Chapter Twenty Nine
There were still a few hours until sunrise, but Kali couldn’t sleep. Instead, she climbed onto one of the deep windowsills and closed her eyes. Leaning against the glass, her mind raced as she waited for the sun to rise. Her stomach prickled and her arm throbbed, but most painful were the new burns on her arms.
The thing she hated most about hospitals wasn’t the overpowering clinical smell. It was the lack of distractions. There was nothing to keep her out of her own head. She clutched at her hair, pushing her forehead onto her knees, struggling to breathe. Out of the corner of her eyes, she could see the drip still hanging by the bed. Sickness rooted itself in her throat and she shuddered, desperately trying to ignore the veins tingling in her hands and arms.
After what seemed like forever, her thoughts dimmed to a low buzz in the back of her mind. Someone cleared their throat in the doorway and Kali started, slipping off the windowsill. She groaned heavily before pulling herself up to see Hannah watching her. She automatically widened her stance. “What do you want?”
“Rude.” Hannah crossed her arms, but casually shrugged “He wants you in class.”
“Of course he does.” Kali grimaced, carefully stretching to test her muscles. Rolling her shoulders, she winced and muttered “Do I have time to shower?”
“You got ten minutes.” Hannah frowned; she had clearly been expecting a fight. Sure enough, she admitted “I was looking forward to dragging you out by your hair.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Kali’s mouth. “Sorry to disappoint.”
Hannah chuckled. The sound startled Kali; it was an almost foreign concept for her. Any kind of mirth from a girl like Hannah was strange. Hannah narrowed her eyes to inspect Kali and confessed “Tracy told us what happened. She said you guys fought…but I’ve seen you fight. It didn’t sound like that’s the way it went down. What happened?”
“She stabbed me.” Kali stated, grabbing her shoes. She turned her back to her classmate, busying herself with her things, and added bitterly “In the back.”
Hannah scowled. “Right…and I hear Trevor broke your arm.”
“What’s your point, Hannah?” Kali groaned; she was tired of trying to deal with subtext.
Hannah just watched her for a moment longer in silence. She pursed her lips and walked out of the room, calling “Don’t take too long.”
Kali frowned, confused. She couldn’t find the energy to care what was going on in Hannah’s head, so she pushed it aside. Her body had exhausted itself with the healing, and she felt tender all over. The pain in her arm had lessened to a dull ache, provided she didn’t move too quickly. Her stomach rebelled every time she stretched it, but the pain was edging closer to nausea.
Instead of braving the endless gleaming hallways, Kali shoved the window open and tumbled outside. By the time she dragged herself back to her apartment, the shower seemed like a bad idea. Gritting her teeth, she settled for cleaning up in the sink; at least then she wouldn’t have to worry about the dressings. It took much longer than she had anticipated to get herself feeling moderately human, and she wasn’t entirely convinced it had been worth the effort.
By the time Kali finally arrived at the Colosseum, everyone was already there. She ignored Ares when he grunted “you’re late” and jumped into the group running around the arena. She normally kept to an easy jog, sticking with Jem and Carl near the middle. She had thought it was to pace herself to get all the way through Ares’ warmup. But she wondered if she had just been lazy. Her friends looked worried, but she ignored them and pushed herself into a run.
The three students in Kali’s class that worked hardest were Hannah, Ryan, and Duncan. Hannah and Ryan wanted their dad’s approval, and the only sure-fire way to win Ares’ affection was through combat prowess. Duncan was Athena’s, and he had a genuine interest in different combat theories and practices. He wanted to learn, so he worked hard. They were the ones that always led the group, so Kali decided that her target going forward was to keep up with them.
“Hey! What’s the hurry?” Carl grabbed her arm with a grin as she jogged by and she flinched at the sudden contact.
“Your arms.” He gasped, horrified, when he saw the coiling burns. She caught his eye briefly and carefully untangled herself from his grip. She started to smile but it froze before it reached her eyes as she remembered Jem’s reprimands. “Just warming up.”
Carl faltered slightly and Jem stepped in, saying “Jack told me what happened, Kali. You should take it easy. I bet no one thought you’d even be here today.”
