,” Eliot said as he stepped into the bathroom.
“If Hermes is still here, please have him brought in. And make sure Charon has returned to the river.”
“Hermes mentioned that he was staying until he had an audience with you, your majesty, so he should be easy to fetch. And the gatekeeper returned to the river this morning.”
“Thank you,” Hades said as he closed his eyes.
It would be an easy thing to stay there, to keep the water hot and to let the world drift away, but Hades already felt the day slipping away from him, so he stayed in the bath only until the water started to naturally cool, and then he was dragging himself out. He let fire curl up through him as water plinked onto the floor, though, evaporating whatever remained. Clothes had been set out nearby, and he pulled them on, thinking of all the times Persephone had tried to dress him in something other than black and grey. It never worked, so she’d taken to wearing every color she could find, and it made Hades smile every single time. Even now, the pain was a little less as he thought of her the first time she’d done it, appearing in the throne room in a purple so vibrant, everyone stared at her.
The clothes were simple and comfortable, meant to stay within his own chambers—soft black pants, a grey shirt that wrapped snugly around his arms, and no shoes. The only spot of color was the ruby that glinted on his finger, the one thing that bound him to Persephone, the same color that his eyes were already beginning to sharpen into.
When Hades came out of the bathroom, the bed was made, the curtains were drawn back, and the door to his personal library was open. He made his way across the room, hoping both his dinner and Hermes would be on the other side, and was gratified to find Hermes pacing from one windowed wall to a great fire on the opposite wall. A sprawl of dishes was laid out on the low table in front of a long settee, and Hermes paused as Hades’ cane thumped lightly against the ground as he made his way over.
He opened his mouth, but Hades sent a shiver of power arcing down his cane and through the stone floor to snap it shut. “Icarus will be treated fairly,” Hades said, not looking over at the messenger as he sat, “I have no intention of harming him while he’s here, and I find it a little odd that you think as much.”
“Can you honestly blame me right now?” Hermes said as Hades finally looked up at him.
He didn’t want to come anywhere near answering that, and so instead, he said, “I know Persephone saved the letters from my brother.”
Hermes blanched, swallowing visibly.
“It’s neither here nor there,” Hades said, “She has always known what’s best, and I trust her. Can I trust you?”
Hermes nodded quickly, though it wasn’t really a question Hades needed answering. The messenger god was friend to all, save, perhaps, Helios, and Hades’ sharp remark to Icarus last night regarding Helios was probably the cause of Hermes’ anxiety now. They were old friends, Hermes and Icarus, and Hades had been angry and hurting when he threw the careless words at Icarus. He didn’t regret them, not entirely, but he knew he’d been wrong to attack quite so lowly.
Hades took a slow breath, and forced himself not to turn away, to distract himself with the food laid out before him. He held Hermes’ gaze as he asked, “Can you convince him?” It was hard enough to get those few words out, but when Hermes’ brow furrowed in confusion, it was like dragging the rest out with steel hooks, “My brother. Can you convince him to come here?”
Hades expected surprise from Hermes, but not relief. Not awe. Not something bordering on joy.
“How soon?” Hermes asked, which was also not the response Hades had expected.
Hades frowned. “Now,” he said.
Hermes’ fast nod was unlike his other. Before, when trying to affirm that Hades could trust him, it was quick still, yes, but full of uncertainty and fear. Now, it was just quick because Hermes was already leaning to the side, like he needed to hurry.
“Hermes,” Hades began.
“Great, I’ll be right back,” Hermes said before he shot away, leaving Hades blinking confusedly in his absence.
Can you convince him to come here?
Hermes wished he could convey everything wrapped into that sentence when he came to a staggering halt before Zeus’ home. He wished he could open his mouth and let Hades’ voice pour out, wished Zeus could hear the pain and the hope and the giving up that had sunk deep in his brother’s voice.
