angie | the sleeper has awakened (zombres) wrote in the_lito,
angie | the sleeper has awakened
zombres
the_lito

control issues; an ares mythfic

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is another in my series of "mythfics", to borrow the term from my darling etzyofi. In order to fully appreciate these, be sure to look at the casting picspams.)



CAST:




control issues, an ares mythfic.
{filled commission for daria (phaedraportokalea) ♥
who requested something focused on ares.}
the other residents of the lito have managed a relatively smooth transition; but with ares it will always be an issue of control.
when his path keeps crossing with a passionate war correspondent, the god of war finds himself properly challenged.

"...I have a passion, too. But it’s not half so kind. It doesn’t keep me warm—it burns me alive. Every time it ignites I burn from the inside out. It doesn’t guide me; it blinds me. Drives me to do bloody, terrible things. It’s a passion for destruction and death. Because that’s what I am, sweetheart. I’m the concussive flash as the nuke detonates. I’m the gleam of napalm and the shine of a blade and the powder burn of a gun. I’m a berserker. All brute force, blunt trauma, body bags, and casualty counts. I’m indiscriminate. I’m merciless. I’m suffering on a wide-scale. And the most terrible thing is that when I’m in the grips of my passion, I don’t care." (9,788 words)






The first time he sees her, it’s in a cramped gas station convenience store in one of the most dangerous favelas of Brazil. She’s murmuring in rapid-fire, perfectly fluid Portuguese with the owner, who shoots him a white-eyed look of terror as he steps through the door.

She’s a pretty thing, skin a sun-browned gold, dark hair pulled back in a bun that’s wilting in the humid heat. Her khaki shorts show off a pair of shapely legs and her yellow blouse is transparent with sweat—he can clearly see the black, lace-trimmed bra beneath.

She’s also persistent, despite the owner’s abrupt and uneasy silence; she continues to cajole with a persuasive smile, even going so far as to reach out a hand to push a business card across the counter. Her nails are a glossy purple, he can’t help but notice.

“Afternoon, Pedro,” he calls in a casual, off-handed way, grabbing a bag of sunflower seeds in passing. “Two packs today.”

“Right away, Mr. Mars,” the owner says eagerly, turning sharply to the wall of cigarettes behind him.

“Mars? Ares Mars?” the woman says.

“Yeah,” he says, opening the cooler door and pulling out a brown-bottle longneck. The cap clatters to the floor with one lazy flick of his broad thumb.

“Nicola Puzo,” she announces, thrusting out a hand. She’s not one to beat around the bush.

“Any relation to Mario?”

“Don’t think so. Who’s he?”

“Author. Wrote one of the greatest books of all time—The Godfather.”

“I’ve seen the movie.”

“Hmm,” he says, taking a pull at his beer. The kids these days thought that flashes through his head remains unspoken. “Can I help you with anything, Miss Puzo?”

“You could give me a quote,” she says readily, a slim recorder appearing in her hand as if by magic. “For the piece I’m writing.”

“A quote on what?” he drawls lazily, catching Pedro’s stricken stare over her shoulder.

“On how your business is directly fueling the continued violence in this country, for starters,” she says. “Does the money assuage your guilt, or were you simply born without a conscience?”

Her voice has gotten harder and sharper, like a freshly cut diamond, and the soft lines of her face have tightened with determination. Like a hunter stalking elusive prey only to finally catch the scent of blood on the wind; it’s clear she’s been looking for him for some time.

“The Times? The Post?” he asks after a thoughtful, expressionless pause. He reaches out to snatch one of the cigarette packs from the counter, tearing open the crisp cellophane with a harsh yank. Slides one between his lips and strikes a match with his thumbnail.

“The Athenian, actually.”

“Ahhh,” he sighs, expelling a thick cloud of gray smoke. “Did my lovely niece put you up to this?”

“No,” she says without hesitation. “I’m just following the story, which led me to you.” It’s delivered earnestly enough that he believes her. He decides she must be new to the job to be so forthright and naïve. Most journalists covering such territory get their shininess rubbed off in a matter of weeks. The ones that keep to such a beat usually have a death wish, or are too stupid or too burned out to give a shit whether the next bomb or bullet has their name already engraved on it. And this woman doesn’t strike him as stupid; she’s certainly not burned out, not with that eager, hungry glint in her eyes.

Hunger’s something he understands.

“I run a business, Miss Puzo,” he says. “I deliver goods to those that have the funds to pay for them. I don’t give much attention to the moral philosophies of those who purchase my goods—honestly, so long as they’ve got the cash and the need for more shipments in the future, I couldn’t care less what cause they subscribe to.”

He glances out the barred window, where the purple of twilight is beginning to fall over the city. “Now, take a bit of advice: get out of here. Get back to your hotel or get out of the city before dark—this isn’t the sort of place a girl like you should get lost in. The locals are liable to eat you up as soon as look at you.”

The button of the recorder clicks. “It’s been a pleasure,” she says dryly, stepping past him with her head held high and shoulders stiff. Yes, there’s pride and over-confidence there. The follies of youth. He wonders how much longer the world will be kind to her, before it begins chipping away at her polished, fresh veneer.

“I swear, boss,” Pedro says hurriedly after the door jingles closed. “I didn’t tell her anything. She strolled in here brazen as could be—said she’d heard on the grapevine that this was a hot place to be. I don’t know who’s been talking, but it hasn’t been me. I swear to you.”

“Ah, quit the groveling,” he snaps, grinding the ash of his cigarette into the chipped tray of loose change. “Tell Javi when he gets here that his latest shipment is in the shed. I hope he left the payment up front as promised…”

Pedro nods, pulling a hefty metal case from under the counter. “He said there’s a little extra, too, as a pre-payment on the next delivery. …Boss, you want I should mention something about that girl to Javi?” He holds up the business card Nicola Puzo so negligently left behind.

Ares hesitates. Someone like that could become a thorn in his side. Could stir up and cloud the waters just when he most wanted smooth, clear sailing. Still… He grabs the slim card from the clerk. Slips it into his front shirt pocket.

