Jaera was laughing when Zain walked in. Her hands were full of cards and she cradled them against her chest to protect them from the rest of the room while she collapsed against her chair.
“Take that back!” she told Galen across the table.
Elbows resting on the table, Galen shook his head, laughing too hard himself. It was hard to tell if he was surrendering, or holding out. Connell grinned at both of them, and eagerly nodded to Zain as the door clapped shut behind him.
“Come in, kid,” Connell called.
Jaera looked over in surprise, and smiled. “Hey,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
Zain nodded his thanks to Galen as the man kicked the fourth chair out for him. Settling at the table, he looked at Jaera. It was hard not to echo her smile. “And who’s fault is that?” he asked, too lightly.
Purposefully, she looked back at her cards.
“Want in?” Connell asked.
Zain looked at the pile of chips in the middle of the table and shook his head. “It looks like you’re pretty far in already.”
“We’ve got one round left,” Connell told him. “But we’d be happy t’start over out of respect for a noble person such as yourself.”
“Losing, are you?” Zain asked.
Connell glared. “Yes.”
“Finish him,” Zain told Galen.
Galen dropped his head, laughing again.
Jaera’s eyes flickered around the table, as if she was trying to collect the good feeling, trying to swallow it, but her smile had lost its natural tilt. Zain would have liked to wrap her in a hug, right then. He wished his silver tongue actually worked on her, that he could convince her that the sky was yellow and the ocean red the way he could other people, just to be able to remove the damage with a word. But he knew she didn’t want to be touched and that she’d strip any soothing word he offered. He could see her looking for her comfort, chasing her troubles out in her own way, here, in this house, with Galen, with Connell, smiling, beating it away with a laugh and praying it was bright enough. She didn’t look at Zain until the last card was played and cleaned off the table.
Galen and Connell pushed their chairs back and stepped to the other side of the room, refilling mugs from a barrel tap. Jaera looked at Zain very slowly, barely turning her head.
“I know why you’re here,” she said.
Zain shook his head and smile. “You’re not an idiot.”
“What do you say we skip it?” Jaera asked. “You just tell Terius you tried, and we’ll leave it at that.”
Zain nodded slowly. “All right,” he said. She looked a little surprised, almost relieved, and he hated the word before it was even out of his mouth. He’d never meant it as anything more than a joke. “Except, I’m not really here for Terius.”
She tilted her head.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, Jaera,” he murmured. Crossing his arms on the tabletop, he leaned toward her. Over her shoulder, he caught Galen grab Connell by the shoulder to keep him from coming back to the table. Zain sent him a silent thanks and returned all his attention to Jaera. “A long time. Terius was running through his life thinking you just that thief that took his books in the middle of the night, and we were friends.”
“Yeah…” Jaera said slowly.
“How old were we? Nine? Ten?”
She laughed. “Whatever age we were that you realized I would help you get into trouble.”
“No.” Zain shook his head. “That wasn’t why we were friends.”
“Really?” she asked. “Because I thought I really had you when I helped you get away with putting flour in Ehren’s dress shirts. Definitely by the time I distracted Alrein while you nailed his boots to the floor. Do you remember his face? After he fell over trying to walk away?” She laughed. “I never thought he would actually be able to step into them without realizing they were nailed down.”
Zain shook his head again. “That wasn’t why we were friends.”
She folded her arms over the table too, mirroring him, and took a deep breath. “Then why?”
Zain hesitated, not sure what would happen when he said his next thought out loud. “Because you were the only person I’d ever met, whose parents didn’t want her either.”
Jaera looked like she suddenly didn’t want to touch the table, but she didn’t move. Looking down, she blinked. “Oh.”
“I’m sorry,” Zain said.
She shook her head a little. “It’s… Your parents are just on another island.”
“I know,” Zain assured her. “But they sent me here. For a long time, it felt like they’d just given me away. Not anymore, and I know it doesn’t hold a flickering, weirdly-colored, misshapen candle to you, but–”
Jaera held up a hand to stop him, but didn’t quite look at him. “It’s fine.”
“You made life better,” Zain said. He tried a smile, then a bigger one when she laughed and shook her head. “With the flour, and the boots, and… just by being there.”
“Thanks,” she said.
“So, don’t think for half a breath that I came down here for Terius,” Zain said. “I came here for you.”
She looked away again, swallowed. She took a breath, and held it. “Then, say you understand,” she said. Turning back to him, she clung to her smile, but it was pulling at something that hurt. “If I say yes, I lose you, I lose him, I lose everything I’ve ever had here. When it falls apart and I get sent away, they won’t let me keep any of it.”
“He asked you to marry him, Jaera,” Zain said.
Jaera blinked, flicked at look at Galen, and pulled back.
“When has he ever offered you something he couldn’t give?” Zain asked.
“We had a plan,” Jaera murmured, voice suddenly low. “It was perfect. And no one would get hurt.”
Zain looked at Galen, then back at her. “You haven’t told anyone have you?”
She turned away. Then she shook her head. “There was no reason to.”
Zain stared at her, laughed because he couldn’t find breath for anything else. He swallowed it back. “You’re terrified…”
She didn’t move.
“You have to move past that,” Zain told her. “You can’t decide this because you’re scared.” For another instant, he teetered on the edge of his next thought. He’d already laid so many anvils into this conversation, he wasn’t sure if she could hold another. “Sometimes the things that we’d believed were impossible, aren’t. Terius is not going to let you lose anything. I won’t let you lose anything.”
Zain took her hand, squeezed it tight until he knew she’d felt it.