The Shadow of The Hawk
By Toridon

Ares stomped into his apartment and slammed the door.  It felt so good, he went back and did it again, harder this time, smirking in satisfaction when the glass pane on the door broke into pieces.  Then he groaned, remembering that he would have to fix that, manually, like a mortal.  "Shit!" he thought angrily.  Oh, yeah, dear ol' Dad had really fucked him over this time.  Sometimes Ares wished his father would just kill him and get it over with.  Death would be easier to deal with than some of the more "compassionate" ways Zeus had of teaching (or trying to teach) his son to behave.

Like this one:  taken from everything familiar and predictable and plunked down in the 20th Century.  In St. Louis, Missouri.  St. Louis, for the Gods' sake!  At the very least, Dad could have put him in New York City, or Los Angeles, or Vegas.  But, no, he grumbled to himself, he puts me here, in the asshole of the Bible Belt!  Like it was MY fault Dahak got a foothold on earth…

But that was an old conversation.  He had been here for about two months, and he had muttered to himself on this subject on a daily basis.  He shook his head and cleared his mind.  <Get OVER it, Ares!> he told himself sternly.  <What's done is done.  You're stuck with this until the old man cools down.>  He walked into the kitchen, making a conscious effort not to contrast this place with his fortress in Greece.  That would put the icing on the whole depressing day.  He slid a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator and took it back to his easy chair in the living room, attempting to relax the area between his shoulder blades.  He was always tense when he came home from work.  Construction work was easy for him, but being "supervised" by the jerk who ran the crew was not.  The idea of the God of War taking orders from some inbred redneck was galling, and it always took every drop of self-control he had to keep from squashing the moron like the bug he was.  Never having been what could be called a team player, Ares spent most of his day alternating between an uneasy simmer and a rolling boil, finding no consolation in the fact that everyone else on the crew apparently felt pretty much the same way he did.  Having any common ground with the mortals that surrounded him was pretty galling in and of itself, in his opinion.

And it was only Tuesday.

He settled back in the chair and opened the paper.  Although reading about violence and war was a poor substitute for actually being there, it was better than nothing.  But only slightly, he thought with disgust, tossing the paper across the room.  He rested his chin on his fist, tapping his foot lightly on the carpet. Yeah, definitely not enough:  kind of like *reading* about fucking rather than doing it.  The thought brought a gleam to his eye and made his palms tingle.  A conquest was what he needed, and one fought on a battlefield of bedding would do as well as any other.  He strode to where the paper had landed and flipped to the back section where the classified lived.  Let's do this the easy way, he thought.  I'm in the mood for a sure thing.

* * *

The apartment was a shambles, as it usually was.  The bedroom floor was littered with clothes, the kitchen sink was filled with dirty coffee cups and silverware, and the bathroom counter was strewn with makeup, shampoo, brushes and things that had recently been in the mirrored cabinet above the sink.  The dry-cleaning that she had picked up two days ago, still sheathed in plastic, hung from the door jamb of the bathroom, in danger of landing on the floor every time she raced in or out.  Raye cast an irritated glance at Matilda, her elderly black cat, snoozing contentedly in the middle of a basket of towels that had been laundered yesterday, but she didn't care enough to put the stuff away.  Although organized and detail-oriented to the point of anal obsession in every other aspect of her life, Raye had no patience, interest or talent with housework.  She had tried a maid once, but having another person around drove her crazy more than the disorder.

She did not want to go to work.  Most of the time singing at Charlie's was a nice change of pace from typing in an office, but it just wasn't where she wanted to be tonight.  She could feel the familiar tension coiling inside of her, moving toward the surface, and she knew she wouldn't be able to hold it off much longer.  She had always made it a practice to avoid waiting until the very last minute, because the more she needed her fix, the less control she had over what happened.  But with the police suddenly developing insight, after all this time, she had put it off at least a month longer than she knew was wise.  She felt ragged, and that was a bad state of mind for her to be in.  Every stupid mistake or miscalculation she had ever made had occurred when she was like this.

She stopped abruptly, locking eyes with her reflection in the mirror, eyeliner wand poised in mid-air.  <You can do this>, she told herself.  <You will ignore all the excellent "candidates" at the bar because you do not shit where you eat.  And one night next week you will go for a long drive, maybe into Illinois, and visit a bar where no one knows you, and have a nice, long feast with some deserving insect.>  Raye took a deep breath and let it out very slowly, feeling the internal quivering subside and her equilibrium return.  Her hand, steady as a rock, applied a flawless line of kohl to her lower eyelid.

* * *

Charlie's was noisy.  It was a hangout for blue collar guys -- construction workers, plumbers and the like -- and since most of them got paid at the end of the week, Friday and Saturday nights were always wild.  There was usually a hooker or two in residence, and they competed with the standard barflies, the only difference being the currency.  The customers were macho and arrogant, for the most part, and there were more than just a couple of beer bellies in the room.  Fights were common and occasionally bloody, and the show "Cops" could have gotten an entire season out of the place, given the amount of time they spent there.  The house band played every night except Sunday, sometimes behind a chicken wire screen that deflected whatever airborne projectiles might be in play.  That screen was down now, as it was every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday night.

"Guys," he said, "I think I'm going to call it a night."  He looked around appraisingly.  "Nothing happening here anyway."  Ares stood up slowly, reaching for his jacket.

"Max, come on!  We just got here!"  Jake stuck out his lower lip.  "It's Friday night -- time to PAR-TAY!"

Ares studied the boy coolly.  "I didn't say YOU had to call it a night, Jake."

"Oh, sit your ass down, Max," the foreman said.  "I'm buying, after all."  Tom downed the rest of the brew in the bottle and belched grandly.  "You can get shitfaced for free."  He belched again.

Ares smiled thinly.  "Quite an offer.  I should be impressed, right?"  He made no move to sit down.  "Not to mention … grateful."

Tom's eyes narrowed at the malicious caress of his voice on the final word.  "You sonofabitch, you been asking for it since the first day you joined the crew.  I can't fire you, but I can do something about that kiss-my-ass attitude of yours."

The small hand on the foreman's arm stopped him from getting the rest of the way out of his chair.  "Tom, don't do it."  Pete dropped his voice low.  "He'll wipe the floor with you, man."  Pete jerked his eyes in Max's direction.  "Hell, LOOK at him -- big as a goddamn barn."  Pete pushed on Tom's arm, hard.  "Sit down and let it go, man.  Ain't worth it."  Tom's bloodshot eyes snapped at Pete, with no effect.  "B'sides, Jimmy'll pitch us outa here if you start a fight."  He paused, then slid Max a steady look.  "C'mon, Max, sit down.  Ya gotta stay long enough to see *Her* anyway."


"Yeah," Jake said eagerly, popping up out of his chair.  "She's great!"


"The *singer*, Max!  The one I was telling you about!"  Jake's eyes shone, his face expectant, and if Ares had been in a better mood right then, he might have found it amusing.  Instead, he absently shook Jake's hand off his shoulder.

"The one you're in lust with."

Jake looked confused.  "Huh?  Oh, right.  Yeah, her!"  Ares rubbed his index finger on the bridge of his nose and exhaled. I'm surrounded by morons, he thought morosely.  Oh, Dad, whatever I did, it wasn't bad enough to deserve this …

"Stick around, man."  Pete chuckled, adding, "Tom'll buy ya 'nother beer, won't ya, Tom?"  The elfin man fixed Ares with a look that said eloquently, She's worth it -- Trust *me*.

He exhaled slowly, and sat down unwillingly.  Ignoring the beer that Pete slid in his direction, he caught the eye of the jiggling blonde waitress in the short skirt.  "Four fingers, Stoli, no rocks, no chaser."

* * *

"Hold it," Jim said.  "Just turn around and walk back out.  You don't want to be here tonight."  He slammed the cash register.  "Must be a full moon."

Raye opened the drawer beneath the bar and dumped in her purse, locking it with her key.  "You tell me that every time I come in here, Jim."

He snorted disdainfully.  "Yeah, and you listen to me about as well every time I say it, too."

"Jimmy, I need--"  Suzanne reached down to adjust the seam in her stocking.  He waited patiently.  She looked up at him.  "Okay?"

He cleared his throat.  "What."



"What WHAT?"  She looked perplexed.  Raye and Jim exchanged a look.

"Suzanne.  What.  Do.  You.  Need."

She looked down dizzily at the tray.  "OH!"  She giggled inanely.  "Sorry.  I need--"  She stopped.

Jim slapped his hand down on the bar.  "SUZANNE!"

She jumped.  "Golly!  Um," peering intently at her own illegible scrawl.  "Oh, yeah.  Three Miller and, um, let me see, oh yeah, four fingers of Stoli," she recited, "'no rocks, no chaser.'  For the hunk at the side table."  She giggled again.  "God, Raye, he is just so CUTE!" she squealed.  Raye stared levelly at her, willing her into oblivion.  Suzanne pouted, "Well, he is.  He is just to die for!"

Jim set three bottles of beer and a tumbler of clear liquid down on Suzanne's tray with a clank.  "Seriously," he turned back to the red-haired woman.  "You might want to actually listen to me tonight.  Cops've been here twice since 7 p.m."

"Gee, Jimmy," the little blonde sniffed, "how come you never worry about me?"

"Suzanne, willya just deliver the drinks?"  She huffed off, almost colliding with Gloria, the other waitress.  Jim looked at her and shook his head.

Raye laughed shortly.  "I agree.  I think you SHOULD worry about her.  She needs it."  She lit a cigarette.  "I'm fine.  They never give me any trouble" -- she waved her hand before he could speak -- "that I can't handle."  She scanned the room, her eye picking out the hot spots with no difficulty.  She sighed.  "Any coffee?"

He nodded.  "Fresh … about two hours ago."  She poured about four ounces of the coffee into a large mug, filling the rest of the 24-ounce cup with brandy.  She saw Jim watching her, but he said nothing.  They had an understanding:  he paid her, and she sang.  He made his customary comment about how she should leave if the crowd was rowdy, but that was it.

"So what were they here for?" she asked.  "The cops," she said, in answer to his questioning look.

"The usual shit," he said.  "Joe and Mike got into it about Delia again and tried to settle it with broken bottles, and two of the Dragons beat the hell out of one of the chicks in the john."

"Why?  She didn't put out fast enough?"  She lit another cigarette.

