Upon seeing the living room, I pressed a hand to my chest. It was exactly how I remembered: a small, efficient kitchen to the right, a large couch and TV, and very minimal design. In a daze, I walked back the short, narrow hall, passing a bathroom and then entering into the spacious bedroom.
The bed was his—the black sheets, the pillows, and the scent of the sea and something earthy, of burning leaves and man.
But he wasn’t here.
Because he was alive and I, well, I was dead.
I spent hours in that bedroom, soaking up his scent, before I pulled myself away. I opened the back door at the end of the hall and saw the garden—an exact replica of the one on Deity Island, the very one where I had met Grandma Piperi.
Ripe blossoms and rich soils, trees I couldn’t begin to even name, and enough flowers to start a botanical garden. There was even an old stone bench.
I turned back around, staring at the cottage.
Once I’d found my paradise and the sun came back up the following day, the others around me had become visible—houses and apartment buildings of all different sizes, farms, and sprawling cities. And sunny palm trees and snow-capped mountaintops. It was a smorgasbord of every place in the world.
But that wasn’t all.
Paradise was simplistic, centering around needs but not wants. Over the course of time that seemed longer than normal days and nights, I learned how paradise operated.
What you needed, you got. It was as simple as that.
If I needed to be hungry, I would be hungry. And if I needed a juicy steak, it would simply appear after closing my eyes. If I didn’t need to eat, there were no stomach pains. If I needed to wear jeans or a dress, all I had to do was open the closet, and there they would be.
There was more.
Apparently when you died and you were scarred up like I was, you got an after-life make-over.
My hair was long again; it was the length it had been before Ares had given me the beauty-school-dropout haircut. Reaching the middle of my back, the ends were neat, and the strands were shiny and soft. At first, I’d been obsessed with my hair—touching it to make sure it was still there, picking it up and waving it across my face.
When you’re dead, it’s not like you have much else to do.
Up until that very moment, I was still surprised by what I saw. Leaning in until my eyes almost crossed, I studied my reflection in the mirror. The fine network of faint pink scars was gone. They were also gone from my body. I’d been restored, but the afterlife makeover had gone further than that. The daimon tags I’d received when I was in Gatlinburg, those patches of pale white skin on my neck and arms, were healed completely. And if I pulled up my tank top, the jagged scar left behind from Linard’s blade and the first time I’d died was gone too.
Underworld was like a scar-be-gone.
I rocked back on my heels of my bare feet, sighing.
Strangely, what took the most for me to get used to were my eyes. They were different. The irises were brown, like they had been before I’d Awakened, but there was a thin line of amber around the pupils. I didn’t know what that meant or why they were like that.
He…he would’ve been so happy to see my eyes brown again.
The inside of my throat thickened immediately, and I squeezed my eyes shut. I will not cry. I will not cry. Crying was bad in the Underworld, I’d discovered. Once you started, it was hard to stop and could become a one-way ticket to the Vale of Mourning. And that didn’t sound like fun.
Tears pricked at my eyes nonetheless.
I knew I shouldn’t cry, but it was hard because I missed my uncle and my dad. I missed Luke, Deacon, and Solos. I missed Seth and how easy it was for him to infuriate me. But I yearned for Aiden something fierce. With each passing second, it only got stronger, more intense. It didn’t fade, my longing for him, and I didn’t think it ever would.
Looking away from the mirror, I turned to the boy lying on my bed. His shoulder-length blond hair was pulled back into a ponytail, but shorter strands had escaped, falling across his tanned cheeks.
Every day since the first day after I’d died, Caleb had been here for me. I’d spent time with my mom, with Olivia, and even with Lea, but I’d seen Caleb the most. I felt bad for sucking up so much of his time, because I was sure he and Olivia were trying to discover if you could make a baby in the Underworld every free moment they had, but I don’t know what I would do without him.
“Come here,” he said, patting the spot next to him.
I shuffled over and sat beside him. “Olivia’s going to cut me if you keep hanging out in my bed.”
Caleb laughed, and each time he did, I had to smile. I’d missed that laugh as much as I now missed life. “She’s not going to cut you.”
“I’m sucking up all your time.”
“No, you’re not.” He reached over, tugging on the hem of my jeans. “And she understands. Dying isn’t easy, Alex. Not for anyone, and definitely not for you.”
I arched a brow.
Caleb tugged on the hem again. “Why don’t you come with me tonight? Me. You. Olivia. There’s this club I found a few weeks ago, near the palms. I think it belongs to some pure whose idea of a ‘happily ever after’ is a nonstop party.”
Elysian Fields was as close to living as you could get, and there were a lot of things to do, people to meet, and whatnot. Lea had already hooked up with some half-blood and one of Hades’ guards.
I shrugged a shoulder.
“I think it would be good for you, Alex. I mean it.”
“I know.” And I also knew where this conversation was heading.
