It had been some weeks since I had entered the throne room. The soles of my feet chilled at the cool marble floors as I walked across the room. The decor was the same as I remembered, just cleaner than usual. The floors were freshly polished, so much so that my feet swept against them in a pleasantly smooth fashion. I noticed even all the old paintings hanging in the reception hall had been dusted. The large portrait of my husband hung just above the throne, and I avoided its eyes. Next to him was a painting of myself. I stilled and stared at the pair of us. How odd we looked together. We were complete opposites. His customary black suit, black tie, and raven hair stood out sharply, exuding power and strength, while my light gossamer gown and gentle strawberry blond waves emanated nothing but softness. I had been so young when I’d sat for that portrait. So naive.
A door opened and closed, and I turned to face it.
Hades had no sooner entered the room when he halted abruptly, surprised by my presence. I stared back. He regathered himself and bowed.
“My queen,” he said, his voice oddly strained. “You look lovely.” When he rose from his bow, I realized there was more than just surprise on his face. His dark eyes shone with pure awe. I felt my cheeks heat and lowered my gaze to the floor, taken completely off guard by his comment until I remembered what I was wearing. I had gotten myself rather dressed up today.
“I am going to the Gardens of Hesperides,” I said by way of explanation.
Hades tilted his head slightly, something stirring in his eyes. “I see.” I nodded. Then, after a moment, he said, “I will go with you.”
“No.” I blurted, then shook my head apologetically. “I-I beg of you, please don’t. It is my business, and it must be dealt with on my own.”
“No, it mustn’t,” Hades replied sternly. My stomach tightened, and I felt anger rising in my throat to retaliate, but he quickly continued. “You do not have to deal with anything on your own. We are a team. We support each other. I know you’ve been gone for a long time, and perhaps you’ve become comfortable with your independence, but I need to be there for you. I have not been able to perform my duties as your husband and protector, and it has been tormenting me. Please allow me this chance.”
My body trembled. At first, it was with residual anger, but now it was fear.
“You don’t know what I’m dealing with,” I scolded. “You will not understand—”
Hades held up a hand. “I don’t need to know what we are doing. I won’t even demand an explanation if you choose not to give me one. All I want is to be there. With you,” Hades replied, crossing the throne room to stand before me.
He was a tower of a god, and the closer he came to me, the more small, intimidated, and coerced I felt. He had used this tactic on me our entire marriage. His charms were nearly inescapable. He was demanding, pushy, and manipulative. All through a show of force and the guise of wanting to do whatever it was for my own good.
I swallowed, resolved to stare stubbornly at my bare feet as old feelings and reservations resurfaced to battle with the sliver of hope that he could change, that he would change.
Hades was waiting, holding his breath. I clenched my hands into fists and lifted my head to finally meet his gaze.
“Alright. You may come, but only if you truly mean what you say,” I insisted. Hades nodded, a serious look of determination entering his eyes. He took my hand, and before I could prepare myself, the palace’s throne room washed away. It was replaced by a bright light, and then there was green for miles.
The Gardens of Hesperides were buzzing with activity when we stepped into the grove of fig trees. Birds whistled softly and the sound of crickets trilled through the air. The smell of the lush grass tickled my nose, and the sunset on the horizon splashed its golden rays across my skin. Hades turned and looked at me, still holding my hand. He waited once more for me to make the first move.
“This way,” I said and started walking.
The forest nymphs stopped and stared as we made our way through the valley. I did not pretend to be interested in their goings-on. I glided past them, making my way through the spindly trees in my sheer white gown. I had chosen my dress especially for this occasion, and I enjoyed how its train drifted behind me in the breeze. A brilliant flower crown was loosely woven into my strawberry blonde hair, and I had taken the trouble to carefully paint golden accents around my eyes. This was my battle dress, the one I wore to command respect and feel confident. It was my go-to when I needed to show my enemies who they were dealing with.
Hades followed along faithfully, offering no comments or quick remarks. I was glad he didn’t question my mission. He was allowing me to take the lead for once, and it was a whole new experience. I risked a glance over my shoulder, offering him a small smile. He smiled back, and I decided I could get used to this.
We wove our way deeper into the groves where the fruit trees became more clustered, offering a shaded avenue into the forest. A breeze stirred my hair and my dress, like a breath from within the woods, and it carried with it a hint of mint. Subconsciously, I must have gripped Hades hand tighter because he tugged me to a stop. I looked back at him.
“I don’t know what we’re doing, and I promised you I wouldn’t ask questions, but if this is about Minthe, I really hope you know what you’re doing,” he said.
“I don’t, not entirely, but something has to be done. I promise I will explain after we see what I’m dealing with,” I answered. Hades gave me a single nod and withdrew his hand from mine in order to assume a more prepared position. I missed the warmth and strength of his hold the instant he withdrew it. Nonetheless, I followed his lead and assumed a more guarded stance before I rounded the corner into a particularly secluded den of trees.
The scent of the mint patch overwhelmed me as I entered the grove. It was growing wild, untamed and uncared for, spreading even onto the neighboring trees. In the midst of the brilliant green was a single, dead tree. A face with flowing hair was carved into the dark trunk. At the base was a small tombstone, with the words Here rests Minthe engraved upon it. There were single-picked flowers scattered about on the ground beside the stone, presumably left by Minthe’s friends. I swallowed and knelt to touch the marker.