"No," he grunted.  "They found a dick under 'her' pantyhose."  He looked disgusted.  She laughed with no real amusement.  "Make another pot of coffee, okay?"  He waved her away, and she started across the room toward the band.

* * *

"That's her, man!"  Jake slapped Ares on the arm, not seeing the smoky look.  "That's her!"

The four of them watched her as she edged past customers and sidestepped chairs and puddles of beer, her progress measured and implacable.  Ares noticed that a hush seemed to follow in her wake as, one by one, all of the mainly-male customers stopped what they were doing to watch her go by.  Odd, he thought.  To his practiced eye, she was totally unremarkable.  She was tall and slim with wavy dark red hair down to the middle of her back, and she wore tight jeans and a white pullover.  Not bad, but nothing special.  He glanced around the room, and his curiosity flared.  Yeah, he could ignore the woman, but her effect on the crowd was undeniable, and a little harder for him to dismiss.

Jake whistled low, shaking his head from side to side.  "Man," he said, a piece of blonde hair falling across his forehead, "what I wouldn't do for a piece of that …"

"You'd piss all over yourself if she even said 'hello' to you!"

"Shit, Jake," Pete said, "even if you got a chance with her, you'd never last long enough to do anything about it."  He laughed, reaching to tap Jake's bottle with his fingertips.  "Here, boy, drown your sorrows."

"Oh fuck you guys!" he said angrily.  "I can dream, can't I?"  Jake joined their laughter suddenly, his good humor returning.  "I probably WOULD have a heart attack" -- he slapped his hand on the table -- "but what a way to go!"  The horseplay subsided, and they went back to watching the slim redhead giving directions to the band.

When she turned to face the crowd, the microphone in one slender hand and a mug in the other, Ares studied her face closely to see if he had missed something in his initial inspection.  No, he decided, definitely not beautiful.  In fact, not even pretty.  Not beautiful, pretty or ugly.  Just … unremarkable.  Average.

Well, as it caught his attention, maybe remarkable in one way.  There was no smile, not even a hint of one.  Also no readable expression.  The woman's face was absolutely blank, and his intuition told him that it was deliberately so.  The eyes were calm and dark, betraying nothing of what might lay beneath her surface.  Her entire presentation was reminiscent of the many paintings he had viewed, some good and some amateurish, of the Christian Madonna, bovine and vapid and absolutely placid in her sainthood, or stupidity, or whatever the hell it was that the artists were trying to convey.  His eyes narrowed as he concentrated, the only outward sign of his inner emotion.  Fuck it, he thought suddenly.  He felt a faint tingle of irritation at his own fascination with this unimpressive mortal.  Just fuck it, shaking it off and taking a large swallow of the vodka.  He closed his eyes, feeling the pleasurable fire as the liquid went down his throat.

When she began to sing, he was pleasantly surprised.  Sultry and pitched almost in a tenor range, her tones were nearly perfect, and he could understand every word.  The only missing element, as in her face, was the emotional note.  There was tonal intensity and a definite sexual vibrato, but no feeling.  But it was an evocative, caressing voice, and he settled back in his chair, eyes half closed, to enjoy it.

When she walked off the bandstand, cigarette in her mouth, to somewhere in the back, Ares was first conscious of a virtual wave of sound that increased quickly in volume.  Glassware and bottles clinked, voices rose, chairs squeaked, footsteps echoed on the wooden floor.  The swirl of sound and movement around him, as beelines were made for the john and the bar or the phone, made him aware of how quiet the place, filled practically to the rafters with people in various stages of inebriation and contentiousness, had actually been while she sang.  He glanced around casually, his observant eye making note of the dazed, almost drugged expressions on some of the faces:  eyes a million miles away, flushed cheeks, t-shirts patterned with sweat down the center of the back and chest.  He also saw men, and even some of the few women in the bar, throwing back shots and emptying bottles and glasses down their throats in a way reminiscent of desert survivors.  Fascinating, he thought, and his eyes narrowed again.  <Absolutely fascinating.>  The warrior in him instinctively deflected with the back of his hand the now-empty airborne ashtray that came from the direction of the fight that had just broken out between two tables about twenty feet away from him, and he realized that wasn't the only note of discord that had risen up in the last ten minutes.

He wasn't altogether surprised to see her step back out in front of the crowd, and he watched her appraising them, her eyes moving slowly from one side of the room to the other.  She picked up the microphone and spoke into it.

"Gentlemen?"  Her voice was quiet, uninflected -- and ignored.

"Gentlemen?"  A little louder.  Still no response.

She looked at the band and nodded.  He watched, his curiosity piquing, as the band members laid down their instruments and pressed both hands over their ears.  It was soon apparent why.  She turned a dial on one of the amplifiers all the way to the left and thumped the microphone against the metal microphone stand.  An ear-splitting whine of feedback filled the air, followed by groans and curses from the collective crowd.

She turned the dial back down to normal.  "Ready to listen to me now?"  She smiled, a simple curving of the lips that was in no way reflective of humor.  "Stop the roughhousing and behave like good little boys, or I'm going home."  She looked at the audience.  "Understood?"  She waited patiently.  "I said, am I making myself clear, boys?"

There was a hubbub of affirmative sounds and grunts, and she nodded minutely.  "Fine.  I'll see you in ten minutes."  And walked away.

Jake, who had been raptly focused on her, intruded on his reverie.  "Didn't I tell you she was great?"  Ares saw reflected in Jake's face the same half-there expression he had seen elsewhere in the room, along with hands that quivered and glazed eyes, and he knew that if he slid his hand all the way up the boy's thigh, he would hit a hard bulge.  His gaze flickered for an instant to Pete and Tom, and then back to Jake.  Yeah, six of one, half a dozen of another, he mused, and exactly what had happened here?

"Impressive.  She sings well."

Jake shakily lit a cigarette.  "Tell me about it!"  He leaned closer to Ares.  "Listening to her always gets my fur up -- if you know what I mean."  He giggled.  "Ya know?"

"Umm-hmm."  Ares leaned back, trying to catch Suzanne's eye for another drink.  He looked at Jake.  "So why don't you ask her out?"

Jake's eyes widened.  "You're kidding, right?"  He shook his head dolefully.  "Oh, Christ, she'd never go out with me!  Yeah, right!"

"Most women find it a powerful attraction to be worshipped.  She might go if she knew how you felt."

"Not that one."  Ares looked at Pete.  "No?"

"No."  Pete finished his now-warm beer.  "That lady wouldn't go with anyone from in here."  He gestured toward the area at the back of the bandstand.  "That lady is class.  Cold, but classy."  He stifled a belch with the back of his hand.  "She comes alone, and she leaves alone.  Always."

Ares looked up, surprised, as Suzanne set the glass in front of him.  "Well, you looked like you needed a refill."  She beamed at him.  He smiled lazily at her as he handed her a $10 bill, watching her move unconsciously from foot to foot (like a puppy that has to piddle, he thought contemptuously).  Her bottom lip quivered lightly.  "Ummm …"

"My change, dear."  She looked down at the bill like she had never seen one before.  He waited, thoroughly enjoying her predicament.  He had seen this happen hundreds of times.  Although he was now officially mortal, certain aspects of being a god never changed.  And it never ceased to delight him.  He loved seeing that helpless, "deer-in-the-headlights" glaze come over their faces when they were hit with the god aura.  He loved the power of knowing that, from that moment on, he could do virtually anything he wanted, and they would permit it, helpless to refuse.  He had racked up several dozen conquests in the short time he had lived here, all of whom eagerly pressed phone numbers into his hand, and all of whom were forgotten by the time he reached the outside of their front doors.

"Suzanne, give the man his change."  The short blonde jumped, almost falling off her spike heels, and let out an amusing squawk.  She looked angrily at Raye.

"You scared me!" she squealed.

"Honey," Raye drawled, the contemptuous tone almost completely covert, "one-way streets scare you because of the choice of directions."  Suzanne colored, looking away.  Raye touched one finger under her chin and raised her head so their eyes met.  "Now.  Suzanne.  Give the man his $4.25 in change."  Her finger rested lightly under the blonde's chin, almost a caress.  Suzanne stood motionless, the blush deepening.

With detectable irritation, Raye reached into the small plastic money box on the tray and fished out four $1 bills and a quarter.  She laid them on the table next to Ares' hand.  "Suzanne.  Jim needs you.  Go."  She gave the girl a slight nudge to get her moving in the direction of the bar, and then turned to go back toward the band.

"Damn!  She's really something, ain't she?" panted Tom, his face florid with beer and lust.

"Mm-hmm."  Ares was dumfounded, and not pleasantly.  His heart thudded.  The roaring in his ears and the heat in his mind blotted everything else out.  He stood up abruptly, grabbing his jacket.  "I'm outa here."  He walked toward the door, his fists clenched.

He walked in the direction of his car but, with no conscious thought, went past it, his stride measured, his progress as unstoppable as a wind of war, his rampaging thoughts only slightly marring the darkly sensual beauty of his face.  His back muscles tensed and relaxed.  The overall impression was of a snake, undulating and ready to strike.  He would have been gratified to see the vicious-looking youths with the blue doo-rags move hastily out of his way, had he noticed them.  He didn't.  The realization of what had happened bombarded his mind in a frenzied manner and assaulted the foundation of everything in him, and he was only able to form one coherent thought in the midst of the volcano:

She, this *mortal*, this *unimpressive* mortal female, had ignored him.  SHE had ignored HIM!  She had thrown not a single glance, even cursory, in his direction.  Not once.  NOT ONCE.

* * *

Late the next evening, Ares stepped from the taxi in front of Charlie's and moved toward his Mustang, his mind now calm.

That had not been the case for most of the time since he had walked away from here last night.  Ordinarily, a 15-mile jog would have been enough to drain the emotion, but when he arrived home, rage still reddened his vision and clouded his mind.  He had spent hours pacing back and forth across the living room, Wagner blasting from the stereo, the level in the fifth of Jack Daniels sinking at a steady rate.  Finally, simple physical exhaustion propelled his body to the recliner, and kept him there, while his mind fought to grasp what seemed to be beyond his comprehension.  He slumped in the chair, one muscled thigh draped heavily over the padded arm, his face ashen and his dark eyes dulled by confusion and alcohol.