Caleb didn’t disappoint. “You need to get out and be happy. I know it’s hard, but I’m worried about you. I’m scared. You could end up in the Vale, and there’s no coming back from that.”
“I don’t want you to be scared,” I said, staring at my fingernails. They’d never been this smooth and buffed in life. “But Apollo lied to me. He said he would take care of me.”
Caleb didn’t say anything because this wasn’t the first time I’d said it to him. I’d been saying it every day.
“And where has he been?” I asked, lifting my gaze. Sympathy crossed Caleb’s boyishly handsome face. “Not once has he visited me. I feel like he used me, which was stupid, because he’s a god and that’s all they do, but I…” I trailed off, shaking my head. “I’m sorry. It’s the Alex twenty-four hour whine channel.”
“It’s okay. Don’t apologize.” He patted the spot again. “Lie down with me?”
Stretching out beside him, I stared at the ceiling. “This reminds me of our…”
“Last time together topside?” he supplied, and then laughed when I cringed. “At least you don’t smell this time around.”
I laughed as I shot him a glare. “You jerk. I didn’t smell then.”
“Hell you didn’t. You hadn’t showered in days.” He rolled onto his side, grinning. His blue eyes literally glimmered. “You were stinky.”
“That’s so wrong.”
“Love you,” he replied.
My smile spread, and honestly, if I could spend eternity with Caleb, I might be okay. I might not go into the Vale, but that wasn’t fair to put that on him. He had made a life for himself…in the afterlife, but I snuggled closer to Caleb, into his open arms, and closed my eyes.
“It’ll get easier,” he promised, resting his forehead against mine. “It does.”
I wanted to believe him, but I wanted Aiden and I wanted life, and paradise simply could not provide those two things.
I wasn’t big on the Covenant garden when I was alive, but I kept finding myself in this one now. There was something calming and peaceful among the roses and peonies. I kept coming back to the old stone bench, especially in the mornings. Maybe I thought Grandma Piperi would magically appear and give me another messed-up prophecy for old time’s sake. That would be fun.
Making my way down the marble pathway, my gaze skipped over the intricate designs in the sidewalk. Somehow I hadn’t noticed this before, but the carvings were the marks of the Apollyon. Interesting.
I rounded the thick nightshade bush and lifted my gaze. I drew up short, my eyes widening.
The bench wasn’t empty today.
Apollo sat there, hands clasped between his knees. “It’s about time,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for about an hour.”
I stared at him, my mouth hanging open. “I…I slept in.”
He cocked his head to the side. “I hear you’ve been sleeping a lot.”
I snapped out of it. “Where have you been?”
“I’ve been busy.” He stood, towering over me. “I came as soon as I could.”
“As soon as you could?” I repeated dumbly. “It’s been more than a week!”
Apollo folded his massive arms. “Time moves differently here, Alexandria. An hour or two here is a second in the mortal realm. It hasn’t been that long.”
“Since I died?” I crossed my arms, mimicking his stance. “I thought you were supposed to take care of me.”
My eyes narrowed. “I’m dead. I’m not quite sure how that’s taking care of me.”
Apollo unfolded his arms and strolled up to me. “You need to get over that tiny fact.” Then he patted me on the head. Actually patted me on the freaking head. “Come on. We have something we need to do.”
I turned, half-tempted to spin-kick him in the head, and while I was sure I could break out some of the moves, I didn’t have any leftover, supercool Apollyon powers. Spin-kicking him probably wouldn’t end well.
Apollo glanced over his shoulder, exasperated. “Are you coming? Time is ticking.”
“Oh, I think I have, like, an eternity worth of time.” I wanted to stay where I was, because I was feeling pretty damn childish, but I groaned and then followed him. “Where are we going?”
I made a face at him as I struggled to keep up with his long-legged gait. Pissed as I was at him, I remained sullenly quiet as we walked. We made it to the edge of the garden before I couldn’t hold back my questions.
“How is everyone?”
He looked at me sideways. “How do you think?”
My palms tingled, and anger heated my cheeks. “A part of me knew that this would be the outcome, but I hoped it would be different. I hoped because of what you said and what I was being asked to do. You let me down, Apollo. So the least you could do is give me a straight answer.”
His blue eyes deepened, turning the color of the sky before a storm. I knew I’d struck a chord, but I didn’t care. What could he do? Kill me? A quiet voice whispered in the back of my head that he could drop my unhappy ass in Tartarus, but I doubted he’d ever do that, no matter how much I ticked him off.
Apollo sighed. “They’re not happy. Your uncle holed himself up in a room and drank himself into a stupor. Your friends? Inconsolable. I think you know how Seth feels. Maybe you don’t—not to the full extent, anyway. And Aiden?” He paused, and the back of my eyes burned. “I have never seen a man break the way he did. And he broke. Set half the damn Covenant on fire. If his brother hadn’t showed up when he had, I’m positive that he would’ve stayed in the burning building. Is that what you wanted to know? Did it make you feel better, Alexandria?”