((This occurs right after chapter 16.))


As Mark entered the teeming club, he kept his head down to hide his face, which was still rather unsightly with its blotches and tearstains. He hoped the dark inside would disguise it well enough. Raking his fingers through his hair, he made his way over to the bar and dropped onto the first stool he reached.

There were only a few people at the bar already, and when the bartender had finished his order he leaned his elbow on the counter next to Mark. "What can I get you?"

Mark glanced up, slightly startled in his frazzled state, before shaking his head. "Whatever, uhm, something with a lot of alcohol." He cleared his throat, and added, "Please."

The bartender smiled sympathetically at Mark and straightened. "Sure thing." Reaching under counter, he started making a cocktail. "Bad day?"

Mark put his face in his hands and rubbed his temples as a dry laugh escaped his reddened lips. "You could say that..."

Finished, the bartender slid the glass over to Mark. Casting a glance around the bar to make sure no one needed anything, he pulled out his own stool and sat down. "Want to talk about it?"

Mark uttered a "thanks" for his drink and coughed behind his hand. "I just...broke up with my boyfriend, is all." He put his face back in his hands and rubbed his eyes, which had taken up an awful stinging again.

The bartender made a sympathetic noise and rested his chin in his hands. "That's too bad. Was there throwing involved?"

Mark peeked glassy green eyes from behind his hands. "Throwing...? No...it wasn't anything like that." He sighed and rubbed at one of his eyes again before lifting his drink to his lips. "Though it might as well have been; it was painful all the same..."

The bartender nodded. "Breakups are hard. A lot of people come here after bad breakups..."

Mark took a sip of his drink and smiled slightly, though not happily. "Oh, I can't imagine why..."

Someone called for the bartender before he could respond and he got up, said, "I'll be right back," and went to help them.

Mark watched the bartender go and sighed as a new, colder wave of melancholy rippled over him. He downed half of his drink and set the glass aside with a hiccup, his eyes still wavering down the bar in its tender's direction.

The bartender mixed a drink, nodding at whatever the patron was telling him. He returned to Mark's side of the bar a moment later, flashing the redhead a painted smile as he sat back down. "So, you were saying?"

Mark shook his head. "Nothing, really."

The bartender reached for a bottle and started mixing a new drink. "Nothing more to say? You know, it helps to get things off your chest."

Mark smiled slightly and rubbed at his eye again. "Yeah, it does... but I wouldn't even know where to begin. And a lot of it isn't my business to tell, no matter how much I'm involved..."

Putting the bottles aside, the bartender handed the new drink over to a dancer who had just wandered over to the bar. "Yeah?"

"Yeah..." Mark worried his bottom lip between his teeth for a moment, and then drank down the rest of whatever the bartender had filled his glass with. Setting the glass aside again, he continued (now coming a little unhinged), "I mean, I didn't want to break up with him, because I... and, but, he...he likes someone else… and, well,- he, he said he still liked me too, but I couldn't… I felt like a substitute, or something, like he was only trying to hold onto me because he was lonely, and, well, maybe that was the only reason he accepted a date from me in the first place. He's liked this person since forever, after all, and… And I…" Mark bit his lip once more to stop his rambling as much as to ward off the sob sneaking up the back of his throat. Another hiccup popped from his mouth, and he coughed to recreate some semblance of the even tone he'd lost while speaking.

The bartender scooted another drink over to Mark, his brown eyes warm. "That sounds like a difficult situation. It must have been hard for you."

Mark sniffled and accepted the drink with a hiccupped "thanks." He sipped it tentatively, curling his slender fingers around the glass. "...Yes, it is, it was... but, ah, I'm sorry..." he gave a nervous laugh and wiped at the tears threatening to spill from his eyes, "you don't need to sit here and listen to me bellyache. I appreciate it, but I'm sure you have better things to do..."

"Not really, no. And you're much nicer to look at than a lot of the drunks around here. So, feel free to share. Unload. You'll feel better in the morning." The bartender smiled, reaching over and dropping a red cherry into Mark's drink.