It didn't make sense.  None of it.  He was disliked by many, and a source of fascination to even more than that, but at no time, as a god or now, as a mortal, had he ever been ignored.  No, it was worse than that:  she hadn't ignored him, he realized, she hadn't even *noticed* him.  The realization stripped the glaze from his eyes and brought him to his feet, the long-necked bottle dropping unnoticed to the floor.

He paced methodically, his fists clenched, his blazing eyes seeing nothing.  How was this possible?  Quite simply, it wasn't.  But it had happened.  Like a rat in a maze, his brain raced through the twists and turns, searching for the elusive payoff, and slammed repeatedly into the same unbreachable barrier.  So, finally, as dawn seeped weakly around the blinds, he had no choice but to accept it, as slimy and noxious as it was to him.  Resignation dropped him back into the chair, and his face was blank as the unpalatable notion was assimilated into his mind's war chest.

He slung his leg across the arm again, his head thrown back, his arms crossed loosely on his chest, staring absently at the ceiling.  It was irritating, to say the least.  For him to be affected by this cunt to the same degree as everyone else, albeit in a very different manner, left a bad taste in his mouth.  His intuition squealed to a halt in front of this new thought.  Hmmm, he mused, toying with it.  No, not exactly true.  He had been absolutely untouched by the spell that she cast over the crowd in the bar.  His reaction was to his unexpected, unfamiliar relegation to the realm of the invisible.  It was certainly nothing more than that, as hard as that was for him to swallow.  He thought for a moment, treading carefully the unfamiliar waters of emotional self-analysis.  <If it hadn't been for my reaction to her lack of reaction, she would be completely faded from my mind now.  I had no effect on her.  That is what's stuck in my craw.  How that happened, I don't know.  It certainly has never happened with anyone else, god or mortal.  That I know of.>

He drew in a breath sharply.  That he knew of!  He stood up suddenly, bracing his hands at his waist.  Maybe it had happened, at some time, and he just hadn't noticed.  His face clouded.  Now *there* was a rancid thought.  His hands slid behind his back, his wrists locking.  Abruptly, his mind, never good at analysis of the smoke-and-mirrors sideshow of his own or anyone else's emotional convolutions, short-circuited the process, much to his relief.  It has to be because I'm not a god right now, he decided.  Such a thing was impossible for Ares the God of War, but not for Ares the Mortal.  His mind threw the logic together rapidly, likening the woman's reaction to him with the occasional hangovers and strain of overused muscles that were unknown to the god, but an accepted, although infrequent, fact of his mortal life.  The self-serving rationalization slid neatly into the fabric of his personality structure with an almost audible click, causing everything he had spent the night, and most of the day, wrestling with fall into place.

Well, he thought with satisfaction, now I understand.  It's even somewhat logical.  And, in truth, he knew that he had made no attempt to command her attention, to place her in his sphere of control, so it wasn't as if she resisted him.  That, he knew without doubt, really WAS impossible.  He yawned suddenly, glancing at his watch.  What a waste of time, this need for sleep, he mused somewhat incoherently as he stretched out on the bed, unconsciousness overtaking him, despite the afternoon sunlight streaming through the window, and before his head had sagged fully into the pillow.

* * *

He got into his car, sliding the key into the ignition.  Then he stopped.  He looked pensively at the dirty brick building face, and even through the closed window he could hear the thumping of the drums in the band.  Saturday night.  <She'd be there again.>  Almost against his will, but needing to prove something to himself, Ares got out of the car and sauntered across the street.

His eyes swept the room as he pocketed his keys.  Same shit, different day.  The same smoke-blue air, that odor mixing with the pungent smell of beer taps and sweat and urine from the nearby men's room, the same clash of glassware accompanying the din of bass and tenor voices punctuated by the occasional high-pitched feminine squeal, and over and around it all, and even louder than before, the percussion of the drum and the whine of the electric guitars from the bandstand melded with and overshadowed the humming of the florescent fixtures and completed the cacophony.  From the corner of his eye, he spotted the blonde head of his coworker, minus Pete and Tom, at the same table where he had sat last night.  I don't think so, he decided, and took a barstool at the far end of the island.  A white-haired man with a seamed face looked his way and, throwing the towel over his shoulder, made his way down to the end of the bar.

"What'll it be?"

Before Ares could answer, the giggly voice said, "Four fingers of Stoli, no rocks, no chaser."  He turned and looked over his left shoulder at the simpering blonde.  He smiled, his white teeth catching the light.  "You remembered."

Suzanne giggled, squeezing his forearm.  "Sure.  Like I could forget *you*."

He laughed softly.  "You're … Suzanne.  Am I right?"

"As rain, mister."  She batted her eyes and snuggled closer to him while Jim rolled his eyes.  "So," she purred, her breast pressing against his arm, the lacquered hand stroking his bare forearm, "you know my name.  Now you havta tell me yours, don't you?"  Her hand slid firmly from his wrist up to his elbow in a suggestive fashion, the fingertips trailing lightly back down, and her full lips formed a soft oval.  Ready for the insertion of a cock, he thought.  Oh, brother.  I've seen whores with more class.  But he smiled.

"Max."  He saw Jim gazing at him with sympathy.  "The lady's right.  Stoli, four fingers."  Jim nodded and walked away.  He turned back to Suzanne, whose idle hand had now dropped to his thigh, the tips of her fingers nearly making contact with the inside seam of the jeans.  He placed his large hand over hers, effectively stopping the progression.

"Careful, honey.  You're going to give me the wrong idea."  He lifted her hand and kissed her fingertips, the tip of his tongue just barely grazing the ball of her index finger.  She jumped and her eyes got wider.

"Oh, Max, you're a baaaad boy!"

He smiled slightly, wondering how many decibels it took to make mortal ears bleed.  His patience with the whole interchange was just about gone.  "You better get back to work," he told her as Jim set the drink in front of him.  "Wouldn't want your boss to can that pretty behind."  She squealed as she wiggled away from him.

Jim laid his change on the counter.  "I think she likes you."

"Yeah, I sort of got that impression, too."  He swallowed half the vodka in the glass.  "Not a bad place you've got here."

"It'll do.  You're one of Tom's boys, aren't you?"

Ares stifled his irritation.  "Yeah, I suppose."

"Must be new to the crew."

"Yeah."  He looked at his watch.  "So …"

Jim grinned dourly.  "She's here.  Probably in a few minutes."

Ares stared at him.  Am I that transparent? he wondered.  "Who?"

Jim shook his head.  "Give it up, son.  Only reason anybody comes in here regular is Raye.  And you might -- MIGHT, mind you -- actually have a chance."  He exhaled noisily.  "Christ knows you got virtually no competition."  Jim snorted.  "It'll break Suzie's heart, though.  The dumb bunny always thinks it's her, and she's always wrong."  He shot Ares a look.  "Right?"

"We'll see."

Jim laughed.  "Another drink?"


And the house lights dimmed.

Tonight she was all in black, her jeans, tight t-shirt and boots all uniformly dark.  Other than that, no difference at all from the time before.  He listened to the husky contralto voice do many of the same songs, not one dissimilar note or word in the performance.  She paced, she smoked, she drank, and she sang, and she was still calm, unsmiling, and unruffled.  The audience was equally attentive, or hypnotized, he thought.  He still judged her to be pleasant to listen to and utterly average in every other way.  What am I doing? he asked himself.  This is a waste of my time.  His eyes were smoky with dissatisfaction as he sipped the vodka.

The groundswell of noise told him that the band, or at least the singer, had gone on a break.  I might as well get out of here, he decided, motioning for another drink.  <I don't even know what it is about her that draws me.  Certainly nothing I can put my finger on.>  He downed the fresh drink in one swallow, drawing a raised eyebrow from the man behind the bar.

Well, he decided, let me get this over with.  He knew what would happen.  She would capitulate, as they all did, and when she did, that would finish it for him.  He looked forward to that with anticipation.  He wanted to see that reserve crumble and the blush in her cheek deepen to flame.  He wanted, needed, to see that control slip and fall to pieces under the power of his will.  His pace measured, he walked toward the back of the room.

* * *

She inhaled deeply, leaning against the trash can in the alley.  It was a relief to get a few minutes of quiet after the pounding in the bar.  She held up her right hand, noting the slight tremor, and she smashed her fist into the brick wall by the door.  Her heart thudded slowly in her chest.  She closed her eyes, concentrating on the pain.

She was exhausted, simply wrung out, with the effort necessary to wear the mask.  She knew she was at the danger point:  the only thing that kept her from exploding when she reached this point was a constant influx of alcohol, and she had realized, with a dull sense of horror, that over the last day or so the effect of even that reliable buffer was swiftly fading.  Two fifths so far today, and for all the difference it had made, she might as well have imbibed water.  The telltale redness rimming her field of vision had thickened even in the time since she had arrived here, and when it became total …

Her mind skittered away from the memory of the last time the need had reached this degree.  Her satisfaction on that night so many months ago had resulted in carnage ghastly enough to sicken her even now.  Never again, she had promised herself then, never again would she let the need go unfilled past a manageable point.  The razor edge of her survival instincts had laid down a decree, as the hot water in the shower pounded her back and she scrubbed the dried blood slime from her body, that the night's orgy of slaughter would never be repeated; her intellect had concurred and applauded the decision as she fought the nausea that threatened to empty her stomach of its hideous contents, a cannibal's soup of masticated testicles and heart and liver and blood; and her dignity had pledged its support as she clung to the toilet, vomiting helplessly over and over.  No, she had sworn at morning's light, her face drawn and shadowed with the spider web of nightmare, never again.  NEVER AGAIN!

"But," she said softly, lighting a cigarette with shaking hands, "here we are … again."

Raye had been through this on more than one occasion.  It was the nature of the beast.  After all these years, she castigated herself, you should know better.  What made you think you could handle it, here, when the fever is running this high?  Yes, yes, we all know how much you hate trolling on Saturday nights, but that would have been better than this, don't you think?  She ignored the derision that dripped from the voice inside her head.  You're a fool, it went on airily.  The alcoholic in the liquor store, the refugee from Gamblers Anonymous in Vegas, the bulimic at an all-you-can-eat buffet … and YOU in a place like Charlie's.  Brilliant move! it crowed with delight.  The moon is high, the planets are aligned, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world -- and everything around you is bathed in a lovely red glow that pulsates and shimmers with every breath you take.

