His grip was like steel. She didn't want to look him in the eyes, but she had to. Psyching him out was imperative to her victory. She ignored the sound of people laughing and cheering around her, at the clinking sound of dinars changing hands. Clearly they thought it a moment of entertainment worth a wager or two. They didn't realise what was actually at stake here.
Those brown eyes met icy blue, their knuckles going white as their hands were knotted together, pushing in opposite directions. Xena wasn't sure why her time with big muscular bad-boys so often ended in an arm wrestle. Maybe it was a safe substitution for other physical activities involving a fight for domination.
She pressed her lips together, eyeing Ares' brow. A slight sheen of sweat had broken out upon it. She grinned, a wonderful cocky grin that lit up her entire face.
"Don't get excited," Ares grunted.
"But you're getting so worked up," she purred. "A girl can't help herself."
He tipped his head a little. "If I knew it was this easy to get under your skin, I'd have done it hours ago."
"You often make a show of being weaker than me for my amusement?"
"Weaker?" His brown eyes flashed dangerously as he panted. "We've been at this for the past fifteen minutes! I haven't budged an inch!"
"How do you know I haven't been playing with you?"
A wry grin spread across his face. "I think I know when a woman's fakin' it."
"Is that so?"
She pushed against him harder, a playful glint of ferocity in her cool blue eyes. Ares grit his teeth, then grinned, as his arm bent back a touch, then slowly inched its way back to the middle.
"Whatcha gonna do now, eh?" he said, lifting his brows.
"Tire you out," she replied smoothly.
"Then we're gonna be here a while." There was a hungry edge to his voice.
She shrugged a shoulder. "Just so happens I like it when a man puts up a fight."
"Be careful what you wish for, Xena."
She cocked a brow at him. "Is that a threat?"
"A warning," he said, voice getting low as he eyed something behind her.
She glanced behind them, only turning her head fractionally to allow her peripheral vision. Men lined the bar, weapons glinting from their belts. They were of a similar stature, all bulky and watching the arm-wrestle with great interest. They hadn't been there before the arm-wrestle had started. Damn it. A woman like Xena, resisting an obviously strong man like Ares? Even if they didn't think she was Xena, or any hero of importance for that matter, Mallecium would hear of it. She swore under her breath, then glared at Ares.
"I told you this was a bad idea!" she hissed.
"Too late now," he said through gritted teeth. "What's the plan?"
"I let you win," she breathed.
A smirk danced across his lips. "Hey, I like it."
Xena rolled her eyes. "If you beat me, then it'll raise doubts in their mind that I'm anything other than an uppity woman trying to show up a big strong man."
Ares shook his head quickly, watching their clasped hands intently. "No good. You've already proved you're a strong woman – fifteen minutes at this, remember?"
"Well we could make a show of you humouring me," she said.
"All right, I can do a bit of roleplay. Maybe those runts'll buy it."
Xena nodded at him. She spoke to him with the gleam in her eyes, and the slightest incline of her head. With a roar of triumph, Ares slapped her hand down on the table.
"There ya go, that's how it's done!" he crowed.
Wagging her hand in a show of pain, Xena pouted. "I nearly had you!" she said with raised voice.
"Hah! Sure you did, little lady. I was just bein' polite!"
There were groans and the throwing up of hands from the people gathered around them, a fair few evidently having their money on Xena. Even a few of the men at the bar were angry, one of them slamming down a tankard of ale angrily.
Xena leant forward, speaking quietly to Ares. "We're gonna get out of here before we do anything else people might see as suspicious."
Before Ares could speak, a large body drew close to them, blocking the light of the surrounding torches and putting them ominously into shadow. They looked up.
"I want a word with you two."
It was one of the biggest of the burly men at the bar, his skin pitted with scars, his armour worn and mismatched, indicating he was a mercenary in someone's employ rather than a dedicated soldier from a particular army.
"Who, us?" said Xena, tilting her head and looking as girlish and ineffectual as she could.
