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since the world began

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The boy turns around, and fails the test, and Persephone goes back above ground, and the girl comes back to Hadestown with the rest of the workers in tow, but the sense of victory he’d anticipated never comes. Instead, all Hades feels is the sense that somewhere, somehow, the other shoe just dropped. He’s won, by all rights. He’d given the two of them a fair chance, and the rest of the workers, too. He’s won fair and square.

And yet, somehow, the nagging, persistent feeling tugging at the pit of his stomach won’t abate. Hades thinks of his wife, of the look on her face when he’d agreed that they would try again the next fall, all soft wonder and wary hope. He wants that feeling back, the one he’d felt for the first time in eons the night Orpheus had sung his song, and they’d danced like a young couple, in love with love.

There has to be a way to have both, his empire and his wife. He’d promised the one in exchange for the other, or so it seems, but maybe he can find a way around that. Fix things without fixing them. Make them appear as what Persephone wants to see, and keep what he owns as well as win what he wants back.

But life goes on, and death goes on too, and every day brings more hungry souls to his world. Hades sees that they’re set about their work, that the cogs and gears of his factories keep rolling and turning, and all the while, the engine in the back of his mind keeps turning too, trying to find ways to make a world she’ll want to live in.

And then one afternoon, as he’s sitting up in his office, contracts spread across the dark wood of his desk, his thoughts, heavy and slow, are interrupted by a sharp rapping on the door. Hades looks up. Sets his reading glasses to the side. Squints at the door, as if expecting the sound to vanish now that he’s paying attention to it. There’s a pause, but then it comes again, just as insistent.

“Come in,” he says, and sighs. If someone is disturbing him in his office, it must be something important. Hades leans back in his chair, expecting the familiar faces of the Fates, or perhaps Charon. Seeing the face of the young girl he’d won back to the Underworld isn’t. Shock crosses his face before he schools the expression back to stoicism. Hades watches her carefully. “How did you get in here?” Why isn’t she working, is more to the point.

She turns, and wipes a smudge of soot from her cheek, but only succeeds in smearing it further. Her clothes are just as dirty, her boots caked in dirt, and through his surprise, all Hades can think is that she’s going to get the floor dirty. She pushes her goggles higher up on her forehead and meets his eyes. The second surprise is that they’re still just as clear as when she arrived. How long has it been since she’d arrived? And how is her mind still so clear?

“I knocked,” she says, and shrugs one shoulder. “No one stopped me.”

It’s so simple and yet so idiotic he almost wants to laugh. Of course no one stopped her. Why should they? No one comes here except by his order, so shouldn’t anyone coming here be assumed to have permission?

She takes a step forward, and for a moment, there’s a flash of fear that somehow, he’s going to suffer by this, that she’s come to take vengeance, or try to escape, and ruin the carefully crafted image of invulnerability he’s worked so hard to maintain. Hades stays still in his chair, aware that any movement on his part might look like fear.

“What are you doing here?” he asks, and can’t help staring when she sits down in the chair across the desk before he’s even thought to give permission.

The girl doesn’t kick her feet up on the desk, or fold her arms like she owns it, but there’s a distinct look in her eye that says she’s considering it. Hades wonders: if he pushed at that bravado, how much would it take before it splintered? But Persephone had taken a liking to the girl — whatever her name might be. Best not to break her, then. At least before she’s said what she came to.

“I’m here on behalf of a united group of your employees to discuss our demands for a more productive working relationship in the future.” She stares at him, expression defiant, but the delivery is like that of a stubborn child reciting the words she’s been told will get her the result she wants. It takes a moment for the content of them to set in, and when they do, it’s not fury that sets in. It’s amusement that tugs at his gut and sets laughter bubbling up so he can’t control it, raw and terrible.

A union. He might have expected as much. Nothing good could come of that boy coming down here, even if he’d thought he’d won. He should have killed him and washed his hands of the affair the moment he’d laid eyes on him, and damn the consequences. Insurrection would have been easier to quell than this.

“And by whose authority do you speak, hmm?” Hades quells his laughter and leans forward across the desk. “Who put you in charge?”

She wavers, just a little. “There was a vote—”

“A vote?” This time, he doesn’t try to contain the laughter. It feels good, to let it reverberate against his ribs. A vote. He should have dropped that boy into the deepest pits of Hadestown to scratch a living off rock. Should have forced him into the worst work he could find just to watch him break. “Young lady — I don’t think we’ve been introduced, to rights—”

“Eurydice.” She sticks out a hand, grimy and calloused, and stares at him as if she expects him to take it. Hades nods.

“Eurydice. I don’t know if you’re aware, but that’s not how things work down here.”

