Author's Note : I ditched the prologue. After much reworking, I found it to be unwieldy and rather unnecessary. Not to mention, I just don't like how it flows. The story itself remains the same in plot, though it seems at times that Zeus wants to take control and overwhelm the story. The big ego.
Hermes flew up to Olympus, hoping to not find Zeus anywhere. The message he bore was not one he willingly wanted to share – with anyone. Even though it was his job, a part of what he did best, he knew full well what happened to the bearer of bad news.
Words were his forte, something he was most excellent using. He was experienced in all kinds of messages. In both the presentation of them and in their creation. Nothing had prepared him for this message, a message that was short and to the point, the static taste of the words. No matter how bad or good, he'd always been able to put a spin on the message.
And his news was more than bad, it was incredibly inconceivable to him.
Somewhere below there was a woman who'd made his life infinitely more complicated. There had been genuine regret in her eyes as she'd given him her message. All the same, she had been most firm that the message was real, there were to be no additions or anything for him wriggle around. Obviously, past experience with him had led her to make certain conditions.
It had to be given as it was.
Entering the palatial complex, he looked around and took stock of who was there. This was one time he wanted no audience at all. He knew that Zeus would be suspicious should he ask to speak to him alone. But this needed to be said in private, not be spoken in front of the assembled gods and goddesses, most of whom were nasty gossips.
Either way, Zeus' reaction was going to be most unpleasant.
Hestia sat in her usual place by the hearth, her raven hair held back with a clasp. In her hands, colored threads were being wound about the spindles in her lap, preparing them for storage. By her side, Demeter sat; the hair that had once been the color of ripened corn but now had the dull sheen of sand had been carefully brushed back into a simple plait. She was still radiant even if life had mitigated that youthful joy she used to have.
Someone brushed past him and he looked over, startled to see Demeter. She joined the two by the fireside, sinking down beside the beauty. With a sense of startled surprise, he realized that he was looking at Persephone fresh from the Underworld. The two of them bore such a striking resemblance to each other that he wondered if Hades had ever been confused when they both approached him.
Smirking he thought that over. Demeter rarely – make that never visited Hades or Persephone, no matter what or how many times she'd been invited. He wondered what she'd do if Persephone became pregnant and needed her mother to be with her. As great as Hekate was to her, she was not her mother.
Though she was resigned to this fate, she had no intention of showing any kind of approval over what had been done so many eons ago. She was one goddess that mortals knew not to disrespect because of how fierce her anger and swift her punishment was – even over something they had no part in.
He wasn't sure he saw the point of punishing humans for something a god had done.
And not even of his own free will. His actions had been a direct result of Aphrodite's arrow, working its magic upon the lonely god's cold and chilly heart. He had to admit that the Underworld had become a far nicer place once she'd married him. Having to make several trips there, he was a knowledgeable source on the differences.
And he certainly preferred going there now for he felt welcomed, not suffocated by the unbearable gloominess and sadness that pervaded the area. While it was necessary considering all the souls of the dead that abounded there, he still found it distasteful. Persephone had taken matters into her own hands and had changed several things, making things more comfortable for those souls that dwelt there – and for herself.
Hades loved her so much, he gave her unprecedented autonomy to do as she wished.
His gaze moved on and focused along the right corner, startled again. Aphrodite, her golden looks tied back for once in a simple braid, was sitting beside Athena, watching as she wove a tapestry and gossiped – much to the other woman's not so hidden displeasure. The grey eyed goddess was lacking her aegis but looked no less fierce with her dark hair pulled back in an unflattering bun.
He wondered why the two were sitting beside each other, rather calmly for all the irritation in Athena's expression. Whenever they gathered, they avoided each other to the point of ridiculousness. At best, Athena tolerated Aphrodite. At worse, she often threatened to use her as an able body in training. And Aphrodite had often been heard to say that she'd never met a more aggravating, more stubborn woman in all her time – save for Hera.
The sound of clanging turned him away and he searched a bit for the source, wondering if Dionysius had gotten into the wine early. While the dark haired god was a friend – a very good friend – he didn't like cleaning up after him. That man didn't do anything in small measure.
