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Sacrifices and Gifts

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Hestia is no stranger to accepting gifts. Nothing extravagant: water, wine, oils, and her favorite, scraps from the evening meal. She lingers long enough on each household to bestow her blessings, and then returns her attention to the great hearth where it belongs. All in place, and all as it should be.

Demeter's offerings are another matter. For one thing, she insists on bringing them in person.

“I've decided to call them cherry blossoms,” she burbles, as Hestia stares at the branch that's just been dropped into her lap. “Aren't they lovely? And such an exquisite scent! One of my better creations, if I do say so myself.”

“Lovely,” Hestia concurs, in all sincerity. She even agrees on the smell, which is far less cloying than Demeter's typical efforts. Still, she can't help thinking a hint of wood smoke might improve it further, though she'll wait until Demeter leaves before testing that theory.

This decision proves a wise one, as her sister’s next words are, “Of course, to get the full effect, you have to see them growing on the trees...”

Alas, Demeter doesn’t appear to have put the same degree of thought into the latest round of their age-old argument. “I’ll take your word for it.”

Demeter huffs. “You know, even Hephaestus emerges from the forge every now and then.” Her eyes brighten as though she’s had a groundbreaking epiphany, although Hestia knows exactly what she’s about to say: “Maybe if you had a spouse…”

“No, thank you.”

“Apollo’s broken things off with that river nymph,” Demeter persists. “Not that it was anything serious to begin with, but he was quite interested when I mentioned I might be dropping in on you. Insisted that I pass along his best wishes.”

“And you may return them, but he already knows my feelings.” Indeed, he’d been almost as persistent as Demeter until Hestia had threatened to tell Artemis, with a pointed reminder regarding the last time he’d failed to heed a maiden’s refusal for good measure. He’d left his laurel wreath as a pledge of peace, along with a verbal promise not to trouble her further. No amount of outside cajoling or meddling can shake her faith he’ll keep his word.

Demeter must know it, too, as she quickly changes tack. “I’m just worried about you. All alone, day in and day out. Never even seeing your worshippers directly, or most of your family. Never mind knowing the pleasures of a family of your own–”

There it is: the opportunity Hestia’s been awaiting. “How is Persephone?”

The rest of the conversation spins itself out as smoothly as the Fates’ skeins, requiring only the occasional nod or approving murmur from Hestia as Demeter prattles on over her most precious, innocent blossom’s latest charming escapades. At last, she notices the shadows beginning to lengthen, and takes her leave while Helios still crosses the skies.

Demeter never stays long indoors. Despite eons of pondering the question, Hestia still isn't sure whether she's grateful for that or not.

~

It starts with a few strange, isolated prayers. Gracious Hestia, let the warmth of your fires keep our bellies full. But as they grow to a frequency and volume she’s never known, with an urgency she's only accustomed to from hunters and lost travelers, she realizes something must be wildly wrong. Good Hestia, protect us from the cold and the dark. Merciful Hestia, save us.

She tries to stay focused on just granting the requests. But eventually, her curiosity and concern grow so strong, she's left with no choice but to summon Hermes for an explanation.

At first, he just laughs at her. She waits, and is rewarded with a bug-eyed stare as it sinks in that she's not joking. “You really have no idea, do you? I know you're not much for Olympus gossip, but...”

“My only regular sources of gossip these days are you and Demeter. And when’s the last time you came to visit?” Only then does she realize how long it's been since Demeter, with her blossoms and remonstrations against singlehood, came by to disturb her routine. A suspicion takes root within her, its tendrils as icy as the winds that keep her worshippers huddled around their fires.

She doesn't have long to wait for confirmation as Hermes launches into his tale, keeping the embellishments and digressions to a minimum with only the occasional gentle prompt for once. Of Persephone's abduction – or flight; there are enough varying opinions, she doesn't begrudge him a bit of prattling on that point – and Demeter's furious grief. How the world stands frozen between her and Hades, and all the gods helpless to put an end to the stalemate.

“Thank you,” she says, when she senses the account winding down.

He halts himself mid-sentence and studies her closely. “You have an idea?”

The naked desperation written across his features tempts her to promise, but she has no desire to raise anyone's hopes prematurely. “We’ll see,” is all she is willing to offer.

Thankfully, he bows in lieu of pressing further. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

Once his footsteps have faded away, she stares into her hearth fires until she finds the blue at their core, narrowing her gaze until every trace of lively red, vibrant orange, and warm gold has been swallowed up in unearthly light. Then she reaches out as though pulling forth a length of thread, and waits for the shadows between the flames to cohere into the caverns of the underworld.

To her belated relief, Hades is not in his bedchamber, but seated pensively on his throne. Hestia does her best to avoid the rest of her family's petty rivalries and shows of favoritism, but she feels a kinship beyond blood with this brother that might startle even him if she were ever to voice the thought. Then again, perhaps not: he alone among their siblings understands what it means to relinquish the burdens of eldest and seek a different path, if not why she chose so freely.

