Persephone first saw Hades a long time ago, so long ago that she no longer remembers the day; she only recalls him.
She remembers his dark clothes, a strange contrast to the bright flowers she surrounded herself with. She remembers the way that his fingers never stayed still, reaching for a butterfly or clenching suddenly or carefully smoothing back an escaped lock of her curly hair. She remembers his sudden smile when she asked for his name.
It was his smile, the juxtaposition of bright joy amidst the darkness that emanated from him, that made her fall in love. For him, it was the sunshine that surrounded her.
She married him that afternoon, her mother a solemn guest and Hermes an amused officiant. With his kiss, he stole her breath as well as her heart, and she went down to the Underworld with him that night.
The Underworld was dark, cold, and forbidding. She shrunk back from the faces of the dead, the cold eyes and lost expressions, but Hades took her hand and waited for her to step forward. They walked side-by-side into the darkness, the god of hell and the goddess of spring.
She loved her new kingdom within weeks. The rivers Styx and Lethe gurgled cheerfully when she paused beside them. When she walked among them, the dead raised their heads and smiled. Cerberus stopped snarling, his heads resting on her lap and gazing up with her with almost as much adoration as Hades.
Minutes and an eternity into her and Hades' marriage, her mother appeared in his throne room, startling the couple in the middle of court. "The earth is dying," Demeter murmured. "The crops are dying, people starve, and the oceans rise and overflow."
"What must I do?" she asked. Hades reached for her hand and held on nearly as tightly as she grasped his hand.
"You must return to the sun." Demeter could not hide her smile at the thought of having her daughter return to the light; Persephone's heart sank. "Zeus has proposed that for half of each year you return to the light and bring the earth back to life. For the other half, you may stay below with your husband."
Hades' eyes snapped in helpless anger, but he did not speak a word. They both knew they had no choice. On the day she left, the Underworld was darker, and when she pulled away from Hades' kiss his eyes were blank.
When she returned to the earth above, the sun sparkled. The crops grew again, the oceans calmed, and the people rejoiced. Spring had come again.
But Persephone missed her husband. Part of her had missed the embrace of the sun, but she longed for the way Hades held her, arms tight and comforting, making her feel like she was the only thing of value in the entire world, even with all the riches the Underworld had to offer.
As she wandered through the fields and blessed the earth again, she sang. It was a song of love, a song that she could feel echoed throughout the earth. As she gathered flowers and picked apples, Hades judged the dead and repaired the rivers' banks. He also sang, the same notes that poured from her mouth.
Hades met her at the bridge between above and below with a kiss, a burning kiss that brought their worlds back into tune even as the world above grew colder.
And so it was for a thousand years. Six months above with the sun, six months below with her love. Their love kept the world turning, seasons coming and going as she did.
As time passed slowly, Hades grew colder. He still met and left her with a kiss, but it was less passionate every year. He barricaded himself in the throne room, assigning the dead with jobs she knew nothing of. She still lay beside him in his bed every night, but his fiery touch grew rarer. His jealousy burned as brightly as the sun.
In response—for the spring can also be a vicious thing—she pulled away. His few touches were received, but not with appreciation. She tended her garden every day, leaving the keeping of the dead to Hades. Every spring she returned to the world above with greater anticipation.
Everything changed when he built the railroad.
The world was new, with railroads and machinery and automobiles. Every year, returning to the sunlit world was a greater shock, as new devices were created quickly and discarded just as easily for more inventions. The railroad connected the Underworld with the ground above, and Hermes guarded the passage.
New things appeared in the Underworld every return: the dead were set to working on a wall between the Underworld and the sunshine, the deepest veins of oil and gold were mined to increase the wealth of the king, and Hades disappeared into himself more and more.
Every year, the train came sooner to take her home to Hades. He still traveled above to fetch her, but the day came when he did not greet her with a kiss. When he did not take her hand to tug her body to his, she pushed past him with a grumbled "You're early."
He merely snapped back, "I missed you." Hermes and the living waved goodbye with smiles, and she went down below again.
And so that became their refrain. The song they had sung had disappeared into faded memory, changed into brief acknowledgments and mere coexisting rather than the love that nearly made even the Underworld bloom.
Year after year, the railroad car brought her above, and the railroad car returned again to take her home. The dead looked somehow deader every year, and the wall grew thicker. She brought wine and morphine home to get through the winter. Winters grew longer and longer. Demeter and the other gods had passed into oblivion long ago when man no longer needed them, and there was no one to remind Hades that the earth would die without Persephone.