Thankfully, it wasn't him, just another annoying half-sibling. This one, unlike with Apollo, Dionysius, and Hephaestus, he couldn't stand no matter how hard he tried to like him. Ares was outside in the courtyard, practicing some moves in a vain attempt to best Athena in their next encounter. Hermes had to admit that if he could keep calm, Ares might actually have a chance against Athena.
His blood red armor glinted in the evening light and he paused, allowing golden haired Apollo to pass him by. The golden bow slung casually over his shoulder, he nodded in greeting. Not far behind him came silver haired Artemis, her silver bow in her hand and a triumphant smile on her face.
As they passed through the hall, he heard her crow, "That's the third hunt I've won, brother. Perhaps you should spend less time in the bedroom and more time practicing with your bow."
It struck him as odd that the twins didn't have their usual tie in their competitions. Even when Apollo was in the dumps, his arrows always flew straight and hit their mark.
Yet, that wasn't the only thing off kilter about Olympus. Things had been vocally quieter – but there was a strange tension in the air that none of them could explain. It was completely inexplicable that such a feeling should be there in times of peace. Hermes had a theory that it had to do with the lack of Hera and Zeus' minimal knowledge on where she was.
"Has anyone seen Zeus?" he asked, half- hoping that no one would hear him and that he could knowingly get lost until all of this was over. There was the slightest chance that he would be able to do so. It wasn't like he didn't know several forgotten pathways that would take him days and days to find his way out of.
Hestia looked up at him, her soft green eyes – the same eyes that both Hera and Demeter had but that the other Olympians did not – were filled with quiet sympathy. It felt eerily like she knew what news he bore. "I believe that he has gone down to watch that mortal who has caught his eyes."
"Oh?" he asked, intrigued. If Zeus had another conquest in mind, he would be forgotten. For a time that was. He was not stupid enough to think that it would remain that way. He just needed it to be long enough that he could divorce himself from the reaction he was sure to get.
"Yes," Demeter said, smiling at Persephone. All was right with her world once again now that her daughter was once more with her but she still felt bitter over the way Zeus had just given permission and allowed Hades to have carte blanche with her child. True, he was Persephone's father – but she should have been consulted. "I rather hope that he fails. This woman is known for her beauty – and her absolute fealty to her husband."
"She's like a mortal Hera. Even worships her faithfully," Persephone's soft voice mused. "I think that is why he wants her, not just because she's pretty."
Hermes let one eyebrow go up in query, "Really?" His head tilted, the longish dark brown hair falling to half conceal his face. This was a new one. Usually, Zeus avoided females that had any kind of link with his wife after the disaster of Io. If he was actively seeking one out whose resemblance to Hera was so striking that even Persephone saw it, there could be more to his claim of Hera being the only love that mattered than they thought.
"Definitely," Aphrodite agreed, leaning back casually against the wall. The sleeve on the right side of her robe slipped down, revealing a tanned shoulder. "I don't think he expected her to stay absent the full twenty-five years without giving herself away. He's been lonely, you know."
Demeter snorted, "With all those girls in his bed?"
"One can stand in a crowd of thousands with someone on each arm and if the one he wants isn't there, can feel a loneliness that crushes the soul. If there is no unity, there is only sorrow," she said, growing silent as she thought of her own past. She had children with Ares and undeniable passion with him. It was the same with Apollo and Hermes, even her mortal lovers.
But when she wanted a friend, she turned to Hephaestus. If she longed for a listening ear, a hand to hold, someone who got that when she said I just want to be held that was what she wanted and did nothing more than that. More and more often, she'd been drawn to his side, to his forge, to forget the emptiness that her life had begun to have. She'd begun to find herself, find fulfillment in her husband.
Athena's expression was one of disapproval. "Can we not talk about Zeus like this?"
"Oh, Athena, don't be such a downer," Aphrodite commented. "We mean no disrespect."
"That's not what it sounds like to me," she said repressively. "Zeus' personal life is none of our business."
"That's not entirely true, Athena. He turns it into our affair when he can't keep it out of Olympian business," Hephaestus commented, walking in. "I fixed your spear – but it won't take another beating like the last battle. Perhaps you should peruse my stock and chose another one, a more endurable one." His words trailed off as he noticed Aphrodite's considering look. Since he hadn't really done anything to warrant such a look, he felt uncomfortable under it.
Athena nodded, not making a comment. Standing up, she approached him and accepted it. The weight felt proper again but the balance was slightly off. Not enough to leave her vulnerable should it break in battle, just enough to reinforce Hephaestus' words.
