Fang had been forced to attend Lightning's engagement party. What was the point anyway? Wasn't the impending wedding enough? Fancy dinner here, expensive gift there. All of her friend's nuptials were draining her dry. First Snow, now Hope and Lightning. At least they were hosting it at home instead of the upscale restaurant Serah had insisted upon.
She smoothed the fabric of her blazer and rang the doorbell. While she'd visited Lightning's apartment plenty of times since their rebirth, she'd never bothered to come to Hope's house. The gaudy, multi-story monstrosity was on a plot of land on the outskirts of town. The concern that she had the wrong address dissipated when she heard someone racing up behind.
"Thank heavens I'm not the only one who's late. Heya Fang!" Vanille arrived, dragging along a woman beside her.
"Hey." Fang took a side long glance at Vanille's partner.
She was the reason they hadn't come together, or even bothered speaking for months. Truthfully, it was more Fang's fault than the petite creature standing between them.
In this world, Fang and Vanille had been housemates. This hadn't seemed unusual, they were practically family. That closeness hadn't been enough for Vanille, who'd insisted on staying in Fang's room. They'd fit a bunkbed into the space and used the spare room as an office. The easy rapport they'd had in their youth was completely gone. The years that Fang had lived away in the Dead Dunes had left a rift. How their friend's other relationships had surmounted millennia and even death was a mystery. When Vanille had begun to request small things, like a goodbye kiss before work, Fang had obliged her. Though, she couldn't understand why they were necessary. She'd only complied because it'd been easier than constant arguments. The situation had come to a head when, completely unprompted, the younger woman had announced 'it was about time she made an honest woman out of her.'
Fang had been blindsided, as she'd never thought of her sister that way. The morning had ended in tears, with Vanille running off and refusing to answer anyone's phone calls. In the midst of her disappearance she'd run into Aremiah, a woman who had served the Order in Luxerion. Vanille had rebounded fast and hard. No one could talk her out of it.
It wasn't jealously that drove Fang to cut off communication. Rather, she couldn't comprehend how Vanille instantly believed she'd found the 'love of her life.' When she'd finally returned to the house, it had been to collect her things. Within a matter of days she'd gone from decades devoted in silence, to moving in with someone else. Fang was sure that she'd run home, tail between her legs, in a matter of weeks. Instead, months had passed and all their friends seemed to accept Aremiah as a permanent fixture in Vanille's life.
So now, the three women stood awkwardly in front of the house saying nothing.
"Welcome, ladies. Everyone is in the formal sitting room. There are drinks and appetizers. If you, like Mr. Villiers, need a smoke, my son asks that you please use the back patio beside the pool. There is a basin of chilled beverages prepared there as well." Mr. Estheim led the women into the expansive house.
Pools, verandas, sitting rooms, split staircases with curving banisters. Did Hope also have a stable filled with wild stallions as well? Surely he must have, if only to ride them across the fields with his shirt billowing half open. Fang didn't know what compelled any of her friends to lead a lifestyle like this. All she needed was a cold beer and a window to watch a storm through. It took very little to put her at peace. She prayed that there was at least one other normal guest at the party.
Not in the mood to speak to anyone, lest they confront her about Vanille, she wound her way to the patio. The pool had been lit along with twinkling fairy lights illuminating the landscaping. Tall outdoor heaters glowed with flames while providing warmth.
"Palm trees aren't even regional," she muttered to herself.
"Sets a certain mood, though. Who wants pine needles clogging up their filters?"
She turned to see a man reclining in a pool chair, sipping a beer. When she stepped closer, she recognized him, but not in the way she instantaneously did her friends.
"Rygdea? Holy shit you've gotten old."
He snorted, and bubbles fizzed over the lip of his bottle. "I'm not that old. Half of the people in there have lived centuries." He gestured at the crowd buzzing around inside.
Taking a seat on the ottoman beside him, she began probing at the hair behind his ears. The strands at his temples were white and she could see other grey hairs sprouting elsewhere. A great many of them framed his lips, and streaks ran down his chin. The last time she'd seen him, he'd only been 24. A relatively young Captain, respected and well-liked by his fellow officers. The two had met under horrible circumstances, but he had succeeded in reuniting her with Vanille, which was all she'd wanted. He'd never used unnecessary force, nor had he even been untruthful. Hell, he'd been more trustworthy than Vanille'd been at the time. Or currently, for that matter.
"I'm only 35," he spoke against her fingers as she inspected his facial hair. "If you're anything like them, you've probably lapped me by several decades."
"Didn't anyone tell you not to bring up a woman's age?"
She stood and hooked her foot beneath his chair, swiftly toppling it. Immediately he tumbled into the pool. No sound came after the initial splash. The man just floated face down in the water as the chair rolled lazily toward the deep end.
"Rygdea?" she asked nervously. "Rygdea, if you're dicking around, stop," she said a little louder. It would be just her luck for him to have knocked himself out on the way down. "God damn it!"
