Urban Legend: The Sequel
By: Ty-Chou and Willowsandgables
Rowen instantly glanced down at his phone when it pinged and was immediately disappointed when he saw who it was. He openly frowned when he read the message from Robyn:
'How about more greenery, less flowers? I know we're trying to stay away from whites, but ivory doesn't count, does it? What do you think of this for centerpieces?'
Rowen immediately texted back in his irritation: 'I don't care. Get whatever. I'm busy.'
The response was quick: 'You are the worst fiancé ever. I'm so glad I'm giving you back today.'
He chose not to get into it with her. Robyn had been playing "surrogate fiancée" in planning the Hashiba-Sundari wedding for the past few months while Regan was still in the states. Regan had been involved as best she could while wedding plans occurred via text, phone calls, Skype sessions, and a whole lot of emails. Most of which rarely involved Rowen, since wedding planning baffled him and he didn't quite understand that telling his bride-to-be "do whatever you want" wasn't helpful.
None of that mattered to Rowen. He would marry her in a back alley if it meant she would stay with him for the rest of their lives. He didn't care how it happened as long as it happened. Especially when Robyn was still trying to get him to make some last minute decisions from work while something far more important was happening right now. And Robyn needed to stop blowing up his phone so he could pay attention to that more important thing.
Amidst the bustle and noise of the airport, Rowen still finally, finally heard the polite announcement that Regan's flight had landed. His heart pitter-patted in a ragtime dance when he confirmed it on the ever-changing flight board. She was here in this country. So close and still so far away.
Moments later, Regan texted him that they were off the plane. Rowen tapped a restless rhythm against his thigh and stared at the line of people coming in from the gates, searching for his fiancée (it still give him a thrill to think that. He also said it at every possible opportunity). When they spotted each other, a grin split his face. He bounced on the balls of his feet and waved like a maniac. Regan grinned back and laughed, nearly dancing in place as she waved. She was adorable in leggings, boots, and a slouchy gray sweater that kept slipping down her shoulder, and Rowen wanted to shove every slow asshole in front of her out of the way to scoop her up in his arms. Her hair looked so soft and shiny. Three months felt like three years. He barely noticed the man walking next to her.
Regan broke free of the line first, but didn't get far; Rowen met her and crushed her to him with a satisfaction he could not articulate. She was laughing as she held him for dear life and buried her head in his shoulder.
"Hey, baby," she said, relief in her voice. All the hours of travel, all the packing and arrangements and planning and stress had been worth it for the look on his face when he saw her. Regan had never felt so loved in her life, or been so happy to see someone. Her fiancé was warm and real and solid in her arms, instead of a voice on the line or on her computer screen. "I missed you so much."
"I missed you, too," he murmured, his throat tight. "Can we never do that again?"
"Never," she laughed. She pulled away to give him a quick, firm kiss, and then just beamed at him. "I'm digging the outfit, Professor." She tugged on the brown tweed blazer, the blue collared shirt underneath. "Really embracing the nerd look today."
"Always." Rowen was grinning so hard his cheeks hurt. He kissed her again, then pressed his forehead against hers. "Welcome home, Rae."
Her eyes misted with emotion. "It's good to be home." She glanced around for a moment. "Where's my other bae?"
"Robyn couldn't make it, her work couldn't allow her the day off. Important stuff going on." When Regan stuck out her lower lip in disappointment, Rowen laughed and added, "She made that same face. We'll see her tonight at dinner which, I guess, is now an impromptu engagement party of sorts."
"Fun! I can't wait!"
A male voice cleared his throat. "Dolly, are you going to hog him all day or do I get to meet him?
Regan pulled away from Rowen and aimed a megawatt smile at Jude Sundari, her twin brother. "Yes! Judy, this is Rowen Hashiba, my fiancé. Rowen, this is my brother, Jude. As you know, Rowen is a professor at Toyama University, just like dad was."
"The professor part, not the Toyama part," Jude clarified wryly.
He thought Rowen might bow to him as was the Japanese custom, but instead, Rowen extended his hand in a western greeting and the two of them shook hands. This Hashiba guy was taller than he expected, and he sized this interloper up in every way. Even though Rowen remained cool under the mental inspection, Jude wasn't so convinced that this guy was the right one for his only sibling. No matter how much she gushed about him. He didn't miss her effort to make a connection to their father in the hopes that Jude would give him a chance, and it made his heart hurt a little. She was trying so hard. It wasn't that he didn't want her to be happy, but damn. Not like this.