Without a word, Aphrodite rose and walked out.
"Did I do something wrong?" he asked, though he noted that she did not head towards Ares with a sense of relief.
"No," Athena muttered. "She's just being herself. Thank you."
Though he was pretty sure that there was something more to it than that, there was nothing he could say to dispute her words. What could he even attempt to say? All he had was half a picture – and that only concerned Zeus and his sexual escapades. When dealing with Aphrodite, he'd learned it best not to say anything or make assumptions unless she gave him enough to go on.
And even then he took care for the length she'd given him could just as easily hang him as give him the correct information to help her.
"How's mother?" he asked Hermes, redirecting the conversation. Having been the only one in constant communication with her, he'd picked up on something in her notes that troubled him. She seemed far happier and more open than she once was. He had the feeling that she'd found happiness with another and feared that she was going to suffer for it.
Or worse, the mortal she'd found would be made to suffer. As vicious as Hera could be, her mean streak was nothing compared to Zeus'. Only Demeter rivaled him in malicious intent.
"She's…fine," Hermes was slow to say, aware of the eyes upon him. "Made some friends, became involved in the community."
Demeter nodded, as if that explained everything. Having been among mortals herself, disguised to be one of them, she knew how easy it was to lose sight of who you really were and just be. "That must be why she's not with you. She's tying up a few loose ends. I know what that's like."
Hermes said nothing for they heard the familiar sound of Zeus' approach. Quickly, all signs of their industry disappeared so that the room would be in immaculate condition to receive him. Not to mention, that night's revelries would extend throughout the entire complex. The goddesses left to make themselves presentable – as did Hephaestus. It would never do to greet the King of the gods covered in soot and grime.
In moments, only Hermes was left. Even Ares deserted him. Slowly, he turned about, seeing the pleased and lusty expression on Zeus' face. Gulping, he bowed. "Lord Zeus."
"Ah, Hermes." If anything, the smile got wider and brighter. Placing a companionable arm about him, he guided them outside. "How's Hera?" Thinking of his wife, all thoughts of Alcmene departed as though he'd never even seen her. Inside, he couldn't wait to see her again.
"She's doing all right," and, cursing his cowardice, he borrowed Demeter's words. They were sort of true. "But she got involved with the community and is staying to tie up things. She could be gone for a little while more."
"Fine," Zeus seemed to not notice the tension in Hermes. He was to busy fighting down his sense of disappointment. "As long as she's happy with her lot. I do hope that we'll soon see her on Olympus." It was true. More than anything, he missed her. Even if it had meant giving up his pursuit of Alcmene, he'd have done it just to have her back again.
Hermes said nothing for really, what was there to say? He'd practically lied to the King of the gods and it had been accepted as truth. While Hera would be far from pleased, he breathed a bit easier even though he knew the truth would soon come out. Perhaps, perhaps she just needed a little more time as he'd said.
After all, she'd never been involved in a battle like mortals engaged in. They were far different than the wars of the gods, with far more casualties, more bloodshed. He had to believe that she'd be fine and that it was just shock. It was easier than accepting the truth, namely that she was done with the entire lot of them on Olympus – Zeus most of all.
Hephaestus sighed, rubbing his skin and hair vigorously with soap. Dunking once under the water to rinse clean, he remained under for a few beats to enjoy the quiet that he rarely had in the forge, though he loved the place and his work dearly. With regret, he emerged and breathed deeply. The scent of lavender perfume hit him before the voice, "You missed a spot."
Opening his eyes in shock, he allowed them to adjust to the sudden glow of candles in the bathing chamber. "Aphrodite," he greeted her quietly. Never before had he been thankful for the darker coloring of his skin that mostly hid his blushes from his wife.
For all the times that she'd been coming to see him, this was the first time she'd breached that unspoken line of places that she wouldn't cross over. He couldn't quite figure out what she was doing there – and with him of all people. It wasn't as if she didn't know it was him. His clothes were far different from the Olympians. They had to be in order to survive the heat and sweat of the forge.
She sat on a stool, studying him. "Would you like me to take care of it for you?"
Gulping back his nervousness, he cleared his throat. How long had she been there? "Only if you wish to. I hate to impose upon your kindness."