“I’ll keep an eye on Miss Puzo myself,” he replies. “See you next month, Pedro.”








The second time she sees him, it’s at a black-tie event. Politicos, celebs, debutantes. She’s only there on assignment. Because The Athenian had to make an appearance. There’s enough power and clout here that she tells herself it won’t simply be a puff piece, more than just a bit in the gossip column; she just needs to pin down that governor who’s been eyeing the Oval Office, get a sound bite or two on the record, and she can spin this into something worthwhile.

She’s about to make her move when he bumps into her. She doesn’t think it was intentional—not by that look of pure surprise on his face when he whips around and sees just who he’s baptized with bourbon. He yanks the handkerchief from his pocket and offers it to her roughly, face already red with drink, with a muttered apology.

He’s certainly not as calm and poised as he was last time; his suit may be expensive and well-tailored, but he somehow manages to make it look sloppy. As if he slept in it, coming straight to this gala event from a previous evening of debauchery. There’s a five o’clock shadow peppering his cheeks and his hair—dark but noticeably graying at the temples—is beginning to slip out of its gelled constraints.

Ares Mars may be one of the wealthiest men in the world, may come from the wealthiest family, but somehow the outward trappings of riches fit him ill. This is not a man comfortable in tuxedos. He’s more suited for camo or the t-shirt and blue jeans he was wearing in Brazil, with dirt and blood rather than champagne and gold.

He looks like a louche bastard. Attractive in a way that’s still a warning. A playboy beginning to go to seed; but only just beginning. There’s still firm muscle and obvious strength beneath the suit, and only the faintest of lines beginning around his eyes.

Eyes that keep scanning the crowd and exits, as if he’s expecting to be attacked at any moment. She’s spoken to soldiers before that carried the same barely-coiled tension about them; they were prone to shakes and stuttering fits, suffering from PTSD or just simply unaccustomed to walking through a peaceful neighborhood, vulnerable without a gun at their hip.

Funny, she thinks. He was more relaxed in the middle of the favela, where gunfire is more common than laughter. Here he looks pained. Awkward and uncomfortable.

Perhaps it’s just that this place is too civilized—yes, that’s it. There are canapés and wine glasses, waiters in white jackets and sophisticated, modulated conversation. Everything from the tasteful decorations to the glittering eveningwear screams class and refinement. Ares Mars is none of those things. He’s dirty hands and sudden violence; a bad temper and a trigger millimeters from being pulled. There’s a scarcely contained, almost feral anger that envelops him like a cloud that is felt more than seen. He’s an animal desperate to stalk prey that instead finds himself locked inside a pretty cage and told not to bare his teeth.

She’s unsettled by how all of that intrigues her on more than just a professional level.

It all flashes through her head as she wipes the alcohol off her dress, instantly resigning herself to the inevitable stain. It’s not as if she has much of a use for dresses these days.

“Can I get you a drink, Miss Puzo?”

She hesitates. She hadn’t expected him to remember her name. “Vodka martini,” she says.

He takes the damp handkerchief from her, handing her a full glass in exchange, and negligently shoves the bourbon-soaked fabric back into his pocket. “Doesn’t strike me as your sort of crowd,” he says brusquely, making conversation in the way people do when they find themselves embarrassed in public.

“It’s not really yours, either, is it?”

“That obvious, huh?”

“Why are you here?” She’s been warned about her curiosity before—“Remember what happened to the cat,” her mother used to say. But she’d only smile, because she remembered the part of that adage everyone always conveniently forgot: curiosity may have killed the cat, but satisfaction brought her back.

“Family obligation,” he mutters. She suspects it must have something to do with his brother, Zeus. It’s well documented fact that the two can hardly stand the sight of each other; the tabloids have always been happy to splash front page photos of their many public altercations. The shouting matches on red carpets. The fist fights in museums.

“You don’t get along much with your family,” she says. It’s not a question. It’s not anything, really. Just an observation. A matter of common knowledge.

“We’re all a bunch of bastards,” he shrugs nonchalantly, but she can see she’s struck a nerve. Sore subject, that. Duly noted for future reference. “We’re all pretentious, egotistical, smug, self-serving assholes. Don’t let their charities and PR campaigns convince you otherwise, sweetheart.”

“The way I see it, though,” she can’t resist prodding. “Your brother Zeus runs an airline. Your other brother Poseidon is a pioneer in green technologies. Regardless of any skeletons lurking in their closets, they’re not actively destroying the world the way you are. You’re the one putting guns and bombs in the hands of anyone with enough spare change.”

“You don’t understand,” he says evenly, pulling out a cigarette.

“Excuse me, sir,” a passing waiter says. “This is a no-smoking event.”

Ares doesn’t bat an eyelash. Merely lights his cigarette and thrusts a defiant middle finger into the man’s face. “Get the fuck out of my sight,” he says, with enough heat to send the man scurrying. After a couple puffs, he lifts the cigarette from his mouth and fixes a disconcerting, piercing stare on her. “You don’t understand,” he repeats in an oddly flat way. “We have parts to play. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been. Somebody always has to be the villain.”

Without another word he turns away and strides off into the crowd, carelessly shoving his way through knots of conversation until she loses sight of him in the press.







The third time he sees her, it’s at the Lito. He’s standing in front of the elevator, leaning into the finger depressing the descend button, and feeling altogether done with the world. It’s not until she clears her throat behind him that he realizes he’s had an audience for his muttered stream of profanities and vented annoyance.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he says by way of greeting, jabbing the button again.

“Paying a visit to your niece—she wanted to discuss something in private.”

“She’s six floors up,” he says, nodding at the staircase to the left. “Start climbing. You’ll probably get there before this damn contraption wakes up.”

No sooner are the words out of his mouth before the door dings open. She steps past him without hesitation. “What floor do you want?” she asks, finger hovering over the button plate.

“Five.”

The doors glide shut and the metal box shudders into life, creeping upwards as if pushing its way through molasses.

