Okay, so I didn’t expect Ares to be so eager, and to be honest, I’m not sure he’ll be of much use. From what Thor has told me, Ares is a fighter, not a thinker, and my issue requires problem-solving abilities.
“Anyone else up for it?” I look from Poseidon to Hades. Odin said they’d be the ones more likely to help, since—if my limited spying skills and Loki’s questionably sourced info can be trusted—there’s no Zeus in this generation.
I purse my lips and drop my gaze to my hands. “I guess not.”
When I look up, Ares is scowling. “I’m not good enough for you?” he asks.
How can I explain, without making it sound like I consider him too dumb to help? “No, I—”
“No?” The line between his eyes deepens.
Hermes lets out a snort. If he laughs again, Ares will freak out. I can sense that in my bones.
“No, that’s not what I meant. Of course you’re good enough. More than good enough. You’re great.” I’m rambling. “I mean, you’re just right.”
“Maybe stop talking now?” Lena whispers in my ear.
I curl my fingers around Ratatoskr’s hilt and climb to my feet, holding Ares’ gaze. “I swear no ill will befall you while you’re in my care,” I say.
He chuckles and gives me a slow once-over, with that infuriating eyebrow raised. “Good to know. Shall we?”
I grimace. “Could I have something to eat and a cup of mead first? It’s been a long day.” Possibly couple of days, the way time loses meaning between Asgard and Midgard. And to be honest, I expected some Greek hospitality. Perhaps an offer to spend the night, before I need to get on horseback again.
“Of course.” His annoyed expression melts into something akin to pain, as he says, “Everyone good with souvlaki?”
“I am.” Hephaestus bares the full weight of Ares’ glower with a smile that brightens his gloomy expression and stretches the skin along the thin white line that brackets his right eye from brow to cheek. A thumb to the left, and it could have cost him this eye. I’ve seen it happen to einherjar, but of course their eyes grow back.
Olympians eyes probably grow back too.
But what could have scarred one of them permanently?
Pretending not to notice, I sweep the room with my gaze, as if that was what I was going for to begin with.
“We should get going.” Poseidon stands and tugs Irine to her feet. He gives Hephaestus a pointed look. “All of us. Ares will touch base once he’s back from Valhalla, and we’ll talk next steps.”
Irine takes Lena’s hand. “Do I drop you off home, or do you wanna come to Sei’s for a movie?”
Lena’s face is full of hope. “Movie sounds good.”
It takes seconds for them all to disappear in twos and threes. And now it’s me and Ares here. Alone.
I sit back down and lay Ratatoskr in the seat beside me.
“Souvlaki?” Ares asks.
I’ve caught whiffs of it on previous trips to this plane, and the memory of the meaty, garlicky scent makes me salivate. “With lots of pork, please.”
He grins. “My kind of woman. I’ll order us steak instead. More meat.”
“And mead?” I can use a drink, if I’m to spend more time alone with him. When everyone was here and we were talking business, I could kind of ignore his imposing presence, but now… It’s impossible not to notice every muscle in his huge body. His eyes say he knows I’m noticing. He knows everyone notices, and that’s enough to put me off—in case Brynhildr’s stern warning to stay away from all males ever didn’t do it.
“Don’t know what that is, but I’ve got beer,” he says.
I’ll try almost anything once.
Ares uses his telephone to have food brought to us. We don’t speak until it arrives. I’m not used to silence. This is the longest I’ve been alone with my thoughts since I remember myself, and they’re pretty centered on a certain Greek god-to-be, who studies me intensely from across the short table.
When a ringing fills my ears, I jump.
“It’s the food.” Ares stands with an easy smile, and I watch his behind while he walks to the door.
Easily as toned as Thor’s. And I’m looking at it out of sheer curiosity, not because I find it pleasing.
Our meal is not served by a Valkyrie, but by a man wearing a protective helmet on his head. I’ve been to Midgard several times, but I never noticed before. Does this mean there are skull crushers here too? Huh. Seems like the world hasn’t progressed as much as I thought.
Ares opens the wrappings and puts the meat in plates, alongside salad and fried potato sticks I see no use for.
“I’ll be back,” he says.
I’m lifting my steak to my mouth, when he returns with two green glass bottles in one hand and forks and knives in the other. I know what forks and knives are, but I never bother with them. Should I now?
He shrugs, leaves the cutlery on the table between us, and pops open the bottles, wedging the caps between two bricks in the unpainted wall and smacking them at an angle with the heel of his hand. He hands me one and places the other on the table, then takes his plate on his knees as he sinks into an armchair.
I take a bite of the meat and groan. Seasoned to perfection, though I’d prefer it more bloody.
“Good?” Ares sounds amused. Is he laughing at me?
I nod and take another bite. Let him laugh. Not like his opinion matters. Much.
“You know, I’ve never seen a woman eat like that before,” he says.
Is that meant as an insult to me or to other women? Don’t like it, either way. “That’s how we all eat in Asgard,” I say around a mouthful. Forcing myself to chew slowly and swallow, I look at him.
“Is that where it is? Valhalla?” he asks. His face practically glows on the last word. Maybe he’s not making fun of me after all. “Is it amazing?”
“Mm hmm.” I don’t want to talk; I want to eat.
