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Madder Lake

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P E R S E P H O N E

“Delivery!”

Persephone looks up at rap on the expansive gothic arc of Hades’ living room window, grinning as she catches sight of her friend. For once it looks like good news, Hermes bobbing easily on the evening breeze, palm held up in greeting. She lifts the lever on the window frame, pushing the rippled glass open to meet him, leaning out over the windowsill. The ground is so very far down that she can feel the thrill of it, the sort of thrill Hermes enjoys.

“What are you doing here? It’s probably not proper to be visiting a fugitive, you know.”

His eyes spark in that way where you’re never quite sure what mischief he’s planning, leaning down to meet her where her elbows are propped on the sill. “Purely official business! I’d have nothing to do with you, otherwise.”

She rolls her eyes as he taps the side of his nose, as if he’s said something very clever that would definitely hold up in court. “I’m grateful for the professional consideration.”

But now there is just mild night air between them, she can see how knackered he looks; sweaty, frankly, and too keyed up, probably on coffee. He always works himself too hard. She softens a little, pushing herself back up. “Do you want to come in? I’ll make you a cup of tea and you can sit down for a bit- it must be near the end of your shift, right?”

The way he attempts to not let vivid relief show on his face is a little heart-breaking. “Oh! Well. That could be nice. For a little. I’m sure I’ve got some lunch break saved up. Make it a coffee, though?”

She snorts, pulling the window open wider so he can clamber through. As if he ever takes his lunch break. “Absolutely not.”

***

It’s two hours later and they’re still gossiping, Persephone sprawled on her stomach on the couch, legs kicked up behind her. Despite her best intentions, tea turned into a couple of small expensive stubby beers from Hades’ seemingly endless drinks collection, which Hermes was very excited to find.

It is such, such a relief to talk to someone, in person. She didn’t realise how lonely and bittersweet it is sometimes, living with someone you’re awkwardly just out of reach of. Most evenings recently Hades stays so late at work it’s hard to keep her eyes open to hear his soft little knock, the click of his keys in the door.

She sighs, feeling gently fuzzy from the bit of alcohol she’s had, enough to let her guard down a little and her quieter, half-formed thoughts out. “…I’m serious though, Hermes. He’s so stressed out.”

She flops onto her side, hands laced over her hip, gazing at the tall ceiling. His ceiling. She feels so small in this giant apartment sometimes. Even the kitchen surfaces are his height, she has to use a step stool to reach them.

“I think it’s work. Or maybe it’s me? Or both. Gods it’s probably both. And I don’t know how to help! And I don’t think I can leave- I don’t think I’d be safe anywhere else.” She pauses, frowning as the reality of that settles in a way it hasn’t before.

She hears Hermes shift, settling back against the arm of the couch. “…Look. Perse- you just can’t take his moods so seriously. He’s such a grumpy piece of shit and he always looks sad it’s not anything you’re doing-“ he’s cut off as he gets a pillow thrown in his face.

“Quit it.” She glowers at the light fixtures as Hermes grunts, chastened. But if she’s honest she can’t exactly disagree, despite how rude it may be to her host. “I do- I do know that! About him. But he’s- he’s been so kind letting me stay here, not telling Zeus where I am. He could get in real trouble. And he realised that I was worrying about getting behind on my degree, and the next thing I know there’s all the worksheets I missed sat on my desk and transcriptions of the lectures. And now I can study, instead of just sitting here going crazy.”

She can almost hear Hermes roll his eyes at that one, so she tilts her head back and squints so she can keep an eye on him. He taps his fingers on the neck of his beer bottle, gaze tilting to the side. “I don’t know, Perse… just- tell him to sit down, chill out. Nobody else does, cos they all need him to just work.”

He mulls something for a second; and then his sharp face turns mischievous, hunching forward like he does when he decides to spill some gossip. He’s even worse for it after he’s had a drink, tripping round after a bacchanal in the woods with the nymphs (drinks provided from a keg guiltily hidden by said nymphs from her mother, but hidden nonetheless), telling her everyone’s business.

“…You know, Perse, one time- one time he told me, when we went for a night out to blow off steam after work- he was so drunk it was hilarious he fell over some garbage cans and refused to admit it even though he had this big stain on his shirt- anyway he said this one time that it’s like- a relief for him, to have someone else decide things. He likes it.”