“Not quite what I expected in the extravagant home of the Olympians.”

“I think this elevator is the most honest thing about this place; physical proof that we’re not perfect. That we can’t make everything go smoothly. That there are some things not even money or power can fix.”

On cue, the elevator creaks to a stop between floors three and four. Ares rocks forward, stretching a dark, tattooed arm across her to pound the emergency button with a short, easy movement that suggests he’s done it many times before. A red warning light flickers on overhead, bathing them in a bloody glow, and somewhere in the distance an alarm bell begins to ring metallically.

“Should I be worried?” she asks.

“No.” He pulls out his ever-present pack of cigarettes. “Heph will unfuck it in a few minutes. Might as well make ourselves comfortable, though.” Without further ado, his back slides down the wall and he drops onto the carpeted floor with a soft grunt. Stretches his legs out and lights a match. The whiff of spent sulfur fills the small space. “I fucking hate this place,” he adds, smoke curling around his nose.

“If you hate it so much, why are you here?”

“…Reasons you wouldn’t understand. Suffice it to say, there’s an arrangement I have to hold to—at least in part—if I want my life to continue going smoothly. Or as smoothly as it typically does.” He sighs, closing his eyes and rubbing a large, callused hand over his face. The rasp of his unshaven cheeks is audible.

“Tired? Bed full of blood money not comfortable enough any more?”

He cracks one eye open, glaring up at her through the space between his parted fingers. “Yeah, I’m tired. Tired and fed up. I’d like to see you get to my age and not be tired.”

“Maybe your sins are weighing you down—keeping you awake at night. Ever consider going to a priest? I hear confession does wonders for a guilty conscience.”

His laugh is more a bark, short and sharp and loud. “Me go to a priest. Now that is rich.”

“If you’ve an aversion to white collars and high altars, I’m always available. I’ve been told I’m a great listener.” She pulls the recorder from her purse with a smile.

“Only when it’s on the record though, huh?” The back of his head thuds softly against the wall. “You’re like a goddamned Energizer Bunny, aren’t you? You just don’t give up. I can’t even remember the last time I felt that much passion about something… Who the hell even are you, sweetheart?”

“I’m just a reporter trying to make a name for herself—”

“There’re safer ways to go about achieving that. Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to poke animals with sharp sticks? Not to run with scissors? What are you—twenty-three?”

“Twenty-nine, actually.”

“Oh, beg pardon, twenty-nine,” he corrects with exaggerated deference. “Just don’t understand why a pretty thing would be so eager to throw herself into dangerous conflicts—you should be drinking wine at hoity-toity soirees and going to the movies with a pack of girlfriends and seducing rich older men to take them for every penny they’ve got—”

“What a flattering, charming view of the female sex. Are you saying I should stop worrying my pretty little head about world issues and find a man to take care of me?”

He finishes his cigarette and snuffs the ember out on the floor, grinding the hot ash into the nice carpet. “My point is a girl with your youth, brains, and beauty should have a comfy desk job, or start a paper of your own, or cover the entertainment circuit or something. Some sort of job that takes advantage of your assets while keeping you alive long enough to enjoy a 401k. I just don’t see the sense in you risking everything.”

“And I don’t see the sense in your business. In how you’re fine with making a profit off of bloodshed and human suffering. Just because I’m young and a woman doesn’t mean I should turn a blind eye to unrest. I do what I do not because it’s a paycheck—and not just so people will know my name, either, though God knows I want to leave some sort of mark on the world. No, I do my job because it’s one that needs to be done. And if no one else will do it, then the responsibility falls onto me. I have to walk onto the battle fields because the media machine too often ignores what’s truly happening—I have to give a voice to everyone being silenced so they can’t be forgotten. I’ll make the world sit up and pay attention any way I can. And if that means putting myself in the line of fire, then so be it.”

With a sudden jolt, the elevator begins to ascend again. They ride in silence until the door opens on the fifth floor.

“Believe this is your stop,” she says quietly.

He leaves without a backward glance; leaves his crumpled cigarette stub and the tang of smoke behind to keep her company the rest of the way up.







The fourth time she sees him, he’s in quite a state. She’s in London chasing down a lead—a witness and possible instigator to a recent riot in the Ukraine—and steps into the pub purely on chance. She was just hoping for some fish and chips: instead she finds him drunkenly swearing at the bartender, seconds away from throwing his heavy beer stein at the man.

She grabs it from him as he pulls back for the pitch. It off-balances him so badly he staggers, tripping over a chair with a loud clatter. It would be almost comical if not for the anger darkening his face and the chill way everyone else in the pub watches in silence. These days, you never know when a belligerent drunk is liable to pull out a gun or knife.

“Mr. Mars, I believe you’ve had enough,” she says, setting the stein carefully on a nearby table. “Come on—I’ll help you up.”

“What the fuck’re you doin’ here?” he slurs, blinking owlishly. At least the worst of the rage has dampened, replaced with confusion. He looks inches away from collapsing completely, though.

“Is there a back room away from everyone?” she asks the bartender in an undertone.

“Yeah, through there,” the man says, jabbing his thumb over one shoulder. “Miss, I’m going to have to call the police. Drunken and disorderly content. He’s in no state to be out in public. Liable to do a damage to himself or someone else.”

“Do what you feel is right,” she says. “I’ll try to keep him calm. I’d like to have a word with him before they arrive. Come on, Mr. Mars. Let’s go have a nice, quiet sit down in private.”

He collapses so heavily onto the chair the legs actually buckle. Throws his head back and groans loudly. “Just how many have you had today?” she asks, eyeing the cuckoo clock hanging on the wall. It’s barely past two; judging from the state he’s in, his shirt disheveled and bloodshot eyes rimmed with dark circles, he had an extraordinarily early start.

“However many, it wasn’t enough,” he says, ending on a cough. “…D’you have any idea how hard it is for me to get drunk? For any of us? Nigh impossible. Practic’ly got to drain the cellar dry to have any affect. Got to drink for hours an’ hours.”

