I tugged one sleeve of my cream-colored sweater down. There was still some blue clinging to my skin, the azure color peeking out from beneath the fabric. His trap had been excellent. It seemed to have been everything that Hestia intended.
My gaze fell to the table. Perhaps I had gone a little overboard. An assortment of pastries nearly covered the entire surface. My iced coffee sat cradled between my hands as I tried to distract myself from the nerves churning in my stomach, the sound of my heart pounding in my ears in time with my roiling emotions. The table I had chosen was in the corner of the near-empty shop, just in case a scene was to come to pass. I hoped he would hear me out, that he would understand that I was sincere in my reformation. It was more than I deserved. I understood that, but I had to try.
The door opened, and my stomach flipped, my eager gaze going to the entrance. It was him. He walked over to me, merely nodding before sitting. He didn’t say a word to me. His silence worried me, but he owed me no explanation, no greeting. Why did it pain me so? The least I could do was try to make this a little easier. I could start the conversation. “Thank you for joining me, for meeting me. Were you busy?”
I watched his eyes narrow as he finally looked at me. Was he angry with me? It didn’t look like anger on his face. His next words did little to help me understand what was happening.
“I have been busy. Well, occupied. Out of touch. But not busy. Quite the opposite. But I am busy now. Not right now. I mean, I am busy here, with you, now. But also with other things. Recently.”
As he sat back, I busied myself with my drink, taking a moment to contemplate his words. “I really am not sure what that means, but I appreciate you taking the time to come here. I have thought about this so often in the last few years, yet I still do not know what to say to you. My therapist would be ashamed of me,” I replied with a chuckle, my nails tapping against my glass.
Every movement he made intrigued me. Was I really seeing him in a new light? I felt as though my entire outlook had changed in the years since I had last seen him. How had I ever considered him ugly? It was a lie that I had told myself, but I knew the truth. He was rugged and handsome. While his appearance might have fallen to the human side in some eyes, I saw the beauty of him. It was who I was, after all. His words drew me from my thoughts. “You are seeing a therapist. Why would you see a therapist?”
“I had something happen, and I reached a breaking point. When I finally finished with my self-destructive tendencies, I woke up outside her office. She helped me see things that I had been blind to.” I pushed a plate of muffins toward him, taking one for myself. The momentary distraction was something I needed. I knew the next question he would likely ask.
“Ah. Bread. I do like some mortal food. I have found something called bacon that is very pleasing.”
“I actually really enjoy bacon. Exploring mortal foods has become quite a hobby of mine. One of them.”
As he bit into the muffin, I nibbled at mine, watching him curiously. “This is nice. But not as nice as bacon.”
His reaction had my lips curling into a grin. “There is little as good as bacon.”
My mirth was short-lived as he turned back to the subject I had been hoping to avoid. “Something happened? I assume my brother was involved.”
While his assumption pained me, it was understandable. “No, it did not involve him at all. It was a patient of mine. I grew attached to the love that she and her husband shared. It was incredible. I came to love her in a platonic way, but then she died. She was getting better, but…” I couldn’t finish the sentence, instead just giving a slight shrug as I lowered my gaze. “The love I felt between them, I realized I did not have that. Even with…” Saying the name was a bad idea, I decided. “It was not the same. I realized that the only time I had ever felt that love before was from you.”
I waited a moment before lifting my gaze to gauge his reaction. His brows had raised, and his next words made my heart ache. He was still so kind to me. “I am going to the Underworld soon. Perhaps I could ask Hades if you could visit her.” At his pause, I nearly asked him to continue, nearly. “Or perhaps not. I suppose some things are better left in the past.”
“I appreciate that. I will think about it. There was no time to say goodbye before.”
As his gaze lowered to the table, my heart raced once more. “I did love you. I mean, I do love you. You are my wife.” When he looked back up at me, my breath hitched. “I do love you. Everyone has always loved you. Every man you have ever met has loved you.”
