“What are you up to, Princess?”
I whip around at the sound of Dinlas’ voice behind me, forgetting I’m balancing on the edge of the counter. My knee slips out from under me, and I drop to the floor, banging my hip on the granite countertop on the way down. Wincing, I see Dinlas slow his steps, obviously on his way to catch me, but too late. Damage done.
Gods, that hurts. I massage the pain away as I straighten up. What the hell are you doing here, Din?
“I was trying to reach a glass,” I answer. “Because his Majesty is fucking tall and can’t put anything at a normal height.”
Dinlas comes over and, flat-footed, pulls a glass from the still open cabinet, holding it out to me. He gives me a crooked grin but says nothing, so I decide to take the glass instead of punching him. My fingers brush his, and I realize I haven’t seen him since the party. I feel my chest tighten and force myself to relax. He’s acting like it never happened. A smart lead, and one I follow.
His eyes are on me as I pull the carafe of orange juice from the refrigerator. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be here. Other than his staff, Hades lives alone, and he’s at the office today. Dinlas takes in my loose hair, sparse makeup, plum silk camisole, and well-worn jeans. His face is still, except for his eyes and the thoughts behind them.
“Hades isn’t here,” I tell him after taking a sip of juice.
“But you are.” Dinlas crosses his arms and leans back against the counter.
“Observant, aren’t you?”
His lips twitch at my barb as his eyes flick down to my bare feet and back to my face. He’s putting two and two together and coming up with some goddamn version of For? that I’m going to have to explain. He chews on his cheek for a moment, like he’s trying to figure out which way to approach the obvious question.
Might I suggest carefully, Din.
“So, are you a house guest, now, Princess?” he asks. I look out the window, trying to come up with an answer, but take too long, so he adds, “Uncle’s guest rooms are very comfortable. Assuming that is where you’re sleeping.”
I snap my head around and stare at him, open-mouthed and cheeks red, unable to speak. His eyebrows arch up as he takes in my response, a wolfish grin crossing his face. I realize I better say something to correct him, before either of us takes that thought any farther.
I pull my shit together and push the awkwardness back on him. “Where else would I be sleeping? Listen, if you want to know if I’m fucking Hades, just ask.”
He chuckles at my waspish tone. “No need, Princess.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I ask as he pushes off the counter and heads for the door. “Dinlas!”
He turns and looks me up and down one last time before giving me an infuriatingly charming grin. “It means…I have all the information I need at this time. Tell Hades I dropped by when you see him.”
I watch him go, threading his way back through the garden towards the Reception Center. What a dick, I think, finishing what’s left in my glass. Then, a smile steals over my face, and I realize I’m relieved. Relieved at the normalcy. That the turmoil caused by the kiss at the party was just a storm passing, and here we stand on the other side of it.
We will still be friends? Close?
I smile, remembering his words. For the first time since the party, the memory doesn’t sting.
* * * * * * * * * *
All the lights in the palace are on. I look up at Than. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Than gives me a playful shrug, wraps his wings around me, and next thing I know, we’re inside Hades’ garden. Hypnos gives Than a look.
“I still say, Thanner, that I’ve waited long enough for my turn to give the Princess a ride,” Hyp drawls. Than says nothing, but the edge of his wing sweeps from behind me to slightly in front, between Hypnos and me. If Hyp notices, he doesn’t say anything.
The gardens are lovely at night, the dense air heavy and fragrant. The moonlight mutes the flowers, their colors washed out and tinged with grey. A fountain scatters jewels of water into a basin, and beyond, paths snake off in other directions around the lake. Though Dinlas lives with Hades, it’s the first time I’ve been here. I feel like Din has been holding out on me.
I wander back over to Than. “This is better than some stupid party I didn’t want to go to, anyway.”
Dinlas teleports into our little retreat, startling me. Hypnos and Thanatos glance up and smile as Dinlas holds up two permanently borrowed bottles of wine in his hands and says, “Cheers!”
“Much better, actually. Well, besides missing the dancing.” I look up at Than and elbow him. “You should dance with me.”
