“You’re perfect,” the girl purred in accented English, leaning towards me across the bar. I stared back at her, bewildered. This close, her eyes were a strange swirl of blue and pink, more disturbing than her mane of wild and shockingly white hair. The eyes and hair, together with her pale skin, marked her out as an albino. The contrast with her navy and crimson-cuffed coat exaggerated her coloration beyond all reason, but didn’t hide the sharp features of her face. She had an elfin, pointed chin, cheekbones that you could cut yourself on and eyes the size of saucers; I was instantly as jealous as I was confused.
“Excuse me?” I managed to sputter, “Did you want to order something?” She ignored me, spinning on her barstool.
“Gilbert! Get over here!” she shouted, waving her hand impatiently. I scanned the room, trying to find who she was waving to, and spotted him instantly. To be fair, he was hard to miss because he had the exact same color hair, and when he approached, his features were too similar to hers for them to be anything but siblings.
“Julchen?” he asked, and my stomach went through the floor. I’d never heard a voice like that in all twenty-some years I’d been alive. Smooth and deep with careless intonation and the same accent as his sister’s, I snapped my mouth shut and grabbed a pint glass and polished it with a towel before turning away to put the glass up.
“Hey, don’t just walk away,” the girl snapped irritably. I spun to glare at her.
“Did you miss the fact that I work here? I have a job to do,” I snapped back. I risked a glance at her brother and was unnerved to see the intrigued look on his face.
“I see why you called me over,” he said with a haphazard grin, red eyes seeming to glow in the dim lighting. I eyed him suspiciously.
“Did you want to order something?” I asked brusquely, using the same question I’d asked his sister. Amusement set sparks dancing in both their eyes and I suppressed a groan. I was flustered, they were doing this on purpose, and it was working. I could see the reason for their amusement, but wasn’t particularly pleased that I was the target. They had a short exchange in German and I bit my lip, letting it go immediately when his eyes flashed to my mouth.
“Ja,” he said, “Two ales, fraulein.” He held up two fingers to be sure that I was clear on this. Obligingly, I filled two clean glasses and set them on the bar. He seized the moment and his fingers locked around my wrist. I pulled, but couldn’t twist because I would spill the drinks, so I was caught. He leaned into me, and I gritted my teeth and pulled harder, leaning away from him.
“Very pretty,” he murmured, barely audible over the music, and then he let go with a snicker. I stumbled backward, the sharp edge of the counter behind me cutting into my back and I flinched away from the pain, nearly falling over in the process. I rubbed the sore spot with one hand and scowled at the siblings.
And that was how we met.
I jerked my head off my book, utterly dismayed to realize that I’d fallen asleep and drooled on the pages. Horrified, I grabbed my sweater from the arm of the couch (getting up was out of the question, Gilbert had his arms around my waist and was snoring in my ear) and blotted at the page, biting my lip and praying that the damage wasn’t overly catastrophic. I tried lifting the page to check, but it tore in my grasp, wet and stuck to the page beneath it.
“No, no, no,” I chanted under my breath, gritting my teeth as I worked a nail between the two pages only to see it tear again under the slightest pressure. Oh, you had to be kidding me. I’d really drooled this much?
“What’s wrong?” Gilbert grumbled, shifting and shoving me over the edge of the couch. I fell with a yelp of alarm and then he was peering over the seat cushion’s edge with wide eyes.
“Are you alright?” he asked, first in German, and then with a shake of his head, in English.
“I’m fine,” I muttered, “But my book’s not.” I punctuated this statement by holding up my now drooled-on and crumpled paperback. I’d fallen on it, crunching the back half of the book, including the back cover. But Gilbert only spared the barest glance at my book, instead focusing on my pouting – now sheepish – face. He shook his head again, a smirk on his face.
“I don’t think the printed word is a very good addition to your makeup, fraulein,” he said, laughter edging in toward the end of his sentence.
“What?” I demanded, jumping up and bolting for the bathroom. I saw it immediately, the short excerpt on my cheek.
“Ugh!” I grumbled, exasperated. My mind supplied me with the phrase, ‘things come in threes.’ First, I’d drooled on my book, second, I’d fallen off the couch, third, the ink from my book had imprinted on my cheek. I ran the water in the sink, pumping a bit of soap into my hands and scrubbing at the ink with my nails. Thankfully, it came off fairly quickly, but it left my cheek red and raw. I rubbed it gently and it stung.
