He stands in the doorway to her chamber, trying to be as unobtrusive as he can. She sits in the center of the bed, her legs curled close to her chest, arms wrapped around her thin knees. Her copper-and-gold hair streams around her, creating a curtain—one he feels is designed specifically to keep him out. He tries to make as much noise as he can, despite the awkwardness of not moving silently, as he approaches her and reaches out, unwilling to frighten her. Tentatively, he threads his fingers through her thick ringlets and pushes them back from her face.

"Kore," he whispers, and her emerald eyes jump to his. They are wide and bright with fear and unshed misery, and for a moment his heart twists within his chest. Long cold, forever still, his heart has come alive for her, and it breaks when he sees how much his love has hurt her.

Tomorrow, he knows, Hermes will come to his domain to take the beautiful goddess of springtime away from him—forever. Demeter, in her grief over losing her precious child, has starved the earth and all its inhabitants until Zeus has been left with no choice but to submit to her demands. If the earth dies, humanity dies, and if humanity dies, there will be no one to pray, to worship, to behold. Olympus itself will crumble, and the immortals that inhabit it will fade into shades.

Despite their differences, however, Zeus and Hades remain brothers, and in light of Demeter's demands, Zeus sent word this very morning to his darker sibling. The message came from Hermes' hand, written on a thin sheaf of rice paper in ink the color of the midday sky: Time is short. You will lose her if you do not act quickly.

So now the Guardian of Lost Souls find himself standing in the bedchamber of his reluctant bride-to-be, one hand threaded into her thick hair and the other fisted tightly at his side. She stares up at him with mingled fear and adoration in her eyes, and his heart wrenches again with the pure horror of what he's about to do.

"Kore, sweet maiden," he murmurs, shifting forward until he's sitting on the edge of the bed. She shifts back, moving away from him, and his hand slips from her hair and lands with a dull thump on top of the coverlet. "Please do not fear me. I mean you no harm—I only want great pleasure, endless joy for you. I seek your happiness and nothing else, dear heart."

She moves so she's sitting on her knees, and he turns to face her. "Then why have you forced me here, against my will?" she asks. "Why have you kept me here despite my protests, despite my begging to be returned to my mother?"

He makes an exasperated sound and reaches for her, but she recoils. His hand stays in the air, his body frozen in rejection, as the dam breaks and the words pour from his mouth: "Because I love you! I have loved you since the first time I saw you, the day Demeter brought you to Olympus to allow your suitors to make their cases. I wanted nothing more, then and there, to throw myself to the ground and lay my kingdom at your feet, if you would but spare me a single glance. I have watched you ever since, fallen deeper in love each day. Aphrodite's son has struck me with his deadly arrow, and I am powerless to fight it. I love you, sweet Kore, sweet maiden, lovely child of the spring. I will love you until this immortal heart stops beating, and I will never love another."

She stares at his anguished face with startled eyes. He seems, to her, completely vulnerable in that moment, his obsidian eyes wide and filled with hope and despair. His face is drawn, stress evident in his posture as he awaits her response, but she can't form one. Instead she lifts one hand and places her palm flat against his, still extended as if to cup her cheek. He relaxes ever so slightly at her touch, and it is that simple reaction that makes her realize—his words are true.

He loves her, more than he loves his kingdom, more than he loves his own existence. There is literally nothing he wouldn't give her, she realizes, thinking back on the presents and favors he has used to woo her. He's given her everything she could ever want; a garden full of beautiful blooms and trees that need no sunlight to grow, a silver crown crusted with black pearls and diamonds, basketfuls of precious gemstones and jewels to entertain her. He even had bits of diamonds hammered into the ceilings of every room in his great palace, replicating the stars in the wide, open skies she misses so much.

"Lord Hades," she whispers, twisting her fingers together with his and bringing their hands to her cheek, feeling his cool skin against her own sun-kissed face. The cold that he seems to carry with him like an aura seeps into her skin, and after a moment his fingers actually feel warm against hers. She warms him, brings light to him.

"Yes, Kore?" he replies, staring at their entwined fingers in absolute shock.

"Yours is a lonely existence, is it not?" Without waiting for him to answer, she nods to herself, answering her own question. "I understand your loneliness and your sadness, Lord. I too have felt lonely, smothered in my mother's affections. I cannot forgive you the nightmares you have caused me, erupting from the earth and stealing me away from my beautiful home, my flowers, and my nymphs… but I can understand you reasons for doing so, and for now, that must be enough for you. There will be endless time for you and I to speak, to learn of one another, but tonight you must leave my chamber content in the knowledge that I no longer resent you for taking me, and expect to speak with me tomorrow when I am rested and prepared to discuss the future."