Finding no other solution, she jumped fully clothed into the water. She needn't have worried, because as soon as she closed in on him his arms wrapped around her. They spun wildly until she managed to claw her way free. When she surfaced, he was already upright and laughing. Frustrated with herself, she waded through the shallow water. Her outfit felt slick and heavy, so she peeled off her ruined blazer and left it to sink.
"My jacket's on the floor where we were sitting," Rygdea said, wading a few steps behind her.
"And I care because?" She turned to scowl at him.
He crouched below the water; only from his nose up was exposed to the air. A cool winter wind blew across the patio. Perfectly comfortable dry, the weather seemed frigid against her now wet skin. Shivering, she ducked below the water just as he had. She began to crawl toward him, but he submerged completely and propelled toward the staircase. The air continued to freeze the top of her head causing it ache. Soon he had gotten completely out of the water and returned with his coat.
His clothes sucked tightly to his body. While his pants wrinkled awkwardly around his legs, his dress shirt clung to his torso revealing an undershirt. With her dress flowing around her midsection, she realized that her outfit would be significantly more revealing. Even with him holding his jacket out to her, she almost refused to get out.
"Leave it there." Her words created ripples in the surface tension.
"Come on, just get out all ready." He remained at the staircase, holding the garment open so she might slip her arms in.
As she ascended, she felt her outfit rearrange itself. Soon the fabric felt like a second skin that moved with her. Just as she feared, she saw his eyes fleetingly leave her own. Her hand traveled to his cheek, and then she gave him a vicious slap. He stood still, then ever so gently, placed the jacket over her shoulders like a cape.
Neither of them acknowledged Hope's presence until he spoke. "I brought you some towels. We heard you guys jump in. But we do keep suits for guests, you could've asked. They're in the pool house." He pointed at a building to their right.
She said nothing as she took a towel and fled.
Fang had spent her life taking care of others. It was what she did. She helped raise Vanille. She protected her friends upon re-awakening. Then she sacrificed her final chance at happiness to protect those she loved in Nova Chrysalia. In essence, her life was never hers.
Slouched alone on her couch, she wondered what it was she did want. She had the freedom to be selfish, but no particular desire to act upon. It then occurred to her that she'd never actually got a good look at her neighborhood. The only street she knew was her own, and the only bus routes she'd bothered learning led to work and university. Any of the restaurants and shopping centers in the area meant nothing to her. All the clothes she wore were purchased while visiting Lightning. All of the places she ate, she'd first gone to with her friends. Now was a better time than any to explore.
With her purse slung over her shoulder, she boarded the bus and rode until it had left behind the endless rental homes filled to capacity with grad students. She traveled slightly past the chain-grocers and fast food joints. When the bus paused temporarily on a street filled with old family-owned store fronts, something told her this was the right place. A feeling of anticipation fluttered in her stomach.
When her sandaled foot hit the pavement, her body moved and began to walk North. For no reason at all, she kept walking, taking in the sights around her. The buildings were a mixture of stones and stucco. The atmosphere was entirely different from the metal and glass high rises of the downtown area. The earthy vibe somehow reminded her of Ruffian. A small duck pond even glittered a couple of blocks down.
"Didn't expect to see you here," a voice called out to her.
A bell chimed as Rygdea closed the door of a hardware store behind him. He was carrying a bag of odds and ends, which he tossed carelessly over her head. The items clanged as they landed in the bed of his truck. Fang hadn't even noticed the vehicle parked parallel to the street.
"I live that…" Her finger pointed in a couple of directions before resting at her side. "I live in the area," she concluded.
"Fancy that. A whole year and we've never bumped into each other before. I live a few blocks that way." He pointed past the duck pond. "Needed to pick up a few things after work."
She began striding down the sidewalk. But whatever the urge had been, the one to keep moving, had vanished. Turning around, she saw Rygdea causally leaning against his truck. He spun his keys around his finger.
What she needed was an explanation. Or directions. She couldn't understand her own behavior. Maybe she was just in want of a distraction.
"Any place to get a drink around here?" she asked.
She sat opposite Rygdea, as had become the norm these days. With no premeditation involved, she'd continued running into him all over their neighborhood. It was a shock that they hadn't met earlier. Or perhaps, they'd passed each other without noticing. Now, whenever she caught the swish of his ponytail she found herself calling him over.
"You gonna finish that?" she asked, pointing at his long forgotten pancakes.
Rygdea slid the dish across the table and resumed mutilating his omelette. He snorted when Fang slathered each separate layer in syrup. Not like she hadn't already finished her own entire meal. When he wasn't stabbing at his eggs, he kept eyeing his phone and silencing it. Someone had been trying to get ahold of him all morning. Actually, he'd been grabbing a prepacked meal at the grocer when Fang saw him. She'd strutted over, told him not to eat that questionable junk, but come with her. And he had, blowing off his other plans.
"I think I'm going to order these next time." She smiled blissfully as she shoved another dripping bite into her mouth.
"Just a minute ago you said, 'I'm only ever eating biscuits with gravy from now on.'"
