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To Grow For Living's Sake

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The first few years in the garden were a blur. Turning thin topsoil into proper soil, coaxing forth tender green shoots, carrying water the old way, the way her long gone father taught her. Crafting boxes to sprout the most delicate of shoots out of the elements before carrying them out to plant in the garden. Sweating until she'd have to stop, scrape her skin clean, scrub her clothes in the clear water of the Styx. Nights spent not dreaming, managing to find a muscle flaying exhaustion she hadn't been sure she could actually attain as a god.

She still cried, often, no matter how much she managed to bring forth. All of her was still growth; she could still manage to draw a cracked seed to life, and yet she could not—

It didn't bear thinking about, really.

(Sometimes, less and less as time went by, she’d try to assign fault. She'd never put much stock in prophecy; she’d never known anyone so smolderingly alive as Hades. She, more than anyone, understood what lay beneath the surface was choking with life--both its destruction and its rebirth.)

Mostly, she worked. She worked to forget, to let go, to grow.

***

Nights were both easier and harder, after those first few decades.

They reminded her of what--who--she’d left behind. They were quiet; when the moon was waned, there was too little light to work and she would have time to think.

The thinking was hard.

Sorting things out. Trying to grow around the emptiness.

She did love Hades. Nyx. She hadn’t loved anyone before, not like them at any rate. She’d been so young, hadn’t she?

She knew she was still young, as gods measured things, but her reflection in the Styx suggested that wasn’t as true as it used to be.

More, she didn’t feel so young anymore.

She didn’t know if she loved either enough to go back. She did not know if they would still love her, after she left. She didn’t know if she could face a garden likely left to overgrow, if she could bear the responsibility that she had taken up with all the fool hardiness of a length of ivy growing far, far beyond its supports.

She knew she did not want to go home, and that she did not know what home even meant anymore. It had never been Olympus; it had been, for a time, the Underworld.

Night was quiet and dark and nothing but time to think under stars that glittered like the jewels that used to be strung through her hair.

***

Plants grow; they die. Eventually they need harvesting, when they ripen. Or they should, but Persephone was alone and growth itself and had no interest in cutting any lives short. She let the garden run wild; she let the plants overgrow, then buried them in the soil to feed the new ones already coming up between. The air cloyed with lavender and honeysuckle and rose, the cottage was overrun with ivy and rosemary and sprays of hyacinth. The vegetables she planted flourished; flowers rioted blinding.

In hindsight, it was planting the wheat that likely gave her away. It had never really been a plant she'd been drawn to--it reminded her too much of her mother, no matter how often her own hair had been compared to its ripe ears.

But she'd wanted to try; she had both empty land and enough seed to fill it. Maybe, just maybe, it might let her divine what to do with herself now, relearn how to spend an eternity she had never asked for.

But wheat wasn't one of hers to be left to grow and grow and grow, now was it?

It was the wheat that caught his eye.

***

Ares, like his mother, was an odd god--poorly liked, difficult to understand, and viciously proud of both those facts. Persephone had met him very little on Olympus, perhaps less than any other god, though she had heard him. Who hadn’t? He was a loud god--a war god, but not Athena’s kind; an older kind, a kind where warfare was night raids and vanishing back into the dark, a wild kind that was far more interested in wearing down its prey than with philosophical ideas of honor and conceding defeat.

But it wasn’t just war where he roamed.

It was the wheat that drew him--the wheat and the night that would hang thick and lingering around her garden, those cliffs with a perfect view of the stars cast bright across the sky.

Persephone didn’t realize that at first; that would come later. Even later than when she realized the wheat brought him, she’d realize it was in truth her mother’s winter that had driven the god to boredom at the lack of both his sort of war and his sort of gold.

First, though, was a howl.

***

It was a quiet night, like they all were; the wheat was high, beginning to go gold. The moon was hanging thick in the sky, so bright that it wasn’t so hard to work by. There was dirt under her nails, sweat slicking her skin, sticking her hair to her face. She was weeding and not thinking and not thinking and—

There was a howl, then a deer bounded into the garden. Then another howl, a third, and it was only then that she saw the first wolf, but the deer had already fled, bounded across the narrow band of the Styx by her cottage. More howls followed, messages relayed as they drove their prey; it was only after she thought them gone that Persephone stood, then promptly froze as she found a shadow roaming through the wheat, visible only by the bend of the stalks.

A wolf, she realized, one so large she’d be lucky if her head came to its shoulders, eyes gleaming red and intelligent. Its ear flicked towards a more distant howl, but its attention stayed fixed on her a moment longer.

Persephone drew herself up fully, tilted her chin high. She was still, even after everything, a god; perhaps she had no authority in Hell any longer, but she had it here.