Hades uses all of his famed self-control to withhold a groan of pure shame as he forces himself to nod. He wishes more than anything that he does not have to trick her, to abuse this newfound faith she has in him, but the fact of the matter is that he does have to trick her, to deceive her. He has no other choice, least she be whisked away upon the morning by her swift-footed brother and borne back to Demeter's side, where she will become forever inaccessible to him.

"I wish to thank you, my lovely Kore, for your forgiveness… and your faith in me," he says. His voice is low and rich, purposefully so. Catch more flies with honey, he muses bitterly as her eyes flit up and lock on his.

"How do you intend to do so?" she asks, curiosity laced through her voice. She seems suddenly fearful, her delicate golden hand shaking within his, so much smaller than his, as she is so much smaller than him. He could break her, here and now, so easily; he could force her into his bed, essentially binding her to him in an unbreakable way—for, he is sure, Demeter would never try to marry off her precious Kore, her little maiden, after she'd been had by a man.

"Close your eyes," he hums, waiting for her to do so before leaning in close to her. He will not force her, despite the fact that by seducing her, he is forcing her to stay with him. Struggling with these shameful thoughts, he reaches up with his free hand and touches her chin, tilting her head down just a bit. She trembles, able to sense his closeness, and he lets his gaze drop as their lips touch softly.

She lets out a gasping cry and leaps away from him, slamming into the wall the bed is set against. He straightens quickly, spreading both hands out, face-up, in front of him. "I meant no harm!" he says quickly, his chagrin an act—an unneeded act, truly, because he can feel the emotions his kiss has excited within her. She is so young, untouched and utterly pure, he knows. Pure enough that even such a chaste kiss has her breast heaving, her cheeks flushed, and her pupils wide, wide, wide, the black of them swallowing up the emerald tone of her irises.

"You—startled—me," she gasps, slowly regaining her breath as she slides back across the bed toward him. She comes much closer than her previous position, sitting so that their knees almost touch. She is gazing at him in awe, her eyes bright with a tangled web of emotions he cannot even begin to weave his way through. "I did not expect such an intimate touch, my lord," she reiterates, dropping her gaze. "You have my sincerest apologies."

Retaking her chin between his thumb and forefinger, Hades lifts her face so that their eyes meet. "You have my sincerest apologies, sweet Kore, for frightening you." His voice has reaches the very bottom range of its baritone rumble, and he can see the way she shivers delicately at the combination of his tone and his touch. "Would you permit me to kiss you once more, now that you are better prepared for the shock?" he requests.

She seems to think his request over very carefully, and he is sure to keep still and keep his expression comfortingly blank as she does so. His entire plan revolves around her accepting his kiss. Once he gets his lips on hers, he knows, she will not want to tell him no, and that is essential; he needs to get her into his bed in order to keep her as his queen.

"Just once," she finally allows, inching closer to him as she speaks. Their knees bump and she jumps slightly, startled by the contact. Hades remains perfectly still, a statue of comfort and peace, until she recovers her breathing and resumes looking carefully at the point directly between his eyes. "And only on one condition."

Hades sighs quietly. "There is always a condition," he grumbles quietly.

She smiles, just a bit, at his complaint but her voice is clear and determined as she declares: "I will permit you to kiss me, Hades, only if you swear upon the River Styx that you will cease your actions as soon as I tell you to."

Hades dips his head, meeting her gaze through a fringe of jet-black eyelashes, and consents, "I swear upon the River Styx that I will only touch you as long as you permit me to, my goddess."

She seems at a loss for what to do next, reminding him again how truly inexperienced she is. Bearing in mind that he will have to be slow, gentle, and careful with her, Hades touches her cheek and turns her face up toward his. He bends down at just the right moment, catching her lips in a kiss that is both gentle and determined. She holds perfectly still, her hands folded in her lap, until he tilts his head slightly and nips at her bottom lip.

She makes a noise somewhere between a gasp and a moan, and Hades wants to beat his chest in triumph; she is his now, he can tell by the way she mirrors his actions and catches his bottom lip between her teeth. He snakes one arm around her waist but keeps still for the most part, letting her explore the action and sensations of kissing.