“Do you have any milk?” I asked, raising my voice so that it would carry to the living room.
“Ja,” was the brief reply. I left the bathroom and went to the kitchen, tipping a little milk into a saucer before dipping a paper towel into it. I applied the cool, soothing milk to my red cheek and held it there, sighing. Hands settled gently at my waist and hot breath blew across the back of my neck. I shivered. He’d probably done it on purpose.
“Milk?” he asked, tapping the wet paper towel between my fingers.
“Yes,” I said absently, savoring the tingle running down my spine. He took hold of my chin with long fingers, turning my head and casually licked a trickle of milk from my jawline. I felt my eyes go wide and shoved him away with one hand, wiping my cheek with one palm.
“Gilbert-” He cut off my indignant exclamation by invading my space and pressing me back against the counter. I leaned away from him and wondered why he had a thing for pinning me against counters.
“Yes, fraulein?” he fairly purred and I put both hands against his chest and shoved. He rocked back on his heels and I slid out of the tiny space, stooping to grab the milk-soaked paper towel I’d dropped.
“You made me drop it,” I grumbled, dropping it onto the table and getting a fresh one. I dabbed up the rest of the milk with this one and pressed it to my cheek, turning to scowl at him. He leaned against the counter with the sigh of the put-upon, rolling his head to his shoulder and regarding me inscrutably from the corner of his eye.
“Does that even work?” he asked, boredom infusing his tone.
“Yes,” I replied tartly.
“That just makes me want to lick you again,” he said, his eyes glinting as he rolled his head to his other shoulder. I made a face at him to indicate my opinion of the idea.
“It doesn’t necessarily need to be your cheek,” he hinted, the corners of his lips turning up. My mouth dropped open, but I snapped it shut immediately, heat blooming in my face. His Cheshire cat expression melted into one of surprise, and then into one of triumph.
“So you can blush!” he crowed. My ears felt as if they were on fire.
I refused to speak to him for the rest of the day.
“Ein, zwei, drei,” Gilbert murmured, his pen never stopping its movement. It was his favorite game for some reason, but I didn’t mind playing along.
“Uno, dos, tres,” I replied, tapping my pencil against my sketchpad.
“Un, deux, trois,” he said, looking up from his account book with a smile.
“Hana, dhul, seht.” I answered, setting down my pencil and leaning my elbows on the table.
“Ichi, ni, san,” he said, his smile turning into a smirk as he realized that I’d exhausted my meager list of foreign languages.
“One, two, three,” I mumbled sheepishly, picking my pencil back up and doodling on the paper. I really needed to learn how to count to three in a few more languages. Maybe I could learn Arabic and Chinese. His last one had definitely been an Asian language.
“Done already?” he asked lightly.
“What was that last one?” I asked instead, inscribing a column of alchemical and astrological symbols down the side of the pad. Aries, mercury, gold, silver, salt, sulfur, air, earth, fire, water, and arsenic all ran down the edge. I connected them with flowing lines that turned the symbols into something part graceful curves and part sharp angles, similar to Celtic knotwork.
“Japanese,” he said breezily, going back to balancing his account book, “I learned when my little brother started having dealings with Kiku Honda.” I started tapping my pencil again.
“Ludwig has some interesting friends,” I muttered. I’d met Kiku and Feliciano, the two friends Ludwig was most frequently with, once, and had come away with an impression of barely-balanced chaos.
“Truer words were never spoken,” Gilbert said under his breath. I laughed at his exasperated expression, folding my arms and supporting my chin on my hand, regarding him thoughtfully.
“I bet you speak Italian too,” I commented. Gilbert lifted one white eyebrow.
“Naturalmente, parlo molto bene l’italiano,” he answered casually. I narrowed my eyes, trying to sort through what he’d said.
“Naturalmente, meaning ‘naturally’?” I mused out loud, “And bene, meaning ‘good’. And italiano is Italian.”
“Close,” he said, his pen scratching at the book, “What I said was, ‘Of course, I speak Italian very well.’” I smiled, pleased that I’d been able to get the gist of what he’d said.
“You make me feel so smart!” I said teasingly. The corners of his eyes creased with his affectionate smile.
“You are rather brilliant, fraulein,” he said with a chuckle that didn’t detract from the honesty in his voice.
“And you are rather awesome,” I replied with a bashful smile.
The compliment had him glowing for hours.