She juts out her chin, and this time, she does fold her arms across her chest. “You have us all down here for what?” she asks, and narrows her eyes. “You want us to work? Feed us, let us rest, you’ll get more useful work out of us.”

Hades resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. “You’re all dead,” he says, his voice going tight. “You don’t need to eat, or sleep, or any of that. That’s the point of you.” Here he’d thought that somehow this was going to be something interesting, and it’s just one more unruly soul stirring up trouble that isn’t worth the time to stop. Disappointment isn’t the right word for it, but it’s the first one that comes to mind, and Hades hates himself for that.

“True.” Eurydice points one finger at him and meets his eyes. “But think about it this way. We’ll all like you better if you’re a little nicer.” The corner of her mouth quirks upwards, and she leans in. “Think about that. We might make an effort. Wouldn’t that be nice? You wouldn’t have to grind the work out of us, we’d try harder—”

He slams his hand down on the smooth wood and growls out, “I don’t need to be liked,” for the sheer satisfaction of watching her flinch. But she doesn’t, and he refuses to acknowledge how deep the truth of that cuts.

Eurydice is still staring at him, damn her, and he wants to make her stop, to get her eyes off him any way he can. Hades grits his teeth. “I don’t care what kind of trick this is. You’re not getting out of here, and neither are any of them.” He pauses, remembering the look of naked pain on her face as she trudged back through the gate to Hadestown, the way she’d clung to her own arms. “That young man isn’t coming back for you. No one is.” And it feels good, to lash out, to hurt, so good that it leaves him breathless, feeling like something has ripped itself loose.

She doesn’t stop staring at him, but her expression hardens, and the color goes higher in her cheeks. The muscles in her shoulders bunch. Hades shifts back in his chair, half-afraid she’s going to leap across the desk. Briefly, he considers calling for someone to take her away.

“I know no one is coming to get me.” Her voice is sharp and low, tightly controlled. Hades watches her hands tighten on the edge of the desk. “I’m in this for the long run. Just like you. You can work with me or against me, but one way or another, you’re going to have to deal with me. You can’t kill me twice, you know.”

Fine. No games, then. Why not get straight to the point? Hades folds his hands on the desktop. “What are your demands?” He’ll hear them, at least. All the better. Knowing what they want is better than knowing nothing at all, and giving the impression of an open door might be better than slamming it.

Eurydice takes a deep breath and scans his face, searching for signs of deceit. Not that she’ll find any. A man as old and weary as he has long since learned how and when to conceal them. “Twelve hour shifts of work, with two breaks for meals, provided by you. And no retaliation against any of us for this.”

His expression tightens. “I’ll take it under consideration.” Even if he wanted to give in, doing it right away can only look like weakness, and that’s something he can never show. Hades waves a hand in her general direction. “Go on, now. I’m sure you have things to do.”

She stands, but lingers by the door. “Don’t take too long about it.” This time, her voice is quiet. “I don’t think they’re going to want to wait forever.” Then the door closes behind her, and all Hades can do is look at the smudges of grease and dirt she’s left on the pristine surface of his desk. He reaches out to wipe it away with a slate-colored handkerchief, and when he looks back up, he’s greeted by the faces of the Fates, their eyes glittering. They move as one to stand in front of his desk. He doesn’t bother thinking about how they got in so quickly and so silently. After so many years of the same, it’s stopped being a concern.

Atropos speaks first. “The girl was here.” She doesn’t wait for confirmation before Clotho continues.

“The one the workers wanted to speak for them.”

Then Lachesis: “We could look into it. Break up their union. See to it no one questions your will.”

Their eyes are keen as they wait for his answer. Not for the first time, Hades considers that there’s something a little too eager about them. No one else does his dirty work better, but no one else is quite so unsettlingly happy to do it, either.

“No.” He waves a hand, unsure which of their eyes to meet. “I don’t believe there’s any need for that just yet.” It’s a dangerous line he’s treading. Sway too far to either side and he could lose everything.

Atropos rests a hand on the desk, and he looks up at her with an even expression. Hurriedly, she pulls her hand away and folds them both behind her back. “And what about the girl?” Beside her, Clotho and Lachesis straighten up.

“We could deal with her.”

“Break her bones.”

“See she doesn’t sleep for a week.” Their voices rise in pitch and speed. Hades holds up a hand.

“Enough,” he snaps. They fall silent, but there’s something sulky about it. He sighs. “Just keep an eye on her, will you?”

They nod as one, and before he can speak to dismiss him, they’re vanished out of sight.

Hades sighs again, this time closer to despairing, and rests his forehead in his hands. The day is nowhere near to done, and he can feel the beginnings of a headache coming on.

