The next day, I sat in a comfortable chair outside of Mr. Zakari’s main office on the top floor of the Pulchritudo. When I came in for work, the attendant in the lobby, Henry, had stopped me, looking rather pale. “Persephone, Mr. Zakari needs to see you in his office. He told me to tell you not to bother changing into your uniform.”
I could hear Mr. Zakari talking to someone but I’m not sure what it was about. I only heard faint murmurs behind his door. That was his business and I knew better than to eavesdrop. A huge, intimidating man exited the room minutes after, nodding to me, and Mr. Zakari followed him.
“Oh, you’re here, take a seat in my office, Persephone.” He didn’t look very happy and I figured it was about whatever he and this man had been speaking about.
“Okay,” I smiled, got up, walked four paces, and sat down again. I had never been in his office before; Mr. Zakari usually liked to meet his employees at their stations, so I suppose this must be important.
He sat down behind his mahogany desk and shuffled a few papers around before meeting my eyes. I could see sweat drip down his temples as he loosened his tie, clearly distressed.
My smile faltered. “What is this about, Mr. Zakari? What’s wrong?”
“You can’t work here anymore, Persephone.” He said immediately.
The blood drained from my face. “What do you mean?”
“I’m firing you.”
“But I thought you liked me…” I struggled for words, entirely shocked. What had I done to provoke this? He had just given me a day off for my work ethic! “Why?”
“You don’t fit what the Pulchritudo wants to offer. We’ve found a replacement for you already.”
“Mr. Zakari, I don’t understand.”
“And you don’t have to,” He snapped. “Persephone, leave my establishment or I’ll be forced to call security to remove you.”
I quickly shouldered my bag and left his office, trying not to cry. What the hell had I done? It didn’t make any sense to me unless arbitrarily firing good employees was commonplace here. I waved goodbye to Henry and practically ran back to my apartment, wiping away tears before they fell. I had enjoyed working there, along with the purpose and freedom it had given me. I knocked on Michael’s door, wanting to be with someone for emotional support, but he didn’t answer. Instead, I went home and I was very tempted to help myself to my alcohol and wallow in self-pity, but I really just wanted to go to sleep and forget about it for awhile. When I turned on the light in my bedroom, I noticed a folded note on the chair in the corner of my room. Naturally curious as to how someone got in there, I went to pick it up.
You shouldn’t be too busy now, so meet me in my sector. You’ll know where.
I read the note again before crumpling it between my hands. I breathed in and out, trying to calm myself, but that didn’t work. The realization of what he had done and the more I thought about how Lord Luca got me fired just because I had said I was busy, the more furious I got. “That son of a bitch. I will fucking end him.”
Without thinking through my haze of frenzied emotions, I threw on my jacket, made sure I had my brass knuckles, and headed to Sector Violence.
* * *
I didn’t even second guess myself as I walked through the most terrifying neighborhood I had ever been in. Gunshots and screams seemed to echo off every brick and cement building. Gangs I had no knowledge of were having nothing short of wars across streets stained with blood that no one care enough to clean up. In front of me, someone was thrown out of a store’s front window, only to get up and walk away with wickedly sharp shards of glass sticking out of his back. Discarded cigarette butts and shell casings littered the cracked sidewalks. Graffiti depicting violent, horrible things was abundant, seeming to cover every inch of every building. The streetlights above me were either smashed or on the verge of burning out, the flickering and annoying buzzing seeming to grate against my nerves. Everything seemed to be broken and vandalized here. The beauty and refinement the other sectors were known for were nowhere to be found.
One of the gangs tried getting my attention and one of the men grabbed me when I hadn’t given them the satisfaction of a reaction.
“Oh, hell no. I am not in the fucking mood for this.” I twisted around and punched the man in the face with my brass knuckles, hearing a sharp crack. His nose was definitely broken, bleeding profusely, and he spat out teeth. “I don’t want fucking trouble. I’m already furious. I am a woman on a mission.”