She hadn't had a choice in many years, perhaps not since she had first seen Hades. She had chosen to fall in love with him and chosen to go down below with him, but since then she had been forced to come and go as both the earth and her husband demanded.
When her garden was flourishing once more and the wine was running low, Persephone watched Hades with the dead. He set them to back-breaking work, the kind that no man could survive if he still had memories to keep him hopeful. The wrinkles on his brow grew deeper, the lines next to his mouth became harsher, and the soft tattoos on his arms darkened into stones. It was his treatment of his subjects, rather than his dismissal of her, that made her begin to hate him.
They began to argue, her screaming insults about his lack of care and desire to rule the world and him shouting rebuttals about his actions serving as love for her. Those stung most of all, for she did know that he still loved her. If he had not still loved her, desired her, and despaired in her absence, she might have looked past the ways he willingly hurt her and the people they had once protected.
Every night underground, though, no matter the words or actions of the day, Hades still returned to his bed. She pretended to be asleep, and he pulled back the covers and lay beside her. There, she watched him sleep. The wrinkles and lines softened, his body slightly turned toward hers, and it was the only time she could recognize her husband as the man she married. It was there, in the bed she could scarcely call her own, that she hated herself for loving this broken man, for theirs was the kind of love that would always endure.
By the time she met Orpheus, the Underworld had become Hadestown, the mysterious land where those willing to sell their souls to Hades were fed in exchange for eternal work. She watched Hades talk to the lost and broken of the world and hand them a ticket; when she saw them next, there was no recognition on their faces and they were as dead as dead can be.
That was when she began to speak to the dead once more—even if they were not completely dead as the old souls had been, these were dead to the world and they belonged to the King of Hell now—without her husband's knowledge.
When he brought a new lost human down to Hadestown, he took them into his office. He showed them the terms of their servitude; every man agreed. From that moment, she had three hours in which to bring life back to the dead before Hades returned with his newest dazed worker. Hades took them to the river Lethe so that they would forget their life before him, but she coaxed some remembrance back to them. Though she could not make them remember the loved ones they left on the surface, she brought to them the brightness of the sun, the beauty of leaves and flowers, and the taste of fine wine.
To them, she was our Lady of the Underground, and it was the first title aside from Hades' wife or Queen of the Underworld that she could cherish. They daily forgot the name Persephone, but she made sure, contrarily perhaps, that they would not forget that she was also their queen, a queen they could love.
She returned to the surface with her suitcase once again, as she always did, leaving behind her nothing but Hades' gaze burning into her back. She noticed a girl staring at Orpheus, nothing unusual since young women always watched the Muse's son. This time, Hades' gaze left her back and when she turned just enough to see her husband, he was staring at the girl with calculation in his black eyes.
On her second look, she saw what Hades had seen in the girl: hunger.
Come wintertime, a day that came far too soon, Eurydice was the newest worker in Hadestown. Hades took her to his office and Persephone passed out the wine, walked among the people she had claimed as hers. Eurydice joined the crowd of workers soon enough, and her memories melted away just like the rest.
Weeks later, after the heat of Hadestown had drained much of her desire to fight back, Orpheus broke through Hades' wall. Orpheus' song was strong enough—his love was powerful enough—to awaken the sleeping minds of Hades' workers, and Persephone watched him from a palace window.
She stood next to Hades when Orpheus found Eurydice, when Hades told the boy that the girl was no longer of the world above, and when Orpheus finally ran from the might of the king of Hadestown.
The night dragged on until she could scarcely bear to look at her husband. Orpheus' song awoke feelings in her that she had nearly forgotten: thoughts of their courtship and early marriage, the fire in her skin when Hades took her hand in his, what it felt to truly like someone as well as love them.
When Orpheus bent before Hades' command for a song… she could scarcely bear to not look at her husband. Orpheus sang their song, the song that echoed throughout the world, over time and space and into their hearts despite the distance. While Orpheus reminded Hades of what it felt like to have the world in his arms, she remembered what it felt like to be the world.
Hades murmured the notes along with Orpheus, and he turned to her. The three of them sang together for a moment, and then he held out his hand. She took it and they stood face to face. For the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, she stepped into his arms. As Orpheus sang, they danced.