Chapter Text

It’s the first real springtime the world has seen in years, and Persephone intends to make the most of it. For two long weeks she rides the train wherever it’ll take her, and makes the leaves turn green and the flowers bloom everywhere she goes. The people stare when she passes, hesitant, and wary, unwilling to believe that this time, it might stay after she’s gone to the next town. But stay it does, and she begins to feel a kind of life rekindling in her bones. Almost like she’s the girl she used to be, with daisy chains looping her ankles and wrists, and a basket of flowers in her arms, without even the bottle of wine hidden among the blooms.

She starts to smile again, and to laugh, and even to make the people around her do the same. Their faces are careworn and lined with wrinkles and dirt, nearly ground in to the flesh. It’s strange, seeing how many faces aren’t around anymore. There’s fewer people come to sit around her campfire at nights, and the ones who come don’t talk as much as they used to. The realization that every face she sees is an older one is startling. But, she supposes, it makes a certain kind of sense. The young ones with hope, with prospects, with bodies that don’t betray them, have likely all gone in search of greener pastures, or the solace of her husband’s mines. Just because Hades has said he’ll try to change doesn’t mean what’s done can be undone.

Persephone tries to smile, to bring whatever joy she can, but every time the wind brushes against the back of her neck she feels a chill go down her spine. She’s looking over her shoulder, sleeping with one eye open, and when she hears the whistle of the train she checks to make sure she’s still above ground. Men can change, and Hades says he’ll try, but she knows how far she can trust his word. She’s seen him turn on it before.

Finally, she makes her way back to Mr. Hermes. It’s one of the last stops she has to make before she can settle in for whatever time her husband is going to allow her, and if she’s honest, she knows she’s been putting it off. Persephone chides herself for it a little as she makes her way up tot he door. This town deserves to have the springtime back again, and her misgivings about having to see Hermes’ pet poet aren’t cause enough to deny them that.

She pastes a bright smile on, tosses her hair, and knocks on the door.

Later, after she’s served her drinks and danced with as many people as she can tease and coerce into getting out of their seats, Persephone slumps down at a lone table and pours herself a glass of whiskey. She swirls it in the glass once and considers it, and is about to raise it to her mouth when Hermes sits down beside her. She sits up a little straighter, then leans back in the chair to look at him.

“I was beginning to think you’d never show your face around here anymore,” he says, and pushes his spectacles up. His dark eyes glitter, and any misgivings she had vanish.

She raises her glass in a silent toast and drains it. “I had to bring the springtime back for my favorite uncle, didn’t I?” After all, wasn’t it Hermes that sat with her every time she watched Hades change, every time he summoned her home too soon? Didn’t he come down to Hadestown to see her every now and again? And when she was two far gone in drinking, wasn’t it him that made sure she took care of herself?

Persephone grins over at him. “Well? Aren’t you glad to see me again?”

Hermes raises an eyebrow. “Just wondering how long you’re going to stay this time.”

Her expression sours a little. For all that she’s happy to have had this long, she can’t help wondering when the other shoe is going to drop. “I’ll let you know when I find out.” For a moment, she considers another drink to wash the bitter taste from her mouth. Instead, she glances around the bar, looking for any familiar faces. “Where’s the boy?” The question comes out tentative, with none of the certainty with which she’s been getting used to using again. After all, he might very well blame her for his own loss. And who could blame him for that?

Hermes sighs, and she feels her heart sink a little. “Oh, he’s around. Hasn’t been quite the same, since.” He looks back up at her, eyes keen and piercing, and she can’t help feeling like a young girl again, if only for a moment. “You should go talk to him. I think he might need a new face.”

Her mouth opens, but no words come out. Finally, she finds her voice again. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Not when she’s been doing so much good.

He gives her a stern look, and she quails a little. “The boy needs someone,” he says, “and I’ve done just about all I can.”

Swallowing her misgivings, Persephone moves to stand. “Alright. But if he throws me out on my ear, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.”

His lips twitch. “That seems fair enough.”

According to Hermes’ instructions, he’s been living in the shed out behind the bar, and that’s cause enough for worry in and of itself. Persephone approaches it with no small amount of trepidation. The place is halfway to falling down, the paint chipping, the door hanging loose off one hinge, and from what little she can see of it, the roof looks to be full of holes large enough for rain to come through. She wrinkles her nose. Surely however upset the boy is, he’s got enough between his ears to keep his head dry.

Persephone knocks, but when she hears no answer but the sound of someone plucking clumsily at the strings of a guitar, she steps inside, moving as quietly as she can. There’s a horrible sense of unease in her gut. She can’t hear anyone speaking, but possibilities whirl through her mind, each more preposterous than the last. What if, somehow, the boy has hurt himself? What if he’s given up hope altogether? What if he’s moved on?