As the man who grabbed me stumbled back in surprise and pain, the others watching from a distance, one of them asked, “And what mission would that be?”
“To kill a man,” I said, looking away from them. “And thank God this is the afterlife because I can do it more than once.”
The man with the freshly broken nose tried to grab me again, and I kicked him where I knew it hurt the most. “This bitch!”
His buddies stopped him from attacking me again, holding him back as he struggled. “Listen, dude, she’s already proved she’s not some sorry bitch from one of the other sectors. She can protect herself. We respect that, remember?”
“If any of you touch me, it’s your own fault when you get injured. Not mine.” I adjusted the brass knuckles on my fingers.
“Nah, girl, we’re good. Sorry about our friend.”
I raised my eyebrows, surprised that someone had apologized to me in Hell. A first, I think. “Now, can any of you point me in the direction of where Lord Luca is hiding?”
“Why do you want to find him?”
“Because he’s the man.”
They laughed but they knew I was serious. “There’s a tournament being held right now. Keep going down this street. You’ll see it.”
“Thanks, boys. I’ll try to forget about your friend’s indiscretion.” I walked away from them.
“Wait, what’s your name? I’ve never seen you around here before.”
“Persephone Flemming!” I yelled back.
I heard mutterings of “oh, shit!” and “let’s get out of here!” and when I glanced back, the gang was scurrying away. I would have found it funny if I wasn’t already so furious, words could not describe it.
Of course, it had to have been there; the colosseum in his sector. I could hear the crowd from outside, screaming and cheering. The entrance closest to me was guarded but, in my rage, I had no fear. I walked with a startling calm and confidence. “Let me in.”
The guards looked at each other and laughed, crossing their wiry arms over their chests. “And you are?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Let me see your sector tattoo.”
I scoffed, “This is a goddamn waste of time.” I pulled back my sleeve, baring my inkless forearm.
“Is this some joke?”
“No? Just let me in.”
One of them grabbed my arm roughly, squeezing my wrist so hard I would probably bruise, and stuck his thumb in his mouth before swiping it across where the tattoo should have been. “She didn’t cover it up.”
“Luca is expecting me.”
The other one jabbed him in his ribs and wiggled his eyebrows. I rolled my eyes in disgust. “Let it slide. I’m sure she’s fine.”
With them out of my way, it was easy to find him despite the arena being so massive. It did look like an ancient Roman colosseum and I thought that maybe Luca had a flair for the past. He sat on a raised platform, three walls and a ceiling surrounding him, like an emperor would have. He watched avidly, determining who won and who lost, and what to do with them. He didn’t know I was here. I scanned the crowd, thousands upon thousands of souls, looking for a way to access the platform, only seeing a door behind his head.
I went back to the guards. “How do I access where he is?”
“There’s a tunnel around back.”
I rolled my eyes again in annoyance that they didn’t tell me that beforehand but stalked off to find it. There were no guards posted. He knew he didn’t need any and no one would dare try to come in here.
It was lit with modern fluorescent lighting and soon the door to his balcony came into view. I opened it without the slightest hesitation and let it slam behind me, the echo silencing the entire arena. I didn’t care.
The back of Luca’s head turned and he stood, smiling and taking a step towards me. “Welcome to my sector, Persephone.”
My hands were in my pockets when we met halfway, but faster than he could react, I punched him in the face with my brass knuckles as hard as I could. His cheek turned bright red, except for the white indentations where the metal hit his skin, and he smiled even as blood came dripping through his white teeth.
Everyone had seen it, I knew, I could hear and feel their collective gasps ripple through the arena. I couldn’t help but take a glance and I saw the even the fighters had paused to stare up at us in horror.
“I will fucking kill you, Luca.” I hissed bitterly as he grabbed my arm and forced the brass knuckles off my hand, sliding it into his back pocket. His hand was on my chest, pushing me to the arena, to the crowd, until I felt the railing pressing against my spine. He held me by my throat as my back arched over the railing, hair spilling towards the modern gladiators.