That pain in my chest grew, but I accepted he was likely refusing me. “I know I am undeserving of your love. I will never deserve your forgiveness. I realize that. However, I would like to try to earn it, to make amends. I may have had the love of others, but I never had the love I needed most. You gave your love freely, and I spurned you for it. I did unspeakable things. Yes, I am very sorry for the things I did. But words are not enough.” I paused and let out a nervous laugh. “May I court you? Perhaps we could try being friends? I would never expect you to take me at my word and just accept me as your wife in all things. But I hope one day to get there.”
“Friends? You wish to court me? No. You are my wife. I do not understand. You are my wife, and I love you. There is nothing more to say. You are not responsible for what Ares has done.”
“You forgive me for all those slights? As simple as that?” That felt wrong. A frown curled my lips down once more. “I was complicit in what happened, Heph. I have wronged you for so long.” I couldn’t stop myself from reaching for him, hoping he would take my hand, but he didn’t. I left it there while we spoke, hoping he still might. “All I wish is to be the woman you deserve, the wife you deserve.”
“I could. I do. But the same issues will remain, of course. I am still as I am. I cannot give you what they can. I can offer you love, but that is all. I have nothing else that is of any value to you. I cannot be what you need me to be.”
“What do you think I need, Heph? Your love and forgiveness are all I desire. I just want to love you as you deserve. You are what I want. I want you to hold me when I cry. When I find new food to try, I want you to go with me. I want to hear about your work and lament over the tragic lives of my patients with you. A marriage, a proper marriage, is all I want. I only want it with you.” I took a deep breath, hoping that was enough to convince him. But it wasn’t.
“I am not as others. I am ugly, on the inside and the outside. You and my family can never understand what that is like. I cannot enjoy the things you enjoy. I ache. You do not understand physical pain. I am burdened by all that I have done and all I have not done. You were bound to me against your will. Now, when you are lost, you need me. And, to my shame, I am pleased by that. But I could never truly be enough for you. Not as Ares could be or the others. I will love you. I will be your husband. But we both know I cannot be enough. I am not someone you can be proud of being with. You deserve more. You need more. That is reality. That is how it has always been.”
I sighed, taking my hand back and rubbing at the bridge of my nose. “Heph, you are not ugly. Because you look different from us, they called you such. The hateful woman I was then, the one that wanted what I thought was best for myself, partook in calling you such. I am the Goddess of Love and Beauty, and I see you for what you are. You are not ugly. I wish I could take your pain or even just share it. If we could find a way, I would do it. You say that you are lost, but for the first time, I see I was lost for all those years. Would you be willing to let me prove that to you? I do not want Ares or anyone else, even if his heart did not belong to another. I see that. I see the truth. I should crawl on my knees, begging for your forgiveness. That was what I was prepared to do when I returned.” Perhaps turning the conversation would help.
“Would knowing your trap worked please you?” I quickly pulled my phone out, showing him the picture of my blue skin. The revealing outfit that had been gifted to me that night hid very little. But it didn’t have the desired effect in the least.
“You believe I find that to be funny? You believe that is why I agreed to do it? I did not. I do not. I find it puerile. I agreed to do it because it was the quickest way to end the conversation. In my experience, no only leads to more discussion. So you and your friends have fun, as you always have. I do not understand it. I cannot enjoy it. I am not as you all are. When you joke in front of me, I feel only discomfort. I do not fit your world. There was a time I believed I could fit into the mortal world. Now I am not sure.”
Putting my phone away, I frowned at his words. “I was livid at first, but I found it sort of comedic after some time. I thought you had agreed to do it to get back at me. I thought you were angry with me.” With a sigh, I leaned back in my seat, tapping my nails against my glass once more. “What if my world is still changing? I enjoy things I never thought I would. If you want to hide from the world, I will hide with you.”
My gaze went to his face, watching his expression closely. He was difficult to read and even more difficult to get through to. “I want to make my intentions very clear here, my sparrow. I want to go with you. I want to be your wife in more than just name. And it will likely take more conversations than just this. But that is all I want. You think so little of yourself when I would cast aside everything to go with you, but I suppose that is my fault. I am millennia too late, am I not?”
