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"Syrenne, did you know that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever met? Have I ever told you that?"

He says this every other night. Drunk or not, and usually it's not because that's Syrenne's job, but. No, he's never said it to her before. Never dared. At least, that's how Syrenne likes to think about it. That he's too afraid of himself to do it. Not that he's too afraid of her. And in vino veritas, and all that other crap he likes to say. Yeah, it's on him, and definitely not on her.

It sounds so sappy. Like what you'd say to your wife when you were on the sauce, not your...your mercenary partner? Ugh, they were partners. Partners in crime, only they tried not to do crimes. Not that that stopped people from thinking that they did 'em.

"No, Lowell," Syrenne sighs, "no you haven't. And you'd better not do it again, if you know what's good for you."

Her voice is slightly slurred, she's saucy herself, only she's always saucy. Sassy. Sassy-ass lady merc who'll slice you up ribbons both ways to Sunday if you say the wrong thing once. So why hasn't she done it to him yet? Once is once. Once is enough.

Oh, Syrenne. Syrenne, Syrenne, Syrenne. Her drunkenness talks to her, talks at her, talks around her. You want him to say it again, don't you? You let him keep smarming around, only not when it comes to you, not really, because you want him to say it. You like when he says it. You wish he'd say it more.

No I don't. I hate 'im. Hate his guts. Hate his slippery little cold-fish guts. His hands are probably cold because of his stupid ice. Magic. Mages. Who needs magic tricks when you've got a sword? Two of 'em, in fact.

Two of 'em. Two hands. You were thinking about holding his hands. Poor little Syrenne. Poor little repressed Syrenne.

Oh, sorry, did I make you angry? You'd prefer traumatized to repressed? What's the difference? Is it, by any chance, making a choice?

Are you afraid to make a choice, Syrenne?

Lowell lolls his head up at her, and then around down another half-angle, and the scar stretches back and forth; his scarf's fallen away and so have the boundaries. Poetic, that. Why is there poetry in Ariela's tavern? Bullshit.

"Oh, I know what's good for me alright. You're good for me. You're the best for me. Syrenne," he labours on and on about it, "I truly couldn't imagine myself with any other girl. Do you know that?"

He always ends his diatribes in questions. If Syrenne were much for lawn games she'd have muttered a mental metaphor about balls in courts and corns in holes. But she isn't, so she doesn't. No metaphor necessary. He's an idiot.

"Come on, Lowell," Syrenne starts, and there's a pleading in her voice that she really fucking hates, "just drop it, will ya? I'm not in the mood."

I'm never in the mood. You're always in the mood. Who's talking? You again? Me again? Her? I hate her. She's annoying.

Lowell's annoying. And Lowell's also incredibly cute with his jaw a little slack, all helpless-like, all bravadoed out. She can handle him like this. Can maybe even like him like this. Want him. Adore him. Want to feel what it's like to be cuddled up to his chest.

It's probably a hundred other women who've done it, and Syrenne wants to flatter herself the only one who's ever gotten this close from this direction, but she knows she isn't. She knows, of course, that if she isn't now she never will be later. A shame, that.

Wait, are you thinking of taking advantage of him? Oh, Syrenne, tsk tsk. You know you'd absolutely abhor it if a man did that to you. So why is this different? Is it? Ask me again what's the difference, won't you?

The difference is I love him. The difference is he loves me. Maybe. No. Damn it, brain, it's different, alright? It's different.

Lowell's different. The beloved, behated, beneutralized exception. Yeah, maybe I can be neutral about him. Been with him long enough. Been...with him. Damn.

"Do you really mean that, Lowell?" And if she takes advantage of him he'd really be taking advantage of her right back. She's almost doing it to herself, even.

Not that I'm, like, advocating for crap like that. I never will. Man, I sound awfully defensive, don't I, and it's only myself I'm talking to.


Lowell's looking at her with his leer quite lopsided - not lopsided in cryptic maraud but in feeble fawning. He heard her. She's talking out loud. How long have I been talking out loud?

Syrenne waits, expectant, for him to answer the question, until she realizes her mind's spinning itself in circles and didn't explicate the clarifying wonderment. Not in any useful way.

"Do you hear me?" Because somehow she doubts even that, even at this point.

"I heard you," Lowell answers, confirming the past tension of it all. Syrenne doesn't ask how much.

"Are you...lonely? When you go out with all those girls, I mean," she hastily amends to make it clear that she doesn't care, in general. Only wants to specify how exactly pathetic he is.

Lowell grins, a little more shored-up. "With every girl I've ever met." So that includes her. Huh. Oh, wait...