It was unusual for me to recognize anyone at the bar. People came and went, men and women, boys and girls, sober, intoxicated, and drunk; I’d seen it all and very little made any impression on me. But if anyone had made an impression on me, it was the albino girl and her stunning brother, and here he was, alone, smirking at me over the bar.
“Hello again,” I said warily, staying on my side of the bar, “Would you like to order something?”
“I don’t think what I want is on the menu, fraulein,” he said, flashing a wicked smile.
“Is there something on the menu that you do want?” I asked, disgruntled. His smile morphed into a pout that put puppies to shame before he pursed his lips and considered.
“What would you normally order?” he asked seriously. If he was trying to pick me up, this was a new tactic, asking what I would usually drink. It was as if he were interested in knowing more about me, but then again, wasn’t buying a girl a drink a standard pick-up technique? I tried to analyze it as I poured a shot and a half of American whiskey into the bottom of a glass and filled it with the rest of the way with ice and cola. I slid it to him from in front of the soda fountain, not wanting to get too close and repeat the wrist-grabbing incident from out last encounter. He stared down at it.
“You don’t drink beer, fraulein?” he inquired, genuine confusion in his expression. I took another order, starting the glasses under the requested taps and filling them, watching the foam levels with a critical eye.
“Not usually,” I answered, “I’m not such fan of beer.” I tilted the glasses so that the foam ran out and set them on the bar where they were immediately snatched up. The albino (I was still wracking my brain for his name) sipped at the jack-and-coke.
“So you drink whiskey, like the Irish?” he asked. I snorted.
“I like whiskey, and my grandfather was part Irish,” I said off-handedly, “But that’s American-brewed whiskey anyway, not Irish.”
“What else do you drink?” he pressed. I shrugged.
“Depends. Sometimes blended drinks. Sometimes wines. Sometimes martinis,” I said, starting a margarita on the rocks and layering several shots for a bachelor’s party. “I don’t discriminate.”
“Clearly,” he said dryly, his expression mildly sarcastic. It was my turn to smirk.
“I’m all for broadening my horizons,” I said impishly with a mischievous half-smile. His eyes lit up like embers and I felt my expression dampen as I realized that he thought I was flirting with him. I tried to figure out how to backtrack, groaning inwardly that I’d landed myself in this kind of situation again. Believe me, flirting the way you breathe is the most inconvenient talent in the world.
“Broadening your horizons, fraulein?” he repeated spritely, “And exactly what horizons are you trying to broaden?” My brain went into overdrive as I tried to find an answer that would undo what I had done purely by accident.
“I-I just meant that I liked new experiences,” I qualified unnecessarily. Damn, I’d stuttered, and then I realized that in my floundering I’d made it that much worse, given him an opening to inquire about.
“Such as?” he asked, his expression turning wicked again, but something foreign glinting in his eyes. I couldn’t identify the other emotion there, but my brain supplied an acceptable answer.
“Like food!” I said much more loudly than was necessary, “I love trying new cuisines.” I saw him having to retreat a little, having expected me to be too flustered to answer the question. Satisfaction thrummed through me.
“Have you tried German food?” he asked. My answering smile was practically gloating.
“Yes,” I practically sang, “It’s been several years, but I very fondly remember it.” This answer did not satisfy him, so he took a different tack.
“Have you tried homecooked German food?” he insisted. I could feel myself losing ground.
“Well, no,” I grudgingly admitted, seeing exactly where he was going with this. His face brightened.
“You should have dinner with me tomorrow, I’ll make you the best German food you’ll ever have,” he said triumphantly. I bit my lip anxiously. I never dated anyone I met at the bar, but the idea of lying to this guy and saying I had plans tomorrow wasn’t an option that I liked. I realized belatedly that it was because I wanted to see him again. I tried to remind myself that looks weren’t everything; just because he was handsome (okay, drop-dead gorgeous, if unusual) didn’t mean that I should just go home with him.
“You’ll be perfectly safe,” he said suddenly, very seriously, “I promise.” His expression was solemn now, but I was struck more by the raw honesty in his eyes, the clear-cut and noble lines of his natural expression. This grave look suited him in a way that no other expression had. Captivated by the utter beauty of him like this, I drifted closer, leaning against the bar toward him.
“Okay,” I whispered.
That dinner ended up being our first date, though it turned out that Ludwig was the one who knew how to cook.
“Do you know how to dance?” I murmured absently, flipping the channel back to the animated movie and watching the main characters learning how to waltz.