Hypnos straightens up. “Oh yes, Thanner, by all means. Let’s see you dance.”
Than shakes his head, mute. I glare at Hypnos, and say, “Good job, Hyp. That worked so well.”
Dinlas pops the cork on the first bottle of wine and offers it to Thanatos. “Here, this will loosen you up and grease your wheels.”
Than grimaces at the bottle, then shakes his head.
“Why won’t you dance? You’ve been doing just fine when we’ve practiced at home,” I encourage him. Which is apparently the wrong thing to say. Dinlas raises an eyebrow, and Hypnos is laughing. Again.
“Fine,” I sigh, giving up. “No dancing.”
“Knock it off, Hyp,” Dinlas says to the still hysterical brother. Din takes a swig first then passes the bottle to me since Thanatos refused. “It’s all good that Thanatos has been learning to dance.”
“Maybe I should teach you to dance, Hyp,” I say, raising the bottle to my lips. His attitude suddenly changes, a hungry look in his eyes. My smile is paper thin. “Oh wait, nevermind. I just remembered I don’t like you.”
Dinlas glances at me and laughs openly. Even Thanatos snickers. He looks at his Hypnos and says, “She-she likes me and dances with me often.”
I hold the bottle aloft to toast Than when Hypnos grabs it and takes a swig.
“Stop hogging all the wine, Princess,” he growls, then takes a long pull on the bottle and wipes his mouth on his sleeve after.
A thick mist rolls in beneath the flowers, cascading over the fountain as a pitch-black figure takes form before us. I’ve never met Nyx personally, but there is no way it could be anyone but her. Her skin reflects a clear summer night, shimmering constellations dancing over her chest and down her arms, which she folds against her chest. I have to tell my mouth to close itself. More than once.
“Oi gioi mou, what are you doing here? I’ve been looking for you. You’re needed at home.” She glances around the circle, frowning at Dinlas and me. “You two shouldn’t be here either. Go home, unless you prefer me to escort you both?”
Dinlas stares at her, and it is the first time I’ve seen him cowed by anyone. “Of…of course, Mistress Nyx. We meant no harm here. We are just relaxing and enjoying ourselves.”
“Mhmm. Well, ensure you cause no problems.” She peers at Dinlas and me closely before turning back to her sons. “Thanatos, Hypnos, let’s go.”
Thanatos hesitates, looks at Nyx, then back at me and blurts, “How will you get home, Kate?”
“I’ll be fine,” I assure him. “Dinlas can make sure I get back across the river, and you’ve taught me how to handle it from there.”
“Yeah, no problem, Than. We are going to head out soon anyway,” Dinlas confirms as he glances again at Nyx, who’s already reverted to a thick mist and rolled away.
“Come on, Thanner,” Hyp says, slapping his brother hard on the back. Then, he pauses, adding in a suggestive whisper, “I’m sure Dinlas will take her where she needs to go.”
My cheeks warm at the insinuating tone of Hyp’s voice. Than stares at his brother like Hyp just told him Charon’s boat sank, then back at Dinlas and me. The look on his face makes me want to make another knife and introduce it to the place where Hyp’s heart should be. I content myself with sharp words instead.
“Mommy’s waiting, Hyp.”
Dinlas adds, “Yeah, Hyp, stop being an ass.”
Hypnos does us all a favor and vanishes without another word. Than gives me an apologetic look that is eased by my smile. I nod at him that it’s ok, and he disappears after his brother.
“I fucking hate him,” I say to Dinlas when we’re alone. No need to say who I mean. “I can’t believe they’re brothers.”
He smiles and replies, “Honestly, Thanatos insists on including Hypnos all the time. Otherwise, I could do without him.”
I smile back, kicking at the grass beneath my bare feet. “Good. You can help me hide the body after I stab him. You think a hundred times would be enough?”
“Each, maybe,” he laughs. “He is such a lech. Thanatos, though…he really cares for you, you know.”
