I’d just sent Endymion on his way. He’d be safe from Selene as long as he stayed where I told him to and only came out when the moon wasn’t out. I’d be sending along some cute mortal girls here and there to keep him company. That ought to get him over the shock of finding out that he’d been asleep for hundreds of years and anyone he’d ever known was dead. Come on, he’s a demigod. It would’ve happened anyway.
Now I needed some me-time. To say that the last few days had been insane was the ultimate understatement. This seemed like the kind of thing people talked to their friends about. I only have one friend, Aglaea, so I decided to drop in on her. That way I could return Hephaestus’ wedding ring, too. I had no idea why it was at Endymion’s Cave, but I thought I might as well give it back.
The door to Aglaea’s clinic was closed. I tried to open it, but no luck. This couldn’t be happening. I had to talk to her now. I beat on the door and called for her. “Aglaea, please, I need to talk to you now. It can’t wait. This is really, really serious.”
“So is my patient,” Aglaea called back. “I’ll talk to you as soon as I’m off the clock, alright?”
“Whoever’s in there,” I called as I continued to beat on the door in desperation, “if you leave right now and come back in an hour, I’ll have sex with you then.”
“It’s a little kid,” said Aglaea.
“If you leave right now and come back in a year-”
“Aphrodite, we’ve talked about this,” Aglaea cut me off, using her bitch voice like she’s too good to hang out with me. “Many times. I cannot have people interrupting me while I’m at work. I’ll make some time for you this evening, I promise.”
“Whatever.” Fine. So my best friend didn’t want to talk to me and no one liked me and I was alone in the world and I would never be happy again. Who cared. Well, I am many things, but petty isn’t one of them. So I decided if Aglaea didn’t want me, I might as well still return her stupid husband’s stupid wedding ring. I’ll bet she’d have time for him if he wanted to talk.
I let myself into Hephaestus’ workshop. He was at the forge. No surprise there. “Hey,” I alerted him to my presence, which shouldn’t have been necessary since it’s me.
He looked startled and kind of annoyed, which didn’t make sense to me. Before, when I’d come here while he was working, he would be really happy, like it was the best thing that ever happened to him. And why not? It kind of was. “Heard of knocking?” he asked.
“You never cared if I knocked before.” How was this happening to me? I was the Goddess of Love, and nobody loved me. “You always said, ‘Come in and see me any time; really; I can talk while I work; I just want to spend time with you’.”
He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. What was wrong with everyone today? “And…can you think of anything that’s different now than when I said that?” he asked.
“You don’t like me anymore?” I gave the only possible answer.
“I’m not married to you anymore. You know Aglaea, your best friend? Remember when she and I had that wedding?”
“Yeah, and you guys were over an hour late, so Helios and Rhoda got married first,” I laughed. “That was the best wedding ever. Did you know I got to be the Parent of the Bride since Amphitrite and Poseidon weren’t there?” That was one of only three times I’ve given one of my kids away at their wedding. My kids’ adoptive parents usually want to do the honors themselves, the self-centered attention whores.
“You never got it, did you?” Hephaestus sighed. “And you never will.”
I was the one who didn’t get it? Was he freakin’ serious?
“I was the one who didn’t get it?”
“I didn’t get it?”
“This conversation is the definition of not getting it.”
Since I hadn’t been required to spend time with him in awhile, I’d forgotten what a passive-aggressive biatch Hephaestus could be. “Oh, that’s right, I forgot,” I said. “Our marriage was a stay in Tartarus for you. Yeah, I slept around. I admit it. And I tried to keep it covered up, to spare your feelings and your reputation. I never gave a damn about mine. I’ve never cared about monogamy, and I’ve never cared who knew that. But, you know what? You’d have to be a complete idiot to say that you got the short end of the stick in our marriage. Do you know why?”
“This ought to be good.”
“Because you got to be married to someone you loved, and I didn’t.”
“You got to be married to someone who loved you, and I didn’t,” he replied.
“I tried to let you think I did,” I defended. “But if the feeling’s not there, it’s just not there.”
“And in your case, the feeling is only ever there for perfect physical specimens.”
“Okay, you know what? You lost it to a Muse, and both of your wives have been beauty goddesses, so STFU,” I reminded him. Seriously. “You always played it like it was about your leg. ‘Oh, poor little me; my wife thinks the cane is a turn-off!’ It was never about your leg, you big baby. It was about your spine. Or lack of one.”
“And that’s why you used to bitch about being stuck with the ugliest god in the Pantheon?”
“I was being sarcastic! I just said it because you said it about yourself all the freakin’ time.”
“No, I was being sarcastic because you said it all the time.”
Oh my self. Was he for real? “Do you even remember which one of us said it first?” I asked. I didn’t.