He plunged through the white clouds that always lingered around Zeus’ home, and then he was flinging himself through the front door. Hera had long since trained him out of knocking, and so it was without warning that he stumbled upon the scene before him: Hebe was missing. A human had kidnapped her.
In the ensuing hours, Hermes forgot his message. He helped Zeus and Hera in whatever way he could, ferrying messages, streaming through the skies looking for help, standing by dutifully when Zeus started hurtling lightning bolts toward the mortal realm. It wasn’t until Hebe was safely home, wrapped up in Hera’s arms and being ushered into the kitchen for food and tea, wasn’t until Zeus came up next to Hermes and laid a hand on his shoulder, wasn’t until Zeus said, “It was some kind of fate that you were here today, Hermes,” that he finally remembered.
“Hades!” Hermes exclaimed, leaping a few feet in the air as he spun to face Zeus, who was looking at him with an expression Hermes hated more than anything. It was close to the face he’d worn when Hermes first arrived, stricken at the loss of his daughter, but it was worse than that, too, because Hades was not a loss he could retrieve. Hermes felt his feet touch the ground only for a moment before sheer joy bounced him back up, and he nearly clicked his heels together.
“He’s asked for you to come to the underworld,” Hermes blurted out.
Zeus was in god clothes—blue and gold and showing off every bit of muscle possible. He pivoted on the spot, golden sandals shimmering in the dying light, and would have gone off into the underworld like some divine being if Hera hadn’t come screaming out of the kitchen. “You will not like that!” she yelled as she flung a hand at Zeus and kept running past.
“Hera!” he shouted.
Whatever else he intended to say was lost in the face of her logic, “The underworld hasn’t seen you in centuries, Zeus! The politics alone are going to be disastrous! The least you could do is be discreet!”
Somehow, Zeus waited there, his entire body poised for flight, but his face impassive. Hermes wanted to leave to keep Hebe company, but he wouldn’t dare risk leaving Zeus alone, and so instead he settled for sitting on the ceiling so his fidgeting wouldn’t drive the king of gods mad. When Hera returned, it had only been a few minutes, but it felt like a year, and Zeus was flinging out of his flimsy clothes before she even reached him. She helped him dress quickly, donning him in traveling clothes that would help mask him, before she finally swept a blue cloak over his shoulders, fastened it in gold, and said, “Let Hermes take you in. Don’t make a spectacle. If you happen to be seen, fine. But we can’t have you traipsing about in the underworld if this is just going to turn into something awful. We have to be prepared,” she added as Zeus’ expression darkened, “This is Hades we’re talking about. Whatever reason he has for calling you down there may be good, but it may also be bad, and I need you to be level-headed about this. Hermes.” She whirled on him, and Hermes quickly dropped from the ceiling. “Take care of him, or I will have your hide.”
“Of course, my queen,” Hermes said, opting out of a bow to instead hop toward the front door where Zeus was already striding.
To his surprise, Zeus stopped just outside the door, amidst the rolling clouds. “Tell me,” he said softly.
Hermes swallowed. “He’s not well,” he said, his voice barely more than a whisper. Talking about Hades like this felt like a betrayal. Talking about any of the pantheon to another was not normally done, but to Zeus? He was all-powerful. Fear lingered at the edges of Hermes’ words. “I knew that he loved Persephone, but I never realized how much,” Hermes admitted. “He—well.” Hermes let out a big exhale. “He needs his family right now.”
Zeus nodded once, and they were off. Hermes didn’t miss the strangled hope flaring to life in the king’s face.
The great joke in hell was that Hermes could come and go, which meant he could bring people into the underworld, but since they’d all originated here, he couldn’t bring them out. Thus, Hermes would be able to ferry Zeus into the underworld, but he could never bring Hades to Persephone. Hades had never asked him to even try, and Hermes had never actually brought anyone in, so the speed at which he’d run off to fulfill the request was a little worrying. Hades glanced over at the fire. On the mantle above sat a small black box. It was simple, nothing ornate decorating its sides, and though he’d never opened it, Hades knew what was inside. He paused, wondering if the something that had settled in him—hope warring with misery—was worth this.