“Ares said I had to show.” She shrugged and fell into formation beside her friends, drawing her sword as Ares began his standard technique drills. Her stomach hurt so much she thought she might be sick, but she just gripped her training sword harder and grit her teeth.
Indignantly, Jem exclaimed “Trevor didn’t have to.” He winced as Ares fixed him with a terrifying scowl, falling sheepishly silent.
When Ares had gone back to demonstrating, Kali moved into the next form and muttered “I heal faster.”
“That’s not the point!”
“Actually, it pretty much is the point.” Kali hissed quickly. She was watching Ares carefully but after a moment she glanced at Jem and sighed “Look, it’s not a big deal. I want to be here.”
Angrily, through gritted teeth, Carl spat “Why do you have to be here, but Trevor gets a pass?”
“Ares gave up on him.” Hannah mumbled, surprisingly Kali from her right; she hadn’t noticed her standing with them. Kali wasn’t sure why she had deigned to enlighten them of the facts considering she had always been hostile before. But she wasn’t complaining when Hannah continued “He doesn’t have to be here because Ares doesn’t care about his progress anymore.”
The boys averted their eyes, clearly afraid of angering her, but Kali looked at her sharply. She knew that what Hannah said was true; she always knew. Even so, she asked “What do you mean?”
Hannah scowled briefly at Jem and Carl; they were practically cowering. But she shuffled uncomfortably under Kali’s piercing gaze and admitted “Trev was lucky to be here anyway. Bia, his mum, she’s just a goddess of violence. It’s good in any and all forms. For us, for Ares, war is more than that. Honour matters. Every new development in war has been influenced by him in some way. Including the rules of engagement.”
Kali frowned slightly; she had never really considered that. Ares had always seemed so heavy handed and often barbaric. But what Hannah said made a lot of sense, now that it had been pointed out to her.
“Don’t get me wrong; he doesn’t have any problem with what Tracy did.”
“Stabbing me in the back wasn’t honourable.” Kali said, so very quietly. She dropped her sword arm so they wouldn’t see it shake and took a deep breath to keep her head clear.
“He wasn’t exactly thrilled.” Hannah looked away awkwardly. “But his argument was more about the fact that she was sloppy because she didn’t confirm the kill. She just left you there.”
From the front of the arena, Ares barked “Enough!”
Hannah, Jem, and Carl all nearly jumped out of their skin and snapped their eyes forward. Kali looked up and could see that Ares’ eyes were not angry when he watched her. He was worried. She pondered that as she lifted her sword again, but it took most of her focus to continue with the exercises.
It wasn’t much longer before Ares told them all take a break; they’d be partnering up to spar in a few minutes. While the others grabbed a drink or sat down, he beckoned Kali over to him with a finger. “You’re different today.”
“Motivated.” He said, a grin spreading across his face. He brushed some hair off her face and, when she flinched, he taunted “Got scared, did you?”
Kali looked down for a moment and murmured “Yeah. I did.” Her eyes flickered back up to his and she was surprised to see that his mocking smile was gone. Seeing him without his cloak of overpowering arrogance, Kali made up her mind. She took a deep breath and asked, “You run extra drills after classes every day, right?”
His eyes narrowed and he cocked his head slowly. “I do. It is usually only my own kids that show up. Sometimes Athena’s.”
She considered for a moment. “Room for one more?”
“You’ll be the weakest one there.” He waited for Kali’s reaction and chuckled when she met his eyes with a hard stare.
“Not for long.” She muttered fiercely. He had no doubt that she was right.
Ares crossed his arms and leant back against the wall, just watching her. After a moment, he smiled to himself and muttered “You’re real spooked, huh.”
She lifted her chin, her pride kicking in. Maybe fear was the driving factor for this change, but he didn’t need to rub it in when she had already admitted to it. She glared and declared “I want to get stronger. I didn’t think you’d disapprove.”
Ares looked her up and down. He wasn’t leering for once; it was more calculated. He was gauging her resolve. He seemed to be pleased with what he saw because he said gruffly “Come every day or you’re wasting your time. And mine.”
“Why aren’t you hitting on me?” She asked curiously, taken aback by his unusual sincerity.