When Jude had first found out from his twin that she was engaged to some guy in Japan and was set on moving there right away, he was livid. No amount of reasoning could persuade his sister that this was a crazy, stupid decision and she should seriously reconsider. It was wildly out of character, and even though she could admit that out loud, it didn't make her back down from this ridiculous endeavor. Before he knew it, here he was, fresh from the New Year's holiday in motherfucking Japan. There were still tendrils of bitterness eating at him despite seeing Regan glow like he had never seen before. Maybe because of it.
"Thank you for coming all this way," Rowen said to him. The previous warmth he'd directed at Rae was gone. He looked more aloof now; neutral and careful. But that didn't matter. Jude had a…knack for sensing other people's emotions. And Rowen was a little nervous.
Jude's smile carried a hint of bared teeth. "My pleasure. Truly. It's nice to finally meet you."
"Likewise." Rowen fell silent, and then filled it again with, "Regan mentioned that you're a psychologist."
Jude nodded. "I work with at-risk youth. I just finished my Master's, and my next certification is for rehabilitation counseling."
Rowen whistled. "That's challenging work."
Because I'm not a genius like you? Jude gave him a subtle side-eye. "It can be."
Regan watched her fiancé and her brother interact and held her breath. On the surface it was going well, but she knew Jude still wasn't on board. He'd taken the news as hard as she'd expected. It had surprised and pleased her, though, when he arranged a month off to be here for the wedding. Regan had every intention of using the opportunity to win Jude over, to help him see Rowen for who he really was. Rowen didn't have any siblings, and having Jude as her twin was one of the greatest joys of Rae's life. She wanted them to like each other.
This current neutral ground, though, was as good as she'd get for now. Regan wrapped an arm around her brother's waist and squeezed. "Let's go get our bags."
"You mean my bags, and all your worldly possessions."
Regan let that one go, since his voice carried a faint wintry bite and she didn't want to antagonize him. Yes, she had to part with things in her apartment that couldn't make it across the ocean, and that had kind of sucked, and he knew it. But they were just things. God knew she'd started over with nothing but the clothes on her back before; she could do it again.
"Didn't you live here for six months out of three suitcases?" Rowen asked.
She flashed him a grateful smile. "Almost took home an extra suitcase. Clothes are a weakness. I'm sorry in advance."
"As long as you let me wear them, too, I'm sure we can work something out."
Jude rolled his eyes as his sister laughed like she did when he could really get her going. It wasn't that funny. He followed the pair out of the airport and into the bitter cold.
It never got this cold back home.
"Hey man, thanks for picking me up," Kento said as he climbed into the passenger side of Ryo's small truck. Robyn, who was already seated inside, slid to the middle of the bench-style seat to make room for him. "I thought my ride would be out of the shop by now, but I guess it still needed more work."
"Is this still from when you ran into that tree last summer?" Robyn asked.
"It's a little of that. She definitely hasn't been the same since. But also I take it off-roading sometimes and my suspension is pretty much shot." As Ryo backed his truck out of the parking lot, Kento glanced down at Robyn. "You look nice."
"Thanks," she replied with a grin. "I had an important day at work and we've got the party tonight so I just thought I'd go all out."
Despite her large coat against the January chill, it was clear Robyn had put more effort into her look than normal, even for her regular work attire. She wore a jade green dress that flared out to her knees over black tights and tan ankle booties. Even her coat was nice; black and casually elegant. A golden pendant hung around her neck. Robyn was wearing a touch of makeup, too. Had he ever even seen her wearing eye shadow and lipstick?
"You're making Ryo and I look very under dressed."
Robyn glanced over at Ryo who was in a pair of worn jeans and a sweater. He didn't even bother with a coat since he never got cold. Kento was dressed pretty much the same, though a little more appropriately for the winter weather.
"Nah, you guys are fine." She gave a dismissive gesture. "No one's going to care what you look like, as long as you're there."
She gave Ryo a friendly nudge with her arm and he smiled before returning his attention back to the road. It had begun to snow lightly and the roads were wet. At a good twenty minutes before six, it was already dark outside. The street lights reflected on the wet streets as they made their way out of the city and towards the wooded area near the mountains. It remained rather quiet in the cab for several minutes. Usually, they were more talkative than this.
