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Neon Gods: Chapter 31

Persephone

I wake up to news of Zeus’s demise. It’s all over the computer where my sisters huddle, watching with varying degrees of satisfaction. I lean over Callisto’s shoulder and frown down at the headline streaming along the bottom of the screen. “He fell to his death?”

“Blew out the window and jumped is what they’re saying.” Psyche sounds carefully neutral. “There’s no evidence that anyone else was involved.”

“But why would—”

My mother chooses that moment to sweep into the room. Despite the strangeness of the morning, she’s fully made up and wearing a smart pantsuit that displays her figure. “Get ready, ladies. There’s a press conference this evening with the Thirteen. They’ll be announcing an update on Zeus’s death as well as officially naming Perseus as the next Zeus.”

Callisto snorts. “Not wasting any time, are you?”

“There must always be a Zeus. You know that as well as anyone.” She claps her hands. “So, no, I’m not wasting valuable time.”

My sisters leave the room slowly, obeying her order but silently disapproving while doing so. I don’t. She’s too cheery, especially after calling in favors to convince half the Thirteen to betray Zeus last night and then leaving to “run an errand, nothing to worry about.” It’s too big a coincidence that he died the very next morning. “He didn’t commit suicide.”

“Of course he didn’t. He was the type of man who’d have to be dragged to the Underworld kicking and screaming.” She tips my chin up and frowns. “We’ll have to do something about the bags under your eyes.”

I knock her hand away. “You’re not the least bit concerned about the murder?”

“Are you?”

I open my mouth to shoot back that of course I am but finally shake my head. “I’m glad he’s gone.”

“You and the majority of Olympus.” She’s already turning away and scrolling through her phone. “Get ready. The car will be downstairs waiting to deliver you to the bridge to the lower city. You’ll have to make your way to Hades from there.”

We’re moving too fast. I stare at her, trying to see through the facade of perfection she presents. “Mother…”

“Mmm?”

How does one ask their mother if they committed murder? She’s capable of it. I know she is. But the question still sticks in my throat, jagged and coarse. “Did you…”

“Did I murder the bastard?” She finally looks up from her phone. “No, of course not. If I had, I would have chosen a less public way than throwing him through a window.”

I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be reassuring, but I believe her. “Okay.”

“Now that we got that out of the way.” She picks up her phone again. “I’m calling the first portion of your bargain due. Ensure that Hades attends the press conference this evening.”

Anticipation curls with anxiety. “You haven’t given me much time to deliver my pitch.”

“Give yourself some credit, Persephone.” She doesn’t look up from whoever she’s texting. “He’s in love with you. He’ll agree to anything that keeps you by his side voluntarily. You’d be a fool to ignore that opportunity.”

“Fine. I’ll see it done.”

“And bring Eurydice home.” Her tone softens. “It’s safe for her here now, and she needs her family while she’s dealing with her heartbreak over that idiot ex-boyfriend of hers.”

In this, we’re in agreement at least. “I will.”

There’s no point in arguing about my ability to convince Hades. My mother has seen every single one of her marriages as a stepping-stone to something better, her husbands as pawns to be manipulated rather than partners. It would never occur to her that I view Hades as my equal.

I walk into my room without another word. It doesn’t take long to get ready, though I do curse softly and add a little extra concealer under my eyes. After some consideration, I dress in a pair of wide-legged black slacks and a red blouse that’s so dark, it might as well be black. I pull my hair back into a sleek ponytail and add lipstick almost the same red as my shirt.

I start at myself in the mirror for a long moment. The image I’ve very carefully curated over the years is sunny and bright and filled with light colors and pink lips. I look like an entirely different person right now. I feel like a different person.

Good. The girl I was a month ago never would have had the audacity to make the bargain I struck last night. Such a small amount of time. So much changed. And we’re not done yet.

The ride from my mother’s home to the bridge takes less time than I expect. It feels like different worlds, but in reality it’s less than thirty minutes, even with traffic. I climb out of the back seat and brace myself. Ideally, I would have liked at least twenty-four hours to bring Hades around to seeing things my way, but I’m working with a few hours.

I still have to apologize for sneaking out like a thief in the night.

Crossing the bridge in daylight feels strange. I brace myself for the same pain I experienced that first time, but it’s just a light pressure against my skin. I have the strange thought that it feels like its welcoming me home. I stride quickly across and step through the columns to the lower city. It…does feel like coming home. I lift my chin and start walking, my stride eating up the distance between the bridge and Hades’s house. It’s still early enough that there are only a scattering of people out and about, and their presence is just another reassurance that I’ve done the right thing.

None of these people will bear the consequences of my actions.

It’s over.

Almost.

I hold my breath as I walk up the steps to Hades’s house and knock on the door, my heart in my throat. It opens a moment later and I’m pulled into a hug against a soft body. It takes several seconds to register that it’s Eurydice.

“What are you doing opening the door?”

“Psyche texted that you were on your way.” She yanks me into the house and shuts the door behind us. “Zeus is really dead?”