Shut up, she told it tiredly.  Just shut the fuck up.

But if I don't tell you these things, who will? came the evil sibilance.  You're busy "maintaining" and don't have the energy to …

ENOUGH! and the thought catapulted with lethal force, stilling it to silence and leaving a white-hot coldness behind.  Quite enough, she thought, as the jellied feeling in her abdomen petrified and the portal in the red fog in her vision narrowed to a pinhole.  Her hand, surgeon-steady, grasped the knob and turned to go back in.

* * *

"Shit," he said, looking up.  "Oh, it's you."  The smile, made slimier than normal by three pitchers of beer, crawled over her like a roach.  She stared at him levelly.  "Move."

"Okay."  He took a hulking step in her direction.  "Like this?"  She smiled tightly and attempted to sidestep him.  He grunted and mirrored her, sniggering as the distance between them closed.  Another step, and her back was flat against the cement.  He braced his meaty hands on the wall near her shoulders, breathing heavily, his eyes glazed.

She glared at him, still smiling.  "Dave, right?  Okay, Dave, back off, and I mean NOW."

He wheezed laughter and beer, pressing against her.  "Oh, come on, sweetie.  Just us here, right?  You can be a little more friendly."  She ducked the impending kiss and almost slid out under his forearm, but he countered by lowering his arm and, with a nasty giggle, pinned her in place with his body.  His cock, small but fully hard, pressed firmly against her belly, and he rubbed against her, panting.

"C'mon, just a little smooch, whaddaya say?"

"What do I say?" she said acidly.  "Well, Dave," she straightened her hands so they were stretched out flat, the fingers locked, "if you really want to know," driving her hands into the sensitive area right near his armpits, "I guess my answer would be no," his half-step back allowing her the space she needed to drive the spike heel of her boot into his instep.  He yowled and stumbled back, falling clumsily into a stack of cardboard boxes.  She looked with loathing on the man sprawled awkwardly on a cushion of napkins and plastic utensils.  He attempted to get up.

"Stay there," she said in a monotone.

He rolled to the side and started to raise up on one knee.  "Fuck you, bitch," he muttered, under his breath.

"What did you say?"  The request was soft, almost demure.

He looked at her, sneering, and snapped, "I said fuck you, bitch!  Didja hear me that time?"

"That's what I thought you said."  The smile on her face was sweet, almost dewy, and totally in contrast to the silvery gleam in her eyes.  Her boot, driven with the force of her entire leg, slammed into his crotch, and she quickly hooked the toe of the boot into his now mushy scrotum.  He screamed, a high thin soprano sound, and went down clutching his genitals.

"You know," she said, malice dripping like honey from every word, "I absolutely adore men like you, Dave.  Every single time I wonder whether I'm doing the right thing, one of you is always good enough to stand up and be the charming and wonderful creature that you are, and it restores my faith in myself."  She gazed with venomous benevolence at the fetid heap of testosterone whimpering at her feet.  "Thank you, Dave."  She drew back her foot and drove it with sledgehammer force into the area cupped by his hands, nodding with satisfaction as she heard the bone in at least one of his fingers snap like a breadstick.

* * *

When she turned to go back into the bar, she saw the tall man leaning against the door jamb, his arms folded comfortably across his chest.  His face was relaxed in its interest as his eyes went from Raye, down to the semiconscious man on the floor, and back to Raye.  She stopped, recognition dawning.

"Looking for Suzanne?" she said wryly.

"No."  He casually crossed his leg at the knees.

"Friend of yours?"

"Him?" he queried lightly, glancing at Dave.  "No."

She crossed her arms, unconsciously imitating his posture.  "Lost?" she said, her sarcasm muted but discernable.


<Fine.>  "Enjoy the storeroom then."

He turned sideways to let her pass, the hint of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth.  "Raye?"

She turned back.  "Yes?"

"Are you all right?"  The tone was carefully devoid of flirtation.


Gesturing at the man woozily attempting to sit up, he asked, "What about him?"

She turned back slowly, her eyes calm.  "I have no idea.  I have no interest in the matter."  Her eyes locked with his, and she added, in words like sleet, "If your concern overwhelms you, feel free to tend to him yourself."  She turned on her heel and left the storeroom.

* * *

Ares watched her walk away from him, his inner turmoil belied only by the slight flaring of his nostrils.  He fought to maintain the closed, disdainful posture that was his nature, his presentation every bit as deliberate as what he now knew to be her façade, the protective coloration of the chameleon, the enticing fragrance that drew unwary flies to sip the nectar of the Venus Flytrap.

The mortal male in him was horrorstruck at the vicious evisceration of both the physical and psychological masculinity of the man, her aim deadly accurate on both counts.

The warrior in him delighted in the sweet malice delivered in her soft words and applauded the calculating infliction of pain upon an opponent.

The general in him coolly appraised the tactical totality and strategy of the campaign and awarded points for the speed with which the victory was effected.

The god in him was dumbstruck:  by the savagery displayed by that final blow, obviously unnecessary and having nothing to do with defense, evidencing a need not only to vanquish but to destroy, to lay waste, to make the man's complete annihilation absolute, irrevocable and eternal; by the vampiric gluttony of her consumption of the man's pain as if it was some rare delicacy that would caress the palate and so must be savored fully; and by the remote imperial coldness with which she accepted, noblesse oblige, that tribute.

His mind raced, keeping pace with the current in his heated blood.  His eyes absently flickered to the man, now sitting up, his face ashen, moaning softly as the tears coursed down his face.

"That bitch, that lousy little bitch," he whined, gasping with a squeal as he weakly flexed a finger that was already discolored and at least twice its normal size.  "When I see her, I'm gonna --"

"If I were you, pal," Ares spoke softly, his stoop bringing him eye-level with the man, "I would walk out of here -- when I was *able* to walk, that is -- and I might stop for a beer to dull the pain, or I might go right out the front door and head for the nearest emergency room to see if I was ever going to fuck again in this lifetime.  But the one thing I would NOT do," Ares casually took the man's swollen hand, "is to be stupid enough to give her the opportunity to do something that would make THIS" -- flexing the man's fingers upward abruptly -- "seem like a kiss from Mommy."  The man slumped limply, whimpering.

Ares rose smoothly to his feet, his face distant and somewhat bored.  "Those fingers are broken, by the way.  I would advise getting them checked out, too."

He strolled slowly out of the storeroom, the injured man already forgotten, and made his way through the room back to where he had been sitting at the bar.  He played the scene over again in his mind as he sat there, his eyes unseeing, deaf to the noise and commotion around him.  The thump of the glass on the bar jarred him back to reality.

"Look like you need this."  Jim fired up the bowl of a pipe.  "On the house."

Ares noted with no particular feeling the man's carefully veiled sympathy.  He threw the contents of the tumbler to the back of his throat.  "Again."

Jim filled the glass to the halfway point, saying quietly, "If this one goes down as fast as the last one, son, I'll be taking your car keys."  Ares nodded mechanically, taking a large sip.

Jim sighed, puffing on his pipe.  "She cut you off at the knees."

Ares said nothing.

Jim barked out, "Suzanne!"  The waitress halted in mid-beeline about five feet away from the barstool, glaring at Jim.  "You got customers -- take care of 'em," he said sternly, shooting her a look of warning.  "I mean it, Suzie," he said in response to her pout.  She flounced off in the opposite direction, glaring daggers at him over her shoulder.

Ares had missed the entire exchange.  His attention was riveted on the singer.  The passive, emotionless persona had vanished.  Raye's eyes blazed with a nuclear heat that arrowed out with the pinpoint intensity of a laser, her body tight and coiled, and she stalked the bandstand with the primitive prowl of a panther.  The flush in her cheeks contoured her face in dramatic planes, stark and angular, and the smoky voice challenged and mocked the men who sat rapt and worshipping, and him, and all men who lived or had ever lived or would live, in this or any other age.  She threw down the gauntlet, daring them to pick it up, arrogantly confident that none had the thickness of prick or weight of balls to do so.

The psychic cologne which had wafted through the bar and produced the intoxication of the men on the previous evening, too distant and dismissable and impotent to affect the god essence which still lived in the soul of Ares the mortal, was now thickened and elemental, a distilled perfume which seeped into him, oily and pungent, cloying as formaldehyde.  It coalesced into a shimmering mass inside of him, and when it began to speak, he was powerless to resist its insinuating message.

//Are you man enough, little boy?// it whispered.  //Look at me.//

He felt a cool silken finger tracing the underside of his cock, the tip of the fingernail indenting the sensitive shaft.

//I've been waiting for you.//

His throat felt swollen, constricted, and swallowing became impossible.

//You don't stand a chance, you know.  I know that for a fact.//

A vein began to throb hotly in his temple, the pulse uneven.

//But give it your best shot.//

His nipples tightened, the brush of his shirt across them almost painful.

//I can use the amusement.//

His hands twitched, the tingling radiating from the center of his palm to the fingertips.

//You'll posture and show me what a big cock you have, and I'll laugh when you can't get it up.//

His eyes felt hot and dry.

//I'll laugh, but I won't be surprised.  I never am.//

The flush began at the curling hair at the open collar of his shirt and began to spread up to his face.

//But go ahead and show me how different you are from all the rest of the prickless wonders who believe that they are different, too.//

His heart thudded in his chest, the rhythm accelerating.

//I've got the time, all the time in the world.  Amuse me, LITTLE man.//

His hands, pressed against the locked muscles of his thighs, clenched into fists.

//Make me want you.  I want you to try.//

A rush of heat enveloped his sac, turning his cock to granite and wrapping itself sensuously around his prostate.

//Prove me wrong.//

His scalp prickled deliciously.

//Teach me a lesson in respect.//

The tension slid from the back of his neck to his buttocks, the muscles steeling.

//Put me in my place.//

His midsection hardened as if clasped between powerful thighs.

//Put me on my knees in front of you.//

Invisible flames licked the head of his cock with loving swipes.

//If you can.//

Roaring filled his ears.

//Unless you're …afraid.//

Jets of saliva shot up in his mouth and he ground his teeth.

//Was that a whimper?//

He tasted metal.

//Yes, I think it was.//

His vision clouded pinkly.