"Long day?" Robyn asked of Ryo. Trying to get any words out of him since he had picked her up had been a chore.
He fought back a yawn. "Yeah, pretty long."
"A bad day?" she ventured to guess. As an EMT, some of Ryo's work days were much more grueling on the soul than others.
"Not too bad. Just long."
Robyn glanced over at Kento and they shared a secret smile. Five words out of him at once. Not bad.
As they began the incline toward the woods, the snow no longer melted when it hit the ground. By the time the lights of the Koji mansion were seen ahead, the road was completely covered in white. There were other, familiar vehicles parked outside when they pulled up.
Kento helped Robyn out of the truck and they both stepped carefully. In the city, there was barely any snow, but out here, everything was covered with a good few inches of white. Robyn kept one hand on Kento's arm to steady herself in her slippery boots. The other held a white binder. Ryo joined them on the porch, but his gaze wandered off toward the forest in the distance.
"No, no. Not tonight," Robyn teased. "You can go brood in the mountains with your tiger another time. Come on, can't turn down free food, right?" She continued to smile at him. Ryo said he hadn't had too bad of a day, but Robyn wondered if maybe he just didn't want to talk about it. Ryo's job weighed on him more than he liked to let on. She smiled at him until a smile of his own began to pull at the side of his mouth.
"There you go. Tonight's going to be fun, right?"
The smile was more genuine now. "Right."
"And if White Blaze shows up, you know someone will let him in anyway," she added with a wink.
Kento opened the front door as no one ever knocked when entering this familiar house. Warm yellow light spilled in from the interior and the three stepped inside. Instantly, there was light, sound and people.
Before Robyn could fully take in the festive main room of the mansion—Christmas tree still glittering in one corner—she heard a feminine squeal as a body flew at her and threw their arms around her shoulders.
"There you are!" Regan cried, wide grin in her voice. "I missed you! I can't believe I had to wait all day to finally see you!"
"Yeah, sorry about that," Robyn said into her shoulder. "Your flight came right during an important meeting. But I'm here now." Regan finally pulled away and let her go and the two friends looked each other in the face. "All of us are back here now."
"The way it's supposed to be," Regan agreed. "It feels good to be here. Coming back is starting to feel like coming home."
"And how's Jude been handling it?" Robyn then asked carefully.
The brunette gave a slight nod toward the back of the house. "Right now he's helping in the kitchen and keeping himself occupied with charming Cye's mother."
Robyn smirked. "That sounds about right."
"Other than that, he's been a little sulky."
"It's to be expected. I don't blame him for feeling that way." Robyn finally raised the white binder she had in her arms and offered it to Regan. "I present to you The Wedding Binder. It's got all your contacts, contracts, deposits, and a calendar of your remaining appointments. Take it and go with God."
Regan received it gratefully. "Seriously, thank you so much. I don't know what I would have done without you."
"You would have had to wait until next year if you still wanted a January wedding," was Robyn's remark.
Even as the two had flown back to the United States last fall, they were making the plans that would eventually lead them to that moment. At first, they were returning with a future uncertain of when their next reunion with the ronins would be. Rowen's last-second and panicked proposal had changed everything. Regan jumped into the engagement with both feet and Robyn certainly didn't mind following her.
When the girls hit American soil, they were already putting their plans in motion. Robyn immediately contacted her old job with Japan and was given back her position in the company. She returned to Japan as a more permanent resident only a few weeks later and currently lived with Cye's mother until she had saved enough to rent her own place.
For Regan, it took a little while longer. She still had other projects to finish for her employers and she had volunteered to be the one to stay behind to get all loose ends tied up for both girls before she moved to Japan as well, and would soon become an official citizen upon her marriage. A wedding Robyn had been planning in her absence for the past four months.
"I also relinquish Rowen back to your care," Robyn then added. "My duty as his surrogate fiancée is now over. He's your problem now." She leaned in a little closer. "May I suggest getting your own surrogate fiancé from here on out? Getting Rowen to commit to anything was like pulling teeth. Sage has been far more helpful at making decisions."
Regan laughed. "I'll keep that in mind."
At that point, Kento took his turn to greet Regan with a big hug while Robyn turned to hang up her coat. Ryo had already gone before her and padded off to the kitchen. Most likely looking for Mia. Rowen met Robyn at the coat rack.
