Five Months Later…
Hades must be pleased. Crispinus Agallon could feel the raw heat of the god's pleasure rising up from the ground of sand and blood, combining with the power of the sun that blazed down upon the arena to make everything around him shimmer and bend, as if he were surrounded on all sides by a great forge's fire. It hindered his sight, but not enough that he didn't notice the retiarius' attack.
Crispinus effortlessly dodged the net his fellow warrior threw at him and raised his sword to block the incoming blow of another man's trident. They were his last two contenders, and he was about to finish them.
His retaliation was swift. The retiarii were more agile than he thanks to their light armor, but it also left them more vulnerable to the blade, and Crispinus was fast enough to catch them both with his sword before they had a chance to evade his attack. The two men couldn't contain their screams of pain as his weapon sliced through their padded tunica, making shallow but debilitating cuts across their chests. It wouldn't kill them, but it did put them out of the fight.
Both men fell to their knees, clutching at their wounds. With the adrenaline and bloodlust pounding through Crispinus's veins, it was a wonder he managed to keep himself from landing that last fatal blow across their necks. The only thing that stopped him was the knowledge that their families would demand compensation for the retiarii's deaths, and Cato would make sure it came from Crispinus's own pocket. Cato, the bastard, was always trying to swindle Crispinus out of his money. Had he been aware of the man's greedy character, he would never have agreed to become his student. He would have sold himself to one of the other dozens of gladiator masters who knew the way of the sword.
Ah, hindsight. It was indeed a bitter and useless thing.
Crispinus looked up to where the Emperor sat in the stands, leaving the final decision up to him instead. When his majesty gave a thumbs up to spare the two men, Crispinus forced himself to calm and sheathed his blade, trying to take pleasure in the fact that he was at least the victor—again—and therefore the still undefeated champion of Rome.
He raised his shield high as the sideline announcer yelled out his name. The crowd roared its approval and a rare breeze managed to top the amphitheatre, blowing past Crispinus and washing him in another breath-stealing rush of heat. To Crispinus, it felt like a congratulatory pat from the god of the Underworld himself, and he wondered if the god's favor for him diminished outside the stadium walls just like it did with the thousands of fans currently cheering for him with unconcealed rapture on their faces.
Crispinus cursed, the unwanted admission sucking away what little pleasure he had managed to feel over his victory as completely as the heat sucked the moisture from the air, leaving his throat dry and his heart empty. He had a hard enough time finding satisfaction in his life these days without cynicism like that getting in the way. Every day doubts pricked harder at his conscience, drawing blood in the form of wants he hadn't dared to think about for years. It wasn't that he had never felt this kind of despondency before, but he usually managed to work himself out of it by now. That he couldn't this time bothered him a great deal.
Disgusted with himself and everyone around him, Crispinus turned and left the stadium via the gladiator's tunnel, ignoring the pieces of gold and half-wilted flowers that the spectators tossed down in his wake.
The Elysian Fields were beautiful, Persephone thought from where she lay among her favorite patch of asphodels. The grass was thick and springy, the soil moist, the rivers clear and cool. Above her the sky was a bright cloudless blue, more vibrant than had ever been seen in the world above, even without a proper sun to light it, and the sporadic winds that blew through the grasses and trees were always gentle and warm.
Who'd have thought that such a place in the Underworld could exist? The Underworld, where the dead came to final judgment and were either admitted into the heaven that was the Elysian Fields for eternal peace and happiness—or to Tartarus for eternal damnation and pain.
From where she lounged, Persephone could just make out a small grove of poplar trees swaying in the distance. It was through there that the entrance to Tartarus could be found, and she made it a point to always keep her distance, lest she somehow be drawn inside and lose her immortal soul.
The very thought made her shiver, and she ran a hand through the small group of asphodels, causing a few to explode into early bloom just from the sheer joy of being touched by the goddess of spring. They leaned into her caress, their silent, flowery sighs releasing a golden cloud of pollen into the air.
"I have never before been envious of a flower, but when I watch you stroke them like that I can hardly breathe for all the jealously inside."