"Kindness," she repeated with a self-mocking smile. "Of all the things people have said about me, that is not one of them."
"They don't know the real you," he was quick to defend her. "They only see the side of you that men want to. A man's fantasy, a woman's worst enemy – but they miss the real you when they limit you to such parameters. You are far more than they and even you believe you are."
Her face softened, tears moist in her eyes. "How can you be like this? Believe this of me after the humiliation I've put you through?"
Silence reigned in the room for a time before he answered, "How can I not? You are the goddess of love and beauty. True beauty lies inside of one, not just upon the outside, though you are not often able to show your true heart to others. But just because you can't often use that kindness does not mean that it isn't there.
"Love can wear many faces, all of which you must wear. I like you as you are, with all of your faults and flaws because they make you who you are. Yes, I was humiliated by your actions – but you were very young and frightened, new to this world of gods and goddesses when this marriage was forced upon you. You were not ready for marriage.
"If I cannot look at it from your perspective, I would be a very shallow person indeed."
Rising, she walked over and knelt down on the tiles. For all their time together, she thought that this was the longest, most personal speech she'd ever heard him make. Reaching out a hand, she drew it down his cheek, noting the different textures between his scars and his perfect skin. There was a sense of shock to realize that it was soft, though calloused from his work.
In all their years of marriage, she'd never touched him more than she had to, had never allowed him to touch her intimately. The hugs of a friend were one thing, they were about comfort and reassuring her that he was there for her. She'd never wanted the embrace of a lover from him.
No, he'd never be handsome but there was a beauty to him that she was beginning to appreciate. Her gaze dropped to his lips, the lower of which was fuller, more sensual looking than it by rights should look. A man with lips like that…they begged to be kissed and pleasured. She leaned forward, meeting his eyes and noting the way they widened as her intention sank in. In the depths of their brown was that hint of green she so envied in Hera's.
"Aphrodite," he warned with a slight moan. "Careful. You'll fall."
"Then you'll just have to catch me," she whispered, a breath away from his lips.
Precariously balanced, she waited to find out what he would do. For only a moment before she took his lips with hers and slipped off the tiles into the bath. Before she even had time to panic at the feel of falling into water which quickly started to surround her, his arms were there along with the security of his hard body lifting her above the water.
For the first time, she felt dainty against a man. She gloried in the unusual feeling, this feeling of being fragile and cherished, protected. The kiss was chaste, mostly on her end for he held back his response. Yet, she still tasted the passion that rested beneath his exterior. The restraint he was exercising to keep from harming her, from taking advantage of the situation and what he felt was her obvious confusion.
She couldn't blame him for holding back from her. She had never once – not once – ever led him to believe that this would ever happen. In her own mind, such a concept was a joke. There were so many others for her to love, so many others for her to conquer. But then, she'd suffered a great loss and no one had seemed to care.
Yet, he had been there to comfort her. It was easy to turn to him for a shoulder to cry on for that was all he'd ever offered her. So lost and alone, she'd had no where else to go. Ares had rejected her, seeing her tears as nothing but weakness. And in his eyes, weaknesses were something to be eschewed.
Not so with Hephaestus. Without question, he'd taken her in when she showed up at his door. Though greatly surprised, he opened his home and heart up to her. No matter the hour, she'd always been able to see him. In the hours, days, and months that followed, she'd gotten to know him, truly know him. Tears, he'd said, tears are only the expression that the soul still exists. They are merely there to remind us of the care and love we feel for one another.
And somehow, she'd started to fall in love with the man behind the exterior the world saw.
Drawing back, she rested her forehead against his, breathing raggedly. Every rapid beat of his heart thrummed against her side, in tune with her own. "Kiss me, Hephaestus," she hoarsely ordered, keeping her eyes lowered modestly. "Kiss me as though I'm the only thing that matters and that we never will again." As out of place with her as the shyness was, she didn't want to see the compassion in his eyes.
Or worse, the pity for her wanton behavior.
His arms involuntarily tightened upon her at the words as he swam closer to the side. Due to the momentum of her fall, they'd gone towards the center of the bath. The deeper end, there was the slightest sense of the absurdity of their position in the water – and the absurdity of the situation between them emotionally and physically.
And he knew that as strong as he was, even he could only tread water for so long.