"I have some disagreements to your insinuation that I am troublesome," Rowen informed her. He already had a drink in his hand. "Just because I have no sense for these wedding decisions. Isn't it easier for you just make them on your own?"
"It's not my wedding!" Robyn barked at him. Not for the first time. "I shouldn't be the one who makes these decisions! I'm not getting married!"
Rowen hushed her and leaned in. "Don't say it too loud or stray cats are going to start congregating at your door."
Robyn's mouth fell open in mock offense as Rowen sauntered off to canoodle with his bride-to-be.
When he gave her a smug side look, she flipped him off.
"Right, right," Kento agreed as he took Robyn's shoulders and steered her toward the kitchen. "You're still too young for crazy cat lady status. Let's go see everyone else."
It seemed all the other occupants of the house had collected in the kitchen and the adjoining dining room. Magnificent, mouth-watering smells drifted in from that direction, as well as the sound of casual conversation. As Robyn entered, a tall young man from the back of the kitchen perked up.
"Hey! There she is!" He skirted around Cye's mother, who was watching the pots on the stove. He, of course, had a drink in his hand and set it on the counter before sweeping Robyn up in a big hug. Robyn greatly enjoyed the embrace.
Jude Sundari was finally in Toyama, and the female population of Japan wouldn't know what hit them.
It wasn't that he was gorgeous, Robyn mused as he lifted her off her feet. Although he was gorgeous, with his jet black hair, smooth brown skin, and pale green eyes identical to Rae's. Lean, yet solid muscle that came from swimming and rowing. Effortlessly stylish in a black bomber jacket, nice dark jeans, and a white t-shirt. It was because Jude wore charisma like men wore cologne. When he aimed that slow, killer smile at Robyn, her heart unconsciously picked up its pace. He had a way of looking at women that made them feel significant, that they knew they had his undivided attention and they could tell him anything. Jude made women feel known, heard, and beautiful. He'd been doing it to Robyn for six years.
"How was the flight?" Robyn asked when he put her back down.
"Tiring. But look at you," Jude replied as he appraised her appearance. He took Robyn's hand and slowly twirled her around so the skirt of her dress flared. "This is a good color on you. Puts a glow on your skin and makes your eyes pop. How was your New Year's? Say lonely and miserable without me."
"I didn't think of you once," she teased.
"Liar," he said in her ear. He kissed her temple. "Your Christmas gift is in my luggage, I'm sorry, I forgot to bring it. We missed you. You could have stayed longer."
The sound of Kento clearing his throat interrupted Robyn's reply and she was suddenly reminded of Hardrock's presence.
"Oh, I'm sorry. This is Kento. Kento, this is Regan's twin, Jude."
Said twin stepped forward to shake hands. He was a good head taller than Kento; very clean cut and professional. But there was boyish mischief in his eyes. Something about him had Kento staring.
"Yes?" Jude tested when the handshake had gone on a little too long.
"I know you're related to Regan and all, but you're prettier than I'd thought you'd be," Kento said.
Jude quirked a brow. "You think I'm pretty, huh?" He was smirking with every word. "Why, thank you."
Kento's face suddenly flushed and he dropped the hand he was holding. "That was not how I meant—I have other things to do." And with that, Hardrock retreated to the back part of the kitchen.
Jude was still smirking after him when Robyn hit him on the arm. "Judy, be nice to my friends. English is like Kento's third language. Don't make fun of him if he says something weird, you ass."
Jude raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, sorry, sorry. I admit, I'm being an ass."
"I know you're still irritated about Regan getting married, but don't take it out on my friends. They're good guys, okay?"
"I'll try to behave myself." Jude paused and then looked Robyn up and down, appraising her appearance once more. "Seriously, you are entirely too pretty tonight to waste that outfit on a dinner at home. Why don't we go somewhere after? I need to take you out and show you off."
She flushed a little, but continued to smile with confidence. "Trust me, jet lag's going to hit you hard. You're going to be exhausted before you know it."
Jude leaned down to speak lowly in her ear. "Sweetheart, seeing you like this makes me feel like I've got enough energy to stay up all night."
Robyn flushed a little warmer. The tickle of his voice, his breath, sent tingles all the way down to her toes. She knew he was doing it on purpose. The smug bastard did it because he knew he could get a rise out of her. At that moment, Mia and Ryo walked in, talking to themselves. Robyn immediately used this as an opportunity to get some space.
