|Vibrations of a Bell
"Certainty, fidelity, on the stroke of midnight pass like vibrations of a bell." --W.H. Auden
She didn't take the apple.
That's when Ares knew that it would never happen. That they would never happen. One bite of the apple, and Xena would've been immortal, but she'd still turned him down. Sure, she'd rejected his offers before, only this felt different: it was an honest proposal, no strings attached, except that he'd be there forever, too. "I guess you know I'll never stop trying," he said, because he had to say something. At least he didn't sound devastated.
"I'd expect nothing less." Xena smiled, then turned toward Odin.
It was the end, and it broke very quietly. Aphrodite took Ares' arm, and they left Xena and the others. Back in Ares' temple, she waited, then asked quietly, "You okay?"
"Sure." He shook off her hand and dropped into his throne, not seeing, not thinking. The room seemed very small and dark, and his sister very far away.
"You don't look okay."
"Look, you're the love goddess. You figure it out."
"Xena does love you, you know," she said, resting her hand on the throne's high back. "Just not the way you want."
"Thanks for the insight."
"You want me to lie?"
She smiled. "You'll live. You always do. It just might not feel like it for awhile." Aphrodite touched his arm again, so softly he could barely feel her fingers. "Want to come back to my place?"
"No. I've been away from here for too long, and I've got wars to plan."
"You'll be fine, Ares. Just give it time."
"Great advice. Next you'll be telling me that time heals all wounds and that there are other fish in the sea."
"Don't be like that. I'm not the one who..." She trailed off, fidgeting with the neckline of her dress.
"Who hates me so much that she'd rather die than be with me?"
"It's more complicated than that, and you know it."
"You're just full of insights, aren't you?"
"There's no point talking to you when you're like this. Every since you were a kid, you've always gotten pouty when you didn't get your way. I'll see you later. You should--"
"I should kill a lot of people. If you don't want to be one of them, get out."
She looked hurt, but said nothing, disappearing in a shower of pink roses. They lay in a pile on his temple floor, and he aimed a fireball at them, leaving the marble scorched, the air heavy with sulphur. A battle would help, something nice and bloody between Sparta and Athens, where each individual fight, soldier to soldier, would be worth watching. Lots of small cuts that bled a lot.
When he tried to move, his bones felt too heavy. Some aftereffect of mortality? His body still readjusting to forever? He gave up and lay back, spreading his legs before him, eyes closed, almost dreaming, if gods could dream. Xena holding the apple to her mouth, staring at him, then taking a bite, juice spurting, the change barely visible except for the slight shaking of her hand. When it stopped, she tossed the rest to Aphrodite, left Gabrielle to Beowulf and Odin to Grinhilda, then came to him. She wouldn't even wait until they got back to his temple, just pushed him behind some trees and...
Had he really sunk this low? He was a god, dammit, and she was just some mortal bitch who wouldn't know a good thing if it bit her on the ass. Fantasizing about her only made him feel like hell, like a failure, not the god of war, one of the Twelve. He should take Aphrodite up on her offer, instead of brooding like some lovesick teenager. Xena was never going to be his. End of story. Time to face reality, to act like a man, to admit defeat.
He didn't move.
Gods weren't supposed to hurt. That was for mortals, with their pain and death. Maybe that apple hadn't really given him back his full godhood. His limbs sluggish, weighted, Ares stood, pulling his sword from its sheath, and ran his thumb along the edge. The metal passed cleanly through his skin . No blood, no wound. It was wrong. With a shout, he threw the weapon so hard it burst through the frescoed wall, leaving a powdery gap in the middle of the Trojan War. Achilles, watching Patroclus die, didn't notice.
"I never liked that painting," Xena said from the doorway.
It was biting into the apple again. "I'm busy."
"I see that." She held onto to the doorframe with both hands, like she was holding up the temple. "I thought interior decorating was more Aphrodite's thing."
"What do you want, Xena? There are no more apples."