The goddess looked up to see that a man had appeared beside her. He was leaning back on his elbows as if he had been lazing there for hours instead of seconds, his head half-cocked as he watched her play with the young plants. He had a long, powerful body draped in midnight blue robes that were very much at odds with her own sunlight yellow ones. Dark hair framed his handsome face and spilled down over his strong, broad shoulders. Persephone couldn't help but smile wider at the sight of him.
"A jealous god," she mused with a thoughtful tap on her chin. "I've never heard of such."
"You tease me when I am being perfectly sincere," he pouted, and Persephone, unable to resist the allure that pout caused, leaned down to place a chaste kiss against his lips.
"I tease only out of love," she assured him, giving the tip of his nose a playful tweak.
"Only the goddess of spring would dare to pinch my nose as if I were child," he said with a scowl even as his black eyes twinkled. "As god of the Underworld, I demand recompense."
"As god of the Underworld, I give you nothing," Persephone told him, stifling a giggle at the false look of shock he sent her. "But, as my lover, I'd be more than happy to give you whatever type of recompense you choose to exact from me."
"Well, that is incomparably better, " he said, and gave her a smile so full of promise and love that it made the goddess of spring's heart turn to liquid, just like the winter ice she was forever melting off her flora.
Her love leaned back so that he was lying fully in the grass and held open his arms for her. She immediately snuggled down into his embrace, sighing happily as he stroked her hair. None of the other gods and goddesses could believe how sweet the god of the Underworld's true nature was. They thought him fearsome; the Great Lord of the Dead, living amongst the departed, guarded by his ferocious beasts. They said he took joy in death, that his world was as dark as his soul.
Hearing such things always made Persephone laugh. A dark soul? Her love? The man who brought her breakfast in bed and often insisted in carrying her around in his arms just to have her close? Who could make love to her so tenderly one minute and so passionately the next that even the goddess of love, Aphrodite, would be in awe of it, should she ever bear witness to the act? A dark soul indeed. They knew nothing of her love's true heart, or the tenderness hidden within it.
"Where were you today, Hades?" Persephone asked after a few minutes of peaceful cuddling. "I missed you."
"The gladiator games were today." His voice came out as a rumble from where she lay against his chest.
"That's right. I forgot. You do so love watching those troublesome warriors battle each other, don't you?"
"Yes, even when it sends them to Elysian Fields all the earlier."
"Or Tartarus," Persephone couldn't help adding in a mumble.
Hades chuckled. "They are not bad men, most of them. Mortal, that's all."
That was another thing the others always got wrong: Hades loved his humans. Maybe it was because he spent so much time with them as god of the Underworld, but never a day went by when he didn't have a story to tell her about their bravery or their resourcefulness. He openly admired the way they made the most out of their short, mortal lifespans. Even the millions he'd sent to Tartarus couldn't diminish his love for them. The evilness of some in no way overpowers the goodness of the rest, as he liked to say.
He lapsed into a pensive silence. Persephone tilted her head up to try and see his expression, but his chin was in the way.
"Is something wrong?" she asked. "You did enjoy yourself, didn't you?"
"I did, indeed."
She propped herself up on her elbow so she could look down at him. He watched her with those fathomless black eyes of his, every emotion known to mortal and immortal alike hidden in their depths. She fingered the tiny frown mark that nestled between them. "Then why is there this crinkle between your brow?"
He sighed unhappily. The sound gave Persephone chills. Despite his cheerful nature, no one could sound as depressed as the Lord of the Dead when he was in a mood. No one.
He noticed the goosebumps on her arms and immediately apologized, pulling her back into his embrace and rubbing her skin briskly in an effort to warm her.
"It's the gladiator," Hades explained. "He's unhappy and restless."
"Your little favorite? Crispinus? What happened? Has he finally been defeated?"
"No. He remains champion. Just earlier today he defeated two retiarii in a single blow." Even despondent, the admiration in the god's tone was clear.
"Then why is he unhappy?"
"I'm not sure." Hades pondered. "I think… I think maybe he is lonely."
"Ah." Persephone nodded knowingly, and a little bit sadly. "Then I am not surprised you noticed it."