"Aphrodite," he gasped. Those were words, spoken in that kind of voice, he'd longed to hear. But he wasn't going to take advantage of her. "We can't do this. I won't easily let you go to Ares or any of your mortals loves if we do. I…"
Her hand covered his lips. Now, she was staring straight at him, seeing nothing in his eyes but love, devotion, and a burning fire that kindled a similar one within her. This flame that burned within him was entirely aimed at her. Shivering in desire, she drank in that look of reverence that would be gentle with her – and the naked need that would take her fiercely. Take her to the peek and over the edge should she choose to unleash it.
That look was one she'd caused in other men's eyes but meant more from this one god. For she knew it wasn't caused by any of her spells or even the arrows of Eros. This devotion, this love was all his own doing. "Don't make me beg."
It was the tears in her voice that stopped his protests. Slowly, he lowered her down until her feet rested on the ground. Her robe soaking up the moisture and floating up around them. One hand raked through her hair, freeing it from the plait that had bound it back. It spilled down her shoulders, a cascade of gold, catching the lights of the candles and reflecting it.
Her blue eyes stared into his own, asking to be owned. To be possessed by him as thoroughly as she had taken over his mind. The delicate hands griped his shoulders, pulling herself closer to his warmth and strength.
Slowly, very slowly to give her the chance to change her mind before they irrevocably destroyed their friendship, he lowered his lips to hers. At the first touch, the candle flames shot up, illuminating every corner of the room. The water heated up to an almost uncomfortable degree.
Instead of protesting as he thought she would, she only pulled him closer, one hand pulling at his hair to keep him in place. The other raked down his back and he gasped, deepening the kiss before she could. With tongue and teeth, nibbling, biting, tasting and drinking her in, he thoroughly owning her lips, heedless of the fact that anyone could walk in and find them like this. It may have been just one kiss but he possessed her lips.
And her mind.
They parted after a time and both were panting, practically sucking in the air as they stared at each other. One little spark does indeed lead to one awesome flame. A low, sultry chuckle flew from her lips at the thought. And her eyes sparkled brightly at his look of inquiry, "The god of fire, indeed. And he's all mine."
"Always have been," he admitted with no shame. There really was no point in denying it when she'd always suspected it of him. Heading towards the stairs, he pulled them both up out of the water over her mewling protests. "We have a dinner to attend to." There were a thousand other things he'd rather be doing – and all of them with her and a bedroom. But he was a dutiful son.
"Zeus can spend one night without us," she growled. "May be even more – because we have centuries to make up for."
"Somehow, I don't think he'll see it that way," he dryly retorted.
"I don't really care," she replied.
And she truly meant it.
As far as she was concerned, Zeus could rant and rave as much as he wanted, she was finally finding her safe place to land. Zeus would just have to accept it because she wasn't going to bend over backward for him and give it up to salvage his pride. "I am with my husband whom I have been falling in love with – don't drop me. And I intend to solidify that relationship, Zeus' feelings not withstanding."
Hephaestus smiled, a genuine smile that lit up his eyes. His beauty became luminous to her and she was resolved to keep that look on his face – but out of the sight of the other women. She needed no competition for him.
"I love you. But I need to get dressed."
Aphrodite laughed, the sound floating around the room and out the windows. The candles' glow had returned to normal, leaving them bathed in a warm glow. "No, you don't. Because what we are going to be doing requires no clothing."
"What have I done?"
"Nothing…yet," she wickedly added.
654321 One year later (give or take)
Zeus paced back and forth, noting the time once again. Earlier that day, his child by Alcmene had been born. It had been a boy and along with him had come another son. There was no doubt that one of the boys would be his. The question was, which boy was it? The elder or the younger?
Either way, the royal birthright he'd planned for his child would be unclaimed. By a twist of fate it had gone to Eurystheus' family. There wasn't much he could do to alter that fact unless he wanted to go back on his deal, an idea that was appealing but wouldn't be a good thing. It would never do to be so unjust, so hypocritical.
Looking outside again, he tried to breathe deeply, nervousness dancing inside as anticipation filled his veins. For something else of great import was occurring that day. Hermes had gone to bring Hera back to Olympus. After twenty-six years of silence, his wife was finally coming home where she belonged.