"Are you pulling some joke about how I'm not a woman, or something? You didn't say every other, you just said every. What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means," Lowell starts, and oh, Syrenne can see he's brewing himself in something awful, "that I don't feel like I've met you yet. Because you haven't let me."

"Tch." Syrenne takes another pull from her tankard. "You gotta shag a girl to meet her up proper? You stink."

Lowell, the idiot, sniffs his armpit to find out. Not like he has to lift his arm very far, he doesn't wear any sleeves. "I don't think I do."

And neither do I, Syrenne half thinks, half projects out into the ethos mythos ether mist of whatever the fuck this conversation is.

"Are you cold?" It's Lowell asking. Not a completely stupid question, since she doesn't wear any sleeves either, most of the time. She had when they'd gone into the palace, to cover her tattoos, because the snippering ladies at the front gate had all given her glares.

She'd even heard one murmur, "Oh, such a shame, she really is adorable, except for all that...what she did to herself." So Syrenne doesn't like being ogled by women either.

At least they respected her autonomy enough to say that she'd "done it to herself"? Nah. That was only because they didn't think she was a woman either.

"Yeah. I am."

The tavern is still buzzing with patrons because after it all it's not that late yet, and Mirania is still tittering something insightful to a rare amenable Yurick at the next table over, and Calista is engaging Dagran in some equally scintillating conversation, and Zael is watching her with more cowed than doeish eyes.

Are you cold? Are you lonely? It's the same thing. And one question can have one answer, sometimes.

Syrenne takes Lowell's drink and pours the rest into her own, the most definitive way she knows, and he knows, to signify that she's not drinking anymore. She's not a saliva-swapper, serial or otherwise.

He stands, stumbles, and she doesn't put out her hand to catch him, but then when she gets up, his arm is offering, crooked at the elbow in such a way that the sweat from the tinny not-at-all-recessed lights only makes his muscles seem toned, respectful, right. Syrenne swats him away, but it's with a soft smile, not a jerk.

They've got two rooms upstairs, one for the boys and one for the girls, and as much as the "you're not a woman" still nags and nags and nags Syrenne knows it's safer, more appropriate, for him to take her into the guys room than the other way around. Not like Zael and Yurick and Dagran are any less well-mannered than Lowell is. So that's fine.

He doesn't make any comment about why he's taking his vest off, and the waist bracer underneath it, but he also doesn't make any comment about her joining him, reciprocating. Syrenne, unfortunately, wants him to. Wants there to be some volume to this. It's too damned quiet.

"I didn't..." Didn't what? Not like I needed you to ask me that, so thanks ever so much.

"It's not like I'm afraid, the rest of the time." Yes it is. "Or, what I mean, is..."

"Syrenne." They didn't turn on the lamp, so it's only clamoring half-light from the street below that illuminates the space. Their space. The space between them.

Anyway, she can't see his chest, and she's decidedly glad of it. That'd be too embarrassing.

"I think I know what you mean." Well of course you do, you think you know everything.

"It's not safe, what we're doing."

"But you love danger."

Damn it. He saw right through her. She'd been talking about the journey, the campaign against the Gurak, even the petty little missions to cull the Reptids. Except she also hadn't.

"I love danger," she says, snaps. "But I don't love you."

He's probably said it before. "Danger is my middle name." His middle name's...nah. She doesn't know it. It'd be funny if she did, though.

Lowell winces like he's hurt, truly hurt, and not just in the way that he'd say just that.

("I'm hurt, Syrenne, you know. Truly hurt! You've wounded my fragile heart." And a clutch-up and all.)

"I suppose I can live with that."

"I suppose you'll have to."

In the pitifully ratty little bed, underneath Lowell with his arms caressing her back and the hair on his chest tickling the absence of it on hers, Syrenne, as ever, doubts her own sincerity. She doesn't want to be his exception in somehow the same way as he tries so hard to be, even seems to cherish the idea of being, hers.

Being hers.

Lowell's not the most handsome man she's ever seen. Oh...but thinking back, he'd said "ever met" in the beginning. Not "ever seen" but "ever met"; he's lying. He thinks he has met her. He thinks he does know her.

And damn it, he's right. Your partner, and all.

No, she doesn't whisper that crucial confession into the dip of his collarbones or any other such nonsense. But when he hums a tune that the traveling bards play, the same one they always played at the pub in that first town where she'd joined up with their group, his group, she shudders into him, and he pulls her closer.

She doesn't want him to say it to her every night, or do the humming, or whichever. But she wants him to think it. Both. And it's not her most trumped-up false-swaggered confidence that lets her know that he will.

(And maybe he is, after all. Huh.)