Suddenly, Fang's phone vibrated violently and skidded against her plate. When she looked down, she wondered what the hell Snow wanted. The man was limited to text messages. Calls from him had thankfully become rare. He never heeded anyone's schedule and had been reprimanded for interrupting jobs and classes one time too many.
"Mind if I take this?" She rolled her eyes before lifting the phone to her ear. "This an emergency? Anyone dead?"
"One of these days, I'm going to call you with terrible news and you're going to feel like a jackass. But yes, I am very much alive. But I won't be much longer if I don't finish putting in this floor. Easy-Click? Even a kid can do it? Crock of shit! If I don't finish today, Serah will murder me." Snow's voice sank with desperation.
"And you thought I could help you? Best of luck, buddy, but I'm busy and hanging up."
"Don't," Snow shouted. "Hand it to Rygdea."
She almost did as instructed, but then she paused and ended the call. So that was who he'd been ignoring all morning. A laugh almost escaped her mouth; avoiding Snow was almost a rite of passage among her friends. He passed with flying colors.
"Take it, that whoever it was didn't have an emergency?"
"Nah. They're accustomed to being ignored, especially this morning." When she raised her eyebrow, he purposefully looked away. "How'd he guess to call me?"
"I shot him a message, thinking it would hold him off for another…what, minute and a half?"
"You told him we were together?"
Swallowing air, she realized too late she'd bitten an empty fork. Of course Snow would call after a text like that. The man had been double checking, gathering evidence. By hanging up, she'd confirmed his misguided suspicions. The idiot might even spread rumors.
"I only told him I ran into you while getting breakfast, and when I finished I'd be right over," he said, trying to ease her obvious worry.
"Not a problem." She sipped at her burnt coffee.
"Fang, do you mind answering something for me?" He gave up on his omelette and pushed it toward her.
"Go for it." She doused the eggs in hot sauce and ketchup.
"Does how we first met still bother you?"
"You mean cornering me, holding me down, blindfolding me, and taking me aboard your airship?" She watched as he folded his napkin into a tiny square. He almost said something, but she held up a finger. "Or do you mean the other time we first met?"
"That's what I thought." He fiddled with the check the waitress had left.
"Far as I know, we did something similar to Snow. We kidnapped him and his frozen girlfriend. But you seem to have no problem with that. And don't you dare say some bullshit about penance and helping him build New Bhodum. Because you would have helped him anyway." She began eating the rest of his breakfast.
"Snow is different from you." He started pulling bills out of his wallet.
"If I lived in regret for all the awful things I've done, I guarantee," she said, finally pushing away a plate with food still on it, "I wouldn't be here today. Finding me and following orders? That's nothing compared to what I live with. Let's name one thing, one of many, oh, that's right. I destroyed your planet. Then I left you to pick up the pieces practically alone." She slowly stirred a sugar packet into her drink. "So protecting me from being slaughtered? That was a gift Rygdea. But if it bothers you that much, then this is your opportunity to completely forget it." Adding another packet, she stirred too vigorously and droplets splashed onto the table. "Because in this life, the first time we met was at a friend's house. Now breakfast is on me, I was the one who offered."
He held the ticket above his head when she lunged for it.
"What kind of a man would I be, if I let a poor college student pay for me?" Grinning, he leapt out of the booth and raced to the cash register.
Once again, Fang found herself sitting at a bar with Rygdea on a Friday night. She really did need new friends, because he happened to be the only one not completely preoccupied with an assumed soulmate. Except for Sazh, but he had actual responsibilities like raising his son. However, if Hope were to be trusted, the older man spent an entire afternoon building an online dating profile. He'd needed assistance in making sure the algorithms wouldn't over look him. Maybe she was missing out on something.
"God, how long has it been since I've gone on a proper date," she said before downing a shot and clinking the glass to the bar top. "Probably not since the dawn of time." Her head joined the glass in resting on the wooden surface. "Because I'm old remember? You said so." She groaned. "I'm actually one of the younger of my friends. 'Cept for Lighting. She's just a baby and already engaged. I was 21 for only 13 years. I'm younger than everyone in this establishment, including you." She spun her finger in mock victory above her head. "Whoopee."
"It's the mullet."
"I do not have a mullet. This is a shag." Fang sat up to glare at Rygdea.
"Call it what you will, looks like a mullet." His fingers played across the wisps at the top of her head. "Cut a couple more of these," his fingers snipped like scissors, pulling up hanks of hair, "and it's business up front," his hand slid down her neck and massaged, "party in the back. Only a certain type of guy is into that. And believe me; he wouldn't be your type."
Fang pushed his hand away and looked up at the bartender. The man shrugged sympathetically. She pulled out her phone and dialed Lightning. Somehow, she'd become closer to her now that Vanille was no longer in the picture.
"Do I have a mullet," she said, her teeth gritting.
There was silence on the other end.
"Do I have a damn mullet?"
"Maybe not as pronounced as the one Snow had," Lightning said before Fang hung up.