Hermes raises his eyebrow, but Persephone looks nonplussed. Gods, it’s not easy making mischief with these two, the way they dart around each other.

“No he- you know, he likes it, likes it. He said.” Persephone takes a second, and then her eyes widen in mortification. That really feels like something she shouldn’t know, even if she doesn’t quite get what Hermes is aiming at. She should've known not to ask a workaholic for advice on helping someone similarly afflicted, of course she's only got something nonsensical in reply.

“I don’t see how-“ She flushes, pushing herself up abruptly, swiping the drink out of Hermes’ hand. “You know what, that sounds like something private, you little rat. And it also sounds like it’s time for you to go home.”

Hermes holds his palms up placatingly, although nothing else about him looks remotely remorseful. “Alright, alright!” He hops to his feet easily, slinging his jacket over the crook of his arm, kicking about for the rest of his things. He starts as he pats his pockets. “Oh- shit, I completely forgot- your delivery!”

He folds over, digging into his bag, pulling out a little box with a flourish. “For you! From Hecate. She says pin it on your clothes when you go out and you’ll turn blue like her. Wear something like a corporate sap and you should at least be able to go out for a coffee round the corner.”

“What?” Persephone takes the box, snapping it open to reveal a delicate enamel pin; a blue little flower, with several buds. Attached is a terse little note from Hecate in her immaculate copperplate, affection only evident to those who know her in the way she signs off with an 'H' instead of her full name. “Really?” She palms it immediately, the freedom of it beautifully heavy in her cupped hand. “This is amazing.” She beams, happily starting to manhandle Hermes over to the window with her free hand as she examines it. “You still have to go, though. Tell her thank you from me?”

He snorts, bobbing about as she pushes him halfway out the window. “Sure, sure. Some gratitude you’ve got, Perse. Later, alright?”

She nods, finally looking up from the pin. “Later. And- thanks.”

“No probs.” He cocks his finger, impish- falling abruptly backwards to disappear over the windowsill in a way calculated to give anyone watching a heart attack: even Persephone, who’s seen it several times before.

“Stop doing that!” She hears his laugh, several stories below.

***

As she’s cleaning up their dishes and glasses later, she flushes thinking about what Hermes said. Could it be that easy? To get a modicum of evenness to the way Hades goes about things; to get him to unbend just a little? She feels like she’s driving him crazy by just being here, in the space he’s had to himself for so long.

If it’s as simple as- telling him to take a break, to take care of himself, if he doesn’t mind that, if that’s what Hermes meant- it could be worth trying. She hums thoughtfully as she puts some food down for the picky eaters out of the dogs, fussy things that only eat a little bit at a time. She pets them affectionately, crouching down in this giant’s kitchen: feeling displaced and at home at the same time.

 

H A D E S

A week later and Hades is a state, though he refuses to admit it to himself. When he catches himself in the mirror in the mornings (something he tends to avoid if he can help it), there are dark circles around his eyes. His body aches from hunching over his desk for hours at a time, his shirt rumpled with several coffee stains, tie abandoned hours ago.

They’re trying to secure planning permission for a new tower and one particular residents’ association is being a gigantic fucking pain in his ass, throwing up objections everywhere. At the last meeting he swore their representative smirked at him as he served up another huge book of paperwork- smirked at him, the King of the Underworld. Middle aged centaurs that absolutely thrived on submitting planning queries; it probably got them off. He groans, stretching out one arm above him as he reaches his front door.

It gives him an excuse to be busy, to not see Zeus. He’s never been very good at lying directly to someone’s face, especially his brother. He’d thought he was done with that. The thought of it now makes him feel slightly sick. And the work- it’s also letting him tentatively orbit around Persephone, desperately trying to figure out what on earth to do about having her here, and the way it makes him feel. Though there is a very real chance he may never decide. He’s never been particularly good at meeting things head on, either.

He knocks before unlocking the door, to let Persephone know he’s coming in, then drops the keys on the side table by the door.