While he couldn't wait to see her again – his marital bed had been far to cold – her reaction to his news was something he dreaded. Thus, he wasn't sure which event made him more nervous. Though if asked, he would admit to feeling nothing of the kind. After all, he had an image to maintain and being visibly uneasy wasn't a part of it.
And it was true that under other conditions, he knew how she'd act and his reaction to it. Unlike when she visited her foster parents, this absence felt unreal for he hadn't known where she was, what she was going through. Things had changed, she had been gone for what seemed to be to long a time. Long enough that he wasn't sure he would know this Hera.
Living as a mortal woman, being in the center of a very human war…it would have changed her. And he hated the idea of her there without him as backup. The question was, had it changed her in a positive way, allowing her to regain her love of humanity and her compassion towards them.
Or had it made her angry for their failings, thus she would be more likely to strike out against them when they asked for help. Blackening her name further for it would no longer be about him and his affairs, but about the imperfections found in mortals. He knew from personal experience that he'd often been torn between the two emotions whenever he'd gotten involved in their wars.
And she had been in the thick of the worst of it, perhaps being a nurse, perhaps leading the charge.
Having fought the Titans with her at his side, he knew that she was an able General and a capable warrior. If push came to shove, she knew how to command both respect from her armies – and fear from her enemies. She had been the one commander he'd never had to question for he'd known what her moves would be as he'd known his own.
It was one of the reasons he'd wanted her for wife, not just because she was beautiful.
She was his mirror half, the flip side he needed to be complete.
Turning around, he stared at the empty, delicately carved throne that sat beside his sturdier one. Hephaestus' wondrous skill was evident in the care and perfection of both. Elegantly made, they were the perfect thrones for the King and Queen of the gods. Sitting bereft of the woman whose presence in his life had been a source of constant joy and terrible frustration to him.
Walking up to it, he brushed his hand along the smooth velvet backing, noting that it lacked the softness, the living heat of her skin. But some of her perfume seemed to cling to the fabric. Though fantasy it was, he knew that he'd have the warm reality under his hands soon.
At the sound of a clearing throat, he turned around and saw Hermes.
Breathing deeply, feeling calm return to him now that he knew she was somewhere near, he walked down to where his son stood. "Hermes," he greeted, looking out into the hall for Hera. "I trust that your journey went well."
"It could have been better," he admitted. "The thunder and lightening were a bit distracting and almost threw me off a couple of times."
Zeus shrugged carelessly. Though he'd tried, the weather always responded to his moods. There wasn't much he could do about it unless he kept himself shut down completely against all emotional stimuli. And that was something he was not willing to do. "Sorry. Is Hera bathing before she comes to see me?"
"Hermes," he said, staring straight at him when there was no answer. "Where Is Hera?"
Taking a deep and calming breath – it didn't help – he cleared his throat. "She wanted me to tell you that…" he stopped. Those dark eyes focused on him and he shifted uneasily. Beginning to understand just how frightening his father could be when that piercing gaze focused on one.
"Tell me what?" he spat out the words.
In the background, lightening crashed and shattered Demeter's new roses. Zeus didn't even spare a thought of apology to her. She could always grow more. It wasn't like she didn't have the time on her hands once she'd finished moping over Persephone. He really wished she'd get over it. Really, twelve hundred years was more than enough time to forgive and forget.
"She's not coming back to Olympus," he said, voice small sounding in his ears. "And…" Jumping back, his toes felt singed by the heat of the bolt that scarred the floor.
"And What?" Zeus asked, the question a mere growl of sound.
"She releases you in fullness of heart to find another wife because…"
Without listening to the rest of the message, Zeus stormed out of the room. There was no way he was going to be so summarily dismissed from his wife's life like that. With words spoken through an almost impartial messenger, he was not letting her slip through his fingers – not after all he went through to get her to be his wife, his one true spouse.
Thunderclouds darkened the sky as wind whipped through the Palace. Lightening scorched the pillars and the floors. Hail stones pummeled the ground, leaving gouges in the surface. On Earth, the humans ran to take shelter in their homes, terrified of this sudden storm of the Great Thunderer.
Terrified that they had done something to enrage him.
Inside, the gods and goddesses looked at each other and hid in corners. Nymphs and dryads covered what they could and took shelter in the caves beneath the complex. The Mountain itself shook tremendously. Water spilled over Poseidon's small pool, flooding the antechamber.