"And the verdict is?" Rygdea strummed his fingers on the bar top.
"Tomorrow, we meet here. Same time. Me and you both have new haircuts."
"Wait, how did I get wrangled into this? I've been sporting this look for years. Ladies love a good handhold." He winked, and Fang scowled.
"Your ponytail looks like a desiccated deer leg. And these flowy bits make it seem like you don't own a comb." She stroked his temples in the same way as she'd done at the engagement party. "You're attracting the entirely wrong type of woman with your current look." She kicked at his stool. "No need to relive your glory days, this is a new world, old man. Use this second chance to your advantage."
"It's yet to fail me. Check out the lady to your left, seated at the booth in the very back. She's been eyeing me all night." He held her forearm when she began to turn. "Not so rapidly, casual-like."
"Do you plan on leaving with her?" Fang said, her laugh tinged with uncertainty.
"When have I left with someone other than you?"
When she peered over her shoulder, Fang's stomach slowly dropped and she hoped her drink wouldn't unexpectedly come to the surface. Her eyes zeroed in on the booth, but there was only an elderly couple on a date. She whipped around to see him grinning playfully. Finally, he slid his hand away from her arm.
"Had you going, didn't I?"
"Guess your approach isn't working out as well with the girl-folk as planned. Eh?"
He sipped at his beer, still smiling. "Or maybe, it's working perfectly."
"We meet here tomorrow. Both of us have new looks. Then we'll see which of us is correct."
This was a mistake, a glorious mistake that was backfiring at an alarming rate.
Fang had done as they'd agreed, and had almost set up a salon appointment. In order to get seen at such short notice, she would've had to pay a premium alongside the exorbitant cost of the cut and styling. While she would go far to prove a point, wasting her money wasn't feasible. So she'd found a curling iron long since forgotten after Vanille had officially moved out.
She wasn't nearly as talented with the tool as her roommate had been. Fang's hair exploded in a mass of uneven curls. Panicking, she'd tried to brush them out. This only made the situation worse, until she had to give up. Once she'd re-showered, she'd made a video call to Lightning.
Thoroughly amused, the woman had walked Fang through the grooming process in baby steps. Instead of 'Rygdea's Mullet', her hair now fell in elegant loose curls. She appeared less likely to skewer someone with a lance, even if that weren't true.
Changing her look was not the mistake.
When she entered the bar, she immediately noticed a crowd of women from the local office buildings. All of these women were situated around one man in particular. The top part of his hair was tousled, meant to look like he'd casually run his hands through it. The back was shorn, revealing a delicious bit of skin where his neck met his collar. When he turned at her arrival, she could tell that he'd finally shaved. He wasn't nearly as old as she nagged him about being. Also, his hair was tousled because he was fussing with it. He nervously did so when his eyes met hers.
Telling Rygdea to change was where she'd misfired. Now, everyone else could see how handsome he was.
He waded his way through the women. Placing his palm on the back of a paralyzed Fang, he steered her over to a table instead of the bar. When they both sat, he tugged at one of her curls and watched it spring back into place.
"What should I start us off with? Unless, you're waiting for another fella to buy you a drink?" He said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.
He'd undercut his question with a joking air. Any other day, she would've immediately responded in kind. Perhaps she'd claim… No matter how hard she tried, nothing came to her. The subtle twitch in his lip indicated how serious this moment was. Her answer would dictate how to proceed in their relationship.
"Why did you die so young?" she asked bluntly.
She'd caught him off guard. He'd been making to stand, but he slouched back into his seat. He'd been equally shocked by her admission that he was young as he was by the sudden question. Peering around the room, he tried to signal a server.
"That was insensitive of me. It just never occurred to me before. You lived past Cocoon's first fall, but didn't time-travel. You should have died of old age. Did you? Were you a ninety-year-old in your deathbed with your wife? Did you happen to be reincarnated in your thirties?" Fang felt the words dripping out of her mouth. "I've never actually died, only crystalized."
She wanted to know everything about him. Since the second she'd seen him at Hope's house, she'd felt an insatiable curiosity. He'd been attractive then, sure, she wasn't blind. But she hadn't honestly thought anyone else would bother with him. He wasn't smooth by any means; he'd even insulted her that day. She'd thought she'd have more time. All the women leering at him were proof to the contrary.
"You've never worried about sensitivity before. Especially when you wacked me in the groin with your spear." He laughed and then sighed. "The age you see me now, is the age I was then. No wife, still a bachelor."
"Take care of yourself, ok? I was so busy running around keeping the peace I didn't notice when my body couldn't handle it. Wish I could say I went out in a blaze of glory, protecting a class of school children. But a simple infection was all it took. Risk of traveling all over Gran Pulse. Didn't have immunity to diseases we'd never encountered before."
"I shouldn't have brought it up," Fang had unconsciously been clutching his hand.