"Oh, you probably haven't met Ryo yet. Ryo, this is Regan's brother Jude."
Ryo, who had a canned soda in his hand—he was driving that night and, since the White Blaze pancake incident, didn't drink as much anyways—merely nodded at Jude in acknowledgment. There was a certain guarded politeness in his demeanor that Robyn chalked up to him still being a bit moody.
"Sage is the only one who isn't here," Mia spoke up. "He had a late class and the snow is slowing him down. We're trying to drag it out a little, but he said don't wait for him to start dinner. In fact," she set her own drink down and fished her phone out of a pocket, "I might call him to see where he is."
As she excused herself, Cye came in, gave everyone a quick greeting and then joined his mother in the kitchen to check on the food and properly tell Kento to stop putting his fingers in everything.
That was about when Jude leaned into Robyn's ear and said, "So which one of these douche bags broke your heart?"
Robyn froze as ice and mortification set in. Next to them, Ryo suddenly choked on his drink and broke into a coughing fit.
"That is not what happened," Robyn insisted with a hiss and immediately left the dining area. She couldn't believe Regan told Jude about that. Well, maybe she could, but she was still irritated that he knew. She went back to the living room to give her best friend a piece of her mind, only to find the engaged couple in each others' arms, getting a little too hot and heavy for being a guest at someone else's house.
"Oh, for the love of crap," she grouched.
"Hey, hey, hey!" Jude snapped as he followed, getting the couple's attention. "How about you two leave a little room for Jesus!"
Regan actually barked out a laugh at that. Her sexual life was certainly far less lascivious than that of her brother's by far.
Now, Robyn was a little irritated with both twins. And Jude was certainly going to dog her until he not only heard the whole story, but had psychoanalyzed how she felt about it. There was going to be no getting away from him. If she fled to any part of the house, he would follow. She suddenly considered calling White Blaze herself to keep him at bay.
But before she could concoct any plan of escape, the front door opened as the last guest stepped in. Sage tapped the snow off his shoes before removing them and hung up his coat.
"Sage, great! You're here," Robyn said with a little too much relief in her voice. "This is Regan's twin brother."
Jude didn't miss a beat. "Man, Rob, you know too many people. I hope this is the last one. Hi, I'm Jude."
Once his coat had been removed, Sage turned and set his icy, violet eyes on Jude Sundari. The hand extended to him was frozen in mid air.
"Hello," Sage said simply, and stood there. Robyn sidled up next to him.
Jude lowered his hand, but met the blond man's gaze. The two stared at each other for a moment, sizing each other up. Some sort of beautiful-man mental competition, Robyn mused as she watched them. As if they were trying to figure out who was the alpha bishounen in the room.
Jude was the first to crack. And he cracked more quickly than he probably anticipated. Those intense eyes broke him. His eyebrow twitched before the rest of him fell from a confident stance into a retreat.
"Well, if everyone's here, I'm going to let the kitchen know," Jude announced and quickly walked out of the room.
Robyn let out a breath as he left. Hopefully that was enough to dissuade him from any other awkward conversations while in the company of everyone she knew.
"Hi, Sage," Regan greeted. She seemed to hesitate to reach out to him, but Sage's cool demeanor thawed and he embraced her.
"Welcome back," he said. "This marks the end of incessant melodramatic texting from Rowen, and for that, I thank you."
Regan laughed. "I'm so sorry. And thank you for stepping in and helping Robyn with some of the planning. I hope you don't mind if I solicit your opinion a few more times before this is over."
He smiled in understanding. "Not at all."
With everyone present, dinner quickly made it to the dining room, and everyone took their seats. Cye's mother beamed at having all of them at the table. "Despite the weather outside, we thought tonight was the perfect excuse to celebrate another engagement in the family. Rowen and Regan, we're so happy for you, and wish you a life full of love and happiness."
"Hear hear!" Kento raised his glass, and the rest of the table followed suit.
"Thank you for this, everyone," Regan said. "And thank you for your help to make this transition easier, since it really hadn't been part of the plan." She ended on a teasing note and nudged Rowen with her elbow.
"To be fair, there wasn't a plan," Robyn added.
"We didn't have a plan," Regan agreed.
"I had a plan," Rowen said.