Even Athena, the one closest to his heart, felt fear enter into her body. It had been quite some time since Zeus had lost control over the weather so completely. The last time anyone could remember had been over seven centuries earlier during an ill-managed rebellion. While it had been quelled and peace restored, the memory of it was fresh in their minds.
Aphrodite looked up from her position in Hephaestus' arms. Shaking her head, she moved further into the warmth of his body, idly drawing circles. "Hera didn't come home. And I'm not sure whether to applaud her – or pity her."
"What makes you think that?" he asked, distracted by the way her fingers drew on his chest. It wasn't that he disbelieved her – he knew better than that – he was just curious.
"Does that sound like happy Zeus to you?" she asked. Her smile lascivious, thinking about what should have been going on. "Yes, she does have a way of making him angry – but not this fast. If she was home, I think we'd be having a different kind of weather show."
Shaking his head, he captured her fingers with his own, kissing the tips before releasing them. His fingers toyed with her hair. "Should I be disturbed that you know his emotional state of mind because of his manipulations of the weather?"
Aphrodite rolled over until she was half on top of him, smiling down at him as she rested her arms across his chest. With her chin resting on her arms, "Nah. It's just something that I have to know – goes with the job description."
"And how do you know my emotional state?" he asked. Titling his head, he allowed his free hand to run down her back in comforting circles. Even though they'd been fully together for over a year, spending every night – and some days – in bed, he kept expecting it to end. Kept expecting her to wake up and realize that she was with him, the last one he knew that she'd ever wanted to be with.
"Your eyes," she whispered, leaning up to brush her lips against his. "They tell me plainly what you feel – and reflect the same desires in my own eyes. I'm not leaving you anytime soon."
Hephaestus fully captured her lips. "I love you," he said when they parted. "No matter what happens to us, I will always love you. You have no idea how happy you have made me."
"I think I do," she softly replied. "There was a great emptiness in me – you've filled that with your love and patience. There's no one else I want to be with. I love you."
This wasn't a temporary fix for her until something better came along. She knew that Hephaestus thought it was. And she could hardly blame him with her history of lovers. But they'd lacked the permanency, the devotion he offered her without reserve.
Her love for him was based on something far more enduring for she'd learned to love who he was, not what he was. It had been in the little things rather than the big things. The way she'd discovered him, she realized with a sense of awe, was the same way that most mortals found those they spent their lives with.
And she wondered if there was a way to spread the message that love from the inside out was far better than love from the outside in. For better or worse, she'd tied her heart to him. The only way to separate her from him was in death.
Luckily, as a goddess, she didn't have to worry about that.
"HERA!" Zeus' voice echoed in the empty hallway. The door he'd flung open hung on one hinge, swinging crookedly as he stormed into the house, looking for her.
This house resembled the one he'd found her in years ago, quiet and cozy. Her presence breathed in all the corners – as it once had in Olympus. It felt of home to him and the knot in his chest tightened almost painfully. Was she insane enough to think that he was just going to let her disappear from his life without a fight? Had she forgotten how long he loved her, courted her?
From somewhere above his head, he heard her beloved voice. "I'll be right down." Within moments, she was walking down the stairs, dressed in a stark grey chiton, the recognizable veil covering her hair. "Did you not receive my message?"
"I received what I am hoping was a joke," he replied acidly. Staring at her, he willed her to meet his eyes, conscious of how thin and worn out, yet physically fuller, she seemed. There was a familiar sense about her condition, as though he'd seen her like this before. Pushing aside that thought for a moment, he watched her cross the hall and walk into the back room, not once looking at him.
"Would you care for something to drink?" she asked.
"This is not a social call, Hera," he replied, following her.
"No, the weather outside has made me quite aware of that fact," her comment was dry. "But I am thirsty from the packing and arranging of matters."
Hearing these words, the tight knot in his chest loosened. Breath returned to him. Outside, though, the storm continued to gain in strength and power. Once unleashed, not many things could quench his storms. If he wanted, he could go outside and stand in the center of it, bringing it to heel.
If he wanted to.
"Then you thought better of what you told Hermes. I knew that you couldn't be serious," there was satisfaction in his voice.
"I didn't say that, Lord Zeus. My message to Hermes remains as given," she calmly poured a glass of water for herself, still not facing him. "Are you sure that there is nothing you wish to have?"