“You don’t need it today.”
She blinked “I’m surprised you care.”
“So am I.” He admitted honestly. Ares pondered something for a moment before adding “If you’re serious about getting stronger, you need to stop with the stupid eating habits. No more low protein meals. Get yourself a steak.”
“That an order?” She looked away, biting her lip. He was right, of course. She just didn’t want to admit it.
He laughed; she was cute when she sulked. “No. Just some advice. But I suggest you take it. If you really want to get stronger, you need to stop holding yourself back. Get over whatever dumb issues you’ve created for yourself, or don’t bother.” When Kali didn’t reply, Ares pointedly asked “If you were at full health, how quickly would that wound Tracy gave you have healed?”
“I…don’t really know.” She admitted reluctantly. Her mother had always been vegetarian. Kali could now guess that diet was to limit her so that she wouldn’t be found. To weaken her. To protect her. Kali had learnt to hide her differences as a child. She had been hiding for so long, without even knowing it, that the habits were ingrained. But she had no real reason to keep hiding. The healing, at least, could be passed off as just being because of her father.
“You wanted my advice, didn’t you?” Kali nodded, though she hated to admit it and Ares continued “You’re no threat to anyone the way you are now. And I’ve been waiting for you to actually want this. You have good instincts, and you pick things up fast. But you haven’t shown me any real fighting spirit in class. Not since our challenge.” He smirked at the memory and ran his hand through his hair. “I saw how you were with that egotistical prick, Achilles. You need that fire of yours every time you train. If you’re ready to commit yourself, prove it to me.”
“I was just trying to keep up…” She said, but she could feel the wisdom in his words. She just didn’t know how to bring that out of herself.
Ares raised an eyebrow. “And you think no one here can push you enough? You’re pretty arrogant, aren’t you? You might be able to keep up with Athena’s little champion sometimes, but that doesn’t mean anything in here.”
Kali considered that for a moment. “You know, you’re not a terrible teacher when you’re not being a creep.”
“Careful, Kali.” He flashed an almost feral smile, showing all of his teeth. “I really do enjoy a challenge.”
She chewed her lip, grimacing. “I hope you don’t make me regret this, Ares.”
“In all honesty, I rather enjoy watching you fight to survive.” He chuckled again but it seemed as though he was laughing at himself. “You probably don’t know this, but I can feel every soldier dying on the battlefield. I can witness their last moments. I think it gives them some small amount of peace. It’s been happening more, recently. Too much. But you really worried me.”
Kali froze. Did that mean he had heard hers? Had she really been as close as she had thought? She pushed her thoughts aside and grunted “What are you trying to tell me, Ares?”
“You were going to die, Kali. Even with the way you’re supposed to heal. You would have let yourself pass on, even though you should never have gotten that close. I don’t know how you wormed your way so deep under my skin, but I would rather you didn’t die. When you decided to start fighting back, I was more relieved than I’d like to admit.” Ares moved closer and pulled her into an embrace. Taken aback by the sudden gesture, she stood frozen in place.
Ares’ lips brushed her ear through her hair as he whispered “I want to watch every moment of you struggling to keep hold of each fleeting breath. I know you’ve chosen, so I’ll respect that for now. But a god’s desires are not as fleeting as those of a mortal. If you wished it, I would be yours for as long as you’d have me.”
For just a moment, Kali wondered what choice she might have made if this was the side of himself that Ares had chosen to show her from the start. If she hadn’t met Hades, would she have been charmed by the softer side of the God of War? She had only ever seen him as a bully before. Heavy handed, and cruel. But suddenly she was quite flattered that she had caught his eye.
When Ares released her in silence, Kali hesitantly touched the back of his hand and whispered a soft thank you. He chuckled again and shook his head. Still quietly laughing, he walked away to start the class back up. Ares shouted at the hovering demigods to partner up. When they hesitated, he roared “Get on with it!”
Everyone jumped to attention, that single reprimand keeping their momentum going until the end of the class. Ares didn’t say another word and just walked around, watching each group. Kali could have sworn he seemed almost vulnerable. They were all relieved when it was time to get out of there and head to their next class.
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