Persephone is watching the young lovers dance when the familiar shriek of his husband’s train cuts through the late summer air, effectively scything the party into two parts; the Before, and the After.
Before, everything is golden and bright, and the wine is flowing, and Curt stands atop a table with his beloved, twirling him in his arms to the sound of his voice, and Persephone holds a glass aloft in toast. The scent of magnolias and honey wraps them all in a tender embrace.
All eyes turn to him.
Everyone worth their salt knows what Hades’s whistle means.
Considering his drink, Persephone catches sight of Curt, innocent face hollow with expectation and mourning. Owen squeezes his hand, resting his head on Curt’s shoulder.
Sadly, Persephone tips his glass at the partygoers, who in turn raise their own.
“To goodbyes,” he says.
“And to swift and warm returns!”
From behind Curt, Owen smiles, wistful. “To your return.”
Against the homesickness lurching in his stomach, Persephone knocks back his drink, and when his arm comes down it falls into the hands of his minder, who begins to guide him away.
Persephone manages to keep his cool until they are well out of earshot of the party.
“You can’t take me yet,” he hisses, jerking in the grip of his husband’s lackey. “You can’t, you can’t, it’s too soon.” It’s a new fish this year, all blurred edges, not sharp like the rest of them. Persephone briefly wonders what happened to the last one. Decides he would rather not know.
“Sorry, sir, boss’s orders,” the lackey says, and damn him, he actually sounds apologetic.
And that’s the real rub, isn’t it. He could run, he could choose to keep the summer going, he could always choose something else, but his husband would find him. Sooner or later, his husband would find him, and when he did, there would be, well… Hell to pay.
Every year, it grows sooner.
They look a sorry sight, Persephone in a fine pale green suit laced with finer golden embroidery, frogmarched through town to the station by a man half his size, trailed by a parade of valets holding trunks and valises, most containing the spoils of the town’s offering distilleries. The bottles clinking sound like the chains rattling all around Hadestown, and it makes Persephone sick.
As he’s pushed onto the station platform, Persephone rounds on the conductor.
“That was not six months,” he snarls, the handler yanking on his arm the only thing stopping him from climbing into the locomotive to throttle him. While Persephone wants nothing more than to rip his husband’s stupid security team apart limb from limb, his tirade is abruptly cut short by the presence of a man on the platform, figure obscured by a heavy coat and woolen fedora. His posture gives no indication that he’s noticed the disturbance.
“You…” Persephone’s words catch in his throat. “You came this time?”
He tilts his head to the side, curious, rapidly dying light glancing off a weathered cheekbone. “It would appear so.”
Around them, engineers and valets bustle about; stoking the engine, loading Persephone’s trunks into storage, a cavalcade of velvet and ethanol, an unmistakable temptation. Hades keeps his gaze fixed on the passenger car, neither ignorant nor receptive. More and more, Persephone feels he can never quite tell what his husband is thinking.
What he’s planning.
Persephone takes a step closer.
Hades merely laughs, soft and clipped, pitch black voice rumbling out from the shadows beneath his coat and collar, and offers an elbow. The gesture is well-practiced, simple, and inviting.
Wordlessly, Persephone neatly laces his arm through the crook, finely embroidered suit coming away streaked with coal dust.
For the first time since his arrival, Hades looks his husband in the eye.
The last year has not been kind to him, but while his long hair is almost entirely white now, and his face craggy and hard with premature age, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that stare. Those deep brown eyes holding a world’s worth of secrets Persephone had perhaps loved, once, were holding him now, cradling him in his husband’s ever-expanding world of copper and steel. He seems to consider him, the corner of his thin-set mouth twitching nearly imperceptibly, before guiding Persephone toward the train.
They’re vying for space with the other passengers at first, before Hades draws him into their own private compartment, drawing the door closed behind them.
“Go on,” he says, surprisingly gently. “Make yourself comfortable.”
“You’re making me feel like I’m off to the vet to be euthanized.” It’s a reflex, sure, to try for levity at a time like this. But Hades actually smiles as he removes his hat, placing it carefully on the cushions.
“Nothing of the sort, I assure you. Please, have a seat.”
“If you insist.” The only available seat is next to his husband. Persephone wonders if this was intentional. Folding his coat in his lap, he reluctantly obliges, making sure to leave some distance between them.
As the train lurches to life, Persephone follows the trail of stack smoke toward his home. He can’t tell if it’s just his imagination, but the sky seems to be darker already, the coming storm gathering just beyond the horizon.
The click-clack of the wheels over the tracks almost sounds like a heartbeat as the train plunges into the first of many tunnels, cloaking them in darkness. Without really thinking about it, Persephone’s hands knot in his lap and he tears his gaze away from the window.
“It’s going to be hard,” he says, finally.
His husband raises an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“This winter. The people, they… There’s no time.”