“Dance what, fraulein?” Gilbert asked without opening his eyes, his head in my lap while I gently scratched his scalp.
“The waltz,” I said in reply, “But how many do you know?” He counted on his fingers, eyes still closed.
“The waltz. The tango. Meringue. The polka. I’m also vaguely familiar with swing, square, and flamenco.”
“Is there anything you can’t do?” I asked with a laugh.
“It’s a prerequisite to being awesome,” he answered, finally opening his eyes. “Why do you ask, fraulein?” I glanced at the television, where the characters were still dancing before the scene cut away into the next, and his eyes followed mine.
“Would you like to learn?” he asked, sitting up abruptly and swinging his legs over the edge of the couch to stand up.
“What?” I sputtered, caught off-guard, “I mean, that’d be nice, but you don’t have to teach me. It was just something I always thought I’d like to learn.”
“Nonsense,” Gilbert said, fishing in his pocket for his iPod and then padding over to the speakers to set it up. “It’s very easy to learn, and no time like the present, right?” He started his classical playlist and came back to me, pausing a foot or so away and bowing from the waist, one hand palm up towards me. The gesture was absurdly formal considering he was a wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
“Would you care to dance, fraulein?” he asked, offering me his Cheshire cat smile. I ran through my options for a breath: I could say no and he’d likely insist on teaching me, or I could say yes and learn something I’d always wanted to learn. There was no contest there, really, and I took his hand with a timid smile. He pulled me to my feet and into the center of the living room. He took my left hand in his right raising them to shoulder height, and wrapped his left arm around my waist, pulling me close enough to feel his breath on my cheek. I focused my eyes resolutely on a tiny hole in the collar of his t-shirt, mildly uncomfortable being so close. We’d only kissed so far, but this position pressed my chest against his.
“Shoulders back, fraulein,” he murmured, “And I’ll lead.” He moved very slowly at first, guiding my steps while we twirled slowly about the room, and he paused to show me how to change step in order to whirl about the other way. After he was sure I (mostly) had the steps down, he pushed me to go faster. One song ended and another one came on and his smile broadened.
“Are you ready to try it?” he asked eagerly, I hesitated, and he decided for me, “You know the steps, let’s go ahead and do it!” Suddenly, we were whirling about the room, despite my occasional stumbling. Gilbert seemed to have a knack for pulling me in the opposite direction just when I was losing my balance, ensuring that no stumble effectively interrupted our little dance, though his steps stuttered in response to my clumsiness. I’d never been so thankful for the ending of a song when we finally stopped.
“She might be a good dancer if she took lessons,” Ludwig said from behind us. I started and tried to back away from Gilbert, but he used my momentum to spin me around and pin me to his side. Ludwig leaned against corner nearest the door, shirt collar jutting out over his collarbone.
“I know,” Gilbert said proudly, “She picked it up very quickly.”
“Ah, well, I do have a sense of rhythm you know,” I defended myself, “I’ve been playing the piano since I was five.”
“That certainly helps,” Gilbert said, snickering as he confided in me, “Because Luddy there certainly didn’t when he started learning.” Ludwig flushed a pale pink and mumbled something indeterminate before heading toward the kitchen. Gilbert laughed out loud, squeezing me tighter still against his hip.
“You have sharp bones,” I grumbled, “Let go!” Gilbert pulled me around to face him, locking his hands low behind my back.
“You don’t want me to hold you, fraulein?” he asked, too-bright eyes searching my face. His eyebrows were lifted, his grin playful, but there was a pulling at the corners of his mouth that suggested hurt. Chastised, I dropped my eyes.
“Of course I do, but your hip bone is sharp,” I mumbled, leaning into him and resting my chin on his shoulder, “And it hurt.” He kissed my temple softly in response, forgiving me easily.
“Ich liebe dich, fraulein,” he murmured in my ear, running his nose along the curving upper edge.
“Huh?” I managed to say. I understood ‘fraulein’, but what was ‘Ich liebe dich’? I heard him chuckle.
“I’ll have to seriously teach you to speak German,” he said warmly, “I love you.” Those three words felt like a bomb, the impact on my psyche so much that for a moment I doubted him, and I pulled back to look at his face and gauge his sincerity for myself. The warmth in his voice had suffused his expression, mixed with an authenticity, a genuineness that would not be denied. I felt my own face soften with an amalgam of softness and wonder.
“I love you too,” I said quietly, “How do I say it in German?” His eyes crinkled with pleasure.