She swallows hard. As ridiculous as it is, there’s something that tightens in her stomach unpleasantly at the thought of the boy she’d known giving up his love for Eurydice, the love that shook her husband’s world down to the foundations. If it’s gone, what does that mean for her?

She moves through the darkened shed, following the sounds of the guitar, and stops in the shadows. Orpheus is perched on a stool in the darkness, hunched over his guitar, his expression tight in lines of concentration and frustration. He starts to play again. Persephone winces at the sound. It’s painful, each note coming a little off the beat, and too tentative more than half the time, but somehow she recognizes the melody. It’s what he’d played that night for Hades, but twisted, and halting, and wrong. He lets the guitar fall, hanging taut by the strap, and buries his face in his hands.

Perhaps she makes a sound in spite of herself. Or perhaps the boy just has too good an ear. But either way, before she quite realizes what’s happening, he looks up at her with accusing eyes. “What are you doing here?”

Persephone shrinks back. This is exactly what she’d wanted to avoid. She takes a breath and forces herself to step forward. “Mr. Hermes asked me to check on you,” she starts slowly, and rests her hand against the wall of the shed. Grit rubs against her palm, but she doesn’t move it. Instead, she jerks her chin at the guitar. “The song. It doesn’t work anymore.”

It doesn’t sound like a question, but it is.

Orpheus meets her eyes for a moment, then looks away. “It doesn’t work without her.”

Fear coils in her gut. If the song doesn’t work — if things don’t change — if one day her husband wakes up and decides he wants her down there with him forever, what will become of them? There’ll be no way to convince him otherwise. And Persephone isn’t sure if she loves him anymore, but she cares for him. No matter the man he’s become, she wouldn’t wish that for them.

“You’re going to have to find a way to make it work. You hear?” Almost immediately, she wishes she’d gentled it. He’s just a boy in love, and maybe what she’d said is true, but maybe it’s not what he wanted to hear. There’s a horrible silence, and she feels her heart twist in her throat, and then Orpheus is looking up at her with eyes that are glittering with tears.

“I know,” he says, and it’s so soft and miserable she almost wants to cry herself. His face crumples, and he curls in a little, wrapping an arm around himself, and before she can open her mouth to try and comfort him, Orpheus dissolves into tears.

Persephone pauses, completely unsure what to do. Stricken, she stands and stares, the only thing she can hear the noise of restrained tears and shaky breathing. Poor boy. The pain must be almost too much to bear. She has no children, nor does she want them. In truth, she’s never understood her mother’s passion for motherhood at all. Somehow, she’s missing the instinct for it, and her husband has no time for her now. That’s if she can even have children, at her age. But seeing him cry like this, unrestrained and desolate — it’s awaking a strange and sympathetic impulse she’s never felt before.

She takes two halting steps forward. Hesitant, she puts a hand on his shoulder, feeling him shake beneath the touch. “There, now,” Persephone says, unsure of what’s right to say but certain that anything is better than standing here and doing nothing while he falls apart. “There, there.” She crouches a little, forcing a smile. “It’ll be alright. I promise.”

How can she promise that? It’s all words, empty oaths she has no way of keeping. Hades won’t let go of what’s his, and the girl is his down to the marrow now. Even if he doesn’t want her, he won’t let her get away.

Wide, wet eyes meet hers for a moment, and then, before she’s quite sure what’s happened, the boy flings his arms around her and buries his face against her shoulder. He’s crying in earnest now, horrible, wrenching sobs. “Hush, now,” Persephone says, heart slamming against her ribs. What is she meant to do here? How can she do anything to help at all? Slowly, she pats his shoulder and leans a little closer. She relaxes, after a moment. This isn’t so bad, surely. A little comfort is the least she owes.

She thinks about what it was to be young and in love, about Hades laughing in the light of the sun, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and how her heart leapt at the sight of his smile. She thinks about the look on his face the night he came back to her, all guilt and repentance and wonder, and everything between. The fights, the arguments, the long nights she’d walked the narrow streets of Hadestown trying to find a spark of life in his world down below, the springs that lasted only a week before he summoned her back. More than what happened, what she remembers is the way it felt, how much it hurt and soothed and meant something. Now, at her age, it’s hard to feel that anything between them matters.

If she could be that young again, and feel that much, would she do anything differently?

If they were young, the way they’d been when the world began, maybe they could change. Maybe they could care enough to try.

Maybe they still can.

