It’s the tail end of ‘97 and California has not been kind.
He’d hitched a ride west with Epona and what few stragglers still remained of his people in the east. She’d gotten a job running horses for some commercial farm up in Montana, and had offered honest work and honest pay to any of her kin who’d join her. He wasn’t keen on working fields but he needed an out and she was offering. They’d made it as far as Illinois before she got wise and left him drunk and snoring at a Motel America. After that, he’d hitchhiked and hotwired - he’d done most of Nebraska by foot until a trucker took pity on him and got him as far as Utah. He’d dicked around in Salt Lake City for awhile, meandered over to Las Vegas and was intent on staying until one night’s whiskey found him in California, pissing on the sign at the state line. That’d been in ‘94; the rest was history he was trying badly to forget.
He sat hunched over a bar in a part of Los Angeles he can’t remember the name of, deep into his seventh highball of Jack Daniel’s and gnawing on the end of a cigarette, still lit between his lips. It’s a slow night; with the exception of an old man nursing his slammer in the corner and the barback washing used glasses, the pub is empty. Last call had come and gone; he’s got twenty minutes before he needs to find a bed to crawl into for the night.
The bell over the door rings and someone slips inside. He feels a blast of cool air hit his neck, but the chill slips away with the next sip of whiskey. It claws its way down his throat and he relishes the burn of it settling in his gut, poisonous and familiar. He waits for the kid behind the bar to tell whatever just walked through the door that they're closed and to fuck right off, but he doesn’t and Sweeney looks up to find him staring, slack-jawed, his fingers loose on his dish towel. The old drunk in the corner has stopped sobbing into his drink long enough to stare too.
“I know it’s late,” the new arrival says, voice smooth and lightly accented. “ I’ll be quick.” The barback says nothing, just keeps staring dead-eyed and he rolls his eyes. Just like the people in this city to get their panties in a twist over a pair of tits and a skirt. He hears the bar stool next to him scrape against the floor and the warmth of another body, too close for comfort. His face sours and he takes another hard swig from his glass. He slams it back down on the wood top and speaks.
“Fuck off.” Simple, but almost always effective. The woman laughs, a soft sound that makes something within him twist for a reason he can't explain. He pushes the glass away, chalks the feeling up to whatever passes for alcohol poisoning among gods.
“Don’t be cruel, honey.”
He turns and he’s going to tell her where she can shove her laughs and her pet names and her inability to recognize when someone wants to drink alone, but the words die in his throat. Before him is a goddess.
And it isn’t the hair hanging in braids to her hips, or that she’s got legs for miles, or that she’s looking at him, calf-eyed, from underneath her lashes that makes him think that; she is a goddess and her face is shining like the moon. She pushes a few braids behind her and the dim lights overhead catch on the curve of her shoulder, make the dark of her skin practically glow. She props one elbow up onto the bar, leans her head on her fist and regards him serenely, the corners of full lips ticked up into an almost smile. He swallows and turns away, goes fishing in his wallet for some cash. “The old man send you?”
She gives a non-committal hum and inclines her head further to the right. “Not the one you’re thinking of, but this isn’t about them.”
Sweeney lets a sharp bark of laughter rip free from his throat. “Everything’s about them,” he replies, throwing a fifty down onto the bar and not bothering to wait for his change. He snatches his jacket off the back of the stool and shoves his arms through the sleeves “You don’t know that,” he spits, refusing to look at her, “You’re either stupid or fuckin’ delusional. Either way, I don’t want to be bothered with you.” He’s halfway to the door before he hears her answer back.
“What if I want to be bothered with you?” He stops, lets his head fall back and stares up at the ceiling. He shouldn’t turn around; he knows this even as he does it. She’s perched in a stool of her own now, legs crossed and sipping the remains of his whiskey. He’s heard of her, he thinks: a love goddess, turned to the streets to survive.
“I don’t need to pay for it.” He says and he’s almost ashamed of the rasp in his voice.
“I didn’t ask you to.” She replies. “I’d give you this freely.”
He doesn’t realize he’s crossed the room again, until he sees his arms on either side of her, caging her in, until he feels his fingers sticky-wet on the bartop and he’s staring down into her face like she’s got all the answers in the world held in the bow of her lips. “Why?”
She swallows the last of the whiskey and places the glass gently on the counter. When she meets his eyes this time, they seem to remember times her age doesn’t show: the time of the gods and the advent of their worship. She searches his face for something and lifts her fingers to his cheek, lets them trail softly through his beard and along his jaw. He hates himself for wanting it. “You were a king once.” She says softly enough so just the two of them hear. “I was a queen; I want to remember.”