The wolf bowed its head to her, then sprang out of the wheat, bounded over the river, and took off into the wood, chasing after its--far smaller--companions.

Her hands were shaking; when she released her fists, there were bright crescents dug into her palm. She breathed out.

The next morning, there was a deer dressed out, hanging from one of the columns by the Styx.

A few days later, a goat.

And then again, a brace of rabbits.

Persephone left most of the meat for the crows and other scavengers; she herself did not eat much meat. The bones, though, she kept--boiled and baked and ground into meal to mix into the soil as fertilizer. At night, she would hear that pack of wolves howling, though they never did run through her garden again.

She’d find signs of that large wolf though--digging around the edge of the wheat field, broken stalks, grass flattened by a very large body at rest.

She assumed--perhaps naively, since she’d never seen sign of the wolf before she planted the wheat--it was some local spirit, one of those animal worshipped gods simply passing through with the pack that worshipped them.

But then the wheat went ripe.

***

She left her cottage one morning and there he was--Ares, with a lazy hum and lazier smile and the same bright red eyes as that wolf god, dressed not for war but for a different sort of work. He was lounging, skipping stones across the Styx, clearly waiting because as she exited her cottage and froze, his head turned and he rose.

“Do pardon the surprise,” Ares said, low and smooth; pulled a bottle of ambrosia from a particularly bright sunbeam and offered it forward. His smile was too slight to show teeth, but then, he wouldn’t show teeth unless he meant a threat; it did little to put her at ease. "Persephone, wasn't it?"

Persephone looked at the ambrosia, then him.

She wondered if he had told Demeter; if he would.

“You shouldn’t have been able to find this place,” Persephone said; she did not take the ambrosia, gleaming though it was. There were no memories she’d want to recall that wouldn’t hurt more for the recollection; there was a debt she did not want to be in, if she took it from Ares.

“There are many places I should not find,” Ares agreed good naturedly.

Persephone couldn’t recall his crown ever being anything but those sharp and burnt laurel leaves; certainly could not recall the wheat gold bright against his white hair and dark skin now.

“What is that for?” Persephone asked.

“You have wheat,” Ares said. “I would have it. I would, of course, pay you for it.”

Persephone blinked.

“Is that what all those animals were for?” she asked.

Ares laughed--not bright, but low and rolling, a distant promise of summer storm.

“No,” he said. “Those were for you.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, either.

Persephone was only going to let the wheat go to seed anyway. She didn’t have a mill, didn’t have any way to turn it into something to eat; it wasn’t her sort of plant.

“Keep the ambrosia,” Persephone said. “You can pay me by not telling my mother you know where I am.”

Ares tilted his head slightly, and though the slight smile did not waver, his eyes were far too keen, far too knowing, for her comfort.

Then the bottle vanished from his hands.

“As you’d like,” Ares said.

***

Ares hummed often as he worked, or outright sang; he was not a quiet sort of god, even when his game gold and still. Persephone was unsure what to do with his noise; she was unequally unsure what to do with the sight of his shoulders, broad and already dark darkening deeper under the morning sun, the spray of gold at his temple, or—

His hands were very skillful.

Mostly, Persephone tried to focus on her own plants, though she let them grow and grow, only plucked so they could grow more. Tried not to focus on her awareness of her own physicality, in such close proximity to Ares.

“Perhaps you should have baskets,” Ares commented once.

“Perhaps,” Persephone said; she didn’t mind leaving piles of fruit on the ground for the worms and ants to take from as they pleased. It’s not as if she could eat them all, nor that she had any purpose to the growth.

Ares spent half a lazy afternoon weaving baskets for her, and the other half tossing in the produce that wasn’t spoiled and bruised.

“You don’t need to do all that,” Persephone told him, frowning.

Ares chuckled, low and rumbling and the hair on her arms stood up, suddenly aware of the sweat slipping along her spine, across a breast, the backs of her knees.

“A guest should repay his host handsomely, should he not?” Ares asked, gaze sharp and keen as the slight smile tugging his lips up.

Persephone hadn’t thought of handsomeness in a long time. A part of her that had been quiet a very long time wanted to tease that Ares himself was handsome enough payment; she did not.

“If that’s what you want to do with your time,” Persephone finally said, glad that too long without words had left her slow to speak the ones that would only embarrass her.

Ares’ smile grew anyway.

“It is,” he said, and helped himself to one of the apples, juice dripping down his chin.

She tried not to think too much of it, or the way her hands had twitched with want to wipe it away.

***

He continued to build--supports for the tomato vines, baskets and buckets for produce and saplings. He caught fish to turn to fertilizer, though he took little interest in planting, and even less in the actual maintenance of crops.