Chapter Text

If there’s one thing Hades prides himself on above all else, it’s his ability to remain impassive during times of crisis. He’s ridden out riots before, insubordination, and the like. He’s stayed married to Persephone for millenia, kept his seat as king of the Underworld for longer than that, and managed to do it all without letting anyone under his command know that the heart in his chest beats just like theirs. But after all this had happened, after he’d stood in front of everyone, with tears running down his cheeks, holding out his arms to a woman he wasn’t sure would want his embrace, the claim that he feels nothing at all isn’t something he feels certain he can prove anymore.

So perhaps he’s been letting his guard slip, just a little. But Hades can’t help thinking that even letting the boy try was setting a dangerous precedent. He thinks of where it’s led him, on the verge of outright mutiny from his children, his employees, who’ve somehow gotten it into their heads that what he provides suddenly isn’t good enough for them anymore.

He knows who put that idea there. And suddenly, with frustration pooling in the pit of his stomach, he’s desperate to do something about it, not just sit here waiting for her to bring the roof down on his head. She’s dangerous, Eurydice. In trying to avoid creating a martyr of her lover, that hapless dreamer, he’d made her into something worse, something stronger.

Hades rings the bell sitting by his ink blotter, and rests his forehead against the heel of his other hand. The bone-handle of the bell is cool and ridged, and he has to resist the temptation to press it to his forehead, a panacea for the migraine he can feel on the horizon. Immortality, he thinks, dry as bone, as the door opens and their heeled boots click across the floor, isn’t what it used to be.

“Lord Hades?” It’s Clotho that speaks, her voice a little higher than usual. Hades frowns slightly. When was the last time any of them addressed him by title? “What’s your will?”

Very well. Perhaps the additional respect isn’t something he should be complaining about. It’s the only respect he’s likely to get, now.

“The girl, Eurydice.” Hades picks up a pen and twists it between his fingers just to have something to do. Looking down at his hands, he almost doesn’t recognize them. They’re visibly older, certainly, but they’re softening too, the signs of his long days of work as a young man fading, leaving at least the impression of a man who doesn’t know how to work at all. “Tell me. What has she been doing?”

The three of them exchange a look that he almost misses altogether. It takes a moment, but Clotho keeps speaking, keeping her gaze squarely two inches away from his eyes.

“Well, sir, she’s —”

“—not working as hard as usual,” Lachesis adds.

“She’s not missing quotas —”

“—but she’s not trying too hard either.” Atropos folds her arms across her chest. Hades meets her gaze. Of the three of them, she’s the most likely to tell him the truth exactly as it is.

“And why is that?” he asks, drumming the tips of his fingers on the desk.

The other two look to Atropos, who doesn’t look away from him. “She’s organizing meetings for the workers,” she says coolly. “There’s one every week in the barracks. We haven’t been able to listen, but from the looks of things, she’s organizing for something. Maybe a riot. Maybe something bigger.”

Of course. It’s exactly what he should have expected. Of course the girl wouldn’t sit down and take a fair defeat. Through the wrenching anger, a hint of doubt wriggles into the back of his mind. Was it really fair? Either way, she’s his problem now, and there’s a part of him that’s cursing himself for not letting her leave, if only to escape this trouble.

Atropos is still staring at him, a challenge in her gaze, while her sisters keep their eyes firmly on the ground. A leashed hound is still a hound, Hades thinks, and though she may be loyal to him, it’s a loyalty bought only by the fact that he’s stronger. Any mistake he makes, and there’s no doubt in his mind that the moment he loses control — Well. Best not to think about that.

“When are these meetings?” He’ll put a stop to this here and now, and damn the consequences. No one will dare to question his will if they don’t have the tongues to speak at all.

Her lips curl upwards, and her dark eyes glitter. “Every seventh day. There’ll be one tonight, after the final bell rings.”

Good. That’s good. Hades waves the three of them away with a flick of his wrist and purses his lips. Though Atropos is strong, confident as ever, there’s nervousness growing int he ranks. He needs a decisive course of action, something to remove all doubt. Hopefully, with this meeting tonight, he’ll find inspiration on how to keep the waters calm.

***

It’s embarrassing, the realization that he hardly knows where the barracks are in his own domain. He’s been there before, of course, but it feels so terribly far away that the location itself is hazy. When he finds the right building, finally, he’s almost surprised at how worn, how old it looks. The shutters hang off the windows, and the paint is chipping, but surely that doesn’t really matter. It’s not as if there’s any wind to keep out, or anyone to impress.

Inside, faintly, he can hear voices, and that’s almost alarming. When was the last time he’d heard any of them speaking? Hades approaches the door and pushes it open a crack, just to peer inside, to get the measure of things.