"No you didn't," Regan and Sage said at the same time.
As Rowen argued with his fiancée and his best friend, the rest of the table set about getting themselves some dinner and passing the food around. When Jude passed a dish to Kento, their hands accidentally brushed and Kento nearly dropped the plate when the newcomer smiled at him. Goddamn, what was with this guy? Why did he keep acting like an idiot around this dude? Kento regretted sitting next to him.
Fortunately, after everyone had loaded up their plates, Jude seemed more than content to give Robyn all his attention. He asked her in quiet tones about her job and where she was living. Also how much time she planned to give him and when she could start showing him around Toyama. The tone was low and private. Jude leaned in close so he could talk just to her while other parties talked at a louder volume.
No one seemed to notice them canoodling much, except for Cye who sat right across from them, chewing with disapproval. Regan's brother was sitting quite close, tucking a strand of red hair behind Robyn's ear as he said something that made her smile and flush a little. Cye had never seen Robyn act so…girly around any guy. He couldn't recall Robyn ever saying more than a few words about this guy before. Yet, here she seemed positively infatuated with him. They seemed infatuated with each other. Had Cye missed something?
"I can feel the judgment wafting off you," Mia teased in his ear. He turned his frown to her. "They do look cozy," she admitted.
"Very," he said sourly. "He was very charming with my mother, too. She was blushing, for god's sake."
Mia shrugged. "So he knows how to talk to women, there's nothing wrong with that. It didn't feel smarmy. Your mother is still a woman, after all." She slid her blue green eyes back to her husband, then took a sip of wine. "And he is handsome." Cye's scowl deepened, and Mia squeezed his arm affectionately.
They weren't the only ones to notice. "You mentioned you bake, Jude," Mrs. Mouri commented. "Did you bake for Robyn back in the states? She does love her sweets and baked goods."
"Constantly," Jude replied, then winked at Robyn as he added, "I know the way to her heart." Even though it was mostly blocked from view by the table, it was clear when Jude placed a hand on her knee.
All conversation at the table suddenly fell silent at the violent breaking noise.
"Ryo," Mia said in surprise, glancing to her left.
Ryo held two broken chopsticks in his hand, and they weren't the cheap bamboo kind. He blinked, as if surprised himself that it happened. Then he muttered a quick apology as he stood and went quickly to the kitchen.
The drive back to Rowen's took twice as long because of the fresh snowfall, not yet plowed this far into the country and likely wouldn't be until dawn. Talk was minimal to let Rowen concentrate on the road, and Regan scanned the dark forest full of black, naked trees with spindly limbs for any signs of deer.
It was so quiet, in fact, that Jude felt the dreaded jet lag creep up on him that Robyn mentioned. The cold, drab weather, the falling snow, and the silent car ride lulled Jude into a half-sleep. He didn't even feel irritation when he saw Rowen take Rae's hand and interlace their fingers—only sorrow.
When Rowen pulled up to his apartment building, he smiled when he looked over and found Rae asleep, too. He tugged the grey beanie off her head, sending flyaway hairs this and that way, and took pleasure in smoothing her hair down. He went to wake her by tickling her nose, but the opening of a car door and then shutting ruined it. Strata sighed as he watched his future brother-in-law stomp through the powdery snow and up to the front door, while Regan stirred in his peripheral vision. He was not going to feel weird or guilty about touching his fiancée in front of her brother, no matter how miffed he was.
"Are we home?" she asked sleepily.
"Yeah, we're home."
The twins caught their second wind from the shock of the cold outside, and Rowen grabbed linens for Jude to crash on the couch, where he'd stay until his Airbnb stay was ready for him in a few days. Jude thanked him politely, then insisted on setting it up himself. When he finished, he found his sister waiting for him.
"I hope you sleep okay," she said.
"Probably not as good as you're going to sleep," he said, then made a face. Regan laughed. "I deeply regret saying that."
"Want some earplugs?"
"Oh my god, shut up."
She grinned. "I'm sorry." Regan hugged her brother tight, and he gave a long suffering sigh and returned it. "See you in the morning, Judy. And…thanks again. I know this is hard."
Only like watching my twin sister go off to live across the world with a fucking stranger, he thought, but gave her a quick smile and bid her goodnight. Thank the Lord that he was the empath of the family and not her.