* * *

He came back to himself gradually, a sick feeling in his stomach, his heart pounding in his throat.  Cold blue rage warred with his rationality when he realized that there was no discernable difference between his reaction and that of everyone else.  He had been hit by it just as hard as they had.  His head whipped to the side, teeth clicking together, and he raged inwardly, Damn her!  Who the fuck does she think she is?  I could …

And just as suddenly as it came, it vanished.  All of it.  Ares sat on the barstool, glass in hand, his equilibrium fully restored.  He was calm, deadly, lethally calm as only the God of War could be.  His mind methodically ticked off salient points, putting some aside for further reflection, discarding others, and it moved at the lightning pace necessary for heat-of-the-battle strategy.  He analyzed everything with a general's precision and skill and a warlord's instincts, factoring a hundred different impressions into a logical progression with the skill of a computer.  Everything that he was, everything that was his right by birth, came together fluidly.

When she returned to the band, and the music began again, he was ready.  He felt it licking enticingly at the corners of his mind, but the steel at his core rose and held it at bay.  He watched her closely, noting that the fires within her seemed to have banked somewhat, still hot but not quite as intense.  His ego listened with infinite patience and cool reserve to the sinuous entreaty of the siren within her voice, hearing the same dialogue but, ready for the dance this time, his body did not react.

He knew, to a certainty, that what he heard clearly was unintelligible in that form to the men around him.  To them, it was an undefined and nebulous vibration that slid beneath the notice of their intellect and manifested itself in their instincts, driving them into a stupor.  Ares the God of War saw clearly what Ares the mortal had overlooked:  he saw "the shadow of the hawk" in the faces of those around him.  When the shadow of his battalions of warriors, armed to the teeth and eyes glittering with bloodlust, fell upon the other side, his opposers seemed to ready themselves, almost eagerly, for the impending slaughter, meekly accepting the inevitable.  From the time he saw the same behavior in field mice, who laid down and waited to be abducted by sharp talons when the grass around them darkened in the shape of outstretched wings, Ares referred to the battlefield phenomenon simply as "the shadow of the hawk."  As a commander, he looked for it:  it was at that point that victory was no longer in question.

Obviously, the woman was a predator of some sort.  The men, her victims, reacted appropriately.  It was perfectly clear and beyond dispute.

It was equally clear as to why.  She enjoyed it.  That was plain from the display in the storeroom.

The only remaining question, for him, was his own course of action.

* * *

As she sang, her eyes flickered periodically to where he sat.  Under ordinary circumstances, she would have tried to diffuse the bomb that had begun to tick during the episode he witnessed by at least a modicum of charm.  No use making enemies and leaving loose ends untied.  It had been her experience that people seemed compelled to talk about just those kinds of loose ends.  In her present state of mind, however, she didn't care enough to even find out how long he had been there and what he had seen.  It simply didn't matter.

Raye watched the audience through scarlet vision that pulsed and shimmered eerily.  As her eyes traveled over them, men she knew by name and personality, some seemed to be highlighted by an intensified shimmer in a way that made her nipples harden and her clit throb unevenly.  Yes, she thought unemotionally, I waited too long.  But that didn't really matter, either.  She had reached the point where she felt she was invulnerable, and the only thing that mattered to her, or to that part of her that was now in control, was the kill.  And she would take care of that later tonight.  The woman who normally stood on that stage singing was gone, replaced by the killer.  And the killer was hungry.

* * *

Ares watched her come off the stage and walk without hurry toward the bar.  Her eyes still flickered with that same cold fire, but she looked, if anything, even more in control than he had seen her previously.  She strode past him without even a look, stepping behind the bar.  She poured some coffee in a cup, a small amount, and filled it to the brim with brandy, sipping it as Jim fished some bills out of the cash register and handed them to her.

"See ya Tuesday, right?"

"Yeah."  She dragged her purse out of a drawer and kicked it closed.  She tipped the cup back and drained most of its contents in one draught.  "Around 9."

"Okay.  Be careful going home."  Jim looked at her closely.  "Raye, are you okay?"

"Yeah," she laughed humorlessly.  "I'm just fine."  She went through the opening back to the customer side of the bar.  "Later."  And the front door swung behind her.

Ares strolled unhurriedly after her, pacing himself, his long strides taking him to the sidewalk before she was out of sight.  He followed her on the opposite side of the street, keeping a substantial distance between them, his feet hitting the pavement silently, not really surprised to find that she had foregone the large parking lot across the street from Charlie's to park on the street six blocks away.

When he saw her slide her key into the door of a dark sedan, he doubled his pace and closed the two-block distance rapidly.

* * *

Sitting in the front seat, she waited for him.  Sometimes they made it so easy.

* * *

The ignition started as he came around the passenger side of the car.  He moved quickly, crossing from the sidewalk in front of it and stopping by the left fender.  The motor purred softly and the window went down.

"Can I help you?" she asked huskily.

"We should talk," he said quietly, moving closer to the open window.

"We should?"  He heard the chuckle in her voice.

"Yes."  His forearm rested on the car roof above the window, and he stooped slightly to look at her.

"Are you sure?"  Her eyes met his without hesitation.  And held them easily.

"Very sure."

Raye studied him, the small smile curving her lips never touching her eyes in the slightest.  He was conscious of those intense eyes grazing over his curls of black hair, lingering on his full lips, trailing down his powerful arms to rest on his large hands, segueing to his broad chest, down his flat stomach to his tapered waist, and coming to rest on the bulge in his jeans.  She took inventory flatly and obviously, making no attempt at coyness, and she took her time doing it.  He felt his cock stiffen under the pressure of her appraising gaze.  Her eyes moved slowly back to his face, and she nodded.

"Get in."

* * *

She drove fast, and her quick reflexes and expert maneuvering through the dark streets and onto the highway reflected no trace of the brandy.  Jazz, cool and sensual, flowed from the quadraphonic system as they traveled the almost deserted highway.  Her eyes never left the road and there was no conversation between them.

She pulled into a lighted parking lot and turned off the motor.  The parking lot of a church, he noted with minute surprise.

"So."  She had turned to face him, the same small smile on her face.  "Talk."

"Okay.  What would you like to discuss?"

She stared at him distantly.  "Don't waste my time, babe.  YOU said we should talk.  I'M listening.  Talk."

Ares feigned an easy laugh.  "That was a helluva show, lady."

"I know," she said, lighting a cigarette.  "Are you an agent?"

He looked curiously at her.  "No."

"Then the quality of my performance is of no importance."  She exhaled a long stream of smoke.

He felt his shoulders tense.  "Oh, but it is."  He gave her a cool smile much like her own.  "I was referring, of course, to your performance in the back room."  He deliberately relaxed back into his seat, his eyes resting casually on her face.  "Very impressive."

"You're an easy sell," she said, tossing the cigarette out the window.  "You've never seen self-defense moves before?"

"Self-defense?"  His derisive laughter filled the car.  "Right.  Self-defense."  He crossed his ankle over his knee.

Her eyes glittered and her head tilted slightly to one side.  "You saw something besides a woman defending herself against an over-enthusiastic admirer?  Pray tell, enlighten me, then."

He undid the top button of his shirt.  "I saw a lady who was enjoying herself immensely."

Her smile faded slowly and her eyes narrowed slightly.  "You think I enjoyed that?"

"My dear, I *know* you enjoyed it.  Your ability to enjoy it surpassed even my own."  He chuckled huskily.  "It filled me with … admiration.  I had to fight the urge to … stand up and salute, shall we say."

"Gee, I'll bet 'American Gladiators' makes your … heart … go all a-flutter then, doesn't it?"

"Not exactly," he said, still laughing.  "Too removed behind that little screen of glass.  So much more exciting when it unfolds literally at my feet.  Don't you agree?"

"I wouldn't know."

"Of course you know."  The ice in his voice snapped her head back to face him.  "We *both* know.  Violence, unlike revenge, is a dish best eaten hot, right from the oven."  His eyes locked hers like a vise.  "And that little exchange was nothing but an appetizer, wasn't it?"  He leaned back, still holding her with his eyes.  "At least, to me it would have been an appetizer.  And, frankly, I think you and I have a lot in common in that regard."

"We do?"




"Well, be still my heart," she murmured flatly.  Raye took her time lighting a cigarette, visible to him only in profile.  Finally, she faced him fully, a half-smile on her lips, her eyes deliberately frosted.

"So, you followed me tonight to tell me you were impressed.  Is that correct?"

"I suppose."

"Good.  I'm glad you were impressed.  That makes it all worthwhile."  She leaned slightly closer to him.  "Impressing you is what makes my life complete."

"You see, that's precisely why I wanted to tell you."  Ares and fished one of her cigarettes from the pack and lit it with a practiced gesture.  "I was afraid you'd lay awake tonight worrying about just that very thing."

She laughed humorlessly.  "How touching, Max.  And to what do I owe this great concern?"

"Oh, it's just that I would hate to think of your losing a night of sleep for such a reason," he said in a velvety tone, "when there are so many other productive ways in which you could spend it."

"Oh, really."  The frost in her eyes gave way to smoldering coals.  "For instance?"

He pretended to consider his response.  "Well, whatever you consider a good way to spend the time, I guess."

"And how would *you* spend the time?  If it were you?"

"How would I spend a sleepless night?"  He took her hand casually.

"Yes, Max."  She allowed him to run his fingers over her palm.

"I, personally, would start with this," he said softly, raising her fingers to his lips, kissing warmly down to the inside of her wrist, "and then probably go in this direction."  He pulled her gently toward him, meeting her mouth with his own.  He slipped his tongue deftly through her lips, feeling the delicious graze of her teeth against it.  He probed delicately, the tip of it touching on the inside of her lips and behind her upper teeth.  He increased the pressure of his lips against hers very slightly before easing back from the kiss, then sliding his lips slowly down to her collarbone.

"I can think of other refinements on that theme … if you're interested, that is."

* * *

If she was interested!  The arrogance on his face and the patronizing tone in his seductive voice made her very interested, indeed.  She knew this man better than she knew herself.  He was accustomed to women throwing themselves at his feet, falling under the spell of that incredible body and the heart-stopping perfection of that handsome face.  He used them according to his whim, tossed them away when they bored him, and never gave them a moment's thought past that point.  Oh, yes, he would be adequate, maybe even talented, in bed, but it would be first, last and always to satisfy himself and stroke his own ego, that he had brought this simple little woman to the point of screaming his name.  He would lie or cheat or do whatever it took to fulfill his own desires, and if hers happened to dovetail with his own, he would allow her to think that he was putting himself out for her, and he would accept her pitiful gratitude and use it against her.