“There’s always time, if you know where to look for it,” Hades says, though his face betrays a sense of unease that Persephone hasn’t seen since… he can’t even remember.
He swallows. “They’re going to starve, Hades.”
“Then so many more workers for the grid,” he replies. Callous. Blasé. Persephone can feel the champagne roiling in his gut.
What happened to us?
Silence, thick and choking as molasses, settles between them. They make quite a picture, god of spring, god of death, the former shoving down his panic and the latter sitting still and silent as a statue. Exposed bulbs lining the tunnels throw strobing lights over Hades’s face, ticking steadily as a clock. With every blackout, Hades seems to grow a little older.
Here, alone, Persephone can almost make himself believe. Can almost make himself forget.
That is, until Hades leans forward, taking a deep, labored breath.
At once, Persephone’s heart is in his throat. Since when has anyone uttered that name? Since when has Hades? It’s not safe, it’s their secret, people could be listening, why would he say that?
What does it mean?
Blood thrumming in his veins, Persephone leaps up to check the hallway for unwanted company. “Would you mind keeping your voice down?”
Hades chuckles behind him. “For whom? We’re quite alone.” To reinforce his point, he spreads his arms wide, gesturing to the obviously empty compartment.
Persephone huffs, but does in fact return to his seat, wedging himself into the corner.
“I know, I know, it… Just makes me nervous, is all.”
“Of course.” Hades nods solemnly. “My apologies.”
When no explanation for that fucking bombshell is forthcoming, Persephone braces himself, toying with a loose thread on his jacket. It’s purple, from a neatly stitched sprig of lavender. “So, what did you want?”
“It was nothing, really.”
“Doesn’t sound like nothing, old man.”
“It’s fine, Curt.” There it is, that goddamn name, again. That’s not nothing, that can’t be nothing.
Persephone shoots his husband a withering side eye. “You sure?”
For a moment, he thinks maybe Hades didn’t hear him. He’s still resting his chin on his hands, seemingly deep in thought, but then he lets out a heavy sigh and turns toward Persephone, expression entirely unreadable.
“Why did you do it?”
The question is vague enough it could almost mean anything.
But Persephone knows it doesn’t.
“Do what,” he says, feigning ignorance he knows Hades will see right through. They’ve known each other long enough.
Beside him, Hades growls, jagged and deadly. “You know damn well what I’m talking about, Mega.” Mega. “You knew. You could have stopped it.” I know. “So why did you do it?”
Not once, not in all their time together, has Hades ever asked him this. Persephone’s mind is whirling. Does he answer? Does he lie? Does it even really matter? But the first thing out of his mouth is, “Why now?”
Hades blinks. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” helplessly, Persephone gestures behind them in the vague direction of his home long gone, “we’re so close to— to the end of all this. You know that. Why do you care now?” The end of all this. Before they’re gone, gone, gone, and start it all again.
The question looks to take Hades aback. He opens his mouth a few times, as though savoring it, testing his responses. Persephone had never been one to second guess him before, especially not given the circumstances. They all knew the answers by now, so what was the point? Rarely was a question asked outside of their script; even in private, even when it wouldn’t change anything, there was a script, except Hades was making things up as he went, and so too, it seemed, was Persephone.
“I’m… not sure,” he says eventually, gravel voice smoothing around the last syllables. “Humor me.”
And gods know why he does it, but Persephone laughs, pained and hollow.
“You really wanna know?”
“I don’t know, Curt, whyever would I want to know why my long lost lover turned his back to the Fates and condemned me to this?”
“Okay, okay, I get your fucking point.” He’s losing the edge, Persephone can tell. When he gets mad, he sounds… more like he used to. None of the put on. Just the man he once called his love, the man he once knew. “I guess…” Persephone fidgets with his hands, twisting the dulled silver band on his ring finger. “I mean, you know I had it figured out by then. On the stairs. We were walking and it just— it hit me. Everything, all at once. Who we were, who we are…” In his chest, his heart seizes with the ache of an eternity. Hades sighs in tandem. “Who would we would have to become. I wanted—”
“You wanted this?”
“No! No, Owen, why the fuck would you think that?” The name slips out before he can stop it, he can never stop it, once the words are coming they just don’t stop. “I didn’t want this! Not any of it! You have no idea how much I wished I could have just kept walking, but I knew I couldn’t okay? I had to. I had to. Fuck you, I had to.” His hands are shaking, and like his words, they don’t stop.
Much like himself, Hades is trembling, but this time with barely suppressed rage, ancient wounds ripping open between them.
“You knew you had to ruin both our lives because of, what, some stupid bloody destiny? Since when have you of all people listened to the rules?”
“You don’t understand!” Persephone shrieks, waving his hands. There’s just too much, he has to move, he has to do something.
And there it is, the final fucking straw.