“It is not a matter of time. It is a matter of reality. You wish to give up everything to be with me? To live in my world? I am part of a family of monstrous, selfish, deceitful creatures. I may be a monster myself, but even I am not enough of a monster to allow you to do that. I will be your husband. But I must be married to Aphrodite, who laughs, who sees her friends, who succeeds. I will not have you live like me. Do not ask this of me. There are some things I cannot give. I will not make you as miserable as I. I love you too much. Return to me, be with me, but do not seek to follow me or become me. That price is too high for me to pay.”
“Can I not have both? A life with you and still see my friends, to have my patients and career while coming home to you every night? A proper marriage has balance. I want to be with you, Heph. In every way.” The table between us was infuriating to me. I stood and went around it, kneeling beside him. I took his hand, a smile escaping when he didn’t pull away. “I want a home with you. My friends will be there, my work, my hobbies. I will not force you out or to partake, but I want to know you as I refused to before.”
“Something is coming, Aphrodite. Something terrible. I am in danger. I think we may all be. I must go to the Underworld. My mind is…changed. I do not know how or who has done it, but Circe is helping me understand. Perhaps when I return, when this is over, we can be together, in some manner.”
There it was, the hope I had been searching for. It was a glimmer, but it was something. “Can I help you? I was a goddess of war once. Surely I can be of some use to you.” I couldn’t resist pressing a kiss to his fingertips, enjoying the rough feeling of them against my lips. “I would like that, though, to give this a chance.” My chest had warmed with the thought of trying. His touch was comfortable, like home. Thrills and butterflies would fade, but this contentment was something that I knew could last if given a chance.
“It’s fine. Circe and I will solve this. Then I will return for you. If I survive.”
Those words pained me, but I did my best to smile through it. “All you are doing is making me want to come with you.” But a suspicion crept into my mind, a jealous little insecurity forming. I could feel the burn of tears as I realized he might get revenge against me with her. It was possible. Was he? “I wish to be of use to you. Perhaps I would rather not survive your demise.”
“Hera decided who was to go. I wanted Moxie and Nike to join us, but she insisted it be Circe, Ares, and Clio. I am sure we will be quite safe. Hades will be there when we meet Mnemosyne. And if I should fall, then you are more than capable of surviving without me. You are much stronger than me. You always were. For now, I should go.”
A single tear escaped down my cheek as I bit back a sardonic laugh. “I am ever too late.” Wiping at it, I offered a small smile. “Return to me, my sparrow. I wish to make things right.” I stood, intending to move out of his way, but I couldn’t resist leaning down to capture his lips in a kiss. My hair cascaded like a curtain around us as I lost myself in that bit of contact. It was far too short, but it felt like time had stopped for just that moment. I just hoped it didn’t seal his fate, kissing him goodbye like that. “I would rather not let you go, but I will wait for you,” I murmured against his lips before pulling back, giving him room to stand.
“I am glad. I will return. I do not think my story is quite finished yet.” He picked up a muffin, and I chuckled softly. “Thank you for the bread. It was pleasing. We should have more when we meet next.”
The tingle of the touch of his lips, the way his beard tickled my face, lingered, and I couldn’t smother the small smile. He had kissed me back. He hadn’t refused my touch. Was that a step in the right direction? “I know our story is not. I will have some of Hestia’s muffins at the ready. I will be in the complex for now until we decide on things. You can find me there when you return.”
“Everything will be fine. Well, as fine as it ever was. But I must go now.”
Letting him go was the last thing I wished to do. Instead, I took one last kiss, wanting to keep the taste of his mouth on mine for as long as I could. Would that tingling sensation be enough to get me through the anxiety of his absence? My heart felt heavy, but I knew it was the right thing to do. I wished I could help him, to go with him. All I could do was be content with the knowledge that he’d return to me.