Chapter 1: Pull It Together
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.
Chapter 2: Alternative
“I needed them all to sign their forms, you know.” Ignis pressed a finger to his glasses to push them up as he shot Rayne a pointed look. She merely scoffed, rolling her eyes.
“Listen, Iggy. You can get your paperwork done later. There’re a thousand things I need to tell them before they put their names on any waivers.”
“These are far more than waivers,” the advisor muttered. Gladio clapped a hand down on his friend’s back, flashing a broad grin.
“Don’t worry about it, Iggy. You’ll get the shit you need eventually.”
“I need it now, Gladio,” Ignis bit back bitterly. Gladio reached forward and pulled a thin pile of pages off the top of Ignis’ stack, thumbing through each quickly. With a grunt, he tossed them back on top.
“This is all boring legal stuff. We’re on Noct’s good side—it can wait.”
“I’m not worried about Noct—”
“Iggy,” Rayne snapped, flashing a smile moments later as she calmed herself. “I’ll send them your way after this meeting, I swear. It’s just really important that they fully understand what they’re getting themselves into.”
“I think they understand by now.”
Rue wanted to melt through the floorboards as three pairs of burning eyes bored into her. If looks could kill, she would be nothing but a pile of ashes on the ground the instant the words spilled past her lips. You’re a goddamn idiot… Stuttering, she squared her shoulders to give off the appearance of confidence; she looked like a scared anak with a mediocre posture.
“Hi, Rue,” Rayne finally said, though she sounded both hesitant and irate.
“Hi,” Rue breathed out, shaking her head. “I’m, uh, sorry to interrupt. I just—” She cut herself off upon meeting the sharp eyes of Ignis Scientia. Holy shit, calm down, dude. He looked pissed. She turned back to Rayne. “I need to talk to you about the selection.” The king’s primary shield sighed, glancing up at Gladio. “I-it’s just that—”
“We have to be somewhere right now,” Rayne interrupted. Rue was shocked that she sounded genuine. She thought for sure the soldier was going to chew her out right there. Gladio nodded, resting a hand at the base of Rayne’s back as he pushed her towards the door. “Meet me in my office in half an hour. You know where that is?”
“Yeah,” Rue nodded, shuffling away from Ignis.
The advisor shot the two a final scowl before turning and heading for the opposite door, his arms still loaded with a thick, heavy stack of forms for the new glaives. All alone in the broad expanse of a gymnasium, Rue ran a trembling hand through her hair and scanned the shelves of training weapons that lined the back wall. How many hours had she spent in here over the last six weeks doing nothing but practicing and fighting and asking for advice? How many people had she seen drop from the program or get the boot before the final pool was left? And for what? She kicked at the floor, shaking her head. A waste of time is all it was.
Tearing her eyes away from the racks, she headed out the same door Ignis left through and walked toward the staircase that would carry her to the second floor, where the King’s four close friends and servants had their offices along with the man in charge of the guards and Cor the Immortal. Very few people tended to roam around the Citadel, and today was no different. The silence of the second floor was a sharp contrast to the bustling busyness of the first. Rue slowly paced down the hallway, reading the plaques that hung beside the heavy black and silver doors as she passed them. The office she sought was placed between those of Gladiolus Amicitia and Cor Leonis. The sign outside read: “Rayne Callen: Kingsglaive Administrator.” Rue snorted, leaning against the wall and crossing her arms. They couldn’t come up with a better title? She’s a hero.
“Haven’t seen you up here before.” Rue jumped, looking up to see a grinning young man standing before her. He was dressed head to toe in the uniform of the guards that lined every nook and cranny of the Citadel, minus the helmet. “You one of the new glaives?”
“… Not quite.”
“It’s complicated,” she muttered, unsure of how to react to the unusually cheery man. It wasn’t often that someone around here so much as acknowledged her existence, much less smiled. Unfazed, he combed his thick brown hair out of his face and stuck out a hand.
“The name’s Cam.”
“Rue,” she replied, shaking his hand gingerly. She nodded to his attire. “You’re part of the security, right?”
“You could say that,” he chuckled. Rue frowned, peering down the hallway to see if Rayne was coming yet. This guy, this Cam, gave her the creeps. “I’m captain of the guard, actually.”
“You?” Rue blinked at him in disbelief. He looked hardly a day older than twenty-two. “You’re a kid.” Shoot, another thing I probably shouldn’t have said. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine,” he laughed, his blue eyes sparkling. “I get it all the time. To be honest, the only reason I have this job is because I’m Cor’s nephew.”
“I’m sure you live up to the expectations,” Rue reassured him, offering a slight smile.
“I mean, yeah. Otherwise they would have fired me,” he shrugged. Her expression faltered. Right. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you. Will I see you around here often?”
“Um…” I hope not. “We’ll see.”
“Ah. Complicated, right?” He shook his head, scratching at the back of his head. “I’ve gotta go make sure my men haven’t blown anything up. I’ll possibly, maybe, see you later, Rue.”
“Yeah,” she huffed, watching the guard’s back as he strode away, hands jammed in his pockets. “Weirdo.” Rolling her eyes, she leaned her head back against the wall. How much longer?
After what felt like centuries, Rue heard footsteps echoing down the hallway. Rayne arched an eyebrow upon meeting her gaze, nodding toward her office door. Silently, Rue pushed it open and stepped inside, curiously looking around the small room. A glossy black desk stood straight ahead, lined with papers, knickknacks, and a laptop computer. The back wall was made up of two broad windows overlooking Insomnia and between them hung a model gunblade in a display case. Rayne stepped around her and leaned back against the edge of her desk, crossing her arms. Rue closed the door and stared back uncertainly.
“You wanna sit?” Rayne asked, nudging the seat before her with the toe of her boot. Rue shifted on her feet.
“I think I have too much energy to sit down right now.”
“I understand.” Rayne cocked her head to the side, her fingertips playing with the end of her long ponytail. “So?”
“Where to begin,” Rue laughed nervously, shrugging as she jammed her pale hands in her pockets. “I guess I should just be blunt, huh?” Taking a deep breath, she forced her eyes to meet the older woman’s. “I need to be in this program.”
Rue paused. She’d prepared a whole defense for Rayne’s answer. This wasn’t what she expected. She thought she would have to get on her knees and beg, throwing out excuse after excuse, not honestly explain herself.
“I…” Rue swallowed hard, terror gripping her heart. She was utterly and completely unprepared. “Well, I need a job, and I need the pay.”
“You can’t get a job anywhere else?”
“Of course I could, but I need a job here where I can leave this place every once and a while, you know? After what happened, I can’t relax when I’m in Insomnia.”
“Then take a vacation outside the city,” Rayne shrugged. “Or better yet, move. No one’s forcing you to live here, Rue.” Rue sighed. Maybe this would be as hard as she originally thought.
“Okay, fine. I just don’t understand why I wasn’t chosen, then. I never once missed any practices or received any negative feedback. Everyone told me I was doing great!” She threw her arms out to the side, exasperated. “I gave this everything I had and apparently it didn’t pay off.” Sighing, she shook her head. “I just… I need another chance. Please. I promise I’ll prove myself to you.”
“It’s not me you have to convince,” Rayne replied, sitting on her desk and crossing her legs. “This was all Noct—er, His Majesty. He received the stats, abilities, and strengths of each candidate and chose based off of that.” She shrugged, eyeing the dark bookshelf lining the left wall of her office before looking back to Rue. “And I’m sorry to say it, Rue, but you were just painfully mediocre. The people who weren’t chosen purely because there weren’t enough spots are the ones who are getting the second chance. You weren’t anywhere near the top.”
“But I also wasn’t anywhere near the bottom,” Rue pointed out hopefully. Shaking her head, Rayne allowed a half smile.
“No, you weren’t, but ‘not at the bottom’ doesn’t exactly cut it when it comes to the king’s life, now does it?” She leaned back, picking at her boots. “Ever think the Glaive just isn’t the career for you?”
“Why, because I was ‘painfully mediocre’?”
“No.” Rayne straightened, picking up a framed photo that was hidden behind the screen of her computer. She turned it to show Rue the photograph; it was filled with familiar faces. All heroes—King Noctis and his regiment of best friends, including Rayne herself, the mechanics that lived outside of Insomnia, Iris Amicitia, her younger brother Signum, and Cor. “Everyone in this picture has something in common.”
“They live to serve the King.”
“Nice textbook answer,” Rayne snorted. “I mean, yeah, okay. But every single one of these people didn’t have a choice about where their lives went, except for Cid and Cindy, of course.” She smiled softly at the image before placing it back and turning back to Rue. “I know it’s hard for you to hear this from someone who had her who life set up before she was even born, but you can choose where you go. You don’t have to be here. That’s more than I could ever say.”
“You’re saying I shouldn’t be asking for a career in what I need because you never had a choice?” Rue frowned. Rayne’s patience had clearly run out as her face fell and she stood up, staring down at her visitor.
“I’m saying you should probably look for a new dream job before you get someone killed. Quit acting like you deserve this more than anyone else.”
“I don’t mean to point fingers, but some of those people are not good. The things they’ve bragged about doing or that they plan to do—”
“Rue, every single one of those people had a background check.” Rayne crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow. “After Insomnia fell, there was no record of who anyone was—at least, not the people with a perfect track record. Every single person that went through that has a criminal record; you’re no exception.” Rue’s face fell and she chewed on the inside of her cheek. Shit. “If I’m not mistaken, yours was one of the more extensive lists, but not the most. And yet we still placed our trust in you. Why do you think that is?”
“I doubt many lay people would be able to handle the weight,” Rue sighed. This entire conversation was pushing her over the edge of what she could socially, emotionally, mentally handle.
“True,” Rayne nodded. “But my thinking was more along the lines of change. The Darkness changed everyone, no matter what they came from before.”
“Not everyone,” Rue muttered, kicking at the smooth floor. She shook her head. “Fine; don’t give me a shot at the Kingsglaive. What about guard duty?”
“Guard duty means you leave less,” Rayne pointed out.
“Yeah, but it’s something.”
“… Are you ever going to tell me why you so desperately need to be hired here?”
“I’ll try to avoid it as long as I can.”
“Right,” Rayne huffed. “Fine. I’ll talk to Cam for you, but I can’t vouch for you past that, understand? Guard duty’s not my territory.”
“Really!?” Rue perked up immediately, her eyes brightening and her frown fading away. Her heart fluttered with relief.
“Yeah.” Rayne nodded toward the door. “I’ll call him tonight. He should contact you after that if he’s interested. If you excel there for a bit, maybe Gladio and I will consider letting you in.”
“Thank you so much.” Rue tucked her hair behind her ear and awkwardly crossed her arms, unsure how to handle the situation now that it (sort of) turned in her favor. “I swear you won’t regret this.”
Rue left the office feeling victorious, walking on the clouds. The door closed behind her and that almost immediately changed. The blood drained from her face and her heart fluttered. Had she really just done that? Gone into a very important woman’s office and begged for any job at all as long as it involved bloodshed? Suddenly, she felt sick. Shuddering, she quickly started to leave. At least she could go straight home. At least there was that.
Chapter 3: Anticipation
The door to her apartment door shrieked as it was shoved open; the dishes in the sink rattle when it was shut. Rue took a deep breath, pressing her back to the panel of painted wood and slid to the floor, hugging her knees to her chest as she replayed her conversation with Rayne. Guard duty. She would have to make sacrifices, but it could work. It would just take more time. Well… Not if I find a chance to be the hero. Saving the King’s life especially would prove her worth and she’d climb the ranks even faster. Nodding, she dragged herself to her feet and kicked her boots off before heading to the kitchen. Time to clean up.
Just as she set the last plate in its place above her countertop, her cellphone vibrated in the pocket of her jacket. Startled, she dried her hands on a damp cloth and answered the call without so much as checking the number.
“Hello?” she answered quickly, practically shaking with anticipation.
“Rue?” Her heart sank. That wasn’t Cam’s voice.
“Hey, Eren,” she sighed, pulled herself up onto the counter. “What’s up?”
“Oh, y’know, nothing much.” Eren paused for a moment, muttering something in a low voice before returning to his phone. “Except I possibly smuggled your cat back into this building and I’m on my way to your place. ‘On my way’ as in I’m literally walking down the hall.” Shit.
“No warning whatsoever?”
“It was, uh, kind of spur of the moment.”
“Gotcha.” Three thuds echoed throughout the apartment. Rue rolled her eyes and headed for the door.
“I figured.” She pulled the door open to see the young man standing in front of her, clutching a wriggling backpack to his chest. “You put her in a backpack?!” she shrieked in a hushed voice, ending the call and beckoning for him to enter. The door slammed behind him and he immediately dropped to his knees and unzipped the bag. “Eren, what the hell?”
“I didn’t have anything else,” he huffed, standing and shaking his spikey brunette hair out of his face. His big hazel eyes peered up at her through thin lenses from where he crouched on the floor. “I’m really sorry.” Pinching the bridge of her nose with one hand and gripping her hip with the other, Rue shook her head and turned to watch the sleek cat bound toward the couch.
“It’s okay. Thanks for bringing her.”
Eren nodded, zipping the backpack back up and setting it against the wall. He looked around, awkwardly shoving his hands into his pockets. Uncomfortable silence was quick to swallow them, but Rue jumped from its jaws and headed toward the kitchen. Eren followed slowly, clearing his throat.
“How are you, uh, feeling?”
“Fine,” she shrugged, using a rag to wipe down the smooth granite countertops. “I talked to Rayne about the selection.”
“What?” Rue turned to face her friend, raising an eyebrow.
“Nothing, it’s just…” Eren shrugged, pushing his glasses up. “I dunno. You never struck me as the confrontational type.”
“Oh, trust me, I’m not,” Rue scoffed, smiling. “I don’t know what happened; I guess I got desperate. Anyway, she said she couldn’t offer me a spot in the Glaive. She’s going to talk to the captain of the guard and see if I can’t get a position there until she has enough space for another member.” It’s not too far off.
“That’s… actually not too bad.” He glanced toward the couch as Rue’s cat jumped from cushion to cushion, batting at the material with her small paws. “Did she say how long that would take?”
“No,” Rue shook her head. Suddenly, she felt an urge she hadn’t felt in a long time. Smiling to herself, she turned and pulled a bottle of wine from the cabinet behind her. “Want any?”
“I wish I could,” Eren huffed, grinning. “I have to drive across town and talk to my landlord in, like, ten minutes.”
“Oh, so that’s why you brought her back in such a rush,” Rue muttered under her breath, pouring her drink into a glass. “You’d better get going, then. Wouldn’t want to hold you up.”
“Yeah…” Eren muttered, turning and heading toward the front door. “Thanks for letting me stop by.” He paused, looking back at her with a genuine, warm smile. “I hope things work out for you.”
“I hope so, too.”
With that, the newly recruited glaive left her apartment. Sighing, Rue sat on the couch with her glass of wine and reached out to pet her not-so-legal cat. Eren hosted her when the manager decided to start making surprise visits to her floor’s residents. The slender feline, Honey, crept over and settled in her owner’s lap, purring as pale hands ran over her smooth, tawny fur.
“Have fun at that oddball’s house?” Rue asked quietly, staring at her phone from where it rested on her coffee table.
She took a long drink from her glass and threw her head back, looking out the broad window that lined her wall. What am I doing? It’s only twelve… He’s not going to call me until way later. She forced herself to polish off her drink before ushering Honey off her lap and heading back to the kitchen to grab a broom. This was a better time than any to finally get her home back into shape. It was time she quit living in a chocobo stable.
Rue was so involved in her deep cleaning that she hardly heard the phone when it finally did ring. The first two tones went unheard. The third sent her scrambling to her feet and sprinting to her couch. She scooped her phone up, accepted the call and pressed the device close to her ear.
“Is this Rue Corden?” She breathed a sigh of relief. This was it. It was definitely Cam. She could hear the youthful cockiness in his voice.
“Yes, it is.”
“Hey!” The tone of his voice changed completely; it was jarring. “So, a little birdie by the name of Rayne Callen told me you’re looking to join the Citadel guard. I get that right?”
“Yeah!” Rue cringed at how cheery she sounded. Should she be shooting for professional or excited little girl?
“Here’s the thing.” Here we go. He doesn’t want me and he’s going to beat around the bush, isn’t he? “We just had a really good guy leave this past week. It was a real hard hit for our men, and it’s something they’re gonna have to get used to.” C’mon, just say it already. “It would only make sense for us to pick someone to take his place based on their skill, yeah? Their strengths and fighting style and records?” You don’t want me. “So… Yeah. You got the job.”
“What?!” Rue almost choked on her words.
“Yup!” Cam laughed on the other end of the line. “The fact that you were even able to make it to the final pool of Kingsglaive recruits proves to me that you have what it takes. You’ve got the skills; now you just need to take orders. You get me?”
“Oh, don’t start with the bull,” he scoffed. “It’s either Cam or Captain. No ‘sir.’”
“I can do that,” Rue nodded, her foot tapping the floor impatiently. “When do I start?”
“Tomorrow, actually, if you can. Drop by my office to pick up your uniform and then I can give you your assignment. Ignis Scientia—you know who he is—will probably want you to sign some ridiculous stack of papers for his precious records, but after that you’re one of us.”
“Thank you,” Rue breathed, flopping back against the cushions. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
“I think I might,” Cam chuckled. “Alright, I’ll let you go. See you at seven.”
With that, he ended the call. Rue sat in silence, slumped against the back of the couch and wallowing in disbelief. With a sudden burst of energy, she leapt to her feet and jumped up and down, pumping her fists in the air. Yes, yes, yes! Who cared if she had to be there bright and early every single day? She was one step closer to where she needed to be. A firm knock came from beneath her floorboards and she froze. Sorry.
Grinning uncontrollably, she hurried to her bathroom and turned the shower on. It was already fairly late—she needed as much sleep as she could get, and she wasn’t about to wake up earlier to wash. As the hot water ran down her back, she closed her eyes and let out a contented sigh. Maybe, just for once, things would go her way.
Chapter 4: Newbie
"Damn, that suits you."
Rue shifted uncomfortably as Cam looked her up and down. The uniform was a bit snug in some places, but all in all, it wasn't too itchy or heavy or anything of the sort. It was alarming that he somehow knew her measurements, but she brushed it off and assumed he received the info from Rayne. More like hoped.
"What? It does!" Upon receiving a weak, forced smile, Cam huffed and changed the subject. "Come on; I'll show you where you'll be standing guard."
He led the way down the hall and the stairs, holding the door for her when they stepped outside. The sun barely peeked over the horizon as they headed around the side of the Citadel. Finally, he stopped at a vehicle entry point. A middle-aged woman in a matching uniform turned upon hearing them walking toward her.
"Captain," she greeted, her voice cold and stern. Her graying hair was pulled up into a tight bun on top of her head and her face had a distinct lack of wrinkles. Either she'd never smiled a day in her life, or her scalp was pulled so far back by her hairstyle that it gave her a facelift. Perhaps it was a touch of both.
"Gale," Cam acknowledged, nodding. "Meet our new recruit, Rue. It's her first day on the job and I figured there was no one more knowledgeable about guard duty than yourself."
"Hi," Rue smiled, sticking out her hand. Gale arched a thin eyebrow, blatantly turning her down. Awkwardly, Rue let her arm fall back at her side and glanced up at Cam, who seemed a bit offended by the whole interaction.
"She out here the whole day?" Gale demanded.
"Just about. The location will change from day to day, but it's always eight to twelve-hour watch shifts. At least, until we come up with a bigger budget for a bigger group."
"I know that," Gale snapped, her sharp gray eyes flicking back and forth between the two. Cam shrugged.
"The explanation was more for Rue."
"We'll be back later. The King's advisor wants to see her first thing."
"Doesn't he always?" Gale grumbled, turning her back to them. It was clear she would say no more. Sighing, Cam rubbed at the back of his neck and led the way back inside.
"Is she... always like that?" Rue asked carefully. Cam nodded.
"Yeah... She's really something. But she's the best of the best at what she does; She's been on watch here since King Noctis was a kid. Survived the Fall and everything that came after."
"Right?" Cam motioned for her to head up the stairs, offering a smile. "Alright, you know where to go. Head back to Gale after Scientia wrings you dry and hunt me down if you need anything else." He cocked his head to the side. "I look forward to seeing more of you."
Rue couldn't help but frown as he walked away. Does he mean to come off as creepy, or...? Shaking her head, she headed up to the offices of the Crownsguard and found the door labeled "Ignis Scientia: Head Tactician and Advisor." She took a deep breath before knocking twice on the door. He's really here this early? She peered down the hallway; it was dead silent. There was no way these guys had a requirement on when they had to show. The King adored them all too much for that. Well, minus Cam, she supposed.
She turned back to the door. Should I knock again? Uncertain, she counted to ten, rocking back and forth on her feet. Yeah... Guess I should. Her knuckles rapped against the wood twice more. Hardly a moment after her hand drew away, the door swung wide open and the king's advisor stood before her—no, more like towered over her—with a scowl on his face. The gnarled scars that twisted the skin around his vivid green eyes made his expression all the more intimidating.
"Once was enough," he said sternly. If his voice had been any louder, Rue was sure she'd have pissed herself right there.
"R-right. Sorry." Ignis didn't move. "Um... Cam sent me?"
"The Captain?" Ignis appeared to be sizing her up through those delicate glasses of his. "You're the new guard."
"Come in and have a seat."
"Okay," she huffed under her breath, following the man into the room. He sat behind his desk and briskly picked out a stack of stapled papers. Frowning, she sat across from him in the leather seat on the other side. "Does being advisor include the title of secretary?" she blurted before thinking. She only met with a sharp glare that caused her mouth to snap shut immediately. Why the hell did I say that?
"I have a few questions I'll need to ask you before you're free to go," Ignis said, pushing his glasses up quickly and scanning over the first page. "Rayne was supposed to send over your information from her own records, but there's hardly enough here for my forms." He paused, looking up to meet Rue's uncertain gaze. "You have my apologies in that regard."
"It's okay; I can probably answer whatever you need."
"I should hope so." Ignis grabbed a pen from a sleek black container on the corner of his desk and scribbled on a notepad to ensure that the ink would flow. "First, middle, last names?"
"Rue Corden." Ignis had her spell out her name as he wrote it down; his handwriting was disturbingly perfect. She wouldn't be surprised if he'd spent hours of his free time practicing at some point in his life. Why can't I fill this shit out on my own?
"... I don't know," Rue admitted, staring at her hands as they folded tightly in her lap. She could feel Ignis's sharp eyes flicker up to her before he crossed the section out.
"Age and date of birth. Month and day."
"Twenty-five and May eighth."
"Stand up." Startled, Rue obeyed quickly, getting to her feet. The tactician looked less than pleased to be spending his precious time with this interview. Seriously? "Height."
"Five feet, six inches."
"One hundred ten pounds." Ignis eyed her from head to toe and nodded after a moment of silence.
"You're aware you just barely make the weight requirement?"
"... Yeah." What are you, my doctor? Buzz off.
Ignis continued to ask question after question about her blood type, her diet, really anything that a person could think to put on a form was on those papers. It hardly made any sense as to why he needed to know all of this in order for her to have a job standing around all day. Rue leaned forward tiredly, resting her chin in her hands and her elbows on her thighs. It never seemed to end. Her signature here, please. Her thumbprint here, if she didn't mind. Finally, Ignis turned to the last page. For the first time, he hesitated before speaking.
"I apologize for making assumptions, but you do have a criminal record, don't you?"
"Yeah." Rue prayed it would end at that. It did not.
"I searched through our database last night," Ignis sighed. "Your name never came up, but there's no certainty that the list is correct. I am, therefore, going to read it off and you will tell me if there are any mistakes. Understood?"
"I..." Rue's voice cut out and her throat tightened. Am I going to get booted out of here if I'm honest? No, that couldn't be. If they gave her a shot at defending the King himself every day, they would let her hang around outside and kick pesky kids off the premises. "Okay..."
"Possession of illegal substances, charges of assault on two accounts." She chewed on her cheek as she nodded and Ignis scribbled away. "Aggravated robbery, another assault charge, possession of illegal weapons." She took a deep breath, cocking her head to the side as she fought unwanted memories. "And two charges of first-degree murder." Ignis looked up once he was finished, eyebrow raised expectantly, and Rue laughed nervously.
"I, uh, made life a lot harder than it had to be."
"I can see that." The advisor signed his name at the bottom of the page and turned it around, rolling the pen toward her. "That's all I need from you."
"..." Rue took up the pen and started to scrawl her name down on the line. She paused. "I should either be in prison or dead."
"But you're not." Ignis arched an eyebrow. "Had you been here five years ago, you would have never been allowed within a mile of this building at the very least. Time changed the rules and the people who follow them."
"... Yeah." Quickly, Rue finished signing her name and sat back, tucking her hair behind her ear. "That's everything?" Ignis nodded, tucking the papers away into a drawer. Before she could thank him for his time, his phone rang loudly. Quickly, he picked up, pressing a finger to his glasses.
"Noct." Rue suddenly felt as though she shouldn't stay to listen in. Hearing the King's nickname wasn't necessarily new to her, but it still felt wrong. Sometimes she forgot these people were the absolute best of friends. "Of course. I have time between the negotiations and the meeting with the incoming council." Rue backed away slowly, mouthing "Thanks" when the advisor glanced up at her. He made no response, frowning. "It's limited. Thirty minutes is all I have until late this evening." She turned and headed toward the door, stepping into the hall. "How late should I stay?"
Rue closed the door firmly and headed down to her station. That poor guy. No wonder he's so cranky. Then again, from what she'd heard from Gladio and Rayne, he was always like that: uptight and stressed. It was almost unfair that he was given the roles of tactician, advisor, secretary, HR, and obligatory friend all rolled into one. Rue shook her head; it was none of her business.
Gale looked less than happy that Rue had actually returned. The two stood on opposite ends of the driveway and watched the sun crawl up over the edges of the towering glass skyscrapers that made up the city of Insomnia. Over the past two years, businesses and buildings alike had been rebuilt to a shadow of their former glory—everyone was eager to get back to the regular hustle and bustle of life, to try and forget what happened. Gil was adopted as the new kingdom-wide currency to allow the outside world to feel welcome. Meanwhile, the King promised peace amongst all peoples, which was something he still strove for, but it proved to be much harder than he originally thought. It turns out that even after all the horrible things division caused, people still wanted to build borders and create hierarchies of worth.
"So, is it always this quiet out here?" Rue asked, pacing back and forth across the pavement. Gale looked up from where she leaned against the wall in the shade.
"Quieter. I don't usually have little girls asking stupid questions with me."
"... Sorry." Rue could feel her face turning red as she turned away and stared out at the long stretch of road that led to the outside world she'd struggled to survive as the Darkness lingered for three years. Gale shifted, narrowing her eyes.
"Do you have any idea what you're doing here?"
"Guarding this..." Rue looked at the concrete over her head. "Road."
"Okay," the grouchy woman snorted, glaring at the bright blue sky. A long silence passed between them. "So, spill the beans."
"What?" Rue frowned, facing the other guard. Gale shrugged.
"Who'd you fuck?"
"Excuse me?" If Gale's words were a knife, they just cut all the strings from her heart and sent it tumbling to the rock bottom of her gut.
"No airhead like you winds up on guard duty unless they've got the right connections. Money ain't worth shit anymore, so let me ask again. Who?"
"I didn't sleep with anyone," Rue snapped, fists balled at her sides as she scowled. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
"It was Cameron, wasn't it?" Gale chuckled shaking her head. "Of course it was. I thought he was givin' you eyes. Now I know why."
"Listen, Sweetheart," Gale gritted out, walking until she was very close to Rue's face. "You're useless here; you've got zero experience. So, either you fucked your way here or you're gonna have to in order to keep your job. Get me?"
"Who'd you fuck?" Rue retorted, glaring up at her newfound enemy. Gale laughed in her face before turning on her heels and heading back to her post.
"No one. I didn't get on my knees 'n beg for this." Sneering, Gale cocked her head to the side and crossed her arms. "Seems like only one of us's got a backbone, Darlin'."
Rue rolled her eyes, turned back toward the road. Everything was tense, but she forced herself to calm down. There was no use in letting the old hag's words get to her. She needed this—it was only a stepping stone. A few months from now, Gale would be ancient history and she would be officially training under Rayne and Gladio. Yeah... She fought a bitter smile. There had to be a reason Gale was still on guard duty after all those years. She's not good for anything else, I bet. That made her feel better. At least, as long as she ignored that possibility that guard duty was a sand trap for those who aspired to be far more. That couldn't be it. Rue's heart sank.
Chapter 5: Not Alone
Strange suggestion, but I make a playlist of songs that reminds me of the characters from each story I write, and when I upload on other sites, I usually attach a song that reminds me of that specific chapter. I was wondering if you guys would be interested in seeing those songs suggested before each chapter? I'm sure 99% of people don't care, but I'm addicted to music so I thought I might share for the curious folk.
"Family" by Mother Mother
"Waiter! Hey, can I get another water?"
"Dex, that's the third water you've ordered in the past twenty minutes," Relir hissed, kicking at his long legs under the table. The mousey waitress at their tableside forced a small smile.
"It's fine, Miss. He can have as many as he wants." With that, she bustled away. Relir snorted, rolling her eyes and sinking back in her seat.
"Not for you to decide," she muttered. Dex kicked her back.
"Not for you to decide, either."
"Guys," Eren huffed, picking at the pile of roasted vegetables that rested in the middle of the table. "Try not to fight tonight?"
"That's literally impossible," Rue scoffed, rolling her eyes. "Have you met those two? The bickering never stops."
"It does when we're in bed," Dex mumbled around a mouthful of bread. Relir kicked him again. Sighing, Eren looked across the small table to Rue, shaking his head. She smiled back, leaning forward and pressing her elbows against the rough wood. Whatever it was she was going to say was cut off by Dex's lazy drawl.
"So, how's guard duty treating you?" he asked, cocking his head to the side. His shaggy blonde hair, which was currently tied up in a short ponytail, flopped toward his shoulder.
"Fine," Rue shrugged. "It was awful the first week because I got stuck with some cranky old hag, but the Captain moved me to another location and everything's dandy again."
"Any cute guys?" Relir teased, flashing a smug smile. Rue shrugged, trying her hardest not to acknowledge Cam's face as it appeared in her mind's eye. The guy was weird, but she couldn't deny he had some good qualities. She shook her head; he was her boss. She shouldn't think like that.
"No... Not that I'm really looking."
"Why not?" Her friend nudged her with her shoulder. "Come on, Rue. You're pretty; you can pick out any guy you want from that place."
"I dunno," Rue sighed, playing with her glass of ice water. "I just can't bring myself to care, I guess. Guys are a waste of time."
"Yeah, until you find the right one."
Eren rolled his eyes, nodding toward the glimmering ring on Relir's finger.
"Yeah, Rue, just find yourself a cocky douche bag and get hitched."
"Hey!" Dex shoved Eren's shoulder. "I'm not a douche! I treat 'er right, don't I, Relir?"
"Unfortunately," Relir muttered, playfully scowling at him. Rue crinkled her nose. "Anyway, I'm right. She's pretty, isn't she, guys?"
"Not my type," Dex grumbled, shrugging and dumping a mound of ice into his mouth. Relir reached across the table and swatted the side of his head.
"Not helpful," she snapped. Eren sighed, shaking his head.
"I mean, yeah, but that's not everything."
"Exactly," Rue agreed sarcastically. "I have a distinct lack of personality."
"Oh, whatever," Relir scoffed, looking up as the waitress returned. "You just gotta put yourself out there and quit hiding in your apartment every time you have a day off."
"I need my alone time," Rue frowned, watching Dex accept his drink with a dimpled smile. "I'm just not ready for a relationship."
"Then don't have one," Relir shrugged as though the answer was obvious. "Have a couple of flings. Try new things. Figure out what it is you want in a man and then hunt him down."
"Okay," Rue muttered. Eren offered her a sympathetic smile.
"Don't push yourself."
"Do you know me?" Rue retorted, but his words put her at ease. All those damn extroverts—they wouldn't ever why she couldn't just march up to the nearest hot guy and demand that they spend some time together. It was a miracle that she even had these friends; she wasn't about to push her luck anytime soon. "Hey, that's us."
The waitress returned with a large tray of dishes, setting each person's plate in front of them. Dex eyed his steak before glancing over at Rue's salad. His gray eyes met Relir's and she sighed, nudging Rue.
"Hey, is that all you got?"
"Yeah?" Rue raised an eyebrow, stabbing her fork through a piece of lettuce and nudging a cherry tomato aside. "I'm not that hungry."
"You look starved," Dex pushed, digging into his dinner.
"Guys," Eren interrupted gently. He leaned closer to Dex, keeping his voice low enough that Rue couldn't hear what he was whispering.
They shrugged at each other and said nothing more. Rue sent him a grateful look, picking at a splinter in the table. The group ate in silence for quite a long time, at least until their stomachs stopped grumbling and they began to slow down. Relir was the first to give up, stretching her arms over her head.
"Me too," Eren sighed, pushing his glasses up and running a hand through his hair. Rue's bowl was polished clean. Dex eyed his fiancé's plate.
"I'll finish that for you," he offered. Relir raised an eyebrow.
"But you're done."
"Did I say that?"
"Listen." Relir leaned across the table, standing to get in his face with an exaggerated sneer. "I'm not done until I say I'm done. Got it?"
"Hm. Maybe." Dex grinned, pulling her closer until their lips met. Rue cringed, looking over at Eren. He grimaced back, flinching away when Relir's hand hit the table to steady herself.
"Gross," Rue huffed. Eren nodded in wholehearted agreement. Grinning, she stuck her tongue out, wiggling her eyebrows. "Oh, come here, baby. Let's make out in front of the whole restaurant. That's hot, right?" Eren chuckled and Relir fell back in her seat, crossing her arms.
"By the way," she practically crooned. "I hate garlic breath."
"Your loss," Dex shrugged, reaching over and taking her plate. "And I am eating this for you."
"By the way," Rue mocked. "I hate PDA."
"Amen," Eren snorted.
"I'm telling you," Relir sighed, turning to face her friend. "Just you wait. Someday you'll find the douche of your dreams and you won't give a shit who sees what." She leaned back in her seat, taking a drink of her wine. She tipped the glass toward Rue and Eren. "Both of you. I swear it on my life." The two exchanged another uneasy glance as Dex slammed his palm on the table.
"I'm not a douche!"
"Thanks for the ride, Eren," Rue said as she stepped out of her friend's sleek silver car. She closed the door and leaned forward against the open driver's side window. "I could've walked. It was one block."
"And it's dark out."
"You think I can't fend for myself?"
"No, it's not that," Eren shook his head. "I just figured I'd offer since this is on my way home." He shrugged, giving her a pointed look. "And that I should help a friend out."
"Right." Rue sighed, looking up toward the beaming bright lights of the apartment complex before her. "You wanna come up for a bit?"
"... Are you okay?"
"Yeah, no, I'm alright," she rushed, shaking her head. "I dunno. Relir said I should stop being antisocial, so I figured I'd at least ask."
"I really would, but I've got an early start tomorrow and it's already pretty late."
"Yeah, I guess I do, too." Rue tore her eyes away from the building and offered Eren a smile. "I'll leave you to it, then. Goodnight."
She headed directly inside, ignoring the pointed glare of the nosey receptionist and heading for the elevator. She rode up to the second floor and unlocked her apartment, kicking her shoes off by the door and flicking the lights on. Honey's belled collar jingled from the kitchen as she leaped onto a counter and peered at her owner from around the corner. With a heavy sigh, she headed toward her bedroom and pulled her sweater off, throwing it into the growing laundry pile on the floor.
"Hungry?" Rue asked her cat, pulling on a baggy shirt and heading to the kitchen to fill Honey's food bowl.
The feline mewed and chowed down. Smiling faintly, Rue headed to the bathroom, carefully taking out her contacts (an activity she hated with a burning passion). She pushed her glasses on only so that she could find her way to her room, turn the lights off, and dive into bed before taking them back off and curling up on her side with her eyes screwed shut.
Several minutes later, her eyes fluttered back open, and in the dim light filtering from the busy night streets, they were drawn to the framed photo on her bedside table. She put her glasses back on, narrowing her eyes as they adjusted. Slowly, she sat up and picked up the photograph, staring at the beaming little girl. This... This is why she was where she was. It wasn't men or finding a new life. It was this. She pressed the cool glass to her chest and closed her eyes, taking deep breaths to calm herself. Someday... I'll make it right.
Chapter 6: Forcing the Hand
"idontwannabeyouanymore" by Billie Eilish
Rue groaned, throwing her head back and slouching against the wall. It had been just over a month since she got this guard duty job and she hadn’t seen more action than Rayne and Prompto Argentum chasing a fly around the Citadel. Even then, there was nothing she could do but watch the two blondes race around and shove at each other until Rayne killed the poor insect and back to work they went. Cam did the favor of relocating her station after she complained about Gale’s prodding, but now she was trapped inside without a breath of fresh air to greet her lungs unless it was early in the morning or late at night.
Rue pulled her sleeve back and checked her watch. Her shift wasn’t over for another hour. Sighing, she fell back against the wall and stared at the glossy floor. When was Cam going to send her anywhere at least remotely interesting? When would Rayne remember not to leave her in the dust of her newest recruits? Just as she started to slip back into the recesses of her mind, she heard hurried footsteps. She nearly jumped out of her skin as Gale, Cam, and two more guards sped past. Catching her eye, the Captain skidded to a stop and gripped her arm.
“Come on. We need you.”
“What’s wrong?” Rue demanded, hurrying after him as he took off again.
“There’s been an incident out front.”
Cam said nothing more, rushing through the front doors of the Citadel as Gale held them open, her sharp eyes directed toward the center of a broad, circular driveway. Rue’s breath caught in her throat. A line of glaives circled a pool of blood; amongst them were Rayne and Eren. Following Cam without hesitation, Rue ran toward the group, trying to peer around the glaives that stood facing away from her.
“We’re here,” Cam stated, staring hard at Rayne. “What happened?”
“Some sort of shootout,” Rayne huffed, backing up so that the two could see.
Eren shuffled closer to Rue, resting a hand on her shoulder. On the ground laid two teenage boys dressed head to toe in black, baggy clothes. A little farther away, Dex laid in a pool of his own pool, surrounded by a swarm of healers. Relir stood over them, watching them work with their potions and mystery concoctions. Shit. Rue took a deep breath, trying to steady her heart. She turned to Rayne.
“Those two took him out?”
“He wasn’t expecting anyone to attack,” Eren answered quietly. “He was just heading home.”
“Why would they do this?” she demanded, her stomach churning as the scent of blood reached her nostrils.
“Disagreements over the treaties,” Rayne muttered absently, crossing her arms. “This had to be some sort of act of rebellion—but why are they so young?”
“They’re easy to fire up,” Rue replied under her breath, earning several stares. “Think about it. When you were a kid, it was easy to rile you up about this sort of stuff, especially if someone made you think there was some higher power stealing away your rights.”
“Speaking from experience?” Gale snapped.
Rue rolled her eyes, turning to speak to Eren. Suddenly, the Citadel doors cracked open once more and out stepped Prompto and Gladiolus. A sharp movement caught the corner of Rue’s eye and her hand shot to her hip. Before she knew what she was doing, her gun was aimed steadily at the two men. Rayne shouted a protest before Cam rushed toward her, reaching for the weapon. She hardly noticed, stepping away and keeping her eyes trained on the spot where she swore she saw something.
“Rue, drop the gun.”
Prompto uncomfortably raised his hands and Gladio frowned, glancing over at Rayne. Rue’s eyes narrowed. There you are… A patch of black stood out starkly against the white marble pillar it attempted to hide behind.
“Hand it over,” Rayne demanded, glowering at the guard. Rue ignored her. Her heart rate spiked as the figure moved quickly. It was all she could to shout a warning.
Gladio practically threw Prompto to the ground as she squeezed off three shots. Rue's hands trembled, her arms frozen in place. She couldn’t move. At least, not until Cam reached out and pushed the handgun down, staring at the only person on the stairs who wasn’t moving. Gladio and Prompto slowly got to their feet, gawking at the body on the ground. Blood dribbled down the stairs, running over the curved dagger that clattered to the ground, freed from the lifeless hand that once gripped it. Rayne took off, looking the two men over to make sure they were unscathed. Cam took hold of Rue’s elbow and pulled her to the stairs.
“Another one?” Eren breathed, staring down at the girl that bled from her chest, neck, and head. With each shot, Rue had unintentionally aimed higher, finally killing her victim off with the third bullet. Still in shock that she’d even been able to pull the feat off, Rue stared hard at the body.
“There could still be others,” Cam muttered. Rayne nodded, turning to the Glaive.
“All of you, watch the perimeter. There’s no way they could have gotten inside unnoticed.”
“You alright?” Eren asked, cocking his head to the side. Rue, finding herself unable to speak, simply nodded. “Okay.”
“I have to admit, you blew my mind,” Cam laughed breathlessly, turning to Rue. “That was some quick thinking. If you hadn’t seen her… Well, I’m sure they could have taken the hit, but you never know.”
“Yeah,” Gladio replied, eyeing Rue. It was hard to tell if he was being genuine. “Thanks for that.”
“No, uh, no problem.” Rue glanced back down at the girl. Rayne frowned, tugging on Gladio’s arm.
“We should go see if Noct’s alright. You never know what holes these rats could crawl in through.”
The captain, the guard, and the glaive watched them go. Prompto turned to face the three sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck and offering a bright smile.
“Yeah, uh, thanks for that.” The blonde laughed nervously. “Rue, was it? Nice aim.”
“Thanks,” Rue replied uncertainly, glancing up at Cam. His face broke into a crooked smile. She didn’t understand.
One moment, she was standing alone in the hallway, bored out of her mind as a complete nobody, and now she’d killed some sort of rebel, possibly saved two members of the Crownsguard, and they knew her name. All because she obeyed an instinct that took over her very being. Because she followed an impulse that led her to so much grief in times past. Life truly was a dangerous game.
“I guess I should go check on the King,” Prompto huffed, hurrying back inside. Eren shook his head and turned to join the rest of the Kingsglaive. Cam rested a hand on Rue’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze to get her attention.
“Nice job,” he nodded, catching her eye. She nodded back, looking over at Dex’s unconscious body.
“He’ll be alright,” he reassured her. The captain cocked his head to the side. “You know, before all this happened, I was actually going to hunt you down. Care you join me for a little stroll to my office?”
“Uh, sure,” she replied, swallowing hard and stepping over the body as she followed him inside. It appeared that Rayne and the others hadn’t made it far. Rue was unsure if she should bow if she wasn’t planning to address the king as he stood there, scowling at his friends.
“What happened?” King Noctis demanded, trying to look around Gladio’s massive frame.
