Karou drew back. Akiva seized her hand. “What do you mean, I have more now?”
She shook her head. More marks, she’d meant. She had seen something in that spliced moment. There was the real Akiva, sitting before her, and there was a flash of the impossible, too: Akiva smiling. No grim twist of the lips but, warm with wonderment, a smile so beautiful it ached. There were crinkles at the corners of his eyes, which were merry and asquint with unselfconscious happiness. The change was profound. If he was beautiful when grave—and he was—smiling, he was nothing short of glorious.
But Karou would swear that he had not smiled.
And that impossible Akiva, who had existed for that instant—there had been something else: his hands had carried fewer marks, some of his fingers entirely bare of them.
Her hand was still in his, resting in the puddle of his spilled tea. The waitress came out from behind the counter and stood poised with a towel, uncertain. Karou extricated her hand and sat back to let her wipe up the mess, which she did, still glancing back and forth between them. When she was finished she asked, hesitantly, “I was just wondering… I was wondering how you did it.”
Karou looked at her, uncomprehending. The waitress was a girl about her own age, full-cheeked and flushed. “Last night,” she clarified. “The flying.”
Ah. The flying. “You were there?” Karou asked. It seemed a strange coincidence.
“I wish,” said the girl. “I saw it on TV. It’s been on the news all morning.”
Oh, thought Karou. Oh. Her hand went to her phone, which had been giving off snippy snorts and buzzes for the past hour or so, and she checked its screen. Missed calls and texts spooled across it, most from Zuzana and Kaz. Damn.
“Were there wires?” the waitress asked. “They couldn’t find any wires or anything.”
Karou said, “No wires. We were really flying,” then gave her trademark wry smile.
The girl beamed back, thinking she was part of a joke. “Don’t tell me, then,” she said, mock-angry, and she left them alone except to bring Akiva more tea.
He was still sitting back, regarding Karou with those lightning-strike wide eyes and that vivid, searching wariness.
“What?” she asked, self-conscious. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
He lifted his hands and raked his nails through his dense, cropped hair, holding on to his head for a beat. “I can’t help it,” he said, abashed.
Karou experienced a fizz of pleasure. She realized that over the course of the morning all the hardness had gone from his face, or nearly. His lips were softly parted, his gaze unguarded, and now that she’d seen—imagined?—that impossible flash of a smile, it wasn’t so difficult to imagine it could happen again, and for real this time.
For her, maybe.
Oh god. Be that cat! she reminded herself. The one that stayed out of reach, and never—ever—purred. Sitting back, she composed her features in what she hoped was the human version of feline disdain. She gave him the gist of what she’d learned from the waitress, though she wasn’t sure he really understood about television, let alone the Internet. Or phones, for that matter. “Can you give me a minute?” she asked him, and she dialed Zuzana, who picked up on the first ring.
Her voice exploded in Karou’s ear. “Karou?”
“Oh my god! Are you all right? I saw you on the news. I saw him. I saw… Holy Jesus, Karou, do you realize that you were flying?”
“I know. Isn’t it awesome?”
“It is not awesome! Un-awesome! I thought you were dead somewhere.” She was on the edge of hysteria, and it took Karou a few minutes to calm her, all the while mindful of Akiva’s eyes on her, and trying to keep her feline cool.
“You’re really okay?” Zuzana asked. “He doesn’t have, like, a knife to your throat, forcing you to say you are?”
“He doesn’t even speak Czech,” Karou assured her, then gave her a quick rundown of the previous night, letting her know he hadn’t tried to hurt her—had gone to extremes of passiveness to not hurt her—and finishing with, “We, um, watched the sun rise from the top of the cathedral.”
“The hell? Was it a date?”
“No, it wasn’t a date. Honestly, I don’t know what it was. Is. I don’t know what he’s doing here….” Her voice faltered as she looked at him. It wasn’t just the smile, or the marks on his hands. She knew, somehow, that his right shoulder was a mass of scar tissue. He favored it; she’d seen that. That must be how she knew. Why, then, did she know what the scars looked like?
“Karou? Hello? Karou?”
Karou blinked and cleared her throat. It had happened again: her own name, floating right past, unconnected to herself. She sensed from Zuzana’s agitation that she had been missing in action for a few beats past any acceptable span of zoning out. “I’m here,” she said.
“Where? I keep asking you. Where are you?”
Karou had momentarily forgotten. “Um. Oh. The teahouse on Nerudova.”
“Sit. Stay. I’m coming there.”
“No, you’re not—”
“Yes, I am.”
“Karou. Don’t make me hurt you with my tiny fists.”
“Fine,” Karou relented. “Come on, then.”
Zuzana boarded with a widow aunt in Hradcˇany, not far away. “I’ll be there in ten,” she said.
Karou couldn’t resist telling her, “It’s faster if you fly.”
“Freak. Don’t you dare leave. And don’t let him leave, either. I have threats to deliver. Judgments to pass.”
“I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” said Karou, and she looked straight at Akiva as she said it, and he looked back, molten, and she knew it was true, but she didn’t know why.
He wasn’t human. He wasn’t even from her world. He was a soldier with scores of kills on his hands, and he was the enemy of her family. And yet, something tied them together, stronger than any of that, something with the power to conduct her blood and breath like a symphony, so that anything she did to fight against it felt like discord, like disharmony with her self.
As far back as she could remember, a phantom life had mocked her with its impenetrable “something else,” but now it was the opposite. Here, in the circle of Akiva’s presence, even as they spoke of war and siege and enduring enmity, she felt herself being drawn into the warm absoluteness and rightness of him, like he was both place and person and, contrary to all reason, exactly where she was supposed to be.
“My tiny scary friend is coming here,” Karou told Akiva, drumming her fingers on the table.