"I know. Nothing's changed. You should understand: it's not like being a god has done much for you." She stepped into the room, eyeing the blackened space on the floor. "Maybe redecorating's not such a bad idea."
Words piled up in his throat, but none came out. His chest hurt, and he slipped a hand under his vest, rubbing the skin over his heart. One of the torches spit, and the flame wavered. "So why are you here? Other than to say that you don't want me, which I already know?"
"Doesn't sound like you, Ares. Didn't you say you'd always try?"
"Yeah, well, maybe it's time for me to move on."
"Do you really mean that?"
"It's what you want, isn't it?"
She nodded, and her hair fell forward over her shoulders. "Yes."
He had to turn away, facing the window that looked down over a sleeping city. Funny, but he couldn't remember its name. A cobweb hung in the window's top right corner, and he brushed it away. The night was warm, apple-scented, and he stood quietly breathing it in. "Go home, Xena. Gabrielle will wonder where you are."
"Let me worry about her." She'd come up behind him, moving to his side, close enough to touch.
When he breathed now, he breathed her, too, leather and something sweet that she used on her hair. "I'm not worried about her. I just want you gone."
Her hip brushed his. "I came here to thank you."
"What do you think? For everything. Giving up your godhood to save Eve and Gabrielle. Offering me the apple."
"You're welcome. Now will you go the hell away?"
"It's not enough just to say it."
He'd put his hand on the sill, for balance, and she placed hers on top. That's when he knew. "Oh, no," he said. "No fucking way." He jerked his hand away and pushed her so hard that she flew back, almost falling.
"What's the matter?" She straightened, but didn't go to him.
"I don't need a pity fuck. I'm not some pathetic loser who needs a consolation prize. Is that how you see me? No wonder you don't want me."
She was back again, pulling his shoulder until he faced her. "You know what your problem is, Ares? Everything's black and white for you. It's more complicated than that. No, don't shake me off. Listen."
"I've heard it all before."
"No, you haven't. I can't be your queen or consort or whatever the hell you want to call it. I--"
"I know. You don't have to keep saying."
"You're not listening. I said that I can't be that to you. Do you understand that? I can't. You're too..." She stopped and stared at him.
"Too what? Evil? Violent? Dangerous? Disgusting?"
"Strong. You're too damn strong. If I stay with you, I won't be me anymore. I'll be your little warrior fantasy. I can't do that. You and I can never be together because of that."
"It's not an excuse." Her hand tightened on his shoulder. "There are some things I just can't tell you. Anything I give you, you'll use against me. It's what you do, and you're too good at it."
"I don't get you."
"Good." She smiled quickly, too quickly, then was serious again. "Let's just say that sometimes I need you, Ares, and sometimes I owe you. Tonight, it's both. I need you. And I owe you. I know you want just the need part, but I'll never let it be just that. I have my own reasons. So, what's it going to be?"
"What exactly are you offering?"
"One night. Take it or leave it."
"Forget it, Xena." He kept his arms against his sides. "Go help some orphans or whatever it is you do. Leave me out of it."
"Ares, you're so damn frustrating." She moved her hand from his shoulder to his cheek, kept it there warm and soft, before trailing her fingers down, then sideways over his mouth.
He grabbed her wrist, holding it away from him, but she slid her left arm around his neck and pulled him down toward her. Her mouth was open--Ares saw that right before he felt it, the warm openness of her mouth against his, like the night at the window. He made a sound, because it hurt to do this stupid, fucked up thing with this woman who drove him crazy, to feel the softness of her lips, the greater softness of her tongue.
He'd always thought that when it happened, it would happen hard and fast, but he couldn't go fast. If he did, it would be over, and he wasn't ready for that. So he kissed her as slowly and thoroughly as he could. When Xena tried to hurry him, to free his cock, which was already painfully hard, he took her other wrist and held them both behind her back. "Let me do what I want. That's the only condition."