“Yes.” She looks exhausted, dark circles beneath her eyes and her hair messy as if she’s been running her fingers through it. I catch her hands. “Mother would like you to come home. We all would.”

She opens her mouth, hesitates, and finally nods. “I will.” She gives me a sad smile. “But something tells me you’re not here for me. Hades is in with the puppies.”

“I won’t be long—”

“It’s okay.” Another of those sad smiles. “Charon offered to give me a ride home whenever I decided that was what I wanted. Don’t worry about me.”

Easier said than done, but she’s right. Eurydice has her own path to walk going forward. I give her another hug. “I’m here whenever you need me.”

“I know. Now, go get your man.” She gives me a gentle nudge in the direction of the living room currently designated for the puppies.

I find Hades sitting against the wall with his eyes closed, the puppies sprawled over and around his legs. He opens his eyes as I walk into the room and blinks slowly. “You came back.”

“Of course I came back.” I take a step forward and stop, suddenly feeling awkward and unsure. I clasp my hands in front of me. “I’m sorry I left without saying goodbye. I saw a way through this, and I took it.”

He absently runs his hand over the back of the puppy in his lap. “You could have talked to me before you left. I said you aren’t a prisoner here, and I meant it.”

“I couldn’t risk it,” I whisper. “You’ll go to such lengths for the people you care about, but you’re positively ruthless when it comes to your own safety.”

“I’m expendable.” He shrugs. “It goes with the territory.”

“No, Hades. No, you are absolutely not expendable.” I stride to him and sink carefully to my knees in front of him. It’s only now that I get a good look at his face. I can’t stop my gasp any more than I can stop from reaching out to ghost my finger along the bruise darkening his cheekbone and blackening his eye. “What happened?”

He still won’t look at me. “You made a deal with your mother last night to ensure I could act against Zeus without repercussions. What were the terms?”

“How did you—” I stop when I catch up to what he’s saying. “Zeus. That was you?” It must have been, unless Hades wandered into a bar fight in the time between when I left and returned. The most logical answer is also the simplest. He went after Zeus and they fought. Now Zeus is dead and Hades is home and looking like he’s come out of a car wreck.

I reach out and tentatively take his hand. He grips me tightly before seeming to realize what he’s doing and tries to disentangle our fingers. I tighten my hold on him. “You went after him.”

“I thought you bargained yourself to him in order to spare me. I knew he’d break you, and I couldn’t stand back and let that happen.” He sounds almost empty. “I wish I could tell you that I didn’t mean for him to fall, but…I don’t know. I just don’t know. If this changes things—”

“Hades, stop.”

“Yeah, you said that to me before.”

It takes me a moment to understand what he’s referring to. “On the bridge.”

“I almost killed him, too.” His voice is just wrong. He hardly sounds like himself. “I might have if you didn’t stop me.”

I clear my throat and try again. “Zeus was a monster. I’m not going to pretend that murder is the right way to solve a problem, but do you honestly think he wouldn’t have killed you if he had a chance? There are so many deaths to lay at his feet. I’m sorry that you have to bear the burden of his, but I’m not sorry he’s dead.” I reach out with my free hand and cup his face, careful of his bruise. “And that man you beat hurt my sister. I didn’t yell because I wanted to save him. I did it because I knew that you’d feel guilty if you lost control.”

He releases a shuddering sigh. “I guess this is goodbye, then.”

I might laugh if I didn’t feel like I’m in the middle of running a marathon. Now is the time for the full truth, but my heart is beating so quickly, I’m suddenly afraid I might pass out. It was so much easier to write the words and slip away before he found them. “I’m not leaving, Hades. I love you. I’m staying and I’ll do whatever it takes to protect you—and to help you protect your people.”

“But with Zeus gone, you’re free.”

“I know I’m free.” I take a ragged breath. “And because I’m free, I choose this. I choose us.” He’s not brushing me off, so I scrape up the courage to continue. “A month ago, all I wanted was to get out. I didn’t know you existed, let alone that I’d fall in love with you. I didn’t know there was a part of Olympus that could feel like home.” When he just stares at me in seeming confusion, I give his hand a tug. “Here, Hades. It feels like home here with you. In this house, in the lower city. I want to be with you, if you’ll have me.”

He gives a slow smile. “You mean it.”

“With my whole heart and soul.”

“I love you, too.” He raises our clasped hands and presses a kiss to my knuckles. “I didn’t want to trap you into staying by telling you, but…I love you, too.”

He loves me. He loves me. I suspected, but hearing those three words on his lips makes me dizzy with joy. I wish I could sink into it fully, but my mother’s request still needs to be dealt with. “Hades, there’s one last thing.”

“The terms of your bargain.”

“Yes.” I clench his hand tightly. “I promised my mother six appearances of her choosing in the upper city. Six appearances with both of us.”

Hades stares at me for a long moment. “That’s it?”

“What do you mean that’s it? Having the man behind the myth of Hades at her beck and call a few times a year is going to increase her perceived power exponentially. Even if you’re not her ally, people will think you are. It’s a big deal.”

He carefully moves the puppies and pushes to his feet, tugging me up with him. “It’s a small price to pay.”

