The lights in the Complex lounge were dim, and soft shadows hugged the walls as I entered. I tucked the newspaper I had been reading under my arm. T, the scent of amber, bourbon vanilla, and a delicate musk grazed my face. The shape of Hekate behind the kitchen island caught my eye, and she spotted me at the same moment. The glass she was raising to her lips stopped dead.
“Hello, Hekate,” I offered, slowing my walk towards the counter. She watched me closely, taking a small drink.
“Hades.” Another sip. “What brings you up from the depths?”
I raised the paper from under my arm, tossing it onto the counter. “The news. And you?”
She stared down into her glass for a moment, then reached beneath the bar, coming up with a heavy glass of cut crystal. “Drink?”
“I would love one.” I leaned against the island, eyes on her.
“Name your poison.”
“Whiskey, neat, preferably.”
Hekate’s smile told me she approved of my choice. She poured smoothly, eyes sliding up to mine. “Tell me when. I tend to be generous, so…”
I nodded to the glass. “I prefer generous.”
“Generous it is then.” She poured until the amber liquid in mine matched her own. Capping the bottle, it vanished from sight, and her long fingers slid the glass across the counter to me. I accepted, taking a sip and considering it.
“Hm. Not bad,” I commented, swirling it around and inhaling its heady notes.
“Yours is better,” she said, taking a sip from hers, backpedaling quickly. “I helped myself the other day. Figured you wouldn’t mind if I did.”
I raised an eyebrow at her, and she leaned forward, a reckless smile painted on her face. “Hey, I was heading into battle. You going to begrudge me a drink? What happened to that generous you said you like? Hmm?”
I tilted my head, smiling. “You could have left a note.”
“I did leave a note.”
“For the drink as well?”
I watched her scan the flat surfaces nearby, coming up with a square napkin and a pen. A moment later, she slid the napkin across the bar, with the words Thank You neatly inked along one side. “There. Better?”
I sighed and pocketed it. “You’re welcome. On a more serious note, how have you been…feeling?” I swirled my drink again.
“I’m alive.” Hekate set down her glass and extended her hand to me. As she focused, a frisson of fire rippled under her skin, flickering at her fingertips, dying. The look on her face told me how she felt about it.
“You are recovering, albeit slowly.” My eyes roamed her fingertips before resting on her face once more.
“I don’t like it. Feeling…vulnerable.”
“We all have our moments. It is nothing to be scornful of.”
Her hand curled in a fist, relaxed. “Not me.”
I smile once more. “You are experiencing it right now. So, yes, you.”
She blushed. It’s something she rarely did. “I feel… Hell, I feel fucking naked. It’s unpleasant.”
“But it does not have to be, Hekate.”
“Listen, if you’re about to give me a bunch of Oprah-esque talk about accepting it and letting it be, you can stop right there.” She took another drink, a long, medicating one. “How would you feel if everything you’ve been…forever…was suddenly not there?”
I snorted, shaking my head. “That woman irritates me. I would not lecture you. I am, however, going through a similar process.”
Hekate paused mid-drink. “Oh? How so?”
I waved vaguely at myself. “I lost everything I was and was made of, until recently. I have not the faintest idea who I am or what I am capable of right now. So, I relearn.”
Hekate inclined her head in an unspoken invitation, rounding the bar and moving toward the sitting area. Folding her legs beneath her like a dancer, she sat down, waiting for me to join her.
“You mean, your marriage?” It was a probing question, and she backed off quickly. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pry.”
“I mean myself, in general.” I followed Hekate to the sofa, sitting across from her. “My marriage was an unfortunate loss, but I could not bring myself to lead Persephone on any longer once I realized what I had become. She may refute my honesty, but I wish not to harm her, if at all possible.”
“You make it sound horrendous. Fairly sure you haven’t fallen that far off the mark. Besides, honesty…” her voice trailed off. She took another drink, tasting her words more than her whiskey. “Honesty is a blade that only cuts once. Unlike lies.”
“I make it sound horrendous, and yet you are saying the same of your current situation.”
Hekate’s lips curved in a smile as she sidestepped my point and changed subjects. “Strange. Talking about something other than business.”
I considered her a moment, crossing a leg over my knee and taking a drink. “Does it bother you? Not talking about work?”
Her golden eyes slipped up to meet mine for a moment, weighing my question. “No. I mean, if we’re going with embracing my newfound vulnerability, do your worst.”
I kept my face blank, inwardly mulling this over. “You would not like that, I think.”
Hekate’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the tone in my voice. She set her glass down. “Oh? Something else then.”
I chuckled, taking another drink. “Please don’t say ‘do your best,’ either.”
“Oh, I would never be so predictable. How about instead, you tell me what you’ve relearned about yourself. So far.”
I leaned back into the sofa, thinking for a moment. “I have rediscovered my love for the arts. That was a large part of me that vanished.”