"You threw that match," he grunted. "I saw you give up!"
"I most certainly did not!" she protested.
"She didn't!" said Ares, genuine anger in his eyes. "I made her think she was winning, it was my fault!"
Xena glared at him. What in Tartarus did he think he was doing?!
"You little pissant!" spat the angry mercenary, grabbing Ares by the collar and pulling him up out of his chair. "You cost me fifty dinars!"
Xena was up out of her chair in a beat, breaking the mercenary's grip with an upward chop of her arms and pushing him away in a swift movement.
"Now he definitely knows something's screwy," said Ares, glancing to Xena sideways.
"I couldn't just let him pound you to a pulp, could I?"
The mercenary was back on his feet now, turning around and narrowing his eyes at Xena. He had been joined by a couple of the other armoured men from the bar.
"You're gonna wish you didn't do that, lady," said the mercenary.
"Pretty sure she's regretting it already," said Ares, getting up out of his chair, his hand on the hilt of his sword. It was no show of bravery as he was edging towards the door.
"Where do you think you're going?" growled the big mercenary. Ares felt a firm, wide body behind him, and glancing back he saw one of the men from the bar. He looked to Xena, alarmed.
"If you're smart, you'll let us leave quietly," said Xena to their aggressor, her hand hovering over a point below her right hip, her muscles tense and ready.
"Is that so?" sneered the mercenary. "I don't see what's so frightening about an unarmed woman and a …" he looked at Ares, rough common clothes and basic sword, and chuckled. "... handless chump like him."
Ares had been trying to edge away from the soldiers, but upon hearing the slight to his appearance and ability, he stopped. He narrowed his eyes, edging forward and drawing out his sword.
"Ares!" hissed Xena. "Put that sword away! Now!"
He paid Xena no heed, instead focusing on the mercenary. "You wanna repeat that?"
"Nah," said the man, shaking his head and stepping forward. "I'd rather come up with something new... piffling pretty boy!"
Ares let loose a cackle. "That's the best you can come up with? Aw, come on! I thought you were tryin' to piss me off!"
"I'm not here to amuse you," growled the man. "You pay up or I start hacking limbs."
"Look at my clothes," said Ares, holding his arms out wide. "Do I *look* like I have fifty dinars?"
The man tipped his head. "Hacking limbs it is, then!"
Ares sighed, looking to Xena. "Shit. I was hoping to talk my way out of this."
She glared at him. "Then why'd you draw your sword?!"
"It was instinctual!" he cried.
The mercenary ran at Ares, pulling out a short sword. Before he could reach Ares, Xena sprang forward, pulling her chakram from under her skirt and using it to swipe his blade out of the way. With a clang the sword was deflected, and Xena kicked him in the crotch, the mercenary tumbling backwards with a gurgle. The soldiers began to move in on Xena, and with a growl, she grabbed Ares by the shirt and ran to the door, Ares swiping a sealed amphora of mead from the bar on the way out. As she reached the door, she sent the chakram flying, the lethal round blade hitting a couple of the soldiers before she caught it again.
"Come on!" she snapped, dragging Ares out the door.
They panted as they bolted down the street. There were shouts and the scuffling sound of feet behind them. Xena yanked Ares down a side-alley with her.
"I don't know what you were thinking!" she hissed. They snuck around a townhouse, down another laneway, then came upon a stable. It wasn't until they stole inside that they realised it was the one they'd left Argo in.
"I could say the same for you!" breathed Ares angrily. "You may as well have done a song and dance number called 'Hey look at me, I'm Xena'!"
"OH! So I guess you *wanted* to be butchered in a dusty old tavern in the middle of nowhere then, hmm? That's an end you find befitting of the God of War?"
Ares tilted his head, putting a hand over his heart. "Xena... I didn't know you cared!"
"Better the satyr you know, Ares," she drawled quietly.
She crept into an empty stall next to the one housing Argo and began changing back into her own clothes. Ares leant on the stall door, watching her unashamedly, though there was little he could see in the dim light of night.