He hadn’t spoken to Zeus in eons. His brother had kept up a steady correspondence until a year or so ago, and then the constant letters suddenly stopped. Hades didn’t think anything of it at first. He was free, finally, and his next few days passed as they always had. But when another letter should have come in and didn’t, again, he found himself frowning up at the grey sky every so often. And when another letter should have come in and didn’t, again, Hades realized he was angry with his brother, and angry with himself, though he would never admit to what.
Now, he finally lifted a hand, and the black box slid off the mantle to float through the air to him. Persephone chided him on using magic needlessly. It wasn’t as though it was a well that could run dry, but it made them lazy, to use it too often, to depend on it, and so while he would have normally walked over to the box, his leg was threaded with a dull sort of pain, and Hades couldn’t bear the idea of putting weight on it again. He let the box drop onto the settee next to him, where it sat while he made himself a plate from the dishes laid out, and only then did he begin to read them.
There was a certain rhythm to them, Zeus’ letters. They came more often during the spring and summer, when he knew Hades was alone in the underworld, though they still came in the autumn and winter. None of them were pleading. None of them were angry. None of them were much of anything, really. They were, quite simply, Zeus. His brother wrote of the particularly beautiful sunrise one morning. He wrote of some fight he and Hera had had, and how he knew he was wrong, but he was too furious for no good reason, and so he hadn’t gone back to apologize yet. He wrote of the spray of flowers in Hermes’ brown curls one afternoon. He wrote about wishing he could do more than just cast lightning, wishing he might paint the sky in blues and purples for a different kind of sunset. He wrote about taking a stroll with Atlas, about seeing the mountains as he did, down amongst them. He wrote about everything and nothing, and Hades lost himself to them, drifting through the mortal realm in a way he’d long, long ago forgotten how to. He had grown to despise the mortal realm so much for taking Persephone from him that he hadn’t gone up to visit in what felt like a lifetime.
Hades sighed, letting his attention drift from the letter currently in his hand, and over to the bay of windows looking out on the night dark sky. A servant had come in to clear the food long ago, and though there was a scalding pot of tea sitting on the low table, Hades was otherwise alone. Hermes hadn’t returned yet. He wondered if, maybe, Zeus would refuse, if, after all this time, he’d finally given up.
“I didn’t know you kept them.”
Hades went still. His eyes closed. That something that had settled in him, that hope warring with misery, sunk his shoulders away from his ears and let something else blossom in his barely beating heart.
“Hermes said you never read them.”
“I didn’t,” Hades whispered, “I threw them in the fire.”
There was a pause, and then, “Ah. If only I’d known, I would have thanked your queen when I saw her just.”
Hades looked over without thinking, drawn by the idea of someone who had seen Persephone recently, and for the first time in a lifetime, he laid eyes on his brother.
Zeus was always the handsomest of them, in a regal, god-like way. He was chiseled and blonde, quick to smile and blue-eyed, easy to love and full of laughter. Poseidon was handsome in a mundane sort of way, fitting in amongst the humans best, and looking the most approachable of them because of that. And then there was Hades, sharp and dark and hidden away.
Zeus was smiling now, just a little, crooked tilt to his mouth. His blonde hair was rifled back. He was dressed for travel, and Hades had a moment of amusement thinking of Hera hollering at him to stop and think before he streaked off with Hermes. A royal blue cloak billowed out from his shoulders, gold clasps holding it together. There wasn’t a crown nestled in his hair, but the image was there all the same. This was the king of the gods, and it had been a long, long time since the underworld had seen him. Hades wondered if he’d gone through the front gates, if he was so long in arriving because he’d stopped and spoken to everyone who asked. But then, Zeus took a step into the room, and Hades noticed that he was breathing quickly, like he’d run straight here.