Rowen was in front of his closet when Regan entered the bedroom and locked the door behind her. He closed his eyes as she wrapped her arms around his waist to hug him from behind.
"Is he settled in?"
"Mmmhmm." Her fingers danced up his stomach. Rowen turned around until he could hold her close to him, and leaned down until their noses brushed.
"From the moment I saw you again I couldn't wait to get you alone." Strata's voice was low and laid bare with wanting. He couldn't stop touching her; his skin craved hers after the loss of it for months.
"And now you have me," Regan breathed, her own fingers questing underneath his sweater and pushing up the material. She tugged until he helped her remove it. "Do what you wish, Professor, because I am all yours." She rose on her tip toes to kiss his neck, then nip his earlobe. "Tonight and every night."
Their mouths met in a deep, starving kiss, broken only when Rowen frantically pulled up Regan's sweater and tossed it aside. He walked her backwards to the bed, hand fisted in her hair, her hands already tugging at the waistband of his jeans. Rowen lifted her up and pulled her in his lap as he sat. She let out a breathless laugh, then covered her own mouth to stifle it. Rowen's eyes twinkled and he put a finger to his lips. She nodded.
Remembering that her brother was right in the other room, both quelled the urge to devour the other like they wanted to, and took it slower. Regan adorned Rowen's neck with kisses as he ran his hands over her smooth skin, feeling behind her back for bra strap hooks. His fingers closed over them and they released with a satisfying snap, and dear god her lips on his skin felt amazing—
The couple stared at one another, and an adorable flush spread across Rae's cheeks.
Rowen cleared his throat. "Yeah?"
"Where are your towels? I'm going to shower tonight."
Exasperation joined Regan's embarrassment. "He's doing this on purpose," she sighed. "I'll help him."
She plucked her sweater from the floor and tugged it back on to meet Jude out in the hallway. Regan glared, but Jude only widened his eyes innocently.
"I'm sorry, were you sleeping?" he asked.
"I hate you."
"That's a strong statement to someone who just apologized."
Regan grabbed a towel and showed him how to use the shower. "Do this again and I'll cut you," she said sweetly.
"All because I want to be clean? Regan, this is so unlike you. Cleanliness is next to godliness."
She would not find that funny, she would not find that funny. Lips twitching, Regan shoved the towel at her brother and walked away.
"It's probably weird for him," Rowen conceded when she came back in and shut the door.
"Probably," she agreed. "But do you know who doesn't care? Me. Do you know why?" Regan sat back down on Rowen's lap and snuggled up to him. "I haven't touched you in three months, and I've missed you beyond words." As she spoke, she brushed her lips across Rowen's face, down to his jaw, shoulders, and neck. "I can't stand the thought of sleeping right next to you, all night, without getting my hands on you. We'll be quiet."
They heard the shower turn on, and used the noise to cover quiet moans and gasps. The sweater disappeared again, and two pairs of pants fell to the floor. Rowen was just working his way down Regan's stomach with his mouth, her erratic breathing and whispers of encouragement spurring him on, when an entirely different sound emerged above the distant running water.
Jude was singing in the shower. Loudly.
"I'll kill him," Regan said conversationally.
A ripple of laughter coursed through Rowen, and he rested his head on her stomach. It was hard to keep up the momentum when an admittedly decent rendition of Queen's Fat Bottomed Girls rang out from the bathroom. "He's pretty good."
Jude's long shower and singing continued and effectively killed the mood, so they got under the covers and cuddled instead. "He has to sleep eventually," Rowen said.
"He can be dedicated to a cause when he finds one," Regan worried. "And if I don't get in your pants tonight, I'm going to be pretty damn salty tomorrow."
Rowen put his hand on his heart. "That was the most romantic thing you've ever said to me."
It went on for another hour—Jude singing, then drying his hair, then banging around in the living room, then calling one of his friends and having a completely unnecessary, and unnecessarily loud, conversation. Regan made herself feel better by talking shit about her brother and then texting him gifs to describe her murderous feelings towards him.
To her deep disappointment, she fell asleep while waiting for him to quiet down, but woke sometime later, still nestled in Rowen's arms.
"Did you have a nice nap?" he asked. His quiet, masculine murmur made her shiver with pleasure. Oh my goodness, she could wake up to this all the time now. She nodded. He set down the book he'd been reading, and she stared into his gorgeous eyes while she listened for any sound outside the door. "He fell asleep not too long ago," Rowen added.