She must know more about the fundamentals than he originally expected, because after a few more moments of hesitant kisses and soft touches, her tongue darts out and makes a quick journey along his top lip, outlining its shape perfectly. He bites back a groan of pure pleasure as his mouth opens under hers; waiting to see what she will do next. She is lost now, though, unsure of where her actions are supposed to lead. Straightening up, he snaps both arms around her and pulls her closer, showing her what's next. He expects her to draw the line here, to tell him to stop, but she doesn't. She learns from him quickly, and after just a few strokes of his tongue on hers, she is mocking the actions and, while not exactly holding her own against him, at least managing to trail at his heels.

Soon her arms wrap around his neck and pull him closer, and he allows her strength to overpower his as he falls forward, pressing her back into the pillows and hovering over her, supporting his weight on one hand while the other moves to hold her waist. Very, very slowly he brushes his fingers up her size, grazing the side of her breast. She makes another gasping-moan sound and her lips break from his, her body recoiling.

"Apologies," he whispers, letting his forehead come to rest against her shoulder. He breathes in the sweet, floral scent of her skin and hair, skimming his nose along her collarbone and smiling when he feels her squirm beneath him. "You tempt me, dear heart… I find myself losing all senses of self control when you become involved."

She makes a small sound that might be pleased, but he doesn't want to let himself think that—not yet. The fingers of her right hand dance up his arm, over his shoulder, and thread through the thick curls of his hair. She cradles his skull with the palm of her hand, keeping him pressed to her as his offending fingers return to her waist, taking up their tight grip once more. "No apologies are necessary, my lord," she replies, "I pulled back in shock, not revulsion. You may… continue your actions, if you wish."

The selfish part of Hades, the part determined to keep his sweet Kore here with him forever, bellows in triumph and crows with delight. He smiles like the wolf that has just devoured the flock, white teeth gleaming in the candlelight as he raises his head from her shoulder and returns his lips to hers.

Things happen very quickly, then. Their kisses grow more intense and their bodies heat up as she grows more and more restless beneath him. At one point she kicks one leg free from beneath him and wraps it around his legs, the back of her knee laying against the back of his, attempting to pin him down. His hand roams over her sides and breasts so gently that his touches almost seem accidental. She pulls her lips from his several times and ducks her head to kiss the skin of his throat, and he struggles to hold back sounds of pleasure as she does so.

Finally, as the candles are reaching the last inches of their lives, she breaks their kiss and lets out a low, frustrated sound that resonates through every inch of Hades' body. He touches her cheek, smoothing back her mussed hair, and inquires, "What is it, my love? What troubles you? Tell me, so that I may cease it at once."

She peeks up at him through her eyelashes, her lips swollen from his kisses, her cheeks flushes from his touches. "My lord—"

He places one finger over her lips and interrupts, "Kore, if we are to be married you must address me with my name, not my title."

"Hades," she breathes, and muscles all along his body tighten in response. "I—I don't know what this—what my body wants. I ache, deep within myself…" she takes his wrist in her slender, golden fingers and guides his palm to her breast, letting it rest there. "When you touch, here," she murmurs, then drags his hand down her body until his splayed fingers cover her most private region, "I shudder here."

Hades cannot contain the low sound of pleasure that hums deep in his throat at her words. Breaking her hold easily, he slips from her arms and perches at the edge of the bed, sitting on his heels. She stares at him with curious eyes as he wraps his long fingers around first one of her ankles, then the other. He tugs her legs open enough that he can sit comfortably between them, and then his left hand begins its climb up over her ankle, across her calf, and to her knee.

His fingertips brush the sensitive skin of her thigh, and her hands clench into fists around the bedcovers. His fingers climb high, bunching the fabric of her chiton around her waist before he pauses and chances a look at her face.

Her eyes have closed and her lips have parted slightly. Her head is tilted back, and he can see a muscle jumping in the slender column of her throat. Suddenly one of her hands jumps down and catches his wrist, just inches from the heat pulsing between her thighs, and her lips barely move as one word escapes: "Stop."

He freezes, bound by his oath. She sits up slowly and folds his hand carefully back into his own lap. She rises onto her knees and frames his face with her hands, but he catches the uncomfortable shifting of her hips, the way she presses her thighs close together. She might not understand sexual frustration, but he does, and he knows it won't take much to make her rescind her command.