“Ich liebe dich auch,” he said promptly, “Try it.”
“Ich liebe dich auch,” I tried, the syllables slightly awkward on my tongue and lips, but then his mouth was on mine and I closed my eyes to dissolve in his kiss.
It was the first time he’d said it.
I felt the bed shift, heard Gilbert rise and open a drawer and the rustle of cloth over skin. I heard the door latch click open, and then Gilbert padded down the short hallway to the kitchen.
“Guten morgen,” Ludwig’s voice floated to my ears, even as I burrowed into Gilbert’s sheets and pillow, inhaling deeply and settling. Why did he sound so disapproving?
“Guten morgen,” Gilbert said back. There was a series of clinking noises, then the sound of liquid being poured from one container to another. Coffee, I thought sleepily, they’re having coffee.
“Her car is still outside,” Ludwig said clearly, and I could almost visualize his arms being crossed over his chest. I woke up a bit as I wondered if he disapproved of me.
“Yeah?” Gilbert asked nonchalantly, but there was a hard edge to his voice, a challenge.
“You slept with her, didn’t you?” Ludwig sounded accusing. Now I was fully awake, fear rising inimitably in me and I pushed myself up on my elbows, and from there into a sitting position, gathering the sheet to myself as I listened.
“And if I did?” Gilbert growled, his voice going territorial, “She’s mine.” Well, that was reassuring, but why did Ludwig not like me?
“Don’t do this to her. Don’t play her like that. She’s much too good for you,” Ludwig said very seriously. I raked my fingers through my mussed hair, thoroughly surprised and wondering where this conversation was going. My hearing had always been acute, and at times like these, I’d never been sure whether it was a blessing or a curse. Besides, I couldn’t agree with Ludwig anyway, whatever his reasons for saying that were.
“I know that,” Gilbert replied, sounding calmer, “You think I don’t? I wouldn’t have waited this long if she’d just been some girl from the bar.” There was an itch in my brain to argue with them both on the point, but I was more interested in hearing where they were going with it.
“It’s only been three weeks,” Ludwig argued, lowering his voice so that I strained to hear, “I heard you tell her that you loved her last week. You’re delaying, but you’re not waiting. You’ll hurt her at this rate, when you get bored and move on.”
“If I was going to get bored with her like the others, don’t you think it would have happened by now? A week, two, that’s all they last,” Gilbert replied, “And I do love her.” He said it so confidently, but if Ludwig was worried, should I be? My grip tightened on the sheet.
“How do you know?” Ludwig demanded, “You can say that now, but do you mean it?” There was silence as I waited for Gilbert’s answer with baited breath.
“Keep your voice down, you’ll wake her,” Gilbert grumbled, barely audible, “I know because I see her. In my future. She’s not just a nice piece of ass. I think about ten years from now and I can see her still there. With our kids, and they look like her. Of course, they’re awesome because they’re mine too, but they’re… they’re beautiful.” His voice had lost its usual just-enough apathy and become impassioned, as fervent as a devout worshiping at the altar. There was a long pause between the brothers, but I had to think about that one. Kids, huh? And they looked like me? But I so dearly wanted them to have his looks, to be not just beautiful, but patently gorgeous. I wanted them to be all frosty beauty, cold and harsh, but delicate and unforgettable. Lost in that vision, I almost missed the continuing of the exchange.
“You see her? And children?” Ludwig asked quietly, “Ten years from now? What about twenty? Thirty?”
“Yes,” Gilbert responded, and then there was another pause. I got up, immediately spotting which drawer Gilbert had opened (it was slightly ajar) and found some sleeveless shirts and a few pairs of sweatpants in it. I threw on my bra, one of the shirts and one of the pairs of pants, a navy and hunter plaid that I liked the look of, and pulled the cover off of Gilbert’s canary’s cage. Gilbird chirped in greeting and I opened the door to the cage, letting Gilbird settle on my finger before transferring him to my shoulder and making my way to the kitchen too.
“Good morning,” I said, giving no sign that I’d heard any of their conversation. I took Gilbert’s mug from him and sipped at his coffee and he relieved me of Gilbird. The canary fluttered from his finger to the top of his head and settled there with a chorus of chirping.
“You can still walk,” Gilbert said slyly, eyes narrowing playfully. Ludwig flushed.
“So it seems,” I said with a smile, “Did you sleep well, Ludwig? I hope I wasn’t too loud.” To be honest, I hadn’t made a single sound last night, but teasing Ludwig was excellent entertainment. I winked at him and he seemed yet more uncomfortable.