“I came as soon as I could,” Zeus said, “Hebe was missing. One of those mortal warlords found her, and—it doesn’t matter.”
“It does,” Hades heard himself say, “Is she okay?”
Zeus’ smile grew a little. He nodded. “She is now. Hades, is—is everything alright?”
It nearly broke Hades. His brother had rarely been so uncertain, so halting. He reached for his cane, fingers closing over the skull head. He saw Zeus’ blue eyes flash to it as Hades carefully stood up from the settee. His leg was a little numb from sitting so long, and he gave himself a moment to just stand there, to let warmth wash through him again, before he started to make his way over to his brother. Zeus started to ask, a frown furrowing his brows, but it would be a sunny day in hell when Hades willingly talked about what happened to his leg, so he spoke over him, “You said you saw Persephone?” Her name came easily, but only because he’d had years of practice forcing it to.
Zeus took the distraction, his blue eyes sliding back up to meet Hades’ brown ones. “I did,” he said, “I stopped there on my way, to check in. She’s—well, she’s been better.”
Hades nodded tightly. He wasn’t going to ask anything further. He just wanted to know that she was well. But Zeus continued, “I haven’t seen her in a while. Not since you wed, actually. I was angry with you because I thought you’d taken the prank too far. It hadn’t occurred to me that we were the ones that had taken it too far, and Persephone would never have brought it up, even in those early days. But I used to visit with her every year, to make sure she was okay. To assuage my own guilt, I guess, for having put her in that position. She was miserable then, but that last time, when I found her, she was lying in a bed of decaying tulips, her tears sapping the life from them. I started to ask her what was wrong, but noticed the ring on her finger. I left before she could notice me, and I never went back. And then today, when I came to her, she was neither miserable nor happy. She was just—there. Doing her job, but without any real energy. When she saw me, it was like she was seeing someone else. Someone she loved dearly.” Hades had stopped walking, and was instead staring at his brother, wanting him to go on and wanting him to stop all at once. Zeus offered him a small smile, and said, “She knew right away why I was there. She smiled, and it was full of life. She said—remind him to breathe.”
Hades felt his knee try to give way even as he looked away from Zeus, even as he tried to swallow it down, but then his brother was there, inexplicably, in a way he hadn’t been for a lifetime, one hand wrapping around Hades’ forearm to keep him steady and the other grasping his upper arm. “You’re okay,” Zeus said softly, and then again, “You’re okay.”
“I’m not,” Hades gasped.
“I know,” Zeus said, his voice tight around the edges, “I didn’t know, but I do now, and I’m here, and it’s going to be okay, little brother.”
“Gods, don’t call me that,” Hades spat at him, his knuckles going white around the cane as he forced himself to remain upright.
“My apologies, your highness,” Zeus said, inflecting it with light and joy. Hades finally looked back to him. Zeus was close, his hands still wrapped around Hades’ arms, his blue eyes full of concern. Not worry, not fear, just concern. He squeezed Hades’ arms gently. “Can you stand?” he asked.
Hades nodded, not trusting his voice. Zeus released him, and Hades limped away from him, stopping to pick up a mug of tea before retreating to the wall of windows where a bay of cushions rested. “What happened?” Zeus asked before Hades could deflect him.
Hades let the cane fall harder against the ground, thunder cracking through the underworld as he did, as he walked over to the windows, and when he sat, it was with a glare. “Okay,” Zeus said, holding up his hands, “We’ll cross that later.” He didn’t come any closer, stayed near the door, and Hades realized, with a jolt, that his brother was waiting to be invited in.
Hades’ exhale fluttered with laughter. “You’re welcome here, Zeus,” Hades said, “And thank you for coming.”
Zeus’ returning smile was like staring directly at the sun. “Thank you for finally letting me,” he said before he came over and sat opposite Hades. “So,” he said as he leaned back against the wall, looking not out at the grey sky, but at his brother, “What’s it like being the king of hell?”