"We can't wake him, or I'll have to kick him outside," Regan whispered.
Rowen smirked, and then his expression grew serious. "I have something for you."
He shifted and took something out of the bedside dresser. Something small that neatly fit in the palm of his hand. His eyes darted up to hers, almost shyly, and he looked back down at it as he spoke. "I know you said you didn't need one because the wedding's so soon. And I know how you feel about diamonds, and the cost—I promise it was more than reasonable. I saw it and I knew it was yours. And…" he swallowed, a hard lump suddenly getting in the way. "I haven't told you how much I appreciate you uprooting your entire life to be here with me. I didn't make this easy on you, and you just rolled with it. I think you deserve a pretty ring for that."
Regan's laugh was watery as he took her hand and slid the engagement ring on her right ring finger. It was delicate, elegant; a narrow twist of vines and leaves in rose gold, set with a small, deep blue sapphire. Perfect. It was perfect. Regan threw her arms around him in a fierce hug. "It's gorgeous, thank you," she said in his ear, her heart full to bursting. She sealed her gratitude with a kiss.
This time, there were no interruptions, but they were careful to be quiet. It was Rowen's idea to build a blanket fort on his bed with pillows, then tuck them underneath the blankets. The silliness of it made Regan laugh into his skin before his hands distracted her, and she had to occasionally cover his mouth to stifle his groans and gasps as her own hands wandered low and teased. They took their time, letting their bodies greet one another again after so long. After they had teased each other to the brink, Regan pulled him to the floor and climbed into his lap.
They made love slowly and deeply, driving each other wild with their attempts to stay quiet. Regan's fingernails dug into Rowen's shoulders as she shook and gasped into his neck, and Rowen crushed her to him and muffled his groans into her hair. When they recovered, they snuck to the bathroom and back into bed like children hiding from their parents, shushing each other when they laughed too loudly.
Rowen wrapped his fiancée in his arms and fell asleep with a smile on his face.
She could see the Milky Way.
Regan marveled at the vast beauty in front of her, stars filling the canvas of the night sky and coalescing around a wide strip of brilliant blue and violet. She had only ever seen the Milky Way once, but this…this view was something special.
She tore her eyes away from it when she realized she wasn't alone. A familiar energy brushed gently against her, and Regan looked down to where the starlight and moonlight glinted on metal.
Strata stood before her.
A jolt of surprise, and a little fear, coursed through her. Because it didn't feel like a dream. She felt Strata's presence as surely as she'd felt it during that final battle with the monster in the mountain village. It looked as she remembered; elegant and majestic, lean and tall like Rowen, at once archaic and timeless. Rowen was not inside—the open face area was dark.
It didn't feel empty, however. It felt like something watched her from the blank opening. Curiously, Regan's fear melted away because of its presence instead of escalating.
The armor didn't move—it waited. Regan felt compelled to address it. It was a part of Rowen, after all, intrinsically tied to him, like the color of his eyes. She took a few hesitant steps forward, and then stopped just shy of it.
"Thank you for protecting him," she said softly. "He means so much to me, and I feel better about his role and his purpose knowing that…that you're looking out for him, too." At least, I think you are, she thought.
When had she decided it was something more than an armor, something worth addressing? But the evidence was there, wasn't it? Anything that gave off an energy of its own, like the armors did, had some semblance of life to it. Maybe not full sentience, but all living things possessed instincts, at least. And although "living thing" and "metal armor" were something of an oxymoron, she could suspend her disbelief. For after she spoke, Strata's energy surged forward and didn't just brush against her skin to make it tingle, but brushed against her own energy. Regan gasped at the intimate sensation.
It didn't speak to her, but she received impressions of sorts, the way Jude could when he was manipulating and replicating emotions. Regan felt gratitude that was not hers, affection, and something…deeper than that.
Fascinated, Regan drew closer, heart pounding in her chest. It felt so alive this close. She reached out, hand trembling, and laid it on the cool metal of the breastplate.
She heard the clink of metal before she saw anything move…and then Strata's metal hand closed over her hand.
Regan woke with a start. Rowen slept deeply next to her, his arm draped over waist. She swore she still felt Strata's presence, heavy in the room. She laid her head back down and watched her fiancé sleep. Then covered his hand with hers and kept it there as she drifted back off, Strata's energy still tickling along her skin.