Think you know how the story of Hades and Persephone ends? Think again.
During all the millennia of his existence, Hades had found contentment in so few things. One of those was in the simple act of tending bar.
Granted, it was his own bar, in his own club, far below the sunbaked asphalt and concrete above. A city, and a large one, filled with the clamor and detritus of humanity. Where, exactly? Well, where didn’t matter. The Hades Underground was everywhere.
The Hades Underground never closed.
Zeus leaned back against the bar, a cut-crystal glass in one hand, filled with Glenlivet and ambrosia—a deity-only concoction. Hades mixed drinks for the rare mortal. Although when he did, it was always their last.
“Brother,” Zeus said now. “You have outdone yourself with this.” He raised his glass, indicating the dance floor that pulsated with flashes of blue and yellow, high back booths in midnight velvet, the hallways that led deeper into the bowels of the club. Some mortals wandered down those halls never to return.
Hades liked to think of this last as a feature rather than a bug. He surveyed his club with satisfaction.
Yes, I really have.
“Even she seems to appreciate it,” Zeus added, a certain slyness in his tone.
Hades refused the bait. Persephone haunted the periphery of his vision, of his whole being. There, in the middle of the dance floor—the riot of blues and yellows and greens like springtime—she danced. A group of loyal nymphs created a tight circle around her, with mortal hangers-on forming a wider one.
No one dared approach.
“There are others, you know,” Zeus said.
“We don’t need to have this conversation again.”
Zeus and his matchmaking? No. No, thank you.
“Oh, I think we do.” Zeus pulled out his phone. How he loved that gadget. The constant stream of images and sounds. The entire world in the palm of his hand. Never had the King of the Olympians been so sated.
Who was he at this moment in time? Some tech billionaire, Zeke or Zucker-something-or-other. Hades had long ago stopped keeping track of Zeus’s personas.
“Look,” his brother commanded.
Pictures of women flashed across the screen, one after the other after the other, in a never-ending parade. Hades didn’t bother to count.
“And that’s just tonight,” Zeus added.
Yes, of course. Zeus invariably swiped right.
“Thank you, Brother, for your counsel,” Hades said. “I’ll take it under consideration.”
Zeus laughed, a booming sound that sliced through the chatter, the thump of the bass, and for the barest instant, brought the club to a standstill. Even Persephone halted mid-twirl to see what her father found so amusing.
He slapped Hades on the back, the impact like a thunderbolt. “You could, at least, tend to your little shadow.” Zeus nodded toward the end of the bar. “She’s been there all night.”
All week, actually. Hades cast her a glance, barely a whisper of a look. Most patrons found his full attention distressing, at best. He didn’t wish to inflict that on her.
“She’s an old soul,” is all he said. “It gives her comfort to sit here.”
“She’s more than that.” Zeus stood, swallowed the last of his drink, and then crushed the glass between his fingers. When he unclenched his fist, the shards rose into the air and filled the club with starlight. “And she’s looking for more than just comfort.”
He sauntered off, one of Persephone’s mortal hangers-on in his sights, his first conquest of the evening.
* * *
Hades ignored her—that little shadow, as Zeus called her. For a solid hour, Hades wiped down the bar of gleaming ebony, polished glasses with a cloth the color of lilies, took delight in the weight of the lead crystal against his palm.
There were so few visceral pleasures left to him. He let himself revel in this one.
But Zeus was right, at least in one respect. He should do something about her. It wasn’t her time; she wasn’t the type to fritter her lifespan away—no matter how long or short—sitting in his club.
She was a fighter, and always had been, more an acolyte of Ares than death’s handmaiden.
He approached, shrouding his gaze. She stared at him straight on. Hades suspected that he could lift the veil and she wouldn’t glance away. That was like her. No matter the end, she always met it well.
He signaled one of his mortal bartenders to pour her another drink. The concoction was startling sweet and free of alcohol.
“I don’t merit one of yours?” she asked when he slid the glass in front of her.
“It’s not your time.”
“Wouldn’t I know?”
“You might lie.”
“I might.” He nodded to concede the point. “But I seldom do.”
She carried with her the scent of harsh wind and dust, cordite and flames, of slick and quicksilver blood. Afghanistan, then. Her eyes held that look, but then they had for centuries now. Once earned, a thousand-yard stare seldom faded. He wondered: Did such ancient eyes in the face of an infant ever startle her mothers?