Eurydice is at the front of their eating area, newly converted into something like a meeting room. The tables have all been pushed to the side, and the chairs are all in a semicircle in front of her. She’s sitting on one of the tables, speaking to them quietly, hands gesturing every few sentences to illustrate a point. It’s nothing like the way he speaks to them, standing above them, using the microphone to send his voice ricocheting off the stone walls. And the way they look at her — hopeful and earnest — like they’re people.

Hades pushes the door open and strides into the room, and almost relishes the way everything goes still and silent. Hades just waits for someone to make the first move. As much as he’d prefer to crush this mutiny beneath his heel and have done with it, there’s the issue of his wife. He’s keenly aware of the precariousness of their position, of just how easily he could lose her favor all over again. He needs a reason, one that even she can’t argue with. If only he could catch them in the middle of planning a riot, or something equally unforgivable.

One of them, a tall bearded man with an imposing frame, rises, but Eurydice shakes her head and extends a hand to him. “Hector. Sit down.” Her voice is gentle, but he sits anyway, staring at Hades with an unreadable expression in his eyes.

Eurydice turns to him. She’s still sitting, and looks for all the world completely relaxed, but there’s a tension in her shoulders that he can’t ignore. “Hades,” she says, watching him. “There’s plenty of chairs, if you’d like to sit.”

There’s another silence, this one more pointed, and Hades has two thoughts in quick succession: What the hell? followed by Oh, that’s clever. He’d waited a moment too long to act, and now he’s caught in a game he doesn’t understand the rules of. Opening with hospitality he hasn’t earned is a clever way of making sure that unless he plays her game, he’ll only look like a tyrant. The appearance of fairness is more important than fairness itself, and he hadn’t expected her to read him that well.

Hades sits down in the first chair he sees, between the tall man and a woman with springy hair, holding tightly to the hand of the man beside her. She gives Hades a suspicious look, and turns back to Eurydice.

“I don’t think he should be here,” she says, voice harsh and unyielding. “He’s the enemy, isn’t he?”

Eurydice leans forward to face her. “And how do we make our demands if he can’t hear them?” she asks. “He can’t do anything to us here, Chrysanthe. I promise you.”

It’s a vain promise. Surely she knows she can’t keep it. But the woman, Chrysanthe, sits back, apparently mollified, and gives him one last look before reaching back to squeeze the shoulder of the woman sitting behind her.

Their names. How did they get them back? It’s been an eternity since he’s heard any of them call each other by name, or sound like people, but somehow, in the short time she’s been here, Eurydice’s managed to bring them back into their own bodies with startling force.

Somehow, through the silence, Hades realizes that they’re all still looking at him. He makes a vague gesture, and leans back in his chair. “Well? Don’t stop on my account.”

The meeting continues, and Hades just sits back, trying to take it all in. He’s not sure what he’d been expecting. Petty, stupid, complaints, perhaps. A foolish desire to break their contracts and leave. That would have been easier to handle, he thinks. He could have said no, could have made an example of them and been done with things. Instead, what he’s hearing is a plea for fair treatment and human empathy.

Hades is old and he knows it. Any feeling he’d once had is withered up in his liver, worn out and dried up and long, long gone. That’s what he’d like to believe. This shouldn’t be affecting him the way it is, shouldn’t be twisting his stomach into knots.

They’re his children, all of them. Shouldn’t he take care of them?

He sits there silently until the last moment, and as soon as they start to disperse, he’s on his way to the door, thoughts swirling madly in the back of his mind. He’d wanted open rebellion. That would have been so much easier to put down.

“Hey!” There’s a young voice piercing through the swirl of thoughts, one he almost recognizes. “Wait!”

He turns, and it’s Eurydice, standing right behind him. She pushes her hair out of her eyes and hesitates before speaking again. When she does, her words are slow and measured. “It was good of you to come,” she says. “No one thought you would pay us any attention.”

He’s not paying them attention. He can’t afford to do that, not even for a moment. Hades clenches his hands behind his back, taking as much care as he can spare to make sure his expression remains impassive. “Where did they get their names?” Somehow, impossibly, that’s the beginning of the end. If he can’t keep them in line, if he can’t make them obedient, what power does he have?

Eurydice shakes her head. “What?” Her forehead wrinkles, and she takes a step closer. She’s within arms reach, now. If he wanted, he could reach out and take her by the shoulder, shake sense back into her. She’s clever, and strong, and how can she not see that this is all going to end badly?

“Their names,” he says, sharp and low. “How did they get them back?”

Eurydice jerks away, out of reach, and stares at him with wide eyes. Somehow, he’d forgotten just how young she’d been when she signed his contract. How much life she still would have had to live, if things had been different.

“They chose them,” she says softly, and turns away.