“Why are you so desperate to be drunk?” She pulls out the chair across from him and makes herself comfortable. Discretely turns on the recorder tucked into her purse. The cops could walk through the door at any moment—but until then, she fully intends to take advantage of this opportunity.

“Tryin’ to forget,” he says, head lolling on his shoulders. “Y’know, it’s the fuckin’ damndest thing—before, I forgot everything. Couldn’t’ve remembered if you’d paid me to. If you’d offered me sacrifices an’ mulled wine an’ sang my praises. We all forgot so easy. An’ then we come down here, an’ we sign that fuckin’ Pact, an’ now I feel everythin’. I remember it all, too. Sometimes it gets so you have to drink just to not feel it all.”

“Feel what, exactly? Guilt?”

“Not exactly. I can’t really feel guilty—not wired that way. But shame. Ah, I know shame.”

She hesitates. “Splitting hairs, aren’t we? I always thought the two were pretty interchangeable.”

“Wrong there,” he says, trying to focus on her, thumping his arms onto the table and leaning forward. “Guilt’s what you get when you regret what you’ve done. It’s tied to specific actions. It’s when you wish you’d done a thing differently, see? Now shame: shame is when you wish you were different. That you weren’t the way you are. That you weren’t wired in a way that made you circle repetitively, doomed to repeat the same mistakes an’ sins over an’ over an’ over again. Guilt’s shallow; shame’s fundamental. You follow?”

“I believe so, yes.”

He stares at her, as if studying every line of her face, and she knows it’s impossible but she could almost swear that she sees him sobering up. His eyes are abruptly more focused; his posture tightens as he loses the sloppy bonelessness of a drunkard. There’s a bit more light in his eyes as they clear. “You understand passion, don’t you?” he asks flatly.

“What do—”

“Of course you do. That day in the elevator, when you spoke about your job, I could see it in you. You’ve got a passion burning in you like a torch. It lights your way, gives you guidance. Keeps you warm. It’s a solace on your bad days, isn’t it? Your passion tells you what you are.

“Well, I have a passion, too. But it’s not half so kind. It doesn’t keep me warm—it burns me alive. Every time it ignites I burn from the inside out. It doesn’t guide me; it blinds me. Drives me to do bloody, terrible things. It’s a passion for destruction and death. Because that’s what I am, sweetheart. I’m the concussive flash as the nuke detonates. I’m the gleam of napalm and the shine of a blade and the powder burn of a gun. I’m a berserker. All brute force, blunt trauma, body bags, and casualty counts. I’m indiscriminate. I’m merciless. I’m suffering on a wide-scale. And the most terrible thing is that when I’m in the grips of my passion, I don’t care. I don’t give a flying fuck about the carnage I leave in my wake. Because I’m not a person, not a man, not a coherent personality when I’m venting my passion. I’m that ancient, eternal force of combat and bloodshed—and nothing else.”

She stares at him blankly, face yet to register the numb horror she feels creeping across her skin. It’s the dull, flat cadence in which he speaks and the way his too-hot eyes bore into hers—this is worse than any of the soldiers or survivors she’s ever interviewed. Worse than a textbook case of PTSD or depersonalization.

It’s like watching a man literally fray in front of you; as if he could take himself apart with words and the heat of a fever-bright stare.

“Can you understand? Try to understand—Athena had her champions and heroes. Her master strategists. Her lucky chosen that carried her banners into battle. Everyone remembers somewhere in their hearts that she was the goddess of battle and strategy. But she also got to have wisdom. She got to be the thinking warrior. The brain that can plan, counter, defend, adjust. But me? I’m the god of war. And a war and a battle are two entirely different creatures. A battle can be short, quick, precise, well-organized. There can be clear-cut victors in a battle. But a war? A war is a nasty, lumbering, brutish thing. It stretches on for weeks. Months. Years. Wars are senseless things, full of butchery and madness. When they’re over it’s hard to say what started them. Who won them. Why it mattered. All people see or care about is the devastation a war leaves in its wake. The gravestones and orphans and shattered bodies that will never heal. And that’s my work. My passion. My legacy. No wonder Athena always got the finer tributes…

“D’you know what I want? It’s what I’ve always wanted. Control. The power to have control. See, it’s not about making choices. I don’t get choices. I have compulsions. The urge to press the self-destruct button. Pull the trigger. Drop the match. And the only question is how long I can resist those compulsions. I hate my family and I can’t stand the Lito because they can all pretend to be more than what they were. They’ve always had control—they can’t understand what it is to be driven by destruction. They get to think themselves noble and admirable. There’s nothing noble about war. So I hate them and strike out at them every chance I get. Anything to make them even half as angry as I am every day. Does that seem right to you? That being themselves leads to accolades and respect and devotion, while I just get death certificates and anger?”

Slowly, his words sink in. The meaning behind them. She stares at him and wants to dismiss it all as the ramblings of a drunk in the middle of a bender. That’s just what he looks like, after all, in his wrinkled green t-shirt and mud-splattered fatigues. The smell of beer and stale sweat and old cologne clings to him. The smell of smoke, too—not unexpected, given how many packs he must go through in a day.

But then she realizes that it’s not just cigarette smoke clinging to him: it’s the smell of artillery fire and spent cartridges. She’s walked enough battlefields to recognize the distinctive, acrid tang. And now that she actually looks at the bare arms braced against the table, she notices the tattoos and scars. The insignias of a dozen different governments and groups, some so old and faded as to be almost illegible. Burns and puckered flesh from uneven stitches. Scars left by all manner of blades. And she wonders what other marks are hidden under his clothes; what other testaments to pain and suffering and megalomania he carries with him everywhere.

And his eyes—his eyes are too bright, as if reflecting a forest fire. Or a burning jungle. Or a palace torched by revolutionaries. He stares at her and she’s not even sure he sees her. Or if he’s staring straight into the bloody past, reliving every horror he’s ever caused.

She has chastised the God of War.