It reeked of her bitter essence, but something about it was off. I frowned and felt Hades’ apprehension creeping over me from where he stood at my back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“She’s not here,” I said, withdrawing my empathy.
“What do you mean? Look around, isn’t this her?” Hades said, gesturing to the mint around us.
I shook my head. “It’s only a piece of her. The piece of her she left behind. She has changed forms, evolved, somehow,” I replied.
“How? When—” Hades stopped himself. “Did you know she wouldn’t be here?”
“I suspected,” I admitted. Hades crouched beside me to examine the stone.
“I haven’t visited since I put the stone here,” he said softly, his voice nearly a whisper. He looked at me, an expression of sincerity on his face. I knew he was worried I was still mad at him for making me do what I had to Minthe.
“I believe you,” I replied.
Hades let out a small sigh. “Still, we should talk about it,” he said.
“I agree. With a counselor,” I replied.
“A counselor?” Hades tilted his head, reluctant. “But you’re a therapist.”
“Doesn’t matter. We need a third party present. A professional,” I said, looking at him firmly. I knew he hated the idea of going to couples therapy, but honestly, it was the only way I could see us moving forward.
And I do want to move forward. That in itself is progress. Can’t he see that? I thought.
“I’ll think about it,” Hades answered, his tone turning grumpy.
I squinted at him. “Please do,” I said shortly, then stood.
Hades stood hurriedly after me.
“Wait. I’ll do it. We can go to a counselor,” he said. “Just don’t pull away from me again. Please. I miss this. I miss us.”
I swallowed, wondering if it was too soon to admit that I felt the same way. Too soon to let him see the power he still held over me. But he was being vulnerable, and he deserved some reciprocation.
“I do, too,” I whispered. Silence hung between us like a veil until Hades decided to brush it aside with a simple touch. He grazed the back of my hand with his knuckles, gently running his touch over my wrist, his gaze locked with mine. He wasn’t taking hold of it, but rather, he was asking. I searched his eyes and turned my hand over. He slipped his fingers between mine and squeezed.
“Thanatos said I should speak to you about what’s been going on with me. Why I’ve been ill,” I said. Hades’ murky ocean eyes bored into mine.
“When did you speak with Thanatos?”
“Yesterday. He helped me discover the source of my illness,” I answered. Hades lifted my hand to the corner of his lips and held it there.
“Tell me, my darling. Tell me everything.”
For a moment, his tenderness kindled a spark of want inside me. I felt my cheeks grow hot with a blush.
Is he using his charm on me? I wondered. I used that angering thought to quell my pounding heart.
“I promised I would,” I almost snapped. Hades nodded, moving his lips over my knuckles, back and forth. My heart stuttered again, and my frustration grew. I hated how flustered he was making me. He could flash those hypnotic eyes at me and quickly turn me into a puddle of desire. I wanted to tell him to stop, but I couldn’t muster the will. Instead, I steadied myself with a breath and focused on speaking as best I could.
“A branch from the Tree of False Dreams was planted in one of my grieving gardens. The garden with the pomegranates that I planted shortly after we were married,” I said. “Well, the tree was making me start to see things, apparitions. I had weird, troubling dreams, and I saw…terrifying things. Worst of all, the shades doing it convinced me they were innocent children. They distracted and tormented me for weeks until my mind felt so sick I…I didn’t know what was reality or falsehood anymore. I went to Thanatos, and he uncovered the culprits.”
Fire sparked inside of Hades’ usually cool eyes, but he did not speak. He simply stood, simmering, waiting for me to finish my story. What he was angry about, I couldn’t yet decipher. I was tempted to open my empathy and read his emotions better. But the last time I did that, it had caused me to tremble uncontrollably from fear. Hades’ rage knew no bounds and to come face to face with its severity was not for the faint of heart.
“The shades we interrogated told us that it was Minthe who had planted the branch of False Dreams in my garden. I, unknowingly, had brought one into my room, thinking I would help it grow since it looked so sick. Well, once we discovered what it was, the sprout and the shades were destroyed. We don’t know anything more at this point. I came here today to see if Minthe was still bound by my original curse and somehow working through a second party. But it appears my worst fears are true. She is free, and I can’t understand how.” I sighed.
“Can you track her?” Hades asked, his eyes still glowing with rage.
“I don’t know. There is enough of her essence here that I can try,” I said, “but I don’t know if tracking her is wise. She appears to like hiding behind the scenes and playing revenge from afar, and I can’t blame her. I know what I did was wrong, and facing her again can only mean more pain and suffering. Especially if she still wants to get at you through me.” I hung my head and looked away. “Which is why I think the best thing to do is for you and me to keep focusing on us…and focusing on our daily lives. That’s the best way to defeat her in the long run. If she comes to confront us, so be it, but I won’t hunt her down. I won’t repeat what I did then. I’m determined to act differently now.”
Hades hesitated to speak, but even without using my empathy, I could detect that his anger was beginning to ebb away. He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it as he drew me close with his other.
“I’m so proud of you, my dearest. You are truly the goddess of my dreams,” he whispered. I stared, wide-eyed into his face, searching for any deception in his words. He had a silver tongue, and I had grown wary of it over the years. But in this moment, all I could feel from him was his pure, genuine love pouring out at me and soaking into my very soul. Was my optimism inspiring me to see him this way? Was it his charm ability at play once more? I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter now. For the first time in decades, I felt close to him. And at that moment, I realized that was all I ever wanted.
So, I kissed him.