I bite my lip, uncomfortably aware of Than’s feelings. And mine. I walk over to the fountain and sit on the edge, trailing my fingers back and forth in the water. “I know he does. I…wish I felt the same way. I’m fond of him, just…not like that.”
Dinlas opens the second bottle of wine since Hypnos took the first one with him and takes another drink before he offers it to me. I accept the bottle and, needing it, take several drinks before handing it back. As he takes the bottle, his hand closes around mine for just a second. Pulling away, I tuck my hand in my lap, trying to ignore the skip of my heart in my chest.
“So, if not Thanatos, then who might it be, Princess?” he persists after another pull of wine.
I look up, find myself staring at the places where the palace lights peek between the tree branches. I wonder if Hades is there right now. It’s a silly thing, pining for a King, but I smile, flick Dinlas a look, and tell him the truth. “Oh, I don’t know. Just some dark stranger I met one night in a garden or something.”
Dinlas pauses with the bottle at his lips and looks at me closely. After a second, he asks, “Is that so?”
Inside, I’m grinning. Dinlas was already on edge after Nyx showed up unannounced. I decide to leave him twisting a bit.
He eyes me, then sets the bottle down on the bench. He turns to me and holds out his hand. “I’m not much of a dancer either, but I have a better idea.”
I give him a suspicious look. “Better than dancing?”
“Better than dancing.”
His smile sends a sudden rush of heat through my body. I let the sensation ebb and give him my hand, allowing him to pull me to my feet. We are standing uncomfortably close, neither of us moving, just looking at each other. After what seems like forever, he speaks.
“Have you ever sparred?”
Distracted by his eyes, it takes a moment for the question to register. I pull my hand from his and step back. “Y-you mean, like Ares? Fighting?”
“I do mean that, but not against each other. A lesson. I can show you how to defend yourself, or at least the basics. It will take a few sessions, but you seem to be a quick study.”
I think about it for a moment, frown, then smile at the thought that follows. “I think that would be a lovely surprise for Hypnos, don’t you?”
“I really do.” He grins back at me with equal enthusiasm, then steps around behind me and puts his arms on my shoulders.
“Unarmed combat is all about using the opponent’s energy against them. You never want to block or absorb it, but rather feint around it and let them put themselves out of position. Now just relax.” He rests one hand on my hip and the other over my shoulder. “Now, try to flip me. Pull me over your shoulder.”
I look back at him. “You’re joking, right?”
“No, but you see the point. Flat-footed, I outweigh you significantly, and I am much taller, but if I were charging you, then you could use my energy against me and put me on my back. That’s because you aren’t doing the work – I am. Here, let me show you.” He proceeds to wrap his arms around me again, pinning me tight against his body. His chest is pressed against my back, his face against my neck as he tells me how to break a hold if someone approaches me from behind.
I try to remind myself that there’s a point to this, something I’m actually supposed to be learning, but the strong beat of his heart between my shoulder blades is driving it out of my head. His body is hot against mine. I knew Din was well-built, but he is a hard wall of muscle behind me. I can feel him breathing on my neck, his lips almost brushing my skin. The press of his arms is uncomfortable. I squirm, trying to break his hold, needing to get loose because the way he has my wrists pinned is exciting me.
“Now, my hands restrain your wrists. If you force your arms down suddenly as you push your wrists away from me, it will cause me to lose my grip.” As I look back at him, he leans closer over my shoulder until our faces are inches apart. “Go ahead, break my hold on you, and free yourself.”
I take as deep a breath as his arms will allow and do what he says in a swift, sharp motion. I feel a surge of accomplishment as my wrists slide from his weakened grip, but when I pull his arms down, his weight presses down on my shoulders. The sudden shift in applied pressure makes me lose my footing. As I fall, he stumbles and lands on top of me.
The silence is intense and awkward, both of us frozen in place. Then, he slides off me. I sit up quickly and turn to find myself face to face with him. I find myself wondering how I never noticed how dark his eyes were. I also discover I’m no longer breathing. His gaze wanders over my face, lingering on my mouth.
Without a word, he kisses me.