"Like you said, this is my second chance. I'm taking things slowly. Focusing on opportunities I missed out on." He rubbed his thumb over her knuckles. "This time I refuse to find myself in that same position. Lying alone, and knowing that no one's coming. Fang, I don't want to spend my life alo… Shit!" He shouted the last word as liquid spilled down his face and onto his shirt.
"Forgive me, Sir. I tripped. I was just bringing over Fang's usual." The bartender had personally come to deliver drinks they hadn't ordered.
"Not a problem." Rygdea said, flapping his sticky dress shirt away from his chest. "Can you give us a minute, though?"
The bartender quickly fled leaving the two alone at the table. Whatever mood that had settled between them was gone, over taken by the stench wafting off Rygdea. Fang didn't recognize his now stained clothing. Had he purchased something new to wear like she had? The only other time she'd seen him in a button-down had been at the party. His style was generally laid back. She wanted to know if he was trying to impress her. The other option, that he intended on taking home one of the women from earlier, made her stomach churn. She'd spent a good hour in a dressing room sending snapshots to Lightning, specifically avoiding mention of who she was meeting. He licked his upper lip.
"I don't know whose regular this is, but it ain't yours. This is olives, coconuts, and ass."
Fang almost asked if she could taste it, but he resumed speaking.
"So, set your eye on anyone here? For some reason the place is packed tonight." He pointed out a group of guys shuffling into the bar. "I'm gonna head home. Call me if a newcomer gives you a hard time, I live right around the corner."
"Wait, you're not leaving are you?" Fang stood up and followed him as he walked toward the exit.
"Course I am. You don't need an old man getting in your hair." He toyed with a curl beside her ear. "Which is beautiful by the way. Don't know how I forgot to mention it. Not that you don't look amazing any other day of the week. You work that mullet."
"Quit saying mullet."
"Call 'em like I see 'em," he said, waving as the door swung closed behind him.
"It's serendipitous that we're all here isn't it." Serah said.
"How do you figure that?" Fang asked, instantly regretting this ladies night.
When Lightning had phoned her the morning after the disaster at the bar, she'd tried to keep light of the matter. It was absolutely no one's business but her own how wretched she actually felt. Of course, her attempts at acting apathetic had done the opposite. Lightning had called her on her bullshit and invited her for an evening in. This would have been fine, were there not an overly giddy sister present. Every other sentence out of her mouth was related to marriage. How hers was going, how she couldn't wait until Lightning's, how she wondered who would be next. Any second, the topic would change to why one of them in particular was currently single.
"The world is huge! But everything lined up so that we could be together again. Hope was even in an entirely different country, but he'd moved here because of the renowned laboratories. Lightning was stationed at this very Air Force base. What are the odds of that?"
Fang's mind drifted slowly. Rygdea was also here because of the Air Force. He'd liked the region so much that he'd returned after being discharged. Or at least those were the memories he'd been supplemented, whether they'd happened or not.
"And you and Vanille just happened to get scholarships for school here? It's beautiful." Serah hummed and began fiddling with the music piping from the sound system.
"And completely planned by a psychopath." Fang added. "At least we're free of that now. If I choose to move on, I can do so with no one to stop me."
Lightning quit helping her sister struggle with Hope's elaborate hifi system to join Fang on the couch. "Honestly, I don't believe we're ever completely free."
"What?" Serah and Fang chimed in unison.
"Every once in a while, I get a glimmer of something out of my control. It's never malevolent, simply startling. I explained it to Hope one time and he told me he felt the same thing. Only he had a better analogy." Lightning frowned, but then resumed her story. "When Hope and I had traveled together, we had gone through the Gapra Whitewoods. Every inch of the place looked eerily similar. I guess it was meant to confuse the trapped monsters, if that were possible. He insisted on leading, so I'd briefly thought 'we're screwed.' But that hadn't been necessary. Because down each pathway, there'd been a light indicating the way out. Presumably so researchers don't die unnecessarily.
"Here, I'd felt something similar. It hadn't been a literal glowing light, but rather a faint tingle right outside my vision. The first time I'd followed it, I'd found Hope. He'd been sitting in a café nibbling a bagel and angrily scribbling in a notebook." Lightning smiled at the memory. "I then assumed that this feeling would lead me to the rest of you. That it was our connection or something. But it didn't. Every time, no matter where or when, I was always directed back to Hope. He always seemed just as surprised. Like we'd started in opposite directions and met unexpectedly in the middle. And soon enough, I realized how grateful I was. Because every time I saw him," she blushed, and then pinched her nose trying to regain composure, "felt like magic."
Lightning had called it magic.
He had been the only one outside. Sitting in the dark, as if waiting for her, knowing that she would ultimately sit beside him. He'd smiled as she stroked at his hair. His stubble had prickled at her wrist. She'd barely managed a half-hearted hug during her other reunions. But sitting next to him, only his face was proof that any time had passed between them.
He had set his beer on the floor so that he could place his hand over hers. She'd scooted closer to him until their knees touched. If she hadn't heard someone open the patio door and immediately close it, she was unsure of what she might've done. Even when he'd wrapped her in his coat, yes, his eyes had wandered. Only, they had stopped at her lips, trying to read her next action.