Her eyebrows arched at the revelation. “I’m not sure I’m surprised as much as…well, let’s just go with surprised and save me dicking around for the right word.”
“An excellent choice of wording, but why are you surprised? Am I that dull?”
She leaned her chin on her hand, fingertips curling delicately against her cheek. “I think because my understanding of you has always been limited to standing in front of your desk. Arguing. Problem-solving. You know…business. And, forgive me for saying so, you don’t exactly radiate poetic spirit. Or rather, you haven’t. Business has always been good with us, Hades. And it’s always been business. You’ve stayed on your side of the gate, I’ve stayed on mine. I don’t underestimate knowing the quantity of a person, or where I stand with them. On the contrary, I find it invaluable.”
I draped an arm over the back of the sofa, finishing my drink and sliding the empty glass onto the table. Hekate’s gaze was already averted by the time I looked back in her direction, but I could feel her eyes on me. “Correct me if I am wrong, or if I am overstepping boundaries. You seem to be having an incredibly hard time trying to wrap yourself around the idea that we could be more than business.”
“What makes you say that?” she asked in a husky voice.
“You keep mentioning business.”
I felt her energy shift a moment before she raised her eyes again. “Should we discuss pleasure instead?”
I waved to Hekate. “I would let the lady choose.”
“Very well. We’ll save business for the office. Try to have a…normal…conversation.” Her fingertips traced idle designs on the back of the sofa, wiped them away, retraced them. “Hades, there’s much you don’t know about me. If I were to guess, I’d say that goes both ways.”
I nod slightly. “No one knows everything, Hekate. It is the way of the world, even for us gods. You have no idea what may happen next.”
“Ah, but I do. Choice happens next. It all comes down to that.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Please,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You and I are far too decisive and willful for accidental anything.”
“Hm. I see.” I rose from my spot and leaned over Hekate, kissing her gently before sitting back down, leg crossed over my knee once more.
She lifted a hand to her lips, as though holding my kiss in place. If her voice was any indication, I had left her breathless. “Trying to prove a point, Hades?”
I smiled pointedly. “Yes.”
“And what point was that? That I, without my powers, am helpless to see what could happen next? Or that, as I said, choice is all.” Her eyes flicked up to mine, a hint of fire flickering in their dark depths. “Or perhaps, it was nothing more than a kiss.”
“You said you and I are far too decisive and willful. So I agreed with you.”
“I’m not used to being agreed with quite like that. Hell, I’m not used…” She trailed off, looking away.
“If it disagrees with you, I will not do so again.”
She smiled softly at me. “You’re putting words in my mouth.”
“I am entertaining the idea that I may have been wrong.”
I watched her consider some hidden thought for a moment before sliding toward me on the sofa, closing the distance, her leg not quite touching mine, but close. For her, it was like crossing a battleline.
“I think your near-perfect record remains intact.” Her smile was stunning. “It doesn’t disagree with me. I’m simply unaccustomed to it.”
A warm smile flowed across my face. “I am pleased to hear it.”
She averted her eyes, then changed the subject. “So…art. What else?”
I chuckled as I leaned back, contemplating the ceiling for a moment. “Well, I’ve been tinkering with vehicles again.”
“Oh?” The surprise in her voice sounded genuine. “You seem more the kind to let others do the driving. Well…in that way.”
I smiled widely. “Sometimes. However, coming back to the fold has given me the want to bring myself to places on my own.”
“Mmm…I feel the same way on my bike. You don’t have to explain. Sometimes it’s the only way I can think, with asphalt tearing beneath me at a hundred miles an hour. Adrenaline is fantastic for shutting off the bullshit.” She tapped her temple, smiling. “Up here.”
“I can understand that. I’ve taken to driving lately. No real place to go, just exploring. It’s interesting having no destination, only a journey.”
Hekate gave me a slow smile. “Now you know why I’m not in the Underworld more. So, driving. Driving what?”
“I have a motorcycle, well, a few. I have cars, SUVs, trucks, yachts. It depends on what I need in the moment.”
The Witch Queen rolled her eyes again, good-naturedly this time. “Good to be King, huh? Still, you ride. That’s something I’m not sure I…allowed myself to be aware of.”
I smiled and replied, “It has its perks, but yes, I like to ride. Why would you hide it from yourself?”
She gave me a look like I had called her out on something instead of stating the obvious. “I’m…not actually sure why I said that.”
I raised my eyebrow as I looked at her. “You made a choice to say it.”
“It would seem I did,” she said in a feathery voice. “So, what else? Art. Tinkering. Riding.”
“I enjoy gardening. I also study architecture,” I replied after a moment’s thought.
“I think that was my first clue that something was different. All the plants in the office.” She gave me a soft look. “Well, all the plants and Persephone’s pictures are missing.”