Loneliness was something about which Hades knew very well. It was that overwhelming ache for companionship that had first led him to leave his home in more than a millennia, searching for something he hardly dared name. When he'd seen Persephone dancing among the summer blossoms, desperation had caused him to lure her to the Underworld to have as his own. Because, as the goddess of spring, who better to renew his heart and soul?
Of course, she had been furious with him at first, tricking her like that. She was a goddess after all, and no matter how young, hated being deceived. But when he had finally broken down and admitted to his loneliness, his need for another, her anger had turned to sympathy, and sympathy had given way to fondness, and one day she'd realized that her fondness had bloomed into love undying, like an amaranth flower.
When he had, without hope, offered her a pomegranate, a fruit that would tie her to him and his world forever, she had taken it without regret. Something he thanked her for with every kiss, every touch, every smile, and every laugh he bestowed on her each and every day. Hades, the Lord of the Dead, made Persephone feel more alive and loved than even the goddess of spring could have ever dreamed.
"So what will you do?"
She pulled away again and the god of the Underworld blinked up at her in surprise.
Persephone rolled her eyes. "Well, you're not just going to leave him like that, are you?"
"What can I do?" Hades asked her. "The Fates must have a plan for him. Anything I do will only interfere with that."
"On the contrary, I think any interference by you would only be part of their plan," Persephone argued.
He frowned. "I don't understand."
"Destiny, Hades! Whatever action we take is done and was therefore meant to be. If it wasn't, it wouldn't happen. See?"
"Not at all."
Persephone made a very un-goddess-like scoffing noise in the back of her throat. "Well never mind. I understand what I mean and if you trust me that's all that matters. You do trust me, don't you?"
"Of course," he said immediately, and the proud sincerity in his voice made Persephone beam.
"Then up with you, my lazy god," she exclaimed, tugging the Lord of the Dead to his feet. "And let us go and find someone to make your gladiator happy."
Rome, Present Day
Katelyn Gray was not happy.
She shouldn't have answered her phone. The second it had started to ring and she'd seen Jason's smiling, bespectacled face on the cell's front screen, she should have turned it off and gone to bed.
But no, she'd had to answer it. And before she could get a word in edge-wise he had gone off on her. There was no stopping him when he got like this and damn it, he had the nerve to sound irritated at her. Like she was the bad guy!
Tomorrow was Father's Day, the holiday she hated the most. Getting out of it was normally very easy since her father, Paul Daniels, lived in Italy, and she made sure to travel anywhere but. But her editor had been adamant about sending her to Rome to write up a review for the city's new Grande Hotel de la Fortuna, so she'd had no choice but to come.
And who had tipped her father off that she was in Italy? Who had told him which hotel she was at so he could send messages every day begging her for a lunch date? That's right. Jason.
Kate didn't want to have lunch with her father. She didn't want to see him at all. In fact, she had come up with more than a dozen viable excuses for standing up her sorry excuse for a parent, and she would have used one of them too if she hadn't answered stupid Jason's phone call and found herself getting clobbered with the guilt trip of a lifetime.
She hadn't bothered asking how he knew she was planning on bailing his little set-up. He was her brother—her twin brother—older by less then five minutes, and he could always sense when she was upset about something.
Or when I'm about to blow someone off, Kate mentally added as she listened to his ranting. Apparently, being on a completely different continent with the entire Atlantic Ocean between them did nothing to dim his brotherly powers of intuition.
"If you feel so obligated to him, why don't you go?" Kate snapped when he at last paused for breath.
Jason snorted. "Even though you took the easy way out in college with that A.A. degree of yours, I know you're smart enough to realize why that's impossible."
"Because you're lazy?" Kate suggested, playing dumb because of his three-millionth crack at her Journalism major.
"Because I'd lose my residency at the hospital if I took even an hour off," Jason retorted. "And because I'm already up to my eyeballs in debt and plane tickets to Italy would drown me. And because Sarah is in her last month of pregnancy and even if I had the cash, I really don't want to fly all the way over there just for her to go into labor."
"Your child would be a dual citizen," Kate pointed out sweetly.
"And if he wanted to be president? You can't be commander-in-chief if you aren't born on U.S. soil."
"It's an overrated job anyway."
"Well, it's on the list."
At that, Kate's irritation dimmed enough for her to laugh. "Are you serious? Sarah actually wrote that down?"