When she'd slapped him, he'd taken the blow just as he had all the previous ones. She'd felt his strength while aboard the Lindblum. She'd mostly wasted time in the training center, in favor of getting lost like she'd done when she'd been without chaperone. Whenever Rygdea had taken a break, he'd wandered in to join her. She'd been so singularly focused on Vanille that she'd pretended she couldn't tell what had been going on. It was nothing that he'd done, but everything that she'd felt. For the first time, someone hadn't pulled their punches. Hadn't seen her as an orphan. Hadn't seen her as a means to an end. Hadn't seen her as anything but who she was. When she met him again, that feeling had flooded back. Then he'd accidently insulted her, but she couldn't let it slide off her like water as she would with anyone else. He'd hurt her feelings, something no one had ever done before.
Then had come the day she'd met him entirely on accident. That frustration she'd had was effortlessly overwritten, because the relief at seeing him again was worth more. It had only been two weeks, but the fact that she'd been still irritated hadn't gone unnoticed. And when she'd tried to leave, his eyes had never left her. She'd noticed this too. So she'd come back, without means of escape. Like the day he'd released her to look for Vanille alone. She could have made a run for it, taken her chances on her own. Honestly, she should have. But she'd seen her communicator blinking, and when she heard his panicked voice she'd agreed to come back. His worry and fear, it had nothing to do with his position and everything to do with how he'd felt. Against all her better judgement, she just kept coming back.
Magic had been power. Control. She had written history three times with magic alone. However this magic that Lightning spoke of, she wanted no part of it. This magic knotted her stomach and clouded her mind.
Finally she was sure that something must change. One of them had to say it, but she was terrified of mentioning it first. Because what if, this entire time, all of this existed only in her mind? So she'd been half-assed.
Then he'd left her standing alone. He had left. She'd understood why; he'd been humiliated. But she hadn't cared what anyone else might think. But still, he had left her behind.
She couldn't handle this waffling. She would be direct with him. She would call and end things. Or start things. She didn't know which yet. Once and for all, she would be free of things beyond her control. This was a world without magic, and damn it she would lead a life without intervention.
"Meet me at the bar," Fang said into her cell phone. "Now."
"Any particular reason? I'm in the middle of something."
"Just get down here," she said, cutting him off.
Fang hung up her phone and slammed it face down onto the polished countertop. The room was decorated with paper lanterns and glittering red garlands. Instead of the usual dishes of pretzels, trays filled with candy hearts covered most table tops.
The woman had spent almost all of her time in Nova Chrysalia in isolation. She wasn't aware of how much the average person loved holidays. They celebrated birth, death, anniversaries, promotions, and any number of deities. Apparently today had something to do with fertility. The usual grouchy crowd that assembled at the bar was paired up, using the day to snag dates incestuously amongst one another. The decorations had even lured in young couples she'd never seen before.
"He's letting you fly solo today of all days?" the bartender asked, as he poured her whiskey.
"I don't always have to be with Rygdea. Both of us usually have nothing better to do."
"So you aren't together?" He handed a glass of wine to a woman waiting beside her. "You don't recognize me, do you? I tried to become a member of Monoculus, but never made the cut. I still hung around Ruffian though. I was certain you and Adonis were an item then, and once we re-met here I was positive you were with that guy Rygdea."
Fang looked up from her drink and found the man leaning into her personal space. The glass shook slightly in her hand as she placed it back on the counter. Something about him made her nervous. She could easily disable him should he try something, but she remained frozen in her seat. It wasn't so much him, as it was the idea that someone would feel that way about her. Watching her every move, without bothering to see how she might have felt about it. If he'd just said something at the hideout she could have turned him down. Instead he'd nursed a crush that he'd carried for possibly a decade. Had he stalked her?
"I'm sure you're a great guy and all," Fang began fumbling in her pocket for her wallet, "but I'm not really the person you think I am."
"Please, just one date. A movie, dinner, coffee even. Whatever you want, just give me a chance." He tried to reach for one of her hands but she snapped it away.
"Not gonna happen," she said, slamming a bill on the counter and rising to leave. "Keep the change."
By the time she'd left the building, she'd begun to calm. The evening air chilled the rush of blood that was flushing her skin. She started to turn the corner to the bus station when she caught sight of Rygdea fighting with a parking meter. He dropped a few coins when she called out to him.
"The heck you wearing?" she said, hooking her thumbs on imaginary suspenders.
"Ooh, not a fan of my 'workin' man' look?" he said, swinging his hips and pretending to model.
"Why do you have a belt and suspenders; isn't that redundant?" she said, jogging over to the truck. "And what's all this?" She began patting white dust out of his newly shorn hair.
"You said 'now,' I didn't have the chance to clean up. I was working on my house." He shook himself like a dog, and a cloud of white fluffed from his clothes and dropped to the pavement. "Shall we head in?"