“A group of kids came and tried to shoot up the place,” Rayne sighed. “They got one of my men pretty good, but they’re all dead as far as we know.”
“Some sort of rebellion?” Ignis suggested from the king’s side, brow creased as he thought.
“That’s what we thought,” Rayne nodded, glancing back at Rue and Cam as they strode past. Thankfully, no one acknowledged them.
“I hope there aren’t any more,” Prompto huffed, crossing his arms.
“Me too,” Rue muttered under her breath.
The two hurried up the stairs two the second floor and Cam ushered her into his office with a smile. His plaque read, “Cameron Schrader: Captain of the Guard”. His desk was the same as Rayne’s and Ignis’s, but his décor was limited to a few cushioned leather chairs, a gray rug, and an expansive map of the Citadel that hung on the back wall. A steel filing cabinet stood against the right side and on top rested a dusty, yellowed globe. Cam shut the door firmly and walked toward his desk with his arms crossed. He laughed to himself, heading to the square window that was cracked open, allowing a gentle, cool breeze into the small space.
“What did you need me for?” Rue asked, deciding to stand at the entrance instead of taking a seat. Cam didn’t answer for a moment, his eyes narrowed on the ground below. She assumed he was watching the front of the Citadel.
“That was a very rash decision.”
“To shoot the girl. It was stupid… But it worked. And for that, I’m both proud and relieved.” Cam turned around to face her, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I called you up because I think you need a better placement.”
“I can’t say I disagree,” Rue admitted sheepishly.
“Good,” he chuckled, running a hand through his hair as he wandered closer. “I was thinking closer to the throne room. That way you’d be able to see how serious this track really gets. You’ve obviously got a good eye if you stay calm; you’ll be there to see and take note of whoever comes in and out. And the Crownsguard will see your face nearly every day. That’s a sure way to be recognized.”
“That sounds perfect,” Rue breathed, stunned by this man’s eager-to-please relocation.
“But,” he started, raising his eyebrows. He was drawing uncomfortably close; Rue took a slow step back, watching him carefully. Her heart sank and she suddenly felt incredibly uneasy. “It takes a lot to make it to that position. I’m sure you already knew that.”
“How do you plan to get me there?” she asked softly. They were so close that there was no need for her to speak at full volume. She took another step back.
“Oh, I have a few ideas. Don’t worry about that.” Cam tilted his head. Rue jumped, startled as her back hit the wall before she expected it to. A slight smile tugged at the corners of Cam’s lips. “But I can’t say it won’t cost you. Everyone that stands there has paid one price or another to have the chance.”
“What do you mean?” Rue could hardly squeeze the words out. This didn’t feel right. She shuddered when Cam’s finger traced the edge of her jaw. “What price?”
“The cost depends on the merchant,” Cam murmured, pressing one hand to the wall beside her head and lifting her chin with the other. His eyes flitted over her face quickly. “One of ‘em paid millions of gil. Another performed a dozen or so trials. That one was placed by Cor—I’m sure you could tell.” Rue gritted her teeth. Her heart was pounding against her ribcage and her hands were balled into tight fists. She could hardly breathe. But I need this.
“What's your price?”
“Hm.” Cam’s smile grew. “Well, let me see. I think I have a few ideas.” He played with her hair absently as he spoke. “It would, of course, have to be split into several payments to make it worth my while. I’m sure you understand.” Rue didn’t reply, staring up at him sharply. Without another word, Cam ducked his head and pressed his lips to hers, his hands gripping her hips tighter than what was necessary. Her initial instinct was to pull away, and she did so abruptly, shoving at his chest with her palms.
“What the hell?!”
“Shh…” He replied calmly. “It’s all or nothing now, Sweetheart.” She froze, stunned as he kissed her again. Was that a threat? She shuddered, forcing herself not to push him off her and run. She needed this job more than anything else in the world—the resources, the people, the equipment. She could handle a bit of blackmail… maybe. Cam pulled away, his blue eyes dark in the shadow he was casting on the wall behind her. “On your knees.”
“Now,” he snapped, gripping her shoulders and forcing her down to the floor. Trembling, she stared long and hard at the floor as she heard his belt jingling loose. I have to… for her. With that, she took a deep breath, sat up, and got to work.
Chapter 7: Problematic
"Bottom is a Rock" by Mother Mother
“Do they ever give you a break?” Prompto asked, cocking his head to the side and grinning. Rue shrugged, glancing at the throne room doors.
“Not really, but I can’t say there’s much work to be done anyway,” she admitted.
“I guess not,” he laughed softly. “I see you standin’ out here all the time. You here permanently?”
“I, uh, think so.” Rue’s heart skipped a beat and she took a deep breath with her hands anxiously twisted together behind her back. “What’re you doing down here, anyway?”
“Harsh,” he hissed playfully, earning a slight smile from the guard. “I was just gonna check in on Noct. Y’know, see how’s he’s holding up.” He rubbed that back of his neck uneasily, resting a hand on his hip. “I just never get to see him anymore.”
“Becoming king’ll suck up all your time,” Rue nodded, jerking her head toward the door. “Go on ahead; he shouldn’t be busy.”
“Actually, he is.”
The two jumped as a deep voice broke their conversation. Cor stood a short distance away with his arms crossed, his sharp eyes staring hard into Rue’s. She shifted uncomfortably.
“Oh, is he?” Prompto asked, mostly unfazed. Cor glanced at him before coming closer, staring down at Rue. Forcing her fear away as a distant enemy, she straightened, squaring her shoulders and meeting his gaze head-on.
“He’s scheduled to be in another set of negotiations until late tonight,” he replied steadily. “What’s your name?”
“Corden, you have no authority to allow His Majesty casual visitors, and if for some reason Schrader gave it to you, you’ll have to retrieve a copy of his schedule from his advisor every morning and prepare for the changes that occur throughout the day.” His eyes narrowed just the slightest bit; he seemed irritated by Rue’s lack of response. “Who is allowed to enter this room without previous notice if Noctis has time to spare?”
“Rayne, Gladio, Ignis, yourself, and Prompto,” she answered, unconsciously chewing on the inside of her cheek. “I’m assuming, at least.”
“Schrader never informed you?”
“Well, it’s not her fault, then,” Prompto stepped in hopefully. Cor ignored him.
“The only people allowed in here unannounced are Rayne, Gladio, and Ignis. Do you understand me?” Of course… The advisor and the end-all, be-all sacrifices for the king's life. How could she have possibly thought otherwise?
“What?!” Prompto blurted, earning a scowl. “S-sorry. It’s just—”
“There’s no time for friendly visits in these times,” Cor interrupted. He even looked a tad sympathetic. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s okay,” Prompto reassured him, lifting a hand to wave at Rue. “Uh, see ya, then. I guess.” Rue nodded back with her lips pursed, turning her attention back to Cor.
“I’m assuming I’ll have to trust that you’re here according to the schedule?” Unintentionally, the words sounded mocking. Cor took a deep breath.
“Yes. No more assumptions.” He pressed a hand to the door, hesitating. “If you have any contacts in the guard, it would be wise to have them take your place while you search out Ignis.”
“Now? He won’t be a part of this negotiation?”
“No. He’s…” Cor closed his eyes, sighing. Even the man of strict, perfect control slipped on his words sometimes, spilling things he never meant to say. “He’s a bit swamped with work today. He’ll either be in the kitchen or his office.”
“And he won’t care that I’m showing up unannounced?”
Cor turned to fully face her, now clearly irate from her prodding. To be fair, she was doing it to get on his nerves after he got on hers with his nitpicking. Luckily for her, because she tended to be so cautious and quiet, the soldier couldn’t decide if she was mocking or asking genuine questions. Stiffly, he replied before briskly entering the presence of the King.
“Prepare for a lecture.”
With a humored huff, Rue pulled out her cellphone and dialed up a number that it almost pained her to call.
“I need you to take my place down here for just a sec,” she muttered, falling against the wall and hugging her free arm to her body. “Cor just gave me a lecture on following the King’s schedule, so now I need to pester Ignis about getting sent one every morning.”
“That’s a tough one,” Cam grumbled.
“Tell me about it. I got yelled at for letting Prompto in.”
“Seriously?” Cam scoffed. “Sure, whatever. I’ll be there in just a sec.”
Rue sighed, stuffing her phone into her pocket and crossing her arms impatiently. Week five. It wasn’t the worst job she’d ever worked; it was mostly that the promises that Cam made had not been lived up to, for the most part. Rayne never so much as looked her way when she barged through the doors and the Glaive mocked her behind her back when she told them to pipe down, don’t run in the halls, take the fight somewhere else, please and thank you. It was a torture that never ended, and it was getting her nowhere. As long as the world kept taking its sweet time getting back on its feet, she was fine taking it slow. But what was to happen when things sped back up again?
“Hey,” Cam greeted, slowing his jog to a brisk walk as he rounded the corner. Rue tried to squeeze past him, but it was no use. Her boss was insatiable. He caught her by the waist, pulling her back and pressing a kiss to her lips. She almost threw up in her mouth, staring at the end of the hallway as he looked over her face with a sickeningly endeared expression. “Have fun with the neat freak.”
“Yeah,” she breathed, pulling out of his grip and hurrying up the stairs. Her pale cheeks glowed a shade of bright red and she prayed that there were no cameras in that entrance. There was no way there weren’t. Taking a deep breath to calm herself down, she stopped just before Ignis’s door, mentally counting down. To her right, Rayne stepped out of her office, arching an eyebrow as she watched the guard staring at the advisor’s door in silence.
“What’re you doing?”
“Huh?” Rue looked over at her, feeling her blush grow stronger. “Oh, I’m supposed to be asking Ignis for a schedule.”
“And you’re standing outside instead?” Rayne frowned. “He doesn’t hear prayers, Rue. You have to open the door and speak.”
“I know,” Rue muttered. “Don’t you have negotiations to attend?”
Rolling her eyes, Rayne turned on her heels and walked toward the same broad staircase everyone took to get to and from this floor. Rue shook her head, reaching up to knock. She froze. He didn’t answer last time; would he really want to get up and open the door again? Swallowing hard, she gripped the doorknob and turned without allowing herself another thought. She peeked her face into the room. Ignis looked up from whatever he was staring at on his computer screen and raised an eyebrow.
“Knock, knock,” Rue said uncertainly, clearing her throat when he didn’t react. “Cor sent me.”
“Come in,” Ignis sighed, pushing his glasses up and turning his swiveling chair to face forward. “Rue, was it?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” she nodded, closing the door and walking toward the desk. He looked up at her, waiting expectantly.
“What does the marshal need?”
“He needs something for me, actually,” Rue shrugged, awkwardly sinking into the same chair she used when they filled out her forms for who knows what reason. “A schedule of the King’s day, preferably every morning.” She tucked her hair behind her ear and crossed her legs, looking anywhere but Ignis. “I, uh, got in a bit of trouble for giving Prompto the go-ahead to enter the throne room during a meeting, not that His Majesty would be in there at that time anyway.”
“Yes, well,” Ignis’s head jerked to the side just the slightest bit. “I can understand the issue.” He sighed, habitually touching his glasses as he rifled through the top drawer of his desk. “You understand that plans change often, I’m assuming.” No more assuming. Rue nodded.
“Yeah. Cor told me to check in with you regularly about that.”
“No need,” Ignis replied smoothly, closing his drawer and pulling his phone from his pocket. He eyed the guard before unlocking the device and handing it over. “Enter your contact information here. I will be sure to send you the expected events for the day and then proceed to update you from there.”
“Thanks,” Rue replied, offering a smile. Ignis made no effort to smile back.
“I’m not doing you a favor, Rue. This is solely because His Majesty’s safety depends on it. Letting unauthorized visitors into the throne room at random could very well put his life in grave danger.” Rue’s face fell and she went back to typing her number into his phone.
“It was just Prompto—”
“It doesn’t matter,” he interrupted strictly. “No one except for Rayne, the marshal, Gladio and myself is allowed in that room unless there is notice beforehand.” Rue paused, glancing up at the advisor.
“Cor told me it was only you, Gladio, and Rayne that I should let in.” Ignis frowned.
“Well, I suppose I could be incorrect but I’m certain we agreed on the three of us.”
“Okay,” Rue whispered, handing his phone back. “I have a question if you’re willing to answer me.” Ignis raised an eyebrow silently yet again. She took that as a go-ahead. “Why not include Cor and Prompto in that list?”
“The decisions we make to preserve the King’s safety are not the business of the guard,” he answered coldly, tucking his phone into his pocket. “Are we done here?”
“Well, I’ll leave it at the assumption of status,” Rue huffed, standing. “Any heads up on what’s going on for the rest of the day? I’m on duty until His Majesty is in his chamber for the night.”
“The last thing he has scheduled in the meeting he is currently attending,” Ignis replied dutifully, returning to his computer. “After that, it is not your business to stick around and keep an eye on him. Your shift will be over then.”
“I’m sorry,” Rue snapped, annoyed by his “high and mighty” attitude toward her. “But I take my orders from the Captain.” She headed toward the office door, pulling it open sharply. Guilt pinched her heart and she glanced back at him over her shoulder. “Have a good night.”
“How’d it go?” Cam asked upon seeing Rue coming back down the hallway. She shrugged.
“He’s still got a stick up his ass and I’m still tired. Nothing’s changed.” Cam chuckled, shaking his head.
“Well, listen.” Rue’s chest ached with dread. Here we go. “Meet me upstairs for ‘payment,’ Sweetheart.” “If you’re really that tired, you should go lay down in the room just down there.” He pointed down the hallway. “I’ll stand here for you.”
“No, it’s okay,” Rue insisted. “You go home; I can finish the shift just fine.”
“Rue,” he said sternly. “Captain’s orders. Go take a nap.”
“Captain’s orders,” she scoffed under her breath, turning around to head to the room as she was directed.
Slowly, she pushed to door open, greeted by dim lighting and about a dozen cots. She entered carefully; two people were fast asleep across the room from each other. What the hell is this place? Some sort of sick room? Shaking her head, she laid down in the cot closest to the door and forced herself to close her eyes and relax.
Sleep overtook her almost immediately, but it was the light, barely-breaking-the-surface type that left her tossing and turning on the squeaking metal frame of her “bed.” Familiar faces, voices, places haunted dreams that lasted hardly more than a minute before one faded away and another replaced it. She shot up abruptly in her bed as the crack of gunfire woke she and the other two people in the room. Acting on instinct, she leaped to her feet and raced into the hallway. Cam was gone.
Rue pulled her gun off her hip and rushed toward the throne room. The door was shut tight, but it most certainly wasn’t locked. If the King was in negotiations like everyone said he was, he’d be in a narrow room that branched off his court. She hesitated as she stretched out a hand to shove the door open. Shouldn’t the Kingsglaive be taking this? She gritted her teeth and pushed. To hell with the Glaive and Rayne and anyone else who should be there. She was on duty.
King Noctis stood guarded by Cor, Rayne, and Axel, the redheaded fool that was chosen over Rue. She nearly had to throw herself at the wall to avoid being shot by the trigger-happy idiot, scowling at him. At the other end of the broad room laid a boy who looked about seventeen, stretched out on his back and leaking a stream of blood from a shot through the heart. Rayne’s eyes locked onto Rue and she charged. Rue hardly had time to react before the warrior smacked the gun out of her hands and struck the side of her face. The taste of copper rushed across her tongue as her teeth clamped down on her lip.
“What the hell is wrong with you?!” Rayne practically screamed. “Where were you?!” Rue straightened slowly, her breathing quickening with the pounding of her heart. “Answer me, dammit!”
“Cam was supposed to be—”
“You were on duty, not Cam!” Rayne scoffed, throwing an arm out in the King’s direction. “He would have been killed if Axel hadn’t seen the kid come in here!”
Rue stood in shocked silence. No one spoke as the door opened again and Ignis strode in, looking around the scene with quick, sharp eyes.
“Is everyone alright?” he asked, making a beeline for Noctis.
“Should be,” Axel nodded, stepping away from the king. Rayne’s jaw was tight; she planted her hands on her hips and tapped the toe of her boot.
“I just…” She laughed darkly, shaking her head. “Where were you? Tell me, now.”
“Cam wouldn’t let me guard any longer,” Rue stuttered, feeling absolutely foolish as the words came out. Of course, she shouldn’t have obeyed. She should have stood her ground instead of bending her will for that disgusting man. “H-he sent me away to rest.”
“To rest,” Rayne snorted. “So let me get this straight: you went upstairs to waste Ignis’s time, then you put your boss at your post so that you could take a nap?” Her face fell back into her terrifying, rage-induced glare. “That sound about right?”
“I—” Rue stammered, feeling entirely overwhelmed. “I was really tired and it wouldn’t have done much good for me to—”
“Then go the fuck home,” Rayne snarled, stepping up to get into Rue’s face. “Don’t stay here and put everyone in danger.” The four men in the center of the room watched in silence as she tore the guard to pieces. “You think just because you 'saved' Gladio and Prompto last week that you’re some sort of hero that can do whatever the #$%^ she wants? Huh? Let me tell you something, Sweetheart.” She shoved Rue back toward the wall, practically bursting with raw anger. “If you hadn’t shot that girl on the spot, we’d have a way to trace where these damn kids are coming from, not to mention that you almost shot Gladio through the head trying to play the hero!”
“But I didn’t, did I?” Rue snapped—a fatal mistake. Rayne’s face grew horrifyingly calm and she stepped back, crossing her arms tightly. Behind her, Cor and Noctis exchanged a look and Axel shifted uncomfortably. Ignis was unreadable.
“You don’t even have the courage to admit you were wrong,” Rayne stated coldly. “You make up excuse after excuse and then you act like you deserve the position you’re in.” She cocked her head to the side. “I knew you were desperate, but gods, fucking your boss? That’s a bit far, doncha think?” Rue’s chest almost exploded; she bit her tongue. It was so twisted, so wrong. She didn’t choose anything that Cam decided for her. How does she know? “And how could I forget the cherry on top of it all?!” Rayne cried, throwing her hands in the air. “You have the nerve to tell me you didn’t do anything out of line when your king was almost killed by a drug-addicted child because you couldn’t hold your eyes open for an hour longer.”
“Cam—!” Rue blurted. Rayne silenced her by raising her hand.
“I don’t give a shit about Cam—I get the final say when it comes to Noctis's defense.”
“… What are you saying?” she dared to ask, praying that something would go right just this once. Rayne reached toward her.
“I need your uniform. Now. You’re fired. I don’t want to see your sorry ass around here ever again, do you understand?”
“You can’t—!" Rue protested, only to be cut off by Cor.
“She can. You’ve proven yourself incapable of handling a simple duty.”
“I’m telling you I was ordered to let him take my place!” Rue shouted, stomping her foot like an insolent child.
“And I’m telling you that I’m going to start sending bullets your way unless you give me the uniform and get the hell out,” Rayne snapped. “Now, Corden.”
“… I’m not wearing clothes underneath,” Rue muttered.
“Well you’re not buck naked under there, are you?” Rayne demanded, waving her outstretched hand. “Hand it over and get your things from the lockers.”
“I… didn’t bring anything to the lockers.” Everything was dirty.
Rayne huffed, roughly ripping her baggy blue sweatshirt off and throwing it at the guard.
“Put that on, then,” she huffed, straightening the t-shirt she wore underneath. “I want it back.”
“… Is this your brothers?” Rue asked without thinking. What the fuck is wrong with me?!
Rayne’s glare was enough to shut her mouth and get her to start unbuckling the belts that held her clothing on. The group of men uncomfortably averted their eyes as she tossed her shirt at the woman standing before her, pulling the padding off her pants and tugging the sweatshirt on over her head. The thing was even more massive on her, making her look like some sort of navy blue gourd with skinny limbs and angry eyes. Rayne dropped the uniform to the floor and pointed at the door.
Rue turned on her heels and stormed out the door, struggling to hold back tears. Her brisk walk turned into a run and she soon found herself sprinting through the dark, winding hallways, hiding her face from anyone she passed. Someone called her name; she pretended not to hear, rushing out the front doors and immediately calling Eren. Twenty minutes later, she left his car without a word and hurried to her apartment.
The second the door shut behind her, uncontrollable sobs overtook her entire body and sent her sinking to the floor. She hugged her knees to her chest, gasping and choking and sniffling. Not only was she the Citadel's new shame, she was a complete and utter failure. She’d hardly survived a month and a half. She prioritized a nap over the Chosen King’s life. She lost her only way to redemption. How was she going to right the wrongs without the tools she required? Exhausted, she sank to the floor and curled up into a ball, roughly scrubbing the tears off of her cheeks with the sleeve of Arma Callen’s sweatshirt.
She couldn’t do anything right. No matter what, she was destined to fail again and again, to be beaten down to the ground by the rest of the world while people with just as much dedication and strength climbed the ranks to the top like it was a cakewalk. She would never be able to save herself from her impulses, her fears, her loneliness. She would never straighten out. She would never get her revenge. Ana…
Rue shuddered, squeezing her burning eyes shut. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…
Chapter 8: Reaching
"Get Up" by Mother Mother
~2 years before~
The crumbled streets of Insomnia were wrecked, degraded into chunks of rubble and deconstructed to dust at its very core. And yet, the outskirts were still very much intact, touched only by the clouds of powered stone that once billowed from the Imperials’ destruction. The rain fell at a lazy pace, not quite hard enough to soak, but cool enough to chill. Citizens of the Crown City wandered the streets, staring at the black sky in wonder as if they were unsure if the sun would rise in the morning. Would daemons invade their city in the dead of night? Would their families be safe? It had already been several months since the Dawn, and yet, they could still hardly believe their eyes when the light of day inevitably returned.
A lone woman hugged her arms to her body, sickly thin and pale as the light of the moon that hid behind the clouds, and wandered down the dimly lit street. She was dressed in a sheer black dress and heels that made her appear far taller than she really was. Her hair was long, curling in ebony waves down her back, shining in the flickering neon ‘Open’ sign she strode past. Her neck, ears, and wrists were adorned with all sorts of glistening pieces of jewelry that, if one looked close enough they would realize, were simply gold-painted plastic pieces. The young woman hurried down the sidewalk, across the lifeless street, and into an alleyway that was dimly lit with gas lamps where oil-stained men with thick skin and even thicker wallets bellowed laughter beneath a tarp, clearly drunk.
“Hey, hey, what’s this, gentlemen?” One of the older men stood, appearing to be in his mid-forties. “A lady of the night! Didn’t think they made those anymore.” His entourage chortled. Uneasily, the woman took a few more steps into the alley. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Rachel,” she replied cautiously, her pale eyes glinting in the light of the lanterns. “What are you doing back here?”
“Surviving!” The men cheered, raising their drinks. The man, who appeared to be the leader of the group, laughed, crossing his arms. “How ‘bout you? Lookin’ for patrons?”
“I…” Her voice cut out and she looked down to the puddle she’d stepped in. She was no good at this way of life, but what else could she do? It pays the bills.
“Course you are! Even when the world’s tryin’ to get back up, the Crown’s drinkin’ up all our money.” He cocked his head to the side, grinning. “What’s your fee, Hon?”
“Fee…?” She swallowed hard, forcing herself to straighten. “I, um, could we speak about this somewhere a little more… private?”
“Oh? What makes you think these guys won’t want a turn?”
“I…” Her heart sank as he sauntered closer, pinching her chin and forcing her head back until she was staring up into his bright eyes.
“You’re a pretty one—all our women are dead ‘n gone, if they ever existed.” He raised a dark eyebrow. “Tell you what; I’ll give ya double what you tell me you were gonna say. How’s that?”
“Me too!” another voice cried. She cringed, swallowing her pride and the lump in her throat, and nodded. For Ana.
“Good. What’ll it be? Be as pricey as you want.”
“Nah, c’mon. Bump it up. Forty, times two… That’ll getcha eighty gil just from me. Deal?”
“Good.” His dirt-smudged fingers gripped her shoulders and pushed so hard that her legs gave way and she landed in the puddle on the ground. “Quit lookin’, perverts!” he called over his shoulder, quickly undoing his belt. His coworkers laughed again, long and loud, clinking their bottles together cheerfully. The man reached down and gripped her hair, jerking her up onto her knees, and snarled something she couldn’t understand against her ear before straightening with a smug smile. “Let’s get this over with, huh?”
It was another week before Rue left the dark silence of her apartment. Not a window was cracked, not a light was on, and the only thing that ran was the cold water in the sink as she forced herself to fill a chipped mug and take a drink. Her only company was her mind and Honey; the latter kept her distance as though she could sense the tension that clouded each and every room Rue entered and curled up in.
Then, as if by some miracle, seven days after her humiliating removal from the Citadel, she unraveled herself from the threadbare blanket she’d enveloped herself in and left the bathroom floor to walk to her bedroom, where she changed out of the baggy, sweat-dampened pajamas she’d been wearing for three days. Ruffling her hair, she headed to the living room in complete silence and pulled open the blackout curtains. The sun hit her pale cheeks and warmed her bare arms; the light glared off the large frames of her glasses. Honey rushed from her cat tower in the other room to the couch, having somehow sensed the change in atmosphere.
The smell of dry shampoo flooded the cramped bathroom as she sprayed and scrubbed at her scalp, trying to hide the powdery white streaks in her greasy black hair. Music played from her phone quietly as she loaded her mobile games to collect her daily rewards. Picking up the device and carrying it with her, Rue headed to the kitchen and switched out the filter in her coffee pot, reaching toward her bag of grounds. It was so light that it practically stunned her into freezing. She huffed a sigh and tossed it in the trash.
Filling Honey’s bowl, she ignored the rumbling of her stomach and pulled on her boots and her bulky jacket, grabbing her house key off the hook by the door and heading out into the world for the first time in ages. The air was remarkably colder outside than she remembered; perhaps the world really did keep moving when she turned off. With bone-chilled fingers, she ducked her chin behind her collar to shield her face from the wind and hurried to the nearest coffee shop. It was a short walk, maybe four minutes, but it felt like a century with the wintry air blasting her cheeks and pushing her to and fro.
Finally, her hands met the metal door handle and she pulled, smiling with relief when the bell over her head jingled and the assortment of people inside lifted their eyes to see who’d entered. Seeing it was no one particularly remarkable, the strangers continued with their conversations and reading and whatnot as Rue headed for the line. A younger woman stood before her, likely a student at the nearby university that was just starting up again now that the professors had either returned or been replaced. The schools themselves were out of the path of destruction, for the most part. How fortunate.
The man working the counter looked all too excited to be there, flashing Rue a grin when she stepped up to order. She couldn’t help but shudder at the bun on his head; it reminded her of a past she’d rather leave behind her. Clearing her throat, she pressed her chapped lips together and offered a thin smile back.
“I’ll have an iced mocha.”
“You sure? It’s pretty cold out,” he teased, punching in her order. She shrugged, her smile widening.
“I’m drinking it here, aren’t I?”
“Alright,” he chuckled playfully, nudging a device toward her. “Insert your chip. It’ll prompt you to sign and leave a tip.” With that, he turned to make her drink.
Chewing her lip, she did as instructed, freezing up when her total came up. So expensive… Could she even afford to tip? She glanced behind her quickly. No one would see… No. She shook her head, quickly hitting the fifteen percent option and scribbling a rough signature onto the screen. The guy didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, he probably came across broke students all the time who didn’t tip simply because they absolutely could not afford to even be there in the first place. She was old enough to have her life together. She huffed, stuffing her card back into her pocket. I wish.
Turning around, she found an empty tall table by a broad window by the back wall. She slid into the rickety, spinning seat and leaned forward on her elbows, pulling out her phone to scroll through the local news. Nothing but security additions that pissed off the public and the reopening of the largest shopping center in Insomnia. Riveting. Huffing, she turned the screen off and looked up at her surroundings. Her heart leaped into her throat. Why the hell is he here?
It was hard for the guy not to stand out. A proud six and a half feet tall, built purely of enormous muscles, and not to mention very clearly aware he was important just in the way carried himself. Rue hid her face behind her collar, staring hard at the glossy wooden table as hard as she could, wishing him away. Maybe he’ll just pick up his coffee and leave. Yeah, that was a good plan… Hide her face and pray that he didn’t see her, or better yet, that he saw her and didn’t know who she was.
“Mocha for Rue!” the barista called.
Her heart stopped and she looked up sharply. He was staring directly at her. Swallowing to wet her dry throat, Rue slid out of her seat and headed to the opposite end of the counter, picking up her drink and hurrying back. Should I leave? To her dismay, the line was blocking the door by now. Was it worth it to fight her way through? She sighed, climbing back up into her seat and slouching low, scrolling through month old texts to look busy. The idiot still bumbled over to her table, his stature lifting him enough to stand taller than her even with the stupid wobbly chair than hoisted her high up
“Hm?” Rue looked up, pretending to be surprised to see Gladiolus standing there. “Oh! Hey. What’re you, uh, doing here?” She nodded toward the counter. “This doesn’t seem like your scene, no offense.” Her nerves were going haywire. Was he going to chew her out, too? Had his girlfriend sent him to kill her off? Did she know too much? Loose ends and all that? Shit, who’s gonna feed my cat?
“You think?” Gladio chuckled, looking around at the minimalistic décor and college students. “Rayne and Prompto wanted something to wake ‘em up and they sent me here.” He sighed, lifting up a tall black can labeled with a bold, scarlet coffee bean. “That and I thought I’d get Iggy a treat.”
“A treat?” Rue couldn’t help but arch an eyebrow as she pushed her sliding glasses up. The nickname was already ridiculous enough for someone of Ignis Scientia’s type, but his best friend referring to him like a pet was something else entirely.
“Yeah, I’d say he’s earned it,” Gladio shrugged, setting it down on the table and continuing to look around aimlessly. Finally, he sighed, directing his sharp eyes to her. “Listen: Rayne would probably wring my neck for this, but she ain’t here so she can’t stop me.” He slid into the seat to his left, sitting across from Rue and folding his burly arms on the table. “Wanted to apologize for how shit went down last week. That’s not usually how we handle stuff around there.”
“I understand why she did it though,” Rue shrugged, chewing on the inside of her cheek before taking a sip and crinkling her nose. Too sweet. “It’s not like I didn’t deserve it.”
“Cam told you he was taking your place,” Gladio replied sternly, heavy brow furrowed. “That’s on him. He doesn’t get to throw you under the bus.” Rue shuddered at the sound of the disgusting officer’s name, blocking memories of countless “payments.” She wondered if she’d ever report him. Rayne would probably throw the report out and spit in her face before pounding her into a bloody pulp.
“Is anything being done, then?”
“I’m working on it,” Gladio grumbled, scratching at his dark hair.
“She holds grudges,” he admitted with a shrug. “Sometimes it gets in the way, but I think I can get Iggy and Cor on my side, so we’re all set.”
“Is there… anything else you could hold over him?” Rue suggested carefully, maintaining eye contact uneasily.
“Tardiness?” Gladio crossed his arms, leaning back. “Maybe a bit more slacking off. The guy’s just lazy.”
“Yeah, well, it cost me,” Rue muttered, stunned that she let the words out just before dumping more coffee into her mouth to shut herself up. Gladio grunted, unfazed, and looked toward the counter impatiently. In the moment of silence, Rue’s conniving mind sparked with an idea. This could be the only way… Rue leaned forward, taking a deep breath and folding her hands together. “So, Ignis…”
“What about him?” Gladio asked, redirecting his attention to her.
“He’s a busy guy,” Rue stated, tilting her head to the side and frowning. “It’s just weird to me that… You guys have the advisor running HR and secretary work on top of all his work with the King. Isn’t that a bit much?”
“He likes the pressure,” Gladio shrugged, nodding when he added, “but I do think he’s got too much on his plate.”
“I just thought it was weird,” Rue sighed, leaning back in her seat, though her face easily feigned thoughtful concern. She’d played this game a thousand times before. This was a cakewalk. “I sure he’s able to get it done and all, but he looks like a zombie behind that desk. However,” she held up her hands, “it’s only conjecture. I don’t doubt that he’s happy where he is; I just can’t imagine being under all that stress all the time.”
“He overcommits himself,” Gladio agreed, checking his phone briefly. “I think he can handle it, but eventually he’s gonna boil over. He’s good at hiding the build-up.” He chuckled to himself. “Trust me—you’re lucky that you’ll probably never see one of his meltdowns. It gets dark.” Or will I?
“Has he, I don’t know, ever even considered a personal assistant or something?” Rue pressed. Gladio raised an eyebrow. She fought a smile; his mind was so easily read. He thought he was catching on to the BS, and that’s exactly where she wanted him. He liked her too much to get aggressive and pitied her too much to turn her down.
“I dunno. I think it would hurt his pride to admit he needs help,” Gladio replied. His guard was up; it was the optimal time to strike at the emotional bond—disguised as logic, of course.
“Why’s that? He’s not admitting to needing help; he’s admitting that he’s too important for all that nonsense. He should be spending time advising the King and devising plans for defense and retaliation in case shit hits the fan in these negotiations,” Rue countered. “And if he’ll never dare to think about it himself, you as a friend should plant it in his brain. He’s working himself half to death.”
“Yeah,” Gladio huffed, glowering at the barista. “This place always so slow?” Rue shrugged. “I’m not gonna lie to you, Rue.” He leaned forward. “I know what you’re getting at. Why should I give a shit?”
“I know how it comes across,” Rue admitted. “But here’s the thing: I honestly do care about his state of mind. He reminds me of some people I used to know, and I watched those people unravel. It was… unpleasant, to say the least.
I also know what I’m pitching and that I’m ultimately pitching it for myself because, frankly, I’m flat out broke with no way to pay for a place to live or for food. But, even if you decide you want nothing to do with me, I wanted you to have the concern at the forefront of your mind. The guy needs a break.” Rue shrugged. “You said he likes to be busy? He’ll be plenty busy with the work he’s paid to do, and he’ll be able to go to bed before four in the morning.”
Gladio stood and walked to the counter to take the two steaming cups from the barista, giving the young man an irritated glower as he did so. To Rue’s surprise, he returned to the table, but he did so on his way out, pausing to finish their conversation. She leaned away from him, uncomfortably close. It wasn’t like he gave her “Cam vibes,” but she was cautious all the same.
“I’ll talk to Prompto and His Majesty and we’ll work on him. I can’t promise anything, but maybe we’ll get some results.” The reassuring look in the gentle giant’s eyes was all she needed for relief to overcome her. It would be okay after all. “And I won’t say anything to Rayne either, you hear me? I’m putting my ass on the line for you, Corden.”
“I won’t let you down,” Rue replied with a small smile, tucking her hair behind her ear and pressing the center of her glasses. He smiled back, nodding and heading toward the door, a piping hot cup of coffee gripped in each large hand. She immediately relaxed, sinking back in her seat and taking another sip of her coffee. If there’s no job opening, make one yourself, I guess.
Feeling triumphant, she picked up her cup and left with a bit of bounce in her step, returning to her apartment with a smile on her face. She spent the rest of the day scrubbing down her living space, washing the dishes and the floors and the laundry until the sun sank beneath the horizon and she threw herself into bed. Shortly past midnight, her phone switched from a video of two middle-aged men taste-testing animal testicles to an unknown number’s call.
Rue nearly had a heart attack when her thumb hit the button to hang up. Quickly, she swiped the green circle to accept the call and sit straight up in bed, the gray covers pooling around her waist.
“Gladio?” Rue’s heart hammered in her chest and she reached to her right, scooping up Honey and clutching the cat to her chest. “Is that you?”
“Yeah. Got your number from Rayne’s phone.”
“It took a couple bottles of wine and the whole work day, but he’s in.”
“Yes!” Rue shrieked in a whisper so he couldn’t hear, shimming excitedly. Holy shit, a couple of bottles? “Really?! That’s great!”
“Yeah, well, no one knows it’s you except for Cor and Prompto, so be prepared for that.”
“I will,” Rue nodded, setting her disgruntled cat free. “What’s, uh, the expected attire, if you don’t mind?”
“It’s—” Gladio’s voice cut out, and when he spoke again, it was much quieter. “Just look nice. Come in at eight tomorrow and meet Prompto at the entrance.”
“Thanks again,” Rue breathed, honestly grateful.
“Yeah.” A woman’s voice echoed in the background; Gladio hung up immediately.
Rue cringed, prayed for his victory against the she-devil, and slid down underneath her covers. She reached up to switch her lamp off and set an alarm on her phone before rolling over and closing her eyes peacefully. Ana… We’re back in the game.
Chapter 9: Returning
"Dying in LA" by Panic! at the Disco
The blaring alarm bursting from her vibrating phone was the first thing that brought Rue to her senses in the morning. The second was the instant panic that stuffed her chest and frazzled her heart. She threw back her covers and practically ran to the bathroom to wash her disgusting hair. She almost slipped to her death when she quickly hurried out of the shower and the sound of hairs snapping left and right hit her ears as she violently combed through her short, soaked hair. Ignoring the purring cat at her ankles, the panicked woman ran into her closet and pull anything that looked half decent off its hanger and threw it onto her bed.
One shirt was too baggy. Another had a hole front and center. Rue finished buttoning up a third and crinkled her nose. Not only did she look homeless, but she did not want to guess at what the stain on the collar was. Huffing, she threw the shirt to the ground and picked up a gray shirt, tugging it on over her head, adjusting the long sleeves, and chewing her lip as she looked herself over. Not exactly professional, but it would do. She strung a suspiciously cheap silver chain about her neck, almost clawed her eyes out as she put in her contacts, and tugged her way into some black pants.
"Definitely should've woken up earlier," she muttered to herself, throwing half of her hair up, grabbing her jacket, and rushing out the door.
Her legs moved as quickly as they could. People stared as she sped past at a high-speed walk, which was arguably more distracting than a run would have been. Rue checked her phone just as she passed the gates to the Citadel, breathing a sigh of relief. One minute to spare. Prompto stood in front of the towering doors, beaming at her as she breathlessly climbed the stairs.
"I'm fine," she waved him off, crossing her arms uneasily. Suddenly, this didn't feel like such a great opportunity. She looked ridiculous, first of all, and second, she could hardly help but wonder why these two men had decided to help her out. Was it really all for Ignis? And why's this guy so damn friendly? "Is he here?"
"He's been here for hours," Prompto laughed, scratching at his thick blonde hair that was spiked up into some sort of elaborate construction on top of his head. "And he still doesn't know that you're the one that took the job, not that that matters."
"It will for Rayne," Rue muttered, tucking her hair behind her ear anxiously. Prompto offered a smile.
"Well, there's nothing she can do to you now, as long as you keep up with Specs."
"Ignis, sorry." Prompto stiffly turned and opened the door for her, following her inside. "I hate feeling like I'm leading you," he teased, slowing down so she was walking beside him. "You know where his office is, right?"
"Yeah," Rue nodded. "I know the basics of this maze. Doesn't matter that I've been here for months now; I still get lost."
"Oh, I do too," he reassured her, skipping a step energetically. Rue arched an eyebrow. If he was this energetic now, she couldn't imagine what he was like when he was younger. "Sometimes Rayne and Ignis make fun of me, but I like to think I go on an adventure every time I leave that silly little office."
"That's a nice way to view it," Rue laughed to herself, looking around at the familiar halls. The floors looked recently polished, always reflective enough to work as mirrors, and the paintings on the walls had been straightened and dusted off. It was almost as though the building reset itself just as she had.
"Okay, so," Prompto started as they walked down the hallway of Crownsguard offices. "Don't be offended if he comes off as grumpy—he's just like that. Takes him a bit to warm up to people." He laughed, shaking his head. "He treated me like some dumb kid for the longest time. I think Noct got on his case about it because after our graduation he got real nice real quick."
"Too bad I'm not graduating," Rue muttered halfheartedly, twisting her cold fingers together nervously as they approached the advisor's door. "Any other tips?"
"Well..." Prompto's steps hesitated with his words. "I know Rayne gave you a hard time, but she's really not like that. She has to be scary—it's her job. She's pretty awesome, like a big sister to me and Noct, and she and Iggy are close. Like, if Gladio hadn't knocked her off her feet and carried her off into the sunset, they'd probably, maybe, possibly be married by now." Rue cringed. That's tough... Prompto's cheeks flushed and he looked as if he wanted to suck the words back into his mouth. "So, I just think you should try your best to not say anything about her around him." Prompto turned to grin at her. "But I think you'll do great."
"I hope so," Rue sighed. Prompto stopped before the door, turning to face her fully. Dramatically, he squared his shoulders.
"C'mon, deep breath." Rue rolled her eyes. "No, I'm serious! Deep breath!" Rue obeyed, raising an eyebrow. "Now breathe out. No! Not like that, you'll hyperventilate!" he hissed. She crossed her arms.
"Prompto, you're not helping. Open the door."
"Fine," he shrugged, turning the doorknob and knocking as he swung the door inward. "Knock, knock!" he greeted cheerfully. Rue couldn't see Ignis over Prompto's shoulder, but the smell of the room alone was enough to kick her nerves into overdrive. "Hey, Iggy!"
"What is it?" Ignis asked. Even toward his friend, the advisor's tone was cold as ice. Was he really that overworked, or did he simply suspect that something was up?
"So, remember that conversation we had yesterday? About an assistant?"
"Gladio and I picked one out for you," Prompto replied just as cheerfully as he started. Ignis frowned, setting his pen down and directing his full attention to the doorway. Rue felt her stomach churn as all blood steadily drained from her face. Was this a bad idea? "You probably remember her—"
"Prompto, please," Ignis cut in impatiently.
Huffing, the blonde stepped aside and stretched out his arms as if to say, "Ta-dah!" The advisor's face didn't budge an inch from its scowl. Not a single sign of what he was thinking reflected in his eyes, his expression, or his demeanor as he stared Rue down while she stood uncomfortably in the doorway, unsure if she should enter the room.
"It's Rue!" Prompto exclaimed all too excitedly.
"Hi," Rue offered a smile, shuffling into the office slowly. Her arms were crossed tightly. "Thanks for having me." Shit, that sounded really stupid. I'm not performing.
"Of course," Ignis replied after biting back the initial words she could see about to spill out. This is about to be rough for the both of us, Bud. "Prompto, have you shown her around the Citadel?"
"Iggy, she's been around here for a while," Prompto laughed uneasily. "She knows her way around, don't you, Rue?" Rue nodded compliantly. She wasn't entirely sure if she knew any of the places Ignis would need her to go, but she wasn't about to let the guy talk her ear off as they toured a thousand rooms she'd never find again anyway. "See? We wouldn't bring you someone incompetent."
A heavy silence overtook the room after his soft laugh faded. Awkwardly, Prompto cleared his throat and smiled, looking between his friend and Rue. Neither looked back; Rue stared at anything inanimate she could rest her eyes on and Ignis practically bored lasers through her as he thought. She could practically hear the cogs turning in his head. In fact, she half expected a whistle to sound as pressure released and steam rushed out of his ears. But nothing of the sort occurred. Ignis finally turned his gaze to Prompto, nodding curtly.