“Ah, no, I didn’t hear anything,” he said hurriedly.
“That’s good,” I said, sipping again, “I had a lot of trouble containing the awesome.” I rudely jerked a thumb at Gilbert. Ludwig laughed at that, as did Gilbert himself while I chuckled.
“Anyway,” I said, “Let me make breakfast. As a way of saying thanks for letting me stay over.” I grinned cheekily, “Show me your supplies!”
I ended up making waffles and eggs for breakfast, and did so many more mornings after.
“Did Gilchen show you the secret stash in his closet?” Julchen asked, her face looking more vulpine than usual. Her name, I’d found out, was Julie, but she preferred the diminutive form, ‘Julchen’. In the meantime, my ice cream spoon had stopped halfway between the pint and my mouth as I looked at her quizzically.
“Julchen,” Gilbert growled in warning, Gilbird falling silent for a moment before smoothing his feathers.
“Huh?” I asked. Julchen smiled the same Cheshire cat smile I’d seen on her twin’s face far too many times. “What secret stash?”
“Nothing,” Gilbert said hurriedly, pink dusting his face as he scowled at Julchen. I started chuckling, putting my spoon in my mouth.
“Something I should know about?” I said, more of a statement than a question as I glanced at Monika who, like Ludwig, seemed resolutely trying to stay out of the conversation. Julchen put on a look of mock surprise.
“You mean to say he hasn’t broken out the handcuffs and riding crop yet?” she asked, falsely incredulous. Gilbert made a strangled noise and turned beet red. We collapsed into laughter.
“That’s okay,” I finally managed to say, gasping between fits of laughter, “He can break out the kinky stuff now, I won’t run away!” Gilbert put his head down on the table, clearly giving up, but his ears gave away how flushed he was. I laughed and stroked his hair briefly.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” Julchen said, leaning toward me across the table, glancing furtively at Ludwig and Monica, “So do they.” Suddenly the number of utterly mortified faces was three, and I shook a finger at Julchen jokingly.
“Try not to tease them all too much! You’re too good at it,” I said with a smirk and barely restrained laughter, “Have you really snooped through all their rooms?”
“Yes,” said Julchen proudly. I threw my head back and laughed. I was still laughing when my phone buzzed on the table and I picked it up to see a text from Gilbert, who was now eying me furtively over his elbow and through his hair, his cheeks still pink.
‘I’m breaking out the kinky stuff tonight then,’ it read. I laughed again, nudging his elbow with my own.
“Okay, sir, whatever you say,” I said teasingly.
“What, did he just text you when you’re sitting right there?” Julchen demanded, “What, too shy to tell her in front of all of us that you’re going to whip her tonight?” Gilbert made a face while Gilbird fluttered to his shoulder, and then to my proffered finger. I cooed at him briefly and the canary chirped back at me before flying to my head and settling down there. I couldn’t see it, but I was delighted with the image it produced in my head.
“I think it’s just us,” I said, looking around, “Ludwig and Monika seem to have disappeared.” Julchen scoffed.
“They’re probably embarrassed that we’re all so similar like that. It’s not like I don’t have a stash in my closet too,” she said with a shrug.
“I knew it!” Gilbert burst out, slapping one palm flat on the table and pointing accusingly at Julchen with a smirk on his still slightly pink face.
“It’s not like I hide it, like the rest of you,” Julchen shot back, “I can’t help if I’m so openly awesome and you’re only awesome in your closet.” Her fierce smile was triumphant.
“Well, I guess it’s not in the closet anymore, eh?” Gilbert challenged. I could only watch, fascinated as the twins went head to head, but it was also so comical to see the two albinos facing off, their German accents getting thicker, that I couldn’t help laughing again, even as I looked at my watch.
“Julchen, didn’t you say you were going to the comedy club tonight?” I asked, “Show starts at 7, right?” Julchen checked her phone and jumped up from the table.
“Monika!” Julchen barked, “We’re leaving!” Monika appeared.
“I was just coming to tell you that we needed to go,” she said, brushing blonde hair out of her face, “Ludwig promised we’d meet Feli and Kiku there too.” Julchen brightened up considerably at the mention of the two boys.
“Cute little Feli!” she cooed, “And Kiku too! Let’s go!” Julchen seized Monika’s arm and rocketed out the door.
