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Neon Gods: Chapter 11

Hades

It takes more determination than I anticipate to leave Persephone’s bed after she falls asleep. It feels good to have her in my arms. Too good. It’s like waking up to find that the happy dream was real all along, and that fantasy is the one thing I can’t allow. That’s ultimately what pushes me to press a kiss to her temple and leave.

Exhaustion weighs me down, but I won’t be able to rest before I do my nightly rounds. It’s a compulsion I’ve given in to too many times, and tonight is no exception. I’m better than I used to be, though. At one point, I couldn’t close my eyes before I checked every single door and window in this house. Now, it’s only the doors and ground-floor windows, finishing with a stop in our security hub. My people never comment on me checking their work, which I appreciate. It’s less about their capabilities and more about the fear that licks at my heels when I let my guard down.

I didn’t expect Persephone’s presence in the house to make the feeling worse. I’ve promised her my protection, have given my word that she’ll be safe here. The threat of the Thirteen might be enough to deter Zeus, but if he decides it’s worth the risk to attempt an attack that might not be tracked to him…

Would he really set fire to this place knowing Persephone is inside?

I know the answer before the thought has even registered in my mind. Of course he would. Not yet, no, not when he still thinks he has a chance of retrieving her. But the recklessness of his men pursuing her over such a distance proves that if he ever decides she’s beyond his reach, he will not hesitate to strike. Better she be dead than belong to anyone else, especially me.

It’s something I need to bring up to her, but the last thing I want is to renew the fear I saw in her eyes the first night. She feels safe here, and I want to make damn sure I don’t betray the trust she’s put in me. My hesitation to give her the full rundown speaks more to me than it does to her, and I need to correct that tomorrow, no matter how little I like the idea of it.

The moment I walk into my bedroom, I know I’m not alone. I move to the gun I keep stashed in the magnetic safe tucked beneath the side table, but I only get a single step when a feminine voice emerges from the darkness. “Surprise a friend and almost get shot in the bargain. Tsktsk.”

Some of the tension slides out of me, exhaustion rising in its wake. I frown into the darkness. “What are you doing here, Hermes?”

She waltzes out of my closet, one of my more expensive ties wrapped around her hand, and gives me a bright grin. “I wanted to see you.”

It’s an effort not to roll my eyes. “More like you came back for the rest of my wine cellar.”

“Well, sure, and that, too.” She moves aside as I walk into my closet and shrug out of my jacket. Hermes leans against the doorframe. “You know, keeping all your windows and doors locked sends a special kind of message to your friends. It’s almost as if you don’t want company.”

“I don’t have friends.”

“Yes, yes, you’re a lone mountain of solitude.” She waves that away.

I hang my jacket in its proper place and kick off my shoes. “It’s not as if it keeps you out.”

“That’s true enough.” She laughs, the sound deceptively loud considering how small she is. That laugh is part of the reason I haven’t tried to up my security. As aggravating as I find her and Dionysus’s antics, the house feels less large and looming when they’re around.

She frowns at me and motions to my shirt and pants. “You’re not continuing the strip show?”

I might tolerate her presence here, but we have nowhere near the trust level required for me to fully undress in front of her. I trust no one that much, but instead of saying so, I keep my tone cautiously light. “Is it a strip show if you weren’t invited?”

She grins. “Dunno, but I’d enjoy it nonetheless.”

I shake my head. “Why are you here?”

“Oh. That. Duty calls.” She rolls her eyes. “I have an official message from Demeter.”

Persephone’s mother. There’s one element of this shitshow Persephone hasn’t really addressed, and it’s how her mother decided to push her into a marriage with a dangerous man solely for the sake of ambition without talking to her about it. I have plenty of thoughts about that, none of them kind.

I slide my hands into my pockets. “Well, let’s hear what she has to say.”

Hermes straightens and lifts her chin. Despite a whole host of differences, I have the sudden impression of Demeter. When Hermes speaks, it’s Demeter’s voice that emerges. Hermes’s mimicry is part of how she ended up as Hermes, and it’s perfect, as always. “I don’t know what grudge you’re nursing against Zeus and the rest of the Thirteen, and frankly, I don’t care. Free my daughter. If you harm her or refuse to return her, I’ll cut off every resource under my control to the lower city.”

I sigh. “It’s nothing more than I expected.” The cruelty is almost beyond comprehension, though. She wants her daughter to play along, so she has every intention of dragging Persephone back to the upper city—and to the altar. And she’ll step on my people to ensure it happens.

Hermes relaxes her posture and shrugs. “You know how the Thirteen are.”

You are a member of the Thirteen.”

“So are you. And besides, I’m quirky.” She scrunches up her nose. “Also cute and lovable and lacking a certain level of power madness.”

I can’t exactly argue that. Hermes never seems to play the games the others do. Even Dionysus is focused on expanding his little corner of Olympus’s map of power. Hermes just…flits about. “Then why take the position?”

She laughs and smacks me on the shoulder. “Maybe it’s just because I like poking fun at powerful people who take themselves too seriously. Know anyone who fits the bill?”

“Charming.”

“Yes, I am.” She sobers. “I hope you know what you’re doing. You’re pissing off a lot of people right now, and I have a feeling that you intend to piss off a lot more before this is finished.”

She’s not wrong, but I still have to fight back a growl. “Everyone is so quick to forget that Persephone ran from them because she didn’t want the marriage Zeus and Demeter plotted.”

“Oh, I know. And, no lie, it makes me like her a tiny bit.” She holds her pointer finger and thumb a fraction of an inch apart. “But it won’t make a difference. Zeus waves his giant dick around and everyone scrambles to give him whatever he wants.”

