My novel characters Zouriel and Cassandra have been much neglected as of late, so I wrote this little thing to appease them. It’s actually portraying a kind of important event in the formation of their relationship. (I’m tickled that it came out in Cassandra’s POV, most of my stuff with them is Zouriel’s POV.)
The sounds of their footsteps echoed between the buildings, the harsh lights from the street lamps feeding their shadows, causing them to grow long and gaunt. Occasionally a lonely car sped past them, drowning out all other sounds. Once there was a scuffling sound and a stray cat came running out of an alleyway, darting past their feet.
Cassandra had long since given up on her high heels. They had lost their purpose the moment she had stepped out of the gallery, but that had sadly been a moment too late. The blisters on her feet meant she couldn’t wear the shoes even if she’d wanted to. Zouriel seemed okay with her using him as an occasional crutch of sorts as she limped along, feet bare against the rough pavement. Her hair had started to escape the confines of the bun she’d forced it into and in the humid air it was slowly, but surely frizzing up. She reflected that she must look a right mess.
“You sure you don’t want me to carry you or something?” he asked hesitantly and with some concern as she stumbled on a jagged piece of gravel and bit back a curse.
She smirked in response. “I think I’ll spare us both that bit of humiliation.”
Zouriel actually looked a bit relieved at that.
“You’ve helped me enough today, being my chaperone and all”, she added quickly, flashing him a quick smile.
Cassandra let her gaze wander, stray upwards, to the sky above which would have been littered with stars if they’d been out in her beloved forest. They were not though, so all she saw was the tops of the tall buildings that made up this part of town. Some of the brighter stars were visibly between the glare of the street lamps and the sliver of the new moon had appeared just above one of the taller buildings…
All things considered, blisters on her feet and limping like this seemed like a fair trade off for the evening. The dress had been a slight nuisance as well, but that had also just been a minor annoyance when she considered the events of the previous few hours.
She’d actually had her art on display in a proper gallery, with other artists whose names she knew, whose work she admired. True, she had only had a small corner, but she’d been there, rubbing shoulders with the kind of people she had only seen on the news back when she was a girl given her set of oil paints as a birthday present. Cassandra knew her mother had saved up for months for that, even cut back on some of her medication to be able to afford it. Even now, after so many years, memories of her mother still made her shiver slightly as the memories crept out from their hidden corners and crevices.
She felt a hand gently touch her shoulder.
Zouriel was unable to meet her gaze, but there was concern on his face. For a guy with an artificial eye and scar tissue obscuring much of his face he was surprisingly easy for her to read.
“You look handsome in your uniform”, she offered, gently patting the sleeve of what she knew was his dress uniform. The one he had worn when he’d been presented with his medal for valor in combat, awarded to him after he’d been the only one in his unit to survive a surprise attack. The same attack that had disfigured him and changed his life forever.
Zouriel shrugged and grunted lightly, his left hand clenching and unclenching, sending a metallic grinding sound into the air. He’d worn gloves at the gallery, but now they were off, tucked into one of his pockets.
“It itches”, he finally said and rubbed his nose thoughtfully.
Cassandra let out a chuckle. “My dress itches too.”
To demonstrate she pushed away the straps slightly to reveal the angry red welts that had formed there, after she had itched at the edges that had bit into her skin. It was a fine enough gown, but certainly not tailor made. With a limited budget she’d not been able to find a nice dress that was also comfortable to wear.
It seemed to do the trick, because she was blessed with the rare event of Zouriel smiling. The smile even reached his eye, the scar tissue crinkling up like wrinkles he was too young to possess yet.
After she’d nearly stumbled again as she had tried to avoid some broken glass (they sure didn’t have that out in the forest), she decided to abandon her last slivers of dignity and properly grab onto Zouriel for support.
“It’s not far now”, he offered sympathetically as she let out a grunt. She wondered how she’d be able to walk at all tomorrow.
“I should have brought another pair of shoes”, she offered with a sigh.
“No shit”, he said and actually had the audacity to let out a bark of a laugh.
She has to punish him by smacking him with her shoes. One of the heels must have poked him in the back for let out a yelp.
“What the hell, woman?” he cried with indignation. “Maybe I should just throw you over my shoulder and carry you the rest of the way.”
“You wouldn’t”, she said, but feeling less confident than she sounded. “…You couldn’t”
Zouriel grinned again, a wider, almost terrifying grin. She should be happy to see him express emotion like this, but right now she didn’t much like the reason why he was grinning like a loon at her.
Before she could react he had grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her into the air. Even as she began to panic she could still marvel that he was holding her so gently with his left arm, the one that was all metal and harsh edges. Up, up she went until he’d draped her over his sturdy left shoulder. It felt a little lumpy and there was something poking into her hip.
“Fine! Fine! Just let me go!” she cried, feeling more than a little ridiculous as she kicked and flailed like a little girl.
“I’m saving you the pain of walking on those feet”, Zouriel just said. She couldn’t see his face, but she could hear the amusement in his voice.
Cassandra could see his ass though and she had to admit that it was well-shaped.
“The girls must have been all over you”, she said, peering up at his face, what she could see of it. What she could see of it was slowly turning beet red.
After a long silence he grunted out a “What the hell does that mean?”