"Show me," she said, grabbing the passenger door handle.
"Show you what exactly?" He clicked the button on his keychain, unlocking the vehicle.
"Your house, your project, why you're a walking dust devil, why you need suspenders." She stepped up and into the cab, while Rygdea closed the door behind her.
They'd sat in moderate silence as he drove down side streets the couple of blocks it took to reach his house. No wonder he'd frequented this bar, it was within walking distance. Just like he had closed the door, this time he'd run around the front to open it for her. He'd even taken her hand as she'd stepped down from the running board.
"Welcome to my place!" He ran ahead to unlock the door. "It's a little messy, but that should be obvious based on the get up." He snapped his suspenders.
The house was nothing like those her friends owned. Lightning and Hope shared an enormous house, while Snow and Sahz's families lived in an idyllic suburb of identical homes. Rygdea's place was tiny and old. Which made no sense since this was the new world, but in its planning nothing had been left out. There had been neighborhoods of every type and income level. Leave it to a god to shoehorn poverty into an ideal world.
Fang ran her hands along the worn wood of the walls.
"I know. The brown paneling is ugly as sin. I've been ripping it off and working on the drywall so I can paint it. I've already completed my bedroom; I'm currently working on the den."
He led her down a hallway into a room with floor to ceiling windows. She had to take a step down as the entire room was sunken. In the far corner was a pile of splintered panels; next to them was an empty bucket with dried white goop stuck to its edges. When she looked behind her, she could see her footprints in fine powder that covered most surfaces of the room.
"Want a drink?" Rygdea pulled two sodas from a cooler before using it as a bench.
"Do I lead people on?" She took his proffered can and sat beside him.
"I take it this has to do with the bartender?"
"How the hell did you know about that?" She sipped at her soda.
"How didn't you know? That boy took a shine to you the second he saw you. Did you really think the drinks were that cheap?" He snorted. "Or that I like cocktail-cologne?"
"So I do then." She put the can on the floor and placed her face in her hands. "How does this keep happening to me? First Vanille, and now that asshole. Am I really that oblivious?"
"No." He played with her hair until she looked up at him. "You don't want to ruffle any feathers. You know how to knock someone out, just not how to talk to them. But everything can't be a fight, Fang."
"It can't?" She huffed and sat up.
"Nope. But you've only fought with me once since we met up here. Guess I'm like a personal trainer. Soon enough you'll be ready to ask out guys without stomping on their feet. Hey, you sure you aren't a little boy?"
When he laughed, Fang elbowed him in the ribs. She avoided his eyes and instead looked around the den. The last orange light of evening was fading. Long shadows from the trees in his backyard branched along the floor. She had never thought to change the house she lived in. She'd awoken in it, so in a sense it had been designed just as she should enjoy it. That level of perfection and forethought hadn't been granted to the rest of the populace.
Also there was the matter of change as a whole. Lightning had an apartment upon their rebirth, yet now she lived with Hope. Even if Fang's current home had been perfect, would she always consider it so? She didn't intend to remain alone forever.
"Do you want any help? I've never done something like this before, but if you insist on being my trainer you might as well teach me this too." She waved her hand toward the panels and goopy bucket.
He smiled. "You know, once you offer, you ain't getting out of this. You're my partner for life." He grabbed a mask and slid it over the top of her head. "Let's get to sanding."
They spent several hours smoothing the seams throughout the walls. Fang found herself especially excited when Rygdea handed her a taping knife. She brandished the blade around the room before he had to grasp her around the middle and plant her in front of the wall. Their time was limited between when the compound dried just enough to be useful and when it hardened completely. The first area Fang worked on looked mildly streaky, the rest were completely satisfactory.
"You're going to want to fix that one," she said pointing at the wall closest to the windows.
"Nah. I'll keep it as proof. When people say 'wow, that Fang sure is a natural at everything!' I can show them that."
"You act like we have a ton of mutual friends. Basically it's only Snow." She picked at a clump of joint compound stuck to her arm hair. "By the way, you still haven't explained what the suspenders are about. I know you have zero fashion sense, but those are a little much."
Rygdea traipsed over to a tool belt he'd left slung over a chair. He hung it over his forearm and then dragged a five gallon bucket over. The tools within the bucket rang as they tumbled against each other.
"May I?" he asked, looping the belt around her from behind.
She looked over her shoulder and nodded. With her permission he began cinching the belt right above her hip bones. One at a time, he began adding tools to the leather pockets and straps at her waist.
"I'm a hell of lot stronger than I look. I've carried weapons heavier than this. A few bits of metal aren't going to weigh me down."
"Try walking," he said quietly into her ear, before stepping backward.
She immediately spun around at the rush of warm air by her face. When she'd turned, he'd already backed out of reach. With the first step she took, the slinky fabric of her clothing gave way. Both the belt and her pants slipped past her hips. She made a startled noise as she grasped the both of them before they descended further. Rygdea's hands were faster; his callused fingers grazed her bare hips as they hooked onto the leather. He quickly unfastened the buckle.
