He had been waiting for me. I entered the changing-room of my forgery - and there he was, standing at the wall, listening to my irregular steps.
There was a moment, as I'd just seen him, when I wanted, desperately, him not to be there, to turn back time - or to turn back myself and walk away before we faced each other. But it was too late - and I pulled myself together, discarding these thoughts as unsubstantial.
He was there and I could do nothing about it. He - with his clinging clothes repeating every line of his body, like he was all cast of some shiny metal; the black wings of his hair framing his almost too perfect face; too perfect if it was not distorted slightly in a frown.
He had this unnerving manner to look - like he expected something from me, like tried to figure me out - and I despised myself for reacting at this look, for shifting uneasily under it. A good thing was he didn't look often at me.
Only when he needed something.
"How can I help you?" I tried hard for my voice to sound level. That was the best I could do... had I let a note of bitterness slide into it - and I'd kick myself for it for a few sleepless nights. And it would earn me just a raised eyebrow from him, maximum. He had no idea... which was good, of course, I would be scared to shit if he did...
His lame brother having the hots for him. That would be a joke of the next decade.
I was not going to be a source of this entertainment for him, thank you very much. Weapons, armors, trinkets for his numerous paramours and children - these he could get from me. But what I felt - it was just for myself. He had nothing to do with it, period.
"I am going to have a baby," he said.
I sucked in a breath.
It was blunt. I didn't think something was going between them right now but... well, what other reason would there be to tell me?
He gave me a long look - the one that made me doubt my mental abilities and said with infinite patience:
"No, Heph. *I* am going to have it."
That was another kind of gut-punch. The thoughts in my mind were a mess... so, he was doing it with someone... someone male... had to get the baby from somewhere, right? And why, again, did he find it necessary to tell me, what I had to do with it - except that I was apparently going to be an uncle... Maybe, he was telling everybody.
"It happens," he said, probably interpreting the pause as my disbelief. "You know that. Not often but it happens."
Yes, it did. Sometimes I even wondered how it would be. To carry out a child, to build something new and independent with the tissues of my own body. Well, how it would be to have a child, anyway.
"Congratulations," I offered at last. It was what was expected from me to say, right?
I didn't like how his eyebrows went up, his eyes flashing at me momentarily with something so dark and intense that I couldn't even try to decipher it. Then he said quietly:
"Don't. It was conceived from Aloides."
"Oh..." Suddenly I felt every emotion draining out of me. All irritation I'd felt at his visit, all helpless attempts of denial. So, that was how it'd been. No happy lover who'd fathered the child on him; no proudly shared parenthood in future.
Just a ricochet of the recent hell he thought he'd left behind.
"Sorry." I couldn't come up with anything better to say - but he hardly listened to me anyway.
"I thought it was over." It was exactly what I thought, too. "Like shit happens and everything, no need to dwell on it for years."
Yeah, I knew how he tried 'not to dwell on it'. Started a war as soon as he was able to walk again and another one just a few weeks ago; got into several steamy love affairs both with mortals and deities that provided fresh material for gossips on Olympus. Tried to catch up for those thirteen months he'd spent out of the picture.
"I mean they are dead, for Hades' sake! Gone. Finis." The hatred was breaking through, more frightening because it still had to sound through the iciness of his voice.
Right; they were dead. Killed by Apollo's golden arrows. But turned out they managed to leave Ares something more than a few memories.
"Must've happened right before Hermes got me out. Till then I don't think I could get it. Well, even if there was something, they destroyed it themselves, nothing could stay."
I didn't want to understand what he meant - but of course, I did. They were too big - so big that they couldn't find a mortal woman or man who could take them... more than once, that is. With an immortal it was easier... everything they ruined healed later.
I couldn't look at him; I wanted to - but I didn't think I could stand it. Listening to his voice was bad enough - every word so deliberate. He must've been thinking about it.
Which made pointless to ask what I wanted to - if he was sure.
Of course, he was.
But without being able to ask it - without this hope - there was nothing else I could say or do, I realized suddenly. No advice I could give - and I was far from sure that he could come to me for an advice. No comfort I could provide. I didn't know how I could do it; he was Ares - strong and confident and self- sufficient beyond the point of arrogance. Not that helpless damaged being any more that Hermes had brought to Olympus after a year and a month of captivity.