It’s too much to process. The idea that the gods she read about in children’s stories are not only real—that she’s talking to one and works for another. That a being thousands of years old could be sitting across the table, could drink beer and curse in English, could do something as mundane and human and horrible as sell guns to terrorist organizations… It’s as if a crack opens in the world and she sees the truth hidden beneath; like a magician revealing all of their secrets, she abruptly sees how obvious it all is. They’re not even trying to hide, keeping their names and performing all of their old functions, inciting the same sort of awe and reverence they did before—only now they’re celebrities and businessmen, intellectuals and environmentalists. Humans are still worshipping them; they’re just doing it in different ways now. They’ve stood in the spotlight for decades: how is it that no one else has noticed before?

A voice speaks to her, echoing in her head. It’s rough and male. And it’s not a voice she’s ever heard before. Mortals do not see because they do not wish to. Life is so short and fleeting for you that you would prefer comfortable ignorance rather than painful epiphany. Truly looking upon the divine is an agonizing, shattering experience. Few can do so and stay sane. There is a price that must be paid for such knowledge. And so they have reduced themselves, presented themselves, as things you will understand and accept: writers, scientists, doctors, athletes, television stars. You see them. You remember them. But you do not always see or remember them. It is how they can be mundane and divine… It is the paradox by which they exist.

Then the voice is gone. And with it goes the full enormity of her insight. She looks at Ares and blinks suddenly hazy eyes, her head swimming and thoughts muddled. She vaguely remembers a conversation. A confession. He looks at her with an expression that rather looks like desperation tinged with hope. She feels he’s waiting for her to say something. Her mind gropes wildly for a touchstone to build off of.

“…There are better ways to deal with shame,” she says finally. “Rather than drink yourself to death at two in the afternoon. Have you ever thought about talking to a therapist? I could recommend a very good psychologist—she has a lot of experience with people who’ve experienced combat or trauma.”

Is it her imagination, or does he slump slightly in his chair as if disappointed; has his face gotten a little too stiff around his forced grin? “Thanks for the offer, sweetheart,” he says finally. “But no thanks.” There comes the sound of approaching footsteps, the jingle of metal. “And I think that’s my ride. Catch you later.”

He stands and holds out his wrists before the officer can even clear the doorway. “You alright in here, miss?” the uniformed man asks as he snaps the handcuffs on. “The owner said this man was getting violent.”

“I’m fine.”

“Yeah—it was just a momentary fit. It’s passed. I’m good now.” He says it so nonchalantly.

So why doesn’t she believe him?








The fifth time he sees her, it’s in a Nigerian bar. The wall over her shoulder is peppered with old bullet holes the current owner hasn’t patched over yet. When he catches sight of her familiar profile, sees her sitting calmly on a rusty stool pulled up to the bar, a flash of anger galvanizes him—he’s grabbed her by the arm before she even realizes he’s behind her.

“You have one helluva death wish, girl,” he growls, propelling her into a corner behind a support beam. “There’s a fully-armed squad about to hit this town—Boko Haram soldiers. Three guesses what they’ll do when they see a pretty, Western thing like you. And the first two don’t fucking count.”

“I’m not a defenseless damsel,” she argues, pulling a Glock from the holster strapped around her thigh. “I know how to use this.”

“And what good is that going to do against twenty men with automatics?” he counters harshly. “All that peashooter might do is spare you the torture of rape—they’ll just immediately shoot you dead instead. Leave your body in the street and drive on. What the fuck compels you to risk your life like this?”

“Life is risk,” she says, still far too calm given the circumstances. He’s beginning to see red.

“Come with me; I’m getting you out of here.” Without anything else to sink his teeth into, he bites down on each word so firmly his jaw aches.

“Oh, because they won’t shoot you on sight? They’ll just let you pass? Let me guess—you’re guaranteed safe passage because you’re the one who gave them those automatics you’re so afraid I’ll see. Hmm? Am I getting warm? I know you haven’t flinched from supplying terrorists and murderers in the past—I’ve seen some of the files on you and Mars Manufacturing. Belfast, 1972. Beijing, 1989. Rwanda, 1994. Ring any bells? Hell, I bet half of the massacres since WWII could be laid right at your doorstep.”

“We don’t have time to hash this all out, here and now,” he snarls. “I won’t hesitate to carry you out of here. I’ll gag you if I have to.”

For some reason she flashes back to the London pub. The memory aches like a sore tooth—like something important happened that afternoon while her back was turned and her eyes were closed. Why can’t she fucking remember?

“Why do you even care?” she finds herself shouting, resisting the powerful pull of his hand. “What does it matter to you, what happens to me?”

“Innocent people die every day because of me—I don’t want your name added to that list.”

“But why are you so bent on saving me? Why am I more important than any other victim?”

“Because you can hold me accountable!” His fingers are bruising her arm. “You can show the world what I am—you can give the dead their voices back after I steal them.”

She stares at him open-mouthed, confused and unbalanced. He takes the opportunity and heaves her over his shoulder; she gasps as the air is squeezed out of her lungs. Before she has the presence of mind to struggle free, he’s dumped her in the backseat of his jeep and has kicked the vehicle into drive.




An hour later and they’ve reached the outskirts of Lagos. He pulls up in front of a small house. There are black bars on the front window. The glass behind it is cracked. He selects a small key from his cluttered key ring and unlocks the front door. “Come in. Eat something,” he orders roughly. “I’ll arrange for a plane ticket home.”

“And what makes you think I’ll take it and go?” she demands obstinately.

“Because I’ll give you the story you’ve been looking for,” he says. “Come in. Eat something. And you’ll get the interview of your life.”

“All these weeks of dodging me, forcing me to hop-scotch across the planet trailing your shipments, and now you’re just going to tell me everything I want to hear?”

“Yes. Just like that.”

“Why?”

“Because you’ve worn me down. I’m too tired to run any more.”

“And you suddenly want penance for your sins? Is this an act of self-flagellation? If so, guess that makes me the whip, huh? And you just got me out of that situation because I’m useful to you. Like a tool.”