Dead silence. Everyone was waiting to see what he would do, no sector leader would tolerate being publicly attacked. They thought he would either kill me right now or throw me down and have the duelists kill me for him. My head was spinning from the blood rushing to it.
“Continue the fight,” He growled and pulled me back up.
They listened, but the crowd wasn’t sure what to watch as Luca dragged me and threw me into his stone throne. My head snapped back and hit the stone with a sharp thud, my vision waving. Luca leered with his perfect teeth as he leaned down in front of me, his white fingers squeezing each armrest and caging me in. “It’s a good thing this is the afterlife, Persephone, because I can’t die. I would’ve been afraid of you if I was alive because I think you’d keep to that threat.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” I seethed.
“I believe it’s actually, Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d, nor Hell a Fury. like a woman scorn’d.”
“Great, you know your literature. That still won’t help you.” I struggled to get up and get my hands on him. I lashed out with my nails and caught his other cheek, three angry red lines appearing.
Luca glared down at me. “Quit fighting me, Persephone. You’re acting like a child.”
“You got me fired from my job, you son of a bitch.”
“And?” He asked, amused.
“And you think I wouldn’t be very upset about that? I am tired of you targeting me, attacking me, abusing me, and then trying to kiss me like everything is fine. It isn’t, Luca. I hate you, do you understand that? I thought there was a time that maybe it was something else, but not after this.” I started off yelling at him but finished my speech in a whisper.
“I can’t believe you made a scene in front of everyone.” He shook his head, probably embarrassed that I punched him in front of everyone and he couldn’t do anything about it, and chuckled.
“And I can’t believe you got me fired from my job just because you like to fuck around with me and ruin my afterlife.” I hissed, then started being extra dramatic like usual. “Jesus Christ, I have to spend the rest of eternity with Luca torturing me? Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I repent! Please, God, save me from this… Hell.”
He ignored most of what I said. “Are you sure that’s the only reason you came?”
My mouth went dry and I lost my words. Of course, that was the only reason. I hated him.
Luca removed his hand from the armrest and placed it on my throat, holding me back but also stroking my skin with his thumb. Goosebumps erupted over my skin and I hated the way my body always responded to him, from the moment he first touched me. “Persephone, don’t you see?”
“See what?” What I could see was shadows dancing across Luca’s sharp but beautiful features, the flickering light reflecting in his eyes, but I doubt he was talking about that.
“You belong here.” He glanced around. “You came here, the most dangerous of all the sectors, and arrived here unscathed. You were able to face your fear and judging by the way you swung your brass knuckles at me, I can safely assume you’ve used them already. You belong in Sector Violence.” His gray eyes stared deeply into mine but briefly dropped to glance at my lips as he continued stroking my throat.
I had to search for words as my heart rate finally dropped lower. “Is that what this is all about? You’re mad that I didn’t choose your sector?” I laughed disbelievingly.
He growled low in his throat, the sound barely audible. “You are so infuriating.” I expected him to try to strangle me, but his grip on me disappeared and he pulled away from the chair. “Let’s go. I dislike having an audience.”
“No, I’d rather stay around people. I feel safer this way.” I stayed put in the chair, as stubborn as ever. Besides, bad things happened when we were alone.
“Persephone, come on.” He rolled his eyes. “Do you ever feel safe anywhere?”
I shrugged but didn’t say anything.
“Persephone, please.” He whispered, holding his hand out for me to take.
I was shocked, and kind of impressed, that Luca had to capacity to utter the word or even ask for something nicely. It seemed like this was the first time for him and I assumed he never had to ask nicely for anything in his life. The look in his usually stormy eyes was sincere, another foreign thing. I took his hand without thinking and he gently pulled me up. I swayed a bit and my free hand held the back of my head.
“Are you alright?”
“Probably just a concussion or some brain damage, no thanks to you. It’ll be gone in a few hours.”