“You don’t want to come?” Ludwig asked, appearing in the same place Monica just had. I almost turned to ask Gilbert, but his hand landed on my thigh, hidden from Ludwig by the table.
“We’ll be fine. Didn’t you want to watch that movie?” Gilbert said, turning to me, lifting an eyebrow. I blinked at him as if I’d forgotten although I knew exactly where he was going with this.
“Oh, you mean- Yes!” I said brightly. Ludwig’s suspicious expression dissolved with his shrug.
“Okay, see you later.” And out the door he went too. Gilbert got up and followed him and I heard the lock of the front door turn as I put the lid on my pint and put it back in the freezer. It was while I was rinsing the spoon I’d been using that Gilbert reappeared, radiating satisfaction.
“I was serious,” he purred, hot breath on my throat. I shivered, the tingle going straight down to pool somewhere between my thighs.
“I’d hoped so,” I murmured back, and then cool, hard metal ratcheted closed around one of my wrists. I gasped and Gilbert took advantage of my surprise to seize my other hand to bring it behind my back, closing that side of the handcuffs around my other wrist.
“Was hoping you’d say that,” he growled, one hand passing over my breast to wrap long fingers around my throat and the other pulling my hips back against him. I felt lightheaded suddenly, my breath coming in short pants. I closed my eyes, trying to contain my reaction.
“Looks like someone has an interest in BDSM,” Gilbert said, sounding pleased, nipping my ear. “What do we think of the riding crop idea?”
“Yes, please,” I tried to say, but my voice was so breathy, so high pitched, nearly a squeak, that I wasn’t sure if he had understood me.
But he did.
“It’s raining,” I said softly, leaning against the sliding glass door that led to my balcony, palms pressed to the cool glass. I’d have to clean it later, but I didn’t quite care at the moment. Gilbert flopped onto my couch with a heavy sigh.
“I’m sorry that it’s raining on your birthday, fraulein,” he said.
“Don’t be,” I said back, “I like the rain. I grew up with it.” And that was true. I’d grown up with rain and damp, mossy trees and cloudy days. I’d gotten away from it for college, but after four years spent in California, I’d longed for the cool, rainy days of my childhood. There was something comforting about them, about needing to wrap up in flannel and fleece, to throw on a thermal under my t-shirts. And I’d long missed falling asleep to the muted patter of rain on my windows and roof.
“What are you thinking about?” Gilbert asked quietly, and I caught a glimpse of his reflection, the way he leaned forward, elbows on knees, his brow furrowed.
“How much I missed the rain and why I liked it. How I didn’t appreciate it until it was only a passing season,” I said, my voice subdued and wistful. I felt a shiver building and closed the blinds with a disappointed sound. I turned away from the sliding glass door, picking up a steaming mug of tea and clasping my hands around it for warmth as I went to sit next to Gilbert on the couch. He opened his arms and I sat carefully on his lap, cradling the mug so as not to spill its contents. Once I was resting comfortably against his chest, Gilbert slipped his arms around my waist. Contentment set in as his body heat seeped into me, soothing my sudden case of melancholy.
“Don’t be like West,” Gilbert murmured suddenly, nuzzling my hair, “He gets these depressive fits too. It makes him very unhappy.” I cracked a smile even as I sighed.
“Well, I’m not really depressed,” I pointed out, “I have you here. I just feel… quiet.” He considered that briefly before he spoke again.
“You’re not usually this quiet,” he said by way of explanation, “That’s why I’m worried.”
“Don’t be,” I said, turning to drop a kiss on his cheek, “It’s my birthday. I’m happy.”
“Ja,” he said with a chuckle, slipping into German for a breath, “Did you want your present now?” I’d told him to wait earlier because I’d asked everyone else not to get me anything (and nearly become stupid drunk in the process since they’d all tried to buy me drinks instead), but now we were alone in my apartment and it seemed more appropriate to accept.
“Okay,” I said, putting my tea down on the side table and squirming around to look up into his face with a childish smile. His answering smile was pleased and loving, the kind of smile that would make most girls blush. Sadly, I wasn’t a blusher, but I felt my expression soften even more.
“Close your eyes,” he said, and I obeyed. I felt him digging in his pocket and a barely audible creak. He reached around my neck, something dangling just below my collarbone. I wondered what shape the pendent had as he pulled his hands away. Unbidden, I opened my eyes and stared down in wonder at the shining cross, just able to see it over my chin as I held it out and away from my neck. I tilted my head to view it better, but I could identify it already. The iron cross was a motif that Gilbert was fond of and seemed to have everywhere. He’d explained to me that he and Ludwig were German, but had Prussian ancestry too, which was why he and Ludwig had such an overabundance of the symbol in their possessions.