This was a man who took pride in being always the master of every situation, who saw the world and everything in it as revolving absolutely around him as its sun, and who never, in his wildest flight of imagination, could see himself being taken, standing as the slave to another master.  He acknowledged no force, physical or in any way, superior to his own, and would joyfully throw his head back, roaring laughter, at the insanity and ludicrous quality of the very idea.

Yes, she thought, my dear Max, unfortunately for you, I AM interested.

* * *

He waited patiently, sitting comfortably, steadily watching the play of emotions across her face.  There would have been nothing to observe had he been a normal mortal, but the god in him saw the shadow of myriad thoughts flit in quick order through her eyes, alternately tensing and relaxing the set of her mouth, at one point giving a tiny flare to her nostrils.  He waited, already knowing her answer.  He had felt it in her mouth when he kissed her, the instinctive response of her body quickly quelled to passivity by the power of her mind.  He waited while her mind traveled whatever path it had to in order to accept the night's natural conclusion, and he wished he had enough of the god power to discern her thoughts in their entirety because he had no doubt that their nature differed from those of a normal female.

But he saw enough reflected to know that lust and desire and cold rage and the all-consuming need to conquer and give reign to the bloodlust within her were coalescing in her soul, and he knew that those forces would overrule and negate the intellectual part of her that would take note of his obvious physical strength, in comparison to her slight form, and inform the rest of her that this was a serious error in judgment.  He felt the wolf rise in his warrior's heart, and he waited.

* * *

"Maybe I'm interested," she said diffidently.  "Are you any good?"

His laugh met her expectations.  "You can tell me … after."

She met his eyes levelly.  "What does your girlfriend say about your abilities?"  She started the ignition.  "Or should I say wife?"

He laughed lightly.

She turned back to him.  "Well?  Which is it?"

He smiled condescendingly.  "Actually, neither."  His instinct told him which gauntlet would be most likely to be picked up.  "What's the old saying?  'My wife is married but I'm not?'"  He felt her eyes laser in on him.  "Seriously, no, I'm not married or anything like that, okay?"

"Mmmm."  She put the car in gear and eased out of the parking lot.  "Just making conversation, lover.  Why would I care?"  Turning left, she said pointedly, "I'm sure you're familiar with the concept of the one-night stand, aren't you?"

"Sounds like you may be more familiar with it than I am, Raye."  His blood raced and sang in his ears as he hefted the sword in his mind.

Her laugh was sardonic.  "Oh, I seriously doubt that.  I really do."

* * *

They drove for a while, and he could feel the tension in her, displayed outwardly only in the way she smoked one cigarette after another.  As the miles passed, he was curious about the final destination.  She obviously knew precisely where she was going.

* * *

She listened to the rate of his breathing increase with each passing mile marker on the road.  Is it nerves, she wondered idly, as he shifted position in the seat several times and tapped his fingers lightly on the armrest.  Yes, I think it is.

* * *

Far out of the metropolitan area, she took an unlighted exit that curved to an even darker paved road, finally turning onto what looked like a gravel path.  She followed it for about half a mile, making another turn, the car coming to a halt in front of a chicken-wire fence.  She turned off the ignition.

He looked at her questioningly.  "Your place?"

"For tonight, anyway."  She popped the trunk latch and got out of the car.  He followed her around to the back of the car.  She handed him a folded blanket and a cooler, closing the trunk lid and pushing on it to secure it.  She retrieved her purse from the car and looked back at him.  "Coming?"  She walked off to the right of the car.

He watched her spread the blanket on the ground in a clearing, the heavy foliage forming a wall around it on three sides.  She stretched out on the blanket, setting the cooler by her head.  He sat down next to her.

"I'm out of vodka," she said, handing him a bottle.  "I hope beer will do."

"That's fine."  He took a long drink, his mouth dry.  "Just curious:  why here?"

"Why not here?"

He laughed.  "You don't strike me as the homeless type."

She laughed easily.  "Well, we can't go to your place because of your non-existent wife or girlfriend," she stretched out on her back, her head turned to face him, "and we can't go to my place," her smile feline, "because I don't want to have to worry about getting you out of there in the morning."

He laughed tightly, moving to a reclining position next to her.  "Oh.  Sorry I asked."

"I thought you might be."  She placed her hand against the side of his face.  "Now.  We can lay here and talk, or we can fuck.  Either way, in two hours we're leaving.  Your choice."

"No choice," he said, sliding his arms around her body and pulling her against him.

Raye slid her arms around his neck, pulling his mouth to hers.  This time it was her tongue that slid into his mouth, exploring it deeply, the tip of it swiping the back of his throat, running along the sides of his mouth, tickling pleasantly along his sensitive lips, lapping sensuously the top and bottom of his tongue.  He suctioned it, drawing it deeper into his mouth, as his hands moved restlessly over her body.  Her tongue pulled away from his, and he drove his own into her mouth, the force of it pressing her back against the blanket.  He felt her teeth close on it in a hard bite, and he savored the pain of it, feeling it all over his body.  He gave it back to her, fucking her throat, the pressure of his lips bruising and abrading hers, his arms tightening around her more and more, and she accepted it, seemed to welcome it all, her hands dragging his shirt out of his jeans and digging her fingers into his back.  She arched against him, her movements serpentine as she ground her pelvis against his.

When she pushed him firmly away, he was gasping, the taste of blood from his tongue and her lips in his mouth.  He looked at her, standing, and shook his head.  "So help me, Raye, cockteasing is not a good tack to take with me.  I won't tolerate it, you know."

"Don't be a baby."  She laughed mockingly as she pulled the t-shirt over her head, and then stopped.  "I assume you can strip on your own, right?"

Never had Ares wanted to belt a woman so badly.  He still had the bends from her abrupt withdrawal, and her attitude made his fists clench of their own accord.  He stood slowly, counting to ten, and started removing his clothes, his breath coming fast.

She came up behind him just as he had dropped his jeans to the ground, her arms sliding around to press flat against his chest, her body molded to his back.  "You're not got to throw a temper tantrum, are you, lover?"  She licked wetly between his shoulder blades as she pinched his nipples.  He turned to face her, her hands sliding down to squeeze the cheeks of his ass.

"Two hours, huh?"  He pulled her against him, his hands guiding her hips so that she rubbed against his cock.  "I guess I don't have time for a temper tantrum, do I?"

"I wouldn't say so, no," she purred throatily.  Her hot mouth slid swiftly down his body as she dropped easily to her knees, looking up at him, waiting with an unreadable expression.  Placing one hand gently on her neck, he took his cock in the other and guided it firmly into her mouth.

And felt himself engulfed with a hot suction that almost knocked him off-balance.  She pulled him ball-deep into her throat, her tongue massaging the underside of the shaft insistently, the warning edge of her teeth clasping him tenderly at the base of his cock.  She kept him buried in her mouth, her throat muscles convulsively swallowing, as she rolled his balls gently between the warm palms of her hands.

And then the suction eased off, and his cock slid out of the slim column of her throat into the heated cavern of her mouth, her teeth gripping lightly just under the swollen head, and he groaned with pleasure as her tongue tortured him.  She alternated teasing flicks to the taut mushroom, fast and light, with slow, wet swipes of the entire surface of her tongue which put almost unbearable pressure across the slit, and then drew her tongue completely out of range, allowing him nothing except the moist humidity of her mouth.

His fingers dug hurtfully into her shoulder as she took him again and again through deep penetration followed by the exquisite movement of her tongue.  His back twitched in reflex, his eyes closed as the waves of pleasure coursed heavily through him.  He felt it boiling in him, ready to erupt, and he steeled himself against the overwhelming need to let it come, to let himself cum, to give in to the insistent command of that expert tongue and the demand of that amazing throat.  He fought it, knowing that she would see it as a victory if she MADE him come.  He fought it, knowing instinctively that she had never before lost this skirmish, and that, in and of itself, would be the most galling defeat for her.  He fought it, finally, because he knew, as surely as he had ever known anything, that if he lost this battle, he had lost the war.

* * *

She felt his hands slide to the sides of her face, stroking, gently cradling her head as she sucked him.  Then his fingers hardened around the sides of her neck and the back of her skull, and a sudden stab of anger cut through her as a flex of his biceps held her firmly in place.  He began to fuck her mouth in a leisurely way, his rhythm implacable, and he seemed oblivious to the scraping of her teeth against the length of his shaft.  As her hands tightened around his balls, she felt one hand move swiftly from the side of her face and easily encircle both her wrists, removing them deftly, while his other hand twined her hair around his fingers and twisted it tight.  He pulled her slightly forward, twisting her hair tighter, putting her throat more in line for his increasingly deep, increasingly rapid thrusts.

* * *

He knew she was furious, and that knowledge sent a rush through him.  When she bit down in an unplayful manner, he growled enjoyment, and brought both powerful hands to the sides of her face, working his thumbs deliberately into the hinge of her jaw, increasing the pressure until the pain caused her to stop biting down.  He felt the orgasm coming again, and this time he let it wash through him, his semen filling her mouth and throat, his hands pressing her mouth closed around him, and he sighed in satisfaction as he felt her swallow.

As soon as he relaxed his grip, Raye pushed herself away from him, her face livid.  "You bastard!  Did you enjoy yourself?"

"I did, actually," he said, reclining back on the blanket, hands laced behind his neck.  "I take it you didn't."  He grinned up at her and patted the space next to him.  "Come here and I'll apologize."

"Yes, you will."  She remained standing, her hands at her waist.

He sat up easily, a pleasant expression on his face.  "Well, come down here then.  I apologize much better at closer range, my dear."  She ignored his outstretched hand and grabbed her cigarettes.

"Why are you mad?"  He asked innocently.  "I mean, seriously, it's not as if you couldn't handle it.  You deep-throat like a pro."

"You're not helping your case, you know."  Her voice was quiet, eerily quiet.

"I wasn't aware I was making one," he said, amused.  "But if I was, I could point out that it was a clear case of … self-defense."

"Self-defense," she said.  He had come up behind her, his hands on her waist as he nuzzled the side of her neck and nibbled on her earlobe.  "How do you figure self-defense?," she asked, her breath coming a little faster.