Cassandra chose her words with more care now; she supposed she could blame the glasses of free champagne she had been enjoying at the gallery.
“I was merely trying to pay you a compliment on your body’s anatomy”, she said. “And that you might have been considered a ‘catch’ by many.”
“You mean before my face almost melted off me?” Zouriel said and now the upset was oozing out of his every pore.
“Okay, I’m sorry if I poked at a sore spot. I should know better…Having my own sore spots and all.”
It took a while for her to receive any response and when it came it was in the form of him lifting her back down on the ground, on her own two feet. They still hurt.
The look on Zouriel’s face made the pain fade some though. It was like someone had taken his puppy and dashed its head against the wall while he watched. She decided she could not stand it, it was much too sad, especially considering the happier events of the evening, a high she was still riding to some extent. Before she could fully approve of her own body’s actions she had moved in closer and then she gently stroked Zouriel’s face. She let her thumb trace the welts and the scar tissue before she placed a gentle kiss on his forehead, where a broad scar ran all the way from left to right.
Zouriel flinched and pulled back violently, but he didn’t look angry or upset. If anything he just looked sadder.
He stood a bit off to the side, fidgeting and flinching.
“Look…You can’t just do that kind of stuff okay?” he finally croaked out, hugging his sides.
“I’m sorry”, she said. “I just…I didn’t mean anything special by it. You just looked too sad.”
Zouriel let out a huge sigh, like the weight of the world was resting squarely on those narrow shoulders.
“No one has kissed me in years”, he said. “Not since…That…”
He lifted his right hand and had it awkwardly trace the lines of his own scar tissue. The glow from his one eye made the shadows on his face seem deeper and his face more sunken.
“She must have been special”, she said, smiling slightly.
Zouriel looked up suddenly, almost like he’d been shot, then he leaned back against the side of the building, his right hand digging through his unruly mop of hair, far from the neat affair he’d sported when he’d taken her downtown, to the gallery opening.
“It wasn’t a she”, he finally said.
Her mouth turned into an “o” of astonishment, despite herself. Really, she had no reason to look surprised. But then she wondered if Zouriel’s response to the kiss was a reaction to something more than just the physical contact.
“Don’t worry”, she said. “I don’t have a crush on you or anything …Even though you have done so much for me and Oy.”
For the second time during their walk Zouriel looked relieved.
“I should probably find better ways to express my gratitude though, huh”, she continued as she hobbled up to Zouriel, leaning on him slightly.
“Maybe”, he said. “Though…I guess I shouldn’t be such a tight-ass about it.”
“But you don’t trust people much”, she offered. “Especially since the last one that really cared about you walked out of your life years ago.”
“He didn’t exactly walk out”, Zouriel said, drawing out every syllable as if they pained him. “He died.”
Cassandra felt ten times worse than she had before.
“It’s okay”, Zouriel added. “I should stop moping about it.”
She smacked him lightly on the arm.
“You can mope all you like!” she said. “I still mope about my mother and she’s been dead for years too!”
Zouriel smiled again, a small smile, but it was a start. Cassandra saw that as a victory and grabbed his arm again.
“Now, how about you and me get back to your place, make sure Oy is still asleep and then drown our respective sorrows until we both pass out drunk.”
“That doesn’t sound like the kind of healing the army councilor was talking about”, Zouriel said, but the smile was still there on his face.
“Come on, Zourie. Live a little…Smile!”
He snorted again, but his smile did seem to grow a little bolder.
“But if I hug you or anything, you have to promise not to freak out”, she said. “It’s okay for friends to cuddle!”
“Alright then…” he said, though there was still some uncertainty in his voice.
She led him away, hobbling as she went and above their heads the sky slowly began to lighten. It never got properly dark at night in the city, something she had never quite liked. They continued on in silence, until the familiar shape of Zouriel’s apartment building loomed up in front of them.
As he opened the door for her she risked another quick peck on his scarred cheek and this time he didn’t flinch.
“Do you do this to all your friends?” he asked, as his eyebrow rose slightly in puzzlement.
“I never had that many friends”, she said. “But yes…if I’d had any I’d cared for as much as you, then I would have kissed them on the cheek too. There’s nothing super-sexual about that.”
She limped inside, her discarded shoes slapping against her side. When he didn’t immediately follow her she had to turn around. He was still standing by the door, giving her an odd look.
“What is it?” she asked, feeling strangely self-conscious, about something she hadn’t actually felt self-conscious about before.
Zouriel just looked at her, then just shook his head and then walked inside.
“I was just thinking that I wished I’d had a friend like you growing up”, he said. “But then…I wouldn’t have done the things I did…Joined the army…Met Marcus.”
She tried for an encouraging smile as they headed towards the stairs, the elevator almost never worked.
“I guess we just have to be happy something good came out of all the bad that happened to us, right?” she said.
“Just…don’t be too clingy, alright?” he said, with an almost adorable wrinkle between his eyes (well, eye and plate where an eye used to be). “I’m not used to clingy.”
“Okay”, she said. “I’m still going to hug you though. Hugs are insanely therapeutic.”
Zouriel grinned slighly. “If you say so.”
And their footsteps echoes down the carpeted hallways along with their laughter, as the dim light from the ceiling lamps threw twisted shadows on the stained wallpaper that lined the old walls. Surprisingly no one came out to yell at them.