I ignore that. “For someone so invested in the kind earth-mother persona, Demeter is quick to put her daughters on the chopping block.”

“She does love her girls.” Hermes shrugs. “You don’t know how it is out there. On this side of the river, you’re king and you’ve carved out a really good thing for your people. They don’t waste effort and resources re-creating the glitz and glam of the upper city, and they aren’t stabbing each other in the back with diamond-encrusted daggers.” At my look, she nods rapidly. “It happened. You must remember that fight between Kratos and Ares. That motherfucker just walked up to him in the middle of the party, whipped a dagger out, and…” She makes stabbing motions. “If Apollo hadn’t intervened, it would have been straight-up murder instead of just assault with a deadly weapon.”

“I’m sure I must have glossed over the part of the report where Ares was arrested on said charges.”

She shrugs. “You know how it is. Kratos isn’t one of the Thirteen, and he had been skimming off Ares’s bottom line. The fight was delightful drama; a trial wouldn’t have been.”

If ever there was a good example of how the Thirteen abuse their power, there it is. “It changes nothing. Persephone crossed the bridge. She’s here.” And she’s mine. I don’t say the latter, but Hermes’s perceptive gaze narrows on my face. I clear my throat. “She’s free to walk away at any time. She’s choosing not to.” I should leave it at that, but the thought of Demeter and Zeus dragging Persephone back to the upper city against her will has anger surging through me. “If they try to take her, they’ll have to go through me to do it.”

“‘They’ll have to go through me to do it.’”

I blink. Hermes’s impression of me was spot-on. “That was not a message.”

“Wasn’t it?” She examines her nails. “Sounded like a message to me.”

Hermes.”

“I take no sides, not as long as everyone is following the rules. Threats don’t violate them.” She grins suddenly. “They just add a little spice to everyone’s life. Ta!”

“Hermes!”

But she’s gone, darting out my door. Chasing her down won’t change a damn thing. Once she’s set her mind on something, she’ll do it no matter what anyone around her says. For the spice. I drag my hands over my face. This is a fucking mess.

I don’t know if Demeter is capable of following through on her threat. She’s been in the role for years now, but her reputation is too carefully curated to get a good read on what she’ll do in a situation like this. Is she really willing to hurt thousands of people whose only crime is to live on the wrong side of the River Styx?

Fuck. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

If I wasn’t a goddamn myth to most of the upper city, I’d be able to fight this more effectively. She would never try this bluff with one of the other Thirteen because of the potential blow to her reputation. I’m in the shadows, so she thinks she’s safe, that I have no recourse. She’ll find out how wrong she is if she goes through with this.

At this point, I’m inclined to call Demeter’s bluff. The other Thirteen don’t overly give a fuck about the lower city, but even they have to see how dangerous it is to let Demeter run amok. Beyond that, I’ve had a lifetime of not trusting the Thirteen, so my people are prepared to weather any storm they try to throw at us.

If Demeter thinks she can fuck with me without seeing consequences, she has another think coming.

***

After a mostly sleepless night, I get ready and head down to the kitchen in search of coffee. The sound of laughter echoes through the empty halls as I reach the ground floor. I recognize Persephone’s voice, even if she’s never laughed that freely around me. It’s silly to feel jealous of that fact after only knowing her a few days, but apparently reason has gone out the window where this woman is concerned.

I take my time walking to the kitchen, enjoying how much more alive the house feels this morning. I hadn’t really noticed the lack until now, and the realization doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t matter what life Persephone brings to my home, because she’s leaving in a few weeks. Getting used to the idea of waking up to her laughing in my kitchen is a mistake.

I push through the door to find her standing at the stove with Georgie. Georgie is technically my housekeeper, but she’s got a small army of staff to take care of cleaning this place, so she mostly presides over the kitchen and cooking. There’s a reason most of my people find their way through these doors for at least one meal a day; she’s a happy, middle-aged white woman who could be fifty or could be eighty. All I know is that she hasn’t appeared to age in the twenty years since she took over the position. Her hair has always been a sleek silver, and there have always been laugh lines around her eyes and mouth. Today, she’s wearing one of her customary aprons with frills around the edges.

She points to my normal chair without looking. “I just put a new pot of coffee on. Breakfast sandwiches incoming.”

I eye the pair of women as I sit. Persephone is on the other side of the island, and she’s got a little flour on her dress. Obviously, she’s been an active participant in breakfast. The realization makes me feel strange. “Since when do you let us help?”

“There is no ‘us.’ Persephone offered to handle a few small tasks while I set things up. Simple.”

Simple. As if she hasn’t chased off any offer of assistance I’ve made for the last two decades. I accept my coffee and try not to glare at it. The closest Georgie has let me get to “help” is watching a pot of water for fifteen seconds while she dug through the pantry for a few ingredients. Certainly nothing involved enough to put flour on my clothing.

“Maybe that expression is why Georgie doesn’t want you playing the role of a human storm cloud in her kitchen.”

I shoot a look at Persephone and find her fighting back a smile, her hazel eyes dancing with mirth. I raise my eyebrows. “Someone’s in a good mood this morning.”

“I had good dreams.” She winks at me and turns back to the stove.

I already had no plans to hand her back to Demeter and Zeus, but even if I were entertaining the idea, this morning would have nuked it. She’s been in my house less than forty-eight hours and something has already unwound in her. If I were any more arrogant, I’d chalk it up to the orgasms last night, but I know better. She feels safe, so she’s let down a layer or two of her guard. I might be a bastard, but I can’t repay that fledgling trust by throwing her to the wolves.

I’ll keep my word.

For better or worse.


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