I was blasted with crisp, salty air before I even opened my eyes. Despite my apprehension, the scent of it instantly soothed me.
When I took over Propalyia all those years ago, I created gravestones for each restless soul trapped in my realm, enchanted to give them their perfect eternal home automatically. Some chose fluffy white clouds and angels in the sky. Others wanted their earthly desires—sprawling mansions, harems of women, sports cars, and rock star dreams. I knew what Nikolas’s world would look like before I even opened my eyes.
I was standing in the near-perfect version of the place we’d first met, a natural, rocky beach littered with driftwood. The ocean was a dark royal blue against grey skies, charcoal clouds floating around jagged mountain tops, and acres of surrounding forest. A bite of pine fought the brackishness for dominion of the air, an approaching fog threatening to overtake them both.
Nikolas had constructed a seaside home alongside the mountains, a large porch stretching out over the tumultuous water. The fog snaked its way around it, but his home exuded warmth with the yellow light aglow in his windows. It didn’t seem that Phobetor had made his way down here. Things seemed at peace, but I couldn’t be too sure. I swallowed and went forward into the mist.
I crept in through the wide open patio doors. The home was modern, spartan, but utterly Nikolas from the flannel throws draping the sofa to the fireplace crackling with heat. I briefly wondered if he’d lived somewhere similar with the wife and family he’d created after I left him.
I knew I should leave his realm, but it felt so good to be there, swimming in the world of my lost love. I was so distracted it barely registered that he’d crept up next to me.
“I was hoping you’d come down here eventually,” he said with a half smile.
I looked up at him and tried not to get lost in his hazel eyes, nor focus on the way his lips glided over his teeth as he spoke. “This is going to sound weird, but is this the first time I’ve come down here?” I asked.
“Yep,” he confirmed. His expression shifted into concern. “Hek, you don’t look so hot.”
I was suddenly acutely aware of my appearance. I sheepishly ran my fingers through my hair. “Oh, yeah—rough couple days.”
He frowned. “I don’t know if you can see everything down here—”
“No,” I cut him off. “Every soul has their privacy and autonomy in their own realm. I don’t see anything unless they need me to.”
“Well, there is a huge bathroom upstairs with a gigantic tub that overlooks the sea. Why don’t you go relax?”
He laughed. “I’m not going to join you. It’s just a badass tub. I was actually on my way to grab some food.”
I laughed. “You created takeout places in your realm?”
He shrugged. “You know I can’t cook.”
I shook my head. Dammit, it felt good being around him again.
He grabbed a set of keys off the counter. “Oh and,” he said joyfully, “I got that car I always wanted.” He jingled them with relish. “Huge tub and a sports car. You’re the perfect Underworld goddess. I’ll be back in a few. You want coffee?”
A hot bath and coffee sounded fantastic, but I was frozen by the compliment.
“I’ll grab you coffee,” he said, heading out the door.
I was left alone in Nikolas’s house. I sighed, scratching at my head. When was the last time I took a shower? I headed up the stairs to his bathroom. He wasn’t kidding. It was absolutely gorgeous. Sheer curtains fluttered around two huge open windows that let brisk sea air billow through at will. I snapped my fingers, and warm, steamy water poured from the faucet, lit candles now lining the edge of the tub. I had no idea how long I soaked, but I drifted off, eventually coming to feeling more peaceful than I had when I’d entered. More peaceful than I’d felt for a very long time.
I heard Nikolas downstairs, the scent of food wafting up the stairs. When was the last time I ate?
I grabbed a big fluffy towel and wrapped it around my body. I took a deep breath and headed downstairs. “Hey,” I said. “Can you manifest me some clothes? I can’t materialize too much down here. It’s your realm.”
He stared at me, and I realized it might not have been the best idea to come downstairs in only a towel. He forced his eyes shut, and a pair of black leggings and an oversized sweater arrived in my arms. I smiled.
“Is that okay?” he asked worriedly. “That’s what you used to wear when we were—”
“It’s fine,” I assured him.
I noticed enough food spread across the counter for six people.
“I didn’t know what to get you, so I got you everything—Italian, Japanese, Chinese, that weird salad stuff you like.”
I smiled. “Perfect.”