"Thank you, Prompto. Send Gladio my regards as well."
"You got it," Prompto grinned, saluting and flashing Rue a wink before heading out. The thud of the door closing made Rue flinch. She forced herself to look up at her newest boss.
"So," she started slowly, trying to calm her heart as his piercing eyes stared back, devoid of emotion. "We suffered through introductions. What's next?" Ignis arched an eyebrow; maybe he didn't get the joke. Her smile fell and she chewed on the inside of her cheek anxiously.
"I suppose you could use these forms," Ignis sighed finally, pulling out a desk drawer and setting a stack of papers onto his desk. Rue frowned; how many pages did this place print a day? "My apologies. I was not expecting those two to find someone nearly as quickly as they did." Ignis paused, studying her as though a sudden idea struck him hard. He said nothing more, however, and pushed the stack toward her. Curiously, she took it into her hands and flipped through the pages. Kingsglaive information. Of course. She looked up at him, confused.
"What do you want me to do with these? They're already filled out."
"Of course they are. I need you to enter the information into the Citadel's database," the advisor replied sourly. Rue frowned, the toes of her shoes digging into the rug under her feet as she anxiously thought out her next reply. Before she could speak, Ignis scribbled down a note and handed it over. "This is the program you will use, as well as the override code to let you in."
"Where can I...?" Rue asked slowly, eyeing his computer. He scowled sharply, irritated with her inexperience. At this rate, it seemed she was going to take more time than him doing his work alone.
"Prompto said you know your way around," he pointed out, pushing his glasses up. "There's a library upstairs you may use."
"I'll get right on it," Rue answered with forced cheeriness, turning to the door and starting to step out. She froze in place when the door swung open and Rayne stood fuming in the entrance, fists balled at her sides and violet eyes flared wide.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"I, uh, I—" Rue stammered, shocked. Ignis stood, raising an eyebrow at Rayne in question.
"Iggy, they said they were going to get you an assistant, not an incompetent piece of—"
"And they did," Ignis cut her off. Immediately, his demeanor softened. "I'll admit, she wouldn't be my first choice, but she's been presented the opportunity to prove herself and I'm inclined to let her have it."
"How many chances does she get?" Rayne demanded, crossing her arms and throwing her hip out to the side. "How many chances before she gets someone killed?"
"I hardly think she'll be in any such position anytime soon," Ignis replied firmly, though his eyes were earnest. Rue shifted her weight back and forth between her feet uncomfortably, avoiding Rayne's glare by studying the office with feigned interest. "And if she is, that will be by your choice."
"..." Rayne turned to face Rue fully, her jaw working tightly as she thought. "Rue, go wherever you were headed. I need to talk to him without you hovering."
Rue fought the urge to roll her eyes. She glanced back at Ignis, unsure if she should ask for directions. He scowled at his desk in silence. Pursing her lips, Rue brushed past Rayne and hurried into the hallway. The door slammed loudly behind her; she flinched. Prompto poked his head out of his office at the same time as Gladio. Rue averted her eyes and started to head toward the stairwell.
"Not going well?" Prompto called after her. Sighing, she turned to face the two curious men.
"Um, not particularly." Awkwardly, she tucked her hair behind her ear. "Rayne found out I'm here and now she's talking to Ignis."
"Shit," Gladio grunted, running a hand through his thick hair. "He's gonna tell her."
"And she's gonna whip your ass," Prompto teased with a grin. Gladio shot him a scowl. "Am I wrong?"
"Sorry about that," Rue breathed. Gladio shook his head.
"Nah, I did it to myself. She got on my case after she thought I was calling my 'side chick' last night." Rue crinkled her nose; he meant her. The secret girlfriend of Gladiolus Amicitia? One could only dream. He nodded toward the stack of papers in her arms. "What's that?"
"Glaive files," Rue huffed. "Speaking of which, where's the library?"
"Head up the stairs and straight down the hall. It's the third door on the left," Prompto instructed.
"It's the on right," Gladio grumbled.
"Prompto, which hand do you write with?"
"Right, but I—"
"I'll figure it out," Rue assured them, forcing a smile and turning to leave the two behind. This first day was already turning out to be a disaster.
She hurried up the stairs and found the library (it was, in fact, on the right). Not a single person was to be seen, or heard, in the wide, open floor of broad bookshelves and simple desks with flat-screened computers. Briskly, Rue headed to the computer at the back corner of the library and set her papers to the side. Using the note Ignis gave her, she finally found her way into the data entry program. She entered each and every prompted fact, number, and checkmark. It was tedious work, but she wanted to be sure she was right.
Sighing, she turned over the second to last page. Wish I had my earbuds. Some names, like those of her friends, were familiar. The crimes they committed were perhaps the most intriguing to her. Eren was, as expected, the more innocent of the three. All he did was possess a knack for shoplifting that sometimes just didn't kick in. Dex was charged with several accounts of domestic assault and one of manslaughter. Relir was perhaps the most roughed up of the trio. Several assault charges, reports of drug possession, and the only three murders she ever committed—the killing of her mother, father, and sister.
Rue huffed, shaking her head. The four of them made up a strange group. It was odd enough how much the Darkness drove them to change. They did, of course, still wrestle with their old tendencies and hobbies, but the fact that the King himself was willing to allow them into his presence was enough motivation to take the second chance they were given. If only she hadn't fucked up two times over. She could be training with them instead of sitting at a desk typing in tidbits of information. Her eyelids were starting to droop—she needed her daily dose of caffeine.
Rue finally punched in the last of the data, hit save, and stood to stretch as she checked the time with a yawn. That took an hour?! Startled, she collected her papers and hurried up the stairs to Ignis's office. Unlike earlier, there was no one in the hallway to greet her or ask how the day was coming along. She pushed open the office door timidly, greeted by the cold eyes of her newest boss. Ignis arched an eyebrow expectantly.
"I finished entering all the—"
"I see that," he interrupted, pushing his glasses up. "Bring them here."
Rue obeyed, setting the papers onto his desk and chewing on her cheek as she stood before him as an innocent child stood before their stern headmaster. Ignis rifled through the pages, throwing out the note with the login information with a sour expression. Quickly, he turned to his computer monitor and scanned over the screen. There was nothing but silence for a very long and very uncomfortable span of time. Finally, Ignis looked up at her with a face that expressed anything but satisfaction.
"On my own, that would have taken me around thirty minutes," he said strictly, his sharp eyes piercing her face. "On top of that, you misspelled several names even though you had them written out before you." Rue turned her gaze to the reflections of light that danced across his glossy desk. "I'm not entirely sure what your purpose is if this is going to be far less efficient than doing this on my own."
"I just started," Rue blurted. The blood drained from her face and left her lightheaded as she continued, forcing herself to look up at him. "Once I learn how to do everything, I'll probably be just as good. Besides, if you don't check everything I do, you'll have much more time than you did before."
"How can I trust that you've done well unless I review it?" Ignis asked dryly, unfazed.
"Check the first few times, then," Rue replied, crossing her arms. "Once you see that I'm making improvements, trust that I'm doing it right. I'm not out here to ruin your career."
"... We'll see," Ignis muttered, turning back down to his desk and scanning the papers once more before putting them away. Rue cocked her head to the side. Well, it's not "you're fired."
Chapter 10: Mediocre at Best
"Fix You" by Coldplay
"Anything else?" Rue asked, setting yet another thick pile of papers on Ignis's desk.
The advisor hardly acknowledged the loud thump as the stack hit the surface. His eyes never once budged from the screen set before him, though a hand reached over to gather the papers. Rue stifled a yawn and rubbed the back of her neck. It was beginning to burn from all the craning she'd been doing over the past few hours. Finally, Ignis tore his gaze away from the monitor and went to work checking over every detail of her work. Sighing impatiently, Rue crossed her arms and cocked her head to the side. This day was never-ending, it seemed.
"Looks good," Ignis muttered, filing them away.
"So?" Rue pressed. He glanced up at her.
"Be patient; I was getting to it," he replied a bit sharply, fishing through yet another drawer. Rue's heart fought between feeling ashamed of her pushiness and angered at his attitude. Before it could decide, Ignis pulled out a notebook. "Usually I would never miss one of these meetings, but unfortunately I have an appointment that can't wait." Rue took the slender black notebook into her hands, running her fingers over its smooth surface as she listened to him speak. "You'll have to go in my place. Read over my older notes to understand the structure and order in which I record them and then do the same." Ignis sighed, pushing up his glasses and glancing at his screen. "At three, His Majesty will enter into a meeting with the Glaive, primarily prominent members and Rayne. I expect detailed notes on the subject matter."
"And it's in the same room they use for negotiations?"
"If by 'they' you mean the King, then yes," Ignis answered coldly. "Be there ten minutes early so that you don't miss anything. Listen to the conversation around you for things that may not be spoken before the entire group." He wants me to keep him up to date on Citadel gossip? Okay, buddy.
"That's in, what, two hours? What do you need me to do in the meantime?"
"I can handle anything else."
"With all due respect," Rue started, shrugging her shoulders uncomfortably. "I don't have to just stick to paperwork. I'm willing to buy your damn groceries for you if it'll clear up some time in the day." The look she gave him was almost pleading for anything but another set of papers. How many official documents did one man need to keep on the same twenty-five people? "Is there anything that might be keeping you late today that I can finish in the meantime?"
"With all due respect, I don't think you're ready for any more responsibilities," Ignis replied smoothly. That stung. Rue backed off in every sense of the words; her body tensed, her gaze wandered, and her indestructible walls shot up another line of defense. There was a long pause before Ignis finally let go of a breath he seemed to be holding—maybe it was only a sigh. "There is one thing I suppose you can handle. I need you to set up a meeting with Schrader sometime this week. The man's schedule is insufferably disastrous; you should have been hired to work for him again." Rue blood ran cold and her mouth suddenly felt cottony as nausea almost knocked her clean off her feet. She hadn't moved, but she stumbled regardless, catching herself before Ignis could pick out anything in particular.
"Okay. I can do that." She nodded with far more confidence than she possessed.
Rue set the notebook down on the seat before his desk and strode out of the room, forcing her feet to step in line and straight down the hall to the guard's office. As hard as she tried to control them, her breaths were ragged and her heartbeats were rapidly quickening. Her stomach clenched, but there was nothing inside it could have spilled if she tried to vomit right then and there. Her fingers curled around the ice-cold doorknob and she shuddered, feeling goosebumps raise across her skin. She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders before turning the knob and pushing the door open.
"Don't you people ever knock?" Cam groaned, setting his pen down rather aggressively before glowering up at the woman in the doorway. His angered expression softened almost immediately and he allowed a sheepish smile. "Oh, hey Rue. Sorry about that; didn't know it was you." The captain stood, coming around the front of his desk and crossing his arms. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"When are you free this week?" Rue asked in a rushed voice, feeling her face warm when he arched an eyebrow. "I mean, for a meeting with Ignis." Cam frowned.
"What did you tell him?"
"What?" Rue squeaked, her hand clenching the doorknob tightly as her palms began to sweat. "He told me to..." Her words faded as Cam reached up to rub the back of his neck.
"So that's why you look like that." The corner of his mouth twitched up into a smile. "Listen, Sweetheart, I'm all for the sexy secretary look, but you're not exactly pulling that one off with those rags."
"I just need to know when you have time this week," Rue snapped, on edge with every movement he made. Cam, always quick to catch on, wrestled a cocky grin and meandered closer.
"Close that door, would you, Hon?"
"Captain, I need—"
"Yeah, yeah," he waved her off, pulling her inside the room by her wrist and shutting the door behind her firmly. Every muscle in her body tightened and locked; she stumbled like a magitek with rusty joints. "What's this meeting about? And where is it?"
"I-I don't know," she stuttered, turning around sharply to face him before he could try anything—not that that would stop him if he did. "And I'm assuming here. It probably depends on when you decide to—"
"Calm down," Cam laughed, tracing the back of his hand down her cheek. If she hadn't felt sick to her stomach, she might have batted it away. Instead, she stood as straight and stiff as a mannequin, unable to look up at the man that caused her so much trouble. She was ashamed of the way she'd never bothered to fight back as she was pressured into the deal they made, of how she'd been entirely willing to sell herself for just enough money to pay her rent. Old habits die hard, she supposed.
"No, no, go back to calling me Captain," he crooned. "I liked that." He tugged on the hem of her soft gray shirt and cocked his head to the side. "Like I said, if you're going to look professional, you gotta wear something that doesn't age you twenty years."
"This is all I have." Rue tried to sound angry, but her fingers trembled as she reached up to brush her hair out of her face. Her glower faded to a fearful expression and she turned her face away from him again. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"I could always pay for it," he offered in a voice that almost sounded serious. Rue frowned, looking up at him in confusion. A crooked smile spread across his face and he ran his fingers down her back. "For the usual price, of course."
"No," Rue replied firmly, stepping away from him and toward the door. Cam laughed, leaning his hip against the desk.
"I'm kidding. I've got too much cash at hand—makes me uncomfortable." He walked around the side of his desk to dig for his wallet.
"I won't take your money," she said defensively, attempting to sound sure of herself. As always, she failed. Cam ignored her, pulling out a wad of cash and walking over to her.
"Two hundred gil," he announced triumphantly, offering it with an outstretched hand.
"I can't owe you anything."
"You don't," he shrugged. "Like I said, I have plenty and you've got nothing. I'm not all that bad, Rue." Doubt it. She shook her head, though as she eyed the money, the temptation to believe him grew stronger. With a humored huff, Cam shoved the cash into her hands and turned back to his desk. "I'm good any day after four."
Rue's fingers curled around the paper bills slowly. The last time she held this much money... She shook her head, turning sharply on her heels and slamming the office door behind her. The anger that she could feel felt distant, an echo in the cavern of detached apathy that quickly flooded in to block out any and all pain. Ignis glanced up when she entered, doing a double take upon seeing the money clutched in her left hand.
"What's that for?"
"He's good any day after four," Rue reported stiffly, tucking the money into the back of her waistband. "Are there any errands that you need me to run to get me out of here?"
"Fresh air," Rue replied, crossing her arms. "Groceries are still a solid option, just so you know."
Ignis made no effort to reply, taken aback by her sudden change in attitude. Rue's stomach slowly pooled with dread. Shit, did I ruin it? Slowly, Ignis reached up to adjust his glasses, thinking. Maybe not. Finally, he sighed and reached into his pocket and handed over a paper bill.
"I suppose you could get a few things for me." Rue took the gil, waiting for his request, relieved that he hadn't asked any further questions. "Ebony, for one."
"Coffee," Ignis replied, brows creasing. "Tall black can. I also require a new charger for my cellphone." His last words with disdain; Rue understood the feeling. With the world rising back up to production and attempting to return to the way it was before, it seemed quantity was put high above quality, especially when it came to electronics.
"Ebony and a charger. Got it," Rue nodded. "Anything else?" Ignis shook his head.
"No, I believe that's all."
"I'll be back before that meeting," Rue replied with a forced smile. She walked out briskly, hurrying to leave the enormous building that suddenly felt as though it was trying to suffocate her.
"Here we are!" Rue entered the office cheerfully, holding a six-pack of Ebony and a small plastic package containing a tightly wound black charger. Ignis looked irritated by her less-than-considerate attitude, but it was hard to stay annoyed at her lifted spirits as she handed over the items he'd requested, along with a crinkled wad of cash.
"Feeling better?" Ignis dared to ask, folding up the money and neatly tucking it away into his wallet. Rue nodded, flashing a genuine smile.
"The wonders of fresh air, let me tell you," she replied, picking up the notebook. "Time?"
"I guess I'll be a bit early," she shrugged, pausing halfway to the door. "Do you have a pen I could use?" Silently, Ignis pulled a pen from the sleek black cup on his desk, turning his eyes back to the screen. Rue frowned; what was he always doing on there that she couldn't handle? "Any advice?"
"Alrighty," she huffed, turning and leaving the room. The gil tucked into the back of her pants scratched at her skin, but she never dared to fix it for fear of raising suspicion should anyone see her. She nearly ran straight into Rayne as they turned a corner at the same moment.
"Watch it," Rayne snapped, brushing past her to head to her office. Rue rolled her eyes, carrying on her merry way. Outside the throne room stood a guard she didn't recognize, likely her replacement. Eren was speaking to the girl with a friendly smile. He seemed shocked to see Rue approaching.
"Rue? I thought you were—"
"I've been rehired," Rue shrugged, grinning. "Gladio got me hired as a personal assistant."
"To Rayne?" Eren asked in disbelief, nearly cringing at the sound of the woman's name.
"No, no, gods no," Rue snorted, glancing at the guard. "To Ignis. He's a busy guy and I proposed the idea, so Gladio and Prompto got to work and, well, here I am."
"That's... Wow. Congrats," Eren laughed. "What's up with you lately, huh? Getting all bold."
"Desperate, more like," Rue scoffed. The girl laughed a little too loudly.
"I feel that!"
The two turned to look at her. Eren uncomfortably offered a smile and Rue frowned, arching an eyebrow. The girl shrunk back awkwardly. Shaking her head, Rue stepped around Eren to push the door open.
"You, um, can't go in there."
Rue took a deep breath and turned to face the guard, willing her flaring annoyance to cool off. What'd Cam make you do for this post?
"You have a list of people allowed in, right? Ignis sent me, so think of it like this: for the rest this meeting, I am Ignis Scientia." The girl hesitated, but she said nothing more as Rue pushed her way into the throne room. She threw Eren a curious look when he followed. "What're you doing?"
"It's a Glaive meeting," he shrugged. Rue frowned. "But it's not all of us," he hurried to explain. "Just Rayne, Gladio, and a few others."
"You think Rayne would let us go anywhere without her child?"
"Her child," Rue muttered.
"He may as well be—she's basically in love with the guy." That's a bizarre mother-child relationship.
"Yeah, yeah," Rue waved him off, heading to the doorway that branched off of the east side of the expansive room. After all the damage Ardyn Izunia did, she was honestly surprised they were able to fix this place up without tearing it to pieces first.
All eyes were on the pair as they strode into the room. Rue's heart skipped a bit upon seeing the king seated at the head of the expansive black table that was lined with an excessive number of cushioned chairs. Uncomfortably, Rue started to walk toward a seat in the middle. Cor's voice stopped her.
"Ignis sits to the left of the king."
"Okay," Rue whispered, quickly changing direction and flinching when Eren squeezed her shoulder. Stiffly, she sat and set the notebook down, flipping through the pages in silence. Ignis's notes were precise, neat, and no-nonsense. Shit. There was no way she could match up to that. She huffed; she could try.
Slowly but surely, members of the meeting began to fill the seats in the room. Rayne sat between Cor and Gladio, muttering something to her lover before facing forward. She was obviously refusing to acknowledge Rue's existence. Bitch knows how to hold a grudge, I'll give her that. At exactly three, King Noctis stood, scanning over the room silently. Rue glanced around uncomfortably, seeing that everyone was staring at the man with their fullest attention. Eren rested his elbow on top of his seat, twisting to face the king. The tips of his fingers rested on her shoulder as a reassurance, though he never looked away Noctis. Suddenly, everyone else stood. Rue scrambled to her feet. What the hell kind of tradition was this?
"We stand for the kings of old who led our people boldly for centuries without fail," Noctis said firmly, as though this had been rehearsed a thousand times. "For those who died for the sake of their brothers and sisters under the throne." Rayne hung her head; Gladio rested a hand on her back. "And for those who continue to serve the Crown in these days of trial—may they find peace in their worth." What the...?
The king looked around at the faces of those who stood around the table before him; finally, he sat down. As soon as he was still, everyone followed suit. Wrestling a frown, Rue glanced at Eren. He allowed the slightest of smiles. Quickly, seeing her chance, she scribbled down the date and gave a quick summary of Noctis's opening words in the neatest writing she could manage.
"Rayne," Noctis called, his voice bouncing off the dark, ornate walls around them. Rayne stood, though if it wasn't a formality, she certainly would stay seated. She did, however, look practiced in the art of attending royal gatherings such as this. Duh. Rue almost smacked herself in the face. Of course she did; she was quite literally born and bred for this. This sort of nonsense is the only thing she'd done with her life since birth. "What's the purpose of this meeting?" Okay, he sounded a bit awkward now.
"The Glaive, Majesty," Rayne replied, looking around at the six or so glaives that were seated. "We want to know our next course of action." She crossed her arms, tilting her head ever so slightly. "Last week there were three more attacks from those children. This has to be something related to a protest to your actions, but we've been unable to look into it because we've been picking up the slack for Schrader."
"Slack?" Noctis frowned. "Isn't he being investigated? There should be no slack to pick up."
"Highness," Cor cut in as Rayne sat back down. "He's aware of the investigations and refuses to direct the guard until they end."
"Something to the extent of not wanting to work if we'll just fire him anyway," Rayne answered. "Which, if he's innocent like he claims, he'll have nothing to worry about." Rue cringed as she wrote down a note about the investigations and Cam's refusal to comply.
"And so the Glaive is performing guard duties while the guards do what?"
"Hell if I know," Rayne snorted, earning a scowl from Cor. "They stand around doing jack-shit every single day. No one can get them to do anything else—they stand by their Captain."
"..." Noctis thought in silence for a moment. Rue wished that Ignis was there instead to help the poor guy. He probably was used to being offered solid advice, not seeing a panicked girl avoid his eyes while she wrote mediocre notes. The young king leaned forward, cocking his head to the side. "What do you think the next move should be?"
"Track their leader down, if they have one," Rayne shrugged. "Stamp 'em out."
"No," Noctis replied, shaking his head. "We're not gonna go out and kill a bunch of kids."
"Not kill them," Rayne corrected. "Just stop them. They're practically throwing themselves at us every time they show up. It's like they want to die."
"Going after them would only look like we're not interested in hearing the peoples' opinions," Cor added. "All the public knows is that they're openly against what His Highness has decided to do. If they learned what is really going on, knowing that we've killed a dozen of their children so far would bring immense problems for us in the future."
"Last I checked, this is a monarchy," Rayne retorted. Rue chewed her cheek uncertainly as they went back and forth, unsure of how much of this Ignis wanted her to record. "Sure, the people matter, but in the end, it's Noct's decision."
"You can't rule like that," Cor muttered.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Are you king?"
"Guys," Noctis interrupted, giving them a flat, irritated look. Both shut their mouths, disgruntled. "What does the Glaive think?"
"I say we take them out," a middle-aged man named Alexander shrugged, scratching at his beard. "They want to come after the Chosen King, we show them who's boss." Noctis clearly didn't like this answer. Axel sat up straighter, leaning forward to see the king's face.
"I agree with you, Majesty. I'm not sure a show of power will go over very well. Besides, they're kids." His bright eyes found Rue and her heart quit beating for a moment. "Rue said something I thought was kinda interesting the first time they attacked about how kids that are super easy to rile up—there's obviously someone out there convincing them that they're being robbed of something. Whoever it is is using their naivety to come after you."
All eyes turned to the blushing assistant that sat between Noctis and Eren. She wasn't sure if she should speak, so she ducked her head and wrote a summary of Axel's input. Eren, that wonderful man, cleared his throat to direct the attention away from her.
"Here's the thing," he started. "I see what they're both getting at, but I don't think we should stick to one extreme or the other. If we keep letting them run loose, eventually someone's going to figure out what's happening to all these missing teenagers and everyone will lose their heads. On the other hand, if we go after all of them that looks bad." He pushed on his glasses, giving a slight shrug with his shoulders as he turned his eyes to Rayne and Gladio. "I dunno. Would it be possible to hunt down their leader without killing them all off? If they're just being misled, it might be easier to talk to them that to kill them all. Martyrs and all that." Gladio chuckled.
"It's never easy to convince kids they're wrong," he grumbled. Rayne scoffed, rolling her eyes. Rue fought a smile and wrote some more.
"But it's not impossible, is it?" Noctis asked, looking over at his personal defenders. The couple exchanged a look. "You're are the best of the best, after all." Rue ducked her head to hide her grin as Gladio and Rayne perked up to the idea almost immediately. Noctis was smart; tickling the collective pride of those two was the equivalent of bribing a child with candy. It got stuff done.
"I don't see why we can't try," Rayne shrugged. Gladio nodded. He was being oddly quiet and Rue wasn't sure how she felt about it.
"In the meantime, keep an eye on that Schrader case," Noctis reminded them. His eyes met Rue's and her already pounding heart went haywire. Every nerve in her body struck at the same time and she shuddered, turning her eyes to the table. "Cor, you handle the guards."
"Yes, Highness," Cor replied dutifully. Noctis stood and the Immortal followed, staring at the people in the room with stern disdain. "Dismissed. Back to your posts." That was quick.
"Gotta go," Eren said with a grin, pushing in Rue's seat. She threw her hip out to the side, tilting her head to the left.
"Back to your fancy-schmacy job, I guess."
"Oh, of course," he scoffed playfully. He pushed his glasses up and straightened stiffly. "To serve the crown is the greatest purpose one could ever possibly have."
"What that supposed to be Ignis?" Rayne snorted. The two jumped, turning to see the woman grinning at them—well, she was grinning at Eren. She still refused to acknowledge Rue's existence. "Sad attempt... keep practicing."
"Yes, ma'am," Eren laughed, turning back to Rue. "Listen, Relir and Dex wanna know if you want to get dinner with us tonight."
"Oh, I should give them my answer then," Rue bit back. "Since, y'know, you're not curious."
"That's not what I meant," he huffed, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Eren!" Rayne called. "Get your ass moving!" Eren huffed, walking alongside Rue as they headed toward the exit.
"I'll think about it," Rue replied. "It's a solid 'maybe' right now. I just don't know when I'm gonna be done today. New job and all that."
"Does she ever stop?" Rue hissed. Eren sent her a sympathetic glance before hurrying off.
"Text me, yeah?"
"Got a date?" Rue jumped, turning to see Cor and Noctis watching her, looking equally amused by her jumpiness. She was entirely unsure if she should bow on her knees or simply respond. Before she could decide, Cor spoke again. "At ease, Rue. How's Ignis?"
"Stressed," Rue reported awkwardly, avoiding the king's eyes. "He's over his head in things to do today." She tucked her hair behind her ear, frowning. "Is that... usual?"
"How's the workload with your help?" Noctis asked. Rue's lips moved in silence for a few moments as she tried to find her words.
"He, um... I-it should be lighter, definitely. At least, as long as he stops checking over every little detail after I've done something."
"He's like that," Noctis sighed. "You going to be taking his place here often?"
"Not likely," she replied, quickly adding, "Highness." She cleared her throat, forcing an anxious smile onto her face. "Not with the quality of the notes I took for him. He seems very... particular."
"Yeah," Noctis muttered, glancing at Cor. "He'll lighten up with time; y'know, remember that not everything has to be done his way. Just give it time." He nodded toward the door. "You should probably start with getting back to him on time."
"Right," Rue nodded, backing away. "Thank you, um, Your Majesty. And Cor. Sir."
Awkwardly, she turned on her heels and briskly sped out of the room. Weird, weird, weird. Not what she imagined her first interaction with the Chosen King to be like. She expected more authority and demand to manners and all that jazz. Not a casual discussion only half making fun of his best friend slash her boss. Weird.
She headed up the stairs and pushed open Ignis's office door to see him right where he always was. Except this time, instead of scowling at his computer screen, he was reading over a sheet of paper and drinking from a can of Ebony. She smiled softly, striding into the room.
"How was your meeting?"
"Fine." The advisor looked up, eyeing the notebook. "Mind if I look over that?"
"Sure," Rue sighed in defeat handing the book back. "Sorry about my handwriting."
"..." Ignis frowned, arching an eyebrow. His hand was frozen gripping the book as she handed it over, but he didn't move to take it further than that. Rue swallowed hard, unnerved.
"I-it's legible, I think," she stammered. "I just... It's not as neat as yours."
"I assumed as much," he replied coldly, taking the book and flipping to her page. He looked visibly pained, as if she'd thrown the notebook into a fire and danced on its ashes and not simply written a few disorganized notes. "What is this?" he demanded stiffly, pointing to the tiniest doodle in the corner and flashing the sharpest glare she'd ever seen. It may have been the scariest expression she'd ever seen if Rayne hadn't assaulted her with her banshee rampage a week ago.
"A chocobo," Rue squeaked, feeling her face warm up considerably. "Sorry, sometimes I just do that without even realizing that I—"
"When you misspell a word do not scribble," he continued. Rue's teeth bit into her lip as she held back a protest. "Cross it out with a single line and write over top." He turned the page to its blank backside. "Why do you press so hard with the pen? I can see these notes for the next three pages."
"The ink didn't—"
"Imprints," he said sharply, looking up at her with disdain. Her mouth snapped shut. "They, are, however, very thorough." Rue breathed a sigh. Finally, something he didn't hate. "A bit too thorough, I might add. Brevity is a virtue." Okay, nevermind.
"Okay," Rue murmured, feeling as though she'd been beaten to a pulp. Ignis looked up at her.
"Have a seat." She obeyed quickly. "They spoke on the Schrader issue?"
"Yeah," she nodded.
"How long did you work under him?" Ignis asked, adjusting his glasses. Rue felt nauseous again. Bad wording, pal.
"About six weeks."
"And did he display any of this careless behavior at the time?"
"Uh..." Rue took a deep breath, turning her eyes up to the ceiling. "I mean, yeah. I wouldn't say he was careless; he was more reckless than anything. It seemed like he either didn't know what he was doing or he didn't care."
"So carelessness." Way to make me feel stupid.
"Rue," Ignis said abruptly. "There is no 'sure.' Was he or was he not careless?"
"Yes, he was," Rue huffed.
"Now," he started, choosing his words carefully. "When you were... terminated last week, Rayne had mentioned something I found to be of interest in this investigation." Fuck fuck fuck. "There were rumors that you two had been—"
"Rumors?" Rue cut in, alarmed. "I thought it was just Rayne."
"Well..." Ignis sighed. He looked uncomfortable—for once. "It was a rumor amongst those of us in the Crownsguard. Based on your reaction, I'm assuming they're true." Rue said nothing. "There are a few reports that were tucked away; I happened upon them the other day."
"Reports?" As per usual, her heart was pounding.
"Sexual harassment, more specifically," he clarified. "Reports from several of the younger women in the guard service. If you're able to file one of these, it may be just what we need to—"
"No." Rue's hands were balled into fists on her lap and her eyes were locked on the table. Cam's money scratched at the base of her back, a constant reminder of what she owed him. This could have been her chance to give him what he deserved, but at the same time, the niggling little voice in the back of her head told her that she could handle this—she'd be the one to destroy Cameron Schrader. "It... It was entirely consensual. And it was once." She peered up at Ignis through her lashes. "I don't know what Rayne heard, but it was one time; it was an accident and I'm ashamed. There's nothing there for you to use, Ignis. I'm sorry."
Ignis leaned back in his seat, frowning. His eyes searched her face for any sign of a lie; he found nothing but an unreadable, dead serious expression. As far as he could tell, she was being entirely honest. And she was uncomfortable. Sighing, Ignis nodded and took a drink from his can of Ebony. Pursing her lips, Rue cocked her head to the side.
"So... What's next?"
"You can go home," Ignis replied simply.
"What?" Rue frowned, unsure if he meant they were done for the day or if he was angry, and therefore, he didn't want to see her ever again. Ignis raised an eyebrow.
"Go home. We're done for today."
"Oh. Okay." Rue stood uncertainly. "Are you sure you don't need anything else? I don't want you stuck here late or anything."
"No need to worry," Ignis replied, touching his glasses habitually. "I have the unfortunate obligation of friendship that's forcing me to leave this evening." Rue snorted, crossing her arms.
"Wish I could say I can't relate." The was an awkward pause. "Okay, well, see you bright and early tomorrow."
"Goodbye," Ignis nodded, watching her leave. The second the door closed, he pulled his glasses off and massaged his forehead with a hefty sigh. Was this really worth the effort?
Chapter 11: Mundane
"Colorless" by Copeland
"C'mon, buddy, get your ass up. We'll lock you out if you don't come with us; you won't be able to lockpick your way in."
"I can certainly try," Ignis replied dryly, signing the bottom of the last form.
The piles upon piles of paperwork never seemed to end, and he wasn't entirely sure this new "assistant" was going to be of any use, especially not with her track record. But, she seemed eager to please and ready for a shot so he figured he may as well try. At least, that's what he figured after a bit too much wine and a pleasant evening with Gladio and Prompto.
"I'll get Gladio to hold the door shut," Rayne huffed, squatting and laying her arms across his desk. She rested her cheek on her wrist and stared up at him with bright, wide eyes. "Please?"
"One more moment," he muttered, clipping the pages together and tucking them away. As he stood to pull his jacket on, Rayne leaped to her feet and threw a fist in the air before sprinting back out into the hallway.
"I got 'im, boys!"
"Yeah, yeah," Noctis huffed, peeking his head into the doorway. "Hurry it up, Specs. Cor's gonna beat my ass for this."
"He will not," Ignis responded calmly, turning to face the young king with an arched eyebrow. "Not if you're careful."
"Are we all driving separately?"
"What do you think?" Rayne asked, poking her head in over Noct's. He flinched, not expecting for her to be so close. "Of course we are! Gladio and I aren't keeping you all overnight, are we?" She paused. "That was rhetorical."
"Of course it was," Ignis grumbled, stepping out of the office and locking the door behind him. Gladio clapped a hand down on his back, grinning.
"Finally rescued him from his cave, huh?"
"Are we going?" Ignis snapped, though it was half-hearted. Really, he was just tired and ready to sit back and let his friends entertain him with their bickering—something he'd never admit he enjoyed, of course.
"Yup," Prompto replied cheerfully, skipping past the advisor. "Where's your car, Iggy?"
"Same place as always," Gladio chuckled. "He's officially claimed that spot by the wall."
"It's a good spot," Noctis shrugged, following his bouncy blonde friend. Rayne nudged Ignis's shoulder, smiling softly.
"You really don't have to come if it's too much."
"I don't know. They're just a lot and you've been dealing with bullshit all day."
"Have I?" Ignis raised an eyebrow.
He understood Rayne's dislike for Rue, he truly did. But at the same time, it was hard to imagine that she could hold such a strong grudge over something that really was not entirely Rue's fault. Of course, his new assistant was clumsy in nearly every aspect of her work, not to mention sloppy, but she was genuinely trying. That was more credit than Rayne ever gave her.
"Any horror stories to humor me?" Rayne prodded. "She dump hot coffee all over you or accidentally shred invaluable information?"
"Nothing of the sort," Ignis replied coolly. "She does as she's told."
"Just you wait," Rayne warned him, though her violet eyes were sparkling as they met his. A sharp prick stabbed into his chest, piercing his heart and forcing him to look forward toward the king and his friend.
"She's not that bad," Gladio butted in. "Give 'er a break."
"You of all people should dislike her more than me," Rayne retorted, throwing him a scowl over her shoulder. "But no. You're sneaking around and calling her to give her jobs behind my back."
"Hey, she made a good point about Iggy's workload," the king's shield shrugged. Ignis caught the door to the garage as it swung shut behind Noctis. "Those two never grew up."
"Why would they?" Ignis murmured, watching them tug at the handles on his car's doors, bumping each other as they fought for shotgun. "That would be too easy." Rayne laughed, jumping when Gladio almost hit her in the face whilst swinging his car keys around a single finger.
"Dude! Watch it!" She framed her face with her hands. "This is the money maker."
"Absolutely not," Ignis scoffed, parting ways as she protested loudly. "Would you stop tugging?" he snapped as Prompto and Noctis continued to push and shove each other. "Prompto's in front."
"What?!" Noctis stared at his advisor in betrayed disbelief.
"Highness, it's far too easy to recognize the king himself if he's seated in the front of my vehicle," Ignis replied dutifully, if not a bit wryly.
Defeated, Noctis rolled his eyes and slumped in the middle of the backseat. Prompto jumped into the front and pulled a cord out of his pocket. Ignis heaved a sigh, shaking his head impatiently. His car rumbled to life at the turn of his keys. She was no Regalia, but she got him where he needed to be smoothly and quickly, the only thing he could really ask for. It didn't hurt that she was pretty. Prompto connected the wire to his phone and scrolled through his music, humming a tune from one of the video games he used to play in high school.
"Hey, a throwback!" he said cheerfully as guitars and drums suddenly came blasting through the speakers. Ignis nearly jumped out of his skin, immediately moving to turn it down; Noctis laughed. "Don't give me that look, Iggy. It's All Time High!"
"We know," Noctis retorted. Prompto made a face into the rearview mirror. Ignis took a deep breath, pushing up his glasses and attempting to ignore his pounding headache as they pulled out into Insomnia's streets behind Rayne and Gladio's sleek black vehicle. "Are we going straight there?"
"Where else would we go?" Ignis asked, smoothly turning right. Noctis leaned his head forward between the seats. Ignis dared to look away from the road to scowl at him. "Noct, sit down."
"Why? Did you see that guy?"
"What guy?" Prompto asked, turning around to look back at the man standing on the street corner with a poster. Ignis could only imagine what sort of cocky catchphrase the protestor had written to catch peoples' eyes. "Him?"
"It's nothing," Noctis huffed, slouched back in his seat. He stared out the window in silence. Chewing of his lip, Prompto reached forward and turned the music up a little, allowing for a more comfortable silence that carried them the rest of the way to Rayne and Gladio's home.
Rayne crossed her arms tightly as she left the car beside them just as Ignis parked. She quickly hopped up onto the sidewalk and shuddered, squinting at the setting sun. Gladio's head hit the ceiling of the vehicle as he exited; he grunted and muttered something under his breath. Ignis watched, amused, and led the way up the steep stairs that led up to the second floor. Rayne and Prompto huddled together impatiently as Gladio unlocked the door; Noctis was hidden from the public eye as he was sandwiched between his advisor and Rayne. Quickly, everyone filed inside and kicked their shoes off by the door. Ignis shed his coat and hung it on a hook nearby before heading to the kitchen.
"Damn!" Rayne huffed, flopping onto the couch across the open room. "It's the end of March; why's it so damn cold?"
"Probably your fault," Noct muttered, earning an eye roll. Prompto hurried over the television, cheering.
"Rayne, you kept the system safe! Thanks!" He lifted a controller up from where it was stacked on top of the console he'd forgotten at Gladio and Rayne's place the previous week. "Wanna play, Noct?"
"What's the plan, Iggy?" Gladio asked, meandering into the kitchen and leaning against the breakfast bar. Ignis opened the lid to the crockpot he'd dropped off early in the morning and sighed when his glasses steamed up. Removing them quickly to wipe the lenses off on his shirt, the advisor turned to face Gladio.
"A simple roast. I haven't had much time, otherwise, I might have taken a bit more time to prepare this."
"It's fine," Rayne shook her head, closing her eyes and slouching. "Food is food."
"I agree," Gladio chuckled, straightening and heading to the fridge. He grinned upon opening the door and seeing a case of his favorite beer inside. "Shit, we got the good stuff."
"Do you always forget what you've bought on a whim?" Ignis teased, taking a look at the slow-cooked meal. Normally he would have tried to avoid soaking all this food together all day—it turned the vegetables into a mushy mess, but he hadn't had the time to start the meal earlier.
"Try 'n convince me you haven't done the same with Ebony," Gladio retorted, cracking open a chilled bottle and taking a drink. "Want any Rayne?"
"What is it?"
"What do you think?"
"Gross," Rayne crinkled her nose, turning to face them. "No thanks. Keep that shit to yourself."
"I'll take one," Noctis offered. Gladio glanced at Ignis.
"It's the only day of the week he gets a break."
"I said nothing."
Gladio shrugged and carried the case over to the couch, letting Prompto and Noctis each take a bottle and settle back into their gaming. They were surprisingly quiet, grumbling insults and occasionally hitting each other's controllers as they focused entirely on their game. Ignis dished out their dinners as his four friends sat in the living room; he tried to ignore the bulky arm around Rayne's shoulders, the fingers running through her hair, the whispered flirts that drew smiles across their faces. It seemed as though it was all he could pay attention to.
Swiftly, he set the table and pulled out a few bottles of his favorite wine (one of which, he recalled, he'd drunk far too much of the night before thanks to Gladio's prodding). Noctis groaned as Prompto cheered, throwing a fist in the air.
"Yes! See that!? Ha!"
"Dinner's done," Rayne muttered, patting Gladio's thigh once and jumping to her feet. "Holy shit, Ignis. You did it again."
"What else would I be doing on a Thursday afternoon?" Ignis muttered, sitting between her and Noctis, who crinkled his nose at the sight of vegetables. The advisor sighed; he really was still a child, even all these years later.
"Fuuu..." Prompto moaned slouching in his chair with a mouthful of food. "This is good."
"Did you expect any less?" Rayne scoffed, glancing to her left with a soft smile. "Thanks, Iggy."
"Guys, quit flattering him and eat," Noctis grumbled, flashing a cocky grin. "Too many compliments aren't good for his ego."
"His ego?" Rayne gawked. "Try Gladio's. At this point it's so inflated, we don't even fit in the same bed."
"Sounds like trouble in paradise," Prompto taunted in a sing-song voice, ducking his head when Rayne shot him a glare.
"Sounds like we need a new bed," she said, sending Gladio a pointed look. He wasn't fazed, shrugging.
"Maybe you shouldn't have broken ours."
"Um..." Prompto frowned, exchanging a look with Noct. Ignis focused on the way his fork pierced his food as he listened, trying to detach the words from the emotions.
"Not like that, pervert," Rayne scoffed. Gladio snorted, jumping when she kicked him under the table. "I just got too excited and maybe jumped on it a couple times."
"It's like sleeping in a mattress bowl."
"Then why don't you get a new one?" Noctis asked, eyebrows raised.
"Because he says he'll fix it," Rayne huffed, watching Ignis fill his glass with wine. "But, as we all know, this lovely asshole across from me is completely unable to hold his word because he has no time. And so, I've been sleeping in a 'mattress bowl' for the past month."
"C'mon, Gladio, just buy the bed," Prompto pushed, readily convinced that Rayne shouldn't have to suffer under any circumstances. To him, she was the big sister he never had.
"Why's it my job?" Gladio demanded, taking another bite before continuing. "She broke it."
"It's your bed, too," Noctis pointed out. His shield shrugged.
"It feels good on my back."
"Rayne, dare I ask why you were jumping on the bed?" Ignis asked, raising an eyebrow. She chewed on her cheek, exchanging a look with Gladio. Her cheeks flushed a bright shade of red and she pushed her food around her plate. "Rayne?"
"I may or may not have heard that there was another season of Queer Sight coming out," she muttered under her breath. Ignis blinked at her in silence and Prompto burst out laughing, throwing his head back.