“Would you just shut up?” In the blink of an eye, Persephone has his husband pinned to the back of the seat, one fist balled in his ridiculous pinstriped lapel, another forearm braced over his collarbones. Hades’s heart hammers against his chest, thrumming between them. Tears prick the back of Persephone’s eyes, and for once in their goddamn lives, Hades actually looks scared.
“I…” Persephone swallows hard, falling back into his seat as if in a dream, limbs detached from any particular control. His voice doesn’t want to come out, a feral street cat crouched and snarling deep within his lungs. “I’m sorry, I don’t…”
When he isn’t looking anymore, Persephone feels a hand on his cheek, calloused yet familiar. Glancing back at Hades, his eyes are deep with sorrow, and maybe, just maybe, a touch of resurrected sympathy. He nods, just once, and pulls his hand away.
Persephone rubs his cheeks with his jacket, streaking the hem with tears.
“The truth is—” Remember the truth, buried under the story. You love him, you love him, you love him. “—I didn’t know what would happen to us if I kept walking. If we would have survived or made things a hell of a lot worse. Clearly this was how it was supposed to play out, and, well… We all know what happens to those who tempt the Fates.”
Almost unconsciously, Persephone starts to reach for his husband’s hand, but that won’t do. Not yet, it’s not safe. He places his palm flat in his lap instead.
“I swear to you, Owen, I didn’t want to hurt you.”
The ensuing silence stretches for miles of track, hundreds of lights, thousands of clangs of Hades’s army of workers swinging their pickaxes, growing steadily louders as the train pushes further into the black.
Until, at last, Hades—no, this is Owen—breaks it, all his roaring grandeur bled away. He’s soft-spoken, gentle. Persephone didn’t think he’d ever hear him again.
“You… wanted to protect me?”
The revelation surprises Persephone as much as it seems to surprise Owen. If you’d asked Persephone before why he’d turned around, his first instinct would have been to say it was his duty; to himself, to the universe, even to Owen. He was supposed to, so why shouldn’t he? Except it wasn’t really his duty, was it?
Curse his perpetually loyal heart, of course it had been to keep Owen safe. There was no other option.
Curt knocks his elbow into Owen’s arm.
“Yeah, I guess. At least this way I could guarantee you’d live. That— That we’d end up together.”
“You can’t possibly consider this ‘together,’” Owen scoffs.
“Well, maybe not together in the way that we’d planned, but…” And so help him, Curt smiles at Owen, and he really does mean it. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Owen blinks. “Fair point.”
If he could take it all away, send them back to the start without all this Fates and Gods and Destiny business, make everything right again, Curt would. He would trade anything to fix his mistakes, anything to turn back the clock, anything at all to smash the gears inside so that he and Owen could live, because this wasn’t living. It’s all so horribly familiar; Owen’s lopsided grin, Curt’s desperate need to take the last word, the gentle snare drum rat-a-tat of the train on the rails.
Before he really knows what he’s saying, Curt’s blurting out, “I miss you.”
Owen’s head snaps around to face him, incredulous expression twisting his eyebrows into knots.
“I’m right here, Curt.”
“Fuck off, you know what I mean.”
“Yeah.” The two of them exhale, nearly simultaneously, and the chasm between them shrinks just a little.
When Curt reaches for Owen’s hand this time, he doesn’t stop, and Owen’s nimble fingers interlace with his. An echo of some other time ricochets around the compartment, reflected in the place where their pulse points meet.
“I don’t wanna forget this,” Curt murmurs.
Owen squeezes his hand; just once, gently. “You know how it goes, Curt.”
And he does. Soon it will all be over and their progress will be stalled and who even knows what they’ll be allowed to remember next time? He briefly wonders if they’ve had this same conversation before, only for decades more of anger and betrayal and bitterness to drive them apart again. Decides he would rather not know.
“Yeah, I do. I just… I don’t wanna be mad at you anymore.”
“You don’t want to be mad at me?”
“Hey, I’m not the one who kidnapped an innocent man from his family, you dick.” Curt swears, but there’s no real bite to his words. Not anymore.
Owen snorts, rolling his eyes, looking at Curt with a fondness he’d thought long since extinguished. It’s not often he wishes for the good old days—sentimentality hurts too much to dwell on, he’d learned that lesson early—but in this moment Curt wants nothing more than to kiss Owen’s cheek and run away with him, disappearing into the tunnels where the Fates would never find them.
But he can’t, they can’t. That’s the story, that’s how it goes. There is no escape, there is only doing the right thing until it kills you and then doing it all again.
“Me too, Curt,” Owen says, so quietly Curt almost thinks he’s making it up. “Me too.”
As the train whistle blows, resounding and distorted by the steadily narrowing tunnel, Curt lets his head drop onto Owen’s shoulder, and a moment later feels Owen’s arm wrapped around his back.
When they arrive, the story will continue. But here, in the silence, the beats, the indents, the fades to black, they revel in their peace when they can and pray to whoever is listening that the next time around will be the last.