She hesitated. Then: "Fine. Do what you want. Just do it." When he let go, she reached between them and pulled off her breastplate, tossing it to the floor. "Get rid of the sword. And this." She eased his vest off, while he undid his belt and dropped it. "That's better," she said, pressing against him.
Ares could feel her breasts now, covered only by the thin leather tunic, but he didn't touch them. Not yet. Instead, he returned to her mouth, licking her lips, sucking on her lower one while she locked her fingers behind his head, arching into him.
"You taste like apples," she said, and pushed her tongue deep into his mouth, flicking it everywhere.
He stroked her hair, long sweeps of his hand, while she tasted him. Part of him wanted to twist it around his fist and shove her down while he fed her his cock. She'd look so beautiful on her knees, that black hair spilling down her back while she sucked him. Xena, who'd beaten him too many times, on her knees servicing him. He wondered if she'd let him, if there was anything she wouldn't let him do. "Take your tunic off."
"You still don't trust me, do you? I can understand that, I guess." She pushed one strap off her shoulder, then the other, and the tunic slid down. "Happy?"
She had a scar under her right breast, a white puckered line, and her nipples were tight and pale pink under the moon. There was a tangle of black curls between her legs, and he reached out, touching them with the tip of his finger. "Suck me," he said. "Since you owe me, give me a blow job."
"If that's what you want."
When he leaned back against the window sill, she moved in front of him and eased the leather off his hips, pushing it lower, until he was naked, and kicked the pants away. He stood before her, his cock jutting out, hard and unavoidable between them. "On your knees. Take me in your mouth."
At first she didn't move, just watched him, her face unreadable. "If that's what you want," she said again, and knelt, reaching.
When her fingers brushed him, Ares stopped her. "Not yet." He gave her his hand, and she took it, getting to her feet. "I don't want to do it here. Can I take you somewhere?"
Even as she nodded, he took her to another temple, old and broken now, on a cliff beside the sea. Still holding her hand, he led her up the cracked steps and between four columns of the porch into a small cella. A bed appeared, not a narrow couch, but a wide mattress on an ebony frame, the sheets blue Egyptian linen. Around the bed, braziers flared into being, showing walls stained with lichen, an old statue with chipped paint. Incense began to burn on the altar, and the smell of cedar wafted toward them over the tang of the sea.
"Ares," she said. "This is why I can never be around you. You were right: you're dangerous."
"I wasn't sure you'd remember this place."
"I can't believe that you do."
"You've always mattered to me, Xena. From the first time I saw you, when you made me an offering here."
For a minute he thought Xena was going to cry, then she punched him hard on his arm. "This doesn't change anything. It's just a place."
"Just a place," he repeated, and kissed her again, sucking gently on her tongue, feeling her naked back under the flow of her hair. His hard cock rested against the flat warmth of her belly, trapped between them. He could come like this, just standing her, barely moving except for his tongue.
"I bet you don't know what I left for you back then. When I wanted your help to conquer the world." She looked up at him, her lips swollen.
Ares reached up and pushed his hair back from his ear, showing the silver sword that dangled there. "Recognize this? Hephaestus made it. It's an exact copy."
"No," she said, shaking her head.
"Look at it, Xena." He pulled it off, offering to her. "Three gold bands on the hilt, the middle one with a ram's head in the center."
She went dead still, then half-turned toward the door. "Ares, I don't think...Maybe this wasn't such a good idea."
"Did you think I was lying when I said that I love you? I always have. I always will. Deal with it."
"Would you let me walk out of here?"
"No. Yes. Do whatever the fuck you want." He threw the earring onto the altar between two brass jars. "You always do."
"Don't do me any favors."
He wasn't expecting the push, and fell back onto the bed. Then she was on him, straddling his thighs, kissing him. His cock was under her, pressed against his stomach. He could be inside her so easily, if he just lifted her up and...