“Are you sure? Because if you have any doubts at all—”

“Persephone.” Hades cups my face. “Little siren. Do you think there’s a price I wouldn’t willingly pay for your happiness and safety? For your freedom? Demeter could have asked for a lot more than she did.”

My throat goes tight. “Don’t tell her that.”

“I won’t.” He smiles down at me. “Tell me again.”

There’s no mistaking his meaning. I run my hands up his chest and loop my arms around his neck. “I love you.”

His lips brush my ear. “Again.”

“I love you.”

I feel his lips curve against my skin. “I love you, too, little siren.”

“This is probably an inopportune time to make a joke, huh?”

His hands fall to my waist and he pulls me closer, wrapping me up in his steady warmth. “Since when have you let that stop you?”

I laugh. It starts out a little ragged and then evolves into a sound of pure joy. “You’re right.” I wiggle a little against him. I can barely believe that it’s over. Or not over, but just beginning. It feels like it’s too good to be true, and I can’t stop touching him, reassuring myself that he’s here, that this is happening. “In that case, I have a question.”

“Uh-huh.” He pulls back enough that I can see him grinning. “Ask.”

“Do you love me more than you love your precious floors?”

He laughs. A full-bodied sound that seems to fill the room around us. Hades lowers his head until his lips brush mine. “I most definitely love you more than my precious floors. But I’m going to insist you refrain from bleeding on them in the future.”

“I make no promises.”

“No, I don’t expect you do.” He kisses me. It’s been less than a day since I last had his mouth on mine, but it feels like so much longer. I cling to him and eagerly open to take the kiss deeper, losing myself in the feel of him, the perfection of this moment.

At least until he lifts his head a few seconds later. “If we don’t stop, we’re going to be late for the press conference.”

“They can fuck off.”

He gives that delicious laugh again. “Persephone, I heartily do not want to be on your mother’s shit list again, especially over something preventable.”

He’s right. I know he’s right. I tangle my fingers in his hair and give a little tug. “Promise me that tonight we’ll lock the doors, turn off our phones, and spray Hermes repellent. I want you all to myself.”

“You have yourself a bargain.”

At that, we reluctantly separate. I still have most of my things here, so I do my best to cover up Hades’s bruises, and dark sunglasses do the rest. He wears a black-on-black suit and looks like a villain venturing out during the twilight hours. We hold hands the entire drive to the press conference.

The rest of the Thirteen and their families are gathered in one of the courtyards surrounding Dodona Tower, all dressed to perfection. Zeus’s three children who remain in Olympus are all dressed in black, their expressions carefully blank. My sisters stand behind my mother. I give Hades’s hand one last squeeze before I start to head in their direction. He tightens his grip on my hand. “Stay.”

“What?” I look around. “But—”

“Be mine, Persephone. Let me be yours. In public and in private.”

I stare up at him, and really, there’s only one answer and it flutters in my chest like a trapped bird. “Yes.”

I don’t know what I expect. A confrontation. Accusations maybe. Instead, Hades slips seamlessly into their ranks as the reporters appear and Poseidon steps forward to give an official statement to declare Perseus as the new Zeus. People care less about answers than they do about perception, and that works in our favor right now. It doesn’t hurt that the reporters are so intensely focused on Hades, either.

Through it all, Hades’s expression is as relaxed as if he attends press conferences regularly. The only sign that he’s anything less than comfortable is the intense grip he keeps on my hand, down where no one can see. As we begin to disperse, I lean against his arm and whisper in his ear, “You did great. We’re almost finished.”

“There are more people than I expected.” He speaks out of the corner of his mouth, lips barely moving.

“I’ll keep you safe. Promise.”

We start to head for the cars, and the reporters stream after us, peppering him with so many questions, I can barely keep up.

“Have you been in the lower city this entire time?”

“Why come forward now? Is it because Zeus is dead?”

“Are you the mysterious man Persephone Dimitriou ran off with?”

“Are you two official?”

I lift my hand, bringing their attention off him and onto me. “Friends, we’re more than happy to deliver an official statement…tomorrow. Today, we’re here to mourn the loss of Zeus.” I’ve had enough practice with public speaking that I don’t even trip over the lie. I simply wait in calm silence, and they finally subside and refocus on the matter at hand.

Hades turns to face me when we’re finally able to break free, and he’s doing that thing he does where he looks at me like he’s never seen me before. “My knight in sunshine armor, riding in to save me from the press.”

“Yes, well, you’re not the only one who likes to play hero.” I give his hand another squeeze. “Handling this whole circus takes some getting used to.”

“I expect I’ll manage just fine as long as you’re by my side.” He doesn’t wait for a response. He just sweeps me into his arms and claims my mouth. I eagerly go up onto my tiptoes and wrap my arms around his neck. I’m aware of the snapping of cameras and the rise of whispers, but I don’t care.

When he finally lifts his head, I’m clinging to him to avoid my legs giving out. “Come home with me.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t just mean today. I mean for good. Move in.”

“I know that’s what you mean.” I smile and press a quick kiss to his lips. “And my answer is still the same. Yes to everything.”

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