"Yeah," Gladio scoffed. "You don't live with her."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Rayne demanded.
"You do some weird shit," Gladio chuckled, taking a drink of his beer.
"What, you want me to tell them?"
"I'm just curious."
"Guys," Noct huffed. No one heard him.
"Okay." Gladio straightened. "You called Axel our son. You laugh when kids die in movies—"
"I don't know how to react!"
"You cried when Prompto sold his old camera to get a new one."
"That was full of memories!" Rayne protested.
"I printed all the pictures!" Prompto reminded her. Ignis and Noctis swapped a glance before the advisor spoke up.
"Perhaps you should save your home issues for when you're alone," he hinted, giving Gladio a stern look.
"Yeah, yeah," Gladio grumbled. "I didn't bring it up." Rayne practically dove across the table to jab at him with her fork.
"Don't you start!"
Chapter 12: Connection
"Nightmare" by Halsey
"I feel like I haven't seen you in ages," Relir greeted as Rue finally joined her three friends at an outdoor table at their favorite restaurant. Eren scooted over on the bench to give her more space, smiling warmly. "How's the new job?"
"Fine," Rue shrugged, looking across the table to Dex. "How're you healing up?"
"Not bad," he shrugged back. "Those healers know what they're doing. I'll be pain-free within the next few days."
"That's really good," Rue raised her eyebrows. Eren nodded, touching the frames of his glasses and running a hand through his hair.
"I know! No kid's gonna take down our Dex, that's for sure."
"Hell no," Dex snorted, nudging Relir with his elbow. "Could you imagine? Me, killed by some little trigger-happy punk?" She laughed, shaking her head. Rue chewed on her lip uncomfortably, suddenly realizing these two likely had the same "kill them all" attitude as Alexander. "Anyway, enough with work shit. It's time to kick back 'n relax."
"We don't have time for that," Relir sighed, rolling her eyes as her fiancé threw an arm around her shoulders. "We ordered without you, but it's a big tray of stuff; you know the drill."
"Fine," Rue shrugged indifferently. It wasn't like she would eat much of it anyway. Dex seemed to read her thoughts as Relir gnawed on a toothpick to his left. His brow creased and he pushed his shoulder-length hair out of his eyes.
"Uh, listen, Rue..." Relir and Eren immediately shot him warning glares as if by instinct—at this point they knew exactly when the guy was going to cross the line. He, as always, ignored them. Rue sighed, directly her eyes elsewhere; was he good at pretending he couldn't see them or was he really that stupid? "I know it's none of my business, but as your friend—don't kick me, babe—I just wanna make sure you're okay." He leaned forward, lowering his voice. He looked genuinely concerned, and from a man who hardly emitted anything but cocky jock-like confidence, that meant a lot. "This isn't about the, uh, body image stuff again? Cuz, I mean, we're all here for you, but if you're having problems again, I think you should talk to someone."
"I'm fine," Rue insisted, crossing her arms and shuddering as a blast of cold air rushed through the alleyway they were tucked into. The beginning of spring was a joke—it was merely false hope as winter struck its final, and sometimes hardest, blows.
"Yeah, you say that, but you never eat."
"Dex," Relir hissed, kicking him again.
"What? You expect me to pretend nothing's wrong when obviously something is?"
"Really, Dex, I'm fine," Rue butted in, forcing a smile. "Honest. I'm just a little stressed about all these changes lately. It's not... the same as before."
"You sure?" She nodded firmly. "Okay." Dex straightened, though he didn't seem quite as satisfied as he tried to show he was. "How was the meeting, Eren?"
"A little tense," Eren admitted, rubbing the back of his neck and taking a drink from a steaming mug that warmed his hands. "Rue was there in place of Ignis."
"Really," Relir huffed in disbelief. "You know how hard it is for the Glaive to get in there? You're one lucky duck."
"Yeah, well," Rue muttered, lifting one shoulder in a half shrug. "It wasn't all that great. Kind of boring." She paused, frowning. "Actually, it really wasn't. It was kind of unnerving."
"Yeah, takes a bit to get used to," Eren agreed with a soft laugh. He watched her shiver again with concern glimmering in his hazel eyes. He offered his mug. "Wanna try? It's chai."
"Of course it is," Rue scoffed, rolling her eyes, but she gladly accepted the drink and took a sip. The spiced drink burned her tongue in several places, but the heat that traveled through her body easily made the pain worth it. "Thanks, pal."
"Yeah, no problem," Eren replied, taking it back without so much as looking at her. There was something odd in his voice. Rue frowned at Relir, who merely shot her a confused expression back. He cleared his throat. "How's the situation with, y'know..." Relir shook her head and Dex scoffed.
"What?" Rue's brows pinched together as she watched the three of them exchange looks. "Is this some big Glaive secret I can't know?"
"Kind of," Relir admitted with a sigh.
"Then don't talk about it."
Before Relir could say anything, a waiter in a dirty apron appeared with a long tray of meats and vegetables. A waitress came around to his side and set a mug of hot water and several tea bags in front of Rue before bustling back to help the man set the tray down.
"Hell yes," Dex whispered; Relir snickered, shaking her head. He looked over at Rue as she slowly sank a peppermint tea bag into her mug, watching as the water stained a deep shade of green. "Hey, pass her a plate, dude. Don't make her reach." Eren rolled his eyes mild-manneredly and set a plate before Rue.
"I was getting to it, asshole."
"It's douche bag," Rue murmured, earning two laughs and a scowl. Relir started to pile food onto her plate as Dex ate right off the tray.
"So," Relir started, licking sauce of her thumb. Rue pressed her lips together and Eren's demeanor changed ever so slightly. They both knew what was coming. "It's been a while since I asked—"
"Any guys caught your eye?"
"Nope," Rue replied simply, defensively, as she battled images of Cam by stuffing a charred sweet pepper into her mouth.
"You sure? No cute guards or anything?" Relir sounded exasperated. "For fuck's sake, I'd even accept the fact that you have the hots for Ignis at this point." Rue made a face. He wasn't a bad looking guy by any means, but his personality soured any sort of attraction she might have felt at any point. "Really? No one?"
"Yeah, really," Rue said, pulling her jacket tighter around her body.
"C'mon, Relir," Eren urged. "Let it be."
"Let it be," Dex mocked in a whiny voice, stuffing a kabab in his mouth. Eren shot him an irritated look, which he then shot back.
"You guys are children," Rue muttered, taking a sip of her piping hot tea gingerly.
"You guys are children," Dex grumbled, rolling his eyes. That made him crack up; he laughed, looking around at the scowls that were directed at him.
"See ya'll later," Relir called, waving as she and Dex got into their car. Eren and Rue waved back, coats buttoned and pulled tight around their shoulders.
"They drive me insane," Rue admitted as they turned to walk in the other direction. Eren raised the remote to his keys, finding his vehicle in the packed parking lot as it chirped.
"Yeah, me too."
Rue gnawed on the inside of her cheek, an idea suddenly sparking and overcoming any hesitations she might normally have. She rushed forward, grabbing hold of Eren's arm with both hands. Her pale eyes peered up at him innocently when he looked down at her. Any other man may have melted on the spot; that is if he didn't already have his mind made up about her.
"Okay, this is really stupid, but I really want ice cream all of a sudden."
"Yeah?" Eren chuckled as she nodded eagerly. "Get in; I know a place."
"Yes!" she cheered, practically throwing herself into the passenger side seat.
Eren started the car and pulled into the busy streets of Insomnia. Rue watched lights and people and shops pass by, amazed. Just how did Noctis accomplish all this? Rebuilding even just a quarter of the city to what it was before in a mere two years. It was almost inconceivable. Soft music filled the gaps of comfortable silence as they drove a few blocks. Eren squeezed his car into a parking space along the sidewalk and the two stepped out of the car. Rue shivered as a chilly breeze blew down the lamp-lit sidewalk.
"C'mon," Eren urged her, opening the glass door to the bright ice cream shop. She stepped inside, instantly enveloped in the heavy scent of vanilla. The décor was bold, and if she dared to think so, a bit obnoxious with its hot pinks and neon greens. A smiling chocobo appeared to be the mascot. Rue couldn't help but scoff. The Golden Chocobo. Cute. "What do you want?" Eren asked, pulling out his wallet.
"Oh, no, you don't have to—"
"I know," he replied with a simple smile. Rue felt guilt claw at her chest.
"But it was my idea."
"And I took the bait. Now, what do you want?"
"... Fine." Rue glanced at the extensive menu that took up an entire wall—the font was so small she could hardly read the text from where she stood. Sometimes she forgot they'd only known each other for a few months. It felt like far longer. "Just one scoop of chocolate in a bowl."
"Simple woman," he commented.
"That a problem?" Rue asked smugly, raising an eyebrow. Eren cocked his head to the side.
"Not at all."
Rue's stomach churned. Oh gods, not again. Sometimes she couldn't tell if she came off as flirty or not... It made her wonder if she said something to set Cam off. Maybe if she'd been a little clearer, a little more distant, nothing would have happened. Eren stepped up to the counter and gave the cashier his order. The teenage girl hurried to dish out their ice cream before setting the foam bowls on top of the case and heading back to the register. Eren handed Rue hers and led the way to a small table in the back of the tiny shop.
"Vanilla, huh?" Rue commented, spooning a mouthful of her dessert into her mouth and moaning dramatically. "This is the shit."
"Yeah?" Eren grinned at her response. She nodded, eagerly taking another bite. "Vanilla's too simple, huh?"
"Nah, I like predictability," Rue shrugged, entirely focused on her spoon.
"So you knew I'd get it."
"Of course I did," she scoffed light heartedly, rolling her eyes. Eren raised an eyebrow and Rue snickered. "You don't understand how happy this makes me."
"I think I do," he laughed, watching her as she gobbled down her ice cream.
"Lies," she mumbled, peering up at him with a sly smile. "Y'know, this is almost like a date." It was satisfying to watch the color creep into his cheeks. "Except for the fact that we're surrounded by chocobos and obnoxious lights."
"Hey!" Eren protested. "I think it's cute!"
"You would," Rue teased.
"Is that supposed to be an insult?"
"I'm honestly not sure. I'll leave it up to interpretation."
"Fuck off," she laughed, kicking his leg. He chuckled, adjusting his glasses. Rue cocked her head to the side. "How strong's the prescription on those?"
"Not very," Eren huffed. "I'm okay without 'em, but I'd prefer to see clearly."
"Can't relate," Rue sighed. He shook his head.
"Sometimes I forget you're a fellow dork."
"Dork?" Rue pretended to be offended. "Excuse me, sir, being unable to see doesn't make me a dork."
"I beg to differ."
"Well, you're wrong."
"That's your opinion."
"Dude," Rue snapped, rolling her eyes. She only earned a dimpled grin. "Quit it."
"You know what," Rue scoffed. "What's wrong with you?"
"A lot of things," he grumbled under his breath. Rue shook her head, trying her best to mock Relir's tone.
"So, when're you gonna find yourself a girl?"
"Someday," Eren shrugged. "Not soon, probably."
"Probably? Got someone in mind?"
"Nah." Eren dumped the rest of his ice cream into his mouth.
"Uh, I think meant 'yes,' Eren." She leaned forward and folded her hands together. "Who?"
"It doesn't matter," he shook his head. "I'll not looking for anything and neither is she."
"You can't know that," Rue scoffed.
"She told me."
"You asked her on a date?"
"What? No, of course not." Eren frowned, startled by her assumption. "She just happened to mention it."
"Okay," Rue tucked her hair behind her ear and pressed her lips together. "Listen carefully: when a girl says that to some random guy out of the blue, with no precursor, it probably means she either wants to gauge your reaction because she's interested, or because she knows you're interested and she just wants confirmation, or both." Or she's just being honest... Gods, why are we so complicated?
"And how am I supposed to figure out which it was?" Eren asked, frustrated.
"Ask. Her." Rue leaned back in her seat and crossed her arms. "Just ask her out or something, but don't make it sound like a date."
"You want me to be just as confusing as her," he accused, playing with the melted remnants of his ice cream. "That's not going to help—it's already confusing enough as it is."
"Fine, don't take my advice," she shrugged, feigning indifference. "Let things play out. It's probably better that you don't take it, anyway. I don't have a good relationship track record."
"You're not wrong," Eren muttered smugly. After she swatted his knee, his smile fell and his voice took on a more serious tone. "You were married before, weren't you?" Rue frowned, turning her eyes to the tabletop.
"Yeah, I guess. It wasn't all it's chalked up to be, though."
"I get that," Eren nodded. He didn't bother to ask what the trouble was exactly. Instead, he took a deep breath before standing. "Well, I guess I should get you home. It's late and we've both got early mornings ahead of us."
"Yup," Rue replied curtly, tossing out her trash and heading back out into the cold.
The ride back to her complex was silent, and this time it was not comfortable. An odd tension hung in the air that filled the car; she didn't like it. Rue leaned against the window, watching the world flash by in a whirlwind of swirled, streaked lights. Fortunately, the ride was a short one, and Rue quickly thanked her friend before hurrying up to her apartment. She already felt the stirring in the bottom of her stomach as her tongue suddenly remembered the sweet taste left on her tongue.
She hurried to her bathroom, trembling with dread as she glanced at herself in the mirror. The only reflection she saw illuminated her rounded cheeks, the indent in her hips were her pants cinched too tightly, the bit of extra fat on her thighs. All she saw in her own eyes was loathing disgust. All that hard work to get to this point... To go back. Ana doesn't deserve this. Her lips twitched as a plea for help was silenced by the blood pumping through her veins. Violently, she was thrown to the floor as she scrambled toward the toilet and retched, spilling anything and everything she'd consumed that evening. With a strangled sob, she fell back against the tub and buried and her face in her knees. What's wrong with me?
Chapter 13: It Gets Weirder
"Louder Than A Lion" by Eisley
“Are you sure you’re feeling alright?” Rue asked carefully as Ignis tried to suffocate a sneeze. The mere force of it almost knocked him out of his seat. He pushed up his glasses with an indignant sniff and waved her off.
“I’m fine. Are those finished?”
“Forms are filled, data’s entered, Cor’s good for two-thirty, and I brought an Ebony just in case.” She held up the chilled can in her left hand, raising an eyebrow. Ignis nodded, gratefully accepting the source of his mild caffeine addiction.
It had been almost a week since she started. It quickly became apparent to Ignis that she wasn’t as incompetent as Rayne made her out to be. Certainly, she made a grave mistake, but that didn’t entirely figure her into a failure. She caught on to what he needed quite easily, though everything he’d allowed her to touch was simple. Rue was most definitely eager to please.
“Anything else?” Rue urged, trying to pry another assignment from her boss. Ignis shook his head, slowly cracking open the can.
“Not currently, no.” He lifted the Ebony to take a sip, pausing when the cool aluminum touched his lips. Sighing, he set his drink down and looked up at his assistant. “Close the door and have a seat.”
“Yes, Sir,” Rue muttered, turning on her heels and obeying before returning to his desk and plopping down on the leather seat behind her. Crossing her legs, she leaned forward, ready to listen.
“In two days, I will be leaving with the Crownsguard and Noctis.” Rue frowned, a thousand questions flurrying about her head as gnawing jealousy chewed at her insides. Why couldn’t she leave? Ignis’s brows were pinched in such a way that tossed concern into her mix of emotions. “I cannot say why, but we should be gone only a few days at the most.”
“Does this have anything to do with those kids?”
“No,” he replied firmly, folding his slender fingers together. “Nothing of the sort. I’m telling you this so that you can prepare to run things on your own.”
“What?” Rue stared at him in disbelief. “I’ve done nothing but paperwork, data entry, and coffee runs. And scheduling appointments, but that’s not my point.” She leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms and shaking her dark hair out of her eyes. “What do you expect me to do around here?”
“Everything you’ve been doing already,” Ignis replied simply. “I can handle my own duties from my placement; all that matters is that you keep our database up to date and manage any schedule changes.”
“So actual assistant stuff,” Rue retorted, rolling her eyes. Her heart stuttered when Ignis arched an eyebrow. “Sorry,” she mumbled, staring hard at her knee and absently smoothing her skirt. She’d used the money Cam gave her to buy some more “professional” clothes for the Citadel, which Ignis seemed to appreciate in a “you make me look a little less bad for letting you work here” kind of way. She had to admit, she hated using that man’s “donation” for what he wanted but looking less like a homeless woman was worth it.
“For now, go see if Prompto needs any assistance.”
“Oh, so now you’re passing me around,” Rue teased. Ignis made no reply, and this time, she didn’t hesitate to defend herself. “It’s a joke.”
“Then what’s that face for?”
“It wasn’t very funny,” Ignis replied simply, taking a drink of Ebony. Rue stood and blinked at him in silence, stunned by his sudden participation in a conversation that was anything but bland.
“That’s subjective,” she bit back, cocking her head to the side. “Maybe your sense of humor isn’t very funny.” Ignis hummed as his eyes turned back to his computer screen, though Rue didn’t miss the slightest twitch of a smile that tugged at the corners of his lips.
“I’ll have you ask Gladio to settle the debate on that one.”
“So only your best buddy can back you up on that one?” Rue teased, standing and heading to the door.
“I don’t want to get blank stares when people realize you have a sense of humor.” Oof, okay, maybe you got too into that one. Take it down a notch.
“Rue.” Shit. Rue paused, turning back just as her hand tightened around the doorknob. Ignis was interrupted by another sneeze that knocked his glasses down the bridge of his nose. “Bring tissues back.”
“Will do,” Rue nodded, breathing a sigh of relief as she left.
Didn’t ruin it… Good. She was genuinely surprised that she’d left the office feeling lighter, happier. Every interaction up to that point had been stiff and stoic. Her knock on Prompto’s door was firm and rapid, as though excited nerves were causing her bones to rattle. The blonde opened the door himself, positively beaming with joy at seeing her face, which was surprising considering they’d hardly interacted at all since the week before.
“Rue! How’s it going?”
“Alright,” Rue shrugged uncomfortably, crossing her arms tightly. “How’re you?”
“Good, good,” Prompto smiled, tilting his head. His spiked hair fell to the side, not quite as glued down as usual. “How was your weekend?”
“Yeah, but how was it? What’d you do?”
“Went out with some friends and binge watched killer documentaries through the hangover,” she admitted with a shrug.
“Have you seen the one about the pizza guy?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
“Haven't seen it, but I’ll look into it.” He crossed his arms. “What did you need?”
“Ignis wanted me to ask if you needed help with anything.” Rue’s lips fought to conceal a smile. “Also to ask if he has a sense of humor.”
“He asked you to ask me that?” Prompto laughed uneasily.
“Kind of. He told me to ask Gladio but he scares me, so I’m asking you.”
“Okay,” he snickered, shaking his head. “Yeah, he can be funny, but it’s hard to catch. I’d say he’s more of the subtle-burn type.”
“Ugh, hate those,” Rue huffed. “Of course he is. Anyway, need any help? I’m for hire.”
“She sure as hell is.” Rue’s stomach sank and her eyes rolled like those of a rebelling teen’s as she turned to see Cam passing by with a stupid grin on his face. “Lookin’ good, Sweetheart.”
Rue didn’t reply, turning back to Prompto with her lips pursed and her hands rested on her hips.
“I don’t really have much to do on a daily basis,” Prompto shrugged, closing the door behind her and heading toward his desk, which was scuffed with the slightest marks of his shoes from where he’d likely kicked his feet up. “You can just hang out in here.” He sat on his desk and offered a grin. “Get to know each other.”
“Yeah…” Rue frowned, looking up and down his crowded shelves, which were piled with knick-knacks and photos from outside Insomnia’s walls. She generally found conversations about herself and who she was and is and will be to be uncomfortable. Luckily, Prompto was sensitive enough to pick up on that discomfort and kind enough to let boundaries lie. “How?”
“Well, duh,” Rue scoffed, throwing him a dry look.
“Fine, how about this: where are you from?”
“Insomnia,” Rue sighed, plopping into one of the cushioned seats in front of him. “Born and raised here.”
“Back quarter,” she shrugged, slouching and looking up at him. “You know, where all the trashy poor people live. You?”
“Hey, that’s where I lived!” Prompto’s eyes lit up with genuine excitement and Rue couldn’t help but smile. “Well, sort of. I lived on the edge of that part of town, closer to the secondary school.” He grinned. “That means you went to the same school as me ‘n Noct!”
“Well…” Rue shook her head. “Not at the same time. You’re what, two years younger than me? I dropped out a year before I was supposed graduate.”
“What for?” he asked, obviously curious. Rue chewed on her cheek, feeling her face redden at her stupid, shameful decisions. No wonder her father pretended he didn’t have a daughter.
“Oh,” Prompto teased, leaning forward. “Are you guys still together?” Oh, gods.
“Absolutely not,” Rue snorted, uncomfortably crossing her arms.
“Oh, okay.” Prompto sat up. “Hmm… Got any pets?”
“Yeah, a cat,” Rue nodded, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Her name’s Honey. I got her from some woman who was selling kittens on the side of the road.”
“Adorable,” he sang out. “I’ve always wanted a cat, or a dog, or really anything, but I don’t have time.”
“Why not? I basically live here,” Prompto laughed, but he sounded sad. “Gotta keep up with the other guys, yeah?”
“I mean, if you don’t have as much work, why stay here as long?” Rue frowned. “You’re not paid by the hour, are you?”
“No, no,” Prompto shook his head. “I like it here. I get to be with Noct and the other guys all the time. I guess sometimes… I just hang around because I’m hoping they’ll want to see me, too.”
“Wow,” Rue huffed out an uneasy laugh, not entirely sure of how to handle his heavy confession. Prompto rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to get all depressed.”
“No, I get it.” Rue straightened, cocking her head to the side. “I have a few friends who got into the Glaive together. Yeah, I’m proud of them, sure, but at the same time, I feel like they’ll realize they don’t need me to have fun together. I think the only reason they invite me places is because they feel bad for me,” she admitted with a scoff.
“That guy Eren’s one of ‘em, right?”
“Yeah,” Rue frowned. “How’d you know that?’
“I saw him with you the other day,” Prompto shrugged.
“Yeah, he’s nice,” Rue muttered. “But he’s close with my friend Dex and his fiancé.”
“That’s cool.” Prompto sighed, falling backward until he was sprawled across the surface of his desk. “I dunno; I guess it’s hard when you’re in a group and everyone seems so much closer to each other.”
“Exactly.” Rue slumped again. “Didn’t have many friends growing up?”
“Nope,” Prompto shook his head. “Just Noct and that was once we got to secondary and I lost all the weight I gained as a kid.”
“Running, right? I think I heard Gladio mention it.”
“Yeah.” His words sounded scoffed as if he didn’t quite believe it himself. He rolled over to face her, propping his head up with his elbows. “I know we got all mushy real quick, but do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Go for it.”
“Do you ever… Find one little thing wrong and kind of obsess over it? To the point that it’s bad?”
“Yeah,” Rue nodded, watching a thoughtful look cross over his face as he ducked his head and traced the wood pattern of his desk with his finger.
“I think that’s what running was for me, at least toward the end. I hated the way I looked to the point that I wouldn’t talk to anyone because I was disgusted with myself and I thought other people saw me like that too.” Be honest.
“I get that,” Rue admitted, but that’s as far as she went. I can’t talk about this now. Her blushing cheeks were enough to tell Prompto that she’d suffered a similar situation and his pestering inner voices hissed their “I told you so’s” in his ears.
“Sorry,” Prompto laughed awkwardly, sitting up and carefully running a hand over his styled hair to smooth any strays. Suddenly, an idea sparked. “Hey, you should come to dinner with us tomorrow night.”
“Us?” Rue frowned, already uneasy at the sound of a dinner invitation. She hardly knew any of the people Prompto did, and half of them hated her guts.
“Yeah! Every week Iggy, Rayne, Gladio, me, and sometimes Noct get together for dinner at someone’s place.” His eyes sparkled with the growing excitement at the prospect. “I think you should come!”
“Prompto, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Rue said nervously. “I’m pretty sure Rayne will shoot me on the doorstep.”
“Rayne? Forget about her. She acts all big and scary, but trust me, all you have to do is prove you’re not really the way she thinks you are and presto! You’ve got yourself a new friend.” I’m not exactly here to make friends.
“What ‘way’ does she think I am?” Rue asked, frowning. Prompto chewed his lip, taking a deep breath. Yeah, big mistake, pal.
“Um… Y’know, entitled, lazy, maybe a little oblivious—”
“For fuck's sake,” Rue huffed, falling back in her seat and staring up at the ceiling. “What do I have to do to prove I’m not a piece of shit? Be all cutesy like Axel? Kill me now.” Prompto wrestled with a smile.
“So, I’m not hearing a ‘no,’ am I? Good.” Before Rue could protest, he continued. “As your friend, I’m taking you to dinner in place of Noct. A little birdy told me you’re here to make a name for yourself and get into the Kingsglaive. So… Make a name for yourself! Hang out with the big guys! Before you know it, mistakes are forgiven and you’re none the worse for wear.” He snickered, crossing his arms. “Ignis used to say that a lot, at least until I started saying it. Funny, huh?”
Rue’s stomach was in knots, her face was red, and her palms were sweating, but she couldn’t help it; it didn’t sound like the worst idea in the world. Dinner with the higher-ups? And with a friend to back her up? Prompto knew her crimes against the King and he had no problem with her, Ignis was likely indifferent, and Gladio, even the Shield himself, was kinda, sorta on her side.
“You know what?” Rue stood up, smoothed her shirt, and straightened her pencil skirt. “Sounds good to me. What time?”
“I’ll get you around five-thirty, yeah? By that, I mean rescue you from Ignis’s office and then we’ll head over to his place.”
“Yeah. We went to Rayne and Gladio’s last time, but we rotate sometimes. Iggy’s still cooking, though, so prepare for death by satisfaction.” Rue closed her eyes and heaved a sigh. Dinner at her boss’s house with a group of people that generally disliked her or who wouldn’t defend her when those who disliked her went off.
“Okay. Five-thirty for Ignis’s place. Tomorrow. Got it. See you, Prompto.”
“Sounds like a plan!”
Rue’s mind was racing a thousand miles a minute as she headed toward the door, an eternal frown glued to her face. Her head was beginning to throb. These people were so strange, so problematic, and yet, she found them all so incredibly interesting at the same time. If she wasn’t on Rayne’s bad side, maybe things would have been much easier, but Ignis hadn’t fired her just yet and it seemed she was making a friend in the youngest and cheeriest of the group. It wasn’t exactly the outcome she had in mind, but hey, it was something. A burning question stopped her in her tracks as she reached for the door.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any tissues by chance, would you?”
Chapter 14: Discomfort
"Dance and Cry" by Mother Mother
Rue set a file of papers on Ignis's desk, which he was mysteriously absent from, likely attending some unnecessary meeting, and took the opportunity to head to the kitchen and brew a pot of coffee. As the steam puffed into the air and the small, silver appliance began to gurgle as it heated water. Rue leaned back against the counter, crossing her arms and studying the scuffed tips of the black heels she'd worn every single day for a week. There were no weekends with this job, and she knew that when she took it. It wasn't like she did anything but sat around alone on the weekends anyway.
"What's this? Nap time?"
Rue jerked her head up to see Eren heading into the kitchen with a mug in hand, a smile crossing his lips at startled her reaction. He leaned against the counter on the other side of the coffee machine, his eyes bright behind the thick frames of his glasses. Rue sighed, shaking her head.
"Nah, I am falling asleep though." She motioned toward the coffee pot that was slowly falling to her left. "Hence, this."
"Yeah, I was coming to make some. Guess you beat me to it."
"Too bad. I'm taking the whole pot," she replied in a deadpan voice. Eren's smile faltered.
"No, dumbass," she snorted, grinning. He rolled his eyes and she laughed. "You actually believed me?"
"Well, yeah. Friends generally trust each other," he huffed. Rue rolled her eyes.
"Okay. Friends also mess with each other."
"Don't make that face, weirdo. It wasn't supposed to be weird."
"You're the one with poor wording."
Rue shook her head, willing the pot to fill faster. Not that she didn't want to spend more time Eren, but Ignis was really piling on the work and she had an itching feeling that it was because Prompto told him she was coming to dinner and the guy suddenly realized he needed to put her in her place. Or that it was simply a busy day, but she preferred an exciting conspiracy to a logical conclusion.
"Hey, so," Eren started. Rue felt her stomach grow heavy. She knew what he was going to ask, and she hated saying no. It made her feel as though she was pushing this already fairly exclusive group of friends away and letting them get close enough to forget about her completely. "Dex and Relir want to see you again, and I want to go to that new noodle shop, so…" He let his words trail off, point, rather, offer, made. Rue heaved a sigh.
"You know, you have a way of asking me to join you guys that makes it sound like you don't care if I'm there or not."
"No, no," Eren rushed, startled. "That's not what I mean at all. Of course I want you there! I just figured it'd be less weird if I—"
"I'm kidding," Rue interrupted, earning a huff. "And I'm sorry, but I can't make it. I already have dinner plans."
"So… you have a date?"
"What? No, not at all." Rue hurried to explain. "Prompto invited me to some weekly Crownsguard dinner and I couldn't exactly say no to spending time with the higher-ups, y'know?"
"Higher-ups? Prompto's practically a joke," Eren blurted. Rue frowned and his composure visibly crumbled. "Shit, I mean, it's really cool that you got invited and all, and I'm really happy for you, but I wouldn't exactly call him a, um, 'higher-up,' right?"
"Prompto's not a joke," Rue grumbled, grabbing the coffee pot and filling her mug. There was just enough for a full cup.
"That's not what I meant," Eren rushed. Rue scowled at him, picking up her cup and hurrying toward the door. "Rue, c'mon. I'm sorry."
"Are you?" she demanded, turning to face him. He nodded quickly, walking over to her.
"I swear I am. It just slipped out; I didn't mean it. I just…" He shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "I dunno, I was excited about getting to talk to you tonight. I feel like I never see you anymore."
"Then stop by the second floor," Rue replied dryly. "Text me every once in a while, how about that? Quit pretending I don't exist until you're around your besties?"
Rue shook her head, rushing out of the small kitchen and heading up the stairs. Her heart was racing and her body was trembling. She absolutely could not believe herself. He'd really done nothing wrong, and she'd never blown up like that for something so small. What's wrong with me? Part of her wanted to turn back and apologize as guilt twisted her gut, but shame fought back and forced her to face forward. The niggling feeling that she'd just destroyed a friendship begged her to pull out of her phone and text him, but pride held her head up high and clenched her trembling fingers into fists.
She headed straight to Prompto's office to rant and rave for a bit before turning tail to Ignis's office after receiving his text that demanded to know where she was and why these forms hadn't been organized yet. Five-thirty came long before she thought it would, and at that point, she was still sipping bitter, cold coffee from hours before.
"Guess what day it is!?"
Rue almost spat a mouthful of old coffee across Ignis's desk in disbelief as Rayne burst into the room, announcing herself in a sing-song voice. The second the woman saw her, however, her demeanor shifted defensively and she strode toward Ignis's desk, pushing his papers aside and plopping down like it was a throne just for her. Ignis watched his paperwork flutter to the ground in defeat, sighing and adjusting his glasses. Rue stared with wide eyes.
"Send your slave home so we can eat, Iggy."
"Slave?" Rue repeated with a frown.
"She's actually coming with," Prompto piped up from the doorway. Rayne frowned, immediately turning to receive the advisor's confirmation. His disheartened stare directed toward his assistant was all she needed to leap to her feet.
"No. No. Absolutely not." She slammed her palms down on the desk, lowering her head to catch his eye. "Iggy, please, you're joking. Her?"
"What about her?" Ignis frowned, pulling his face away from hers uncomfortably. "Prompto invited her."
"What?" Rayne whirled around to stare down her friend. Gladio strode in next, shooting her a stern look. Rue watched the scene play out with her mouth hanging open. They're an actual clown crew. What is happening?
"Grow up, Rayne. She's coming."
"Grow up," Rayne snorted, trying to push past him. The burly man grabbed her wrist and raised an eyebrow.
"Don't cause problems. Prom wanted her to come because Noct can't leave again."
"Can't we smuggle him?" Rayne whined. Rue cringed. What?
"Rayne," Gladio snapped. She rolled her eyes.
"Nope." Rayne stood on her toes and pressed a kiss to his lips. Rue's eyes instinctively flickered over to Ignis, who was very purposefully buttoning his jacket to distract himself. "No problems."
"Okay." Gladio looked over her head to Rue. "You going with us or Iggy?"
Rayne and Rue made uncomfortably tense eye contact after speaking simultaneously, with one glaring and the other practically cowering into herself in her seat. Ignis breathed another sigh and the jingle of his car keys filled the silence.
"Alright, sounds like a plan," Prompto blurted cheerfully. Rue stood and pulled her heavy jacket on, turning to face Ignis with an uncertain expression. He squeezed his way between her and Rayne and left without a word. She took that as her signal to follow, being absolutely sure not to touch the fuming woman that was still looming beside her.
"Damn," Rue hissed, sucking in a deep breath. Prompto laughed nervously.
"Yeah… Sorry about that. I'm sure she'll lighten up tonight. Right, Iggy?"
"…" Ignis touched his glasses habitually and glanced over his shoulder to see if Gladio and Rayne were behind them. They were, in fact, still in Ignis's office. Rue frowned; he hadn't even waited to lock the door behind them. "Well, this should go one of two ways."
"And those are?" Rue prodded carefully, shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her baggy jacket.
"One, she drinks enough to calm herself down," Ignis sighed. Apparently, this was the more likely option. "Or she holds fast to her grudge and makes tonight unbearable for everyone involved."
"I like choice number one," Rue muttered, turning a corner she'd never turned before as Ignis led them to the parking garage. Somehow, it never crossed her mind that she'd be riding in a car.
"Don't we all?" Ignis replied under his breath, glancing at Prompto. The blonde hurried ahead to the heavy steel door at the end of the hall, shoving it open and grinning as Rue passed through.
"Nice. Now all you need's a fedora," Rue teased.
"And some semblance of grace," Ignis added. Rue was surprised to find herself laughing.
Ignis pressed a button on a small remote and a car's lights flared in the dark of the complex full of vehicles. Most had been revived since the absence of gas in the Darkness, though they were covered in dents and scrapes from the daemons. Prompto reached the car first, filled with the boundless energy of a child. He opened the back door for Rue, smiling as bright as before.
"Such a gentleman," Rue gushed, sliding into the backseat. She was enveloped in the scent of leather immediately; her nose crinkled. Where are they even making these things these days? Everything was black, sleek, spotless. Very Ignis. The only thing that didn't seem especially high end was the cardboard case of Ebony cans that Rue picked up for him a few days before. It was already half empty.
"You like music?" Prompto asked, rocking the car as he flopped into the passenger seat. Ignis sat down with much less gusto and sniffed his stuffy nose before starting the car. The rumble of the engine was enough to tell Rue this was a pricey piece, not that she couldn't already see that.
"I guess," she shrugged.
"What do you listen to?"
"Really anything that sounds good."
"You know All Time High?" Prompto asked, crossing his fingers. Rue laughed, nodding.
"Yeah, I used to listen to them when I was younger."
"Why'd you stop?"
"I left my emo phase."
"Okay." Prompto plugged in his phone as Ignis started to back out of his parking space. "They aren't just for emos."
A familiar tune blasted through the speakers. Ignis heaved a sigh and shot Prompto a look as his hand flew toward the volume dial and turned the music down. The blonde rolled his eyes, making a face at Rue in the rearview mirror before reaching to turn it back up. Ignis gritted his teeth, hitting Prompto's hand away and smoothly turning out of the parking complex.
"What? Rue likes it."
"I need to concentrate."
"I'd prefer it a little quieter," Rue added, gripping the back of Prompto's seat as she became painfully aware that she wasn't wearing a seatbelt. Then again, neither was he.
"Are you feeling okay, dude?" Prompto asked, slumping back in his seat as his music continued to fill the gaps in the conversation. "You sound sick."
"I'm fine," Ignis replied stiffly. Rue had to admit; the guy had looked better. His nose was red from all the tissues and his voice had an odd, congested sound to it. Even his eyes, which were surrounded by tight, gnarled scars, looked puffy. He definitely wasn't feeling his greatest.
"Doesn't he look sick, Rue?"
Rue awkwardly chewed on her lip in dead silence, pressured by the silence of the two men who waited expectantly in the front seat. She tucked her hair behind her ear and scooted closer to the window on her left, watching the streets she so often walked fly past.
"Maybe a little. Could it be allergies?"
"No," Prompto scoffed, turning onto his knees to face her. She watched him anxiously. Why's he not sitting down? "Ignis is perfect. He doesn't have allergies." He's far from perfect, buddy. Rue had to resist the urge to laugh. The king's advisor was a run of the mill cranky, stuffy, picky, stick-up-his-ass jerk. She'd worked with a few in her lifetime, and his little "moments" of loosening up were not about to fool her. He was just like the rest.
"You never know; it's spring," Rue shrugged half-heartedly.
"I don't have allergies," Ignis spoke up after clearing his throat. Rue winced; he sounded awful.
"Sometimes people get 'em later in life, you never know."
"… Right," Prompto huffed, sitting back down and scrolling through the photos on his phone.
Rue pulled out her own phone and punched in her pin, quickly opening up her messenger app to type in a quick apology. She hit send after reading over the text a few times and slumped against the door. Suddenly, she noticed that they were slowing to a stop. Here already?
"Ready, kiddo?" Prompto teased, hopping out.
"Kiddo," Rue repeated under her breath, letting herself out.
"So we took the kid out for food because he said he wanted to see us more," Rayne continued, flopping onto the black leather couch beside Prompto, who flinched. Rue awkwardly loomed in the background, glancing over at Gladio as he strode into the advisor's spotless home.
"And?" Prompto urged. A pot clattered against the stove in the kitchen. Everyone paused to look at Ignis, who appeared unfazed with his demanding stare.
"Nothing," Rayne sighed. "Anyway, Signum pops out of nowhere and announces they're dating!" She shook her head, a look of disbelief crossing her face. "My brother's dating my son. What is that?"
Incest. It's fucking incest.
"Axel's not your son," Gladio grumbled, shooting Rue a look.
"He might as well be!"
"No. Babysitting someone doesn't make 'em your kid."
"Okay." Rayne sat up, turning to see Rue standing behind her and grimacing as if she'd forgotten the assistant was there to begin with. Her violet eyes turned back to Prompto. "What'd you do today?"
"Nothing much." Prompto perked up visibly, turning in his seat to face her fully and tucking his phone into his pocket. "Just some more boring paperwork and then I headed down to the new gym for a bit."
"Isn't it nice?" Gladio asked, crossing his arms. Prompto nodded eagerly.
"Oh, yeah! It's nice and big." He turned to Rue. "Have you been in there yet?"
"Why would she be in there?" Rayne butted in. "It's Crownsguard only."
"Since when? Since you decided you hate her?" Prompto demanded, his mood flipping like a switch. Rue felt her heart stop cold. "I think she should be able to use it since she works with us."
"She works with Iggy."
"And is, therefore, far less important," Ignis filled in, drying his hands on a rag. Everyone turned to look at the advisor. He raised a brow. "Is that what you're getting at?"
"That's not why—"
"I have no qualms about Rue using the gymnasium," he continued, looking to Prompto. "It might burn some of that restless energy."
"I'm restless?" Rue murmured. Ignis glanced at her before turning back to the stove.
"More than you'd believe even if I described your behaviors in great detail."
"Not a surprise," Rayne muttered, earning several irritated stares. "What?"
Chapter 15: Mistaken
"Dark Side Of Your Room" by All Time Low
"Thanks for the ride," Rue muttered, unbuckling her seatbelt and tugging on the door handle. It moved easily, but the door itself wouldn't budge. Uncertainly, she looked over at Gladio, who stared at her apartment building in silence. He looked like he was turning a thought over and over in his head, something most weren't accustomed to seeing. "Um…"
"I wanted to say thank you," Gladio stated dully, finally meeting her curious gaze. His eyes were sharp enough to kill a man, and yet, they shined with enough genuine softness to keep her from immediately looking at her lap. "I dunno if you can even tell, but he's lightening up again."
"Yeah." He leaned forward against the steering wheel, crossing his arms over the top. His brows were furrowed. "Prom, too. He needs a friend, so thanks for that."
"Oh, it's really not a problem," Rue rushed, speaking earnestly. He shook his head, his long hair swaying across his shoulders.
"I wasn't expecting you to do him any favors, but he's happier since you came around." Rue wasn't sure what to say, but Gladio filled the silence for her with a sigh. "And I'm sorry about Rayne, too."
"I have to be." His lips quirked into a slight smile. "It's my job. She gets shit done, and it's messy, but I gotta clean up after her." He shrugged, scratching his beard. "I gotta admit, I suck at the sappy shit, but I really am grateful."
"Uh, thanks, I guess," Rue stuttered, unsure how to reply. She'd just spent three hours watching four of the king's closest friends taunt and tease each other, saw Ignis genuinely laugh, felt welcome when Prompto sat by her and embarrassed when Rayne lectured him and gave him a rundown of all her faults. Where the hell had "sappy Gladio" come from in the midst of all that?
"I have another favor to ask."
"What is it?"
"I…" Gladio paused, frowning. He took a deep breath and shook his head. "No, never mind. I'll let you know when I need you, but it probably won't be for a while."
"Don't worry about it." Gladio fell back into his seat and unlocked the doors. "Have a good night."
"Thanks," Rue forced out, quickly exiting the car. "See you tomorrow."
Rue headed upstairs to her apartment, where Honey bounded up to her legs and rubbed her face all over her left ankle, purring. Rue hardly noticed her, drained, and threw herself into bed almost immediately, mentally running over her evening. Rayne drank too much of everything Ignis had, which apparently was normal, and bounded around the house singing some song about her younger brother and his boyfriend, the very same obnoxious Axel she despised so much from training.
Ignis disappeared into his room for a bit, Rayne and Gladio watched as Prompto showed Rue his collection of photos from his journey with the king, explaining the stories behind some. When Ignis reappeared, he pulled Rue aside to inform her that she could come in whatever time she wanted to on Saturday after the Crownsguard left, just as long as her work was finished before she went home that evening. He looked horrible. Rue sighed, switching off the lamp beside her bed and pulling the covers up to her chin. The night was a blur mixed with regret, surprise, and a touch of warmth from Prompto's eager friendliness. By the time she felt the least bit drowsy, her mind was racing again.
Before she could dissect her every life decision, her phone's screen lit up. Startled, she turned down the brightness and pulled her glasses on from where they rested on her bedside table.
"Text from Eren?" she murmured, resting her free hand on Honey's back from where the cat dozed on her other pillow. "The fuck…?" Her heart practically shattered into a thousand pieces.