Ares rolled, pulling Xena down beside him. "You said I could do what I wanted. Lie there and let me do it." Side by side they kissed again, and he stroked the curve of her hip.
"So I can't touch you?"
With his thumb, he tilted back her head and licked her throat. Her moan made it vibrate, like a bell or a cat. Her nipples were hard against his forearm as he leaned over her, and he couldn't resist cupping one full breast in his hand, touching the end with his thumb. He'd never seen Xena so vulnerable, so open. He could kill her now, snap her neck wet from his mouth, so she'd never leave.
Her eyes opened. "What are you thinking?"
Always in his head. "That I love you. That I want my tongue, my fingers and my cock inside you."
"So do it." Impatient again, she reached for him, but he slapped her off.
"My pace." But he decided to give her a little more, and moved lower down the bed, opening his mouth for one of her hard pink nipples.
Her spine curved, then she rose up on one elbow to watch, brushing back his hair, which was damp and falling on his forehead. "This isn't what I expected."
"Are you disappointed?" He held both her breasts in his hands, pushing the nipples together, sucking them together, then one at a time. They were so stiff against his tongue, almost defensive, and he kissed them both.
"No. I knew it would be good. I just thought it would be different."
"You've thought about it?"
As his tongue moved in slow wet circles, she cradled his head. "Come on, Ares. I'm not blind, and neither are you. You know what you look like."
"Tell me how you've pictured it."
"You've got to be kidding."
He took a nipple between his teeth and gently bit down. "Tell me." He caught her again in his teeth, tugging like an animal, but never too hard. She had to like it, had to love it.
"I don't think I can tell you."
He squeezed the other nipple, and again bit the reddening one. "You can. You just don't want to. But I want it. It's getting me hot."
Xena moaned. "Fine. Just this once. If you ever mention it again, I'll kick your ass. And you know I can." She moved one hand to his back, stroking. "It's stupid. I don't think about it a lot. But, okay. Remember that time we were in your temple, and you offered to protect Eve if I slept with you? And we ended up fooling around because I was trying to buy some time against Athena's army?"
"I remember. You were on top of me, doing to me what I'm doing to you, and there was an explosion. Then your mother walked in."
"Well, once or twice, I've imagined that there were no interruptions. That nothing stopped us."
"You on top?"
"Is it good?"
Smiling, he went back to her nipples, tugging them, licking, sucking, until Xena started rubbing against him.
"I'm not going any faster. You're mine for the night, and I--"
"That's not it. Well, it is, but I know that's how you want it. Another way for you to defeat me. No, I want to know how you picture us. Is it like this? Slow and hot and incredible..." She cleared her throat. "I mean, slow? With talking and stuff?"
"No. It's on the battlefield, and I throw you down in the mud, rip your clothes off, and fuck you hard."
"Is it good?"
"Not as good as this." Ares sat up, then moved over her.
Xena spread her legs wide. "I'm ready."
"You look pretty ready to me," she said, smirking.
More torches began to burn around them, lighting the room. White candles lined the floor beside the bed, on the altar, the base of the statue. "I want you to be even readier." He climbed down the bed and lay between her thighs, pushing them apart until she was spread and open to him.
"You don't need to do this."
"I want to. I want to taste you. I want you to come in my mouth."
"It won't change anything." Xena spoke quickly. "It's only this one time, no matter how good it is."
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you were scared." Ares licked his finger and ran it between the swollen lips. His cock would be between them soon, pushing them far apart, stretching them wide, claiming her. He swallowed, trying to slow his breathing, overwhelmed by the sight and the warm musky smell of her. "You're so beautiful."
Flushing, she sat up, her eyes always on him. "I like how you look right now. The god of war, lowering himself like that." She sounded mocking, a little mean, but like him she was almost panting.
Licking his finger a second time, he tasted her, and had to close his eyes because it was so perfect. Then he opened them, and again traced a slow line down the seam. The lips parted a little, begging, so he took one between the fingers of each hand and gently opened them. "My cock will go here," he told her, and, keeping her spread with one hand, he rubbed the hole, the skin dark red and slick for him.