"The same way YOU do," he murmured, cupping her breasts, his thumbs rubbing against her nipples.  "And you have very strong jaws, by the way."  His tongue traced the curve of her ear wetly.  "Not to mention sharp teeth."  His hard cock pressed against the crack of her ass.

"You liked it," she said flatly, stepping away from him.

He pulled her back roughly, his patience snapping.  "I liked it.  ALL of it."  He kissed her hard, tasting blood from her lips.  "And I intend to go on liking it, with your cooperation.  Or without."  He tightened his arms, her struggle against him fanning the fire of his lust.  "It makes no difference to me."  He smiled down at her, a ruthless curve to his mouth.  "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

She stopped fighting him.  "Yes.  I do."  Her smile was unexpected, and sincerely sweet.  "And if you don't mind, I think I'd prefer to forego the bruises and cooperate.  If that's okay by you."  Thrown off guard, he released her, and watched her step to the blanket and lay down invitingly.  He studied her, trying to get a handle on her sudden capitulation.

She casually opened a beer, her eyes moving over him.  "You offered me an apology.  Is the offer still good?"

"Yeah," he said, taking the beer from her hand.  "I suppose so."  His voice was distant.



"Come here," she said, her hand stroking his calf.

He stretched out next to her, still feeling off-kilter.  He felt like he had missed something, something vital, some small thing of paramount importance.  And he wanted to take the time to concentrate on the matter and figure it out, but her mouth moved over his chest, warm wetness stiffening his nipples into peaks, and her soft hand roamed restlessly over his stomach and between his legs, fingernails trailing lightly up the inside of his thighs.  She pressed him back, her arm cradling his head, and covered his mouth with hers, the kiss searing his lips and making coherent thought difficult.  And when she straddled him, the full length of him sliding easily into a tightness that enclosed him like wet satin, any thought at all became impossible.

* * *

She took him, as she took them all, riding him as she would a stallion.  The powerful muscles in her cunt working in counterpoint to the fucking motion, relaxing and drawing him deep inside when her body crashed down on his pelvis, gripping him in an iron vise as her hips rose slowly until only the head of his cock remained inside her.  She felt him stretching her with a thickness that increased on every stroke, knowing that part of her slick wetness was blood, and the massive length of his cock cramped her with delicious agony as she took it deeper on every plunge.  She tensed when she felt the fire spreading through her, muscles locking to dam the flood of the orgasm.  No, her mind screamed, NOT YET!  And she fucked him faster, pounding against him harder still, his deep groans and the tossing of his head telling her how close he was to the edge.  But still he held back, his hands clenching fists of earth and blanket, the throbbing in his cock becoming more and more insistent with every moment, and her rage boiled over at the magnificent control of this insignificant beast, and she screamed, "DAMN YOU!," raking her fingernails down his chest and slamming her fists into the unyielding muscle of his stomach.

* * *

He felt himself plummeting into the abyss, the violence of her attack putting unbearable pressure on nerves that were already stretched to the breaking point.  His body turned to rock, every tendon flexed, and he howled, his head thrown back, his fingers crushing her upper arms in a convulsive clench, as his cock erupted in massive spurts that filled and overflowed her cunt, drenching his balls and soaking into the blanket beneath his ass.

* * *

She threw her head back and wailed triumphantly as an orgasmic inferno spread through her body.  Fireworks exploded in her vision, her breath coming harsh and fast, and the muscles in her cunt worked convulsively, sucking the last drops of semen from his prick, until finally, the strength draining from her body, she collapsed on top of him.

* * *

Raye slid off his body slowly, stretching languidly.  She glanced back down at Max, his breathing even and slumber-deep.  They always fell into a stupor afterward.  A good round of sex made her feel toned and energized, and it seemed to have the same effect on the women she fucked, so she wrote the fuck-drunk stage off as a dick thing.  And Christ knew it was certainly useful.

She almost felt a sense of regret at what was to happen, unwillingly impressed with his performance.  She sat quietly, her arms wrapped around her knees, waiting for the slight settling movements and soft sounds that would signal his descent into deep sleep, when it would be impossible for him to wake up completely.  She glanced at her watch and reached for her cigarettes.

* * *

"Light me one, too."

Raye jumped at the deep murmur.  "You're awake?"

"Mmmm," he said, taking the cigarette.  He slid it between his lips and inhaled deeply, one hand still under the back of his neck, his legs crossed at the ankles.

"I assumed you were asleep."

He heard the edge in her voice, and filed it away for further reflection.  "I hope you planned to wake me up, then."  His hand moved absently over his chest, his eyes half-closed.

"Probably.  Yeah."

"I take it you're accustomed to your lovers passing out afterward?"  The pitch of his voice had dropped to a deeper level than before, but the bantering tone had returned in full force.  He was absolutely lucid and totally alert.  She was appalled.

"The men, yes."

He chuckled.  "Maybe you need to find a better class of cock."  His fingers traced the deep scratches on his chest.  "Someone who can take the heat."

"Like you, for instance."  Her voice was cold.

He sat up smoothly and took her hand.  "I could take that bait, my sweet," he said softly, playing with her fingers, "but I won't."  He reached back and pulled a beer out of the cooler.

* * *

She was royally pissed, he could see that, and it intrigued him.  Ares studied her, rewinding the tape in his head and playing it in reverse, hearing again the razor in her voice, her irritation that he had apparently fallen asleep.  Most women hated that, he knew, but … Intuition flared inside him, and he inhaled slowly, a faint note of alarm pinging in his mind.

It was because he *wasn't* asleep.

She expected that, wanted it … needed it?  Yes, he decided, certain pieces dropping into place.  Needed it, absolutely.  Had done everything possible, in fact, to make it a certainty.

But why?

* * *

Goddamn him!  Rage cut her insides to ribbons.  What did she have to do to make him accept it?  How dare he fight her!  She fought to control herself, knowing that her mindset was irrational, and hating herself for it.

It should have been so easy.  He should have fallen deeply asleep, totally drained, and when she slid behind him, he should have rewarded her with the characteristic comatose grunt, relaxing into her heavily.

So, now, what was her alternative?  Hit him with another dose of raw sex, hoping that this time would do the trick?  She groaned inwardly, instinct telling her that one more time, *ten* more times, might not do it for this one.

Raye's hands twitched with frustration.  Subduing a man of his size and muscularity, even for someone of her strength, was not going to be easy.  And a forward assault was doomed to dismal failure.  She drew in a deep breath, and let it out very slowly, the need in her receding to an uneasy throb.  She turned to face him.

* * *

"I'm sorry," she said evenly.  "I'm being a bitch."  She took a drink of his beer.  "Still friends?"

The silky tone in her voice was meant to insinuate and caress, and it put him immediately on guard.  He cocked an eyebrow, mock skepticism in his eyes.  "Friends?"  He laughed softly.  "I'm not sure that's the word I would choose, but … yeah, okay."  He stretched out on his back.  "Come here, FRIEND."

She curled into the curve of his arm, her fingers playing with the hair on his chest.  She kissed him softly, the tip of her tongue trailing along his bottom lip.  "Sorry about the scratches, by the way."

His hand slid smoothly into the curve of her hip.  "Kiss me again, and maybe I'll forgive you."

She brushed his lips with her own, lingering for a moment, then moved down to lick teasingly at his chest.  "You did seem to enjoy it at the time."  She flicked her tongue over his nipple.

He grinned lazily.  "That I did, dear."  His fingers stroked delicately in the cleft of her ass.  "You're a glorious fuck, lady.  You turned my balls inside out."  He nibbled on her chin.  "Not many women can do that."

"Glad you enjoyed it," she said, velvet in her voice.  "You can leave the money on the dresser."  She cupped his balls softly, then wrapped her fingers loosely around his cock, drawing them slowly up and down the shaft.  He carefully rolled her nipple between his thumb and index finger, and then dipped his head to take the hard peak between his lips.  He caressed it with his tongue as his fingers slid between her lips to rub her clit.

He wondered how long she would allow it to go on before she stopped it.

She eased away from him, her face flushed.  "That's what I like -- a man with a one-track mind!"  Her breathing was rapid.  "Don't you ever get tired?"

He smirked at her.  "Can't say that I do."  He sat up, resting his forearm on his bent knee.  "I told you I had ideas for how to spend a sleepless night.  Lay back down and I'll teach you a few more of them."  He flicked the tip of his tongue at her obscenely.  "I give head better than YOU do, point of fact."

She tried to hide the quivering in her knees.  "I've got a better idea.  Lay down and turn over."

"I offer you great head, and you want me to lay on my belly?"  The surprise in his voice was almost genuine.

"Trust me.  You'll enjoy this."  He stared at her.  "C'mon, Max, I'm begging you."  She leaned down, her hair brushing his shoulder as she lifted his mouth to meet hers.  "Besides," she whispered intimately, "I have to confess I enjoy hearing you screaming into the night air."

* * *

Ares turned over slowly, watching her over his shoulder, his easy smile firmly in place.  Everything in him was on red alert, and the metallic taste of adrenaline flooded his mouth in a cold wash.  He moved his legs closer together to camouflage the tightness of his balls against his body and deliberately relaxed the bands of muscle in his back and ass.  He laid his head on his crossed arms, his nipples crinkling reflexively.

"Whenever you're ready, honey."

* * *

Raye placed her warm hands flat against his back, starting at his shoulders and working down to his ass.  She moved ceaselessly, the pressure alternating between feathery caresses and Swedish massage hardness, over his back and underneath to his chest, warmth moving over his arms, tugging lightly on the hair in his armpits, digging into his spine and pressing a bundle of nerves that caused gooseflesh to rise up all over him.  She bit softly into the back of his neck and ran her fingers through the black curls covering his scalp.  She draped her body over his and undulated sensuously, hearing his quick intake of breath as the crisp hair on her pussy rasped over his hard buttocks.

She licked her way down from the back of his neck to the top of the crease of his ass, her tongue dipping into the deep crevice, and she opened him, feeling his muscles fighting her reflexively at the welcome invasion.  He moaned deep in his throat as her tongue flicked quickly over the puckered ring, and she felt his body arch in a bow as she pressed her lips against him, lapping wetly and working her curled tongue into him, sucking the tissue around his anus as she probed with her tongue, the pungent taste of his musk filling her mouth.  He cried out weakly, and she felt his body convulse and sag under her.