"So what are we gonna do?"
"Pack up our things, return this damned dress and get back to Gabrielle and Joxer."
Ares snorted. "Are you insane?"
"The first thing those goons are gonna do is go tell Mallecium that you're here. Their second priority will be finding you or Gabrielle, who they'd know you travel with. If you go sneaking off into the woods, there's every chance they'd see us and follow us back to camp, seeing as they'd be lookin' for us right now. Better to return in the morning when we've had some sleep and they've given up. That way, we can keep an eye on the terrain and spot any followers."
Xena folded her arms, looking up at Ares, her lips pressed together slightly, her eyes narrowed.
"I'm trying to figure out what you get out of me staying here."
Ares shrugged, holding up the amphora of mead he'd stolen. "We stay here and finish this."
She let out a sound that was something between a growl and a hiss. "With those guys after us? I'm already drunk enough as it is!"
"They won't find us in here!" he said, opening the door of the stall and crawling down on the ground next to Xena. They were sitting on a fluffy pile of fresh hay, and in his intoxication, Ares bumped into her.
"Do you mind?"
"Not at all," he replied. Pulling the cork out of the amphora, he held it up to Xena. She shook her head, and at that, he shrugged and took a swig of the mead himself. As if sensing her tenseness, he leant against her, talking smoothly in her ear. "Relax. Your two dopey friends are hidden away in the forest where nobody'll find 'em. And you and I are in a dark stable. Where nobody'll find us."
"You hope." She sighed, shaking her head. "What if he decides to step up his attack? Did you think of that?"
"Bzzt!" Ares made the motion of pressing a button, an anachronistic action completely lost on Xena. "He won't bring the attack forward. Didn't you heavy that blacksmith that's gonna make him some new weapons?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Do you watch *everything* I do?"
"Only when it's involved in my job of being the God of War, my dear. My point is, he can't fight if he hasn't got the new armoury."
Scratching her head, she closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. He was right. She looked at him. He was gazing at the ceiling with a pleased smirk.
"What's that look for?"
"I'm absolutely touched that you blew your cover to save my life."
Xena lay back in the hay, gazing at the thatched roof above their heads. "That's great. I'm one of the good guys, you know. Saving your sorry ass is my prerogative."
Ares sighed, leaning back in the hay next to her. "Wow. You're a mean drunk, you know that?"
"I just downed a handful of soldiers and it took you until now to notice?"
"I love it when you're sardonic," he breathed, rolling onto his side, resting against Xena. "You're telling me you didn't have just a *little* bit of fun just then?"
She turned her head to meet his expression, to which Ares lifted his brows, brown eyes wide. She pursed her lips, bottom eyelids creeping up in a wince.
"Oh, all right, shut up, I did." she snarled, smacking him in the stomach.
Ares cackled. "That's my girl!"
Xena shook her head, the giddiness from the alcohol numbing her anger. Or was it something else? She couldn't deny it. This evening had been the very idea of a good time for her. Scouting, drinking, arm-wrestling and a fist-fight ending with a toss of the chakram and a night in the hay? Perfection.
If only those soldiers hadn't seen who I was, she thought to herself. Ares is right, though. They won't find Gabrielle and Joxer, not in those woods.
It was with a curl of tension in her stomach that she realised it wasn't the first time she'd found Ares to be right that day.
"Can I touch your hair?" he asked.
Xena gave an amused snort. He was very definitely drunk. "Knock yourself out."
Gentle fingers found her scalp, massaging gently and stroking the midnight black locks. She could hear him sigh contentedly next to her.
"This feels so different when you're mortal."
He very nearly flubbed his words. She turned her head. He was so close she could feel his breath on her cheek. The sweetness of the mead was in the air between them. She frowned, meeting melancholy eyes. A question occurred to her, one that she'd never really thought to ask.
"What's it like, being a God?"
He shook his head and shrugged. "I can't describe it."