“I’m a selfish bastard,” he agrees without hesitation. “Everything I do, I do for myself. And you’re absolutely right.”

As she follows him inside, something nags at the corners. Like a tune remembered but not the lyrics. A glimpse of something from the edge of your vision, moving too quickly to properly identify. She stares at his back, at the trickle of sweat down his neck, and can almost hear his voice echoing in his head. But she can’t make out the words…

The house is sparsely furnished, little more than a bolt hole. In the front room there’s a mattress on the floor and a couple blankets. In the kitchen: a loudly whirring fridge, a ramshackle stove, and a chipped table with a single plastic chair beside it. Ares yanks open the refrigerator door and pulls out a green bottle. “Something to drink?” he offers. “Your choices are beer, beer, and beer.”

She only looks at him, forehead creased with concentration. “…There’s a difference between guilt and shame,” she murmurs. “Between a battle and a war…”

He freezes, the bottle an inch from his lips. “Yes.”

“Something about… passion…” She rubs her first two fingertips against her temple in an attempt to alleviate the sudden ache. “Why can’t I remember…”

“D’you believe in fate?”

The non sequitur throws her. “Pardon?”

“Fate. Destiny. The concept that some things are just meant to happen. Some people are supposed to die on a certain day. Others are meant to meet at one particular moment. D’you think there’s any truth in that?”

“No. No, I don’t believe in fate. I’ve seen too much horror and capriciousness to think everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the world doesn’t care. Sometimes people are monsters to each other. Sometimes bad things happen to people who least deserve it.”

It’s almost there, hovering just out of reach. If she could only focus better, strain her eyes a little, she’d see it…

“I believe in fate,” he says, walking in a slow circuit around the table, beer bottle in one hand. “Which is a real laugh, coming from someone like me. But then we were never the omnipotent type. We didn’t create the universe—we just govern certain aspects of it. And we didn’t create humanity, either; no, you created us. You made us what we are. You made us because you needed answers. You wanted explanations. And to push the work off on someone else. To shift the responsibility. Can’t be blamed for an affair if Eros made you fall in love with someone else. Can’t be held accountable for any drunken misconduct if Dionysius was the one passing you the drink. Can’t be punished for starting a war that massacred thousands if Ares drove you to fight. See what I mean? Everything I am is because humanity has made me this way.”

He gulps down half of his beer and stops in mid-step. He’s only a few feet away and the look he levels on her is like a pin aimed at a squirming bug.

“The first couple of times our paths crossed, I chalked it up to coincidence. Told myself it was because you worked for my niece. Because you were following my business as part of your job. But that didn’t explain all of the ways we kept meeting. The exact moments our paths crossed. And at the pub, I realized something. For whatever reason, the Fates have started winding our life-threads together. For better or worse, we keep circling each other, coming closer and closer with each turn. You—pursuing your passion—and me—a slave to mine. Such contradictory and opposing forces. We should repel one another, but there’s this current between us drawing us in. And here we are.”

He opens his hands in a sweeping gesture. And then his shoulders slump. He pulls out the plastic chair, twists it around, and sits down heavily. “You don’t understand,” he says quietly, eyes on the cracked tiled floor. “I thought—at the pub, you almost seemed to get it. I know talking about this stuff usually slides in one ear and out the other; another side effect of that fucking Pact. But I thought you were different. I thought there was something…”

Her hand has slipped into her bag. It closes around her recorder. She hasn’t replayed the last recording, and finds herself almost dreamily pressing the button. His voice, slurred and slightly tinny with the playback reverb, fills the room. He glances up in surprise—of course, he hadn’t known she was recording him that day.

Nicola Puzo listens and remembers. And his words just moments ago are sudden sharper and clearer. “Intertwined,” she says, and she thinks of the nightmares her grandfather had every night, the way his shouts would wake her as a child. He dreamed of bloody beaches, cold foxholes, and swastika patches sewn onto the enemy’s shoulders; and she would sit beside his bed and listen as he talked in his sleep, knowing somehow that she was helping him release the ghosts that persisted in tormenting him forty years on. She remembers how fascinated she had been with documentaries and history classes as she grew, how she has always felt the strangest pull to learn more about what drove people and nations into conflict. When others were viscerally repelled and horrified, she was able to detach in a way that allowed her to examine and write concisely. She’d discovered within herself the ability to look into darkness and not be blinded, to report what she’d seen in a way that made others see the truth, as well.

And so it became her driving force, her calling. Her reason for living. And her mother has always thought it macabre: that a young woman can find purpose in the senseless, passion in horror, and a life’s calling in bloodshed.

Maybe she wouldn’t think it so grotesque if she knew that it would inevitably lead her daughter to this moment—standing in a room with a god in the midst of a crisis. A god who seems to be looking to her for something, be it guidance or answers or absolution.

She’s always been drawn to war, but this is a little ridiculous.

As she stares back at him, a jumble of emotions crosses his face. One second he looks lost and unsure; the next he’s harsh and arrogant again, a defiant set to his jaw. Now she knows so much of it is put on as a bluff. A way to make others keep their distance. Because it’s clear now: the only control he actually has lies in the way people perceive him. He hates feeling vulnerable, so he tells the world he’s a smug dick who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks. He’s physically strong and male and a symbol of force—it wouldn’t do to let people see how absolutely chaotic and terrifying it can be inside his head. He can’t tell the truth: that he’s a shell-shocked soldier liable to snap at any second and without a thought. Prone to fits that only end when everyone else is dead, leaving him knee-deep in carnage and unable to remember how he even got there.

It’s a pivoting point. She sees both the man and the monster; the victim and the criminal; the reality and the myth. It doesn’t excuse him for what he’s done. What he’ll continue to do. But Ares Mars isn’t wholly human—he’s also a force of nature. Humanity created him because someone had to carry the blame for man’s inhumanity to man. If he wasn’t there to fill the space, another would. As horrible as it is, she knows in her heart that there will always be war. Always be genocides and terrorism. Mankind is too flawed to ever achieve a true and eternal peace without also sacrificing a fundamental part of itself.