Her observation caught me for a second, but I was careful not to let it show on my face. “Yes, well, it was a slow change..but necessary.”
She tilted her head, curious. “How does it feel?”
My thoughts were mixed. “Different,” I finally replied.
“Different good? Different bad? Different-fuck-if-I-know?”
“I don’t know, Hekate. To an outsider, it must look as if I replaced Persephone with myself. Is that selfish? Or no?”
“As someone who has never replaced anyone, I’d say you’re back.” The sharp edge was back in her tone. “Love dilutes us. It…” She stopped, waving away whatever else she was going to say. “We all know how I feel about that topic.”
I felt her words resonate inside me, and I found myself nodding in agreement to her statement.
“It’s an adjustment for you, I’m sure. Binary stars, losing their orbit around each other.” She looked thoughtful, brow furrowing. “You and Persephone were…an axis. And now the world is upended. Zeus settling down. You and the Iron Queen parting ways. At this point, I suppose anything is possible.”
I looked down at my hands. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“So. What is it you want?” Her question was as dead serious as her gaze.
I chuckled and tried to lighten the mood a bit. “If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t need to relearn myself.”
She licked her lips, considering for a moment, then looked at me. “A piece of advice?”
We stared at each other for several seconds before I finally nodded.
“There is no future, but what you make. There is no past, but what you have made. It doesn’t matter what has happened before.” She swirled the last of the whiskey in her glass and finished it, her eyes returning to mine. “There is only ever one choice, Hades. The one right in front of you. Focus on that one. Every time. You’ll find your way.”
I focused on her, watching and listening as she spoke to me. “I will keep that in mind. Thank you,” I heard myself reply as I continued to look at her.
“I think I’ve interrogated you enough for one day.” She looked down, almost shy, then cleared her throat, pushing her hair back from her face. “Can we…shift back to business for a moment?”
I studied her face. “As you like,” I replied. I knew her well enough to know she was re-directing, but I wasn’t going to challenge her on it.
“You saved my life, Hades,” she began. “I owe you a debt, and I don’t like being…obligated. How can I settle the books? Get us back on even footing?”
I considered her words carefully. I knew she was telling the truth. She didn’t want to be in debt or feel obligated. I also knew she could’ve easily named a task and called us even. Asking me to name my price, letting herself be vulnerable yet again, was certainly not her style. I rubbed my jaw as I carefully considered her words.
“A night. I would like for you to give me one night with you.”
She sat there like a deer in Artemis’ sights. “A night…doing…what?”
I smiled openly at where her thoughts went. To see the Witch Queen flustered was a rare sight. I gave her a moment to stew, then replied, “A date, just the two of us. Drinks and dinner, no other expectations, no other obligations. Simply an evening similar to this one where we can continue to find out more about each other and become comfortable.”
“Very well,” she said at last. It was a small surrender, a reminder. I could see it in her eyes. “Doesn’t seem like a fair trade. A life for a night. I’m afraid your bargaining skills are vastly overrated.”
“Then, I will consider myself blessed that you cannot see past one evening right now.” As she sat looking at me, I flashed her a quick smile and a wink.
Her laugh was dark, warm. “Can you?”
I studied her face and felt the smile fade from my own. “Yes,” I replied, “yes, I can.”
She looked away for a moment, then back again. “Tell me.”
“Are we playing a game now, Hades?” Her eyes flashed bright, smouldered.
I watched the emotions as they played across her face one after another. “Perhaps we are,” I said, letting another smile creep onto mine.
She trailed her fingers along the back of my hand, tracing a spiraling path along the back as she spoke. “I play to win. You know this.”
Her magic may have been gone, but her fingers still held power. I could feel it on my skin as she lazily traced the pattern on the back of my hand. I finally pulled myself away from her touch. “Do I look like someone who loses easily, Hekate?”
She tilted her head to the side, giving me a sidelong glance. “As long as you aren’t afraid to.”
I shrugged. “I have lost before. It does not scare me.”
“I’ve lost before. Twice.” Her laugh sounded bitter. “Well, that’s if you count one draw. The other…well, he didn’t know he was playing.”
I let her laugh clear the room before I answered. “That is unfortunate. Would I be prying if I asked who the other two were?”
Hekate withdrew her hand slowly from mine, maybe even reluctantly. “One was…is…someone I was blessed not to lose entirely. And one…I never had to begin with. It’s a long story.”
I leaned back, never taking my eyes off her. “I think time is the one thing we have in abundance. Forgive me. You seem uncomfortable.”
She waved a hand in the air. “It’s nothing. I just don’t speak of my heart often. It’s been dead a long time.”
“It was not dead today, Hekate.”
Hekate gave me a crooked smile. “So says the fucking King of Shades.”
And like a shade herself, she was gone, leaving me with my thoughts once more.