I saw you in my sleep last night and for a moment I thought you were real. You looked so beautiful just like you always do and I fell for you once again. And I hate my mind for playing these tricks on me.
It was more of a rhetorical question than anything, but part of Max was wondering if there was any way he could be misinterpreting the situation – that the whiskey and lemon in his glass was clouding his judgment and that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for why she’d been rubbing on him like a cat all evening.
“Are you flirting with me?”
Just saying it out loud felt like answer enough. No, she wasn’t, because that was absurd. She was his friend. They’d been friends for eight years, there was no way….
His mouth when dry when a grin slower than honey dripping down combs pulled across Cass’ face, and he tensed when she drew her fingertips up his sternum over his plain, white t-shirt before looping her pinkie finger with the chain hanging around his neck.
“Guess I am,” she said, running her finger the length of the chain until it reached the key dangling from the end, and she curled her finger, pulling gently. “Is that okay?”
Was that okay? He laughed – more of a quiet sputter – because he wasn’t sure if he was really allowed to say what his first response was, but by the way she took her lower lip between her teeth, he could guess she probably knew, and she confirmed his suspicion by pulling him forward with the chain around his neck.
Eight years of friendship, and Max had never thought about what her mouth would taste like, but each tentative kiss grew into bolder ones that smacked of the remnants of rum on her pillowy lips.
Fuck whiskey, he’d like to drink her for the rest of the night, and he clasped her cheeks between his hands more firmly than he’d ever held any glass in his life to hold her still. Her soft, breathy, pants were music to his ears, and he provided the bass line in a groan when she dragged her hand down his chest. She pushed him, though, in the soft part between his chest and stomach, and he broke, dizzy and disappointed.
Smiling, Cass slid her fingers under the chain, and in one swift movement, she lifted it over his head.
“That’s mine,” he said without malice when she wrapped it around her knuckles, mirth shining in her eyes.
“Mine now,” she said, the key sliding back.
“Is it?” he asked, arching a brow. “You going to pay my rent, too?”
Delicately and somewhat clumsily, she untangled the thin metal links before dropping it down over her head and flipping her hair out. It fell lower than it did on his neck, and he stared at the point of the key dangling between her breasts, just above the silky, light pink material of her top.
“If you want it–” Max looked up, heat crawling over his neck with the shame of being caught– “you have to come and get it.”
For the first time, he could see doubt in her eyes, and for the first time, he knew it rested on his shoulders. If he wanted it, he could get it, and if he didn’t, she’d walk away.
Holding her gaze, he brushed his fingertips first over the expanse of her chest and then down lower to hook into the chain, lips twitching when she gasped as he fished the key out. Pinched between his fingers, he pulled it lightly, and her eyes fluttered shut with a soft moan when he stepped in. Still holding the key, he touched his knuckles to Cass’ chin and leaned in, lips barely touching hers.
I fell in love with a woman with a shattered eye. My fingers wrapped in her dark brown curls, I looked at her shattered eye without flinching. Her pupil moved under the spiderweb of smashed glass. Dark brown pupil, barely visible under the white, except when it reached the hole in the middle of her eye.
She allowed me to stare at her. She told me I was the only one who could stare at her and make it not look like I was regarding a freak. She believed in me, but I wasn’t so sure about myself. Her cheek was lean, flat, it lacked tenderness. She smiled under my hand.
“I look like a devil,” she said. Her mouth opened to ask “Don’t I?”, but the words never appeared. She swallowed them back down.
“You don’t,” I said, using my thumb to wipe tears that weren’t there.
“That’s a shame,” she smiled more naturally now, the way we smile when we’re babies, before we know what smiling is. “I am a devil, you know. A devil craftsman.”
“No devil makes things as beautiful as you do,” I said.
She turned to the other side of the bed, throwing the blanket off her body. The little ivory locket was on the bedside table. She held it up between us. It was an old piece, from when she was an apprentice, a teenager with an unshattered eye. The locket was carved with a rough design. An elephant, surrounded by vines and flowers.
“You should put it on,” I said, looking past the locket, at her heaving chest, where I imagined the locket resting.
“It’s not for me,” she said, and put it around my neck. “It’s for you.”
I touched the locket with my fingers, but my eyes stayed mired in hers. Her smile was fading, turning into a serious face, even more serious than when she’s at work, carving away at ivory.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I have two stories,” she said. “One is for the children who ask me about it.”
I knew that story. It’s the one she told everyone: that she was cutting ivory when a piece smashed her eye. She never did tell anyone why her eye was made of glass in the first place.
“And the other?” I asked.
“The other story isn’t told with words,” she said, and took her hand off of my cheek. Without taking her eyes off of mine, she stuck her little finger into the hole in her eye. She dug in deeper, and a low wail manifested into a scream. I touched her hand, but she pushed me away, refused to take the finger out of her glass eye.
The eye popped out, finger still inside. Her eyelid closed behind it, and she let the shattered glass eye fall on the bedsheets between us. Even though I had the pattern of the shattering memorised, it looked weird outside of her eye socket.
After a while, she opened her eyelid. There was an eye inside, dark brown pupils on a clean white eyeball. She smiled again.
In a perfect world, she would have taken the week off as well. Not that he expected her to. She had explained it simply enough that morning that she was the only employee. Being both owner and operator meant that if she took a day off, she lost out on money. So, he sat quietly out of the way and watched her until she closed up for lunch and began straightening up.
“Do you like it? Running your own business that is.”
“Not a single bit,” She responded.
“Why is that?”
“Well, don’t get me wrong. There are perks to being your own boss. You of all people should understand that, but I don’t enjoy dressing the well-to-do. I think there are better things, more substantial things I could be doing with my time. Honestly, I miss working at the Kari Foundation. Zen was completely a pain in my ass, but I liked feeling useful.” Absently she added, “Part of me misses him.”
Hiko did as well, though he would never admit it. They had chosen to make Alder their home that meant pushing aside Aslann. They couldn’t have both, it wasn’t an option.
Lightly she continued, “The CIA made me go through the hoops. I had to come up with a business proposal, get a loan, just to make it look authentic. They wanted to really sell it to Jared that I was no longer working for them. It was meant to appeal to him, though he’s a farm boy through and through and the type of girl that would get his attention doesn’t exist within me. Not a single bit.”
“So, they made a mistake?”
“In the way they did things, yes. Though, I was still probably the best person to handle Jared due to our joint history. Still, I think they could have gotten a lot further had they approached you. Which, makes me rather curious why they didn’t.” Tationy shrugged her shoulders and faced him, “Do you miss the Kari Foundation?”