* * *

Her mouth caressed him in a maddening way that sent shoots of lust ricocheting through him.  Ares steeled himself against it, grabbing whatever images he could catch that would distance him from the incredible sensations assaulting him.  He tightened up, grimacing with the effort, and tried to shut himself down.  And then he felt her tongue slide into his ass, and it was hot and firm, and she drove it into him deeper on each thrust.  Her lips fastened around him, the suction unbearable, the edge of her teeth stroking him, and he moaned hugely.  Ah, Gods, he thought incoherently, this is too much, I give up, I surrender …

And something rose up within him at his own thought, an iron monolith forcing its way out of the forging furnace of his soul.  SURRENDER?, the wolf essence roared, and then deadly quiet, *The God of War does not surrender.  EVER.*  He felt strength ebbing slowly into him.  *Even when he's NOT the God of War.*  He breathed deeply, his heart slowing.  No way, no how.  No matter what.

He made a weak cry, his expression contemptuous at the womanly sound, and deliberately sagged underneath her.

* * *

She kissed his buttocks lightly, kneeling next to him.  His head was buried in his arms, his body motionless.  She stroked her hand down his back, rewarded with a reflexive shudder.


No answer.

"Did I kill you, Max?"  Amusement and contempt mixed in her words.

One slender hand continued to stroke him gently.

The other hand deftly extracted the large knife from her purse.

* * *

She laid next to him, smoking a cigarette, listening with satisfaction to his increasingly deep exhalations.  By design, by experience, she tossed the cigarette away, picking up the knife in the same motion.

She looked at him.  What a trophy he was!  Her most hard-fought victory to date.  Most of them were so easy, almost boring in their predictability.  But this one was different.  Again, she felt a pang of regret, but just a small one, and it was quickly extinguished by the bloodlust within her.  And yet …

She told herself it wasn't hesitation that stayed her hand.  It was just prudence.  After all, he *was* very strong.  She had felt the steel in his hands as he held her head in place before, had become aware of the cold panther grace in his movements even before that.  It was best to wait until he was completely unconscious before making a move.  She fingered the knife casually and glanced at her watch.

She watched him sink deeper, a small shudder running through the muscles in his back.  It was time.  She centered the knife at the place in his spine which would, within minutes, paralyze him from the waist down, and raised her arm to the height of her shoulder.  The muscles in her shoulder and right arm flexed as she brought it down …

* * *

And his hand circled her wrist like a manacle, tight enough to cut off the flow of blood to her fingers.  He sat up with a speed that dried her mouth, catching her other wrist in the same fashion, and his muscled leg dropped across her like an anvil, effectively pinning her in place.  She looked into black eyes that smoldered with rage.

"Drop it or I'll snap your wrist."  His voice was icy.  She tried to pull back.

"Do what I say."  His hand tightened, and she lost all sensation in her fingers with a suddenness that made her gasp.  She tried to extricate a leg to kick him.

"Fine."  He wrenched his hand in a turn, and the crack of the bone was loud.  She screamed in pain and the knife fell out of her hand.  He released her, and she slumped to the blanket.

He picked up the knife, examining it closely.  The thick, reinforced haft led to a vicious 8" blade, nearly 1/2" thick at the base and tapering to a fine point 1/8" thick.  It was honed to a sharp edge on both sides of the blade.  Angrily, he flipped it with his wrist and watched it bury itself to the hilt in the trunk of a tree.  A shiver crawled up his spine.

"Exactly what were you planning to do with that?"

She ignored him.  He stepped over to her, lightly grasping her swollen hand, and a small moan escaped her throat.  "Answer me."

"Please …"  A whimper.

"Answer me," he said, rage shaking his voice, and the back of his hand connected with her face, snapping her head back.  "WHAT WERE YOU GOING TO DO?"

She faced him slowly, her pain forgotten as a rage almost equal to his own wiped the color from her face and dilated her eyes to pinpoints.  Sarcastic venom dripped from the carefully enunciated words.  "You're a stupid sonofabitch, aren't you?  Figure it out if you --" and he drove his fist into her midsection, the full force of his arm behind the blow.  The pain was immense, too large to be borne by either her body or her mind.  She blacked out.

* * *

She came back to consciousness slowly, and everything hurt.  Her wrist throbbed in time with her pulse, the pain glassy and huge, her neck and back screamed when she moved, and the ache in the abdomen and stomach made her feel nauseous.  Broken ribs stabbed her when she drew in a careful breath.  She opened her eyes slowly, praying he would be gone.

He wasn't.  Ares sat propped comfortably against the cooler, fully dressed, sipping a beer.  His expression didn't change when she sat up.

"There's one beer left.  I'm sure you could use something stronger, but beggars can't be choosers.  Do you want it?"  His voice was calm, evenly modulated, and absolutely unreadable.  She nodded, the motion bringing a crest of pain to her head and neck.

He opened it and stepped casually over to her.  He sat down cross-legged next to her and offered the bottle.  She drank slowly, but drained the bottle.  He handed her his own half-empty bottle and stretched out on his side, leaning his head on his hand.

"Now."  She drew in a small breath and held it.  "Tell me what you intended to do with that knife."

"I would rather not have this discussion right now."

"Yes, I'm sure of that.  Nevertheless, I would like an answer."

She stared at him, hatred in her eyes.  "Isn't it obvious?"

"Yes."  Amusement curved his lips.  "But say it anyway."

She sighed.  "Max …"

"Say it, my dear," he said evenly, casually placing his hand over her injured wrist.

Raye steeled herself against the agony of even that light touch, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of her pain.  "All right.  I will answer you when you move your hand."

He gave a tiny squeeze.  "You're not in a position to give orders.  Answer me."

"I was going to kill you."

"Yes."  His fingers stroked the back of her hand.  "And?"

She looked at him in confusion.  "And WHAT?"

"Details, my dear.  The heart and soul of all great tales.  I want details."

"You want --"  She was horrified.

"Step by step.  Give me an outline of what you had planned."

She pulled her hand away from him, ignoring the discomfort.  "You think I had this planned?"  He looked at her steadily.  She rolled her eyes.  "Okay, fine, I had this planned.  I'll give you that.  But as far as the exact execution of it, I pretty much improvise as I go along."

"That's bullshit."  He pulled her down roughly to lay facing him and wrapped his arms around her body, amused by her determination to hide the pain.  "And I'm losing patience with you rapidly."  His lips brushed against hers and the muscles in his arms flexed and pressed against her ribs.  She felt the world graying out on her again.

"Max," she gasped, "I can't breathe."  He released her and let her roll onto her back.  She struggled to stay conscious through the nausea.  Gradually, it passed enough for her to open her eyes.

"I'm waiting, Raye."  She heard the cool note of the emperor's patience in his voice, and she wondered dully if he intended to kill her.

She sat up slowly, determined to meet whatever it was he had planned in an upright position.  He mirrored her movements until they sat, one grimacing and the other arrogant, facing one another.

* * *

"I said I was going to kill you.  Why isn't that admission enough for you?"

"Because it isn't.  Period.  Talk."

His eyes were merciless and unyielding, and she was tired and wracked with pain.  She tasted defeat, dusty and bitter, and accepted it because she had no choice.  The entity within her screamed in hollow rage and dissipated into nothing.  Her voice was dead when she spoke.

"The first blow from the knife would have severed your spine and paralyzed you from the waist down within ten minutes."

He nodded.

"Then I planned to cut off your cock and balls and cauterize the wound with my lighter."

His eyes narrowed.

"Then I would have spent some time telling you exactly why I was doing this."

"How nice of you."  The drawling tone was loaded with malice.

She swallowed.  "That's all."

He slapped her face lightly.  "No, it isn't.  Pray go on."

"Please, I'm begging you now!"

He slapped her again, harder this time.  "I said finish the story."

Blood seeped from her mouth where she had bitten her lip.  She glared at him.  "Then I would have disemboweled you while you watched and went mad," and her voice got stronger and more intense, "by making twelve incisions in your torso -- five vertical, five horizontal, and two diagonal," her hand demonstrating with large strokes, "and I would have finished by slicing your throat from ear to ear."

"Is that it?"

"No," she said with a hiss.  "For you, dear Max, I would have added something that I reserve only for those who truly deserve it."  She stood easily, pain forgotten and unimportant.  "I would have used my teeth rather than the knife to separate you from those organs dangling between your legs."

"Anything else?"  His voice was mild.

"No.  I think that about does it.  Happy now?"

He laughed, getting to his feet.  His color was high as he faced her, his hand caressing the bruise on her cheek.  "I'm truly surprised, my love.  You mean you would have passed up the opportunity to consume those tasty morsels of my flesh, still warm and steaming from my body?"  His hands stroked her shoulders tenderly.  "I would do that, in your place."

Raye looked at him, absolute shock imprinted in the planes of her face.  "You would."

"Of course."  He smiled with amusement.  "And then there's the heart.  And the liver."  He cupped her face, one finger moving on her throat.  "To the victor go the spoils, you know."  He kissed her, his tongue catching the blood that still leaked from her lip.  "Battlefield cannibalism.  It's an old warrior's custom, my dear."

* * *

He had driven them back to Charlie's because it was painful for her.  Pulling next to his own car, he turned to her, a concerned look on his face.  "Are you sure you can drive, Raye?"

"I'll be fine.  I'll take it slow."  She got out of the passenger side and walked around the car.

He laid his hands on her shoulders, his thumbs delicately caressing her throat.  "I can follow you home, then, just to be on the safe side.  Why don't you let me do that?"


He stepped back, nodding slightly.  "Your call, my dear.  Promise me you'll be very careful."  He got into his car but made no move to turn the key in the ignition.



She chewed lightly on her bottom lip before speaking.  "What are you going to do?"

He leaned back against the seat, feeling the pull on the muscles in his back.  "I'm gonna go home and get some sleep.  Why?"

"No," she said, her eyes down.  "I mean, about …"

"Raye," he said softly.  She looked up, drawn by the satin in his voice.  "Don't disappear on me, and you'll never have to find out.  Understood?"  He started the car.  "You can buy me a drink the next time I come to Charlie's, and we'll call it even.  Deal?"

"Do I have a choice, lover?"

"Do you truly want one, my dear?"  He grinned at her, his white teeth catching the early morning light.  She heard him laughing even a block away.

The End