I dressed quickly in the downstairs bathroom, squeezing my hair with the towel as I sat down at the counter to pick at a plate of sushi. “It really is beautiful here,” I commented, enjoying the sound of waves.
Nikolas sat next to me on the other barstool, helping himself to a platter of fries. “I think it’s nice that you let souls pick their own realm. It’s very you.”
I felt myself blush. “Well, I feel bad that they can’t see their loved ones. Not my rules.”
“Makes sense.” He nodded as he unrolled a burrito.
I couldn’t hold it in, though the moment was perfect, and no part of me wanted to ruin it. “When I left, you got married. Had children? Why aren’t you with them?”
“No children,” he corrected me. “She had children who lived with their father, and I did spend some wonderful moments with them. They are all with her first husband, wherever it is people with toll money go.”
I was quiet. “They passed?”
He set down his fork and cleared his throat. “Car accident. I won’t lie. It destroyed me. Victoria was a wonderful woman. It almost sent me back into my self-destructive ways, but my sister knew what to do. I lasted for a few more years with lots of therapy. But then I got sick—terminally so. And you know me.” He gave me a sad smile. “I wasn’t going to wait around for death. So I grabbed a bottle of pills and chased it with a bottle of whiskey.”
“You should have made sure you had your drachma,” I whispered, turning away to stare out the window. I thought of Atë and my conversation during our shopping excursion. I’d brought two coins with me in my jeans pocket, and now they were tucked into my bra.
“Slip them onto his hand while he’s sleeping,” she had said with a shrug between the racks of designer clothing. “He’ll be delivered straight to Charon before he knows what happened.”
“I told you,” he interrupted my thoughts. “I loved my wife, but she’s happy where she is. I wanted to be with you. I always have. You left me, remember?”
“You deserved to have a normal, happy life,” I reminded him. “The mortal and god relationship never ends well.”
He sighed. “I know. I remember what you said when you left.”
I stood. “Maybe I should go.”
He stood up, blocking my way. I caught the whiff of his hair as it drifted into his eyes. “Stop running all the time. There’s nothing to run from. I’ll always be here, whether you want to join me or not.”
He was too close to me, but I couldn’t move away. I also couldn’t stop myself from kissing him, nor could I prevent my hands from tearing off his shirt as he picked me up or wrapping my legs around his waist so he could carry me upstairs.
I lost time again in his bedroom, falling into the perfect rhythm that old lovers do, and woke to see him sleeping peacefully next to me. Even his bed was perfect, the sheets soft against my bare skin. I laid back to stare at the ceiling, my stomach churning with guilt.
I couldn’t let him stay here. While the realm he created was beautiful, it was lonely and cold. I knew what happened to the souls in Propalyia. Eventually, they all flung themselves over the gates, only to be impaled, and returned to their homes. They hated me for it, which was why I kept my distance, why they moaned throughout the forests. Every human desires peace, and there was no peace in Propalyia.
I rose, sneaking to the bathroom to retrieve the drachma from my jeans. Tears welled up in my eyes. Having to say goodbye twice was a cruel joke. But this was better for him. He deserved better than me. Even if I could love him, for how long? How long before I shut down and was off searching for whatever it was I was searching for?
I was shaking as I climbed into bed. I never cried—never—but water poured down my face as I opened his palm. “Forgive me,” I whispered. He barely stirred as I pressed the two metal coins into his flesh.
My heart pounded, breath caught in my throat as I waited.
But nothing happened.
Confused, I checked to make sure they were actually drachma. His eyes drifted open to look at me. He smiled before he realized what I had done. His brows furrowed as he stared from the coins, then back at me, hurt streaking across his handsome face. “You wanted me to be gone that badly?”
“Why didn’t it work?” I jumped out of bed. “You’re not Nikolas. You should have been transported straight to the River Styx.”
“Wait. Before you run, I can explain.”
“You better explain fast,” I said, panicked and borderline angry, my mind a whirlwind of thoughts. I could feel my power rising, the sound of hounds in the distance.
Nikolas still looked like Nikolas, but something had changed in his eyes. “I’m not exactly mortal,” he said hesitantly.
The blood drained from my face. “You…”