“Hello! I’m back. Sorry it’s late.” He peeks his head round the door to the kitchen: she’s sat at the island like she usually is, working away with books and papers strewn around her laptop. She’s wearing those dorky orange glasses she got a couple weeks ago, that are supposed to ‘protect your eyes’ from the screen glare. He thinks it’s a fuss over nothing, he’s never had a problem and he spends hours at a time on the computer, and they look completely ridiculous- he falters a bit at the look on her face. “…Are you alright?”

She closes a book with more of a thump than she needs to.

“Hades. You promised me!” She hadn’t been pleased with the look of him yesterday, and after eyeing him in annoyance for a while had finally made him assure her that he would be home on time today, at least, to take a break. It had seemed an easy thing to promise at the time.

“I know- I know, but it’s been really very busy-“

She starts counting items off on her fingers, glaring. It looks so silly with the glasses.

“Did you eat lunch today?”

Hades looks around the room shiftily, suddenly unable to meet her gaze.

“Well-“

“Did you meet up with a friend for thirty minutes, like your therapist asked you to try?”

“I knew I should never have mentioned that ridiculous-“ He’d relayed it to her as a joke, to make her laugh at the nonsensicality of the request. She’d looked at him as if he were mad, instead. He pinches at the bridge of his nose. “I know this may come as a surprise, little goddess, but I don’t really have-“

She’s undeterred, not even letting him finish that particular feeble excuse. “Did you go to sleep at all after I went to bed last night?”

He throws his hands up, covering his guilt with exasperation. “If it’s a night of insomnia it’s a night of insomnia! I can’t- what should I do!”

She pushes herself up onto the table top, on her knees, hands on her hips. It’s one of the few things that makes them a similar height, and she seems to do it more often than he thinks is strictly necessary. He’s puffed up, ready to argue more, to defend himself against these accusations about nothing very important at all. Persephone tilts her head, and sighs.

“…You look a state.” Hades deflates a bit at that. That’s not one he can really argue with. He realises with a start that her eyes are red. Is she really that angry with him? He didn’t- he didn’t think it was all that serious. He swallows, feeling on the back foot.

“…Ah. I’m sorry?”

Unexpectedly, her cheeks turn a shade pinker, her fingers tapping a quick, nervous little tattoo on the edge of her laptop. He really is at a loss as to what is going on-

“Sit down.”

He does a double take at that. She never really- she doesn’t talk to him like that. They’re always asking questions, always feeling things out, so carefully. He can’t think what to say in reply. Is it like Minthe? Is it like with Minthe? He hesitates, and his knees seem to fold without him really asking them too.

He’s sat at the island in his rumpled stained shirt, with his hot tired eyes, without really knowing how he got there. She seems surprised too. The past few days he’s gone straight into his office to keep working, offering her gentle apologies. She clears her throat, watching him carefully. He realises with confusion that he still hasn’t said anything.

“We’re going to eat something now.” Normally she asks him what he wants, they figure out a plan of what to eat, and he feels guilty if she makes something. None of those are apparently an option this evening. She seems to check as if to see if he will stay- then clambers down off the island, and starts gathering some easy little snacks, olives, vegetables, cheese and bread.

She flicks on the radio to something calm, humming along to it a little, and Hades lets out a breath he feels he has been holding for several days. The light in here is low and gentle, compared to the stark white hum of the office. Following the soft sound of the music, the gentle humming along, feels like floating down a path that is bringing him back into his body. He is so tired. She is still wearing those awful glasses.

A couple of minutes later he realises with a start that a plate has been gently clicked down in the space in front of him, and then Persephone is clambering up, ending up sitting cross legged facing him, the plate between them. Her eyes are still red. He hesitantly reaches out, pushing up her glasses so they rest on the top of her head, not knowing why but knowing he wants to see the colour better. She smiles at him, so that must have been okay. She picks up a small piece of bread.

“Here.” He looks at her in confusion: then his face flushes a darker blue as he realises she wants him to- you know… she really wants him to…? A creeping flower winds its way through her hair across the crown of her head and then disappears again down the other side, and he has the disconcerting feeling that it’s because of the way he blushed.

“Hey- it’s okay. Let me take care of you for a bit. You’ve done so much for me! Let me say thank you.” He didn’t think he could feel anymore hazily embarrassed but that seemed to do it. He can’t look her in the eye, but he lets her do what she wants then. Mercifully she is so, so careful to not have her fingers brush his lips as he takes the bread. He thinks he might die if that happened. She grins.