“It’s so shiny!” I chirped, and Gilbert laughed, ruffling my hair.
“I know, my little magpie,” he said, “A shiny trinket just for you.” I tried to scowl at him, but was unable to as I smoothed my hair back down.
“It’ll be like always having a little piece of you with me,” I murmured as the thought struck me, and I looked up at him with bright eyes.
“Thanks, Gil,” I said, giving him a lingering kiss.
“Say it in German,” he urged me, lips twitching with an almost-smile.
“Danke,” I said and then realized it was a good thing I’d set the tea down as Gilbert twisted, pushing me down on to the couch, pressing his lips to my throat.
“Bitte, fraulein,” he replied against my skin, “I just wish you didn’t sound so sexy while trying to speak German.” I laughed at him briefly, tangling my fingers in his white hair and tugging him back up to my face.
“I wish you didn’t sound so sexy trying to speak English,” I teased him, and he cut me off.
Everything came off that night except the necklace, and I was okay with that.
I left the campus library, tucking my ID card back in the pocket of my favorite jacket, collar turned up against the early spring chill. I looked for Gilbert and saw something that made my heart sink. A couple of kids, probably eighteen or nineteen, freshmen here likely, were standing around Gilbert threateningly, and I could hear them from here.
“Dude, his hair is fucking white, man! How the fuck’d you do that?” one mocked.
“He even talks like a freak!” the other one half-shouted, “Like, a Nazi out of a movie!” My teeth ground together, my boots clicking over the pavement faster than before. Gilbert merely regarded them coldly, saying nothing, hands in his pockets, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses.
“Excuse me, are you talking to my boyfriend?” I asked, voice half a hair away from a growl. The two punks turned around in surprise and Gilbert’s expression tended toward curiosity now. One boy’s face brightened.
“Hey there, angelface,” he said, “This your boyfriend? You sure picked a fuckin’ weirdo!” The smile that spread across my lips was dark, more a baring of teeth than a smile.
“Say that again?” I asked, leaning forward, my hands bending back to expose the heel of my hands. The stupid boy leaned closer, misinterpreting my body language and grinning crookedly.
“Just sayin’ you need a real man, sweetheart, not a thing like that,” he said, gesturing at Gilbert. My hands whipped out, jab and cross, the first one audibly snapping the bridge of his nose and the second twisting his head and cutting his cheek on his teeth. He stumbled to the side, spitting blood on the sidewalk. The second I’d started moving, Gilbert’s expression had turned alarmed, and he seized the other kid by the collar to prevent him from coming after me. The kid fumbled for something in his pocket.
“Fuck, man, I think she broke my nose! You bitch!” The first punk shouted, swinging at me wildly. I ducked around his flying fist, taking his collar in my hands and jamming my heel in his groin. He collapsed with a high-pitched howl. By the time I turned back to the other, Gilbert had his arm locked, his elbow threatening to snap. A knife barely dangled from his fingertips. I took the knife by the handle, flipping it closed.
“I wanted to hit him too,” I pouted a little, and Gilbert allowed a glimmer of a smile to show.
“You can, I won’t stop you,” he said, cheerfully dark. The punk’s eyes widened as I tucked the knife in the same pocket as my ID.
“Let’s get this straight, stupid,” I growled, “This guy is my boyfriend. I like it that way. He is not freak, or whathaveyou. Have a little respect for others, especially if they’re different.” I exchanged a look with Gilbert, and he let the boy go. He got his friend up, and he led the hobbling punk away. Gilbert and I watched them go, and checked my fingers for blood. Nothing, I was clean. I looked up at Gilbert and he looked back at me very seriously.
“Please don’t do that again,” he said, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I don’t like watching you tangle with idiots like that.”
“Sorry, I don’t like it when people can’t respect differences, especially obvious ones,” I said, and then paused before continuing with, “Especially when it comes to you. It makes me angry. And protective. Plus, you’ve been giving me all those boxing lessons.”
“While I appreciate it, please avoid giving me a heart attack,” Gilbert chuckled, taking my hand and gathering me to him before starting us off in the direction of my apartment.
But I definitely wasn’t sorry that I’d fought for him.