Jason's wife Sarah was an adorable little redhead who had a habit of making lists whenever she got stressed out. Last month Sarah had made the mistake of watching a very explicit birthing video and now she lived in fear of her due date, hyperventilating every time the baby dared to kick. It didn't help that Jason, the future doctor, kept reprimanding her how stress was bad for the baby.
So to help calm herself, Sarah had taken to making all sorts of baby-related lists. They had started out innocent enough. Baby names, things the baby would need when they brought it home from the hospital, babysitters, daycares. Then she'd moved on to schools. Primary, middle, and high to be exact. Then she had rounded up a selection of colleges based on ranking and location. When she had finished with that, she'd moved on to possible careers.
When Jason had commented about how she might be getting a little ahead of herself, Sarah had chucked her pen at his head. The ink stain on his temple had taken two weeks to fade away.
He wisely hadn't questioned her again.
Jason sighed, that one sound somehow managing to suck out all the light-heartedness that had managed to seep into the conversation.
"He wants to make amends, Kate," he said quietly. "Maybe it's time you let him."
"There is nothing he could say or do that would make it up to me."
"Then do it to keep the peace. Mom would want that."
"Don't tell me what Mom would want," Kate snapped. "You don't know any better than I do. For all we know, she would've rather made pieces out of him. I'm more inclined to believe that then believing Mom would just call pax."
Through the phone she heard Jason sigh again, and she knew her brother was pinching the bridge his nose with his thumb and forefinger the way he always did when he was frustrated. His wire-framed glasses would be knocked askew and his big brown eyes would be squeezed shut as he fought for patience. Here was the crux of every argument they had about their father: Forgiveness. Her brother offered it while Kate did not.
Maybe it was because Jason was simply a more compassionate person than Kate was. He did work in the medical field after all, the desire to heal others was in his very nature. But Kate thought it had more to do with the fact that, as a man, he just couldn't properly conceive the depth of betrayal that had wracked their mother at their father's abandonment. That was something only Kate, as a woman, could understand fully.
"Regardless of what Mom would have wanted to do with him," Jason said, pressing on, "I know she wouldn't like this bitterness that you carry around on her behalf. And that is what you're doing, Kate."
"I am not bitter!" she exclaimed, stung. Her brother had never criticized her so bluntly before. It hurt. A lot.
"You don't date. You haven't had a real date in over five years."
"Because I'm a travel journalist, Jason! It doesn't exactly lend itself to long-term relationships."
"Because you don't want one."
"Damn it, that's not fair! Just because I've decided to focus on my career does not mean I'm bitter about men!"
"If focusing on your career was really the reason than I would agree with you," her twin said. "But that's not why and you know it. Face it, Kate. You're scared of men. You're cynical because of what happened to Mom and you travel around as an excuse to avoid any complicated relationships where you might have to actually trust a guy."
"You're a intern, not a psychologist," Kate snapped.
"Don't need to be, it's obvious." A pause. "Go to lunch with him, Kate."
"You can't just order me around," she hissed. "You're not my father."
"No, you're father is in Rome praying his only daughter doesn't stand him up on Father's Day," Jason said, and hung up.
Kate tried not to grimace at the relief she heard in her father's voice or the complicated feelings of guilt and resentment it aroused inside of her. She'd spent half the night arguing with herself over whether or not she should come, and because of it she was tired and even grumpier about being here then she would have been already.
He stood at her approach, but before he could move around the small, circular table and do something horrible, like try to hug her, she quickened her pace and plunked down into the empty chair across from his. It was metal and not well padded, and her hasty sitting hurt her butt bone, but better a bruise than any unwanted displays of affection.
Paul remained standing another few awkward seconds, but then took his seat as well and gave her an encouraging smile over the breadbasket. The restaurant he had picked was small but cozy; one of those cute little bistros that transcended the stereotype with their great food and welcoming atmosphere, though there was currently nothing welcoming coming from Kate's side of the table.
"I didn't bring you a gift," she said by way of hello.
He waved off what he probably thought was an apology. "That's okay. It's a gift enough that you came."
Damn straight, Kate thought, and knew her brother would have called it a miracle.