It had been easy then. Easy to be with him - when he started re- acknowledging the simplest things around him - like water and light and a touch. Anyone could do it for him then the same well as I had done - it was just an accident I had been there when he'd come round for the first time and he'd taken it for granted that I had to be there since then.
It had been easy to be a hand for him to support when he learned to use his limbs again; a sign of stability when every new face freaked him out at first. Now he needed more than just a hand. And what I had, what I could give him - he didn't need that.
"I am not going to have this child, Heph. And I want you to help me to get rid of it," he said.
"What?" Now I did look at him.
"You heard me." Deliberately calm voice - but there were ripples of tension going over his face, the blue vein pulsing non-stop on his temple. How well I knew it, learned to recognize by it when he was about to snap - almost had time to learn to calm him down in advance. Almost had time before he got well and became his normal self and didn't need me any more. "I want you to take care of this baby."
Take care like what? My mind was seeking feverishly until it found a variant.
"Do you want me to adopt it when it is born? To take him or her like my own son or daughter?"
I could do it. After all, Aphrodite had brought enough kids from aside into our marriage - Ares' kids. We could easily stand one more.
I would even be glad to do it, I thought suddenly. Because even though partly this child was going to be Aloides'... would never even know which one's of them... partly he or she was going to be Ares'. Or mine... Yes, if I brought him or her up, never let know about the real parents... he or she would be all mine.
It would be... wonderful. I slipped into imagining it so deeply that Ares' voice didn't bring me back at once.
"I have children. I don't disown them, even if they disappoint me or let me down. But this - this is not my child. This thing is not going to be born."
That was when his words caught up on me.
"I want you to cut it out, Heph."
"You want an abortion?" I didn't know what more I felt - horror or sorrow - I was already almost believing that this child would be mine, could see this boy or girl crawling on the floor in my quarters... I would teach them forgery when they got older...
'This thing'. Sure.
Well, it was his decision, of course. Who was I to argue with it? He'd been through enough not to deserve to deal with this aftermath. And could I really believe something good could come to the world, taking into account the situation how this child was sired?
"You should talk to dad and mom," I said flatly, not being able to raise my eyes at him again. "I know it is normally against rules - but I think they will understand... Asclepius will do it."
"You don't get it, do you?" Suddenly he was on me, his hands clasped on my shoulders, pulling me closer. And there was no way to look away from him - so, I looked... and couldn't stop looking, was drowning in his closeness, his smell, the depth of his eyes - black and hard and half-crazed. Desperate eyes. "I want you to do it for me. Not Asclepius or Zeus - but you."
It didn't make sense... I must've misunderstood him... but it didn't matter - at least not as long as he held me like this, his fingers digging in my shoulders. I would like to carry the marks of him forever, for as long as possible - because it was as much of him as I could ever have...
"Why?" I croaked.
"Why?" he let me go - pushed me away so violently that I swayed... or, maybe, I swayed with sudden absence of him in my proximity, with the loss of not feeling him any more. "Don't be daft, Heph. I don't want them to know. No one of them." He paced around the room, his arms folded on his chest tightly. "If I tell Zeus - if I tell anybody - everyone will know in minutes. I've had enough of their looks after what happened..."
"I don't think there were any 'looks'..." I started carefully. It was true. In fact, everybody realized it could've be them in Ares' place; that was why Apollo took care of it. Then something else of what he'd said struck me. 'If I tell anybody...'
And me? What was I for him? Why was he so sure in my silence?
Well, he could be sure, of course. I just didn't think he knew me enough to count on it. There was nothing that would link us except a couple of incidents, not so nice, frankly... And except that time when he opened his eyes for the first time in his bed on Olympus, blinking painfully, and looked at my face for so long that I was sure he couldn't recognize me. Then he said: "Heph, I am free," and coughed some blood and lost consciousness again with a smile on his split lips.
"Asclepius does these things. He is a doctor, I am a smith." I said it as mildly as possible - like I was explaining something to a silly child. "With everything else aside, what makes you think that I am suitable for this work?"
He stopped pacing and turned to me - and hope in his eyes hurt me more than his despair - baseless hope, I knew, I would have to make him understand that.
"Well, didn't you help Athena to be born, like that?"
Oh yeah. With an axe. An exemplary obstetrical instrument. He frowned as I chuckled and I cut it off hastily.
"Zeus told me what to do. I did only what he ordered. Besides, it was Zeus, you know..."
I wanted to add that Zeus was not easy to hurt but thought better against it.