Alas, his expression of startled delight as he notices her retreats almost instantly behind a cold, impassive wall befitting the Lord of the Dead. “So even you've come to lecture me now, sweet sister? Demeter's rage must be truly remarkable.”

“Demeter doesn't know about this,” she assures him. “Besides, I don't lecture. I listen. And I'd like to hear what your wife has to say. May I speak with her, please?”

She isn't sure whether it's the “wife” or the “please” that does it, but Hades's face softens, then vanishes as Persephone flickers into view. Either her appearance has changed to suit her new status, or it has been far longer than Hestia remembers since she last saw her niece in person: the shy wisp of a girl she recalls is gone, replaced by a quietly dignified young woman whose smile puts her less in mind of the sun peering out from behind a cloud than a waning sliver of moon.

Basic pleasantries are exchanged, before Hestia comes straight to the point. “How are you?”

“So kind of you to ask.” The careful courtesy in Persephone’s tone conveys an unspoken unlike some people with a skill that owes far more to her mother's example than she would likely appreciate hearing. “I’m wonderful. Happier than I can ever remember being, in fact.”

“Ah, love,” says Hestia, in her best imitation of Aphrodite. Which is to say, she doubts Persephone will pick up on the impression.

Sure enough, Persephone just waves dismissively, though her fond, knowing smirk reassures Hestia that Hades is in no danger of a broken heart. “Well, yes. But it's so much more than that. For the first time, I’m more than sweet little Persephone, Mother’s plaything, with nothing to do but frolic among the flowers and nymphs forever. I have a kingdom to rule, decisions to make, my own life to live.” She leans forward conspiratorially. “Surely you know, Aunt Hestia.”

She knows. Oh yes, she knows. And yet, she also knows that even the most humble expression of divinity comes with its own inescapable obligations. Persephone wants to be – claims to be –is – a queen.

Merciful Hestia, save us.

“Are you so determined to prove your maturity,” she forces herself to ask, “that you'd make the whole mortal realm your subjects?”

Persephone scowls. “Oh, no. I refuse to take the blame for Mother. If she believes death is such a great evil, she can spare her worshippers simply by accepting the way things are.” Her expression softens from anger to sorrow, easing away some of her newfound adulthood in the process. “I wish she would.”

So the bond between mother and child is not irrevocably broken, then. Good. “You said it yourself: it’s a big adjustment after an eternity of you always being there. Perhaps if you eased her into it…”

“Have you ever known Mother to ‘ease into’ anything? Especially when she's already made up her mind?”

Hestia concedes the point. “Then let her think she's won, for now. Only contrive some reason you must return to the underworld and Hades for a time. She may never be pleased with the arrangement, but once she accepts things are how they are, you can deal with her woman to woman.”

Persephone does not appear won over by the advice, but neither does her next question suggest she is prepared to reject it out of hand. “And if I want to see my husband without groveling for her permission?”

“Hades is no more chained to his realm than I am to my hearth,” Hestia points out, with a faint smile. She swallows, knowing the offer she is about to make is the sort of well-intentioned gesture that can, with just a few misinterpretations and misguided feelings, spiral into war encompassing the heavens and earth. But she hopes that simply being who and what she is will ward off any speculation she considers this any different from every other sacrifice she has made to ensure her loved one’s happiness. “In fact, he need only say the word, and I will watch over the dead in your names while he visits you.”

A long, tense silence follows. Then, just as Hestia’s thoughts dart to whether she should seek Athena’s guidance before risking any further missteps or muddle her way through an apology, Persephone nods. “I – we – will consider your advice. In the interim, please know that it is appreciated.” That small, sincere sliver of smile reappears. “Truly.”

Hestia returns the nod and grin tenfold.

~

Another winter. Hestia has lost count of them by now. The prayers have grown less frantic with the passing seasons, though no less heartfelt. She sends an added burst of heat toward the latest petitioner, a young mother whose babe is not finding comfort in either breast or blanket, and turns her attention to her unusually subdued visitor.

“How do you stand it?” Demeter asks.

Hestia merely raises an eyebrow and waits for clarification.

“The silence. The loneliness. Why hasn't it driven you mad?”

“I'm not lonely,” Hestia insists. She braces herself for an eyeroll, or a dismissive snort, or a brief blink of incomprehension before Demeter barrels on as though the idea is too absurd to even acknowledge. But for once, her sister appears to be listening. “Everyone I care about may not be here, but I still carry them in my heart.” When this, too, is met only with contemplative quiet, she presses on. “And just as a cold night makes a warm fire all the sweeter, there are pleasures to be found in solitude.”

Demeter sits for a time, still considering. Then, so low that even Hestia strains to hear it: “Teach me?”

“Of course,” Hestia beams. At long last, Demeter has brought the perfect gift.