Chapter Text

Deep down, Eurydice knows it could have gone so much worse. The moment Hades had walked in, she’d been bracing herself for a fight, for him to break up their meeting and dispose of them all in whatever manner this kind of thing merited. Offering him seat had been a last ditch, desperate effort, the only thing she’d been able to think of. She’d been keenly aware of the need to keep the others calm, to project control for their benefit even if it’s the last thing she’d been feeling.

The moment after he’d walked out, and she’d followed him out the door, there had been the urge to not go back to the barracks. She could run, before anyone noticed, maybe make her way back to the surface. But instead, with a sinking heart and aching feet, she’d trudged back inside. That wasn’t how things worked. Even if she could make it out, the moment anyone noticed her absence, they’d be after her, and any credibility she might have gained by tooth and claw would be nothing.

She opens the door, and almost instantly regrets it. Five pairs of eyes stare back at her, wide, expressions ranging from terrified to furious. They’re spread across the room in little clumps, Hector standing alone like a pillar, Cosmas and Damaris sitting at the table in the corner, knees pressed together, and Chrysanthe standing at another table, leaning back against Leander’s shoulder. He drags his fingertips up her arms, and Eurydice feels her stomach twist with a feeling of hunger that has nothing to do with the fact that it’s been forever since she’s felt full.

Eurydice takes a breath, marshaling her nerves. “Well,” she says, and steps inside, letting the door close firmly behind her. “I think that could have been a lot worse.” The latch snapping shut punctuates the end of the sentence, and she winces at the sharpness of the sound.

“Really?” The timber of Chrysanthe’s voice is high and sharp, almost hysterical. She lets out a desperate, raw laugh, and folds her arms across her chest. “You think?” Leander’s grip on her shoulders tightens just a little, and he searches her face with a concerned gaze.

“We shouldn’t fight about it.” Cosmas looks up, shoulders hunched, and Eurydice has never felt more grateful for anyone. “That’s what he wants, can’t you see that? He wants us to be divided.”

“And he wouldn’t have had anything to work with if you’d just closed the door like I said.” She takes a few steps forward, eyes glittering with fury and something else. Fear? She doesn’t have time to put a name to it, and she’s too aware of all the other eyes on the two of them, waiting to see what she’ll do. How she’ll react to dissent, to disobedience.

Eurydice forces her hands and voice to stay steady. She can’t do any of this alone, she reminds herself. She needs these people more than they need her.

“I told you,” she says, voice low and soft. “There’s nothing he can do to us. We haven’t done anything wrong. Hades is powerful, but he knows he needs to appear to be fair. He can’t do anything to us without a reason.” Eurydice glances around to the others, looking for agreement, a reaction, anything she can use, connect with, but all she can see is anxiety and doubt, and neither of those are any help at all.

She turns back to Chrysanthe, and reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder. “I just need you to have a little faith.” They’re tactile, all of them. She remembers that much from the few days before Orpheus had come looking for her. She’d never really been one of them, but at the end of the day, or during the few breaks they’d been allowed, they’d all collapse together into a tangle of limbs, too exhausted to find their own beds sometimes.

It’s the wrong thing to say. Chrysanthe’s expression twists, and she shoves at Eurydice’s hand. “You think he won’t find a reason?” She steps forward, right in her face, and all Eurydice can do is stand there and try to keep a steady expression. “You walk in here like you know everything, like you’ve got the answers to all our problems—” She’s shouting now, but Eurydice can’t help but see the way her hands are shaking, and how she worries at her fingernails.

And Eurydice isn’t sure what to think. She doesn’t want a fight. But it’s the first time any of them have reacted so strongly to anything, since she’s known any of them. It’s the kind of raw emotion she hadn’t been sure they were capable of anymore.

Leander comes up behind her, puts a hand on her shoulder. He’s inscrutable, always has been, but gentle too. Chrysanthe doesn’t see, or doesn’t care, spitting things Eurydice can’t make out and doesn’t want to. Leander squeezes her shoulder, and she rocks back into the touch a little.

“Chrysanthe,” he says, the pad of his thumb moving over her shoulder blade. It’s a reproach and a consolation all at once. She swallows hard, covers his hand with her own. All the anger drains out of her, her eyes widen, and suddenly she’s someone Eurydice might have known, once.

“I just got this back,” she says softly, and squeezes his hand tight, knuckles whitening. “I don’t intend to lose it again.”

Of course. Of course she doesn’t. Eurydice looks away, her chest tightening uncomfortably. If she’d had the chance to get Orpheus back, even for a moment, she can’t honestly say there’s anything she would do to endanger that.