"My lord," she hums, twisting one of his curls around her index finger. He turns his head slightly, nuzzling his cheek against her palm. She smiles at the gesture, and his heart sings to see her smile. "Repeat your earlier sentiments," she orders suddenly. Hades, confused, only stares at her until she elaborates, "Tell me again that you love me—that you would surrender your own life for me."

Immediately, Hades responds. "I have loved you since the moment I saw you. Your life and your well-being has been the focal point of my existence since that day. I would give up my realm and all of my power for you. I would relinquish all the riches and jewels within this palace if only to see you smile. You hold my heart, daughter of springtime, within your small, slender hands."

She nods, as if he has told her everything she wants—needs—to hear. She climbs into his lab, her legs falling to either side of his waist, and he shudders at the sudden closeness. "Hades," she whispers, her lips brushing his ear as she speaks.

"Yes, my sweet?" he manages to choke.

"Take me—make me your bride. Make me Queen of the Underworld, so that I may remain at your side forever and rule with you for the rest of eternity."

He wants to roar with joy, wants to yoke his steeds to his chariot and ride about the Underworld, screaming in triumph, but what he does is pull her face close to his and whisper, "Are you sure?"

She nods and says, "Yes. Take me."

So he does.

Afterwards, they lie together on the bed, the coverlet wrinkled and stained beneath them. Their bodies curl close together, his skin pale as moonlight, hers golden as Helios himself, underneath his midnight-black robe. She clutches at his upper arms, stretching herself up to land a kiss on the underside of his jaw.

"Husband," she whispers.

Her soft voice is so full of adoration and trust that he cannot make himself look at her. Acid rises in the back of his throat and a malicious bit of his conscience—and, truly, since when does Hades, the God of the Underworld, have a conscience? Since now, apparently—whispers Look what you've done, Monster. See her love, her trust. You don't deserve any of it.

His eyes slide closed and his hold on her tightens, pulling her closer to him. He buries his face in her hair and breathes the comforting scent of springtime and flowers, struggling to keep his voice composed as he answers, "Yes, Wife?"

"Tell me," she breathes, her lips tickling at his jaw, her sweet breath washing over his cold skin.

His smile is bittersweet, forced onto his lips in order to make her happy as he whispers, "I love you, Kore."

She sits up suddenly, shaking her head. The smile – no, the smirk – on her face is wolfish and wicked as she reaches out and touches his chin with a single, slender finger. He holds his breath as that finger trails down his neck and over his chest, across the flat plane of his abdomen, which jumps erratically beneath her touch, and veers off course, coming to rest on his hip. When his gaze returns to hers, she is watching him with wide eyes that seem, somehow, to know more now. To understand more.

"Not Kore," she sings in her beautiful voice. "Not anymore."

Hades sits up, too, and reaches for her. She comes willingly into his arms, curling her body close to his as she wraps her legs around his waist. He shudders slightly as she walks her fingertips up his arm before threading one hand through his hair and pulling his face down to hers. The kiss they share is brief, immeasurable sweet, and it shatters the Lord of the Underworld's long-cold heart.

"Not anymore," he agrees, after the kiss has broken and he has reigned in his emotions. "You are no longer your mother's little maiden; no longer innocent, no longer untouched." He threads his fingers through her hair now, and presses a kiss to her forehead. "You are now the Queen of the Underworld," he announces. "You are my Persephone."

"Persephone?" She leans back, quirking one brow at him, her wide eyes curious yet again.

Hades nods, bringing her face to his once more. She leans into his touch, totally absorbed in him. Guilt tears through him once more, but it is eased by the idea that she truly seems to love him, truly seems to accept the life he has drawn her into. Their lips touch, and though Hades intends the kiss to be gentle and brief, passion sparks between them. She makes a sound of protest when he breaks the embrace, straightening up and propping his chin against the top of her head. "Persephone," he hums. The name tastes like nectar on his tongue, and his heart beats a bit faster when she repeats it, too.

He pulls her back to him for another kiss—and then another. Her hands are starting to roam, crawling over his shoulders and down his chest. She catches one of his wrists and pulls it to her waist, then pushes him down on the bed, crawling on top of him. He groans quietly at the sudden closeness, and she smirks down at him.

"My little destroyer," he intones, his voice a peculiar mixture of pride, fondness, and arousal.

She stares at him for just a moment, emeralds glaring into obsidian, and then she begins to laugh—and to Hades, pinned beneath her tiny body, with her warm skin pressed all against him and her sweet-smelling hair surrounding him, that laughter is the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.