“Are you tired, my child?” Perhaps it was her time. He’d been wrong before. His gaze darted toward the dance floor. Yes. So very wrong.
She countered with a question of her own. “Why won’t you let me thank you?”
He raised a palm skyward. “Have I done something to deserve gratitude?”
“It was you.” She ran her fingertips around the circumference of the glass, full circle, a trip from birth to death. “Actually, it’s always you. At first, I thought it was Ares who came for me in the end. But war isn’t like that.”
“My nephew is many things. Compassionate isn’t one of them.”
“I’m sorry.” She gave her head a slight shake. “I don’t remember all the times.”
“Truly? I have no wish for you to.”
“And I don’t remember any before the year 1431.”
Even an old soul such as this one could comprehend dying only so many times. He’d erase every instance if he could. But some mortals were more aware than others, and that made it hard for them to forget.
And when the world decided you were a saint? Even harder.
“Humans live their lives as if they have an unlimited number of them,” he said.
“But most only have the one.”
“Yes. That’s the irony.”
“Are there others like me?” she asked.
“A few,” he acknowledged. “Fewer still who comprehend what they are.”
“They made me a saint, you know.” She laughed, not Zeus’s booming guffaw. This sound had a subtle, insidious sorrow. Those in nearby booths tilted their heads to catch the whisper of it. Those on the dance floor stumbled, mid-step.
“Yes. I know.” And his own words were heavy with sorrow.
“I never want to be a saint again.” Her gaze returned not to him, but the surface of the bar, as if she could peer into its depths. “It wasn’t the stake or the fire, but all those people pinning their hopes on me. It was a relief when you came. You didn’t need to offer your hand.”
“You didn’t need to take it.”
“Where does the pain go? Do you absorb it?”
“Mortal pain can’t touch me.”
“Do you wish that it could?”
Hades paused in the task of polishing yet another glass. The crystal crumbled in his hands, although if he were to release these shards, they’d fill the club with all manner of winged creatures, bats and ravens, and things not seen outside of Tartarus.
For the briefest moment, he unveiled his gaze.
She withstood it.
Yes, of course, she did. His little saint. His Joan. She would’ve withstood the flames as well had he not taken them from her.
“You never answered my question,” he said. “Are you tired?”
“He won’t stop whispering to me. He makes it sound so very simple, so very easy, so very right.”
“War is never those things.”
“I know.” She peered up at him as if daring him to unveil his gaze a second time. “But what is left for me?”
“The Elysian Fields?”
“In a manner of speaking. Anything you might want, might be, might desire is yours for the asking.”
“That sounds … boring.”
Now he laughed, the echo of it reverberating through the floors of the club. The music hiccupped, and the speakers screeched in protest. A hush fell. Even the gaggle of nymphs ceased their giggling.
“Perfection often is,” he said.
Her gaze darted toward the dance floor. “Is it really?”
Before he could answer, a presence burst into the club. A man, although with a mere glance, it was difficult to tell. Most patrons only dared furtive looks. Some shrank back, into booths or against the walls, hearts pounding frantic prayers. Others preened and swooned, bloodlust thick in the air.
Yes, his nephew liked to make an entrance.
Was Ares here for this little saint? Was the mention of the Elysian Fields too much? Can’t lose a single soldier in the waging of war, can we now?
Ares swooped in, slipping onto the stool next to her. “I’ve missed you, my sweet. Indeed, I thought you’d gone AWOL.” He brought her hand to his lips and caressed the palm, the tender underside of her wrist.
“Really?” She raised an eyebrow, her expression filled with doubt, playfulness, and the assurance of a beloved favorite. “You thought that?”
“Feared it.” Ares released her hand and struck a fist against his chest, over the spot where a mortal’s heart would beat. “We still have much to do together, you and me.”
Hades anchored a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “She needs rest. Don’t use her like this.”
“While you have so much to offer?” His nephew regarded him through half-lidded eyes. “This is quaint, Uncle. But really, Hades Underground? Where else would it be?”
She laughed then, and the sound cut Hades like nothing he’d felt in ages. In it was his loneliness, that great expanse of nothing that greeted him every moment of his existence.
He was Hades Underground, and Hades Underground was him. Dark, endless, and ultimately empty.
And now it was midnight. The glitter ball over the dance floor threw beams of sunlight throughout the space. The processional began, Persephone at its center, flanked by nymphs and mortals, all clad in dresses that swayed like petals and cascaded like sea foam.
Hades retreated, left Ares to the spoils of this little scrimmage. Who was this mortal girl to him, anyway?