“I didn’t mean to throw you that hard.”
“You shouldn’t throw me at all, Luca. Did your mother ever teach you how to respect a woman? Did you even have a mother?”
He glared at me but put a hand on the small of my back to keep me steady. This might have been the first kind touch I ever received from him. “It’s just a short walk. You’ll be fine.”
The crowd did not react to our leaving, possibly not noticing us stepping behind the door or not wanting to show that they noticed. I’m sure Luca wouldn’t hesitate to punish them if they spoke anything and they were aware he would. I wonder if he’s done this before, let a woman sit on his throne, only to leave with her minutes later.
“Where are we going?” I asked once we were outside and alone.
“In Center Sector?”
“You have high aspirations, Persephone.” Luca laughed lightly, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he smiled. “No, I also have a place in my sector. All the leaders do.”
I stopped short, making Luca’s arm jerked back. “No, that’s okay. I’d rather not.”
Luca turned in front of me, his height making him loom like a shadow as he leered at me. “Why? Do I intimidate you, Persephone?”
“No, of course not,” I said stubbornly. “I just don’t feel comfortable going to your place alone.”
“But you were fine letting me into your apartment.”
“I was unconscious!” I pointed my finger at him. “How did you even get into my apartment last night to leave the note?”
“All of the sector leaders have access anywhere.”
“So basically you’re saying none of us have any real privacy at all?”
“I wouldn’t say that. Rarely do any of us care enough to use that power, only when we take an interest in something or someone.”
“Are you flirting with me?” I asked playfully.
“It’s taken you all this time to realize that?” Luca’s leer turned into a soft smile as he lowered his head towards mine. His finger tilted my chin upwards and he captured my lips with his firmly, trying to deepen the kiss.
I bit down on his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood and grinned when he jumped back from me. “You’re a psychopath, Luca.”
I could see Luca struggle not to retaliate against me, but all he finally said was, “I’m fully aware.” He sucked on his bottom lip to draw the blood away but grabbed my hand and laced his strong fingers through mine. Was it an act of possessiveness or something more? I never knew with him. “Please quit being difficult. I’m trying to be nice.”
“I think we’re far past that, especially after you got me fired from my job.” I followed him grudgingly as he dragged me along.
“So? It’s just a job. You don’t even have to work anyway.”
“I enjoyed doing it and, naturally, you took that away from me.”
“I didn’t think it’d mean so much to you.”
“You didn’t think? Wow, I’m so shocked.”
“Listen, can we just stop arguing and call a truce?”
“A white flag smells like defeat to me. I accept your terms of surrender.”
Luca muttered something under his breath that I didn’t catch, but that was quickly forgotten when someone yelled at me.
“Aye shawty, you got a fine ass!”
My eyes widened as Luca tensed and we both turned to the man who yelled. I could see the man turn five shades paler, even from across the street, as he saw Lord Luca. He immediately dropped down to his knees and yelled all kinds of apologies, the most frequent being that he didn’t know Lord Luca was with me. Good to know that he wouldn’t have apologized without Luca here. Luca was breathing heavily beside me, his shoulders rising and falling. I put my arm out in front of him. “Luca, he’s just some punk with no respect for women. You don’t need to do anything.”
“Yes, I do. Out of all the shitty people in this place, you would be the only one to deserve respect.” He said slowly and turned back to face the poor guy.
I prepared myself for Luca to pull away from me and beat the guy into an unrecognizable pulp, but his hand stayed firmly around mine as I squeezed.
He glanced at me again and his furious expression smoothed out as he sighed. “What do you want me to do?”
“You? Nothing.” He looked confused so I gave him a soft kiss on the lips to make him slightly complacent, but my arm wrapped around his back and plucked the brass knuckles from his back pocket. He knew exactly what I was planning to do when I stepped away and turned my back to him, slipping them back on my right fist and prowling closer to the man.