They turned around the room slowly and silently, the embrace timid. She couldn't look away from his red-rimmed eyes, the harshness melting away the longer they looked at each other. As the tune rose and fell, Orpheus' voice weaving through the notes as a river makes its way through a greenly lush land, she felt her mouth turn up in a smile that was soon echoed on Hades' face.
Far too soon, the music ended, but Hades pulled her closer, lifting her onto her toes to wrap her arms around his neck. She breathed in the scents of oil and machinery, of electricity and death, of something else distinctly godly and completely Hades. He only pulled away when Orpheus and Eurydice asked him the fateful question.
But for the first time since he let her return to the sun at Zeus' command, he didn't immediately let go of her hand. She watched his eyes dart back and forth between his watchful workers and the star-crossed lovers, and she knew that the Fates were speaking to him. They were tempting him, advising him, and leading him to a decision.
Hades would let them go, on one condition. Persephone knew that it would be nearly impossible for them to follow the instructions to the letter, but it was a start. It was all the king could do, and she knew that this was the kindest choice he could give them.
The gods watched the young lovers walk away single-file, Hermes following behind after a glance at Persephone. They stood in silence, hands no longer touching but the space between them far smaller than it was just the day before. "Think they'll make it?" she asked absently.
Hades sighed. "I don't know."
"Hades, you let them go," she said.
"I let them try," he said, rubbing a hand down his face. In that moment, he looked almost as old as the years he claimed.
"And how about you and I?" She turned to look at him, the voices of the wall in the background. "Are we gonna try again?"
Hades finally turned to face her, his eyes bloodshot and tired. He looked away almost as quickly as he had met her eyes and he gazed out over his realm. Persephone knew what he saw without having to follow his gaze; for once, his people were filled with hope, and they would follow him again whether Orpheus and Eurydice made it out of Hadestown.
A part of her wanted to resent Hades for not simply letting the pair free, but it was against his nature as the god of the Underworld. In the end, he was king, and she loved him for it.
Hades glanced up at the brightly-lit ceiling, and she smelled the wet earth above, the buried seeds longing for new life. "It's time for spring," he finally said. "We'll try again next fall."
She smiled. "Wait for me?"
For the first time in millennia, Hades smiled back. "I will."
Hours later, she stepped off the train from Hadestown into the world above. Before she walked away, suitcase in hand, Hades touched her shoulder. When she turned around, he gathered her into a hug that felt like an apology. As she turned her face into his neck, his shuddering exhale let her know that he realized he was forgiven.
Hermes told her of the fate of Orpheus and Eurydice, and she sighed. The faith of mankind was shaken, but as the tale was told again and again they would heal. As for Orpheus, she knew not to worry about him. He was a Muse's son, after all. Long life and music would follow him wherever he went.
At the end of her six months, when autumn leaves appeared in the trees, she stood waiting for the train. Hades smiled when the car opened and she ran into his embrace.
For the first time in centuries, Hades leaned down and kissed her.
For the first time in a thousand years, Persephone did not pretend to be asleep that night when Hades came to their bed.
For the first time in millennia, the god of the dead and the goddess of new life remembered what it was to be married, to be in love, to idle the time away simply talking or holding each other or sitting in silence.
When spring was due again, Persephone kissed her husband and walked away toward the sun. "Persephone," Hades called.
"What?" she asked without looking back.
"I do love you." The train's whistle blew and it raced back toward Hadestown before she turn around or could say a word.
But for six months, the earth bloomed brighter than ever before. The seasons reflected the moods and whims of the gods, and mankind was blessed. Persephone wandered the earth, picking flowers and humming to herself. Hermes merely laughed.
The earth kept turning, as it always does, and autumn came again. When the train pulled into the station, she was waiting. The car door opened, and a man stepped out. She walked toward him slowly, staring into his eyes. He showed no emotion save in his hands, which repeatedly clenched and released the hem of his jacket. Finally, she spoke.
"I love you too, Hades."
Hades and Persephone would live on, as the gods tend to. She would forget the vagaries of mankind, the intricacies of world-shaping events. She may never forget the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, as their story and the way Hades yielded to a woman would live forever in the tales of man. But Persephone would let most happenings pass her by. It was what happened when you were going to outlive the sun.
The image of her husband's smile, his outreached hand, and the feeling of fire in her skin at his touch will never leave her.