Xena's hips rose, and she flung her arm out, grabbing the sheet. "How about we renegotiate the terms here? Why not let me be in charge for awhile?"
"Because I love you like this, all wet and open for me. I love seeing you react to everything I do." To prove his point, he touched her clit, moving his finger in a light, languid circle.
She bucked again, and put one hand on his head. "You just want to be in control."
"Not just to be in control. To be in control of you." Noisily, he sucked his fingers, then placed one right against the shiny tight hole. "I'm going to put this inside you now and fuck you with it."
"You're a pig," she said, her voice low.
Her thighs were shaking now, and he kissed the smooth pale skin inside each one, his finger moving in tiny circles. The tip was getting wetter, nice and creamy, and he pulled it back to lick it clean. His cock reacted, swelling even more, and he fought not to rub himself against the sheets. One or two good thrusts and he'd come.
Above him, Xena groaned in frustration. "You're going to pay for this."
"It'll be worth it." His finger was back in place, caressing skin smooth as water, not quite penetrating her.
"Put it inside me." She spread her legs wider. "Now."
So he did, but slowly, watching as his finger slid inside her. When it was in up to the first joint, he began to stroke the slick wall until she contracted around him.
"Ares, how do you know this stuff?"
"Aphrodite taught me a lot when we were growing up."
"Do you still sleep with her?"
"She must know a lot of tricks. She's been around for a long time."
He pushed his finger deeper and kept stroking. "She's okay."
"I'm not jealous. I'm just asking."
"What do you want, Xena? You're the only one who matters to me. The only one I want to be with. Nobody else matters but you." His finger went in all the way, and she gasped. "Hold yourself open," he said. When she did, Ares moved his thumb over her clit. Her body closed around him, but he kept stroking her outside and in. He could hear how wet she was, could feel his hand getting damp, could see the shininess of his finger when he pulled it out, right before he pushed it back in. Her clit seemed to swell, and he rubbed harder. "Tell me it's good, Xena. Tell me you like it."
"You know I do."
"I want you to fuck me, Ares."
"Tell me that you like what I'm doing."
"I like it. Can't you tell? My legs won't stop shaking. Feel proud."
"Stop fighting it, Xena. Stop fighting me. Just enjoy what I'm doing to you." Before she could speak, he lowered his head and licked her clit, moving his finger more quickly in and out of her. "Come for me." Another lick, and the shaking in her thighs spread until she was quivering around him.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? You bastard. You'd like to see me give it up for you."
"Xena, remember: you came to me. You wanted this." He pressed two fingers together and used them to fuck her. Her thighs were wet now, slippery, and her clit was hot under his tongue.
"Yes," she said, "yes."
He held her down while she came, always licking her clit, always fucking her with his fingers. His blood had to be moving as fast as hers because he could hardly see, so fast he swore he could hear it under her moans. She was still trembling when he climbed over her and wrapped her legs around his waist. With his cock in one hand, he pushed it against her wet, open cunt and shoved himself inside her. Xena cried out, her whole body rising up, her arms going to his neck. She kept her eyes open, and he was glad, barely blinking as he started to thrust into her, almost unbearably hot and wet around his cock.
"I love you," he said. "I love you. Tell me you love me. I don't care if you lie. Just tell me."
But she wouldn't, just ground her hips into him as he fucked her, so beautiful and hot under him. He wanted to kiss her, only then he couldn't see her, and he needed that even more. Her neck was arched, her body straining, muscles taut. Beautiful.
Watching her, he could tell when she started to come again, could feel her tighten. Then, when she was writhing under him, clutching him, she said it. "I love you."
She said it again and again as she came, and he fucked her harder, ramming his cock into her, knowing that he'd never do this again, that this was the first and last time he'd ever be with her like this. He came hard, shouting her name, so deep inside her it had to hurt.