Besides, he had drinks to mix.
Crystal sang out as he poured and stirred—ambrosia, nectar, and a splash of vodka for the nymphs. They weren’t particular, so he always used an off-brand variety.
Then he mixed the club’s signature drink—and clever patrons knew to order a Persephone instead of a pomegranate cosmopolitan. Hades stirred in a dash of ambrosia.
And, of course, actual pomegranate seeds. Six, to be precise.
They gathered around the bar, Persephone, the nymphs, and her mortal followers alike, squeezing out the other patrons. Her entourage wasn’t especially polite, but as a group, they awed. Others in the club stepped aside, swallowed their complaints, or basked in the glow of spring incarnate.
Slender fingers grasped for equally slender stems of glasses, like plucking flowers from a field. Midnight at the Hades Underground brought sunlight and spring and the taste of nectar against your tongue.
No one—mortal or god—ever left before midnight.
Except, perhaps, his little saint. He didn’t need to glance toward the end of the bar to discern the empty stool.
Persephone had yet to sip her drink. It went that way some nights—most nights, actually. Perhaps if her feet were sore, or if she’d grown weary of her current entourage, she’d deign a mouthful.
Most nights, she threw the drink in his face.
To say he didn’t deserve that would be a lie.
But tonight she halted, drink mere inches from her lips. Something jostled the group of nymphs. They stumbled aside, the force like a scythe slicing through wheat. The commotion caught Persephone’s attention, and she set the glass on the bar.
At the center of the commotion—and its cause—stood his little saint, staring down his goddess.
Gods don’t breathe, not the way mortals do, but just then, everything went still inside him.
On the bar, the drink glowed an arterial red.
Certainly, mortals weren’t faster than gods, but his little saint snatched the glass with the power of Ares behind her. With the practiced ease of a soldier, she swallowed. What she lacked in finesse she made up for in ferocity.
She drank it—vodka, ambrosia, pomegranate seeds, and all.
She slammed the glass onto the bar. The crystal shattered, the sound a gunshot. Sparks erupted throughout the club, like tracer rounds and flares in a night sky.
Hades braced for a fight. Surely this was the first volley in a coming war. Any moment, he expected Ares to roar back in, rile up the mortals, and force Persephone and her entourage from the club.
He expected blood.
Instead, his little saint turned to him.
“May I?” she asked, her hand extended in the manner he’d always offered his. “I know we both have our relationship baggage.” She rolled her eyes, a move that was both goddess-like and purely mortal. “But I think you could use the rest.”
“As could you?”
“As could I.”
Persephone stamped her foot.
Hades turned to her, surprised she was—at last—a mere afterthought. “Go.”
Her eyes—those impossibly blue eyes, the color of the spring sky—widened.
“Or stay,” he amended. After all, he’d fashioned the Hades Underground for her. “It”—he waved a hand—“runs itself.”
“My dear, you have never wanted to be Queen of the Underworld.”
“It was my mistake to force you. And for that?” He inclined his head. “I apologize.”
He then turned to his Joan, his saint.
His … savior?
He offered his arm. Only when she took it did the emptiness relinquish its hold.
“Is that ‘no’ to the Elysian Fields then?” he asked.
“There are other options, right?”
“None of them very pleasant.”
“Truly?” She tapped her forehead. “Isn’t it all up here?”
“What do you think?”
He led her down one of the endless hallways, the path worn smooth by the soles of so many souls.
“We make our own hell,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she prompted, “Am I right?”
“Hm? I can’t really say. Trade secret and all.”
“You can’t? Or you won’t?” Her words were full of skepticism and humor. She knew. Of course, she knew. Then her voice softened, and she added, “What’s your hell then?”
He nearly glanced behind him, at the renewed frenzy on the dance floor, the golds and the blues and the greens. But no one knew the cost of looking back better than Hades did. So he focused on the images that consumed his little saint, the ones that formed the walls of her own personal hell.
He expected cordite and flames, but they only seasoned the anguish. No, it was the expanse, the emptiness, the loneliness—of backs turned, hands never offered, promises never kept.
“It won’t be like that,” was all he said.
“How long do I have?” she asked.
“An eternity, if you wish it.”
Their footfalls echoed behind them, obliterating sounds that haunted them both—the thump of the bass, the clink of crystal, the rapport of weapons, the thunder of artillery.
“But only if you wish it.”
Midnight at the Hades Underground is an exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.