And while the fight to end such atrocities has to go on and the banner has to be carried by others after her, she knows it’s ultimately a futile effort. The best people like her can do is try to heal the damage and lessen the toll. Bring the guilty to justice and give the fallen a measure of closure. It’s the only thing they can do. And so they’ll keep doing it—just because an end goal is futile doesn’t mean the effort spent in trying to achieve it isn’t worthy and necessary.

She looks at Ares and knows that fixing him, changing him, is a lost cause. The embodiment of war can never truly have peace. She can’t give him what he so desperately wants: permanent control.

But that won’t stop her from trying. Every war can have an armistice.

Nicola reaches out. Cups his face in her hands and bends to press her lips to his forehead. A sigh escapes him. He leans into her touch and wraps his arms around her waist. For a long, steady heartbeat they stand frozen in the tableau. The picture of penitence and absolution.

Then his hands tighten around her hips. The broad fingers slide until they find the narrow gap between her belt and the hem of her camisole, tracing the line of warm skin. Her lips shiver against his brow.

Her reaction galvanizes him. He surges up from the chair and catches her mouth with his. It’s a forceful kiss. It’s entirely him. She knows there is next to nothing about Ares that will ever be tender or soft, gentle or kind. Her arm is already marked with fingertip-shaped bruises, given to her with the strength of his concern, and she knows he’ll only continue to mark her body. That’s what he does—he leaves marks everywhere.

But then every mark tells a story; every one can hold a memory. And he’s flawed, she’s flawed, the world is flawed. Why pretend otherwise?

As he rucks up her shirt her thumb drags across his neck and catches on a chain. She pulls away to look down at what she’s drawn out from under his collar—catches a glimpse of several dog tags—before he starts kissing her neck in a way that makes her lose all interest in them. His stubble scrapes over her skin. She discovers she likes the way it burns.

She doesn’t realize they’ve been moving steadily backwards until her bare back strikes the cold edge of the countertop. A startled yelp escapes her—and then another when he takes firm hold of her waist and lifts her up, the buttons on the back pockets of her shorts squeaking shrilly over the cheap laminate. He leans forward and fills the space between her knees, the leather of his belt warm against her skin, and she grabs handfuls of his hair as he picks up right where he left off: mouth greedy over hers.

She’s been kissed before, and well, by several men. But Ares kisses like a man who knows he’s about to die, like a man moments away from execution, like a man desperate to say goodbye with his whole body because mere words won’t suffice. He kisses her as if it’s the last thing he’ll do and he’s determined to enjoy it. It’s altogether different: thrilling and passionate and even a little frightening—she finds herself just as wordlessly trying to reassure him. Perhaps if she clings tightly enough to his shoulders the doom that seems to press upon him will recede…

A metal knob from the cabinet door digs into her shoulder and she shifts to dislodge it. He growls, teeth catching the edge of her bottom lip, and she can feel the hard length of him through his jeans, pressed against her thigh.

Dizzy, she realizes she’s inches away from fucking a god on a kitchen counter.

As his fingers clumsily twist at the clasps of her bra, she bunches fistfuls of his t-shirt in her hands and yanks the fabric up, exposing ridges of muscle and scrawls of ink and scar tissue. He’s as tan beneath the shirt as he is around it; somewhere in the back of her mind, a calm and distant piece of it that isn’t currently flooded with hormones and desire, she wonders if he throws himself into battle like the berserkers of legend. Men who are heedless to everything as they fall upon friend and foe alike, sustaining any number of wounds and fighting on even as weapons and armor and clothing are rent and torn away. Until they stand alone, covered in blood and naked in some terrible parody of rebirth.

The thought disappears as the straps of her bra give way under the force of his hands.

She doesn’t try to stifle her moan.

Her back arches.

Her thighs clench around his hips.

Her fingernails dimple his shoulders, stopping just shy of breaking the skin.

He pulls back so quickly she almost falls forward, off the counter. “Why?!” dies strangled in her throat when he takes hold of her belt—in seconds he has it unbuckled, the shorts unbuttoned and unzipped, the fabric yanked away (panties and holster and all), and all the while he’s muttering what has to be curses. Not in English, though, and not in any of the other languages she’s forced herself to learn. It’s Greek, she decides. Ancient Greek.

Could it be she’s gotten him so worked up he’s reverted to his first tongue?

It’s a gratifying thought, as is the way his hands shake as he undoes his own belt. Her skin feels too tight, too hot, as he grips her waist, thumbs pressing into her hipbones in a way that makes them ache. And then he pulls her forward sharply, meeting her with a thrust, and her hips aren’t the only things that ache. Her gasp is shaky and half-formed. Her hand slides across the counter as she tries to grab something, anything, for support. It finds his arm, bracing him as he falls into a sharp rhythm, and her fingers close around his wrist. Through the haze, she manages to hook her ankles around him.

It’s almost impossible to breathe. He steals it from her as soon as she gulps it in, his mouth over hers in a feral smile. His left arm is tightly pressed against her back, holding her close with each thrust. She drags her nails down his back with one hand while the other clenches painfully around his right wrist. She won’t be the only one walking away from this with marks. Breath sawing in her throat, she bites his lip hard enough to draw blood. She can taste the metal on her tongue, the coppery sweetness—and something else. Is this what immortality tastes like? Is this the flavor of thousands of years and the death of stars?

Vaguely, dimly, she wonders if this will fundamentally change her. The act itself. She’s tasted the blood of a god—she’s screwing a god. But then it’s too late now for second guessing; and far, far too late to worry about divine protection. She hopes her birth control is up to the challenge of immortal sperm. Last thing she needs is a demigod pregnancy.

Her legs tremble uncontrollably. She can feel it, the edge of it, like a rising wave. The giddiness of oblivion. She abandons herself to sensation—until the world is focused on a diamond-hard point, on the joining of two bodies, on the sway and wet friction and force. Her mouth falls open on a cry as her body shudders around him, and she can feel it just as sharply as the orgasm: how satisfied he is. And it’s not physical satisfaction, which comes several thrusts later as she pants and shivers through aftershocks.