He hadn’t stopped apologizing to Luca, blubbering like an idiot, but quieted when he realized I was standing in front of him. “Why are you apologizing to Luca? You didn’t do anything to him. You did it to me.” I didn’t wait for him to reply. “Is it because you value him more because he’s a man or because you’re terrified of him? He isn’t the only one you should be scared of.” I kicked him fast and hard, catching his chin with the toe of my boot. His head jerked upwards and his teeth clacked together. Since he was now sitting back on his heels, I punched him in the eye but caught his collar as he fell backward, dragging him back up again. He looked at me with hatred in his eyes and his muscles tensed. “What’s the matter? Do you want to hit me? You look like you do. You look like you hit a lot of women. You look like you catcall a lot of women, and degrade them, and disrespect them, and, hell, you probably have raped them too. You don’t look like you could get any action any other way. Am I right?”
He tensed and leaned forward, looking like he was ready to pounce. I heard Luca take a few quick strides towards us, as a precaution.
“You could hit me, I suppose, but I don’t think it’d be in your best interest right now. I’d recover but you would be done.” I grinned into his ugly, swollen face. “Really, I’m being very generous right now. I’m sure Luca had several special plans for you, but all you have to deal with is little old me. Now, I want you to apologize to me and mean it.”
“I’m sorry.” He grunted and spat blood onto the cement.
“Great,” I smiled. “And also, if you ever harass any women again, you won’t have to deal with me again, but Lord Luca.” I dropped him and he fell backward, scrambling away from us and disappearing around a corner.
Luca’s arms wrapped around me protectively, strong and steady. I felt his sturdy chest against my back and I leaned into him without thinking. After everything that’s happened, he still feels… safe. He rested his chin on the top of my head and whispered, “You are so powerful, Persephone, and I don’t think you ever realize it.” I stood very still as he hugged me, careful not to do anything that might set him off. “Can we go back to my place now? I’d rather not stay out here and camp. It’s just around the corner.”
“Fine,” I sighed and rubbed my head.
“How are you feeling?” He asked as he removed his arms from around me, but his hand slipped down to hold mine.
“Headache. I’m sure it will be gone in a few hours, but damn, it hurts. I must not have realized it while adrenaline was in my system.”
“I’m sorry.” He kissed the top of my head.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had a head injury before. I guess they’re bad. I heard they’re… life threatening.”
Luca didn’t find my joke funny at all. “I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who can joke about being dead so freely.”
“Carpe diem, you know, you have to live life to the…” I burst out laughing when Luca glared at me. “Touchy subject, huh?”
“No, I just don’t want you to joke around so much. I wanted to talk to you about serious matters.”
“We’re here.” Luca nodded to the nondescript building in front of us.
“Not what you were expecting? Things in this sector aren’t aren’t as grand as you’re used to.” He commented bitterly.
“I just expected you to be living in nothing short of a palace. With your ego, I just had a feeling.”
“Whatever, just come in.” He unlocked it and flipped on the lights, holding the door open for me.
It was nicer on the inside, simple and masculine. All the necessities were here, but it was just so much different than what I was used to. His place seemed to be converted from an old gym and it smelled of rust and Luca. I watched him take off his leather jacket and hang it on the coat rack, enjoying the way I could see the muscles in his back ripple through his fitted tee. He was dressed impeccably, whereas I was still in plain black leggings and a tank top under my hoodie. I didn’t think about how I was dressed when I flew out of my apartment in a blind rage.
“Can I take your jacket?” He asked quietly, turning to me again.
“Sure.” I unzipped it and tossed it to him, figuring I shouldn’t be ashamed of my casual wear, glancing around, and exploring his rooms. “So, what did you need to talk about?” I called out, as I found a few spare rooms, bedrooms, a gym, a bathroom, and a study. The study was the grandest room in the house, with tall bookshelves filled and a massive wooden desk covered in papers and open books. I started snooping through his documents without even realizing it.
When his voice sounded from right behind me, I jumped. “I just wanted to talk, that’s all.”