"You can do it." He closed on me again, right into my personal space and I wondered if he knew exactly what it was doing to me - what he was doing to me. He had this face - the face 'ah, just that!' - the enlightened one. And a pushy voice - well, the one that many considered his most charming one but I usually called it pushy - demanding to give him what he wants just because he wants it. How dared he exploit it with me... "It's easy. I can feel exactly where it is. You'll just have to make a cut and take it out. I would do it myself. But I am a screamer, you know - it would be rather distracting..."
"No!" I had to stop it. Had to stop - his senseless hopes, his terrible words, him being so close to me that my control was draining away with every moment. I stepped away from him; walked away to the other corner of the room and the hot air from the forgery reaching me felt cooling on my cheeks. "I won't do it. Can I spell it for you? I will not do it."
For a moment he was silent; just for a moment he looked like my words reached him.
"Because..." How could he do it to me... "Because it is forbidden. Because it is not my domain and I don't think Asclepius will be happy if I intervene there. Because I can't make a surgery. And if it is not enough - then I just can't. It's a child, after all."
I had done something; my words had. He didn't interrupt me - didn't start arguing or begging when I stopped, didn't try to lure me into consent. He just stood rolling a few times from heels to toes, with his face cold and smooth and very distant - stone- like.
"Yeah. A child," he said and walked to the door.
He was going away. Leaving me alone. Wasn't it what I wanted, from the very moment I saw him? He gave up on his crazy ideas, all I needed was to be firm with him... and now he would get proper help, would do it in a civil way.
No, he won't. The words sounded in my mind so clearly - like someone else said them. He won't go to Asclepius now, when I rejected him.
These two months after he'd got well - I kept thinking how he discarded me, not needing me any more. And now he needed me - but all I did was to push him away.
I shouldn't have called him; I knew it immediately as I did it - maybe, even before it. But for some reason this single word almost made me stop feeling like I'd betrayed him. It didn't make me stop hurting, though.
For a moment I thought he wouldn't listen to me. But he did - and returned, looking at me expectantly - and the realization of how desperate he must've been hurt me even worse.
"What are you going to do?"
"Will try to do it myself. Or find some mortal that doesn't have the same qualms." A mortal? "At least there are means to make a mortal keep silent."
A mortal... Fuck, it was not 'the means to keep him silent' that bothered me, it was the clearest realization of the danger Ares would get into if he did it. He would have to take his mortal form then, would be at his most vulnerable...
"Please, you don't need to do it," I didn't realize at once I was begging. "If you carry it out, we can hide it - surely it won't be noticeable for a few months more..." It probably would; they were giants, after all. "And then you can stay in a secluded place - and after that I'll take the baby away, you'll never have to see her again..."
Her... It was she, I knew it - the beautiful giantess. My daughter.
It was when he started shivering. And this shocked me worse than anything else today - to see him like that. I saw him clenching his teeth behind his white lips - and I couldn't stand it.
I reached for him and put my arm around him - like I had done before, when he was hurt and miserable like a stray dog. And patting his back, pulling his head against my shoulder, I whispered into the soft strands of his hair:
"I'll do it. Okay. I'll do whatever you want."
* * *
"I still think we could ask Asclepius for some sleeping potion."
Despite all the fire in my forgery I still was cold. Paced from a wall to a wall like it could help me to warm up. I didn't have to tremble - couldn't afford it.
"No." He was pacing, too - but not in nervousness - in exultation. "I want it to be over as soon as possible."
Afraid I can change my mind, huh? To take away what I'd promised to give him?
"I bet you have finer instruments that Asclepius himself." The thin knives and hooks that I'd forged for him. The flattery was so rude that it made him laugh himself. I nodded - not at his words but to him and he understood it right, kicking off his boots and starting pulling his clothes off.
I turned away; not that it made any sense - I had seen him naked before, I would see him now, look at him very closely working over him. But it was just too unbearable to look at his face, so young and bright in the orange flashes of fire, his eyes shining from under the heavy eyelashes, to look at the smooth clear lines of his body.
I wished I had modesty not to think about it at the moment like this - but I couldn't help. He was too beautiful - and I... I was just a God, not a fleshless spirit.
His skin was glowing, laced with the blackness of his body hair, his long legs and arms spread wide to the corners of the couch. All I could do was not to stare - not to stagger as I moved to him.