"What is wrong with you?" he asked, putting his arms around her to trap her against the counter.
"I don't know what you mean," she quietly whispered, trying to ignore the feel of the heat from his body. The way her body wanted to lean back into his, soaking up his strength. This was one of the things she had missed about being near him. The way he'd always made her feel both delicate and strong.
Shaking off the thoughts and wants, she exercised the control she'd been developing. This dissolution of their marriage was the best for both of them. It was what they needed, though she knew he'd not see it that way. That if he had his way, they'd stay together – and they'd end up destroying each other in their selfishness. Her jealousy wouldn't rest easily when he strayed – and he liked his women too much to be faithful to just one.
She had learned that if you love someone, sometimes the best thing, the only thing one could do is let them go.
The delivery was perfect and he might have believed her – save for the fact that he'd caught the faintest of tremors in her voice. He'd loved her too long to be fooled by her causal act. "You know full well what I mean, Hera. Have I done anything to let you think that I prefer my life without you near me?
"That Olympus is better off without you? You are my one true wife. You are needed on Olympus in a way that no other goddess will do. Our children still need you to be there for them. Ending our marriage as though the centuries and our children mean nothing more to you than some task to be checked off on some to do list…that is not acceptable to me."
"I don't suppose it would be," she sighed, turning about to face him, keeping the cup in her hands. It was a rather puny way to keep some space between their bodies. "I just wanted to spare us this drama."
"Drama," he repeated the word. It sounded as distasteful when he said it as when she had. "Our marriage is just drama to you."
"Not in the beginning, no it wasn't. But you must admit that it has become something of a joke over the years," she replied.
"I want you to come home," he repeated.
Hera looked at him, studying the lust in his eyes. The loneliness there – the second of which she hadn't been expecting. Perhaps…she cut that thought off immediately. There was no perhaps between them. She couldn't go back to what she had before, not when she'd found so much more.
"Would you force me to leave with you?" she asked quietly, studying his countenance. She knew it wouldn't be below him to do such a thing, though he had never actually tried it with her. For some reason, she seemed to be exempted from his trickery.
"What happened?" he asked instead of replying to her question.
"When?" she was quick to retort.
"While you were here," he said, "I know that there was a war. Did something happen to you to make you think that I wouldn't want you to come home?" She had, after all, been a lone woman on the outskirts of town. Should some men take an interest in her, she would've had to defend herself in a way that she had not in years.
The thought of her facing that frightened him.
Hera remained quiet. Her eyes stared just beyond his shoulder, lost in visions the kind of which he could not see. There was a bit of a debate within her about what to say. With a sigh, she confided, "Not in the way you mean. I offered my services as a tactician and my expertise was welcomed gladly. On the way home one night, I was ambushed by six men. As I had been training, I was a banged up and bruised, tired.
"But I could've fought them off," she took a deep breath and drank some water. "Save they had a blade of adamant. I have no idea where they got it. I thought that Kronus' sickle was the only one in existence. I was wounded but before they could do more than tear at my clothes and slash my skin, I was rescued by Philon."
And here she choked back her tears. Zeus' arms surrounded her and pulled her close. There was no comfort in the embrace for he didn't soothe her, just kept her in his arms.
"He saved me but died in my arms. I still have their weapons somewhere around here, was planning to send them to Hephaestus but I just lost track of the time," she drew in a ragged breath, forcing herself to forget the reason that she'd lost count of the days that had gone by. Trying to maintain some amount of control over herself, she almost didn't catch his words.
"Come home, Hera. You can heal there, surrounded by your friends and family. Take as much time as you need; only come back with me. I need you there," he was quiet. "You have no idea how much I do."
Closing her eyes against the memories that swamped her, the doubt that filled her, she debated. A part of her, the part of her that was so in love with her husband, screamed at her to go back with him where she belonged. But the rest of her wanted to flee from him because she'd never heal around him for he was part of what caused her such pain.
And then there was her secret, the one which could destroy everything if it was known. "I don't know."
"I swear on the River Styx," there was only a slight smile in his voice as he recalled making a vow similar this one to her before. "That I will behave myself and will allow you time to heal. You may come to me as wife when you are ready, I will not pressure you. Only please, come home."
Hera sighed and followed him out into the stormy night.