“You never want to just talk. Elaborate?” I turned around to face him and leaned against his desk, crossing my arms as I looked up at him.
He stared at me for awhile, not blinking, not uttering a sound, and it was making me uneasy. “I want to figure you out, what makes you so damn special.”
“I guess I’m one of a kind, Luca,” I grinned.
He paced closer to me, cupping my face between his rough hands and staring deeply into my eyes. “Whatever you’ve done to me, I can’t explain it. I’m not supposed to act like this or feel this way about anyone, but I do. I’ve been going insane. It’s not healthy.”
“You’re so fucking stubborn, and ignorant, and confusing, and intricate, and enchanting, and beautiful, and powerful. You drive me crazy.” He ran his hand through his hair, frustrated. I could see the pulse in his neck race. Good to know it wasn’t just me. “You’ve woven a spell around me, with every glance, word, touch, and kiss.”
I pursed my lips, unsure of what to say.
“I would say you’re an angel, but we both know that’s not true.” He murmured as his eyes searched my features and he ran a hand through my hair, letting the silky locks slide between his fingers. “I don’t know how to act around you. Everything I’ve ever done, ever learned, simply doesn’t apply to you. Nothing makes sense.”
“I feel the same way, you psychotic son of a bitch,” I whispered with a smile and pulled his face down to mine. I paused millimeters away from kissing him, his lips open and waiting. He wanted to kiss me right now, I knew. He smelled so good, it was hard to resist the temptation. “But the best part is, this doesn’t have to make sense. Not right away.”
“I think I’ve found what I wanted to really say.” He murmured.
“What is it, Luca?”
“You don’t belong in this sector because you belong to me, you belong in this sector because you belong with me.” His grip on my hair tightened and he brought his lips to mine. He tasted like bourbon again, but it was faint. His kisses were strong and frantic, so intoxicating that I felt like I was getting drunk just off of his touch. Then, suddenly, I was in his arms and he was carrying me and kicking open the bedroom door. I fell back against silk sheets as Luca fell between my legs. He paused from kissing me just long enough to slide off his shirt to reveal well-toned muscles that worked as he lowered to kiss me again. My arms hooked under his and I ran my nails down his back lightly, playfully. He rained his kisses onto my lips, my cheeks, my jaw, my neck, my throat, my collarbones, and my chest. One hand slid from my hair to trace the outline of my body, my arms and the curves of my side, feeling the bones that ran under my skin. His touch was both exhilarating and comforting.
“I want to know every part of you, Persephone.” He whispered as he tugged off my shirt. His gray eyes swept my body and seemed to fill with wonder and admiration. “If ever I could worship a god, the goddess would be you. Only you.”
I kissed him softly, slow, sweet pecks on our swollen lips. I kissed his nose lightly. I knew he needed them. He needed to feel something meaningful. This was not just going to be kissing, or just sex. I didn’t want it to be. “Not yet.”
He pulled away slightly but didn’t look offended. “Of course not. I just… need to be closer to you.” He laid down next to me and pulled me into his chest, holding me for a long time as we both breathed each other in and out. His chin rested on my head and he stroked my hair slowly, which felt extremely good, and I was getting very tired. “Will you stay the night?”
I countered, but softly, because I didn’t want to start another argument. “Will you be here when I wake up?”
“For you, always.” He said in a definite but soft tone, kissing my forehead and resting his nose against mine, so we were face to face. He closed his gray eyes and continued to breathe deeply, his hold on me never loosening. He needed this. I needed this, I decided, slowly tracing patterns into his warm back, which resulted in his skin breaking out in goosebumps. More time passed, and I didn’t know how I was still awake. Maybe it was because of how my skin felt as if fireworks were exploding wherever Luca’s body met mine.
“Do you believe in love here, Luca?” I asked quietly, in case he was asleep.
“I never used to, no one does, and after being here for so long, no, but now…” He trailed off, apparently lost in thought. It took several minutes for him to answer me. “Maybe.”