Afterward, she kissed him and even rested her head against his chest, like they were an ordinary couple and this was the start of something, not the end. He knew that he should leave now, be the one to walk away, but he couldn't, not with her melted against him. This had been a mistake; when she left, it was going to hurt like nothing he'd ever felt. It already did.
He pretended to be asleep when she got up and collected her things, lay there with his eyes shut tight, wondering how his life had gotten so fucked up. He heard her moving around, and couldn't take it any more. "Xena, don't go," he said, sitting up.
She stood near the door, dressed. Her face was still flushed, and she had a round purple bruise on her shoulder. "It's over, Ares."
"It doesn't have to be. I can change, and it can always be like this--"
"It can't happen. You know it. And you know why?" She had a strange dark smile on her face. "If I stayed, you'd get bored. You'd win, and I wouldn't matter any more. You say this isn't about winning, but Ares, that's who you are. It's better this way. Maybe you really will stop trying if I go. But I know you will if I stay."
"You're wrong, Xena. I keep telling you that, and maybe one day you'll understand. I love you. Sure, it was about conquest once, but it's different now. "
"Goodbye, Ares." She walked away without looking back, her back straight.
The truth was that she didn't love him. She'd done what he'd asked and said what he needed to hear. After all, Xena owed him. She said it herself. He'd given up his immortality to save her daughter, let his family die for her, so she fucked him. That's all. Payback.
As the sheets cooled around him, he got up and dressed himself with a flick of his wrist. The candles had burned low, stubs now, and he kicked one. Maybe the temple would catch on fire and burn to the ground. Instead, the flame extinguished, and the candle rolled toward the altar, landing with a dull thud against the stone. He remembered his earring and went to collect it. But when he looked between the pots of incense and the dying candles, he realized it wasn't there.
Xena had taken it. With a sickening lurch of his gut, he knew why. To take back the one she'd left for him all those years ago. To cut herself off from him completely.
Three fireballs were enough to start a really good blaze, and he stood
on the cliff's edge and watched the temple burn to the ground.
He stayed away from her for six months, concentrating on a series of battles between Athens and Megara. When one of his generals mentioned that she'd been spotted in the area, he went to her camp a few miles north of Megara. She was sitting around a small stone-circled fire with a handful of Northern Amazons, listening to Gabrielle tell a story.
Invisible, keeping his distance, Ares watched Xena, whose face was turned toward her friend. She looked good, he thought. A little tired, maybe. He wanted to touch her, to say something, but what was the point? Just seeing her hurt enough. This was the last time, then. After this, he'd never come back. She was happy now. She'd moved on, didn't need him or want him anymore, if she ever had.
He must have moved, because she suddenly glanced over to where he stood in the shadow of an old oak. Her hand went quickly to her throat in a strange, protective gesture. Did she think he was going to hurt her? About to leave, he saw her expression change, turn a little defiant. Then her hand went down.
At first, he noticed only that she was wearing a silver chain around her neck. Then he saw the pendant: a silver sword with three gold bands on the hilt, the middle one with a ram's head in the center.
"How do you know," Xena said, interrupting Gabrielle, "when a story's supposed to end? How do you know what the cut-off point is?"
Gabrielle looked surprised, then smiled. "The good thing about stories is that you can end them whenever you want, then start again the next night, or six months later. The best ones can go on forever."
"That's what I thought you'd say." She got to her feet, dusting herself off. "I'm going to do a quick check around the camp, then go to bed. Goodnight."
Ares moved further into the woods, and was leaning against a tree when she came to him. "Hi, Xena."
"If you're here to stop me from helping out the Megarians, don't waste your breath." She didn't quite meet his eyes. "There's no point trying to convince me to change my mind. No point at all."
"I guess you know I'll never stop trying," he said.
She rolled her eyes, then said in a voice so warm he could feel it: "I'd expect nothing less."