A server appeared beside their table, a heavy red-cloth menu in his hand. "A menu, Miss?"
She started to take it then stopped. "Do you happen to serve margherita pizza here?" she asked. It was the country of pizza after all.
"Sí, the best," the server said with pride.
"Then I'll have two slices of that."
"I'll have the same," Paul replied. "And a bottle of red wine, whichever one you think best."
"Molto buono." The server gave them a brief bow, nor more than a low nod, then turned and trotted off towards the kitchen. The place was small and filled with about a dozen tiny, intimate tables, most of them taken since it was two in the afternoon and therefore high lunch hour. Their server had to stop several times in order to let others with food trays pass. Kate watched him go, hoping he would hurry. When the food came she could focus on eating and not have to talk too much. But until then…
"You look very beautiful," Paul said.
Kate fiddled self-consciously with the hem of her sundress. "Oh. Um, thank you."
She hated compliments. Not just from him but from anyone. They made her uncomfortable and most of the time weren't even true, especially when someone called her beautiful. She wasn't one of those annoying people who moaned and groaned about being ugly when they really weren't, but she knew the limits of her physical attractions, and there really wasn't anything beautiful about her. Her long brown hair was more bushy then curly, and her eyes were an unexciting color brown. She was on the short side of average at five feet four inches tall, and though petite, she had a round face that many had described to her as cherubic. Kate thought that was a nice way of saying she had a fat face, something she tried to compensate for by wearing minimal make-up, so as to not attract any more attention to it then the fatness already did.
"You look good too," she felt obligated to add. Her long pause before returning the compliment made her father chuckle.
"Why, thank you."
Unfortunately, he did look nice. Suave almost. Even when he was younger Paul had been businessman handsome. Her mother had kept a picture of him around for years, hidden in her sock drawer, and as a kid Kate used to sneak into her room sometimes to steal peaks at it. The compulsion usually came around her birthday. Kate had told herself that she looked only to make sure that the extra year she'd grown hadn't made her look any more like him, and for the most part it never had.
Her father had high cheekbones and chestnut-colored hair that was graying now in a respectable looking manner around his temples. He was tall, and though not very broad, carried himself with an almost regal grace that more than made up for his lack of shoulder width. He looked like a modern day king that had had peace during his entire lifetime of rule. She hated him for that. And even more for his eyes, which were a bright, twinkling green and contained a vitality that had long ago gone missing from those of her mother's, even before she had gotten sick with cancer. Every time Kate looked at him, she saw all he had lived with and all he had condemned her mother to live without. How was she supposed to get over that?
The server returned with their wine and poured them each a glass. Paul raised his as if to toast and Kate drank before he could manage it. If he said something stupid like, "To new beginnings," or, "To the best Father's Day a man could ask for," or something corny like that, she would lose it.
He looked put out for only a moment before he drank from his glass too.
At least the only similar feature about them was hair coloring, Kate thought. Thankfully everything else—her delicate features, her brown eyes, and her height—all came from her mother. Except her face. That came thanks to some recessive gene from a Georgia peach great-great-grandmother on her mother's side.
Kate was pulled out of her musings about the fickleness of genetics as Paul set a square, white jewelry box down in front of her. With difficulty, she held back a scowl. The worst thing about their father's reemergence into their lives was his tendency to randomly send them gifts and expensive knick-knacks that were always more tacky than practical. Kate liked to joke that he suffered from fits of guilt, or "guilt attacks," and he thought getting them pricey trinkets would help make it all better. Maybe they helped him, but all they did for Kate was make her feel even more awkward and resentful around him. As if she could be bought off!
"I told you I didn't get you anything," she said, proud that she managed to keep the irritation in her voice to a minimum.
"I know. I just wanted to get you something," he told her, looking both cheerful and a little bit sheepish, which told her that whatever was in the box was even more expensive than usual.
"But it's Father's Day," she argued. "Isn't this a little, I don't know, backwards?"
"If it's Father's Day then that means I should get to do whatever I feel like doing," he said, as if anything ever stopped him from doing what he wanted anyway. "And today that includes giving my daughter a present. Now open."