"...Not even a little?"
He sighed, a little dent of a frown between knitted brows as he thought on it. "Try to imagine just being your finger."
"Yeah," he said. "You are your finger. It's all you feel, all you are. Your finger. No other fingers. No sight, no sound, no taste or hunger or thought. Just being a finger."
She wrinkled her nose as she tried to think of it. "I don't get it. So I'd be a finger that touched things, and that's it?"
He nodded. "Right. That's what being is human is like, after you've been a God all your life."
It was difficult to wrap her brain around the concept, the alcohol and Ares gentle caresses of her scalp contributing to the muddle.
"I don't understand," Xena said, moaning a little in frustration. "I mean, I think I get that... it's limiting. But if it is, why is it so vivid for you?"
"When you lose a sense, the others kick in to take up the slack," murmured Ares. "When I'm mortal, I can't feel everything at once, know all there is to know, be in the heart of every human soul on the earth..." He shook his head. "I'm me. In this body, feeling this immediate, fleeting, vital moment."
She couldn't help but smile. "Maybe that's why I prefer it when you're like this."
"What you're missing," he purred, "is that being mortal is like being a finger, and being a God is the whole body – and you can't separate the two. When I'm a God, that mortal seed that was created the first time I became human doesn't just disappear. It's a part of me. Everyone and everything is a part of me. But I'm a little more aware of that part of myself."
Xena looked to him, lifting her brows, a playful wince on her face. "Are you saying that when you love me, you're really loving yourself?"
Ares stared at her, silence stretching out a long moment. Suddenly, a grin spread across his face and he chortled. Xena felt herself laughing too. He took her hand in his, bringing it close to his face and gazing at it, a smile on his lips.
"What are you doing?"
"Feeling you," he said. "You know, I'm... I'm actually glad that my sister pushed me to this. It's the first useful thing she's done for me in her whole existence."
She shook her head. "Ares..."
"S'funny... how you come to realise some things." He continued to stroke her hair, caress her hand. "There's no woman like you, you know."
Xena chuckled under her breath, marvelling at how very drunk he was.
"And I'm a God, I've met plenty."
"Your problem, Ares," said Xena, turning her head to look at him again, "is that you're fixated on me."
"My problem," he said, leaning towards her, so their noses just touched, "is that I'm in love with you."
She took a sudden sharp breath, closing her eyes, trying to ignore the way his fingers moved over hers, the way his hand cradled her scalp so tenderly.
"You don't believe me," he murmured, a dent between his brows. "I don't blame you."
It was getting easier to believe every moment. She tried to change the subject.
"Are you always this introspective when you're drunk?"
Those words came out a little sharper than she'd meant, but it was taking her a lot of mental effort not to let him get to her.
"Only when I'm mortal." He brought his hand to her cheek, his thumb skimming the impressive plane of soft skin. With a sudden breath, he tapped her very gently on the nose. "I just thought of something."
She lifted a brow.
"We never finished that arm wrestle."
He tugged on her hand. "Come on. We'll wrestle here. Proper wrestle this time, whole body-"
"Ares, I'm not wrestling you in the dark in my tunic."
"Why, scared you might have some fun for once?"
"It's not fun I'm worried about," she said smoothly, a hint of affection in her voice. "It's the kind of fun you're after that bothers me."
He tipped his head to the side and winked at her. "Only the kind you're willing to have."
She leant forward, gazing at him intensely. There was a glimmer of disbelief in his eyes. The corner of her mouth curled up into a pert smile, and she sighed.
He blinked, watching her as she rolled over in the pile of hay and started to settle down into it, facing away from him. His mouth popped open and he was in silent shock until a strangled gasp of frustration left him.
"Good night," she said again, a smile still on her face.
He fumbled in the darkness, laying his cloak over himself, grumbling under his breath.
"Obviously I'll be sleeping on my back tonight."
"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."
"You do that."
The smile on her face lingered longer than she wanted it to, and sleep couldn't come quickly enough.