So I said yes, it was true. And she looked suddenly angrier.
“Why?” I said.
“Why what?” Her eyes flashed, big and wide and electric with feeling. She was wearing a leather hood, and the lights of a nearby chandelier glinted off the diamond piercing near her bottom lip. I couldn’t stop staring at her mouth. Her lips were slightly parted. Full. Soft.
I forced myself to look up. “What?”
She narrowed her eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“I thought— I’m sorry, what are we talking about?”
She turned away, but not before I saw the look of disbelief on her face. There might’ve been outrage, too. And then, lightning fast, she spun back around. “Are you just pretending to be dumb all the time? Or do you always talk like you’re drunk?”
I froze. Pain and confusion swirled in my head. Pain from the insult, and confusion from—
Yeah, I had no idea what was happening.
“What?” I said again. “I don’t talk like I’m drunk.”
“You’re looking at me like you’re drunk.”
Shit, she was pretty.
“I’m not drunk,” I said. Stupidly. And then I shook my head and remembered to be angry—she’d just insulted me, after all—and I said, “Anyway, you’re the one who came after me, remember? You started this conversation. And I don’t know why you’re so mad— Hell, I don’t even know why you care. It’s not my fault that I can be invisible. It just happened to me.”
And then she shoved her hood back from her face and her hair shook out, dark and silky and heavy, and she said something I didn’t hear because my brain was freaking out, like, should I tell her that I can see her hair? Does she know that I can see her hair? Did she mean for me to see her hair? Would she freak out, right now, if I told her that I could see her hair? But then, also, just in case I wasn’t supposed to be seeing her hair right now, I didn’t want to tell her that I could see her hair because I was afraid she’d cover it up again, and, if I was being honest, I was really enjoying the view.
She snapped her fingers in my face.
I blinked. “What?” And then, realizing I’d overused that word tonight, I added a “Hmm?”
“You’re not listening to me.”
“I can see your hair,” I said, and pointed.
She took a deep, irritated breath. She seemed impatient. “I don’t always cover my hair, you know.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said dumbly. “I did not know that.”
“I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. It’s illegal, remember?”
I frowned. “Then why have you been covering your hair? And why’d you give me such a hard time about it?”
She unhooked the hood from around her shoulders and crossed her arms. Her hair was long. Dark. Her eyes were deep. They were a light, honey color, bright against her brown skin. She was so beautiful it was scaring me.
“I know a lot of women who lost the right to dress like that under The Reestablishment. There was a huge Muslim population in Asia, did you know that?”
She doesn’t wait for me to respond.
“I had to watch, quietly, as my own father sent down the decrees to have the women stripped. Soldiers paraded them into the streets and tore the clothing from their bodies. Ripped the scarves from their heads and publicly shamed them. It was violent and inhumane, and I was forced to bear witness. I was eleven years old,” she whispered. “I hated it. I hated my father for doing it. For making me watch. So I try to honor those women, when I can. For me, it’s a symbol of resistance.”
Nazeera sighed. She looked frustrated, but then—she laughed. It wasn’t a funny laugh, it was more like a sound of disbelief, but I thought of it as progress. “I just told you something really important to me,” she said, “and all you can say is huh?”
I thought about it. And then, carefully:
And somehow, for some unknowable reason, she smiled. She rolled her eyes as she did it, but her face lit up and she looked suddenly younger—sweeter—and I couldn’t stop staring at her. I didn’t know what I’d done to earn that look on her face. I’d probably done nothing to earn it. She was probably laughing at me.
I didn’t care.
“I, uh, think that’s really cool,” I said, remembering to say something. To acknowledge the importance of what she’d shared with me.
“You think what’s cool?” She raised an eyebrow.
“You know.” I nodded in the direction of her head. “Your whole—thing. That story. You know.”
That’s when she laughed for real. Out loud. She bit her lip to cut the sound and she shook her head as she said, softly, “You’re not messing with me, are you? You’re just really bad at this.”
I blinked at her. I didn’t think I understood the question.
“You’re terrible at talking to me,” she said. “I make you nervous.”
I blanched. “I didn’t— I mean, I wouldn’t say that y—”
“I think maybe I’ve been a little hard on you,” she said, and sighed. She looked away. Bit her lip again. “I thought—that first night I met you—I thought you were trying to be an asshole. You know?” She met my eyes. “Like, I thought you were playing mind games with me. Being hot and cold on purpose. Insulting me one minute, asking me out the next.”
“What?” My eyes widened. “I’d never do that.”
“Yeah,” she said softly. “I think I’m realizing that. Most of the guys I’ve known have been manipulative, condescending jackasses—my brother included—so I guess I wasn’t expecting you to be so . . . honest.”
“Oh.” I frowned. I wasn’t sure if she meant that to be a compliment. “Thank you?”
She laughed again. “I think we should start over,” she said, and held out her hand as if to shake mine. “I’m Nazeera. It’s nice to meet you.”
Tentatively, I took her hand. Held my breath. Her skin was smooth, soft against my calloused palm. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Kenji.”
She smiled. It was a happy, genuine smile. I had a feeling that smile was going to kill me. In fact, I was pretty sure this whole situation was going to kill me.
“That’s a great name,” she said, dropping my hand. “You’re Japanese, right?”
“Do you speak?”
I shook my head.
“Yeah. It’s tough. Beautiful but tough. I studied Japanese for a few years,” she explained, “but it’s a difficult language to master. I still have only a rudimentary grasp on it. I actually lived in Japan—well, what used to be Japan—for a month. I did a pretty extensive tour of the re-mapped Asian continent, actually.”
And then I think she asked me another question, but I’d gone suddenly deaf. I’d lost my head. She was talking to me about the country my parents were born in—a place that really means something to me—and I couldn’t even concentrate. She touched her mouth a lot. Ran her finger along the edge of her bottom lip a lot. She had a habit of tapping, often, at the diamond piercing there, and I’m not sure she was even aware she was doing it. But it was almost like she was telling me—directing me—to look at her mouth. I couldn’t help it. I was thinking about kissing her. I was thinking about a lot of things. Pinning her to the wall. Undressing her slowly. Running my hands down her naked body.
And then, suddenly—
Taking a cold shower.
All at once, her smile faded. Her voice was soft, a little concerned when she said, “Hey, are you okay?”
She was too close. She was too close and my body was definitely overreacting to her and I didn’t know how to cool off. Shut down.
And then she touched my arm. She touched my arm and then seemed surprised she’d done it, just stared at her hand on my bicep and I forced myself to remain still, forced myself not to move a muscle as her fingertips grazed my skin and a wave of pleasure flooded my body so fast I felt suddenly drunk.
She dropped her hand and looked away. Looked back at me.
She looked confused.
“Shit,” I said softly. “I think I might be in love with you.”
And then, with a seismic jolt of terror, sense was knocked sideways into my head. I bolted upright in my own skin. I thought I might die. I thought I might actually die of embarrassment. I wanted to. I wanted to melt into the Earth. Evaporate. Disappear.
Jesus, I nearly did.
I couldn’t believe I’d said the words out loud. I couldn’t believe I’d been betrayed by my own goddamn mouth like that.
Nazeera stared at me, stunned and still processing, and somehow—through nothing short of a miracle—I managed to recover.
Laughed. And then I said, with perfect nonchalance, “I’m joking, obviously. I think I’m just exhausted. Anyway, good night.”
I managed to walk, not run, back to my room, and was able to hold on to what was left of my dignity. I hope.
Then again, who the hell knows.
I’m going to have to see her again, probably very soon, and I’m sure she’ll let me know if I should make plans to fly directly into the sun.