"Suspenders keep me decent," he said with a laugh.
"Decent for whom? You bring home other girls for free labor?"
"Why do you think my bedroom was finished first?"
She adjusted her pants and then lightly punched his side. Rygdea just grinned and returned the belt to the chair. As he began cleaning up the mess, she sat back on the cooler. The yard beyond the window was completely cloaked in darkness. His eyes followed hers, and finally it occurred to both of them how late it was.
"You hungry? I can order a pizza. Any particular toppings?"
"All the meats. No mushrooms. You pick the rest."
"All the meat?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Hell yes, I was raised as a huntress. Pepperoni, salami, sausage, ham: all the meats."
"As the lady wishes," he said, pulling his phone out of his pocket.
"Would you mind if…" Fang found herself suddenly embarrassed, "if I took a shower? I know, I know. Wild woman, used to being filthy. Lived as an enemy of the state. Then later lived in the desert."
"Come with me." He took her hand and led her to his bedroom.
Just as he'd explained earlier, he had completed one room of the house. The walls were painted warm beige, but all of the trimming and moldings popped in a brilliant white. It reminded her of the sun-bleached bones jutting from the sands of the Dead Dunes. The room was furnished simply, but she could tell that he'd put thought into the placement of each item. He opened a dresser drawer and grabbed a t-shirt. He paused for a moment before opening a different drawer and grabbing some pajama pants.
"My clothes might be a little big, but these pants have a drawstring. The bathroom is through that door," he handed her the clothing. "There's a shower and a tub. Use whichever you like, the pizza's gonna take a while to get here anyway."
"You fond of a good soak? A couple of candles, bubbles up to your nose?" She teased him, but he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"With as much effort as I'm putting into her, I plan on living in this baby forever." He gently patted the wall. "And from what I hear, ladies like a bath. I better get to calling, I bet the delivery guys are swamped today."
Once he'd left, Fang decided she might as well take advantage. Unlike her shower/tub combo, he'd installed a deep and elegant claw footed bath. The entire space was outfitted in luminous stones and shining metal. Whenever he did complete his house, it was going to be stunning.
Fang sunk until her head was almost beneath the water. She began to replay all the things he'd said so far that evening. This house, his house; he was preparing it. He might have joked about ladies loving a tub, but this wasn't a bachelor pad. This would be a family home. She'd been so lost in thought that she'd missed the sound of the doorbell. When she heard Rygdea softly knock on the bathroom door, she accidently swallowed a mouthful of soapy water.
"You're free to stay in there as long as you'd like, but I want to warn you the pizza'll get cold. Your poor meat will go to waste. Or I might take mercy on them and pick off the toppings one by one. I'll eat the pepperoni's first, then the ham…"
"Keep your paws off my meat, I'll be out in a second," Fang said, setting the tub to drain.
After dressing, she looked in the mirror. She wasn't sure if it was the heat of the bath or her nervousness, but her face was red. She'd never actually worn a man's clothes before. She'd opted not to wear her bra; somehow the dust had wormed its way into her shirt. When she'd pulled the undergarment onto her damp skin, it had felt gummy. The white t-shirt he'd leant her wasn't nearly as opaque as she would have liked. When she tried to detangle her hair with her fingers, she'd only made a mess of it. Even shaking her head every which way did nothing.
Resolving to not care, she made her way to the kitchen. When she entered, Rygdea glanced at her before becoming extremely focused on the beer he was opening. He spun the pizza box toward her and lifted the top cardboard.
"I knew it was a holiday, but I never expected them to do this without asking. I'm sorry and feel like an idiot." He set down his bottle and fiddled with a container of marinara sauce.
Inside the box was the dinner they had ordered. It had all of the meat and even a few random bits of pineapple. He apparently liked fruit on his pizza. Only after that revelation, did Fang finally realize what had gotten him worked up. Just like the candies at the bar, the pizza was in the shape of a heart.
"What, did you ask for olives and they give you pineapples instead?" She came to stand next to him.
"No, Fang. The damn thing's a heart." He winced and placed the sauce on the counter. "After all of that crap I said. And that thing with the bartender. Here I go, massively screwing things up."
"You leading me on?" Fang touched his face, directing him to look into her eyes.
"No. I wouldn't hurt you like that." He blinked a couple of times. "Not implying that you've hurt anyone. Just. I mean. Lord, I need to shut my trap."
Fang grinned. "That I can help you with."
His lips tasted chalky like the gypsum that coated his body. He didn't need any persuasion or permission. His arms wrapped around her and his fingers pressed small patterns into her back. She briefly thought about his handhold comment when she gripped his bare neck. If he grew his hair again, she would decide which she preferred. Their dinner lay almost forgotten until his stomach growled.
"Rygdea." Fang watched him bite into a slice. "How fast is too fast?"
He almost choked, but succeeded in swallowing. "Am I moving too quickly for you?"
"Hardly. Better scarf down another piece if you intend on keeping up with me."