That shut him up for a moment. “No,” he finally answered. “I don’t.” He sighed again. “We were pretty terrible together, weren’t we?”
“The worst,” I agreed. “I always knew we would be.”
“How come you didn’t say so in the beginning?” he asked, not snide or bitchy, just plain curious. “I’ve wondered that ever since the divorce.”
“Because as far as your mom and Zeus were concerned, you were my only option,” I said. “I know everyone thought it was all about getting a seat among the Twelve, and yeah, that was a big part of it, but hello? It was your mom and Zeus. Who isn’t scared of them? You sure can’t tell me you aren’t.”
“And, honestly, I figured you’d get over me in a decade or two, and then we could get a divorce and Zeus and Hera would forget the whole stupid ‘me being married’ idea.”
“I don’t know how you could’ve thought that,” he said, going back to the thing he was shaping with the tongs or whatever. “I mean, I’m over you now, and I wouldn’t trade Aglaea and what she and I have together for the world, but back then? I was crazy about you. You can sense feelings of love and desire. You had to have known how I felt.”
“I knew that you thought your love for me was special,” I said, “and that, even though on some level you never felt like you were good enough for me, you also felt like I should love you back because you were A Nice Guy, unlike all my other lovers. And I guess by some standards you are. But, sweetie, you were always just another guy who wanted me because I’m drop-dead gorgeous and I’m unbelievable in bed. You cried about me being a slut, but that was never really the problem, was it? You knew I was a slut when you married me. You thought marriage would make me your own personal slut, and it turned out you were wrong.”
“I’m not like those other guys,” he said. “The problem was, you could never see that because, to you, Ares is the paragon of masculinity.”
Wow. He really never got it, did he? And he never would.
“Look at me,” I said.
He looked up. His jaw dropped. His tongs clattered to the ground as he fell back off his stool. I looked in a hanging shield to make sure my form matched the memory I was recreating. Even though I knew what I was looking for, I jumped back for a second, scared by my own reflection. My skin looked like it had been burned off in an open flame. My teeth were jagged fangs. My golden hair had turned to a tangled mass of living, hissing, spitting, venomous snakes. My seafoam green eyes were completely black, no iris and no white. Two more snakes grew out of my shoulders and wrapped themselves around my breasts (which, thank the Fates, were still pretty awesome). And a pair of tattered, clawed, bat-like wings were on my back, letting me hover in midair. “Look at me,” I said again. My voice was deep, harsh, monstrous.
“What in Tartarus?” Hephaestus stammered as he pulled himself up against his workbench.
“Good guess,” I said, still in my monster voice.
I landed on my feet and changed back to my real- my usual- I don’t know, my pretty self. The body that felt like mine. “Can you honestly tell me,” I asked Hephaestus, “that you would’ve felt the same way about me if I’d looked like that?”
He didn’t say anything. He just sat there with his mouth open and blinked.
I headed back to my quarters to wait for Aglaea to get off work. On my way, I realized I was still holding Hephaestus’ wedding ring. Oh, well. I’d just give it to Aglaea later. She’d be so happy with me.
I braced myself against my bedroom wall, knowing what was coming. Anticipating the pain and the helplessness and, worst of all, the humiliation, was almost worse than when it actually struck.
“You worthless harpy!”
The jolt surged through every nerve in my body as I fell to the marble floor. How many times I had wished it would just paralyze me right away. But, no. I was too powerful for that. Instead of merciful stillness, the first jolt always made me twitch and spasm all over.
He struck my shoulders with the metal lightning bolt. I twitched again, my body beyond my control. “Can you speak?” he demanded. I made no sound. He kicked me in the stomach. “I think you can,” he struck the middle of my spine. “I think you don’t scream because you don’t – feel – anything – anymore,” he punctuated each word with a jab in my ribs. “If you had any feeling at all in you, any shame, any devotion, how could you let what happened this morning happen?”
Yes, dear, I let that happen. I slept with your daughter’s friend and got her pregnant. I’m the raging pervert who can’t keep it in my chiton.
He started stroking the metal tip along my spine, softly, almost pleasantly. I braced myself again. “Hera, darling,” he said in such sweet tones one would never guess he was the cause of the pain he was now soothing, “I think you can talk, just a little. And if you can’t, I’m sure you can still moan or grunt or something. So, my lovely, just tell me you’re sorry and this all stops now. I’ll put you to bed, I’ll bring the pretty physician in with some salves and potions, and everything will feel better. You don’t even have to say the words if you can’t get them out,” he stroked my throat with the tip of the lightning bolt. “Just a squeak like the little shrew that you are will be fine.”
I remained silent.