Kate did scowl then, but at the determined looked on Paul's face she grudgingly lifted the lid of the box…and gasped.
There, lying on a bed of white velvet cushioning, was a ruby necklace. The jewel was the size of her eyeball and shaped like a teardrop. It was so big that the thin, gold chain it hung by looked much too fragile to hold its weight. Matching ruby earrings of the same shape, though slightly smaller, rested on either side above it.
"I can't," Kate said once she had found her voice. "This is too much. No." She emphasized her last word with a jerky shake of her head.
"I want you to have it," Paul insisted.
Kate shook her head again.
"Please, Katelyn. It's, well, it's important to me that you take it."
"Does it matter?"
"When it's something like this? Yeah, it matters." She locked gazes with him and gave Paul the most intimidating glare she could muster. "So tell me. The truth," she added, just in case he got any ideas.
Her father sighed. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet. "Fine. The truth is… I bought that necklace for your mother."
Her intimidation flailed under the weight of shock that had just been dropped on it. "What?"
"I bought it right before," he explained. "Before… everything happened."
"By 'everything' are you referring to when you knocked Mom up, or when you left her because she was a stripper and you didn't want your family knowing you associated with someone like that?" Kate asked, feeling all the old anger she had managed to bottle up before coming to the restaurant starting to break free again.
"Both," Paul admitted, looking miserable. With his thin shoulders slumped as they were, a lot of his regality seemed to disappear.
A king now beaten. A king in exile.
"You have to know how ashamed I feel about running away like I did. But I was young and so foolishly caught up in appearances… I never meant to stay away as long as I did. But then I came here—"
"Escaping child support and shame—"
"And met Melissa—"
"A classy, rich woman who would never take off her clothes for money—"
"And what with my job taking off and Ben being born—"
"You were just so busy building up your perfect new life that you couldn't be bothered to worry about the poor, unfortunate stripper you impregnated and abandoned back in the States," Kate finished for him.
"I made a mistake," he whispered. "Is that so unforgivable?"
"Twenty years," Kate murmured. "It took you twenty years to come find us."
He nodded solemnly. "Too long, I know. My biggest regret in life, next to leaving your mother the way I did. Well, she might have died before I could make it up to her, but I'm not about to miss my chance to make it up to you and Jason."
"Who says you can?"
"Can I not?" It wasn't a come on for a dare, but a sincere and starkly vulnerable question. It would have been the height of childishness to answer no, but even knowing that, Kate had to struggle to hold the word in.
"You don't understand," she gritted out. "You keep asking for forgiveness when you don't know even half of what you're asking to be forgiven for."
"Then tell me," he said. "I want to know."
A lie. No one wanted to know how badly they had hurt those closest to them. No one wanted that kind of list. Tell me, he said. Tell me. Tell me. But how could Kate tell him and put even more guilt onto those weak shoulders of his? He was having a hard enough time with what he had, even she could see that. It's what angered her most of all. Because as much as she hated him for everything he'd done to her and her family, she pitied him his weakness just enough to hold back the truth, and it only increased her resentment all the more.
A poisonous situation if there ever was one.
At that moment, the server returned, pizza in hand. When he asked Kate to remove the jewelry box from the table so he could give them their food, she was so distracted that she scooped it up without thought, only realizing after she'd done so that she had inadvertently taken her father's gift.
Disgusted, she stood as soon as the waiter had gone and snatched up her purse, giving her dress an unconscious swipe to get out any wrinkles. She held out the box.
"I can't tell you everything your leaving did to us," she said to him. "And I can't do this anymore either. I can't pretend to be okay with everything you put us through. Jason might be able to let it go, but I'm just not that big a person… and I don't think I'll ever be."
She gave the box a shake. A hint for him to take it.
Her father waved it away, saying in a defeated voice, "Keep it. I daresay you'll find something interesting to do with it."
What Kate wanted to do was smash it into his face. But other diners were watching them with varying levels of subtlety and she knew she had caused a big enough scene already. Short of dropping the box into the pizza, she was out of options.
With stiff movements, Kate stuffed the box into her purse, gave her father a curt nod goodbye, turned on her heel, and left the restaurant without a backward glance.
Happy Father's Day, she thought bitterly.