“The one from the bridge.”
Karou recalled that he had been following her yesterday, and would have seen Zuzana perform. She nodded. “She knows about your world, a little. And she knows you tried to kill me, so…”
“Should I be afraid?” Akiva asked, and for a second Karou thought he was serious. He always looked so serious, but it was another hint of dry humor, like atop the cathedral when he had surprised her with his joke about pushing off bad dates.
“Terribly afraid,” she replied. “All cower before her. You’ll see.”
Her mug was empty, but she kept her palms on it, less now for fear of flashing magic at Akiva than to keep her hands from making any more unsanctioned sallies across the table to touch his. She should have been repelled by his hands with their death count, and she was, but not only. Side by side with the horror was… the pull.
She knew he felt it, too, that his hands were fighting their own battle not to reach for hers. He kept looking at her, and she kept blushing, and their conversation stuttered along until the door opened and Zuzana stomped in.
She came straight to the table and stood facing Akiva. She was fierce, ready to scold, but when she saw him, really saw him, she faltered. Her expression warred with itself—ferocity with awe—and awe won out. She cast a sidelong glance at Karou and said, in helpless amazement, “Oh, hell. Must. Mate. Immediately.”
It was so unexpected, and Karou was already so on edge, that laughter burst from her. She sank back in her chair and let it pour out: soft, glittering laughter that worked another change in Akiva’s countenance as he watched her with a hopeful, piercing scrutiny that made her tingle, she felt so… seen.
“No, really,” said Zuzana. “Right now. It’s, like, a biological imperative, right, to get the best genetic material? And this”—she made spokesmodel hands at Akiva—“is the best genetic material I have ever seen.” She pulled up a chair beside Karou, so the two of them were like a gallery observing the seraph. “Fiala would so eat her words. You should bring him in to model on Monday.”
“Right,” said Karou. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind stripping for a bunch of humans—”
“Disrobing,” said Zuzana, prim. “For art.”
“Are you going to introduce us?” Akiva asked. The chimaera tongue, which they had been using all along, now sounded out of place, like a rough echo from another world.
Karou nodded, fanning away laughter. “I’m sorry,” she said, and made a cursory introduction. “Of course, I’ll have to translate if you want to say anything to each other.”
“Ask him if he’s in love with you,” said Zuzana at once.
Karou almost choked. She turned her whole body in her chair to face Zuzana, who held up a hand before she could protest. “I know, I know. You’re not going to ask him that. And you don’t even need to. He so is. Look at him! I’m afraid he’s going to set you on fire with his crazy orange eyes.”
It did feel like that, Karou had to admit. But love? That was preposterous. She said so.
“You want to know what’s preposterous?” said Zuzana, still studying Akiva, who looked bemused by her appraisal. “That widow’s peak is preposterous. God. It really makes you feel the sad dearth of widow’s peaks in daily life. We could, like, use him as breeding stock to seed widow’s peaks into the populace.”
“My god. What’s with all the mating and seed talk?”
“I’m just saying,” Zuzana said reasonably. “I’m crazy about Mik, okay, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my part for the proliferation of widow’s peaks. As a favor to the gene pool. You would, too, right? Or maybe…” She shot Karou a sidelong glance. “You already have?”
“What?” Karou was aghast. “No! What do you think I am?”
She was certain Akiva couldn’t understand, but there was an amused quirk to his mouth. He asked what Zuzana had said, and Karou felt her face flame crimson.
“Nothing,” she told him in Chimaera. In Czech she added, sternly, “She. Did not say. Anything.”
“Yes, I did,” piped Zuzana, and like a child who has gotten a reaction for naughty antics, she merrily repeated, “Mating! Seed!”
“Zuze, stop, please,” begged Karou, helpless and so very glad the two had no common language.
“Fine,” said her friend. “I can be polite. Observe.” She addressed Akiva directly. “Welcome to our world,” she said with exaggerated gestures. “I hope that you are enjoying your visit.”
Chewing on a smile, Karou translated.
Akiva nodded. “Thank you.” To Karou, “Would you tell her, please, that her performance was beautiful?”
Karou did. “I know,” agreed Zuzana. It was her standard acceptance of a compliment, but Karou could tell she was pleased. “It was Karou’s idea.”
Karou didn’t convey that. She said instead, “She’s an amazing artist.”
“So are you,” Akiva replied, and it was Karou’s turn to be pleased.
She told him they went to a school for the arts, and he said they had nothing like that in his world; only apprenticeships. She told him that Zuzana was kind of like an apprentice, that she came from a family of artisans, and she wondered if he was from a family of soldiers. “In a manner of speaking,” he replied. His siblings were soldiers, and so had his father been in his day. He said the word father with an edge, and Karou sensed animosity and didn’t press, and talk shifted back to art. The conversation, filtered through Karou—and Zuzana, even on her best behavior, required a high degree of filtering—was surprisingly easy. Too easy, she thought.
Why was it so easy for her to laugh with this seraph, and keep forgetting the image of the fiery portal, and Kishmish’s little raw body as his heartbeat went wild and then failed? She had to keep reminding herself, chastening herself, and even so, when she looked at Akiva, it all wanted to slip away—all her caution and self-control.
After a moment, he remarked, nodding toward Zuzana, “She’s not actually very scary. You had me worried.”
“Well, you disarm her. You have that effect.”
“I do? It didn’t seem to work on you, yesterday.”
“I had more reason to fight it,” she said. “I have to keep reminding myself we’re enemies.”
It was as if a shadow fell over them. Akiva’s expression turned remote again, and he put his hands under the table, removing his tattoos from her sight.
“What did you just say to him?” Zuzana asked.
“I reminded him that we’re enemies.”
“Tch. Whatever you are, Karou, you are not enemies.”