Leander pulls her away to the other corner of the room, and casts a glance back at Eurydice. Chrysanthe slumps back against the edge of the table, bracing herself on her hands, hair obscuring her face. Leander bends a little to look up into her face, and brushes back a strand of her hair, and it’s so tender that it hurts a little.

“She’s not wrong, you know.” Eurydice turns to look, and it’s Damaris, still sitting quietly in the corner, picking the flakes of dirt from underneath her fingernails. Eurydice feels her heart drop into the pit of her stomach at the censure. It had all been going so well until this — but what had she been expecting? For Hades to allow them to take whatever they wanted?

Damaris looks up, her face creasing into lines of exhaustion. She can’t be that much older than the rest of them — she’d never have survived so long down here otherwise — but the look in her eyes is nothing short of ancient.

“Hades is clever. Coming here tonight was his way of testing the waters. He’ll make his move soon enough, cut our feet out from under us before we can do anything that will really put him in danger.” She settles back in her seat, meeting Eurydice’s eyes. There’s no pleasure in this for her, Eurydice realizes. If there were, it would be so much easier to brush Damaris off, and move forward anyways.

“Does that mean we don’t try, then?” Eurydice says, low and sharp. She glances around at them, looking for something, some sign that they’re listening, really hearing her. She turns, heart knocking against her ribs. “Is this what you want? To stay down here until the end of time? To never see the sun again?” Silence. Why won’t they answer? “I want to feel something,” she says, and can’t bother to be ashamed when it comes out sounding like a plea. Painful tears spring to her eyes, but if she acknowledges them, they’ll be real, so she doesn’t.

They’re all looking away, except for Damaris. She shakes her head, but there’s kindness in her eyes. “You’ll feel plenty when King Hades sends you to the deepest mineshaft he’s got and leaves you there.” She sighs. “We’ve all lost things, girl. You just haven’t learned yet to hold on like hell to what you still have.” Damaris gives her a hesitant smile, tense like her muscles have forgotten how to do it. “You did well. No one’s forgetting that. But it’s time to think about looking after yourself.”

There’s nothing cruel in it, but still, somehow, it hits Eurydice like a kick to the chest. Them giving up on her had never been something she’d even considered. Orpheus did this so easily, but then, that’s never been hard to believe. There’s something so innocent, untainted about him, that had gotten into her bloodstream since the moment she saw him. Whatever that is, she doesn’t have it. There’s nothing whole about her left. How could she have been so stupid as to think otherwise? That she could lead these people? That she could go home?

No one is looking at her anymore, so Eurydice scrubs at her eyes with the back of her hand. She spits out a curse, voice unsteady, and flings her hand down, turning towards the door, but instead collides with Cosmas, her head smacking against his collarbone.

Eurydice looks up at him with wide eyes. “Sorry.” She starts to push past him, determined to make her escape before anyone can think to protest, but he catches her by the arm, his grip oddly gentle.

“Look, I’m sure things will work out. This is a setback. That’s all.” He tries to smile, searching her face, and even though Eurydice knows she could easily break his grip and dart for the door, she doesn’t. He’s young, and he’s been kind to her, and right now, he’s the only ally she seems to have.

“I don’t know about that,” she says, with a nervous little laugh. “Opposing Hades directly was never part of the plan. He’s too strong.” They’re right about that, and there’s no more point in arguing about it. “Besides.” Eurydice looks over at where the others have gathered around the table on the other side of the room. “I don’t think anyone here is interested in what I have to say anymore.” This is all that’s left to her. Maybe it would be best to start accepting that.

Cosmas follows her gaze across the room. “I don’t know if that’s true.” He nudges her hand with his, and she barely has time to think about the warmth of it before he’s clearing his throat and straightening up to sing la la la la la la la and a feeling fills her chest that she can’t describe for the life of her.

Chrysanthe looks up from across the room, her eyes going wide. There’s a terrible silence where all she can hear is her heartbeat in her ears. But then Chrysanthe steps forward, hesitant, not daring to look back, and finishes the line. Eurydice joins in, the melody half-remembered, but growing stronger in her mind, and then somehow, somehow, they’re singing it together, all of them, the sound of it ricocheting off the walls and against her ribs, and Eurydice just tilts her head back and listens as it grows louder and stronger. Out the windows, she can see lights flickering on all across the Underworld, and all the while it’s getting louder and brighter until she almost feels as if she could burst with it. Maybe she can’t bring them together on her own. But maybe she doesn’t need to.

***

On the other side of the Underworld, deep in his cavernous palace, the sound of singing breaches the stone walls and thick curtains, designed not to keep out light but other people, and Hades wakes up in a cold sweat. He sits bolt upright, and listens for a moment. Then he calls for Atropos.