No need to say sorry, I was being a dick. Shouldn't have said that stuff about Prompto or gotten angry. I'm sorry.
"Well damn," she muttered, reading the message over and over again before quickly typing out a reply. "Maybe good guys do exist."
It's alright, really. I shouldn't have gotten so defensive.
She shut her screen off and let the phone fall onto her stomach. It turned on as soon as all was still again. Smiling, she picked her phone back up and checked her texts.
Man, we both suck.
Yeah, well, that's why we're friends, I guess. Losers hang with losers.
What's that say about Dex and Relir?
She snorted, startling Honey. Whispering her apologies to the jumpy feline, she typed her response with one hand.
They kinda suck too.
Nah, only Relir.
I know. I'm sorry.
Don't lie to me, asshole.
She chewed on her cheek, trying to think of a response that might carry on her little moment of happiness for the day. Suddenly, another message popped up from Eren.
Speaking of those two, we wanted to go out to that new place downtown tomorrow night (and I want you to come, I swear). You in?
Sweet. Goodnight, loser.
I hope you have the worst nightmares tonight.
Scoffing and rolling her eyes, Rue set her phone back down and bundled back up, unable to wipe the stupid grin off her face and drown the warm, fuzziness she felt through her entire body. It was nice to silence the voice of loneliness every once in a while. Rue squeezed her eyes shut. Yeah… Loneliness… that's all it was.
She took a deep breath, battling with her innermost thoughts. No, she couldn't think like that. Eren was her friend and that was the end of it. They'd hardly been friends long enough to call them close, and yet, that's what they were. They clicked; she got him and he got her. They didn't push each other to suffer, but to change. Anything else she felt was a mistake, a confusion, a leap. She was just telling herself things were more than they were. Nothing in the whole wide world could convince her to take a chance at destroying what they had.
With that, she forced her body to relax, drowned her bubbling witch's brew of thoughts with a catchy tune that was stuck in her head, and dozed off for a restless night's sleep.
Friday passed quickly. The blisters on Rue's heels had become callouses, the paper cuts hardly stung anymore, and the gloomy atmosphere of Ignis's tissue-piled office hardly fazed her. She saw Cam a grand total of zero times, Prompto was extra cheerful, and Relir dropped by the library to give her a coffee and ask how she was feeling about that night. Friday was a good day, and all too soon, Rue found herself squeezing behind Ignis to file away the stack of papers he'd given her that morning.
"I could have done that myself," Ignis muttered sourly, scooting his chair closer to his desk. Rue shook her head, tucking the back of her buttoned shirt into her skirt.
"I got it. Besides, you need to rest up before you leave tomorrow." As she headed around the front of the desk to grab her jacket, Ignis shot her an unamused look that she took as a silent lecture for her sympathy. "You said anytime Saturday works, right?"
"Correct," Ignis nodded, sniffing. The circles under his eyes had gotten darker, his nose and eyes were red, and his skin was paler than normal. Rue frowned, eyeing his appearance before shaking her head. The advisor would have a fit if she expressed her feelings of concern, so she pulled her jacket on and left with a wave.
The air was cool and crisp outside; spring was coming quicker than anyone had anticipated. The sun had already left the sky and gentle breezes rushed through the streets of Insomnia. Hundreds of people walked about the city around Rue as she headed home. It was nearly nine by the time she reached her apartment complex. Geeze, when's Ignis going home?
"Shit," Rue grumbled after checking the time. Honey meowed from the kitchen counter; Rue scooped her up and held her tight as she hurried to her room to get ready. Just as she pecked the cat's head and set her down on the bed, her phone rang loud and clear from her jacket pocket. She picked up quickly. "Hello?"
"Hey, it's Eren."
"… I know. What do you want?"
"Well, shit. Sorry." Eren laughed. "Listen, I'm in the neighborhood and impatient. Care if I come up and we can leave together?" Rue chewed on her lip; her heart fluttered so sharply that it hurt.
"Um, yeah, okay. I literally just got home, though, so I'm not even dressed yet."
"That's fine. I'll be a few minutes."
She tossed her phone to the floor, flopped onto her back, and groaned loudly through the hands that covered her face. Another thing to stress her out. Quickly, she rolled to her feet and dove into her chocobo stable of a closet. Her clothes were all over the floor already; if she wasn't fazed by the mess as she checked sizes and tossed things to the ground, searching for something decent to wear to some shitty, sweaty club Relir wanted to drag them all to.
The knock on her door came when she was trying on her fourth shirt. Huffing, she followed Honey as she bounded to the front of the apartment, waiting at the door with an expectant look in her auburn eyes. Rue shook her head, muttering something about dogs, and pulled the door open. Eren stood there with a stupid grin and a bottle of tequila. Rue arched an eyebrow as his smile faded.
"Damn, you're dressed up."
"Not really." She turned on her heels and headed to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Eren scoffed.
"So, no 'Come on in, Eren' or 'Hey, thanks for stopping by,' huh?"
"Pretty sure we're past that bullshit," Rue pointed out, nodding toward the bottle in his hand. "What's that for?"
"What do you think?" Eren raised an eyebrow. His smile was back. "Where're your shot glasses? Gotta warm up, y'know?"
"Yeah," Rue rolled her eyes when he wasn't looking, retrieving two small glasses. "Here."
Rue set her water glass down and headed to the bathroom to look at her hair. Good enough. When she came back, the shot glasses were filled. Eren leaned his hip against the counter and handed one to her, which she took carefully. Just had to fill it to the brim, didn't you? She clicked it against his and they both threw their heads back. Rue grimaced as they both set their glasses back down.
"Nah, who needs that?" Eren teased, though his eyes were genuinely apologetic.
"It's okay, I'm a big girl," she shrugged, though the burning, unpleasant taste of the alcohol was prominent on her tongue. She frowned as Eren started to pour two more shots. "Another?"
"Unless you don't want one." He paused, glancing up at her. "Figured you could take it."
"It's not that," Rue laughed. "I just don't know how much I want to drink tonight."
"Why not? You said you have work late tomorrow, didn't you?"
"Who told you?"
"Relir." Eren's eyes lit up with his grin. "Why's it matter? I think today's as good a day as any."
"To what, get plastered?"
"Again, why not," he shrugged, laughing when she smacked his chest. "So no more?" Rue's lips quirked into a smile and she crossed her arms, leaning against the counter.
"Fuck it; pour me another."
"That's the spirit!"
They took the second shot the same as the first and Rue instantly regretted it. Her stomach was on fire and she could feel a cold sweat breaking out across her forehead. Shrugging it off, she distracted Eren with Honey and headed to her room and find some shoes. She pulled on a pair of black heels, eyeing herself in the mirror. Y'know, that's not the worst. It was there that she decided that night would be a night of objectively bad decisions.
"Wow, you grew," Eren commented as she strode into the living room. Rue paused to shoot him a look, though her heart melted when she saw that he was flattened on the floor with her purring cat rubbing her whiskered cheek against his. "Ready to go? Relir said they'd be getting there soon."
"Yeah, just about." Rue turned to the door, froze, and turned back. Eren stood, raising an eyebrow when he caught her staring thoughtfully.
"Does this look okay?"
"Do a little spin for me." Rue obeyed and Eren chuckled, scratching the back of his neck. "Yeah, you look great, Rue."
"Listen." Eren strode over to her, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jacket. His eyes lowered to hers, though she could hardly see them through the glare on his glasses. Her breath caught in her throat uneasily; she hated when people towered over her like that. "Would I lie to you?"
"Okay, well…" He huffed, shaking his head and heading to the door. "Let's go. You look fine."
"Great, Rue. You look great." Rue arched an eyebrow, crossing her arms. Eren groaned, rubbing his face. "What more do you want from me? Dammit, Rue, you look hot as fuck. Is that satisfactory?" Rue could feel her face going red, but she grinned, slinging her enormous jacket over her shoulder and putting a bounce in her step as she strode past.
Eren rolled his eyes and shut her door behind him, hurrying to catch up with her quick walk.
"Dude, slow down."
"Dude," Rue mocked, snickering at her lowered voice. Eren cracked a smile.
"You're already losing your shit and we haven't even gotten there yet."
"I have not," Rue snorted, ignoring the staring eyes of the other people that joined them in the elevator. "It's been, what, ten minutes? Not how it works." At least, I don't think it is. She sighed. Shit, I didn't eat anything.
"Maybe you're an exception."
"Don't kill my fun."
They left and Eren locked his car as they hurried past and walked down the sidewalk. The air was chillier than before, but it wasn't unbearable by any means. Rue ducked her face behind her collar to shield her face from the sharp wind and Eren led the way to a plaza of shops and bars where, about halfway between a convenience store and a restaurant, there was a small location lit up with neon lights and bright colors. Shuddering, they had their IDs checked by the man at the door and hurried inside.
"Back table…" Eren muttered under the near-deafening music in the dark room. Already, Rue was uncomfortable, but she knew all she needed was some friends and liquid courage and she'd be just fine until morning.
"What?" Rue shouted. Eren shook his head, nearly losing her in a cluster of young women when he spotted something.
"They're over there," he pointed out, grabbing hold of her upper arm and speaking into her air. The warmth of his breath made her shudder. "You good?"
Relir stood and waved her arms over her head as if she was drowning, standing and stumbling in a dress that looked far too tight to walk in. Dex watched anxiously from where he sat at a booth they'd taken over in the back.
"Hey!" Relir squealed, jerking them both into a crushing hug until all three of them were smashed together and they couldn't tell whose limbs were whose. "You came, Rue!" She took a wobbling step back. "Oh. My. Gods. Look at you! You're gonna get a man tonight!"
"C'mon, let's head back," Eren urged, nodding toward the table. Relir laughed, letting him take her arm and pull her back to her seat. She fell into the booth beside her fiancé, giggling when she crashed into him. Rue climbed into the other side, peeling her jacket off.
"How much has she had to drink?" she demanded, nodding toward Relir.
"I'm not sure," Dex frowned, tugging his head out of Relir's hands as she squished his cheeks.
"She's slurring," Eren pointed out, his brows pinching together. "You've been here, what, fifteen minutes?"
"Think time'll stop me!?" Relir cried, laughing at his face. "Guys, chill, I'm kinda messing with you. Hey! You!" A worker that previously walked by stopped in his tracks and came back. Rue raised an eyebrow at his bare chest. "Another round!"
"Of what?" the man asked, clearly confused. Obviously, he hadn't brought them anything.
"I dunno, something strong." Relir turned and winked at Rue. "Gotta get this one moving."
"Gods," Rue groaned, rubbing her face. She was not in the mood for drunk Relir's dancing and selfies and Dex-climbing and bathroom trips, but this is what she signed up for. Eren glanced at her as the man bustled away. Relir narrowed her eyes, looking over Eren's face before lunging across the table and yanking his glasses off.
"How well can you see right now?"
"Okay, I guess."
"It's just fuzzy," Eren shrugged, watching her grin victoriously and shove the glasses into Dex's lap. He rolled his eyes, though he didn't seem irritated; he found her inebriated state almost endearing.
"Good. You look better that way."
"I think the glasses are cute," Rue protested. Eren scoffed, looking over at her as she cheeks flushed red. "I-I mean, there are girls who are into the nerdy look."
"Nerdy? I just need to see." He frowned, pointing an accusing finger at her. "And you wear glasses, too, because you're blind as shit."
"Not in public."
"Oh, so I'm nerdy because I wear glasses in public? What, do I just not get vision?"
"You just said you can see fine," Dex pointed out.
"Yeah, well…" Eren slumped in his seat, running a hand through his hair. He didn't say anything else until the server dropped off a round of shots for the table.
"Hell. Yes." Relir shimmied cheerfully, immediately downing her drink and wobbling to her feet. She tugged on the back of her dress to straighten it and grabbed Eren's wrist to drag him out of his seat. "C'mon, Rue, let's go!"
"Shit," Rue sighed, throwing her head back, swallowing the bitter drink, and scooting out of the booth. "I'm coming, I guess." She was finally beginning to feel the effects of her earlier drinks with Eren and it wasn't entirely unwelcome.
The music was louder over where the crowd of sweaty drunken men and women were shouting and laughing and dancing all mashed together. A girl with long blonde hair sat on some man's shoulders, ranting about how she didn't like the obnoxious bass-heavy song that was playing. Relir dragged Rue straight into the middle and started going, throwing her arms in the air and screaming along to the lyrics like a crazed fangirl. Still too sober, Rue awkwardly bounced around to the beat, jostled by her friend.
Suddenly, someone's hands gripped her waist and pulled her back; a pair of lips pressed wet kisses to her neck. For half a second, the only possible attacker running through her head was Cam. She threw that idea clear out the window, prying herself away from the stranger (who wasn't too unattractive, but he was gross) and heading to the bar at the edge of the room, rubbing her temples. If Cam was still on her mind, she obviously hadn't had enough.
Rue made her way through several drinks (she forgot to count; she'd just kept handing money over without a second thought, honestly), humming along to some songs and laughing when strangers offered bits of nonsensical conversation with her, at least until Relir finally found her, face flushed and sweaty.
"There you are! Listen, I need to go pee."
"I'm coming," Rue nodded, chugging the rest of the contents in her glass before hopping off her chair to follow. She had to catch herself on the counter. Two reasons that was a poor decision: heels and alcohol.
But instead of blushing, she and Relir giggled about it all the way to the bathroom, where one locked herself in a stall and another leaned against the wet counter to look at her face. Her skin was red because of the heat, her hair was a little messy, and her clothes were beginning to stick to her, but she'd looked worse off before. Relir looked much rougher as she stumbled to the sink to wash her hands.
"Feeling alright?" Rue asked, standing as still as possible to enjoy the intriguing feeling of the ground slowly moving beneath her feet. There it was, that fun, fuzzy feeling that made her forget to care.
"Great!" Relir laughed, combing a hand through her cropped hair. "My feet hurt."
They laughed about that too, stumbling out of the bathroom together and hurrying back to the table. There were more familiar faces there to greet them. Axel and another glaive named Gracen were seated beside Eren and Dex, and all of them had equally flushed faces and slowed sentences to speak. Relir paused by the side of the table, eyeing a shot glass that still held alcohol before reaching to pick it up. Rue snatched it out of her hand and drank it in one swift motion, leaving Relir to gawk before cracking up again. Dex sighed, nudging Axel to let him know he needed to get out.
"No, no, it's fine," Relir waved him off. "How're you guy's doin'?" Eren hiccupped, only causing the girls to giggle some more.
"Good!" Axel grinned, refusing to budge. "What're you ladies up to?" Relir didn't answer, blinking at him in silence, and Rue was too busy watching people pass by with bleary vision to notice he'd even spoken. Relir took a sharp breath, turning back to Rue as if she'd struck a brilliant idea.
"Hey, you wanna go dance?"
"Sure?" Rue shrugged. Relir squealed excitedly and smacked Rue's ass when she turned to lead the way. "Hey!"
"Look at this lil booty!" she shouted, throwing an arm around Rue's shoulders. They laughed some more.
Rue was a bad enough dancer to be awkward, but drunk enough to not care that her "dancing" was basically a bizarre sway mixed with the occasional bounce on her toes. Every so often, she and Relir would scream the words to songs in each other's faces like drunken teens, laughing loudly afterward. Everything felt wonderful, passing in a slow blur.
Rue didn't protest the next time the same hands pulled her back into a warm body, reaching up to pull the stranger's head down enough that she could crane her neck and glue her lips to his in a sloppy kiss. She couldn't tell how much time passed before she decided she needed another drink and she wrestled her way free from his wandering hands to pay for another beverage.
"Having fun?" Rue looked up to see Eren looming to her left, having retrieved his glasses. She had a feeling his leaning against the counter wasn't entirely his choice.
"Yeah, I guess." The bartender dropped off the drink she'd ordered and she practically chugged it. "How 'bout you?"
"Yeah, I guess." Rue snickered, almost choking, and Eren chuckled. He jumped when a hand clapped down on his shoulder. Dex saluted to Rue and nodded toward Relir as she stumbled toward them, grinning from ear to ear.
"I'm gonna get her home since it's getting late. See you guys around."
"See ya!" Rue waved to Relir, who blew her kiss and winked, gripping the hand that Dex offered her quickly. "They're so cute."
"Yeah…" Eren laughed when a girl fell to the floor and took her friend down with her. "This place is a shit show."
"Yeah," Rue laughed, unsteadily slipping to the floor from her seat. Eren took hold of her elbow with his hand.
"Yeah, dumbass, I'm good," she teased, propping her head up with her hand and turning to face him. "How're you?"
"… Maybe we should get home, too."
Neither one of them moved. Rue tapped the edge of Eren's glass.
"You always drink straight vodka to top off the night?"
"Nah, just tonight, I guess." He picked up the glass and downed the rest, gritting his teeth and nodding toward the door. "Wanna go?"
"Let's go, then."
Eren straightened and started to lead the way only to stumble on a slope in the floor and nearly knock over a whole crowd of people who looked far too young to be there. Rue laughed, hurrying after him and looping her arm through his.
"Now we'll both fall!"
"That's just what I needed," Eren scoffed, reaching into the booth over Gracen, who smiled sleepily at them, and tossing Rue her jacket. It landed on top of her head. Laughing, she pulled it on and tugged on Eren's arm.
"Have a good night, guys!" Axel called, waving. Rue ignored him and so Eren followed suit. That, or he honestly didn't hear the guy.
"It's cold!" Rue cried, shuddering. Eren paused to start tugging off his coat. "No! Don't be that stupid cliché."
"Damn, okay," he huffed. Still, Rue was cold, and being the man he was with the feelings he possessed, he threw his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to share his body heat. Together they wobbled their way back to the apartment complex, where Eren insisted he could walk Rue to her door.
"Okay," she shrugged, and they oh-so-gracefully dragged each other to the elevator and down the hallway to her apartment door. She fiddled with her keys clumsily, trying to jam them into the keyhole this way and that. Finally, she got them and turned. The door clicked, but it wouldn't budge.
"Oh!" Eren hit his forehead. "You didn't lock it."
"Shit, you're right." Rue unlocked the door again and pulled the keys free only for them to slip through her grasp to the floor.
Huffing, she quickly bent down to get them, only to smack her face on the doorknob and lose all balance, collapsing onto her back with hysterical laughter bubbling in her chest. She wasn't sure why it was so funny. Grinning, Eren reached down to help her up. She pulled a little too hard, and when she came flying to her feet, she knocked Eren off balance, and if his back hadn't hit the wall between the doors, they probably would have fallen again.
"You're a mess."
"Don't even start," Rue protested, smoothing his shirt over his chest.
He was so close, and even after the evening they'd had, he smelled good. She looked up at him curiously. Eren wasn't like the others. His eyes were bright and lively, his laugh was real and hearty, and even at that moment, his smile was there to center her back on reality. She was happy, and this would make her even happier. It only felt natural. It only felt right. And so, she stood up on her toes and pressed her lips to his, clutching the material of his shirt tightly in her hands. And he kissed her back. Her fingers loosened and crawled up his stomach beneath his shirt as his found her waist. She laughed to herself, pull away just long enough to speak before Eren pulled her in again.
"Those weren't there before."
What followed was a natural progression. Rue fumbled with her doorknob, trying not to break away but also trying to let them both into her home. Finally, Eren reached around her and twisted it open enough for them to stumble inside. He slammed it shut behind them. Rue kicked the high heels off her aching feet, and, as if he'd done this a thousand times, Eren gripped the back of her legs and hoisted her into the air. Her legs wrapped around his waist to hold her body in place and she ran her hands through his short hair, pulling his face upward to meet hers.
Clothing became a breadcrumb trail throughout her apartment. Eren's hands wandered across any and all skin he could find, leaving rippling, burning sensations all across her body like wildfire amongst a forest of dry brush. Somehow, they stumbled their way through the dark and into the bedroom without any hesitation, slamming the door behind them to leave their cares, their lives, and Honey outside. There was nothing more that they wanted at that moment than to be together with no stresses, burdens, or responsibilities, and that was what they were granted.
Chapter 16: Dreamers
"Broken Girls" by Gabbie Hanna
It was the alarming realization that normally she was up by now that startled Rue awake in the morning. Her heart hammered in her chest was the alarming realization that normally she was up by now that startled Rue awake in the morning. Her heart hammered in her chest and reached to throw the covers off in a blind panic when reason caught her by the collar. She sighed, rubbing her face and trying to fend off her throbbing headache. It’s Saturday, dipshit. The Saturday. Out of habit, she slouched back down under the covers and reached for her glasses on her nightstand blindly. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and slid the glasses onto her face, blinking her eyes open only to squeeze them shut again, startled. These are not mine.
Sighing, Rue put them back on the wooden stand quietly and glanced to her left, where Eren was curled up on his side, breathing softly and slowly. He wasn’t the type to look frustrated or stressed when he was awake, so the gentle look on his face wasn’t anything to marvel at, but there was something captivating about watching a person sleep so soundly. I left my contacts in. Rue shook her head, carefully slipping out of bed to head to the bathroom. Her steps were silent, her door didn’t creak, and her lungs didn’t take in any air until she was safely outside the room. She checked her phone; it was only seven.
Carefully, she removed her contacts and washed her face before slipping on her own glasses, which were much rounder and thicker than Eren’s because she was actually blind, and heading to the kitchen. She gathered two glasses of water and a bottle of pain killers before heading back to the room, ignoring Honey’s quiet mewls. The warm, golden light of the rising sun poured in through her drab gray curtains, a sight she rarely took the time to appreciate anymore. As quietly as she could, she set a glass and a few pills on the stand on the other side of the bed and took a few for her dull headache before crawling back under the covers and squeezing her eyes shut.
It was so warm, so soft, so comforting beneath the heavy blankets on her bed; it was even better to know she wasn’t alone even if, in the recesses of her mind, she knew this would have to end and they’d have to talk just to make the likely decision to pretend this never happened. She took a deep breath, relaxing her tense muscles. This was how friendships fell apart. This could be the end for them. This wasn’t like the other men; they were strangers. It was for the best that she, no matter what Eren said, fought for a lasting relationship, a friendship, rather than some hot ‘n heavy bullshit romance.
“Where’d you go?” Eren mumbled, throwing an arm over her stomach and snuggling closer to her side. She bit her tongue. But goddamn did he make it hard.
“Just got some water. I didn’t mean to wake you,” she replied softly, turning over to face him. His eyes peeked open when she shifted.
“No biggie.” He yawned, cracking a gentle smile. “You sleep with those on?”
“Huh?” Rue touched the thick frames that were pressed to her face. “Oh, shit. I forgot I wore them to find my way around.”
“Find your way…” he repeated, chuckling and pulling the covers up over his bare shoulder. The light changed his hazel eyes to a rainbow of distinct streaks of color; some green here, some brown there, a touch of gold in one but not the other… Rue pressed her lips together, dreading what was to come more the longer she stayed where she was.
“Don’t you have to get to the Citadel?” she asked, shuddering when his cool fingers traced over her side. He shook his head.
“No. Rayne assigned the people she wants there while she’s gone, and Cam’ll call us individually if we’re needed. All she wants is for us to do what we feel’s best, whether that’s training or resting.” He cracked a smile, his eyes shining brightly. “I think you know what my intentions are.”
“I doubt you’d feel great training anyway,” Rue shrugged. “Not that you need it.” Eren laughed.
“The glaive’s not all about having big, showy muscles, Rue.”
“Yeah, well, it doesn’t hurt.”
“Gets me the ladies,” he teased, wiggling his eyebrows. She laughed, though she turned her eyes away as her heart sank. “Hey, I’m just kidding.”
Frowning, Eren grew still and silent. She could tell he was thinking and she knew was it was about. Shit, what did I do? His hand retracted and he sat up slowly, letting the blankets pool around his waist. The tension between them was heavier than anything they’d ever carried alone; Rue felt like she was suffocating. His words almost broke her into pieces.
“Do you regret what happened?” Eren asked carefully, facing away from her. Rue sat up quickly, thinking of any way to comfort him as he struggled to piece together his thoughts. “I…” He sighed shaking his head.
“I don’t think so,” Rue admitted, unsure of how to handle the situation. Eren was the type of person whose thoughts thickened the atmosphere. It was clear there was something burdening his mind.
“Do you… think I took advantage of you?”
Rue almost choked, quickly reaching out and taking hold of his arm. He tensed uneasily, staring hard at the bland covers.
“No, absolutely not, Eren.” Tucking her hair behind her ear, she leaned forward until she could see his face. “Don’t think like that. I was fully aware of what was happening the whole time; I easily could have... Y'know.” He didn’t say anything. “Eren?”
“Okay,” he nodded, finally meeting her pitiful gaze. A weary smile tugged at the corners of his mouth before carefully, ever so tentatively, he leaned over to place a gentle kiss on her lips. His hand combed through her short hair smoothly as he pulled away, though his eyes were overcome with a look of dread. “So… you wanna talk about this?”
“Kind of, but not really.”
“Then let’s wait.” He threw back the covers and Rue averted her eyes, crinkled her nose.
“Dude, you slept naked in my bed?”
“Yeah, well…” He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “I kinda just passed out last night, so I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“Whatever,” she huffed, lunging across the bed to hand him his glasses. He took them gratefully as he pulled his clothing on.
“You have any food in your fridge?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Rue admitted, watching the rippling muscles under his skin as he combed through his messy head of hair. In an instant, he’d one-eightied from a male model to just plain old boring Eren, and somehow, that put her back at ease.
“I’ll go check and see, then.”
Rue watched him leave in silence, his words still ringing in her head. Then let’s wait. Wait for what, exactly? Her nerves to go haywire until she broke down and either had a panic attack or suffered from cardiac arrest? Or both? Huffing, she got up and pulled on a pair of pajama pants to go with her enormously baggy shirt and shuffled out of her room. Honey was on the breakfast bar, patiently watching Eren with sharp, wide eyes as he pulled things out of the fridge.
“Half of this stuff is expired,” he called from where his head was buried inside the appliance. “But, if you want, I can make eggs and toast and we can watch another episode of that show we started forever ago.”
“Sounds good,” Rue nodded, hugging her arms to her body. She didn’t feel the worst she’d ever felt (she was surprised she wasn’t sick), but she definitely needed a cup of coffee stat. Eren looked up at her as she wandered into the kitchen silently.
“Everything okay?” The look on his face told her he was dreading the pretending, too.
Without another word, she started to brew a pot of coffee as Eren began to cook breakfast, searching through her cupboards for pans and utensils. Uncomfortably aware of his presence, she stood with her back to the counter, counting down the seconds to when she could pour a cup and scoot on out of there. Eren, a lover of peace and a worshipper of serenity, finally huffed a sigh and set the fork he was using to scramble eggs down. He turned to her with his arms crossed.
“You want to talk now, don’t you?”
“… I have a lot to say.”
“Okay…” Rue’s stomach churned. She’d never had to do this before. “Where do we, uh, go from here? Because, I mean…” She took a deep breath, staring hard at her cat. “I value your friendship, maybe too much, and I’m scared that it’ll all go away. So, I guess I just want to know what we do now. Just pretend it never happened and move on with our lives?”
“… Is that what you want?”
“What?” She looked up at him, frowning. He shrugged.
“Is that what you want? For us to pretend nothing ever happened and to go back to the way it was before?”
“I…” Rue stopped herself. She wasn’t sure what she wanted. He shook his head.
“Now I have a lot to say.”
“Go ahead, I guess.”
“I’ll give you a picture of what it was like before, from my point of view.” He turned to push the eggs around the pan and lower the stove’s heat, speaking over the sizzling. “First day of training with the glaives, I see this skinny little girl come into the gym and sign up with more confidence than anyone expected her to. I think this’ll probably kill her and she’ll leave after two days, but I also can’t help but notice how pretty she is.” He paused to plate the food and his brows twitched lower. Rue sighed.
“But she didn’t leave.”
“No, she didn’t. In fact, day three, she kicked my ass.” He laughed, setting the pan aside. “I should’ve been pissed, motivated to plot my revenge for the next time we sparred, but I didn’t. All I remembered was that look of determination in her eyes, and let me tell you, if looks could kill, I’d be a dead man.” He finally faced her again. “So, this girl, even though she’s smarter and stronger and braver than I ever will be, doesn’t make the cut, but she goes on to save several important lives as we get closer and closer.”
“I doubt that,” Rue murmured, feeling her cheeks flush.
“And this whole time, between when she got her guard job to the time she got her current job, we spent a lot of time together. I realized she was way out of my league, and I thought she knew it when Relir pushed her to find a guy. I thought they knew how I felt and that they were purposely trying to remove me from the picture.”
“You can just say it’s me now.” Rue’s voice was hardly over a whisper. Her heart was hammering in her chest and her fingers were trembling. All this time…
“You were so busy with the new job that I started to see you less and less, and so I’d invite you places more and more.” Eren sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m not going to lie to you; I fell hard, and it hurt to see you trapping yourself in that self-hatred again.” Rue stared at the floor. “And when I made you upset the other day…” He laughed bitterly, shrugging his shoulders limply like a man who’d given up all hope. “I wanted to throw myself out a window on the top floor. I didn’t mean a word I said; I’d lashed out because I missed you and your wit and your pretty face.
“I don’t know how to say it without sounding weird or creepy, but last night… that was a dream for me.” He awkwardly shoved his hands into his pockets. “Not because, y’know, but because it was you and you were there and you kissed me and… I never thought I’d have that chance.” He forced a laugh. “So, yeah, there’s my spiel.”
“… Damn.” Rue watched him shift his weight uncomfortably as he awaited her reply. “I… had no idea. I don’t know what to say.” She dared herself the question that was at the tip of her tongue. “What do you want to happen?”
“Yeah. Instead of pretending.”
“I…” Eren choked out a short, anxious laugh. “It sounds kinda stupid and selfish, I guess, but… I want to give us a shot. Maybe…” He looked up at her sharply. “A-and I know you don’t feel the same about me, I get that, but maybe if we just give this a chance, it can work.”
“But… what if it doesn’t?” Rue asked, almost choking on the words as the possibility crossed her mind. “What if it’s a horrible mistake? I don’t want to lose you altogether.”
“You won’t,” he reassured her, stepping closer and resting a hand on her shoulder. “I swear to the gods you won’t. It might not be the same after, but you’ll always have me, I promise.”
It felt as though someone was stabbing her in the chest with every beat of her heart, someone else was crushing her lungs to prevent her from taking in air, and someone else had glued her feet to the floor. The idea was enticing… But she was skeptical, and not in a cold way. She was afraid of losing his friendship forever, but if this was their shot at something beautiful… Perhaps the fact that she was so afraid was a good sign. The events of the night before played through her head, reminding her of every meaningful look, word, touch. Everything was so much more than she realized, and she almost took it for granted. She could chase what if’s all day, but she had come to her uncertain conclusion.
“Okay.” She looked up to meet his stunned stare. “Okay, we’ll do it. We’ll try.”
“Did you expect me to say no?”
“Well, yeah!” Eren laughed, relieved, and pulled her into a tight hug. “Just… let me know if it’s ever too much, yeah?”
“Now, your food’s getting cold,” he stated, stepping away to grab the plates.
“I’m not the one who couldn’t shut up.”
“Ha-ha,” he snorted, handing her breakfast over. “Where’d we leave off on that show, anyway?”
Ignis couldn’t breathe. His nose was stuffed, his sinuses were congested, and he hadn’t been able to keep food down for four days. And yet, his car was packed full of the things he, Noctis, and Prompto would likely need for their venture outside the city walls. All he needed was to head upstairs to grab a few documents and make sure he left the office key for Rue.
The advisor strode in through the garage door. Though his body was aching and sore and his eyes were hardly able to focus on the way before him, he squared his shoulders and headed down the hallway. The lights were dimmed as they usually were so early in the morning—it was only five—and so he’d hardly expected to see Rayne stepping out of Gladio’s office with his worn leather jacket thrown over her glaive uniform. Upon hearing him approach, she looked up, turning the key in the lock to the door. Her brows furrowed.
“Iggy, are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine,” Ignis replied roughly, though his throat was raw from coughing and the stuffiness added an odd edge to his voice. “Are you and Gladio ready to leave?”
“Yeah,” she nodded, following him to his office. Her eyes were narrowed thoughtfully and her hands were jammed deep into the pockets of her lover’s coat. There was obviously something on her mind. “Cor’s coming with us too, right?”
“Yes.” Ignis rifled through his draws and set out a stack of papers that Cam had dropped off the evening before. New guards and all that—the data entry would be easy enough for his assistant. There wasn’t much else for her to do, for once. “Have the glaives been informed of their assignments?”
“Told ‘em about two days ago,” she shrugged, leaning against the doorframe. “How do you think Noct’s going to take all this?”
“If all goes according to plan, the worse he’ll suffer is unrelenting pensiveness.” Ignis shuddered as goosebumps raised across his skin. He gritted his teeth and fought the shivers to avoid attention; he was desperately needed in times like these. There was no room for recovery. “If not, he’ll worry until we find a new option.”
“So the usual.” He could hear her hesitant footsteps behind him, the quiet sound of her boots thumping against the smooth floor. “Ignis—”
“Where is Cam stationed?”
“Good.” Ignis sighed, turning to face Rayne and pushing his sliding glasses up. “I want him kept a good distance from Rue.” Rayne raised an eyebrow, but said no more on the subject, instead reaching a pale hand toward his face.
“Ignis, you look like shit.”
“I’m quite alright,” Ignis replied sharply, trying to pull away from her touch. Irritation flared in her eyes and she pushed forward, pressing the back of her hand to his forehead.
“Damn, Iggy, you’re burning up!” She crossed her arms, her expression contorting to one of worry. “Are you sure you’re okay to travel? You're looking rough.”
“I’ll be fine,” he reassured her, only to be greeted with a skeptical stare. He knew she was only looking out for his health, but at times like this, his health hardly mattered more than the wellbeing of a flea.
“When’s the last time you ate?”
“Last night.” He was lying through his teeth.
“And you kept it down.”
“How long’ve you felt like this?”
“Since last week; it’s lightening up now.”
“Is it?” The jiggle of Rayne’s keys greeted his ears when she pulled them out of her pocket. Both her face and her voice were void of emotion. “What do you think it is?”
“A fleeting virus, likely.”
“Mhm,” she hummed absently. Her lips pressed together into a thin smile and she jerked her head toward the door. “Come with me.” Confused, Ignis obeyed, setting his key on his desk and hurrying to catch up to her quick stride.
“Where are we going?”
“Do you need help loading your things?”
“Yes,” Rayne admitted, combing a hand through her long, fair hair and winding the pale strands between her fingers. They’d been walking so quickly that they’d already reached the garage door. Ignis was out of breath and his heart was pumping harder than it had in a long time. She paused after turning the doorknob. “But that’s not what I need you for.”
She didn’t answer for a moment, leading the way toward her dark car, which was packed tightly with suitcases and files and boxes. Ignis froze once she unlocked the doors with the remote on her key.
“Rayne, where are we going?”
“Ignis,” Rayne huffed, turning to face him stubbornly. “We grew up in this place together. I can tell when you’re lying, and I can especially tell when you’re lying because you think Noct needs you.” Ignis scowled. “You’re sick as hell; the last thing you need is more stress and fighting and action. So, I’m taking you back home.”
“I’m not going home.” His words sounded as though they were snarled through a wild animal’s teeth. After all this, he refused to leave Noctis to fend for himself. Who was to be the voice of reason in a crowd of bloodthirsty, violence-oriented warriors? Who would show him all the perspectives and explain every point of view? There was no other option.
“No, you are,” Rayne replied sharply. “I’ve watched you work yourself to the bone for two years, Ignis. It’s time you took a rest to recover from whatever the disease this is.”
“I told you I’m—”
“And I told you I know when you’re lying.” She crossed her arms, cocking her head to the side. “I also know when you’re trying to reason out a situation to force me into letting you have your way. No more. We’re not in your way this time.” An ounce of guilt jabbed at his heart.
“You can’t make me get in.”
“Really?” She raised an eyebrow, daring him to question her. “I could get Gladio. Might serve you right to be slung over the big guy’s shoulder and manhandled for a bit.” Ignis distinctly remembered the time Gladio did the same to her in their first argument after they’d witnessed the destruction of Insomnia. Something to do with family affairs and whatnot. He frowned.
“I need to go, Rayne.”
“But you really don’t,” she insisted, jerking her head toward the car. “Get in. Cor’ll keep him steady, don’t worry.”
“Cor…” Ignis grumbled through gritted teeth, left with little choice but to obey. Gladio would gladly toss him around, and Rayne wasn’t one to make petty threats. The woman was known for keeping her word when it came to demands and consequences, for heaven’s sake. Shoulders slumped in defeat, Ignis fell into the passenger seat weakly and closed his eyes to take in a shuddering breath.
“Here we go,” Rayne muttered, starting the car and hitting the gas a touch too hard as they headed out of the garage. Ignis frowned, watching her drive. For a person who constantly got such horrible motion sickness, she drove like a maniac.
The ride was short and choppy with her stopping and going, speeding and slowing. Ignis stumbled out of the car dizzily, trying his hardest to focus his vision and walk steadily. They headed inside slowly, taking their time. Rayne was patient as he fumbled for his keys with shaking fingers, something most would find alarming. She was ginger when she took hold of his arm and pulled him toward his bedroom. Her voice was soft when she told him to change into something comfortable and get back into bed. Her entire being was overwhelmed with understanding as she flashed him a final, apologetic smile, and left his home altogether.
Sighing, Ignis fell back on his bed, feeling the world turn round beneath him. All that work, all that catching up and pushing for dates and appointments… all that to wind up here, in bed lazing around while his king fought to unite his people once and for all. When he closed his eyes, all he could see was pale skin, pale hair, pale eyes. A soft smile, a gentle touch, a gentle voice. Even in her abrasive nature, she was an angel.
He scoffed, rubbing his face and forcing himself to sit up to take his shoes off. He needed to stop thinking like that. She belonged to someone else, she was happy, and that was all that mattered. There were no two ways about it. If anything was to be his next move in this dangerous game of life, letting go of Rayne Callen was likely the smartest move.
Chapter 17: Caretaker
"Always Wrong" by Eisley
Rue hurried into the Citadel briskly, nearly hitting her face on the door on her way in because of how quickly she pulled it open. She'd told herself she was coming in at noon, and she'd actually stuck to it, but some pressure in her chest told her she was late—that Ignis would give her that look even though he wasn't there to do so. And so, fully knowing that the thoughts were irrational, she took the stairs two at a time to reach his office as swiftly as possible. She wanted to prove she was right.
So when she saw Rayne stepping out of her office with a backpack slung over her shoulder, she froze up. They're still here? Rayne hadn't seen her yet; she still had time to make her escape. Still, she wanted to know why they hadn't left for their trip yet. Was she the only one left, or had they canceled? It sounded important whatever it was.
"Hey," Rue greeted, trying to force her voice to sound cheery. She sounded as though someone was holding a gun to her head. Rayne turned to leave, raising an eyebrow silently. Her eyes were sharp and cold, and her stance practically dripped with impatience. "So, uh, you guys haven't left yet?"
"Did Ignis not tell you?"
"For fuck's sake," she huffed, shifting the weight of the backpack higher. "We're leaving late because of Noctis and a few changed plans, but Ignis is staying behind."
"Haven't you been around the guy all week? He's sick as hell. He hasn't eaten in days, he can't breathe, and his temp's so high you could probably cook breakfast on his forehead." Rayne started to leave but Rue had one last question for her.
"Where is he now?"
"Home," Rayne called over her shoulder.
Rue frowned, wandering toward Ignis's office. It was dark and lifeless, something she wasn't used to seeing. He was always seated at the desk, and even when he wasn't, every single light was on, the windows were open, and the occasional drawer was ajar. Rue walked over to the desk and brushed her hand over the surface of the pages he'd left out for her. Quickly, she slid the key beside them onto the ring with her apartment key. Nervously, she slowly sat in his seat, suddenly overwhelmed by the difference this angle made. She felt so in power, so cold and calculating. And the chair was not comfortable. No wonder he was so cranky all the time—his bony ass was probably sore.
"Let's see..." she murmured, rifling through the pages. Just data entry? She frowned. It seemed too easy. Good thing she wasn't paid by the hour.
Sighing, she turned to turn his computer on. The screen flickered on with a request for a password. Rue groaned; she really didn't want to go all the way to the library to have the same two people stare at her and watch her every move. She tried every password she could come up with, including ChefDaddy, ilovenoctis, and Advisor0207. She'd seen his birthday somewhere, though she wasn't entirely sure where and figured she'd give it a shot. Ignis didn't strike her as that type of person, though, and it got her no closer to staying where she was.
With a huff, she scooped up the papers and headed to the library. Punching in ages, heights, names, birthplaces, you name it—it all took her the grand total of an hour. It might have taken her less time had she not skipped a line and returned to fix it. Rue stood and pushed her chair in before meandering. There were only five people missing from the Citadel that she knew of, and yet, it felt so empty. Shaking her head, she returned to the office and tucked the papers away. What to do now... An idea struck her.
"So sick he can't function?" she muttered, running a hand through her hair.
She uneasily toyed with the thought as she started to leave. What if she brought him some things to help speed up the recovery? Some medications, cleaners, maybe even some Ebony, though she was positive he already had plenty around his house. Still, it wouldn't hurt to have extra stock. Her first paycheck was much larger than she'd anticipated; she earned more money in two weeks than she ever would have in a month at her guard duty job. I guess that's just what happens when you work so closely with such important people.
Rue stepped out into the street and opened the maps app on her phone, scrolling through the records of places she'd been the past week or so. Ignis's address was right where she expected it to be. A thirty-minute walk? Not the worst. First things first, though, she headed to a small grocery store to pick up the things she needed. The paper bag was heavy, but she hugged it to her chest and walked quickly. It was about to rain, and she had nothing but her big, old denim jacket on.
When she finally reached the door, she began to question if she should have even come. Will he be pissed if I'm here? Probably. She hesitated to knock, wondering if she should just leave the stuff on his doorstep and text him. Determined to fight her anxieties, she shook her head firmly. No, she was going to do this. She was a personal assistant, after all, not some stupid secretary. She was allowed to be in his home bubble—hopefully.
Rue knocked three times, and no one answered. And so, fighting her instincts to run off, she twisted the doorknob—it was unlocked—and let herself in. Carefully, she crept into the familiar space of his home, kicking off her heels before stepping on the carpet, and peeking around the corner of the entryway to see if he was on the couch. The coast was clear. So, she followed her instincts and slowly began to walk toward his bedroom.
"Ignis?" she called, her heart pounding. No answer. "Ignis?"
"What are you doing in here?"
She almost jumped out of her skin. Turning sharply, she saw Ignis standing in the kitchen, slouched against the counter as he sipped a glass of water. Instantly, she regretted coming.
"I, um, brought you some stuff to help you feel better."