No, it’s because during those chemical-laced moments, she’d surrendered willingly before him. This was no contest of wills, no fight for dominance. She had released every inhibition and every bit of control—she’d given him the power. And he took it gladly, happily. His satisfaction is as much for the power he had in making her cry out as it is for the act itself.

She slumps weakly, lightheaded and struggling to catch her breath; the only things keeping her from sliding rubber-limbed to the floor are his arms, solid supports bracketing her body. Her hair sticks to her damp shoulders and back, long since fallen from its bun into a sweaty disarray. He pulls dark strands of it away, smiling like the wolf sizing up Red Riding Hood, and kisses each of the purpling hickeys he’s marked her neck with.

“When was the last time, sweetheart?” he asks.

She blinks at him for a moment, mind sluggishly trying to catch up. “Last…?”

“The last time you were fucked until you couldn’t stand?”

The smug grin and tone sparks a rebellious fire. She pushes him away. Away from the blossoming bruises and shivery, sweat-slick skin. Wills steadiness into her legs and slips off the counter. The back of her thighs starts to burn and she knows they’re imprinted with the edge of the counter, dark red lines pressed into the flesh that will no doubt bruise, too. She shoots him a defiant glare, snatching up her broken bra and discarded camisole. “Just because you’re a god doesn’t mean you’re…” Her mind fails her, and she lets the weak quip die unfinished. And then her legs fail her, too, and she pitches forward.

Right into his waiting arms and gloating smile. “Punctured your pride, did I?”

“You’re one to talk about pride, you arrogant bastard.”

He gathers her up easily enough and strides into the front room. There may be bars on the cracked window but there are no curtains. This hardly phases him, exhibitionist that he is, but it does make her squirm uncomfortably. “Alright,” he says, laying her on the mattress in the corner, grabbing one of the blankets, and casually draping it over the window. The room becomes dim and green in hue, the slimmest threads of light filtering through the cotton weave. If it weren’t for the heat, Nicola would almost feel as if she was underwater.

She grabs the other blanket and hesitates.

“No need to feel self-conscious,” he says, sprawling beside her bonelessly, comfortable and casual in his nudity. “You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. When I think of the way things used to be, back when we still had Olympus…”

“Am I going to remember this time?”

He cocks one eyebrow in question.

“What you are.”

“You mean besides the whole ‘arrogant bastard’ bit?”

“Yes.”

He’s quiet for quite awhile, eyes cast down at the dimpled fabric of the mattress. He plucks at a loose string, slowly unraveling it. “…I think so. I hope so.”

So you can have a confidante, she thinks. And is surprised when she realizes how true that is. Alienated from his family, alienated by his own nature, the world designed to forget as soon as it comes close to knowing the truth. How terrible it is: to have a beast eating away at your heart and mind, and no one will understand because it can never be spoken of. Sometimes the best way to vent a poison is to speak of it. Even knowing someone else will listen and try to understand can mean a world of difference.

“There’s someone I want you to meet. Someone I want you to talk to. Even if you can’t tell her everything,” she says meaningfully. “You can still talk about your compulsions and anger. About the nature of wars and hypocrisy and the trauma and death. How you feel about your family. All of it. A therapist—her name is Bia. She specializes in post-traumatic issues and combat fatigue. She’s worked with a lot of soldiers. I think she could help.”

“I don’t need—”

“Yes, you do. Look, Ares: you said you believe in fate. You said there was a purpose behind our paths constantly crossing. That we were meant to come together. If you actually believe all of that and it wasn’t just some bullshit line, then take my advice. Listen to me. And I’ll listen to you. If you want to find ways to manage your compulsions and take back some form of control in your own life, you’ll need to learn. And practice. And try.”

“And what if it’s all for nothing?” he asks, looking at her. “What if I try and it’s in vain? What’s the point?”

“The point is that you did try. And if you fail, then you just try again. Keep on trying. Practice can make perfect. You’re a god—you’ve got forever to practice. And if you fail, I’ll be there.”

“To pick up the pieces?”

“If need be. But mostly I’ll be there to hold you accountable. To make sure you don’t sweep it under the rug and act nonchalant and conveniently forget. I’ll be right there to keep the tallies lined up on the scorecard so everyone can see what happened and why. I’ll write. I’ll speak out. I’ll even testify in a goddamned court if I have to.”

The fiery light is in his eyes again, and she can feel it properly now: the pressure of ages and inhuman strength. The sense that the physical frame is only barely containing something unknowable and vast. It should frighten her. She should back down in such a presence and play it safe.

But then that’s just not her style.

So she stares into the face of a god of destruction and holds his gaze without a tremor of fear.

“Okay,” he says after what could have been a heartbeat or an entire eternity. His voice is barely more than a hoarse whisper. “You do know what you’re agreeing to, don’t you?”

“Yes, I think I do.”

“This isn’t going to be an easy job. I’ll be a horrible project—I know it, and I can’t even apologize about it.”

“I know. But sometimes you have to do what’s difficult. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s the only thing to do.”

“At least there are a few nice perks,” he says, stretching out a hand, drawing her into his gravity with an inexorable force—not that she resists. As he finds new places on her body to stake his claim, she loses herself again in push and pull, drive and release, in opposing objects crashing together only to separate, each changed by the other.

In the dim green light of a bare room, with a man who had caused and would cause terrible suffering, Nicola Puzo fights a different kind of war. One where giving someone else control is more important than fear or anger or despair; where one kind of surrender can make a difference, if only for a moment. Mortal life is, after all, just a series of moments. And perhaps she can line up enough in a row to achieve the impossible. Perhaps peace and pleasure can balance out the weight of suffering and conflict.

If not, she’ll keep her pen close to hand. Not even gods are above reproach.


Tags: fiction, ship: ares/nicola
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