Mark laughed, this time with a smattering of mirth, and rubbed at his eyes some more. Though he was successful in preventing the tears from slipping, he was also making his eyes and the surrounding area rather red. He looked down at the cherry in his drink as he downed more of it, and once he'd finished he plucked the fruit out by its stem. "Have you ever heard of that myth about being able to tie a knot in a cherry stem with your tongue?"

"Which myth?" The bartender rested his chin in his hands again, watching Mark with a small smile.

"That if you can tie it in a knot with your tongue you're a good kisser?" Mark pulled the cherry off its stem with his teeth and chewed.

"Yes, I've heard that one. Can you tie it in a knot with your tongue?" The bartender smiled wider, tilting his head to the side.

Mark swallowed the cherry and dropped the pit in his empty glass. "I've never tried. Can you?" He lifted an eyebrow as he stuck the stem in his mouth.

"I can. Try it." The bartender pulled a little tray of cherries over.

Mark smiled a little, and fruitlessly worked the cherry stem inside his mouth for a while. After a minute, he sighed and pulled the stem out, now rather mangled and bent, but not knotted. "Nope... I can't do it. No wonder I can't hold onto a boyfriend."

The bartender laughed quietly and popped a cherry into his mouth. "I'm sure that's not why. You've never even tried before today."

"So what, did you spend many arduous hours in front of the mirror perfecting the technique?" Mark leaned his elbow on the bar, his spirits apparently lifted for the time being as a pure smile finally found its way completely across his face.

Swallowing the fruit, the bartender laughed again and shook his head. "Not quite, but I have been working here a while. There are a lot of cherries." He put the stem into his mouth and twisted it with his tongue, taking it back out for Mark to see the knot.

Mark's eyebrows rose and then fell again as he laughed melodically, leaning further over the bar while observing the cherry stem. "That's impressive."

"You can keep it if you want." The bartender held the twisted stem out to Mark. "As a souvenir."

Mark smiled and took the cherry stem. "Why, thank you. I will cherish it forever."

The bartender smiled. "I'm honored to have been of use."

Mark put his chin in one of his hands as he pocketed the stem with the other. "Could you get me another drink, d'ya think?"

"Okay, but this is the last one. You're too young to get alcohol poisoning." The bartender smiled again, taking out a few bottles of colored liquid. "Any preference?"

Mark shrugged and pointed to whatever color peaked his interest. "I've had worse," he said.

Shaking the bottle, the bartender pulled a glass down and started filling it. "That's not always a good thing, you know."

Mark smiled wistfully and shrugged again. "I know... but it's the only medicine for a broken heart I've found to work well enough. I don't usually drink this much, I assure you."

The bartender nodded and passed the glass to Mark. "I hope it works for you. Often it just puts things off, and you still have to deal with them later. I find running to be helpful."

Mark continued to smile quietly as he accepted the drink. "Running, hm?"

"Mhmm. But don't run too far, or you'll be too tired with no way home." Smiling, the bartender returned his chin to his hands.

"Is that your own quote?" Mark sipped his drink.

The bartender laughed. "Yes, it is. Now you can tell it to your friends and they'll all think you're awfully cultured and sophisticated."

Mark laughed. "Indeed, it was a very nice quote. I might have to stitch it onto a pillow... once I learn how to sew, that is." He tipped his glass back against his lips.

"I'm embroider-worthy, how flattering." The bartender continued to smile, passing a beer bottle and a glass of ice to someone in the middle of the bar.

Mark laughed slightly and polished off the rest of his drink. Swaying a little on his stool, he set the glass down and smiled, the curve of his lips still hinting at heartache despite his outward cheeriness. "Thanks...for the company. But you know, we've spent all this time talking and I don't even know your name."

The bartender smiled widely. "It's Lamya. And you are?"

"Mark, at your service." Mark held out his hand to shake.

Lamya slid his hand into Mark's and shook it, teeth very white against his dark skin. "Pleased to meet you."

"Likewise, likewise." Mark drew his hand back a moment later, still smiling his ostensibly happy smile.


The End