Ignis arched an eyebrow and Rue looked over his haggard features. He was in his usual clothes that he wore to work, but they were crumpled and wrinkled as though he'd slept in them. His nose was raw from the number of tissues he'd used and his eyes were red and watery. His skin was ghastly pale and his hands trembled as he set his glass down. Rayne was right; he did look like garbage. Rue swallowed hard as he touched his glasses, a sure sign he was about to speak.
"I don't need them."
"Well, it couldn't hurt to—"
"But since you've already brought them by, you may leave them and then let yourself out." His words were sharp and ice-cold, devoid of any and all emotion other than the edge of anger. Rue refused to let herself be shaken. She was, after all, trying to be bolder. And so, irritated, she headed toward him and set the bag down on the counter before turning to face him with her hands planted on her hips.
"Excuse me, but I didn't walk all the way out here just to walk back again." She nodded toward the door. "The sky's about to open up and I don't want to wind up like you." Ignis looked unfazed, but the slightest bit of something shifted in his puffy eyes and he sighed.
"Of course," Rue continued, crossing her arms. "And why are you out of bed? You look like you're knocking on death's door."
"Perhaps I am," he muttered, though he didn't bother to return to his room. "Why are you here?"
"Because," Rue shrugged. "What kind of personal assistant am I if I don't personally assist you?"
"Yes, but you're not my caretaker."
"Actually, I kind of am. Who else will take care of you?"
"Yeah, well, you're doing a terrible job," she snapped, glancing in the direction of his room. "Now back to bed, and if there's anything you need, let me know. I'll be there in a sec."
"I don't need you to—"
"You're not changing my mind," Rue interrupted.
If Ignis hadn't felt so awful, she was positive he would have fired her right then and there. But instead of chewing her out, he took a slow, stuffy breath and hobbled back to his room. Rue couldn't believe it. She'd actually just told her boss off for getting annoyed with her when she elbowed her way into his home and invaded his life. Oh well; there was nothing she could do about it now other than pray that she didn't permanently offend him.
Shrugging, she got to work, seeking out a pot for making tea. Finding it quickly, she quickly started to boil water. She located a mug easily and put a tea bag inside before digging through her bag to find the decongestant she bought. Impatiently, she pulled out her phone and texted Eren to catch him up on the situation. She told him he could stay as long as he liked and that she would be back soon. That didn't look much like the case anymore.
That's fine, I'll just head to the training room for a bit and grab some clothes from my place.
You're staying again?
I mean, I didn't think you'd mind. If not, that's alright, too.
No, go ahead. I don't mind, I just wasn't expecting you to stay.
Well, you can always kick me out ;)
Rue rolled her eyes and put her phone away, checking on the pot. The water was almost boiling. Shrugging, she poured it into the cup carefully, spilling only a few drops. She set the pot down and headed toward Ignis's room with a mug of tea in one hand and the medicine in the other. His door was cracked open, so she took that as an invitation to enter.
"Knock, knock," she said cheerfully, announcing her presence as she pushed the door open. Ignis laid in bed on top of his blankets, still in his work clothes as he stared up at the ceiling. He glanced up at her with a frown.
"Some tea and decongestants. I didn't know if you'd already taken something." She didn't add that she assumed he didn't want to hurt his own pride by resorting to medication to ease his suffering. Sighing, he sat up and eyed the mug of tea. She was roughly two feet away and yet she could feel the sheer amount of heat radiating from his body. A hot drink wouldn't help that, but it would certainly make him feel a little better.
"I haven't... Is that chamomile?"
"Yeah," she nodded. "I figured getting some sleep would help, and I've always hard chamomile helps with that."
"You've never tried?" he asked absently, lifting the mug and holding it close to his chest. "Uncertainty doesn't strike me as a method my nurse should be using." Rue scoffed.
"Personal assistant, Ignis." She stood, showing a teasing smile. "Don't worry, someday we'll get it right."
"Someday," he muttered, lifting the cup to blow at the steam drifting from its surface.
Rue turned to leave, closing the door behind her and heading back to the kitchen. It probably wouldn't be as good as anything the advisor could cook up on his own, but if he couldn't keep anything down and he hadn't eaten in days because of that, soup was probably the way to go. She lifted a can from the bag and used the empty water pot to heat it up, slowly allowing the mushy noodles and dry meat heat to simmer. She wanted to take her time to allow him to finish his tea and relax for a few minutes before she force-fed him.
And she did just that, absently combing through her hair until she felt as though enough time had passed. Gingerly, she poured the salty broth into a bowl and grabbed a spoon before heading back to Ignis's room. He was staring at the ceiling again when she returned. He turned his eyes to her when he heard her enter, forcing himself upright.
"I come with sustenance," she announced, handing over the bowl. Ignis frowned, glancing up at her. He looked unsure.
"This will likely be gone in thirty minutes," he warned her.
"Gone as in you'll eat it or gone as in you'll throw it up?" she asked, cocking her head to the side. He sighed, defeated.
"Well, try," she huffed, uncertain as to why she suddenly cared so much. This man who caused her so much stress and made her feel small every day... Why was she giving up a day of freedom to ease his pain?
But then she remembered that genuine look of concern on Gladio's face when she expressed her observations of Ignis's workload. From what she'd heard from his friend, he was an entirely different man now than who he was at the Dawn. If she had half the drive to do what he did on the daily, she'd be crabby, too. She huffed, easing herself onto the couch. Well, here's to hoping I can change him back.
Ignis stared into the cloudy broth of the soup bowl in his hands. The meal had obviously just been heated from a can, not that he expected anything less of a woman who could hardly file paperwork correctly. His stomach growled hungrily, and his fingers itched to lift the spoon, but he hesitated. He needed his strength, of course, but was he willing to go through the aches and pains of attempting to further that along?
With a defeated sigh, he gave in and grimaced at the watery taste. The heat hardly felt like anything compared to the temperature of his skin, and he was grateful that he couldn't smell the metallic, stale scent he was certain the steam in the air held. The pill Rue had left behind still sat on his nightstand alongside the empty mug that once held tea. He frowned, staring long and hard at the door. Why did she come?
Why did this practical stranger, his employee, feel the need to break into his home in order to tend to him while he fought off whatever bloody ridiculous illness it was that was preventing him for being beside Noct? Why did she hold such a soft gaze toward the man who'd given her nothing but a hard time since the day she walked through his office door? Ignis shook his head, scowling at his closed curtains. It must be some sort of tactical move for recognition. If he'd only known her by the past recorded in the database, he might have actually believed this was a move with greedy motives. But he didn't; he saw her every day of his life, and the mild, timid nature she possessed was nothing close to the deadly criminal she was proclaimed to be.
Rue had some ulterior motive, then. Rayne told him of her desperate need to be in the Citadel working at any job possible, preferably combat. She'd begged for a job under Cameron Schrader, pleaded for another chance in the Glaive... Rumor even had it that she'd slept with Schrader to get her post moved to the throne room so that Rayne and Gladio would see her more often and never forget her face. In fact, Rue had already admitted to the relationship they'd had, even if it was brief. Perhaps that was all was necessary. Ignis huffed. He wouldn't put it past Cam.
But why would she need to be in the Glaive? What was the reason behind her persistence? She hardly struck him as a woman with an insatiable hunger for power, nor as a fighter by any means, so why was she here? He shook his head, lifting the bowl to drink down the remnants of the unpleasant soup. There were several missing pieces to her puzzle and, while Ignis was curious to see how it all fit together, he had no intention of digging any deeper. He wasn't even sure that he needed her around for much longer; why bother with a deeper relationship rather than the arm's length he kept her at?
Drowsy, Ignis turned onto his left side and pulled his glasses off, entirely forgetting to set them on the table. Instead, he held them delicately between two fingers and let his heavy eyelids slide shut, still chasing his thoughts round and round his head as he drifted off.
"Noct!" Prompto screamed, catching the attention of both Rayne and Ignis.
Gladio had been gone for days at that point; they'd suffered through their endeavors with Aranea and were headed back to Lestallum when they were stopped by an imperial ambush on the road. But these MTs were twice as strong as the ones they'd encountered before and there was nowhere to run without the protection of Gladio's sword arm. Rayne was doing her best, but it was hardly enough. They turned to see a metal-suited soldier holding Noct to its chest with an iron grip, baring his pale throat to the pitch-black darkness of the early hours of the morning.
"No!" Rayne screamed, completely frozen as Prompto rushed forward, but it was far too late. The bot slid its deadly sword across the prince's unguarded throat, throwing him to the ground and piercing the tip of the blade through his chest. Noct cried out, choking on his own blood.
"Noct!" Ignis stopped moving.
His veins ran cold, his skin was ice, and his breaths had stilled. Rayne stared with wide eyes, the blood draining from her face. Normally, he could control his panic, his fear, but there was no stopping this. It was supposed to be a regular clean-up, a way of removing an obstacle. When had that ever meant peril to Noct's life? He looked to Rayne once more only to see her entirely unaware of the magitek soldier behind her. It was too late to warn her; the blade was already through her back, piercing clean through to the front of her body.
The scream that tore through her throat and echoed through the night sky was the sound that brought the heat back to his blood. The look in her watering eyes shouted for him to forget her, to save the king. And so, he threw all concern for Rayne out the window and rushed to Noctis's side, nearly tearing a hole in his pants from how hard his knee hit the pavement.
Behind him, Rayne was kicked off the sword like a ragdoll, but she was far from losing her fight. She rolled onto her back, parrying the MT's next blow with her gunblade, and jammed her weapon clean through its steel skeleton, tearing it nearly in two. Still lying on the ground, she threw an ice spell into the mess of soldiers ahead of them and attempted to stand only to fall over, retching and choking on the blood that filled her lungs.
Ignis pulled a brilliant feather from the pocket at his side, gritting his teeth as he willed the magical properties of the phoenix down to transfer even just a touch of life from his body to Noct's. The feather dissipated, but nothing happened. The young man wasn't breathing, wasn't responding. Ignis's heart ached from the speed at which it was pounding. He could hear Rayne crawling over to them slowly and he struggled to down his panic yet again. What else could he possibly do?
"Rayne! Are you okay?!" Prompto asked, helping her to her feet. Clenching her jaw, she shook her head, clutching the bleeding hole in her abdomen and digging through her pocket with her other.
"How's Noct?" she forced out, holding back a bloody cough.
"We tried a phoenix down," he replied, sounding overcome with worry. "Ignis hasn't gotten any response yet."
"Try another," she demanded, shoving a bright feather into his gloved hand.
"I'm fine; he's more important," she snapped, shoving him away. She stumbled backward onto the ground with a pained grunt, clutching the gaping wound in her stomach. With a hesitant nod, Prompto handed the feather to Ignis.
"Don't give up now," Ignis whispered, desperately clutching the down and gritting his teeth. Please, anything... I'll do anything. He'd never grasped Noct's arm this hard before, never felt so powerless, so desperate. The clinking of the MT's armor drew nearer and nearer, and yet, there was still no response. "Please..." Ignis forced out, pressing his forehead to Noct's chest. His eyes were squeezed shut; he was trying so hard, but he was getting nowhere.
A fiery explosion rocked the ground behind him, hot flames melting away the shells of the magitek soldiers behind them as Rayne screamed once more, this time from the sheer force of the energy pouring from her body. The power of Lucis... Of course... It must have been too much for her: Noctis, her injuries, Gladio's sudden disappearance... Ignis shook his head.
"Wake up," he pleaded. The feather burst into a shower of sparks and Noctis sat up with a gasp, his injuries miraculously healed. Ignis straightened, stunned. He wasn't entirely sure what he expected, but he'd almost lost hope altogether. Foolish of me.
"Is she okay?" Noctis muttered dizzily.
Ignis turned to see Rayne collapsed on the ground, lifeless except for the short, raspy breaths she heaved in and out.
"Prompto, there should be extra curatives in the car," Ignis commanded. "Quickly!"
The gunman of their group scrambled off toward the Regalia, desperate to undo the shortcomings of the night. Knowing their luck, daemons would attack them at any moment. Ignis hooked his arms under Rayne's and lifted her upper body off the ground in an attempt to ease her breathing. Prompto was back quicker than Ignis had ever seen him run, pressing the vial of an elixir into her skin until it burst and green sparks ran across her skin. Slowly, she came to, her violet eyes staring up at the sky until her mind seemed to center itself and Ignis was able to pull her to her feet.
"Rayne?" Prompto asked tentatively, supporting Noct's unconscious body. "Are you alright?"
"I think..." she started, her voice cutting off when her throat tightened suddenly. "I think so."
"That was some impressive fire," he teased, laughing nervously. Ignis frowned, eyeing her carefully before turning to Prompto.
"Get to the Regalia, Prompto. We'll be there shortly."
"C'mon Noct," Prompto muttered, pulling the limp prince along with him. Once they were out of earshot, Ignis heaved a sigh, staring hard at the young woman at his side.
"... Are you alright?"
"Dunno," she mumbled, staring at Noct's back. "I mean, I'm still bleeding but..."
"Rayne," he cut her off firmly. She was silent, likely trying to stuff more into the bottle, the compartment she kept her struggles and feelings hidden away in. "Rayne?"
The bottle exploded.
She collapsed to her knees so suddenly that Ignis thought she'd fainted for a split second. But there she was, on the ground with her face buried in her trembling hands and her sobs choking her as she struggled to breathe. Her entire body shook as she crumpled in on herself, uncontrollably shattered while her stunned psyche tried to pick up the pieces. Ignis kneeled beside her, uncertain of how to comfort her. Her troubles were her own; she refused to share the burden with anyone else, and he was forced to respect that. His hand rested on her back, gently smoothing her charred, bloody shirt.
"It's just too much..." She forced through ragged breaths. "I haven't had time to..." She shook her head, scrubbing at her face with her wrists. "It all started with Wyn... but then my dad and now Arma... Not to mention Insomnia..." Wyn? She went silent, staring down at the pavement as tears continue to slide down her cheeks. Ignis sighed, resting a hand on her shoulder. His heart ached, crying out in hopes for any way he might ease her suffering.
"You're too stubborn to fail, you know. You'll pull through."
"I forgot about Noctis for one minute and look what happened. I should've been there..."
"I'd call it a result of Gladio's shortcoming," Ignis muttered under his breath bitterly, pushing his glasses up. The man had resorted to slowly dragging her away from him, from any chances he may have had at acting upon his hesitant favor toward the girl he'd been raised with, and now he'd torn her to shreds and left them for dead. He couldn't help but feel this instance would be a wall between him and his friend for years to come. "But Noct is fine now."
"No one else is," she whimpered. "Wyn..."
"He chose his destiny," he interrupted, leaning forward to catch her eye. "None of this is guilt belongs to you, Rayne."
"You wouldn't understand," she huffed, shaking her head. He wanted to scream, and that's not a feeling Ignis had often. "It's all mine, I earned it. I'm doing a shitty job of keeping track of it all." The tears welled up in her eyes again, and this time, he let his instincts lead him to pull her to his chest, to thread his fingers through her long, thick hair and hold her as tightly as she clutched him.
"You're fine," he whispered, resting his sharp chin on top of her head. It took every ounce of self-control not to press his lips to her forehead. He needed to be selfless and let her go. "We should be getting to Lestallum soon."
"I know," she murmured. "I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me. Honestly, I'm just really pissed off at Gladio right now."
"And that makes two of us," he replied with a forced chuckle. "I suppose we should return to the Regalia before Prompto decides to come pick us up."
"Guess so," she scoffed, letting him drag her to her feet.
Ignis got into the driver's seat and watched as Prompto curled up beside Noct in the back. Rayne retrieved a potion from the trunk and got into the passenger seat. He silently wished that she'd done so by her own will, but it was enough comfort that, when the car rumbled to life and started carrying them to their destination, Rayne closed the gap across the seats and rested her head against his shoulder without a word.
Ignis started awake, unsure of why such a pleasant end to a memory had jerked him back into consciousness. Suddenly, though, he understood, feeling the cottony tension in his mouth grow stronger as he rolled out of bed and rushed to the bathroom door just across the room. Bitter hatred for his lack of control twisted his heart when he threw himself to the floor just as the first lurch hit him in the gut and he spewed out everything he'd dared to consume.
Weak, covered in a film of cold sweat, and trembling, he fell back against the edge of the bathtub and tried to catch his breath, wiping his arm across his forehead and letting his face turn to the ceiling. He wondered if Rue was still out there in his living room; he wondered how he felt about it before ultimately deciding that he didn't care. All he wanted was to be well again, to be with the others as they guided Noct through the difficult times he was in, and to be rid of the gut-wrenching guilt that was slowly eating away at him as he demanded to know how he could possibly have let himself think of Rayne like that again, even subconsciously.
In short, Ignis Scientia had nearly lost his composure.
Chapter 18: Vanilla
"There For You" by Flyleaf
Rue was half asleep on the couch when she heard the sound of Ignis retching in the room on the opposite side of the thin wall to her life. Alarmed, she sat up abruptly, unsure if she should help. How could she? She doubted Ignis wanted her to see him in such a position, but at the same time, she couldn’t leave him there to suffer… Could she?
Sighing, Rue fell back into her seat and slouched, trying to get her mind off him by scrolling through the old photos on her phone. She’d give him a second to clear his system before she bothered him. She watched the minutes tick by before taking a deep breath and getting to her feet, hobbling to his bedroom on sleeping legs. His bed was empty, but the bathroom door was cracked open. Nervously, she slowly pushed the door open. Ignis was slumped against the bathtub with his head thrown back toward the ceiling. The sweat dripping down his face had loosened his hair, which was currently falling into his eyes and sticking to his skin. His glasses were missing; she couldn’t help but notice that he looked years younger without them.
“Ignis? You okay?”
There was no reply. Frowning, she held her breath and avoided looking into the toilet bowl. She stooped at his side, shaking his shoulder gently. The sharp, uneven tile dug into her knees and the pins and needles in her legs responded with sharp jabs here and there, up and down her calves. Ignis still didn’t react. Her heart started to beat harder; was he alright? Carefully, unsure of what else to do, she pulled one of his arms across her shoulders and started to lift him to his feet. Damn, he’s heavier than I thought he’d be.
Gritting her teeth, Rue took a few steps, hardly able to sustain his weight. She glanced at the mirror. The guy looked huge next to her. She huffed, startled when Ignis’s eyelids fluttered and one of his feet took an uncertain step.
“… Rue?” He glanced over at her sleepily, frowning. He tried to pull away and walk without her, only to stumbled into the countertop, grasping the smooth surface for support. “I’m alright,” he reassured her. His throat sounded raw. “Just... give me a moment.” Rue shook her head.
“Let me help you. You need to get back in bed.”
“Please,” she insisted, tugging at his arm.
His eyes were hardly open at this point, and his face was pulled into a half-hearted scowl that quickly changed to a grimace as she pulled him into taking another step. A strangled grunt came from his throat as he reached for the doorframe to steady himself while she faithfully allowed him to lean on her. Finally, they made it to his bed, where he carefully sat down and swiped at his forehead.
“Thank you,” he said, though his words were so quiet that Rue hardly heard them. She sighed, ducking down to look over his face.
“You need to get out of these clothes,” she advised, frowning at the shoes that were still tied to his feet. “I’m assuming you don’t want help with that, though I don’t know how you’ll get to the closet.”
“I’ll manage,” Ignis replied. Nodding, Rue turned to leave. Ignis cleared his throat and she faced him expectantly. Finally, he looked up at her. “How long do think you’ll be here?”
“However long it takes,” she shrugged, hurrying out of the room and making sure to close the door behind her.
She took her time in retrieving a bowl of cool water and a cloth; he was practically boiling when she found him. Sweating the illness out was certainly a good option at this point, but she didn’t want him to overheat and cook from the inside out. She let the cloth she was toying with plop back into the water. I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s not like he’s a child… But why couldn’t it be like treating a child’s sickness? Minus the cooing and coddling, the care was essentially the same. The only difference was the appreciation for the little things that grew with age, not that she thought Ignis even had the capacity to appreciate anything she did. Even his thanks sounded obligatory.
Finally, she forced herself to return to the room. Her cheeks turned red when she realized she’d walked in just in time as Ignis pulled a gray shirt down over his bare back, which was really all she saw in the split second that she’d looked. Clearing her throat, she set the bowl down on the nightstand and nodded for him to get back in his bed. Rue could hardly imagine a time where Ignis was capable of wearing anything except for clothes that made him look professional through and through, and yet there he was, flat on his back in bed in a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt.
“Feeling any better?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. Ignis huffed, turning his eyes over to her. Suddenly, he frowned, propping himself up on his elbows. “Your glasses, right? I have no idea where they are. Found you without ‘em.” Ignis didn’t seem to hear her. She huffed. “You don’t need them right now, Ignis.”
“They could be lost.”
“How…?” she frowned. Was he getting delusional? The guy needed to chill for once. “Just… forget them. Lay down.” After a moment of frowning and staring hard at nothing in particular, the advisor obeyed, though his motions were stiff. Rue sighed, kneeling. “Now, I know you’re not gonna like this, but I need you to pull your blankets on, too.” Ignis sighed.
“I don’t need you to—”
“Just do it,” Rue insisted, wanting to get home as much as Ignis wanted to get back to his king’s side. “And close your eyes.”
“I know, it’s hurting your pride. Just let me help you with something for once.” Rue was genuinely surprised that he hadn’t fired her yet. She’d never been so bold as to demand that her superior obey her commands, especially in a moment of weakness, and yet here she was, bossing Ignis Scientia of all people around. And he was compliant. “Thank you.”
She squeezed most of the water out of the cloth before laying it across his forehead. He tensed, frowning. Rue sighed, deciding against wiping the sweat off his face, and stood, checking her phone. Eren would be there to pick her up any minute.
“I have to go soon but listen: I need you to stay just like that for as long as possible. Your fastest option will probably be to just sweat this bad boy out, you get me?” Ignis cracked his eyes open.
“I could have done all this on my own.”
“Yeah, but what’s the fun in that?” she muttered, tucking her phone away and crossing her arms. “You stay like that and sweat buckets, you hear me? Next thing you know, you’re on the fast track to recovery. Until that fever’s gone, do not get up to come into the office.” She dared to offer a smile. “I’m keeping a thermometer at hand just in case you decide to come in. You’d better be in the clear.”
“You’ve resorted to petty threats now, have you?” Ignis asked, raising an eyebrow. He looked dreadful. She was honestly surprised he hadn’t demanded she get her ass out of his house yet.
“Oh, they’re not petty, Scientia. I mean it. No work until you’re much, much better.” Her phone vibrated in her pocket and she knew that was her signal. She paused in the doorway to speak once more, unsure if she should even extend the offer. “And, I know I’m probably the last person you’d call if you ever admitted to needing help, but I’m available any time. Just call me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
They both knew he wouldn’t. Nodding, she closed his door and headed to the entryway, making sure she’d grabbed everything. Phone, jacket, keys. All she brought that needed to leave with. Taking one last look around the dreary house, she shook her head and stepped outside. Eren was just stepping outside of his car to knock.
“How is he?” he asked with genuine concern in his voice. Rue shrugged.
“Shitty, but I think he’ll be feeling much better after today. He’s on the back end of it all.”
“You seem to have that effect on people,” Eren grinned, starting the car while she got into the passenger seat. She scoffed, placing her elbow on the ledge beside her window and propping her head up with her hand. She felt exhausted for no real reason.
“I doubt it; the guy just needed a day of rest.”
“And the gentle touch of a woman.”
“Excuse me?” Rue raised an eyebrow as he laughed.
“Not like that.”
They pulled out of the driveway and into the busy street. Eren’s hand reached over to turn the radio’s volume up, but Rue reached forward to stop him. Raising an eyebrow, he glanced over at her as she chewed her lip thoughtfully, slowly slumping in her seat. No, nevermind. She moved to pull her hand away, but he held it tightly, offering a slight smile. She almost snorted; he was such a dork.
“What’ve you been up to?”
“Well,” Eren sighed, cocking his head to the side. “I went to that new gym that’s supposed to be just for the Crownsguard, but they’re gone so I don’t care. It’s nice. Then I got this killer headache and went back to my place to grab some things, and here I am.”
She glanced at the backseat to see a red duffle bag laying across the seats. Her heart skipped a beat; this was really real, then. He was bringing things back to her place to stay because he genuinely wanted to be around her. Rue watched the people of the city fly past as streaks of color. It was a strange feeling to know that someone admired her, that is if he was being honest that morning. Something told her there was something more to it than his unending attraction, but she was too afraid to dig past it.
“You tired?” Eren asked when she yawned, pulling into a parking spot outside her apartment complex. She nodded.
“A little. Dunno why, though, I haven’t exactly done much today.”
“Eh, you had a late night and a somewhat early morning,” Eren shrugged, reaching into the back to grab his bag. “I’d say it’s well-earned sleepiness.”
“I didn’t know sleepiness had to be earned,” Rue commented, getting out of the car. “I just want to get in bed and stay there.”
“I don’t see why you can’t,” Eren pointed out. “C’mon, let’s get you into some PJ’s.”
“I don’t think I’ll need any help,” she scoffed, hurrying to get inside.
The apartment was warm; it felt lived in. There was a stack of dishes in the sink that wasn’t weeks old, a blanket was thrown across the couch, and the smell of old coffee came from the half-empty pot in the kitchen. The dirtiness wasn’t unwelcome. She took a deep breath, snuggled her cat, and hurried to her room to change into something more comfortable, namely an enormous shirt for some band she didn’t know (she still couldn’t remember where she’d gotten it) and her glasses.
“Wow, that’s a look,” Eren commented, setting his bag down by the kitchen. “Want any coffee?”
“That old stuff? No thanks.”
“A new batch,” he reassured her. She nodded, flopping down on the couch.
“Sure, sounds good.”
She sighed as she heard Eren getting to work. Was she dreaming? She’d gone out for an innocent night of drinking, brought her closest friend home, played nurse for her boss, and now she was waiting for said closest friend to brew her a pot of coffee while they made an attempt at digging past a mere friendship. And to think she’d spent all this time fighting Relir on how many guys it would take her to meet one that was worth her time.
She snorted, watching Eren run a hand through his hair and stare at the machine before him. The gray sweatshirt he was wearing was the very same one he wore to the first Glaive practice where Gladio tore him to shreds for having his mobility limited by the sleeves. She’d been so proud of herself for wearing a tank top at that moment. Look at him now.
“You need help?” Rue asked, getting back to her feet and heading toward Eren. He shook his head, stepping back and resting his hands on his hips.
“Nah, there’s a trick to it.” Rue gripped the handle of the pot and jammed it into the machine, tilting it forward and jerking it free. A single, fat drop of coffee spattered onto the tile. Eren raised an eyebrow, accepting the coffee pot from her. “See?”
“Why don’t you get a new one?” he asked, heading to the sink to rinse it out. Rue busied herself with emptying the filter. “Not to pry or make assumptions or whatever, but you’re making good money now, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess,” she shrugged, tossing the paper filter out. “I dunno, I guess I just planned on saving up.”
“A new place, maybe.” She looked around the apartment fondly. “I mean I love it here, don’t get me wrong, but I want something a little bigger and a little less… crowded. People are packed like sardines in here.”
“Yeah, well, it’s the biggest complex in the Crown City,” Eren nodded. “And it’s cheap. Everyone needed somewhere to stay after the Dawn.”
“And I guess I’m one of ‘em.” She petted Honey’s sleek fur as she padded carefully across the countertop. “Besides, I’d rather not have a secret cat for much longer.”
“That, too,” Eren laughed. “I don’t want to have to continue sneaking her in and out of here.”
“Yeah.” Rue filled the water tank. “Do you want any?”
“Yup.” Eren stood aside to watch her start the brew quietly, offering her a smile when she looked up at him.
“It’s stupid,” he shrugged, though he was grinning. Rue raised an eyebrow.
“Okay? So’s, like, seventy percent of the stuff you say.”
“Ouch.” He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “I just, uh… It’s not even been twenty-four hours yet, but, I dunno…” He shook his head, his face growing red. Rue couldn’t help but smile.
“But…?” she teased, creeping closer with her hands clasped behind her back.
“Stop that,” he scoffed nervously, his eyes refusing to meet hers. “I told you, it’s a stupid thought.”
“But I want to hear what’s on your mind.”
“I just don’t want to, I don’t know, scare you away?” He finally forced himself to look at her. Rue’s smile grew soft and she smoothed the fine wrinkles in his sweatshirt gingerly.
“I don’t know how much you remember from last night, Eren,” she said calmly, glancing up at him. “But I’m pretty sure it was me who kissed you.”
“Right,” he huffed.
“Just spit it out already.”
“I guess… I’m happy.” He shrugged, absently brushing his fingers down her arm. “It sounds weird, I get that, but I never even imagined I’d have a chance.”
“At little old me?” Rue snorted, brushing aside her worries and standing on her toes to kiss his cheek. “I think you’ve got the wrong idea about me, then.”
“What, you’re desperate?”
“Whatever,” she scoffed, swatting his chest before turning to retrieve a mug. Eren laughed and she felt his arms wrap around her waist as he planted a kiss on her neck.
"Damn, you’re tired.”
“Yeah? How can you tell?” she snorted, watching the coffee drip into the pot slowly, a puff of steam rising into the air.
“You’re all slouched and loose.” He grabbed her arm and flopped her hand around. “See?”
“… You’re so weird.”
“Hey, you asked for it,” he shrugged, stepping away. “Maybe you should just go straight to bed. You’ve been around a sick person all day, and who knows if it was contagious or not?”
“You’ve got a point,” she sighed, setting her mug down to run both her hands through her hair and tug at her roots. “It’s just so early.”
“You had a late night.”
“And a late morning.”
“So? Probably didn’t get much deep sleep.”
“Eren,” Rue scoffed, glancing at the watch on his wrist. “You look at that data too much.”
“Maybe I do,” he shrugged. He pressed the power button on the coffee pot and its gurgling quieted. “I’ll go with you.”
“You’re tired, too?”
“Yeah, I am,” he admitted with a sheepish smile. “Call it a day?”
“… … Okay.”
Rue switched off the light and locked the door. The sun’s light had hardly disappeared behind the building that always blocked her view before she drew the curtains shut. She was going to miss the sunsets and rises when she moved… There was always something so surreal about seeing the sun disappear for a night that put the world on edge only for it to return in the morning as though it had never left. It was odd living in a world where “as surely as the sun rises in the morning” was a phrase that could hardly be used unironically. She turned to walk back to the bedroom only to see Eren watching her.
“Dude, it’s getting creepy.”
“Sorry, I was just thinking,” he shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck and jamming his other hand into his pocket. “It’s just… Do you ever think we saw each other during the Darkness?”
“I don’t think so,” she muttered, sitting back on her heels from where she was on the couch.
“Because, I mean, I know that’s where you met Relir—”
“—and Dex was part of your group, right?”
“Yeah,” she sighed, standing. “Where did you stake out?”
“Near Galdin Quay. I was with my sister and her son.”
“I heard it was dangerous out there,” Rue frowned, hugging her arms to her body. He nodded, his eyes dropping to the floor.
“Yeah… They didn’t make it. I probably wouldn’t have, either, if the light hadn’t come back just in time.”
“Ah.” Rue slowly stood, cocking her head to the side.
She hadn’t thought about the Darkness in a long time. Too many painful memories, too many wounds that were still gaping, bleeding—and it wasn’t just her. At this point, any mention of what took place a mere two years ago seemed taboo. The only things worth mentioning were the glory of King Noctis and the marvel of the way Insomnia had bounced right back. It seemed no one was ready yet, and those who were had to tiptoe.
“… Is that how your husband…?”
“No.” Rue’s voice was soft, entirely lost between two courses of action. Tell the truth or leave it there. She cleared her throat, heading to her room in silence. She closed her eyes, sighing and nodding toward the framed photo of a girl at her bedside. “Curious about her?”
“I wasn’t going to pry.”
“Okay. Someday,” Rue reassured him, reaching to turn the light off. He grabbed her shoulder to stop her. She jumped, looking back at to meet his soft gaze.
“In your own time.”
“Right,” she huffed, switching the light off and flopping onto her mattress. They always say they can wait. She stared at the ceiling as Eren changed into a pair of sweatpants. But people are impatient, aren’t they?
Rue scoffed at her own thoughts and turned onto her side, heaving a contented sigh when Eren curled up against her back and pulled her comfortably close. She relaxed, closing her eyes in hopes of finding a few extra hours of sleep, but all she found was the faces of those she’d betrayed, abandoned, destroyed. She shuddered and Eren snuggled closer. Will I do it again?
Chapter 19: Turning Point
Sensitive stuff warning!
"Pope" by Copeland
The clicking of her heels echoed through the halls soundly, bounding off the smooth floors and closed doors. Rue shifted the stack of papers in her arms, reaching out toward the doorknob to Ignis’s office. She’d come in an hour late, but to her surprise, he hadn’t come in at all—he hadn’t even bothered to text her. So, she gathered what she could remember that she’d done before and made copies of the employment forms he usually used. Who knew how many more people would be hired into the guard? Or who Rayne and Gladio will let in.
The filled forms were organized in alphabetical order—at least, they had been before the thick stack of papers tumbled out of her arms. Rue groaned, clenching her fists at her sides before she could scream. What, am I a cliché now?
Rue jumped, looking up to see Prompto grinning at her from the doorway of his office. She frowned, entirely confused.
“Why are you…?”
“Oh, right.” Prompto fell to his knees all too easily, starting to gather the pages. Awkwardly, Rue crouched in her tight skirt and tall heels, helping him. “We were running super late just because of packing reasons and a little because of Iggy. Just as we were heading out, close to when we were supposed to meet these people, we get a call saying that it’s called off, their bad.” He laughed, shaking his head as Rue eyed him curiously. “Rayne thinks they just wanted to get us out and call it off when they thought we were close just to be asses.”
“Sounds like it,” Rue murmured. “What people were you meeting?” Prompto looked up at her quickly, realization dawning over his face.
“Shit, you weren’t supposed to know.” He handed her papers over, speaking earnestly in a low voice. “Just pretend you didn’t hear that, yeah?”
“Please,” he hissed, looking around nervously. “Maybe I’ll tell you someday.” Someday.
“Fine,” she muttered, unsteadily standing and accepting the papers. “Someday.”
“Thanks,” he nodded, breathing a sigh of relief and smiling. “See you around?”
“Sure.” Rue turned back to Ignis’s door and turned the knob successfully this time, watching her step carefully in order to keep the forms in her grasp this time.
“I’m assuming those are no longer in order.”
"Shit.” She nearly jumped out her skin upon hearing her boss’s voice, clutching the papers to her chest and crinkling quite a few. Ignis sighed, raising an eyebrow.
“Are you here to take my temperature?” he asked dryly. Rue scoffed, fighting a smile as she brought the pages to his desk.
“Fortunately for you, Mr. Scientia, I forgot my thermometer at home. Looks like you’re off the hook this time.” She had to admit, he looked much better. The day of rest did him good. “You look like you’re feeling better.”
“I am,” he nodded, hesitating to speak as he reached for the stack. “Thank you for your assistance yesterday.”
“Hey, that’s what assistants do; we assist.” She scoffed at her own words, crossing her arms. “Like I’ve done this my whole adult life. Yeah, right.”
“The work suits you.”
“What the hell’s that mean?” she demanded, irritated by the smile that Ignis wrestled to hide.
“Think nothing of it. Sort these, please.”
“Of course, Mr. Scientia.”
“And no more of that,” he countered, pushing his glasses up.
“Right; wouldn’t want people to think we’re too professional here.”
“Of course not.”
Shaking her head, Rue reached forward to get to work on a portion of the stack, kneeling on the floor to create separate files. Ignis frowned, watching her crawl around on his carpet for a moment before shaking his head and getting back to writing whatever it was that he was recording in the notebook on his desk with a quiet sniffle. It took almost thirty minutes to get everything back in order; by the time she was back on her feet, her bones ached, she had rug burn on her knees, and Ignis had cracked open his second Ebony. She set the organized stack down on his desk and dusted off her hands, feeling accomplished.
“Twice,” Ignis muttered, not bothering to look up.
“But accomplished.” Ignis didn’t reply, taking a drink from the tall can to his left. “You know what I’m feeling? Tea. Want any?” She nodded toward the Ebony. “It’ll probably help you out a lot more than all that caffeine.”
“Tea has caffeine,” he replied, arching an eyebrow. She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, well, caffeine-free tea’s a thing.”
“As is caffeine-free coffee.”
“Ignis,” she huffed, exasperated. Since when was he anything but cranky? What sort of cough syrup was this guy hopped up on?
“If you wish to make two cups, then I will take some,” he answered finally. “As long as there’s no caffeine.” Fuck off.
“Be right back,” she nodded, turning and heading out of the office and down the stairs to the kitchen. Her heart stopped cold upon seeing Relir and Dex approaching. She hadn’t even decided if they should know about her and Eren yet. It was too late to run; Relir was already making a beeline for her.
“Look who it is,” she greeted, crossing her arms. Rue glanced at Dex, who flashed a cocky smile behind her.
“What’s that?” Relir scoffed. “A question?”
“No,” Rue shook her head. “Sorry, I didn’t sleep very well.”
“Right,” Relir rolled her gray eyes, though she was only teasing. “Hey, what’d you guys do after we left Friday night? Anything exciting?” Rue just about died as her face turned red. Hopefully, they couldn’t see in the dim light.
“Nah, he just came back to my place and stayed the night.”
“Stayed the night as in…?”
“On my couch,” Rue replied defensively. “He couldn’t drive home like that, Relir!”
“Okay, okay, damn,” Relir scoffed, holding up her hands. “Just making sure you guys haven’t gotten into any trouble. You wouldn’t be good together, anyway.”
“Why’s that?” Rue frowned. Dex shrugged, minding his own business. Relir hesitated, unprepared for the question.
“I dunno, you guys are just so, you know… closed off.”
“Yeah. Reserved, secretive, the whole shebang.”
“You’d think that’d make it easier,” Rue pointed out. Relir raised an eyebrow.
“What, are you interested?”
“What? No, I didn’t say that.” Rue crossed her arms, hurrying away. “Listen, I’ve got stuff to do. See you guys later.”
Shaking her head, Rue quickened her pace to reach the kitchen faster. Her heart was hammering and her hands were shaking. Gods, what do I do if this all works out? Because “Haha, you were kind of right and I kind of lied straight to your face,” probably won’t cut it. She bit down hard on her cheek to bring herself back down to earth. This wasn’t the time to worry; everything would work out eventually.
The kitchen door swung open easily when her palms pressed against its cool, smooth surface. The shining clean white counters and stainless-steel appliances were pristine as per usual and the charcoal gray walls and floor were the perfect contrast. In fact, the only thing out of place was a pot full of water that was on the island counter. I’m surprised that anyone else uses this place. Rue dug through a few cabinets to find a tea kettle, filling it with water and setting it on the stove. While she waited, she leaned back against the counter and collected her rewards from her mobile games patiently.
Humming a song that was stuck in her head, she glanced over to the teapot. It was just barely releasing wisps of steam that disappeared mere seconds later. Sighing, she reached up into the overhead cabinets in a hunt for a pair of mugs. She found two that didn’t have some stupid phrase or image printed across the sides, checking her phone once more before leaning forward against the stove to watch the steam grow into puffing clouds. Her thoughts turned to Ignis as an image of him scowling at his computer arose in her mind’s eye. I wonder what he’s always doing on that thing.
Almost every time she saw him, he was staring hard at that stupid computer screen, eyes narrowed and brows creased together. Sometimes he had a notebook and pen off the side, where he occasionally scribbled things down. He couldn’t possibly be concerned about Cam anymore, could he? Or was there something else he was told to look into that she wasn’t allowed to know? She was fully aware that she as only a glorified secretary, but it was hard not to wonder about all those secrets that the Crownsguard whispered about behind her back. The pot whistled, releasing her from her thoughts, and she straightened, reaching forward to take it off the heat. She never quite made it.
Something cracked hard against her skull and she was thrown to the floor, head spinning, throbbing, screaming, vision fading, sparking, swirling. Her back hit the ground sharply, and for a moment, it felt as though she was asleep. Everything felt cold except for the strange brushes of warmth that traced all across her skin, jumping here or there, the odd pressure that jumped down her lips, chin, and neck.
And then the swirling began to fade, and she became painfully aware of the stabbing, agonizing pain that radiated from the back of her head. Her vision quickly started to go from black and white sparks to a clearer image of a shadowy figure that loomed over her. Her skin recognized the warmth as a pair of hands, mind raced as she wondered why her clothes were soaked, goosebumps jumped to life when she realized how exposed she was, knees plowed into his chest, hands fumbled for the object in the corner of her eye, arms swung and cracked the pot down over his head.
Dizzily, Rue scooted away from the figure, still unable to focus as the ground rocked and her vision faded in and out. The man groaned, clutching his head; alarmed, Rue tugged her wet clothes back into place and unsteadily dragged herself to her feet, gripping the counter for support. The only thing she could remember was tea. Tea? She clumsily ripped two tea bags out of their packaging as the figure writhed, grumbling nonsensical words on the floor.
A hand reached out to grab her as she poured boiling water into the mugs, shaking uncontrollably as she slammed the teapot back onto the stove and grabbed the cups. Her feet carried her out of the kitchen, wobbling around on her heels as though she was drunk. Her hands were unaware of the scalding heat that burned her palms as hot water splashed over the rims of the mugs and ran across her skin. Her eyes flitted around her surroundings, though they seemed to gather nothing. Stumbling up the stairs as though she was undead, something she couldn’t place guided her toward Ignis’s door, which was cracked open. She walked straight into it to push it open, wobbling her way to his desk. Ignis looked up, his face going from tense to stunned in mere moments.
“Rue?” She didn’t seem to hear him, slamming the two now empty mugs down on the wooden surface and falling back into seat before him. The muddy face of the man who’d attacked her was the only thing her mind could wrap around. “Are you alright?”
“Cam.” She stared into space, but her voice was demanding, stronger than it’d ever been before. Her skin was on fire, though not because of the angry burns marring her skin. “I’m here to talk about Cam.”
Chapter 20: Dirt
"Maybe" by Lewis Capaldi
"What the fuck happened?"
Rue gritted her teeth as Ignis pulled the last thread of her stitches tight, her fingers digging into the supple leather of the seat beneath her. Her toes were curled inside her shoes and her knees were pressed together. Everything hurt, even after Ignis used a hi-potion to take the edge off the concussion she likely had. Rayne was sitting on the edge of his desk with her arms crossed and her eyebrow raised. She'd apparently heard a commotion when Rue'd started screaming nonsense about Cameron Schrader and came running.
"Rue?" Rayne pressed, tilting her head.