“That’s very good. Who knew it was this easy? You haven’t been eating very well for weeks.” Gods if she keeps talking like that he thinks he might explode. Even the tips of his ears feel hot. She hums along to the music again, toes curling in that way she does when she’s interested in something. All the furniture here is so big her feet are always dangling where he can see.

They settle into a rhythm, mostly wordless, her carefully offering him things to eat, and him taking them. She doesn’t seem to get bored, though he wonders why. She grins and says 'Good boy' once, like she might to Cerberus, and after that his mind seems to sink into blissful white noise, fuzzy at the edges, so deeply in his body his limbs feel like stone.

He blinks a little as he realises the plate is empty, and Persephone is now on her feet, gently tugging on his hand. Her palm and fingers are so, so small compared to his.

“Come on, big guy. You’re having a bath, and then it’s bed time.” He walks like a ghost down the hallway, following her, pulled gently along. He hears the taps turning, the bath filling, and after some time he is carefully pressed inside the bathroom with admonishments to change, the door clicked closed behind him. He pauses, feeling slow and dumb. Did he want to have a bath? That doesn’t seem to really matter. He strips off his clothing mechanically, stepping carefully into the bath, letting out a hiss as the water hits his knotted up muscles. Oh.

He comes back to himself a while later, the water cooler, hearing the gentle sound of Persephone humming to herself on the other side of the door. She normally hums like that when she’s reading something she enjoys. It’s time for bed now, he realises. There might have been some other things he was supposed to do, but that’s really not the point. He can’t remember ever feeling so tired.

He gets up clumsily, unplugging the bath, finding the towel folded on a stool next to it. Under that are his bedclothes. He towels himself off and pulls them on, only half tripping himself once. He opens the door clumsily on the second try, looking out wordlessly. Persephone beams up at him, putting down her book. She really does look pleased with him.

“You look better already! Come on.” She takes his hand, and in moments they are at the door to his bedroom, her own down the hall. Looking at it now, he can’t remember why on earth he spent so long out of his bed. He looks down at Persephone, and she smiles.

“Sleep well, okay?” She ushers him in, and he nods dumbly. He hears the shush of the door behind him as he climbs like a zombie into the sheets, eyes already closing as his head hits the pillow. He realises in his last fleeting moments before he drops like a stone into sleep that he hasn’t said a single word since she told him to sit down.

 

P E R S E P H O N E

What the hell was that?

She feels giddy, like she’s fizzing, lying back on her bed and staring straight up at the ceiling, eyes wide. She can hear Hades snoring from all the way down the hall.

He’s never gone so pliable, so boneless- he always like to argue when it’s something about taking care of himself, so stubborn in his assessment that it, that he, is not worth it. She thinks about how his mouth looked, how his lips looked when he wordlessly took whatever food she offered. His blinking, owlish face as he carefully poked his damp head back round the door of the bathroom, as if to check for her approval.

It- look, she was just trying to look after him. There is no need to feel like she is vibrating out of her skin. That isn’t very selfless of her at all.

It felt like leading a placid, plodding minotaur around by its nose. He would look very good with a nose ring, like a bull on her farm back home. Gaia. She jack-knifes up to sit straight, hands dragging down her face, mortified. Her hair has grown twelve inches.

There is an echo that jangles in her mind that it is very, very different from Apollo. She can’t really look directly at that thought, and she pushes it away for another time, hopefully never. It’s different too from that time her and Hades kissed, so overwhelming and fracturing that she had to dissolve into light. This evening- it felt safe and sweet, something she was in charge of, easy and natural as coaxing wheat to joint. But what on earth does that mean? It’s all very well him finally sleeping, but she has no idea how she is ever going to sleep again.

***

In the morning, Hades is shy, embarrassed. Oddly that helps, and she coaxes him with their usual teasing conversation, their speculation on which dogs have fallen out today, on their plans for dinner. He begins to laugh, and by the time he leaves for work, things feel almost normal. Neither of them mention last night. They wouldn’t quite know what to say.

That evening, Hades comes home on time and he cooks for them both. They gossip as they play chess, and they say their farewells in the bedroom corridor at a reasonable hour. It’s like nothing has happened, and something very large has, both at the same time.