This is for Artemis Rae, who helped prod me into this fandom and is now another year older.
Many happy returns!

From her wild hair he teases one dark tress
And loops it up beside her seal-brown cheek,
And, smiling, "You were my first love," he says,
And kisses her, and waits for her to speak --

-- but she never knows how to answer him when he trots that one out. And you were mine wouldn't be true, not in the breathless, pulse-pounding, walking-through-lava-for-panda-lilies way he means it. Her first taste of those heady emotions ended in disaster, anyway, teaching her to be wary of the frisson of blood stirred by gallantry. She mistrusted even her slow-kindling attraction to him, confused by how it took fire not only from admiration, but also from compassion and camaraderie and terror for his life. That she lies in his arms now without bewilderment or fear of betrayal is a gift they share with delectable zest. Love is more than romance, but not less, and he's become adept at leaving her breathless.

She still doesn't know what to say to him, though. You gave me hope is true enough, but she'll stomp barefoot through hot coals before that phrase ever passes her lips again. I always knew you had excellent taste is too self-congratulatory, better suited to her brother's bantering voice than her own. Shut up and kiss me avoids the issue altogether (and in a most agreeable way) but she always feels guilty afterward, as she wouldn't if the rudeness were wholly in fun. At least he's not angling for a particular response, spirits be praised -- though if he ever does, she'll tell him You're as dear to me as salt and let him wrestle with the riddle till their next meal, like the old chieftain in Gran-Gran's tale of the three daughters.

She's tried to persuade herself it's a good thing that she can't reduce her feelings for him, then or now, to cliché, but it doesn't work. The moment she sees his frank, cheerful face she winces at the insult, blushing to think herself such a fool. She'd rather be angry -- it's not fair that his words take wing while hers clot on her tongue until a kiss washes the sour taste away -- or, better yet, she'd rather be eloquent. She's practiced, memorizing famous love poems (I am in your clay and you in mine) and rehearsing speeches of her own devising in front of the mirror (You brightened my life like moonlight reflected on the water, but now it's as if you're the moon itself and I am the ocean ...). When the time comes, however, those studied sentences never seem right. He always speaks from the heart; she wants to respond in kind. So she clasps him around the neck and hopes he understands everything that she means to say ...

Some lovers' words are artful, some are plain;
Some fluent tongues for passion silent fall.
Hers finds release in custom's fond refrain,
"And you're my own true love" -- for truth trumps all.

Author's Note: "Gran-Gran's tale of the three daughters" is a version of a widely-dispersed folktale in which a father asks his children to tell him how much they love him; he finally reconciles with the one who answers that he is "as dear as salt" after he's served a tasteless meal of unsalted food. (Shakesepeare's King Lear harks back to another variation of this story.) The line "I am in your clay and you in mine" paraphrases a short passage from the work of the thirteenth-century Chinese poet and artist Kuan Tao-Sheng. The framing poem, such as it is, is my own.