This infuriated him, as I knew it would. I didn’t care. Maybe he was right. Maybe I didn’t feel anything anymore. You can only strike a nerve so many times before you kill it.
The next jolt reminded me that, though my soul may have reached that point, my body most certainly had not. I twitched some more. He picked at my robe with the lightning bolt. Off it came, exposing my arms and shoulders. He didn’t have to use the lightning bolt to strip me. He is telekinetic. He could have even used his damn hands. He just employs that giant metal rod to overcompensate.
Still using the tip of the bolt, he pulled the skirt of my gown away from my- from me. I begged the Fates that this time he would only beat me. He poked the base of my spine. My leg kicked, hard. He hit me with another stream of lightning, a much longer one this time. I let my body twist in defiance as long as I could. Then, at just the moment when no more lightning would come from the bolt, I could feel the paralysis start. Legs, arms, head, heart, lungs, all began shutting down. I felt as though I were made of stone.
He realized what had happened. He was furious. He struck me over and over. I thought of the last time this had happened, when, upon finding my voice again, I’d told him that I would never let it happen again. That if he threatened me one more time, I was leaving. And he had simply laughed. As though that Muse I like so much had just finished a monologue. You, leave me? he had mocked. Where will you go? Who will take you? You’re the Queen of the Gods, dearest. Everyone fears you. The only man who could possibly tolerate you is one as strong as you, and that’s a list of one.
I knew he was right. My own children barely speak to me. My friends fear me more than they love me, and they all think it’s a wonder he puts up with me. If I told them about this, maybe things would be different, I considered as I laid there. But would they be too different? If my friends knew about me lying naked, broken, and helpless on my own bedroom floor while the husband to whom I’ve been eternally faithful beats and berates me for exposing one of his latest affairs, would they ever look at me the same way again? I imagined bewilderment from Hestia, pity from Demeter, and reproach from Mnemosyne. And I knew I could never tell any of them.
Besides that, I couldn’t leave my children with him. Especially the girls. What would he do to them if I weren’t here to stop him? Eris, my baby. Would her bizarre, incomprehensible mind even understand what was happening to her? Would she just think Daddy was playing a game with her, paying attention to her for once?
Finally, he was finished. He threw the impotent rod down on top of me. “Dinner’s in two hours,” he said just before he stormed out. “Make sure you’re presentable.”
It took nearly those two hours before I could move again. I stood up slowly. The metal bolt shell rolled off my shoulders and clattered to the floor. That’s one more, I thought with dark satisfaction. Each time his wrath got the better of him and drove him to use up one more of his precious lightning bolts, I was one step closer to being on equal footing with him again. I couldn’t leave him. Why leave when, if I waited long enough, I could throw him out?
And perhaps I’d have help. I thought of the prophetic vision I’d seen not long ago. Three hideous winged creatures with burned flesh, empty black eyes, Gorgon hair, and claws on their hands, feet, and wingtips had hovered amidst our throne room as my brethren and I all cowed before them. The central figure, the leader of the three, had proclaimed, We were sent by the Titans, our creators and yours, to avenge the crimes committed by the children against the parents. As they rose up against their father and bound him, so shall the sons be bound. This day, you who crowned yourself King of the Gods in your father’s place shall know the Titans’ Fury.
Strengthened by these thoughts, I staggered to my wardrobe and pulled out a fresh gown and robe. The ones I’d been wearing were torn and soiled. I dressed before my mirror, gown first. I was so beautiful in that gown. Or would have been, if my arms’ and shoulders’ lily complexion were uniform. I put my hair back in place. It matched the morning’s style exactly. Damage was impossible to detect. Last, I put on my robe and fastened it closed at the clavicle. The soft draping covered my arms and shoulders completely.
Not a bruise in sight. Everything looked perfect.
It was the Autumnal Equinox. Normally we’d be celebrating Persephone’s return to Hades, but Persephone had been there for six weeks already. The timing was only coincidental. We were celebrating two things: the birth of Callisto’s son, and Artemis and Athena’s housewarming. Artemis had gathered all her huntresses for a feast on the lawn of the Helicon Museum, her new home. She was clad in a silken midnight blue chiton that showed her exquisite female form to its best advantage, yet was unmistakably masculine in style and presentation. She’d actually had her own chiton made for once instead of raiding her brother’s closet. Athena, dressed in a blood red gown with no armor except for one of her signature helmets, couldn’t take her eyes off Artemis. And now she had no reason to.
Apollo and all of my sisters were there in addition to the huntresses, of course. So were Aglaea, Hephaestus, Euphrosyne, Eros, and Psyche. The hostesses had invited Aphrodite, but she had declined. Which was understandable, given the anniversary factor. It was exactly a year since that fateful day when she’d asked Persephone to adopt an orphan demigod left at her temple.