Rue avoided her eyes and stared hard at the notebook on Ignis's desk. From this angle, she couldn't read anything; she really just wanted something to look at other than the woman who would revel in her failure to defend herself. Ignis and Rayne exchanged a look over her head as the advisor tucked his tools away. Slowly, he made his way around to his desk, watching Rue as she interlaced her fingers tightly and turned her eyes to her feet.
"Are you prepared to explain this to me?"
"... She leaves first."
"Excuse me?" Rayne snapped. Ignis frowned, but he seemed to understand.
"If she leaves, I'll talk."
"Rayne," Ignis spoke up, nodding when she stared at him in disbelief.
"Are you serious?!"
"We'll speak later."
"Fuck you," Rayne scoffed, sliding off the table and slamming the door behind her on her way out. Ignis sighed, sitting down slowly with a frown etched onto his face. Rue swallowed hard, pressing her lips together.
"I'm sorry. I just... couldn't have her in here to mock me."
"Don't pretend you haven't noticed that she hates my guts," Rue scoffed, finally looking up at him. "She'd kill to get ahold of this."
"I understand your hesitations, but Rayne is hardly one to revel on another's pain." Sure, okay. When she didn't reply, Ignis pushed his glasses up and took a deep breath. "Care to explain?"
"You might want to take notes or something," Rue muttered. "This is some real dirt on Cam; here's your confession for your evidence." Ignis looked uncertain. "Seriously, this is what you wanted, isn't it?"
"... I'm not sure."
"Trust me, it is." Rue dug out her phone, pulled up the voice recorder hardly anyone ever used, and hit record. Maybe he'll need this. She leaned back in her seat, trying to keep calm as she recounted her first interaction with Schrader. "When I first met him, Cam, he kind of creeped me out, I'll admit it. Kept complimenting how I looked and just staring. It put me on edge, but I wrote it off as boys being boys." Ignis's eyebrows twitched together. "But then, about a month after he hired me for guard duty, he offered me a promotion of sorts."
"The position outside the throne room."
"Yeah. But it came at a cost." She laughed bitterly, crossing her legs. "See, he knew I wanted that spot—I kind of needed it, actually. So, he set the price pretty high. I did him whatever favors whenever and wherever he wanted them, and in turn, he kept me placed at that door. It was all pretty consensual; I agreed to all that BS, so there's not much you can pin on him there."
"There was never a time...?"
"Here's the thing," Rue sighed, leaning forward. "I agreed to whatever, whenever, wherever. That meant I didn't get a say, whether I wanted to do it or not."
"It doesn't work like that at all," Ignis countered. She could see he was having a hard time processing all this. Just wait.
"Yeah, well, that's not the problem. I get fired and rehired by you and all that, blah, blah, blah... When you had me talk to him about an appointment, I swear to the gods he was going to pull something. The door was shut, there was no one around, and apparently, he has a thing for secretaries. But then he stopped himself and payed me off instead—two hundred some gil for me to buy better clothes for work. Said it was because it was some fantasy of his. Against my better judgement, I took it.
"Since then, he's left me alone. I haven't seen or spoken to him once when it hasn't been made necessary by our jobs." She nodded toward the empty mugs on the edge of his desk. "And then there I am, making tea for the both of us and looking through my phone while I'm waiting for the water to boil, and boom. Something hits me on the back of the head. Next thing I know, I'm on my back on the floor, completely unable to perceive anything."
"And that's when you realized it was Schrader."
"Yeah." Rue pursed her lips, trying to form her words in a coherent way. "I... remember feeling really cold, except for a few spots where I'm now assuming his filthy hands were. I remember coming to as much as I could just to see him on top of me; I grabbed the pot he hit me with and hit him harder. From there, I'm not sure, but I think finished making that tea and came here."
"That's a safe assumption," Ignis mumbled, sinking back into his seat and eyeing the mugs on his desk. There was a long silence before Rue turned off her phone and tucked it away, watching as her boss mulled over her story, staring hard at the smooth desk surface. "You have my thanks, Rue." He leaned forward, earnestly meeting her eyes. "It must have been hard."
"Not to be cliché, but I feel a lot lighter," she admitted, though she was still on edge.
"..." Ignis touched his glasses and glanced down at his notebook. "With that testimony and the video footage from the kitchen, we should be able remove him from his seat of employment."
"Video footage...?" Rue sat up, startled. "Wait, does he know there are cameras in there?"
"I don't know," Ignis replied in a questioning voice, unsure of her point.
"You don't..." She scoffed. "If he does, he's either deleting the footage right now or he shut the cameras off beforehand."
"He doesn't strike me as the sort of man to think his actions through quite so thoroughly, but you may have a point." He stood, heading toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Rue asked, starting to get to her feet.
"Sit," he commanded sharply. "I'll only be a moment."
"I'm coming with you," she demanded, getting to her feet sharply. She nearly toppled over, grasping the desk for a support as her head spun. "I'll just... take it slow."
"I thought you wanted to catch this early?"
"Just give me a sec," she muttered, straightening with a deep breath and walking toward him. "Let's go."
The two quickly walked down the hall and took a turn Rue had never taken before, heading into unfamiliar territory. She'd never been in the surveillance room, never had a reason to be. Ignis's stride held a headstrong purpose that surprised her; it must have been a relief to finally get his big break. Maybe he wanted to remind the higher-ups that he was good for more than secretary work. She glanced over at him, recalling what he looked like merely a day before. He deserves it.
"There she is!"
They came to a short stop, looking over their shoulders to see Relir and Eren hurrying after them. Rue hardly had time to think before she was enveloped in a tight embrace, clutched against Eren's chest. Relir's cool hand rested on her shoulder as a sign of reassurance. Eren pulled away sharply, lowering his head to look over Rue's face. All the sudden motion was making her dizzy.
"Are you alright? There's blood all over you!" Relir cried, crossing her arms. "What the hell happened?! The shit people are saying they saw—"
"I'm fine," Rue managed to stutter out, glancing at Ignis as Eren brushed her hair out of her face, frowning. She flinched when his fingers brushed the wound on the back of her head; they pulled away stained red.
"Are you sure?" Eren pressed. "What happened?"
"I'll explain later," Rue promised, backing out of his grasp. "We've got somewhere to be."
"I swear," she reassured Relir, turning to follow Ignis. Eren frowned at the blood on his hand, watching her go. Relir looked ticked. "I'm sorry about them."
"No need to apologize," Ignis replied, shaking his head and leading the way around another corner. "They care about your wellbeing."
"Yeah, I guess."
Ignis stopped so suddenly that she almost crashed into him, pulling out his jingling keys and shoving one into the lock. It clicked and the door opened slightly. He cleared his throat, glancing back at her.
"If you'd rather not witness this again, you have every right to remain outside."
"No," she said firmly. "I'm coming in."
"Of course," he sighed, nodding to the boy that sat in the seat before the dozens of monitors. "Where were you twenty minutes ago?" Ignis demanded, crossing his arms.
"I, uh," the kid stuttered. "I was switching shifts with the other guy." His eyes were wide and his hands clutched the armrests at his sides. He hardly looked a day older than sixteen. "A-am I in trouble?"
Without another word, Ignis touched the center of his glasses and jerked his head as a signal for the boy to leave. Nervously, he scrambled out the door, shaking like a leaf. Rue gnawed on her lip, watching Ignis sit down and click a few options, scrolling until he found what he was looking for.
"Been here before?" she asked quietly.
"I spent a fair amount of time in here Rayne's brother when I was younger," Ignis replied without turning his eyes away as he selected a time frame.
"Signum?" That's the soldier one, right?
"Arma." Oh, the dead one.
On the largest screen, the one in the center, appeared the camera footage of the kitchen, angled from above a cabinet across the room from the stove. The perfect view. Ignis fast-forwarded the footage until Rue entered the kitchen, humming to herself and digging for a teapot. He sped it up again, eyes narrowed on the quick motions of his assistant as she set up the pot and the mugs and returned to her phone. Then a shadow caught his eye and he rewound the tape. And there it was. A face peering in through the round window, disappearing, and then reappearing moments later. Schrader obviously thought his actions through, to an extent. The mere thought made his stomach uncomfortably tight.
Cam then crept in through the door, careful to keep it silent as Rue focused on the teapot, seemingly lost in her head. Ignis leaned forward, brows furrowed as he tried to absorb every detail. The young captain opened his mouth to say something only to pause, rethink, and reach for the pot of water on the island beside him. He hesitated. And then he swung. The force with which Rue was thrown to the ground made the advisor sick, or perhaps it was all the coffee he'd consumed without eating. Either way, the scene was disturbing. Like a wild animal, Cameron pounced as Rue clutched her head, clearly suffering from the blow.
He glanced over at Rue as Cam's hands began to wander; he wasn't entirely comfortable watching some crazed freak undress his assistant. Her eyes were locked on the footage from the camera in some unknown hallway. He couldn't blame her for turning away. The entire ordeal was hard enough to believe, but witnessing it was something else entirely. He looked back when a sharp movement caught his eye. Rue's knees slammed into Cam's chest, a moment later, she beat him back with the same pot he'd hit her with. He shrunk away, gripping his head and curling up. She unsteadily stumbled to her feet, clearly not all there, and sloppily made up their mugs of tea. Cam reached out to grab her ankle as she rushed out the door; he missed.
Swallowing to wet his throat, Ignis stopped the footage, having recorded all he needed. He quickly sent it to his own computer before returning the screens to the way they were. The burning image of Rue lying on the hard tile floor, unconscious, stabbed at the back of his mind, demanding attention. What kind of monster... As much as he despised Ardyn Izunia, he could hardly imagine he'd ever done something like this. Two entirely different crimes, he reminded himself. Not worth comparing. What am I thinking?
"Well, there's your evidence," Rue murmured, clutching her arms close to her body.
Ignis stood, leading the way out of the room and motioning for the guard to return. The kid shuddered, hurrying back to his seat. Rue uneasily walked at his side as they slowly made their way back to his office.
"What now?" she asked cautiously, glancing up at him. What now indeed.
"I bring this to His Majesty's attention," he answered confidently. "There is no doubt in my mind that Cameron Schrader will be gone by tomorrow."
"Positive." Ignis nodded to himself, touching his glasses more out of habit than necessity. She sounded like a frightened child, not at all like the reserved but overwhelmingly determined woman he'd come to know more or less as his helping hand. He paused just before his desk, turning to look back at her. "Sending you home is likely the best course of action."
"No way," she insisted. "Ignis, I'm fine! One more potion and I'll be set for life, I swear."
"One more potion and you'll make yourself sick," he retorted sternly, turning to face her. "You'll be no good to me like this. Go home and rest."
"Of course I am," Ignis replied, heading around the other side of the desk and settling in his seat. It felt like his insides were trembling; he blamed all the coffee. "I'll see you tomorrow and then we can discuss this further."
"Me or Schrader?"
Rue frowned and her face grew pale; Ignis almost wished he could take back his words, but he decided against clarifying. She needed to learn to stop worrying. Slowly, she took her large, baggy jacket off the hook on his wall and tugged it on. He raised an eyebrow when she glanced at him, lips pursed, but she turned to leave without so much as a farewell. Sighing, Ignis got to work clipping the camera footage down and sent it to his phone before standing unsteadily. His knock on Rayne's door was uncertain but firm. She opened it sharply.
"Come with me. We have what we need."
"Thank fuck," she breathed, stepping out into the hall. "Should we bring Gladio and Prompto? What about Cor?" She lowered her voice, glancing at the Immortal's door. "Cam's his nephew."
"He'll have no doubts about a decision to remove him." Ignis sighed. "As for the others... I suppose they should know as long as we're not disturbing them."
"Oh, trust me," Rayne snorted, brushing past him to go to Prompto's office door. "This is something we've all been waiting for."
The four of them hurried downstairs to the throne room door, where a young woman in a guard's uniform stopped them. Before Ignis could speak, Gladio shot her a look and pushed the door open in silence. Noctis was slouched on the throne, scrolling through a lengthy article about his incompetence. He jumped, startled by his unannounced guest. Ignis had to admit; it looked as though they were there to overthrow him.
"We got it!" Rayne cried, rushing up the stairs to the throne and bowing quickly before crouching at his side. Nervously, Prompto hurried to follow her.
"Got what?" Noct frowned, straightening. Ignis couldn't help but feel off-put by how excited they all were; it was as though they didn't understand what had to happen for them to get this proof against the young man none of them were particularly fond of.
"Dirt on Schrader," Prompto answered, looking up at Ignis with a smile. "You've got it, don't you, Iggy?"
"It's not quite what you think," Ignis frowned.
"What do you mean?" Rayne demanded.
"Just..." Ignis sighed, pulling the video up. "Watch. I have no doubts about what this means, however... You'll understand soon enough."
Chapter 21: Casper
"You" by Marina and the Diamonds
“Hey, you feeling alright?”
Rue peeled her eyes open as Eren walked into her apartment unannounced, kicking his shoes off and hurrying to her side. After Ignis kicked her out, she dragged herself home on her own, used another potion against her better judgment, and bundled up on the couch. The television was on, but it was muted, and the curtains above the sofa were drawn tightly. Eren gingerly sat on the edge of the couch as Rue slowly sat up, rubbing her face. Her head was throbbing and her body ached, but at least she wasn’t bleeding anymore. His hand rested on a lump of thick blanket that turned out to be her thigh.
“How’s it going?”
“A little better,” she mumbled with a yawn. Her eyes could hardly stay open. “My head hurts still.”
“Did you take anything?”
“Yeah,” she sighed, letting her shoulders fall forward as she slouched. Eren nodded, his gaze falling to the floor. Feeling a twinge of guilt, she rested a hand his arm, squeezing. “How was work? Any juicy Glaive gossip I should hear about?”
“It was okay,” he shrugged, leaning into the couch cushions. Rue wiggled her way around until she was sitting on her knees, resting her elbow on the back of the couch. “As for gossip…” He huffed out a short laugh before looking at her. “I hear the outside world isn’t nearly as pleasant as they want us to believe. The King and all them were supposed to be meeting the leader of a group of people who took on the role of Kingsglaive while Noctis was gone. I guess they were given the king’s thanks and sent away without any real recognition or position within the Citadel.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t imagine going through all that just to be told you don’t count because you’re not city folk. So, naturally, they’re all pissed and they’ve decided to rile up the people outside.”
“That’s always smart,” Rue scoffed, playing with the smooth surface of the couch cushion she leaned against.
“There’s another post that Rayne’s started to send glaives to,” he added, though something in his voice changed. “Somewhere by the old Niflheim border, there’s a bunch of Imperial people that really hate the idea of world unification. Like, they’re preparing to do whatever it takes to get their land back.”
“But Noctis didn’t take their land.”
“I know. It’s something about a guy that’s leading them that thinks even the idea of unification is imprisonment, so until Noctis openly gives up, they’re gonna be a real pain in the ass.” He huffed, shaking his head. “Anyway, the post. She’s already sent a few of the older Glaives that stayed loyal out there; none of them ever returned.”
“Seriously.” Eren shifted to get comfortable. “And now she’s getting desperate, what with Cam’s men being massacred left and right, so she’s starting to send newbies out there.”
“As in you guys?”
“Yup.” He pursed his lips, cocking his head to the side. “And for some reason, she’s not sending groups. It’s always one or two at a time. Heaven knows she won’t send Axel out there, so no one can tell who’s going to go next.”
“Shit.” Rue’s stomach tightened at the thought of any of her friends being sent off into the unknown at her enemy’s whim. “Why isn’t Gladio helping?”
“Gladio’s priority is Noctis; it always has been. The only reason he’s ever in Glaive business is to teach us new skills that Rayne needs assistance with or to give us pep talks about the importance of protecting the king. It’s especially important now that the world’s gone to hell and there’s no chance of an heir anytime soon.” He sighed. “And I’m guessing you know why Ignis can’t help.”
“He’s drowning in work even with me there,” she huffed, shaking her head. “What are they thinking with that, by the way? The guy’s a genius and they have him locked up doing paperwork.”
“I don’t know,” Eren admitted. “I think Cor decided he could take over Ignis’s duties while Ignis fixed up all their data and shit, but the job turned out to be much bigger than it was supposed to be.”
“Still, they need to start dividing that up. What the hell is Prompto’s job? Professional friend?”
“Basically,” he scoffed. “He’s supposed to be in charge of the city administration, whatever that is. It’s not like there’s much of a city to administer.”
“Nope.” Rue frowned. “Why can’t he help out then?”
“Probably doesn’t want to.”
“Or he doesn’t know how.”
“That too,” Eren shrugged.
“I dunno, Prompto just doesn’t strike me as the lazy type.”
“I wouldn’t know,” he pointed out. “You’re his friend, not me.”
“Right…” Rue tried to see any sign of irritation on his face, but there was nothing. He simply looked lost in his head. Before she could speak, he took a deep breath and took hold of the hand that was resting in her lap. He watched his thumb roll over her bony knuckles as he spoke.
“Are you… going to tell me what happened?” Upon hearing no response, he looked up quickly. “I mean, you really don’t have to, I just didn’t know if you wanted to talk about it.”
“I…” Rue sighed, staring at the moving pictures on her TV screen. “It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t know if I can. I just, y’know, want to wait until we’re way past this, and then maybe I’ll tell you. If that makes any sense…?”
“I can wait,” he nodded, letting the room fall into a comfortable silence. He understood, and even if he didn’t, he was willing to try. Rue felt a weight lift off her chest. It was overwhelmingly relieving to know that he wasn’t going to push her past her boundaries.
“So… What are the odds that you wind up at this post? Like, how are you chosen?” she asked, returning to their former topic.
“Random chance,” he sighed, turning his body toward her. “It all depends on who pops into Rayne’s head when she decides to replace the missing piece.”
“I can’t get over that,” Rue scoffed, shaking her head in disbelief. To think that at any moment Eren could be ripped away from her forever… Even if this “relationship” didn’t work out, there was nothing she would cherish more than the connection they shared. And if Rayne tore that out of her hands and threw it out… She shook her head, biting on the inside of her cheek.
“But there’s no use worrying about it,” Eren pointed out. “What happens, happens. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”
“Listen, I know I said I’d let you take your time, but last night I got to thinking,” he admitted. Rue’s stomach churned. Curiosity got the better of him. “Does that girl… Does she have anything to do with your husband?”
“I wish she didn’t,” Rue huffed, staring long and hard at a stain on the edge of his collar. “Okay, fine. You want to know who she is?”
“I said you could take your—”
“Yeah, but I think I need to at least explain the husband part.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Eren.” Rue raised her eyebrows, silencing him. She slouched back against the couch cushions. “Let me see… He was about five years older; we met when I was sixteen.”
“Oops.” Eren cringed. “He sounds kinda creepy.”
“Yeah, he was, kind of. He was one of those hipster dudes with the flannels and the man buns and what not. I thought he was hot, and he was obviously into younger girls, so I took it.” Rue laughed in disbelief at her own actions. “I was an idiot. I thought that boy was so in love with me. He was high as a kite for ninety percent of our relationship; I don’t think he could even remember my name some days.” She rolled her eyes, glancing down at her arm, which was once stained with the pricks of a hundred needles.
“He got me using whatever drugs that he was addicted to, and before I knew it, I’d dropped out of school altogether my last year. And then,” she huffed, recalling the bitter memory, “I decided to move in with him when I turned eighteen. My dad—I didn’t ever meet my mom—didn’t take too kindly to that. Told me that if I left, he’d never speak to me again. And, to his credit, he stuck with that. We never talked again.”
“What was this guy’s name?”
“Casper.” The word was spit from her mouth as if the taste alone was enough to poison her. “We got married a few years later because I was still hopelessly in love and he didn’t give two shits what happened in his life as long as he could still get high.”
“What happened to him?”
“I think you could make a good guess,” Rue huffed, picking at the cat hair on the couch. “I realized he didn’t care about me, it ticked me off, along with a few other things, and I killed him and his drug dealer cousin.”
“I don’t even know what to say,” Eren admitted, laughing nervously. Rue shrugged.
“I don’t either. It’s just the way it is, and I wish I could change it all. I made one stupid mistake that would have ruined my entire life if, in some fucked up, cliché way, the Darkness hadn’t given me another chance.”
“But at least you took it,” he pointed out, reaching forward to tuck her loose hair behind her ear. She took hold of his hand, smiling faintly. “I don’t see you shooting up right now.”
“You don’t know what I do in my free time,” she teased.
“Probably starve,” he muttered with a scoff. She frowned, though she was quick to try to brush the comment off. It echoed in the back of her mind. “And torture that cat.”
“Excuse you, I’m very respectful of her space.”
“I’m honestly surprised.”
“Looks like I’ve been with two assholes in my time.”
“Hey, low blow!” he cried, jabbing her ribs. She laughed, pulling away from his poking fingers that almost tickled. “Fuck you!”
“No, fuck you, asshole!” She squealed when his fingers dug in again, falling onto her back. He crawled forward, looming over her. She raised an eyebrow as his glasses slid down the bridge of his nose.
“Not to be predictable, but yeah, you could.”
“Oh my god,” she groaned, rolling her eyes. She couldn’t help but snicker. “You look like a librarian.”
“Like a sexy librarian?” he asked, wiggling his eyebrows.
“No, like an old man librarian.”
“Well, shit, I’m younger than you.”
“Really?” she asked under her breath, knowing full well that he was, and pulled his glasses off his face, folding them up and setting them on the coffee table.
“Hell yeah,” he scoffed. “You’re the old one here.”
“Got a problem with that?”
“Not at all,” Eren grinned.
He was obviously growing impatient. Rolling her eyes again, she dug her fingers into the hair at the back of his head and pulled him down for a kiss that lasted much longer than she expected. Her hands roamed, trying to memorize what they couldn’t when she was so drunk she was seeing stars. With the threat of Rayne’s mysterious death-post on the horizon, resisting sentimentality was the least she could do.
She closed her eyes and cherished every moment instead, fighting the pit of dread that Eren had scooped out with his news. The memory of Casper teased the recesses of her mind, making her heart flutter for no reason she could place other than Eren’s touch. She gritted her teeth and banished his face from her mind’s eye. Even after death, he would never stop pulling her puppet strings from the dark, would he?
Chapter 22: Always Downhill
"Trauma" by NF
~7 years before~
“How was your day?” Rue asked cheerfully, stirring the macaroni and cheese in the pot before her. The coils of stove glowed red hot, coated in the same fine layer of grime as the rest of the house. Her belly was swollen, peeking out from beneath her tight tank top and her free hand rested on top fondly. The front door closed with a shriek, the thump of kicked boots hit her ears, and the shuffle of a jacket signaled an impending conversation. She looked over shoulder to the tall, scrawny man that stood at the door, hanging a heavy, patched jacket on the rusted hook before him.
“What do you think?” Casper replied with a huff, brushing the long, wispy hair that had escaped the bun on his head out of his face. He scratched at the scruffy hair that was growing in on his face and shoved a hand into the pocket of his ripped jeans.
“Rick on your ass again?” she guessed, plating the stale pasta. He scoffed, heading to the kitchen to join her. His hands wrapped around her midsection, fastening over the front of her stretched stomach. She winced as his bony chin dug into her shoulder. He smelled like cigarette smoke, which she supposed was desirable compared to the alternatives.
“When isn’t he?”
“Right?” Rue lifted the spoon she’d used to dish out their dinner, turning her head to meet Casper’s curious gaze. “You wanna lick it off?”
“This my dinner?” Rue snorted and rolled her eyes, leaning into his kiss.
“No. Just put it in the sink when you’re done.”
Casper huffed, taking the dented spoon and placing on top of the pile of dirty dishes that had accumulating for weeks. Flies crawled between plates and bowls and cups, preferring the moisture and warmth of their home to the cold outside. Turning away from the scene as though it was a normal part of his daily routine, he plucked a plastic fork off the edge of the counter and took the fuller of the two plates to the couch. Rue followed like a lost puppy.
“How was your guys’ day?”
“Well, we woke up at noon,” Rue started, smiling to herself at his attention. “And then we took a nice, long bath after cleaning out the tub. And then we had lunch—”
“Two apples and a lot of peanut butter.”
“And then we waited for Daddy to come home.”
“Is that what you both call me?”
“Casper,” Rue rolled her eyes, shoveling her dinner into her mouth. Casper’s cocky smile fell and he went back to eating, staring at the denim jacket that was hung by the door.
“You should really be doing more around the house when I’m at work.”
“Y’know.” He swallowed his mouthful of food, gesturing with his fork. “Like clean the place up for me?” He reached forward and pinched the back of her arm; she jerked it away, frowning. “And, I mean, no offense, but you’re getting kinda big. Maybe do some maternity exercises or something.” Rue felt each word stab through her heart like a knife. She lived to please this man who’d swept her off her feet and saved her from her over-controlling father, and she’d failed to do that much.
“I’m sorry, I’ll try to keep it cleaner. It’s just harder to get down on the floor when I can’t bend—”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re just losing all your muscle. Figure it out.” He turned to face her, gnawing on the inside of his cheek. “And I’d appreciate if you don’t freak out, because I’m not some douche who can’t provide for his own family, but I quit today.”
“You quit?!” Rue straightened so quickly that her plate, which was balanced on the rough arm of the sofa, fell to the floor and shattered across the concrete. “How the hell are we going to pay the bills, Casper?”
“I’ll get another job. Just push the bills back.” He took another bite, pulling out a cracked, jumbled mess of a phone that was hardly clinging to life. Rue couldn’t believe her ears, leaping to her feet and nearly slicing her skin open on the shards of glass.
“We’re months behind!”
“Then get a job!” he shouted, standing sharply, still clinging to his fork. “Do something useful for once in your goddamn life!” Rue, startled, stared at him with wide eyes, somehow made wider by her pale color. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m stressed enough about it, okay?”
“I get that,” Rue reassured him as he sat slowly. “But this is the third job in six weeks. What are you going to do when word gets out that no one can keep you?”
“It’s not my problem that they’re all assholes,” he grumbled, focused on the texts he was receiving.
“Who are you texting?”
“Why does it matter?”
“You just cut off our finances when we have a baby on the way, insulted me, and now you want to shut up?” Casper shot her a nasty glare.
“It’s Gray. Is that okay?”
“You’re thinking about getting high when you need to go out and find a job tomorrow?” Rue demanded incredulously, crossing her arms. Casper, springing back to his feet, rushed to get in her face.
“Yes, I am. Get off my ass.” He jabbed a finger into her belly. “And keep your paws off this time. Wouldn’t want a repeat of the last one.”
“Fuck off.” Rue gritted, ignoring the shuddering of her heart as she recalled the pain of her miscarriage.
“Yeah? You wanna be like that?” Casper hissed with a sarcastic smile. “Get. Out.”
“Where the hell do I go?” Rue shouted, shoving him away from her.
“Anywhere. Shit, go sell yourself to the junkies just like you used to!” Casper’s hands curled into fists and then slowly released. “I pay the rent, I buy off the landlord, I keep Gray happy. Me. You get that?”
“Sure,” Rue muttered, pushing past him to get to their room and shove her things into a bag. All she got was a few wrinkled items of clothing before she felt someone grasp her elbow. Gritting out a sort of throaty, strangled cry, she tried to throw him off, but he was already dragging her toward the door.
“I said out.”
Casper shoved her out the squeaky door of their shithole of a house on the edge of the poorest sector of town before slamming it in her face. Rue threw herself at the door, pounding until her hands bruised and screaming until her throat was hoarse. Finally, choking on pained sobs, she grabbed her half-zipped duffel bag and stormed off down the street, ignoring the stares of the strange people that surrounded them. Most, if not all, of them had been in one drug-related fiasco or another.
She walked until her feet were blistered, her fair skin was burnt, and her legs ached. She walked until she reached her father’s condo, knocking with reddened knuckles and trembling with rage. His neighbors watched in shock as the dingy, heavily pregnant young woman knocked again, louder this time. Her phone, with only a few minutes of battery life left, vibrated in the pocket of her jeans. She picked up with shaking hands.
“Dad, please, I need—”
“No. Leave now or I’m calling the authorities.”
“I told you that if you left with that boy we’d be done. It’s finished.”
“You’re still my father!”
“And you’re an adult. Admit your own wrongs and fix it yourself.”
The line buzzed. He was gone. With a frustrated scream, she kicked his door with the tip of her holey shoe and turned on her heels, stomping out of the building before security dragged her to the curb by her hair. She crossed the road and entered an alleyway filled with trash and puddles of water that stewed in the potholes in the pavement. She fell to the ground, pressing her back to the brick wall and staring up at the darkening sky. What the hell do we do now?
“Rue!” Cam shouted, peering over the stack of boxes that were piled high in his arms. Rue ignored him, shoulders squared as Cor watched with a deep-set frown. After Ignis brought his “evidence” to the King’s attention, the Captain was swiftly removed from his position. Two days after his attempt at Rue, he was cleaning out his office, forced to be gone by night. “Hey!”
“Let her be,” Cor grumbled, arms crossed. He was obviously unhappy about his nephew’s actions, but apparently, he’d been known to do such things before the Dawn. I guess the Darkness didn’t change everyone.
“Rue, I need a hand.”
“Ask someone who’s not busy,” she replied coldly, reaching for Ignis’s door. He stopped at her side, gritting his teeth.
“We gotta talk.”
“Do we?” She scowled at him, but her hand pulled away from the doorknob. He nodded, his eyes fixed earnestly on hers. Her lips pressed together firmly, but she nodded back, taking a box off the top of the stack that was straining the muscles in his arms.
Rue exchanged a look with Cor before turning to follow, her left ankle wobbling on its tall hall unsteadily. She doubted she’d ever get good at walking on stilts, but at least it helped make her a bit more presentable. The clothes she’d bought with Cam’s money definitely helped as well, but she refused to believe he gave it out of the goodness of his heart and the urge to fulfill a secretary fantasy. There had to be something more. In the parking garage, they headed toward a very expensive-looking car. Rue rolled her eyes; of course he drove something like that.
“Here, I’ll take that,” Cam said, pulling the box out of her hands and shoving it into his overcrowded backseat. Rue hugged her arms to her body, suddenly feeling as though she shouldn’t have followed this man into a dark garage alone.
“If this is about the money, I can—”
“It’s not.” He straightened, rubbing the back of his neck. It was odd seeing him without his armored uniform. Finally, he turned to face her. “That was a gift; no catch, if you can believe it. I’ve… done some awful #$%^ to you, but I really did want to see you do well.” Fuck off.
“Why am I here, then?” Rue bit the urge to make a bitter assault joke.
“I need to talk to you.”
“You already said that,” she retorted. “So talk.”
“Damn, you’re getting bold,” he laughed nervously. “Listen, I know no one’s talked about this in a while, but about those kids… Remember them? The ones who attacked?”
“Of course I do, Cam, I killed one of them.”
“Right, I almost forgot. Well, I got put on looking into that, and I think I know where they’re located.”
“What’s this have to do with me?”
“They’ve been quiet,” Cam pointed out in disbelief as if he couldn’t understand why she didn’t care. “Doesn’t that put you on edge? From what I’ve gathered, it just a group of kids with someone older at its head who wants to see the King’s reputation, and maybe his life, crumble.” He moved to grab her shoulder and she stepped away with a glower. Awkwardly crossing his arms, he continued. “Listen, everything’s in my notes; I’m leaving them on my database. The password is ‘captaininsomnia,’ all one word, all lowercase.”
“What the hell kind of…?” Rue muttered, raising an eyebrow. “Why aren’t you telling the next person who’s getting put on this?”
“Because that’s going to take time, and we don’t have that. I promise you, Rue, you won’t regret looking into that.” He shrugged, shaking his head. “Please, Rue, I’m begging you to just give it a chance. If you solve this, Rayne might not hate you anymore.”
Most of Rue wanted to believe that he was lying, trying to get someone inside to finish his work so that, when everything was over, he could leap into the spotlight and declare his victory in order to revive the King’s favor. The smallest sliver of her whispered that he was being honest, that he truly wanted to see the city rebuilt to what it was before, to see Noctis rule as well as, or even better than, his father. Something told her that the quieter option was right, but her spirit was a democracy, and the majority vote won. Glaring into the eyes she once saw as gentle and spirited, she turned on her heels, heading toward the garage door.
“Go to Hell, Cameron.”
She half expected him to protest, perhaps even grab hold of her. No such thing happened. She forced herself to keep her eyes forward, but she took his silence as dejection—as victory. No way would she ever be the one to do his dirty work. She’d leave his project as incomplete as his respect for her. Only once she was safe inside did she heave a sigh of relief, hurrying to Ignis’s office with quick, giddy steps. Finally, she felt as though she’d defeated something.
“I heard you disappeared with Cameron,” Ignis said, standing behind his desk. His brows were furrowed and he had the slightest frown on his lips, but it was one rotted more in concern than in anger. Rue paused, closing the door behind her. “Was everything alright?”
“Y’know, I kind of expected some sort of ‘last hurrah’ act, but there was nothing.” She huffed, crossing her arms. “Not even an apology.”
“Don’t take it too personally,” Ignis sighed, touching his glasses to push them further up his face. “He was spoiled; there was no need for an apology when forgiveness was bestowed before the crime.”
“I guess not,” she muttered, falling into the seat before his desk, looking around his office carefully for the umpteenth time. “This might be deigned too personal, but I take it you weren’t spoiled rotten as a kid.”
“Life was… comfortable, to be sure,” Ignis replied, nodding and watching as she stood suddenly and passed him to look out the broad windows behind his desk. Her sudden lack of concern for appearances threw him for a moment, but he couldn’t say he was offended by the action. Finally, she appeared to be getting comfortable. “But I became the official advisor to His Majesty at the age of six, training under—”
“Six!?” Rue turned sharply to face him, shocked. “I knew you were young, but damn.”
“Yes, well, preparations start early,” he replied smoothly, resting his hands low on his hips, watching her like a hawk as her fingers trailed across the perfectly clean window sill. “I was rushed through my schooling in order to serve the Crown as soon as possible. I had everything I could ever need, and yet, it was never easy.”
“Funny how life works like that,” Rue muttered, smiling over at him. Her smile faltered. “I know that Noctis’s mother died fairly early on, but… What about your parents?”
“I can hardly recall a memory,” Ignis answered coolly, though there was a crease in his brow that she couldn’t ignore. “It was my uncle that brought me here for my duties.”
“Your father wasn’t part of the retainers?”
“No, and I won’t lie; I don’t have a reason as to why.”
“Hm.” She watched the busy cars drive in all directions. Finally, she spotted Cam’s flashy vehicle speeding away, relieved when he headed in the opposite direction of her apartment complex. Of course, he wouldn’t stay in that poor man’s shelter—he had “too much money” and it “made him uncomfortable.” How could she forget? Still, she couldn't help but be relieved that he didn't live near her.
“It’s only fair that I ask the same in return,” Ignis spoke up, breaking the silence. She frowned, unaware that he could see her expression in the reflection on the glass. “Unless it’s too sensitive a topic.”
“No, no, it’s not,” she shook her head, turning around and leaning back against the window sill, gripping the smooth marble with her cold fingers. “I never knew my mother, and my father, who raised me, never told me what happened to her. He was one of those really proud guys who could never admit to any bad things in his life.” She scoffed, tucking her hair behind her ear. “He worked two manager jobs at two different grocery stores to keep us under a roof, but it was barely enough. For some reason, he had all his clothes from his childhood, so I went to school in boy’s clothes most of my life.”
“You couldn’t afford your own?”
“Well, that’s what I thought,” she huffed. “I came to find out in secondary that he was hoarding it all when he bought some fancy condo. I was working my ass off to feed myself at that point because he was always gone on business trips—he became CEO of some electronics company—and here he was buying off women and living a second life across the world.”
“You resent him.” The words were clearly a statement; Ignis had her figured out before she could speak another word. At least, he thought so.
“Yeah, I do. He’s dead, though, so I guess I can’t hate him too much.” She shrugged, looking up at the ceiling. “From there…? Oh, yeah. I’m not nearly as smart as you, and my grades showed it, especially after I ran away with some guy who was old enough to know better than to hang around high schools. I dropped out at seventeen and never looked back.”
“I noticed your surname was different from your original documents,” Ignis admitted, crossing his arms loosely and leaning against his desk. Rue had to admit; the sudden casual conversation was odd, but it wasn’t unwelcome. “You married him?”
“Yeah,” she scoffed, flashing a sardonic smile. “Can you believe it? Worst decision I ever made. Got me mixed up in all that criminal activity that put me on the Glaive’s radar in the first place. I’m sure a genius like you doesn’t need me to say he and his drug dealer are the two murders on my record.” Gods, Rue, quit stroking his ego.
“Yes, but,” Ignis started, tilting his head forward, “you managed to get yourself free from that life. That’s more than most can say for themselves.”
“Most? Have you seen the Kingsglaive recently?” she teased. “I know for a fact that one of those chicks killed her own mother in cold blood.”
“Am I wrong in assuming that you killed your own father, then?” Damn, you thought that I…?
“He died during the Imperial assault on Insomnia,” she sighed, shrugging one shoulder. “So, yeah, you are. Guess you’re not as smart as I thought.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.” Ignis glanced at his black computer screen and sighed. “I suppose there’s not much else we can complete today. Thanks to your assistance, I’ve caught up rather quickly.”
“You seriously have to do all that data entry on your own?”
“Not any longer, but before you came, yes.” His green eyes flitted over the open notebook on his desk before he reached forward to close it. “There were many late nights that I spent in this room. I’ve been able to get to bed at a decent hour for the past few weeks, and for that, I give you my thanks.” There was something light in his tone that made Rue smile as she headed for her jacket. He eyed the large item of clothing curiously. “Forgive my prodding, but I have another assumption for you.”
“Shoot,” she replied, shoving her hands deep into the denim pockets.
“That jacket is your former husband's.”
“Yeah, well.” She smiled a bit too sweetly, fondly tucking her chin beneath the collar. “It’s comfortable and he doesn’t need it anymore. If anything, having a trophy boosts my ego.”
“Of course.” Ignis looked back down at his notebook, but his frown had returned. Rue silently wished that she’d bitten her tongue.
“Honey, I’m home!” Rue cried rather loudly, closing the door behind her. I've always wanted to do that.
She wasn’t even sure if Eren was there, or if he was, why he kept staying the night. He’d only slept in his own house once since Saturday; she couldn’t understand why he was still in her apartment. Was he really that scared that she’d turn on him if he didn’t show his face? Sighing, she shook her head and walked into the kitchen. Whatever; it’s not like I mind all that much. Besides, she was in a good mood for once, and all she wanted was a glass of wine and a movie.
“Took you long enough,” Eren said, appearing from the narrow hallway that led to her room. He had the strap of a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Rue immediately felt her heart sink upon realizing that he was actually leaving and that she would be alone again, but she recalled her happiness easily. “Long day?”
“You wouldn’t understand even if I explained,” she huffed, pulling a wine bottle down and working her corkscrew with all the muscle she could manage. Puffing a short, amused laugh, Eren set his bag down by the door and entered the kitchen, resting a hand on her hip and pressing his lips onto her cheek. He rested his chin on her shoulder while he watched her tug at the cork.
“I saw Schrader leaving today.”
“Guess he was caught for a bunch of sexual assaults and bribery stuff.”
“Cor was pissed.”
Finally, she got the bottle open and poured herself a big glass, taking a long drink before turning to face him, eyebrow raised. He raised his back.
“He’s the one who hurt you.”
“Maybe,” she muttered into her glass, taking another sip. He shook his head, looking around the small, dimly lit kitchen.
“I knew it the second I saw him packing his shit. I wanted to put that guy through a meat grinder.”
“Do they have those at the Citadel?”
“Ask Ignis,” he mumbled, looking back at her. “Anyway… I feel like garbage for not realizing sooner. You doing alright?”
“I’m fine,” she nodded, lying through her teeth. It’s not the first time.
“Okay.” He cocked his head toward his bag, pushing his glasses up. “I, uh, figured it was time I stopped squatting in your apartment. Thanks for letting me stay.”
“Any time,” she teased, smiling with the rim of the wine glass resting on her bottom lip. He shook his head, his hair bouncing with the motion.
“I’ll leave you to it, then. See ya soon?”
“If you play your cards right.”
“Right,” he laughed, kissing her forehead and heading to the door. She gave a single, silent wave as he left, the resounding thud of her front door closing serving as the start of her sentence to solitude.
Shaking her head, Rue grabbed a spare blanket from the shelf above her washer and fell onto the couch, turning to tug the curtains shut. It was pitch black outside, but the glare from the city’s lights would likely disrupt her movie. Humming an old song from a musical she couldn’t name, she scrolled through the movies available to her through her cable subscription, finally settling on one she’d meant to watch before. Before she started, she got back up to shut off all the lights and lock the front door, bringing the wine bottle back with her to top her glass off. Finally, she thought as she settled in, taking another drink.
The film lasted longer than she expected, and she got distracted by her phone several times during the slow parts. Her eyelids grew heavier as time dragged on, and while she couldn’t say she disliked the movie, she didn’t enjoy it much either. Finally, the credits rolled, and she was too tired from the combination of boredom, darkness, and alcohol to get up. She heaved a sigh and burled up on her couch cushions, easily drifting off.
A strange sound woke her up hardly an hour later. There was a gentle noise coming from the front of her apartment; it sounded like metal scraping metal. Frowning, she tried to ignore it, but the noise persisted, accompanied by the occasional click. Suddenly, her heart skipped a beat as she realized the sound was coming from her front door. What the hell…? Why would someone be picking her lock? She wasn’t exactly worth robbing.
With her drowsiness long gone, Rue scrambled to her feet, kicking off her blanket and heading toward the door. The sound was definitely coming from her lock. Before she had more time to consider her options, it clicked loudly. A gun was in her hand before she could think, aimed straight at the door. Her heart was pounding by this point, her breaths quick and sharp, and her hands were trembling from the adrenaline. Slowly, the door slid open, allowing a crack of light from the hallway to enter.
Her heart caught in her throat as she saw a dark, shadowy figure, hardly her height, hulking in the doorway. Whoever it was must have seen her because, without further warning, the door was thrown open and a shooting, burning pain burst from her shoulder. Blinded by panic, she squeezed the trigger, the loud pop of her gunshot echoing through the entire wing of the apartment building. Another shadow appeared as the first fell and she shot again, twice this time, wide-eyed and shaking like a leaf as the two figures collapsed into her doorway, blood pouring across the tile and pooling around the shoes that were strewn about there.
Keeping her gun aimed at them, she hurried to the left to turn on the lights, her hand fumbling over the wall as she searched for a switch. The sudden brightness nearly blinded her, but she hardly felt the pain, staring hard at the two people that laid dead on her floor. Two young girls, dressed head to toe in black, baggy clothing, each equipped with guns of their own. This has to be a fucking dream. No matter how hard she pinched, she couldn’t wake up.