What he wanted was ripe wheat, which he cut and then carried off like so much gold. He brought her back the flour, finely milled, for her kitchen.

“You don’t need to give me this,” Persephone said.

Ares shrugged.

“Spoils are better shared, don’t you agree, Persephone?”

She looked up at him, his slight smile and bright eyes. Not queen, nor lady; not Kore. Just Persephone, just the simple pleasure of company without all the grief and worry and baggage of a future she was still uncertain how to even begin to approach.

“Why do you want the wheat so much if you only bring it back?” she asked.

“I like gold.” Ares barked a laugh, as if he had made a joke she wasn’t privy to. “And I don’t bring you back wheat, I bring you flour, to go with all your other flowers.”

Persephone laughed.

“Why,” she finally asked, as she’d wanted to that first morning, “did you come here?”

“For you,” he said, bold and simple and straightforward.

“That’s ridiculous.” Persephone’s face felt flush; her crossed her arms and glared at him. “If you’re going to make fun—”

“I do not make fun,” he interrupted, smile vanishing, eyes flashing and the first hint of teeth she had ever seen from him; she thought of a war shoved aside for civilized battles, thought of beast and brute and the insistence, always, that ever roaming Ares was dangerous

He was; but she had also seen his hands work clever and listened to harvest songs that were loud and full of humour.

“I have overstayed my welcome,” he said, short.

Persephone thought of feeling, for the first time in a very long time, alive and not simply growing for the sake of growing.

She had forgotten what that was like.

“Why did you come?” Persephone asked again, instead of why me. “Why the gifts, the building, the--all of it?”

Ares regarded her, head tilted ever so slight.

“You’ve never been courted, have you?” he asked.

Persephone let go, skin going bright, heat twining tight the length of her spine to pool in her belly; of course she hadn’t--Hades certainly hadn’t needed to, and she’d hardly count the gifts he gave her and their eventual love a courtship. Courting was something that happened in poems, not to Persephone, young--though she wasn’t so young as she used to be, either, now was she?

Ares smiled again, that slight thing, eyes sharpening, and very suddenly Persephone was aware, again, of his size as he turned back, stepped closer.

“I like gold,” Ares told her, “and you grow it so thoughtlessly.” He caught her hand. “And you are brave when terrified.” His thumb rubbed across the back of her knuckles. “I quite like that, too.”

“That’s… straightforward.” Persephone paused. She tried to sort through words. Tried to sort through smell of sweat and smoke, tried to navigate past the shiver of her spine and thud of her pulse. “This isn’t some trick, is it?”

“It is not a season for tricks,” Ares said. “It is a season for flowers.”

“And flour,” Persephone said.

Ares grinned wider, the barest hint of white teeth, crowned in wheat gold; his other hand reached careful, adjusted the lavender in Persephone’s own hair.

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m married,” Persephone told him, though she did not know if she would be forever, or what that would even mean if she never went back.

“So are many women,” Ares said, practical. “But I don’t see your husband here.”

Persephone took a breath.

Perhaps… perhaps one day.

There was so little she knew; she met few as a child with her father. Olympus had been lonely and full of drama. She had only known Hades, Nyx; she did not know if she would ever go back to them, if they would forgive her leaving. Certainly even if she did, things would not be the same.

She knew she quite liked the breadth of Ares’ shoulders; she knew she liked that rumble of laughter; she knew she liked the feeling of not simply growing, but the sense she was a real live thing under his gaze.

Gold.

If she was to have a future away from the Underworld, perhaps it might help to explore a little, reach like a bit of climbing ivy far past the supports and grief she’d been twisting around.

“Nothing serious,” Persephone warned.

Ares' hand dipped from her hair to her neck, touch light along her jaw.

“I am but a guest,” Ares said, low. “So long as you’d allow.”

Persephone leaned up on tiptoe and kissed him.

***

Ares was careful with much more than just his hands, as it would turn out.

And it was quite difficult to be quiet with him.

***

His visits always remained infrequent--or rather, seasonal, such as there were seasons at her garden.

The wheat, of course, was what drew him; the company, though, what kept him.

And it was not… it would never be anything serious; that much she could tell. Even if she’d want it, it was clear enough that he would not--he was a god who roamed.

But she did not want serious. Serious had given her heartbreak. Serious had given her grief, had pressed weight to her, had made it so she’d forgotten how to do anything but grow for the sake of growing and not, in fact, to live.

Perhaps one day she might turn him away, when he arrived with the ripening wheat, red eyes bright and crowned in gold, that lazy smile at his lips and hands full of gifts.

But not yet.

She wanted, at least for a little while longer, to twine around a future that she might, in another life, keep.