“Sorry,” I mumbled, taking a quick step backwards.
“You should be, Sir Maximillion. Your father’s status makes no difference to me, therefore, you should be extra careful not to offend anyone at my grandmother’s best friend’s funeral,” the young woman said, her tone stern and serious. Then she burst into a wide grin and pulled me into a hug. “Oh, Max, life is so boring without you!”
“Ditto, Alvara,” I replied. Holding her at arm’s length, I took in my best friend’s appearance. Both of her eyes, the blue one and the violet one, sparkled with joy. The sprinkling of freckles that dusted her nose and cheeks were as light and flattering as ever. Her dark pink lips were stretched in the lopsided, dimpled smile that I so rarely got to see. The simple black dress she wore flattered her creamy pale skin. Her rich brown hair had darkened slightly with the lack of sun. She’d grown a few inches since I’d seen her. And… “Well, how long has it been? You’ve obviously been maturing,” I teased, making an hourglass shape with my hands.
“It’s only been two months, Max,” she said. She rolled her eyes, but there was a pink tinge to her cheeks as she led me to a quieter corner out of the way, so we could talk.
As she pulled me, I looked down at our intertwined hands. Something had felt hard and cold, not soft and warm like Alvara’s hand. There were braces on her ring and pinkie fingers. The same braces my sister had worn when she’d broken her fingers by crushing them in the car door.
I stopped dead in my tracks.
My eyes travelled up Alvara’s slender arm. There was little evidence there, only a couple of tiny purple lumps. But I lifted the elbow-length sleeve she wore, and saw what I feared.
My heart jumped to my throat.
“Alvara!” I growled.
She jerked her arm away, looking jittery and a little resigned. “Max, please, don’t!” she whispered urgently. She gripped my arm again, this time with the hand that had no broken fingers, and pulled me behind a large oak tree, so that the people at the funeral couldn’t see us.
She tried to push me down. I resisted for a moment, but sat. I braced myself against the rough bark of the tree. “You told me he stopped.” I glared at her, my fists already balled and ready to beat the crap out of Alvara’s dad. Just like he’d done to my precious best friend.
Her gaze fell instinctively to the black boots she wore. I realized her shoes were too tall and her dress too long for the weather. Alvara didn’t get cold. Ever. I’d seen her walk through foot-deep snow in flip-flops and denim shorts.
My concentration was torn apart. I wanted to comfort Alvara. I wanted to rip her dad to shreds. I wanted to give her useless boyfriend a good chewing out for doing nothing, when he knew. I wanted to protect her from everyone who was in any way responsible for hurting her.
I stopped short. I was partially responsible for this. I hadn’t protected her well enough in the first place. It was my fault, too.
My fists trembled. I pressed them to my face, fighting off the tears that stung my eyes. Alvara was the only thing precious to me, and I’d let her be beaten.
I felt her hand touch the back of my head. I looked up at her as she knelt in front of me. “How… How could I let this happen?” I murmured, not sure if I was talking to myself or not.
She looked startled for a second, but then her face turned sympathetic. “Max, don’t blame yourself. I didn’t let you help me. It’s not your fault, okay?”
She sat beside me and gently leaned against my side. Her small frame near me helped me regain control. Avoiding putting weight on her, I wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Max,” Alvara said quietly. She laid her head on my shoulder.
“That’s my line,” I replied seriously. “Won’t you let me do something?” I asked. I stared out into the sky, where the sun shone ever brighter. I glanced at Alvara through the corner of my eye, to see what she was thinking.
Unexpectedly, her forehead was creased in concentration, her lips pressed into a deep frown, and her eyes, reflecting the orange sun, filled with tears. “Never. You will never get involved. I won’t let him hurt you, too…” Like a fragile crystal, her sweet voice cracked, and she pressed harder into my side. I felt her twinge with the sharp pains of her wounds as she put pressure on them. I heard her rasp funnily, like she had a cracked rib. I gritted my teeth. “No one else will fall before my father,” she whispered. I didn’t think I was supposed to hear that, but the words stirred something inside me.
“What do you mean by that, Alvara? No one else will fall? When you say fall…?” I wondered aloud. Gears clicking in my head, I pulled my arm off her shoulder and began stroking her hair. I was trying to slow the tears that were falling, but unsuccessfully. Her quiet crying began to pulse, deep and heavy, becoming sobs.
She only had to say one word. “Nick…” My hand froze in her soft waves. My eyes widened for half a second, before they narrowed in anger. Twisting to face her, I peeled away from Alvara. I gripped her gently by the shoulders and stared into her unmatching eyes. There was an expression I’d missed before in them. Not a wound, but a scar. A tragedy that had happened, but it was behind her. Mostly.
She blinked and quickly looked away. “Stop it, Max. Don’t do your stupid mind-reading thing. Just – forget it. You can’t get involved.” Her voice was harder and colder than I’d ever heard it.
My words were lost on my tongue for a moment. “Alvara…” I muttered. “Your father… He…” He killed your boyfriend? He killed Nick? I couldn’t ask that. I rearranged my question, trying to prolong the inevitable. “Where’s Nick?” I asked.
Alvara sucked in a deep breath and sighed heavily. Even as she looked down at her cupped hands, I could see her trying to avoid the truth.
A long minute passed, both of us frozen. Finally, I saw something in her strength break. The scar that had almost healed burst open. Tears fell again.
My heart thumped oddly, like trying to get one last pump of water out of a dry well. The pain of seeing my rock, my dependable Alvara, break was the worst thing I’d ever felt. Worse than the whip, or the cane, or anything either of my parents had ever used on me.
I spoke before she could gasp in a steady breath to tell me. “Oh, I’d forgotten. I heard he was sick. Sorry. That was stupid of me,” I said. My voice sounded like it had been run through a grinder a few times. I cleared my throat.
Alvara locked eyes with me again. Silently, I blinked, conveying my understanding. I read the gratefulness in her irises.
That was when I noticed.
When I finally spotted it, Alvara tore her eyes away again. But she knew I’d seen. It was too late.
“A... Alvara…” I whispered. Shock gripped me. I held her shoulders tighter for half a second but released them completely when she cringed.
She squeezed her eyes shut tight. I didn’t have to see her eyes to know what she was thinking. I knew that expression. It was identical to the one she’d worn when I’d discovered what her dad did to her. She was wishing she was somewhere else. Anywhere else.
“Just forget it, Max. Forget what you saw. I – I’m just overprotective because you’re the only one I have left. That’s all. I swear. I know you don’t–” she rattled, still holding her eyes shut.
I took her chin in my hand and forced her to face me. She continued to ramble, but her words were lost on me. Staring, I waited until her brilliant, stunning eyes opened again. She looked so uncertain. So confused. So resistant.
And yet, it was there.