The tiles were cold against the pale skin of the folded legs that pressed against them. The low melody of another generic pop song echoed off the smooth white walls and an ever-so-slightly flat voice sang along quietly. The tune was occasionally covered by the satisfying sound of blades slicing through strand after strand until knobby knees were surrounded by mismatched piles of inky black hair.
Feet pressed to the floor and pushed a slender woman upward, her faded eyes catching sight of the chipped polish on her toes and her sore throat pouring out a sigh. The blinding light that beamed down from overhead cast dark shadows across her freckled face as she snipped a final section off the back and let the silver scissors clatter unto the smooth counter like a small announcement of victory. But there was no feeling of satisfaction, no sense of accomplishment. Trembling fingers tucked a piece of hair away from her tear-stained cheeks; blue-gray eyes overflowed with defeat. She still felt dirty.
Taking a deep breath, the young woman squared her shoulders and flicked the light off sharply, leaving the mess for later. Her right arm raised and scrubbed away her tears and her left hand ran through her chopped locks, pulling out little snipped bits that she had yet to brush out—if she ever got to that point. The light of the sun rising over the city slowly began to creep into her small apartment as she waited for the coffee machine to quit its gurgling. The smell of cheap grounds and vanilla-flavored cream wafted into the air, lifted by clouds of steam.
Carrying her mug to the futon across the carpeted floor, she sat down, crossing her legs and pulling the thin curtains open to watch the sun drag itself into the sky. Beams of light shot out from edges and corners of towering glass skyscrapers and rows upon rows of coffee shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Feeling some semblance of peace at last, she closed her eyes and brought the ceramic mug to her lips, taking a cautious sip of the piping hot beverage. Her eyes fluttered open again and her nose crinkled a touch. Too sweet.
The next signal to move was when the light reached over the top of an old friend's favorite book store. She had timed this a hundred times before—if she got dressed and left within five minutes of this occurrence, she would reach the Citadel with two minutes to spare. Two minutes meant she was in a hurry; no one would bother to stop for a chat. Just the way she liked it. She set her mug in a sink that had been collecting dishes for well over a week and headed to her bedroom to pull on the same clothes she brought to the heart of Insomnia nearly every day. On her way out the door, she tugged a bulky denim jacket off the door and slung it over her slender shoulder before locking up and stuffing the key into the side of her boot.
The morning air should have felt heavier with that amount of rain that had fallen over the past month or so. Puddles lined every street and water droplets clung to railings and the eaves of roofs, letting go to drip onto the sidewalk or an unsuspecting passerby's head every so often. The woman pulled her jacket on as she went, ignoring the buzzing of her phone in her pocket.
This walk was the same as it always had been over the past month—but the feeling was different. Her stomach was lead, her heart was on the verge of pounding, and her nerves were just barely quelled by her deep, steady breaths that puffed out into the air as steam. This was the day they got their results back. The day they found out if all the work they'd put in over the past six weeks was worth it. The day they were chosen as the new set of glaives.
The side door to the soldiers' practice wing felt particularly heavy as she threw it open and rushed inside, her pace quickening as the thud of her boots echoed through the polished halls. More people than ever roamed the walkway, anxiously pacing and talking amongst themselves. City guard, she thought, eyeing an older pair of men that grumbled to each other on a cushioned bench. Must be. This was the day that everyone found out who King Noctis thought was the worthiest of protecting himself, his people, and his beloved troupe of close friends, two of whom who happened to be the heads of the Kingsglaive. His Majesty never showed up to a training session or fight, of course, so everything he heard came straight from the mouth of either Gladiolus Amicitia or Rayne Callen, his pair of dutiful shields. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least.
Peeling her jacket off, the woman stepped into the wide training room and lined up with her fellow recruits, tossing the lump of material to the base of the wall somewhere behind her. The woman next to her clasped her hands behind her back and leaned over, keeping her voice low.
"Cuttin' it close again, huh, Rue?" she teased, glancing over with sparkling brown eyes.
"I'm here on time, aren't I?"
"I dunno, Rayne gave you a look when you came in."
"She did not," Rue scoffed under her breath. "Axel's not even here yet."
"Yeah, but she adores Axel," the woman snorted. Across the room, the burly, towering figure of Gladiolus, Gladio for short, stood with his arms crossed, the corner of his mouth quirking up at something Rayne muttered into his ear. The man's eyes flickered over to Rue and her heart sank. "What's with the haircut? Going for a new look?" Quickly, she shoved her friend away, turning her gaze to the slender man standing across the wide room.
"Shut up, Relir."
