by L.E. Gibler
Carrying the burden of scars all along his body from a young age, Lee Knightly had learned to keep his face and body sheltered from prying eyes by wearing his hair long, keeping his head down, and never letting anyone see what he was truly thinking. For nearly eleven years his plan had worked perfectly, but in all his adjustments to skirt society, he had never taken into account Annie Poe.
As a fire-starter, Annie knew better than anyone what had caused Lee’s scars. With a tempestuous nature of her own, she had seen firsthand what trouble her gifts might wreak. However, hidden under her short temper was a passionate heart and a kind soul, two traits that had meant Lee was willing to let her into his life, and those traits also meant she had refused to leave when the door was first opened. A friendship that had been born as much out of necessity as kinship their freshman year had become something more over the three years. Now, when only Annie was around, Lee was willing to tie his long, dark hair back and show his scars. With Lee in her life, Annie had found a constant reason to remember just what losing her temper might entail.
With no family to go home to for either over the holidays, Annie and Lee had taken to spending their free time together on campus at Caitiff Academy – a school for those with amazing gifts and a tendency to use those gifts for personal gain. The winter break of their senior year was no exception. With a few other students milling around, Lee and Annie had made for the tennis courts. It was still balmy enough in southern California to play outdoors. Lee was gifted in ways physically that closely resembled a cat. He could fall from seven story buildings and still land on his feet. His talents also meant he was a natural at any sport he chose to pursue. On a quiet Tuesday in December, he had stripped down to a t-shirt and pulled his hair back to better see the little green balls Annie was trying desperately to return to him.
Growing up in an orphanage, Annie had never had formal training for anything until she had been plucked off the streets by one of the more formidable villains in the Twin Cities, Ravenna Poe. Lee had managed to impart some knowledge of fencing to Annie, but with the rare talent of being able to walk through solid objects, Annie had been known to step out of her fencing apparatus when touched by a point. Lee had shared indoor games with her the winter before, largely air hockey and pool, but now, with the sun out, he had decided to tackle a far more daunting challenge. Gently lobbing a ball back to her, he couldn’t help but laugh when her return came within inches of hitting the lone student out with them, a freshman practicing his serve.
“Shut up, Lee,” she muttered.
“Come on, Annie, you’re doing fine,” he said.
“You’re a terrible liar,” she replied darkly. “How much longer until you admit I can’t play tennis?”
“You’ve only been playing it since this morning.”
“And I suck at it.”
“And?” He waited for her to attack the ball with her frustration. The problem with Annie, Lee had learned, was that her first response to nearly all problems was to hit something harder. With a sigh, he took pity on her and came over to her side. Her hair flickered when her temper was short, and it tended to tighten into a pixie cut. Lee watched as it retreated up past her shoulders, but she still had a bit to go before she was certifiably upset. He reached out when she would have smacked at a ball again, and stopped her. “It’s a process,” he said. With soft care, he adjusted her hands on the racket, careful not to touch too much. However, whenever he was this close, his mind had a tendency to wander back to a year ago when she had kissed him. Cursing his lack of camouflage by way of his own hair, he swallowed all thoughts of anything but tennis and handed her another ball. “You’re not going to master it in one day, Annie. You need to take it slow.” He held on a second longer when she would have snatched the ball. “Gently, like I showed you.”
With another huge sigh of frustration, Annie took the ball and then, with another glance at him, slowed her motion. The ball landed perfectly on the other side of the net. Her shock was so great she nearly dropped her racket. “I did it,” she said.
“Again,” he pointed out, going back to his side of the net. In one smooth leap, he crossed over the center and picked up another errant shot from before. “Just try and stay calm.”
“Easy for you to say,” she said, but she was grinning and her hair had dropped back down to below her shoulders again. “Your serve.”
“We’re not to serves yet,” he replied, lobbing a ball to her. They were both impressed when she carefully returned it. Over the course of the next half hour, Annie managed to successfully volley more often than not, and after she managed to get one past a kind hearted Lee, he decided it was time to end.
She bounced around, picking up the balls from the court before walking through the net as it wasn’t even there to give him an impulsive hug. Both were too startled by the gesture to immediately react. Blushing furiously, Lee stepped away from what he wanted most, and, in one swift motion, he released his hair back down to hide. Heart beating furiously, he started to put away their equipment. He turned back to take her racquet, amazed still further to see her green eyes flashing in anger.
“Why do you do that?” she asked, staring at his left side and the scars he tried to hide. Self consciously, he ducked his head away, but she grabbed his face in both her hands and forced him to look at her. “I thought we had moved past this,” she said.
“Do I ask you about your hair?” he asked bitingly, but she ignored him. Instead, she pushed his hair back and let her right hand linger on his scars.
“Why?” she asked, her voice suddenly softened to a whisper.
He met her gaze, and all thought of leaving vanished. “Habit, I suppose,” he said at last.
“Don’t, not from me,” she said. Impulsively, she leaned in and kissed the largest swirl. “I feel like when you hide this, you hide from me.”
“I hide from everyone,” he replied. He reached out and touched her hair. He was amazed to feel it tingle.
She was too startled to move. He had never touched her hair before. For a moment, she held her breath, afraid with all her soul that she might accidentally hurt him. He looked back at her, dark gray eyes meeting green ones, and he knew with startling clarity just what she was thinking. “Annie,” he whispered. “I’m not afraid of you.”
“And I’m not ashamed of you,” she replied just as quietly. For what felt like an eternity, they continued to stand trapped in the moment. There was no bright flash of fireworks or earth shattering event. Instead, by unspoken accord, both leaned in for the kiss that was beckoning.
“Oh, hey, I think you missed one.”
They broke apart to find the freshman staring at them, red with embarrassment, but holding out a tennis ball.
“Thanks,” said Annie, her voice fluttering. She forced a smile before putting the ball with the others and gathering her racket. Lee similarly gathered his equipment, and they busied themselves before turning back to face each other.
“Are we going to have to talk about this?” Annie asked bluntly.
“About what?” he replied.
“Well, I don’t think either of us are experts, but, well…” she trailed off, turning crimson.
He swallowed past his own discomfort. “If you’d rather not…”
“No, I would rather.”
His surprise was evident. “Well then, do I need to ask you to the movies now?”
“Why?” she asked. “We already spend our entire days together. I’m not expecting you to start paying for anything.” With surprising gentleness, she pushed his hair back again. “Can you at least let me see your scars?”
He nodded, leaning his forehead down to rest on hers. “You can see anything you want from me.”
She blushed again, but leaned in closer. Their rackets were forgotten as she wrapped her arms around his waist and he held her close. “Thank you.” For that moment, it was enough for them both.
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