But he hasn’t touched his steak, and he’s watching me with such intensity, it’s like my answer is of immense significance.
Begrudgingly, I lick my lips and lower my steak, though I don’t let go. “It’s… home. Imagine a hall so immense, it contains a world. We live, play, fight, eat, and sleep there, and we lack for nothing.” Except freedom. I can to travel to Midgard, but it’s to collect info and report back, and I never get to stay. Never get to do what I feel like.
He wraps his lips around the mouth of the bottle and tilts it up. His throat works as he guzzles down the contents, and I stare at his jaw muscles. What the Fenrir is wrong with me?
I’m still staring, when he snaps his head back down and catches my gaze. “And are there more women like you there?” His smile is blade sharp and his eyes are hard. Nothing like he looked a moment ago.
I feel the distance he forces between us like it’s a tangible thing, blocking me from seeing what I shouldn’t. “Yup. But with bigger boobs.” My tone is chilly, but he deserves it. Can’t believe I almost let my steak go cold for him. I wash down the bitter aftertaste of his question with the drink he brought. Not bad. Not strong enough, but not bad. I dig in my meal, and even try the potatoes. They break with a satisfying crunch and are nice and savory, but they’re not meat. Still, anything to keep from being the first to talk again.
I’ve practically licked my plate clean, when Ares asks, “Why didn’t you want it to be me?”
Skítr. The way he looks at me makes it impossible to lie or pretend I don’t know what he’s talking about. And why would I? He’s nothing to me; I don’t care to spare his feelings. I wipe my mouth on the back of my hand. “Odin said Poseidon and Hades were the strongest among you. The ones more likely to work out what’s happening. He said Dionysos and Hermes are more… about fun.”
Ares narrows his eyes, but it’s in speculation rather than annoyance. “But Hades hasn’t ascended. And what about Hephaestus? He can diagnose and fix anything. Why not him?” His expression darkens almost imperceptibly, but I’ve been around gods before. If you don’t notice subtle changes in Valhalla, you may end up with lightning slicing you open.
“Odin vetoed that. Wouldn’t say why. Vidar seconded him.” I can’t presume to know the Allfather’s reasons, but there’s a rumor that Vidar stole his shoes that could break Fenrir’s jaw from Hephaestus. The original Hephaestus, that is.
Ares leans forward, elbows on his knees and hands wrapped around his bottle. “And me? What’s wrong with me?” His tone is deceptively light, but the green of his eyes has darkened to almost black.
He’s not a man, now, he’s a shark. And like with any predator, my best chance at survival is to show no fear. “You are impulsive.” I start reciting what Loki told me about him. “You don’t think before you act. You’ll probably pick up a fight with an einherji or another god, and get kicked out, and we’ll be none the wiser as to what’s wrong.”
He nods slowly. “So I’m an idiot. And Thor sent you to me because I’d be fun to mess with.”
I bite my lips together.
“Right?” Ares doesn’t raise his voice, but the simmering anger in it makes me glide my fingers closer to Ratatoskr’s hilt. He sits up and squares his shoulders.
Am I supposed to be intimidated? Maybe. But despite the aggression emanating from him, I don’t fear for my physical safety. I mirror his position and look him square in the eye. “More like hotheaded.” I’m challenging him, but to do what?
“I see.” He doesn’t drop his gaze.
Neither do I, even as heat creeps up my neck and spreads to my cheeks.
Ares arches a brow again. “Made you blush.” He tosses a handful of fried potatoes in his mouth and drops back in his seat. Such an odd male. I still feel tension rolling off him in waves, but he’s forcing this relaxed posture.
“It’s the heat,” I say.
“Probably the beer too.”
“It takes a lot of alcohol to affect me.” I belch, as is polite to do after a wholesome meal, and he cracks up.
Annoying male. I see why he wouldn’t be Odin’s top choice. But we need outside help, and any Olympian will do. Odin just wants to ask questions a god might not answer for a mere Valkyrie. Then I’ll bring Ares back here, and I never have to see him again.
He’s still laughing. Ugh.
I stand, think Ratatoskr away—outside my realm, I can summon it and my breastplate from the ether at will—and stretch. “May I use the facilities before we go?”
Ares barely spares my disappearing act a glance. “The facilities?” There’s that annoying lopsided grin. Between this and the eyebrow, I doubt his face is capable of any non-sarcastic expressions.
“Yes. I need to get rid of some of your beer before I spend hours on a horse.” There’ll be no tapping of my foot. We don’t show weakness in the face of the enemy, and impatience is a weakness.
“The bathroom is over there.” Ares points to the single door at the other end of the room. “Come. I’ll show you how the door works.” He springs up from the armchair and places a hand at the small of my back as I head toward where he pointed. His fingertips burn me where they touch the bare skin of my midriff.
I turn to tell him he doesn’t have to come with—I am a big girl; I can open a forpulte door—and he’s just so close. That stubbly, lickable chin is in my line of sight, and when I raise my head, he looks down at me with such hunger, I take a step back.
But his hand is still on my back, and he moves with me. Our bodies collide, and I stumble. I never stumble. I also never cling to a male. Or let him cradle my body so close, I feel his heartbeat thudding in my chest.
And then his mouth is on mine, more intoxicating than the strongest mead.