Chuckling, Relir shook her head and straightened her shoulders, face as smug as always. Rue sighed, watching the man adjust the weight of the papers in his arms as he strode up to Rayne and Gladio, pushing his glasses up higher with the tip of his middle finger. When he got closer, she recognized him as Ignis Scientia, the prim-and-proper tactician turned advisor to the King. He murmured something to Gladio to make the giant of a man snort and Rayne stepped forward to speak just as the clock hit nine.
As if on cue, the door swung wide open and a young man with wild red hair and even wilder green eyes ran into the gym, skidding to a stop beside Rue and straightening. Rayne hid a smile and shook her head, her long, blonde hair swishing back and forth, constrained in a ponytail. Must be a nightmare to deal with.
"Guys, seriously, I can practically smell the fear in the room right now," Rayne teased, cracking a wide smile. Sure, she was nice enough, funny, too, but the woman was terrifying when she was angry. "Just think of it like this: those of you who are ready got the job. Those of you who aren't just got your asses saved."
"That's reassuring," Axel scoffed, earning a stern but playful scowl.
"I hope for my sake that you didn't make the cut," Rayne retorted, her violet eyes sparkling.
"Quit flirting," Gladio grumbled. "Get to the point."
"Well then," Rayne huffed, shaking her head. "Iggy, you have the list?"
"Of course," Ignis replied, handing over a thick sheet of paper containing twenty-five names. Twenty-five out of thirty-eight people made the cut. Rue shuddered. Her chances were slim, but she needed this. There was no redemption otherwise. What else could she do?
"Alrighty," Rayne breathed out, scanning over the list before pursing her lips and sighing. "Man, this is hard. Okay." She groaned dramatically. "Axel Carmen, you're in. Unfortunately."
Cheering, Axel threw a fist in the air and nearly knocked Rue over when he stumbled clumsily. Rolling her eyes, Rayne read down the list slowly, letting each person have their moment of relief. Rue recognized a few: Dex, Eren, and Relir, each to whom she gave a hug which she was obligated to give. Listening intently, Rue rocked back and forth on her feet. Toes to heels, heels to toes. Rayne very obviously was at the last name as she began to fold the paper in half and hand it over to Ignis. Rue's heart caught in her throat. She thought for sure Rayne's eyes met hers for what was longer than necessary before she spoke.
"Gracen Tyke, welcome aboard."
Rue's heart immediately fell through the floor as the man across the room bellowed out a triumphant shout, surrounded by recruits that voiced their congratulations. She could feel the blood draining from her face and her stomach churning. Her nails dug into her palms and her mouth became dry. Why were they all laughing? This can't be right. That was twenty-five? Relir's smile melted away quickly and she patted Rue on the back awkwardly.
"That's... Shit, that's tough. I'm really sorry, Rue. I know how much you wanted this." When she didn't receive a reply she pushed further, uncomfortable. "Listen, if it's any consolation, I would have put you on that team. You're a good fighter."
"Wasn't good enough apparently," Rue grumbled, shifting away from Relir's touch.
Already, she was subconsciously devising a plan, a confrontation, anything to get her point across. As much as she wanted to deny that she was capable of throwing a tantrum, she already knew what she was going to do. Those people with their lives set in place because of their parents and everyone else who died before them... They needed to be dragged back down from the heavens and realize what it was like to live the life she lived. A storm was brewing and there was no umbrella that could shield them from the downpour.
"Don't get like that," Relir scoffed. "There're other chances to serve the—"
"This isn't about serving anyone," Rue muttered, watching Gladio crack his knuckles absently. Exasperated, Relir rolled her eyes and rested her hands on her hips.
"Fine. Listen, me and the guys are going to that new place for lunch later. You should join."
"... You and the guys that made it?" Rue only earned a scowl. "Sorry, sorry." She sighed, running a hand through her hair. "Thanks, but I'll pass. There's someone I need to talk to."
Rue frowned. Her friend was usually such a hard-ass. The "Suck it up, Buttercup" type. The pitiful attempts at comfort and inclusion were entirely new, and she wasn't sure she liked them. Shaking her head, Rue turned her gaze to the glossy wooden floor.
"Yeah. I gotta save money until I find a new placement anyway."
"Dex can pay."
"No," Rue huffed. "So that I can pay him back with fifty percent interest? I'm good, really." Before Relir could reply, Gladio's deep voice cut through the conversation and demanded everyone's attention.
"Alright, get outta here," he bellowed, waving for everyone to head toward the doors. "Glaives, go down the hall. Everyone else, go home."
Go home? Rue's brow creased as her frown deepened. Relir patted her on the back once more before turning on her heels and joining the rest of the glaives that were selected. Clenching and unclenching her fists at her sides, Rue took a deep breath and willed her haywire nerves to settle. She needed this more than anyone in the entire Citadel. She deserved it. No one was going to steal her only chance at freedom—she refused to go down without a fight.