The first thing that she ever said to him was, “It’s a shame about your face.”
Zain had received worse, as far as greetings went. She hadn’t sworn, she hadn’t included an exacting right hook, and there was something about her tilted smile that slid it more toward sincerity than insult.
So, Zain smiled back.
“Thanks,” he said. He leaned his side against the bar, set his elbow on top, and kicked one foot lazily behind the other. “It was a bad day for me when they outlawed looking this good.” He had to hold his smile back from stretching into a grin when she laughed in surprise.
“Oh?” she said. She finished wiping out a mug and set it on the lower shelf on the other side of the bar. “So, that shiner was just a good friend of yours helping you stay out of jail?”
“Well, I’m not sure I’d call him that,” Zain said.
“What would you call him?” she asked. She set her hands on the edge of the shelf, leaned forward on straightened arms, just a little.
“The idiot who didn’t know what to do with his overly-large self one balmy night.”
She looked up, measuring him with her eyes. “Are you sure that wasn’t you?”
“Maybe,” he said. “But my friends usually call me Zain.”
Her smile widened again, a little slower, as if he had finally done something she expected. “Sovi,” she said, and touched her collarbone lightly.
Zain nodded. “Good to meet you.”
“I’m sure,” she said. “It’s always good to know the girl behind the bar.”
“Of course,” Zain said.
“What can I get you?” she asked.
“Well, it’s my birthday,” Zain said. “What do you drink here, when you want to celebrate properly?”
“Birthday?” she said, doubtfully.
“Honest,” Zain raised his hand innocently. “Would you like me to bring my mother in for a sworn statement?”
She bit back her next smile, shook her head. Quickly, she turned her back, scanning through the row of bottles on the wall behind her, and pulled down a green bottle that looked just a little too thin for its length, but fit perfectly into her hand.
“Are you celebrating alone?” she asked.
“No,” Zain said. He gestured to the full – too full – room of men and women behind him. They’d been drinking, talking, laughing, dancing since he arrived. In fact, the light, motion, and noise through the window had been what dragged him inside.
She glanced at him from under her eyebrows, daring him to continue that answer.
“I’m here with my cousin,” he said. “And a friend.” He nodded toward one of the back tables. Terius and Jaera hadn’t taken a rest there after the first few dances, not really sitting. Jaera leaned her back against the far wall, while Terius half-sat against the table’s edge, waiting for Zain to find them again with their drinks. They’d both only leaned back from where they had stood during the short, funny argument over who should get the mugs, as if they thought they might wrestle the chore away from him in a moment anyway.
Sovi glanced behind Zain, checking his new story, and looked down again. She seemed satisfied, if a little quieted, while she poured a smooth line of the white wine into a cup. Setting the bottle beside her, she set the cup in front of him and didn’t take her hand away until they’d brushed his. “On the house,” she murmured. “Bright birthday.”
“You could celebrate with us,” Zain said. “If it wouldn’t get you into trouble.”
Sovi held his eye for a long moment. Her smile softened, and she leaned in a little closer. Then, looking away, she pulled back and shook her head. She took a breath, and let it out, met his eyes, and shook her head again. “Be careful there,” she said. “Falling in love with me…”
Zain looked down, his turn to laugh in surprise. “Oh, I wouldn’t dare,” he said.
She paused, held quiet so long, he met her eye again to see why.
“That’s too bad,” she said. “Because I never said don’t.”
Zain paused. “I don’t…”
“People always say be careful,” Sovi said, a little quicker than she’d spoken before. She crossed her arms on the bar top, leaning toward him again. “But they always mean, don’t. But you notice, they never say don’t, because somewhere, they know that’s not the right thing to say.”
Zain didn’t move, didn’t lean in, and didn’t pull back, but watched her. The words tripped off her tongue quickly, rehearsed maybe, and she leaned into them, head turning to look at him out of the corner of her eye on the emphases. When she paused, he nodded, just a little. “What is?” he asked.
“We all try so hard not to be hurt,” she said, a little slower again. “And we all pass advice on how to avoid being hurt. But wouldn’t it be grander if we taught ourselves how to recover instead?” Again, that halfway-to-sideways look. “We can’t dodge forever. But there’s a lot more we can stand up after than we think.”
“That’s true enough,” Zain said.
Sovi smiled, brighter, sharper. “And love isn’t supposed to be safe,” she continued. “Love, least of all, is supposed to be safe. Just look at your cousin.” She nodded toward the back of the room.
Zain blinked. Slowly, he turned. Terius was still perched on the table edge, half-turned to the room, eye flicking from one passerby to another. But he was listening to Jaera, still tucked against the wall with her hands hidden behind her back. Her lips moved for a few moments, saying something that Zain couldn’t hear, and probably didn’t matter, but Terius had his head tilted back toward her, and he answered, immediately, lips moving for the same short time, and Jaera smiled the end of it, said something else.
Zain couldn’t see their feet, but there was something odd about the angle, and he suspected that the toe of her boot was pressed up against his instep. Just barely touching. They were always doing that – with toes, with fingertips, with shoulders – never locked together, but never really apart.
“Love shouldn’t be that quiet,” Sovi said.
Zain turned back to her quickly, eyebrows coming together. He blinked at her.
Sovi didn’t notice. “It’s supposed to shout. And it’s supposed to hurt when something that precious gets lost. What will you cousin do when it’s over? Shrug and walk away? Like everyone else, they’re just choosing what’s safe, calling it love, and risking nothing. And that’s not really love. That’s never what I’d ask for.”
Zain looked down at the cup in his hand. He turned it in his fingers. “That’s too bad,” he murmured. Quietly, he set his other hand on the counter, displaying the band of leather wrapped around his wrist. Sovi pulled back immediately, catching the glint of gold, the flakes of bright stone laid out as feathers in the hawk’s spread wings. She swore quietly, under her breath.
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I had no idea…”
“Don’t,” Zain said. He smiled at her lightly. “My cousin is the rich one. In fact, by your standards, you might just as well call him a prince. He has that much money, that much responsibility. But that girl he’s with?” Zain turned his head, caught a smile spread on Terius’ face, and saw Jaera’s head fall forward to hide a laugh, her dark hair sliding down her shoulder in a curling wave. “She’s almost nothing,” he said.
He looked back to Sovi. “According to everyone else,” he assured her. “My cousin thinks she’s the sun and stars, the north wind and the south breeze, the air in his lungs and the heartbeat in his chest.”
Sovi watched him, eyes flicking from one of his eyes to the other, searching.
“It can’t go on forever,” Zain said. “They have to say goodbye.” He tilted his head, let out a breath that was almost a laugh. “I don’t know how either of them will recover.”
Sovi stayed perfectly quiet, pulled back a little more with each word he said.
Zain collected too more cups from the bar, quiet too, then worked a steady line across the room to stop beside Terius.
Terius took his cup, passing Zain a look over the brim. “I could have gotten them,” he said.
“My birthday,” Zain said, grinning at him. “I get to do whatever I want, remember?”
“That’s meant to frighten us, right?” Jaera asked, taking her cup as well.
After a moment, he glanced between the two of them. He stopped, holding Terius’ gaze, and pointed an idle finger at Jaera around the outside of his cup. “Do you remember the first thing she ever said to you?”
Jaera bent her head forward a little, and stared. “I was seven,” she said. “He was ten. How…”
Zain shrugged and took a long sip.
I’m a thief! This week, I – and all the other thieves – stole the first line of this piece from my friend, Bek. Be sure to stop by her blog to see what was wrong with her face, and stop by all the others to see what was wrong with theirs.