He tossed his head back as the cuffs locked on his ankles. He could've been ready for it, insisted himself on doing it this way - 'not to give me any trouble' - but the memory of the chains that'd held him down and open for Aloides must've been still too much.
"Look, Ares, if you..."
He needed a moment to unclench his teeth from his lip.
"Oh come on, Heph, continue."
But before I took his right hand he reached for mine and brought it down to his abdomen.
"There." His fingers on my wrist were warm and tight but not pressing as he passed my hand over his belly. "I can feel it somewhere there."
I nodded and cuffed his hands - and he caught the belt between his teeth.
"If anything goes wrong," now when he couldn't argue, I was making the conditions, "I am going to call for Asclepius immediately."
"Ugh-ghu," he muttered behind the belt. "And then we both are cooked."
We were cooked in any case, he forgot it. Hades would know all the same - and then...
I took the knife and made the first cut.
"Do you remember that time when you came for me on Lemnos to make me free mom from the throne I made?" I willed my voice into sounding unshaken. And I made my hands be unshaken, too. His blood, fast and bright, rolled swiftly from the gash, trickles becoming wide flow at once. The sound he made, deep in his throat, almost broke through to me but I forbade myself hearing it. "Do you have any idea how scared I was? I thought you'd do me away right on the place."
My fingers slid into the cut and he went rigid, just the muscles of his belly rippling against my hand.
"I had to stand behind the tripod not to let you see how my legs were shaking."
"Really?" The word was barely comprehensible behind the belt.
"Really," I chuckled. "I don't know how I managed to drive you away. In fact, I don't remember that. By the time Dionysus came for me, I was already half-drunk, just on adrenaline."
"You... managed all right..."
"That's it," I said. "I have it."
He arched when I pulled the foetus out - and fell back, held by the chains, the gleam of sweat over his body, the gleam of dark blood over his bottom belly. His voice was laughing and breathless:
"Look well, Heph... I don't want anything to stay there..."
"There is nothing there."
I knew what he meant. Otus and Ephialtes were twins - but he had only one.
I put it in the phial and took a sponge and a needle. He didn't flinch while I stitched - a long and crude-looking gash against his belly. But at least I managed to put the edges together neatly - and it was going to knit well, I hoped so.
He didn't move for a few moments after I'd unlocked the cuffs. Then pulled his limbs together, trying to turn on his side and deciding against it.
"Not so quickly," I sat on the couch near to him, bringing a cup to his lips. "Here, drink this."
It was ambrosia; had to put him back on his feet soonest, had done it before.
He leaned against my arm as he drank and I laced my fingers through his hair, untangling a few knots there. I didn't feel messed up and shaky any more; everything was done. Everything was all right. And even heat and heaviness and clenching I felt were all in my heart, not in my groin.
"Thank you, Heph. I won't forget it."
"I hope you will."
And I knew he would. As soon as he'd leave me. He was good at it.
"If you told me the truth," for a little while more he lingered, regaining his strength. His voice was still faint but calm - the same mixture of relief and exhaustion that was in his eyes, "that you were afraid of me then - how came you didn't obey me?"
"What do you think?" I snorted. "No way I was going to let our mom to get away so cheap then."
"You can be damn difficult to convince, brother." It was almost affection in his voice - and his hand brushed against my hair briefly.
No, please... don't do it. Don't let me feel even a glimpse of what it is - to be touched by you, to be loved by you...
He got up and reached for his clothes. His lip was curled up in a grimace of pain as he must've pulled on the scar but it slowed down his motions only slightly.
I called for him when he was almost at the door.
"You don't want to know - if it was a boy or a girl?"
He froze - and turned slowly, his gaze hard and fierce, pinning me down.
"Burn it. I never want to hear anything about it."
I waited until his steps died away and took the phial in my hands. The bloodied white-skinned creature was not completely formed yet but the little hands and feet could be seen distinctly. It was a girl - just as I thought it would be.
The nourishing mixture in the phial still kept her alive.
I put the phial back on the table and took off my own clothes.
"He doesn't want you," I whispered, taking the knife and slicing through the skin and muscle on my belly. "He doesn't care for you. But I can do it. We can care for each other. We can have each other, from now on. Just don't reject me."
Her tiny body slid inside me, heavy like a stone and burning like a fireball. I didn't know if the pain was going to go away with time - but it didn't matter. I was ready to go thought it - if it meant that she grew inside me.
There was still something of him I could have.