Erato, Euterpe, Terpsichore, and Apollo had struck up a four-piece band. Most of the huntresses had happily formed a dancing circle. I noticed Artemis whisper something to Athena. Athena smiled and nodded. Unnoticed by the revelers, they slipped into the forest.
But, obviously, not unnoticed by me.
I followed them to a little clearing, just out of sight but just within sound of the dancing field. The quartet had just started a song written in praise of the moon. Without a word, Artemis extended her hand to Athena. Athena took it.
The dance began slowly, as did the music. Only hands touched. Then the music picked up tempo a bit. The dance followed suit with a few twirls and spins. Then the music became a fantastical frenzy, and the dancers followed. The two goddesses were a whirlwind of arms and legs, crimson and midnight, blonde hair and brown. The song would slow here and there, and they would move together in an even-tempered, sensual harmony. Then it would speed up again, and the passionate whirlwind would return.
The music came to an abrupt end. So did the dance. Artemis was joy personified as she stood with Athena blissfully clasped in her arms, Athena’s leg wrapped around her own like a vine around a tree.
After they shared a kiss, Athena said, “I always knew you could dance.”
Artemis replied, “I always knew you were watching.” She took off Athena’s plumed helmet and tousled her hair. “Hunters don’t wear shining armor,” she reproved. “They also don’t wear giant hot pink flowers in their hair,” she called out.
Sheepishly, I stepped into the clearing. “Thalia,” said Artemis, “Athena’s been pretty vague about the details, but she’s convinced that we never would’ve gotten together if it weren’t for you. At first I thought she was talking about you getting Calliope to let us move into the old Museum, but Athena seems to think it’s more than that. Anyway, if that’s even remotely true, I want to thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, not sure what else I could say.
“What I’m trying to say is, if there’s anything you want that’s within my power to give you, it’s yours,” Artemis said. “All you have to do is ask.” She jerked her head in the direction of the musicians. “Anything at all,” she said with emphasis.
“Honey, subtlety will get you nowhere with these people,” Athena teased her. “She’s trying to set you up with her little brother,” she translated to me.
“Ah. Gotcha. In this case, I’m not sure the gift wants to be given. And, to be honest, after this summer I’m not sure I feel like opening it.”
“Well, if you ever decide you want to make a move, say the word,” Artemis said. “Come on, let’s get back to the party before someone notices we’re all missing.”
We got back just as the band went on break. A few of the hunters grabbed their instruments and started an impromptu band of their own. I sat down on a blanket to watch. I was a little surprised when Apollo sat next to me. We hadn’t talked much since, well, you know. He hadn’t talked much to anyone. I knew it was just a standard part of his grieving process, so I’d let him be.
“Nice party, isn’t it?” he commented.
“Great night for it,” I agreed.
“Leasing the Museum to Artemis and Athena was a moderately good idea for you,” he said. Ah, a pathetic attempt at mockery. This was a good sign.
“All my ideas are so brilliant that this one was only moderately good by comparison?” I replied.
“You can believe that if you want.”
“I do want to believe that. I like being right.”
“It must be a sad life, getting what you want so seldom.”
“You’re glad she’s not living on Olympus any more, aren’t you?” I steered the conversation back in the direction of me being brilliant and things being happy.
“I am,” he acknowledged. “And I guess being with Athena has been good for her.”
We were comfortably quiet for awhile as we took in our surroundings. Artemis and Athena were dancing together inside two circles of nymphs. Toddling little Euphrosyne was doing her best to join the outer circle. Overhead, Eros and Psyche were skydancing. The sight drew our attention to a new constellation, a miniature version of the one Callisto inhabited. It was for her son. At Callisto’s request, Artemis had fixed the new constellation so that it would always point true north. If anyone ever got lost like Callisto had the night Hera found her, they could look for the little bear in the sky and find their way home by it.
“You look tired,” Apollo randomly observed.
“I am tired,” I admitted. “I’ve been helping set up for this party all day, and we were all here to help Artemis and Athena teleport all their stuff into the Museum.”
“You can lean on me if you want,” he offered. “You know, if your back is sore or something. Just being practical.”
I took him up on it.
“You were so cute yesterday, freaking out about your sister getting a big girl bed,” I teased him. “Did you really think they were going to live in separate rooms?”
“I considered the possibility,” he admitted. “But I guess she’s converting the other rooms into dormitories for the huntresses.”
“If Athena lets her,” I laughed.
We slipped back into comfortable silence for awhile longer. Then, as though he were surprised by this thought, Apollo said, “I’ve missed you.”
I took his hand. “I’ve missed you, too.”
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