Her shoulder began to throb, but she was too busy chasing thoughts around her head to care. How do they know where I live? Have they been following me? She swallowed hard, turning to look for her phone. Did they follow Eren? The sound of footsteps broke her from her thoughts and she turned to see a crowd of her neighbors gathering. She couldn’t find words to explain what happened to the gawking people.
“What the hell is g—" The owner of the apartment building, who happened to live on the very same floor, stopped in her tracks, staring at the bodies with a pale face. Everyone jumped when Rue’s gun hit the floor with a clatter. She felt like she was going to throw up. “Gods, what did you do? Who are these people?”
“I d-don’t know,” Rue stammered, clutching her bleeding shoulder. “They broke in and shot me, it was all I could do to—”
“You don’t have to make excuses,” the woman interrupted, brushing past a young girl that clung to her father, eyeing the teens with horror. Rue watched her landlord, whose name she finally recalled to be Audrey, step over the assailants and turn to assess the damage. Scowling, she waved the crowd away. “Get outta here, all of you. We’ll figure this out alone.”
“What if they come after us?” the man with the child demanded. “What then?”
“I—” Rue stopped herself, thinking her words through. “My line of work makes me a target. You’ll all be okay.”
“What the hell does that mean?” he retorted. “What’s your work?”
“Leave!” Audrey bellowed. Quickly, the gathering dissipated. With a sigh, she turned to Rue. “I’ve heard about these kids hitting the Citadel. You work with the King?”
“Makes sense, then.” She knelt before one of the girls, brushing her hair aside to reveal a dark mark on the back of her neck, a simple circle that looked like it had been carved in. “They all have this, I’ve noticed.”
“I’ve got a curiosity the news can’t fulfill,” she admitted, standing. “Listen, I know you won’t feel safe here, but these kids won’t make another move on you like this now that you’ve proven to be a stronger wall than they realized.”
“Okay,” she frowned, staring at the mess. The scent of blood was starting to make her sick.
“You got somewhere to go while I get this cleaned up?”
“I…” Rue could hardly even remember her own name—it was a wonder she remembered Audrey’s. “Y-yeah.”
“Alright. Soon as you’re outta here, I’ll have some guys take care of this. I’ll shoot you a text when they’re done, okay?”
With her heart still pounding but her body numb, she turned and headed toward her phone, grimacing at her bloody fingers. She was surprised that no one mentioned her wounds. Her thumb hesitated over Eren’s number. What would he do? Would he force her to stay inside, quit her job, be imprisoned in his home until the threat was gone? Would this ruin them? Rue chewed her cheek anxiously. Where the hell else—Oh. She scrolled to Ignis’s contact, mulling it over. No, that’s stupid, I can’t bother my boss to let me stay the night because I’m having an internal dilemma. She pressed on the screen to scroll, but her phone accepted the tap as confirmation, and the dialing tone struck up. Shit!
Rue quickly picked up her phone to cancel the call, fumbling clumsily, but it was too late. He’d see that she’d called him in the dead of night, and without an explanation… Damn, would it look bizarre. She couldn’t decide what to do quickly enough; the tone ended abruptly.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she hissed under her breath, earning a confused stare from Audrey. Ignoring her, she took a deep breath and answered, despising the way her voice trembled. “Yeah, hi. Sorry for calling so late, I really didn’t mean to.”
“… You accidentally called at two in the morning?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to call you.”
“Is everything alright?” Ignis’s voice was a mixture of confusion and drowsiness. He must keep his ringer on for Noctis, like some sort of kingly booty call. Rue rolled her eyes. Now is not the time.
“I, uh… Y’know, not really.”
“Rue, I hate to interrupt, but we really gotta get moving if you don’t want to pay for new flooring,” Audrey pressed, looking impatient. Clearly, her greed was unfazed by the dead bodies of children.
“Pardon?” No turning back now.
“Listen, Ignis, I have a weird request,” Rue muttered. “Can I, uh, sleep on your couch tonight?” There was silence. “I’ll explain later, I just really need somewhere to go and I—”
“Of course.” His words were more an expression of understanding and the desire to shut her up than one of ‘oh, yes, anything you need!’, but she wasn’t complaining.
“I’m really sorry. Let me just pack some things and I’ll head over.”
“Rue, I’m not letting you walk alone at this time of night,” Audrey cut in. “And if you’re talking to the goddamn advisor to the king, he better—”
“Please, Audrey, I’ll be fine,” Rue hissed, but Ignis had heard enough.
“Give me your address.”
“Ignis, really, I don’t want to disturb you, I just need—”
“It would be more of a disruption to have my employee die on the streets of Insomnia than to drive to your home,” he replied. What the hell am I doing? “Not to mention that it would be a waste of time for me to have gotten into my vehicle.” He’s already in his car? Rue wished she could pound her head against the wall until she turned to pulp.
“Fine. I live at Caelum Cove. The obnoxious building by the Citadel? Do you need anything else?”
“No. I should be there soon.”
“Th—” The line buzzed, dead. Rue sighed, burying her face in her hands. Fuck.
“Better get ready, kid,” Audrey muttered, crossing her arms. “Sounds like you got a storm brewin’.”
“More like a hurricane,” Rue huffed, staring at her cellphone. Why the fuck did I just do that?
Chapter 23: Turning Tides
"Survive" by Madilyn Bailey
“I’m really sorry,” Rue said right off the bat, her voice pleading Ignis not to be pissed at her. He said nothing in return, taking the backpack from her hands and pushing it into the backseat. “I really didn’t mean to bother you. I was going to call Eren and my hand slipped, I swear.”
“I’m not going to fire you, if that’s what you’re fearing.”
His words startled her. What the hell kind of response was that? Not going to fire me my ass.
“Still, I hate to be an inconvenience.”
“That’s the way things are,” he replied curtly, straightening to face her. “Get in.”
“Right,” Rue whispered, hurrying to get into the passenger’s seat. The car started quietly and they pulled out onto the street, which was virtually dead.
“Care to explain the hole in your arm?”
“Oh, I, uh…” Rue glanced down at her shoulder. It hadn’t even hurt until he mentioned it. Shit. “Remember those kids that kept showing up at the Citadel a few weeks ago?”
“Weeks?” Ignis murmured, but she didn’t hear him. As far as he knew, they’d continued to attack at random intervals and Schrader, who was in charge of cleaning up the mess, had made no drastic moves to stop them.
“I fell asleep on my couch and I heard someone fiddling with the locks,” she explained, slouching in her seat. Ignis bit back the urge to tell her to sit up straight. “They opened the door and I saw two of the kids standing there. I didn’t really know what to do, but one of them shot me and I shot back.”
“Did they get away?” Ignis asked, unsure as to why she had decided to become his burden for the evening. After taking near hours to fall asleep, he was rudely awoken by the blaring tone of his cellphone. Assuming it was Noctis, he was confused to see Rue’s name on the screen, and rightfully so. He couldn’t recall a single time they’d sent more than a formal text to one another.
“Well, there’s a reason I can’t be in my apartment tonight,” she sighed, watching the street lights flash past. “Namely, they’re lying dead in the middle of my doorway and my landlord doesn’t want the floors to get stained.”
“You’ve been removed from your home because of the carpets?” Ignis repeated, frowning. The priorities of some people easily turned him off to most. He’d heard a woman’s voice droning in the background of the call; that must have been the owner that removed her resident for floor polish.
“She’s never had anything more on the brain than money,” Rue shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
“Regardless, she was wise enough not to let you walk alone at this hour,” he pointed out, glancing up into his rearview mirror when he saw a light flash. It was merely another car turning another direction.
The idea of the Citadel’s minor annoyance breaking into his assistant’s home to assassinate her bothered him far more than one would expect. However, if they were willing to pick off one mere girl who hardly had any dealings with royalty, at what point would they be willing to dream bigger and attack the King himself? Needless to say, the idea put him on edge.
“I’m worried,” Rue admitted, breaking the silence. “They’ve probably been following me all this time, which means they’ve seen Eren leave.” Eren? Ignis’s brow furrowed. Perhaps his senses had been right, then, when they told him those two were certainly more than mere friends. “What if they go after him?”
“As a glaive, Eren can handle himself, I’m certain,” he answered coolly, though internally he was conflicted. How long should he wait before informing the Crownsguard? Everything about this attack was unnerving. Whether those rebels thought Rue might fight back or not, it was certainly a bold move to break into her home and kill her there, especially in a place so heavily guard with—That’s it. “… They didn’t expect to make it out alive,” Ignis murmured. Rue frowned, glancing over at him.
“It must have been a warning,” he explained, still unaware that he was keeping his voice low as he collected his thoughts aloud. “In every single attack, they’ve had near-perfect accuracy with their aim. You’re hardly worth much to them—”
“Gee, thanks,” she scoffed.
“—due to your lack of contact with the Crown. However, by boldly entering the facility in which you live where they could clearly be seen by cameras and those wandering late at night and leaving you as a surviving witness, they sent a message.”
“What message?” Rue pressed, uncertain. Ignis glanced over at her, touching his glasses to adjust their height.
“That perhaps soon they’ll be aiming higher.”
Through the corner of his eye, he saw Rue shudder before reaching forward to turn the air vents away from her. Her eyes turned back to the outside, her fingers toying with the fabric of her sweatpants thoughtfully. As they pulled into his driveway, she spoke.
“Y’know, I never imagined the shit I’d get mixed up in when I first started working at the Citadel.”
“Serving the Crown is messy,” Ignis replied, getting out of the car. “Even one raised outside the walls would be expected to understand that.”
“Yeah, well, from the outside the Crownsguard just looks like a bunch of glorified guards,” Rue admitted, opening the back door to pull out her bag. She gritted her teeth when her shoulder screamed under the weight, forcing herself to bear the pain and follow him inside the home she’d left just a few days prior. “Thanks again.”
“Of course,” Ignis nodded. She began to wonder if that was his automatic response to everything, grilled into his big brain as the appropriate answer to any situation. Maybe it was just something his uncle used to say.
“So, uh, I’ll just—”
“You are permitted to make use of my restroom if need be,” he interrupted, though he hardly seemed aware that she’d started to speak. “I’ll prepare some bedding for you.”
“You really don’t have to,” Rue replied, pleading him to just let it be. “I brought warm clothes so you wouldn’t have to get any blankets out.”
“Regardless, I’d rather you be comfortable than freeze.” He looked offended at the prospect of leaving his guest to fend for herself.
“Okay. Thanks.” She grabbed her smaller bag of toiletries and hurried toward his bedroom door. “I’ll be quick, I swear.”
And she made good of her word, scrubbing her teeth as fast as she could and practically gouging her eye out while she tried to remove her contacts (which she hated to admit she’d fallen asleep wearing—again). She splashed some water over her wound, gritting her teeth. What the hell do I do about that, huh? Huffing, she ruffled her hair, which really needed a good wash, though she felt using Ignis’s shower was a bit too far, and switched off the light. With quick steps, she returned to the living room, startled to see Ignis at the kitchen table with a first aid kit.
“Did you think you would sleep this off?” he asked in reply to her confused stare. Sighing, she started to walk toward him.
“I can just drink a potion and be done with it.”
“Not with a bullet still inside.”
“I’ve done it before,” she shrugged. Ignis sighed, waiting impatiently for her to comply.
“If you truly felt guilty for keeping me up, you would help make this quick and painless.”
“Don’t use my guilt against me,” she muttered, pulling up a chair and tugging her sleeve down to reveal the gaping hole in her upper arm. Ignis leaned forward, squinting at the wound before heaving a sigh and pulling his glasses off, returning to his focused position. Damn, he looks decades younger.
“It’s all I had at the moment.”
“Not—” She clenched her teeth when he prodded her skin. “True.”
“Did you expect me to threaten your relationship with Rayne?” His response came so quick that Rue had to take the time to process his words before she laughed.
“In reference to which?”
“Both.” She cringed when he went fishing for the bullet with a pair of tweezers, focused on his work. “What, are you my nurse now?”
“It seems we’ve both played the part,” he muttered.
“The Scientia Clinic is back in business.”
“I’ll have it registered before the break of dawn.”
Rue scoffed and stared hard at the walls, taking in details she didn’t notice before, like a photo of he and the rest of the entourage that followed Noctis to the end of Eos posing around a rather fancy car, or the silver chocobo ornament on the shelf beneath his clock.
“There we are.”
She turned back to see him straightening, holding a little bloody piece of metal with his tweezers. He set it aside, putting his glasses back on and handing over the potion Rue originally planned to use to heal her ailments.
“Faster than I thought,” she commented. Ignis sighed; he looked exhausted.
“Yes, well, you get good at first aid when you’re fighting a war against an army of robotic fiends.”
“Right.” She crushed the curative in her palm, feeling the shower of warm sparks travel through her body to her wound and seal it up. She stood carefully, putting the chair back where it was before and offering Ignis a smile. “Thanks. See you in a few hours?”
“Of course.” There he goes again.
Rue collapsed onto the sofa as if she couldn’t hold her weight any longer, pulling the heavy blankets Ignis set out up to her nose and resting her head against the small, decorative gray pillow that was already there, to begin with. She trusted that her body knew when to wake up in the morning and let her heavy eyelids close. She wasn’t at all surprised to see the faces of the girls behind them, watching the scene play over and over in her head. A long night was ahead for both resting under Ignis’s roof.
It was the clanking of dishes in the kitchen that woke Rue. At first, she had no idea where she was, sitting up with a start. However, upon shoving her glasses on and seeing Ignis’s back as he bustled about the kitchen, she slowly recalled the night before, pressing a hand to her throbbing head. Slowly, she rolled over and checked her phone. Four hours total… Thanks, weird assassin kids.
“Did you sleep well?” Ignis asked. As if you care. He probably just wants me to get the fuck out.
“Yeah,” she lied, forcing herself to stand so that she didn’t look like lazy. “Damn, you’re already ready? What time do you get up?”
“Back to personal questions, are we?” Rue rolled her eyes, though she could hardly wrestle away the smile that tugged at her lips. Guess he has a sense of humor after all. “Usually I get up at five, but I allowed myself a bit longer because of last night’s…” His voice trailed off as he searched for a word.
“I was thinking more ‘events,’ but I suppose that works, too.” He used a spatula to turn whatever it was that he was cooking. “I’m assuming you normally wake up later?”
“I’m not a morning person,” she scoffed, retrieving her bag. “I get up at, like, seven because I usually shower before bed and I don’t eat breakfast, so…” She shrugged. “Saves me some time for sleep.”
“I apologize for waking you early, then.”
“That’s alright. I didn’t even set an alarm.”
At this, Ignis raised an eyebrow, but she ignored it and headed to the bathroom to get ready. Sighing, she smoothed her skirt and stared at the dark circles beneath her eyes, wishing that she’d brought something to cover them up. Oh well. Not like I have anyone to impress. She left after shoving her things into her bag. Ignis was just finishing the omelet he’d cooked up, dividing it.
“Don’t worry about giving me any,” she called to him, pulling her shoes on. Ignis frowned, glancing over at her.
“You don’t want any?” Well shit, I wasn’t trying to hurt your pride. She wasn’t entirely sure how to reply. Be honest and say that she had a self-conscious obsession over how her stomach looked in her clothes? Lie and say she wasn’t feeling well? She looked down and pretended to focus on getting her heels on.
“Eating early in the morning makes me feel sick.”
“…” Ignis sighed and shook his head, muttering something under his breath. Frowning, Rue pried her shoes off, wondering why in Shiva’s name she was putting those hell-shoes on long before she had to. “Is there anything else that you’d like?” Feeling guilty either way, Rue gave in.
“If you have a coffee machine, I’ll make myself a cup.”
“Already done.” He nodded toward the pair of mugs on the countertop beside him. “If you have need of cream or sugar, they’re here also.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, honestly unsure how she was to survive the workday without caffeine. When she walked past to fill the mug offered, she suddenly realized that the advisor towered over her easily when she wasn’t boosted by the foot-knives she usually wore. What’s with Insomnia breeding all these tall guys? She shook her head, fixing her coffee as he headed to the table to eat his breakfast. She glanced down at the remaining food in the pan. And do they all have an obsession with eggs? Huffing a laugh to herself, she shook her head. Ignis was certainly of his own breed.
Chapter 24: Honesty
"Polaroid" by Imagine Dragons
"You said those kids have still been attacking,” she mused. Ignis paused his scrolling through text messages and stared at the surface of his table. “If that’s true, and I simply haven’t been informed, then what state is the world in right now?” Ignis swallowed his bite and thought in silence for a long time, sensing she had more to say. “And why is it being hidden?”
“You must understand,” Ignis started, straightening and looking up at her. “I am not sure what liberties I am at to share classified information with you.”
“I went to a meeting with the King to discuss the Kingsglaive’s next move, is that not enough?”
“You were training in the Glaive; those matters you are familiar with.”
“What difference does it make?” She carefully sipped the steaming coffee to make sure she got her mixture of cream and sugar just right, brow furrowed. She was clearly irritated the more she thought about it. “We’ve just been fed lies for two years, then.”
“No,” Ignis corrected firmly. “Noctis has been trying endlessly to reunite the—”
“Trying doesn’t cut it!” she snapped, her spoon hitting the countertop with a clatter. “All those people that are still out there dying even though the world’s ‘back at peace’… All those families that are being torn apart as we speak…” Rue looked over at him, shaking her head. “And he sits behind his walls and wastes his time with rebel groups to ensure that his reputation still stands in favor of those who have already received their rescue.”
“It’s not your place to make such remarks,” Ignis gritted back. She was taken aback for a second, but it didn’t quell her sparked anger. The advisor glowered at her from his seat, sensing the hostility in her voice. “The reason you’ve yet to be told such things is that you can’t be trusted. Your loyalties switch at the slightest promise of power and you’ve hardly remained in the Citadel for longer than a month at a time.”
“And you have no right to make judgments toward my dealings with Cameron,” she retorted, unable to bite her tongue as the stuffy feeling in her chest grew stronger and stronger. A voice that was easily muffled cried for her to shut up, reminding her that this was her boss. “I didn’t do what I did for power, and if I’d known the consequences, I probably never would have come back.” A tense silence overtook the room and Rue fell back against the counter, crossing her arms and forcing herself to meet Ignis’s sharp gaze. “I lost everything because of the Fall, and I was one of the lucky few to be recovered from the ashes. But there are those out there who are still suffering as I did through the Dark… That’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
“We can only move so quickly—”
“Ignis, you have no part in it! There is no ‘we’!” she cried in frustration, hurrying toward the table. Her palms pressed against the wood and she stared hard into his eyes, trying to force him to understand how his allegiance was failing him. “You’re a glorified secretary! I don’t care how much paperwork they give you,” she shook her head, realizing that was she coming down from her adrenaline rush as dread replaced her anger. Still, she persevered. “You need to be in that throne room. Noctis’s intentions are good, and Cor probably helps a lot, but they can’t foresee the consequences. If that’s what you were raised to do then do it, dammit.”
“… May I ask what caused this sudden outburst?” he inquired. Rue sighed, straightening and heading back toward her coffee. Slowly, she stirred it, unsure if she could even stomach it anymore.
“I can’t stop seeing those girls, just laying there, dead, because I killed them.” She shook her head, watching the smooth drink in her mug swirl. “Those kids… They’re coming from places like the outside, where all they know is death and the hatred for Noctis that they were raised on. There were the faithful few who hoped for his return, but most people resented him for leaving in the first place. Most still believe we would have been better under Niflheim’s rule.”
“Are you one of them?”
“Gods, no,” Rue scoffed, looking up at him. “You serious? They took a bite out of everything anyone’s ever known and spit it out into this god-forsaken mess. I won’t ever forgive them, but that doesn’t mean I hate their people. The Imperials, the human ones, at least, still deserve a life. They can’t help where they were born.”
“You’re beginning to sound like someone I know,” he muttered, cutting another piece of his omelet.
“Dare I ask who?”
“Of course,” she huffed, taking a long drink of the coffee and cringing when she burnt her tongue. “Y’know, I never told you what Cam talked to me about.”
“I didn’t think it polite to inquire.”
“He begged me to finish his work against that group of kids, end ‘em all.” She shrugged, frowning. “I didn’t listen and look where that got me. But, at the same time, I don’t think I could go out of my way to kill them if I tried. They’ve just been misled.”
“And how long before misleading turns into an uprising?”
“I dunno,” she admitted. “They seem like the crowd I would’ve hung out with when I was younger, though. Can’t help but think they can change, too.”
“Wishful thinking certainly has its way of working out the knots.”
“Yeah.” She took another drink. Let’s hope so.
“Ignis, I was caught by Gladio on the way over,” Rue announced, entering the room with a cold Ebony and a stack of folders. “He wants to know if you plan on coming. To what, I’m assuming you already know because he didn’t say shit to me.”
“He must be referring to his birthday,” Ignis sighed, leaning back in his seat and pushing up his glasses. It had been four days since their argument in his home, and even still, the things she’d pointed out were interrupting his thoughts every now and again. Rue seemed to be pretending it never happened, but he wished he could bring the topic up again without setting her off.
Rue jumped and Ignis sighed as Rayne appeared in the doorway, beaming. She closed the door loudly behind her and strolled up to his desk, completely ignoring his assistant. Ignis raised an eyebrow when she stopped before him, still grinning with a devilish look in her eye.
“You’re disturbing me for a birthday party?”
“Hey, it’s not just any birthday party,” Rayne scoffed, offended. She threw one hip out to the side, crossing her arms. “It’s Gladio’s, and, it’s the big three-zero. Monumental.”
“I’m sure it is,” Ignis muttered wryly, unable to hide his smile when she smacked him upside the head as an annoyed sister might.
“Don’t be an ass. I’m still expecting you to make the cake.”
“Of course, why else would I be there?”
“I dunno, maybe because he’s your friends?”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” he retorted, nodding his thanks to Rue when she reached around him to hand over his Ebony. Rayne turned to look at her, but shockingly, the stare wasn’t hostile for once.
“You really need to stop fueling his addiction.”
“I don’t have an addiction, I have a preference,” Ignis replied, taking a sip of the cold canned coffee. “There’s no need to worry, Rayne. I’ll be there.”
“Good.” She paused, clearly thinking as her violet eyes scanned over his desk. Suddenly, she swiveled around to face Rue, who started, clutching the folders in her arms. Next to the King’s defender, the assistant looked incredibly feeble. “I guess you’re invited, too.”
“Uh, when and where?”
“Our place, tonight.”
“Yeah. Don’t worry about a ride, Iggy can take you. And no gifts either. You being there to babysit Prompto is plenty.”
“I appreciate your confidence in my schedule,” Ignis muttered, unheard by Rayne as she headed out the door with a wave.
“See you tonight!”
“Right,” Rue huffed with a frown, turning back to Ignis. “She’s in a good mood.”
“… She likes birthdays.”
“Hm.” Rue wrestled a smile, setting the folders on his desk. “Probably likes the present she’ll be giving him tonight, too.” Ignis simply sighed, shaking his head and flipping through the first few pages before tucking the files away. Rue felt her heart swell with pride when he didn’t nitpick over the details or check everything she’d done. “I’ll be right back, I have to make a phone call.”
“Dare I ask what for?”
“I just have to cancel plans,” she shrugged. “It’s just Relir, no biggie.”
“Relir,” Ignis repeated under his breath. He wasn’t too familiar with the name. He half expected her to call Eren instead.
It was always Eren. It was as though a sudden disease had overtaken her and that was all she could think about—Eren. The young man certainly seemed like a kind soul, but Ignis could hardly see the pair lasting. He shook his head; what was he thinking? He didn’t know the man, and he barely knew Rue, so he was hardly in the position to make presumptions about the success of the relationship they seemed to be fostering. All he knew was that it seemed there was more life breathed into her when she drove in with him, which he obviously took to mean he’d spent the night, or vice versa. Even Rayne talked about Eren, how strong he was getting and her appreciation for his honesty. Eren, Eren, Eren.
“So, Gladio’s thirty?” Rue asked as she reentered the office.
“That’s what was on your mind during your entire phone call?” Ignis inquired dryly, glancing up from his notes.
“Don’t give me that look. He looks younger than you.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,” he muttered, scribbling an observation down in the margins. “He’s three years ahead.”
“Yeah, well, you act very mature for your age.”
“I hope most people my age have matured by now.”
“You’d be surprised.”
“I’m most definitely surprised by you,” he retorted, earning a scoff.
“I’m really starting to hate when you’re in a good mood.”
“So, you prefer my suffering,” he said simply, closing his notebook and looking up at her with an expression she couldn’t read. “I always knew there may have been something different about you, but sadism was hardly on the list.”
“Well, what’d I tell you about assumptions,” she shrugged, jerking her head toward her jacket. “I wear the coat of the guy I killed as a reminder to myself of what I’m capable of, for fuck's sake.”
“You certainly are an enigma,” he grumbled, tucking his notebook away.
There was no sarcasm this time; he truly meant the words. Rue was keeping something hidden that was the key to figuring the puzzle out, the missing link that would clarify it all. Curiosity certainly wasn’t a negative trait to have in small doses, but Ignis despised ambiguity so much that he was willing to take a larger portion in to get this over with.
Chapter 25: Dirty Thirty
"The Edge of Tonight" by All Time Low
"Are you certain you still want to come?"
"C'mon, Iggy, quit trying to send her home," Prompto protested, crossing his arms. Rue raised an eyebrow at Ignis, allowing a wry smile.
"Yeah, Ignis, why don't you want me there?"
"Honestly," Ignis muttered, sighing and pressing a finger to his temple. "I simply don't want you to feel obligated because of Rayne's less-than-gracious invitation."
"Have you met me? Grace and I don't really mix all that well."
"Neither do you and Rayne."
"Whatever," Prompto scoffed, shaking his head. "She takes time to warm up to people."
"Right..." Rue shook her head. "Listen, I don't even care if she likes me or not."
"No?" Ignis arched an eyebrow. Rue shrugged.
"I mean, it would be helpful, but we don't exactly have to be friends."
"Do you still intend on joining the Glaive?" Ignis asked coolly. Rue hesitated. Should she even consider being honest and tell him that this job was all just a ploy to get back into the Citadel? Probably not.
"I think I gave up on that a long time ago," she replied, letting her shoulders slump the slightest bit. "There's no place for me there, and so I'll find my place elsewhere."
"I can hardly expect you to serve me forever."
"Serve him," Prompto repeated sarcastically. Rue stifled a laugh. "Hey, Noct's coming, right?"
"Yes," Ignis nodded, standing and pulling his jacket off the back of his seat. He shrugged it on slowly, clearly pondering something. "Prompto, do you know about his progress on communication with the settlement outside the city?"
"The one that canceled on us?" Prompto shook his head, shrugging dejectedly. "I dunno. We don't get to talk very often."
"He's been busy," Ignis reminded him, checking to make sure his car keys still resided in his pocket. "I'll ask him on the way."
"It's none of my business," Rue started, quickly adding, "Not that that ever stops me anyway." Ignis clearly agreed with her additional statement, waiting for her to continue. "But it seems to me that he's had a bit of a stressful time these past few weeks. I know you want to be kept up to date, but I think that maybe tonight we should just avoid talking about that sort of stuff altogether."
"I agree!" Prompto announced cheerfully, grinning at Ignis as he waited for his response. The advisor's brow furrowed, and he touched his glasses. Rue crossed her thin arms uncomfortably, waiting. Finally, he sighed and gave the slightest nod, heading for the door.
"I suppose a break would do him well."
"He's a real softie underneath all that grumpiness," Prompto whispered, nudging Rue's shoulder with his. She scoffed, leaving the office and keeping her voice low.
"Maybe to you guys."
"Nah, you just gotta prove yourself and then he eases off."
"Prove myself," she repeated, rolling her eyes.
"I'm serious! He just wants to make sure you're doing the best you can before he stops pushing you so hard. Unless you just get used to it and it feels like he's easing off..."
"Aren't you observant," she teased, watching Ignis lock his office door. Guess having criminals crawling all over your workplace doesn't inspire much trust.
"Not gonna lie; I repeated that all from Rayne." Rayne? She shook her head, sighing. I kept forgetting those two are close. It was a strange match, the uptight smarty-pants and the pushy meat shield.
"If you're finished, might we consider getting Noctis and leaving?" Ignis said sharply, turning to face them. Prompto grinned, crossing his arms and cocking his head to the side.
"C'mon, Iggy, don't be like that. We got time to spare."
"It's good practice to arrive early," he replied, heading down the hallway in the direction to the throne room.
"Not when we're the only guests," Prompto insisted, hurrying to catch up. Rue sighed, quickening her pace. What the hell am I getting myself into? "Does Noct even know when we're supposed to be there?"
"Likely not, but it's my job to keep track of that anyway." Ignis gave his head the slightest shake and Rue frowned, brushing her dark hair out of her face. Is that what he's always doing on that computer? Micromanaging the king's life?
"Excuse me." A small woman dressed in a typical guard's armor stopped them at the throne room door, timidly stepping in front of the broad doors. "The only one allowed past here without warning is Mr. Scientia." Rue almost snickered at the sound of Ignis's name. The advisor stepped forth, touching his glasses.
"They can wait outside. Is His Majesty in?"
"Um... No." She chewed on her lip nervously, hugging her arms to her body. That was me just a little while ago.
"Where is he then?" Ignis frowned, arching an eyebrow. Rue almost shuddered to remember how terrifying that look used to be.
The small group turned to see Noctis standing behind them, accompanied by Cor and a member of the elder council that Rue didn't recognize. His hair badly needed a trim and his clothes were wrinkled from slouching in the throne room day after day, but still, his expression was light-hearted. He raised an eyebrow at his advisor, rolling his eyes when Prompto slung an arm around his neck and ruffled his hair.
"There's our guy!"
"Mr. Argentum, I'd hardly consider that appropriate behavior for—" the elder started, interrupted when Cor spoke.
"It's alright." The Immortal scanned over the small cluster of people outside the door before looking back at Ignis. "Wish Gladio a happy birthday for me, would you?"
"Of course." Here we go again.
"We'll take our leave, then." Cor jerked his head to the left and the old man in hefty, ornate robes followed with a sour stare at the blonde, who appeared unfazed by the scolding he'd received.
"You guys are already heading out?" Noctis asked, trying to wrestle away from Prompto as he took out his phone to snap a selfie.
"That's what we said!" Prompto pointed out, releasing his friend and looking pointedly at Ignis. "Me 'n Rue said that we should wait, but Iggy just wouldn't listen."
"It was just you that said that," Rue muttered, earning a betrayed pout. She was quick to cheer him up, careful not to look Noctis in the eye. She still wasn't sure how to act around such a casual character. "Not that I don't agree!"
"Sure," Prompto teased, elbowing her. He turned to Ignis, opening his mouth to speak when a loud ringtone sang out and echoed down the empty halls. Rue patted her pocket just in case, but Noctis pulled his out, swiping to pick up the call.
"Rayne?" The king frowned, glancing up at Ignis. His shoulders slouched when he groaned. "Seriously? I thought he said the ride made his ass hurt." Rue could hear the faintest sound of Rayne's voice protesting on the other line. "Yeah, I know," he sighed, resting a hand on his hip. "Okay, fine. Iggy isn't going to like that." Everyone looked to the advisor, who looked less than pleased. "Whatever. See you there."
"What won't I like?" Ignis asked once Noctis hung up, crossing his arms. The young king sighed, shaking his head.
"Gladio wants to go to Hammerhead for the night."
"The whole night?" Prompto asked, staring with wide eyes. "Please say yes! Please!" Why Hammerhead?
"I dunno," Noctis shrugged. Prompto grabbing his friend's arm, jerking him closer.
"Dude, I'll do anything!"
"Why's he want to go so bad?" Rue asked Ignis, who sighed and adjusted his glasses. Noctis just laughed to himself.
"Prompto has an infatuation with the local mechanic."
"Cindy's the best!" Prompto was practically drooling. "She's done so much for us."
"Her grandfather was close with Noct's father," Ignis explained. "And Cindy herself made herself a useful ally on our journey to Altissia."
"She really was willing to give everything for the Regalia," Prompto gushed, his eyes wide. Rue swore that if her life was an anime, his eyes would have been glittering. "Poor old girl... Wish we could get her fixed."
"She's probably scrap metal now," Noctis shook his head, shaking Prompto off of his arm. He looked up at Ignis. "Guess we should leave now. Rayne said she and Gladio just headed out."
"Sounds like a plan," Ignis nodded, leading the way down yet another corridor to the parking garage. While Prompto and Noctis talked behind them, Rue stepped up to her boss's side, though she hung back a step or two uneasily.
"A plan? I hear you like those. It's, like, a specialty of yours or something like that."
"Something like that," he replied curtly, though something in his voice gave away his amusement. "Are you still adamant on joining us?"
"Damn, you really want to get rid of me," Rue only half-teased, though she couldn't help but feel as though he really didn't want her to take Rayne's invitation. However, if she was honest, the only reason she was going was to build a rapport with the leader of the Kingsglaive in hopes of rekindling her desires to get back on track.
"Of course not," Ignis shook his head, glancing back at her. "I was uncertain if the change in location bothered you."
"Not at all. If anything, it'll be nice to leave the city for a spell."
"Have you left since the light returned?" Ignis pushed the door open, holding it just long enough for Prompto to catch it. Rue shook her head.
"I've hardly gone anywhere in Insomnia since then."
"Yes, well, the Crown City has a long way to go before she's fully recovered." His car chirped a few parking spots away as he unlocked the doors. "Any particular reason you've stayed?"
"No," she shrugged. "I mean, I don't have a car and all, but that hasn't been a problem. I guess I just haven't gathered up the courage to see what it's like out there."
"It's certainly still a world in recovery."
Ignis climbed into the driver's seat and Rue waited for Prompto to catch up in order to see where he wanted to sit. The blonde crawled into the back with Noctis as if he hadn't seen her. Frowning, Rue sat beside Ignis, uncomfortably stiff as she recalled his favor from a few nights prior. Part of her was praying that Noctis would take the front so she could be by Prompto, but she supposed she'd have to get over her fear of owing the advisor at some point.
"Hey Rue, wanna play some tunes for us?"
"Some tunes?" Rue mocked, turning back to grin at Prompto when he rolled his eyes, huffing. "I think Ignis prefers quiet."
"I do," Ignis nodded, backing out of his parking space and pulling away from the parking garage. "It's far easier to concentrate."
"The drive's not that hard," Prompto scoffed, slumping in his seat. Noctis rolled his eyes, shaking his head and leaning against the window. "Do you think you'll get another fancy car made?"
"Probably not," Noctis shrugged. Rue watched them in the rearview mirror curiously, playing with her thumbs in her lap. "I don't see why I'd need it."
"For trips outside!" The gunman exclaimed as though the answer was obviously, turning in his seat to face the king. "Don't you want to leave more often?"
"Dunno. Leaving kind of puts me on edge now," Noctis replied, though his lips were quirked up into the slightest smile. Prompto shoved his shoulder and Rue fought the urge to smile, turning her eyes to the unfamiliar stretch of road that led directly to the exit of Insomnia's limits. "How far is Hammerhead from here?"
"Only ten minutes," Ignis answered dutifully, glancing up into his rearview mirror before his eyes returned to the road. He pulled up to a gate, which the keeper opened upon seeing them coming, freeing them to the open highway. Rue felt as though she was suffocating as stacks of concrete and glass became open fields of reddish sand and dull, dry plants. Prompto leaned forward, pressing his forearms against the backs of the front two seats.
"Hey Rue, where were you before the Dawn?"
"Me?" Rue shifted uncomfortably, shrugging. "I went wherever my group went. One of the Glaives was with us—Dex, I don't know if you've ever met him. Big, stupid-looking douche. Anyway," she shook her head, smiling fondly as she recalled Dex's fit at their dinner months prior. "We stuck around the Cleigne, mostly. Sometimes we stopped at Lestallum."
"Seriously? That's where Iggy was, right?!"
"Yes, I stayed there for a good portion of the Darkness," Ignis murmured. Rue frowned; there seemed to be some pain associated with the memory. I can't imagine why he wouldn't stick by the others...
"I wasn't there that often," Rue shook her head, looking up at Prompto. "We ran into a lot of trouble."
"People," she corrected, turning back to the window when her heart began to sting. "There were some pretty fucked up groups of people out there. You'd think we'd all want to help each other while we waited for the light to return, but I guess there were a lot of people who thought Noctis wasn't returning."
"What do you mean?" Prompto frowned. Rue shrugged, watching a pack of sabertusks chase a small dualhorn across the sand.
"I ran into a pretty big settlement of people who genuinely believed that you guys made the whole thing up. I'll admit, it's hard to believe a story about the Chosen King getting sucked into the Crystal for who knows how long, but then again, nothing had made sense since Insomnia fell." Rue glanced back up at him. "I guess they just decided they'd had enough of the blind faith."
"Blind?" Prompto repeated. Noctis listened in silence, staring out the window. He's probably never heard it from a civilian's side before, she realized.
"We only had your word to base our trust off of," she reminded him. "Most of us didn't grow up with constant reminders of the gods and their wills and whatnot. To the average guy, it sounded like nonsense."
"Did you believe Noct was coming back?"
"I had to," Rue admitted. She caught Ignis's slight twitch of a frown from the corner of her eye. "If I didn't... Well, shit, there was no hope for the future and I would've been better off dead. You could only fight off the daemons for so long before they fought back three times as hard."
"I guess so." Prompto fell back into his seat, turning his phone over and over in his hands. "What were you fighting for?"
"What do you mean?" Rue frowned, turning around to face him. Ignis sighed; she jumped when his hand touched her shoulder and pushed.
"Damn," she huffed, though her heart was still pounding.
"Why were you so determined to survive?"
"Because I—" Rue cut herself off, biting her tongue. "I just... wanted to prove to myself that I could make it, that I was good for something."
Prompto nodded, satisfied. Ignis's frown remained and he pressed the gas pedal a little harder, speeding up as they reached a straight, open portion of the road. Rue glanced at the speedometer and scoffed to herself, slouching in her seat, closing her eyes, and resting her head against the window. I guess even the rule-followers speed sometimes.
The ride ended long before Rue expected. She sat up sharply as they came to a stop, looking around in wonder at the gas station they'd parked at. This is Hammerhead now? Everyone started to get out, stretching. Must be. Huffing, she got out and looking around in wonder. They had parked between the gas pumps and the small convenience store. A short distance behind them was a diner and ahead of them was a garage accompanied by a large yellow tow truck and an umbrella for blocking the sun from hitting the white chair beneath it. Rue could see the remnants of a settlement that had obviously been here two years prior.
"They're talking to Cindy!" Prompto cried in a hushed voice jerking his head toward the trailer parked outside the diner. Noctis sighed, exchanging a look with Ignis before following his friend as he rushed toward Rayne and Gladio, who stood talking to a half-naked woman in a baseball cap. Rue raised an eyebrow, coming up beside the advisor as he took on a much slower pace than the other two.
"That's the legendary Cindy?" she asked, keeping her voice low. To her surprise, Ignis puffed out a short laugh, adjusting his glasses.
"Not what you expected?"
"How's that outfit safe for work?" Rue couldn't help but gawk at the hot pink thong straps that stretched over the woman's bony hips, peeking over shorts that were hardly present and sharply contrasting the neon yellow cropped jacket that just barely covered the bits it was meant to. Any passerby would have mistaken her stunned stare for admiration. "This is the most extreme case of 'fashion over function' I've ever seen!"
"I'm honestly surprised she hasn't changed her look since before the Darkness," Ignis admitted.
But they could say no more; they'd reached the growing circle. Cindy giggled, shaking her head and resting her gloved hands on her waist, her blonde curls bouncing as she nodded. Rue glanced at Prompto, who looked ready to melt into a puddle. The mechanic turned to face the pair that joined.
"Well, I'll be!" she cried in a thick southern accent that utterly confused Rue even further. "His Highness's honorary driver!"
"Hello, Cindy," Ignis greeted with a tilt of his head, allowing a smile.
"A new face, too!" Cindy grinned at Rue, crossing her arms and throwing her hip out to the side. "What's yer name, Darlin'?"
"Rue Corden," Rue replied, startled when Cindy laughed.
"Rue's just fine. We go on a first-name basis here, don't we, y'all?" Prompto nodded eagerly, his fingers tangled together on his stomach. Rue wrestled with a smile.
"Where's Cid?" Noctis asked, crossing his arms. Cindy sighed, shaking her head.
"Paw Paw's been feelin' under the weather as of late. Sent him back to Lestallum just a few days ago so he can recover." She turned her vivid green eyes back to Ignis. "If yer ever not busy by some miracle, feel free to pay him a visit and whip up some miracle cure. Alright?"
"Will do," Noctis nodded, turning to Gladio. "So, what's the plan?"
"No idea," Gladio shrugged, raising a hand to send Rue a single wave of acknowledgment. She sent one back. "Surprised you're here."
"Are you really?" Rue replied, raising an eyebrow. She couldn't stop the grin tugging at her lips. Somehow, she felt welcome. It was a strange feeling, one she wasn't particularly familiar with, but it certainly wasn't unwanted.
"Okay, well, I paid for the caravan just in case," Rayne spoke up, arms crossed. For once, her hair wasn't up, swaying at her wide hips as she turned to face the rest of the group. Why's it so long? She bit the inside of her cheek. That's what she said. "And I brought a lot of alcohol, so someone'd better drink with me." Gladio sighed, shooting Ignis a knowing look.
"King's Knight, anyone?" Prompto suggested, heading toward the plastic chairs outside the caravan. Rue froze, eyebrows raised.
"Wait, you play?"
"You play?!" the blonde cried, far more excited than he should have been.
"Hell yeah I do," Rue scoffed, hurrying to follow him and pulling her phone out of her pocket.
She shouldn't have been surprised that Noctis joined them, nor that he was so good (he probably had plenty of time to play when he was doing fuck-all in that throne room all day), but it frustrated her to no end that he kicked her butt round after round. Judging by the looks Rayne and Ignis shot her from time to time, she likely got carried away with the smack talk and the competitive shouting. Noctis, however, seemed unbothered and it warmed her heart to see him and Prompto enjoying themselves.
Finally, she realized the sun was quickly sinking below the wide-open horizon and excused herself, dusting off her skirt and heading around the other side of the caravan to watch the colors fade from the sky, resting her arms on the short wall edging the small outpost. She jumped when a plastic cup was slammed down to her right, greeted by an arched eyebrow and a smug smile. Rayne stood at her side, nudging the cup toward her, drinking from her own.
"What?" Rue stared down into the cup, lifting it to her nose to take a sniff. She coughed, earning an eyeroll.
"I didn't put anything in it. Why the hell would I want to keep you around any longer than I have to?"
"Exactly," Rue replied, taking a small sip. Her nose crinkled and she grimaced. "Is this just a cup full of straight vodka?"
"Maybe," Rayne grinned, taking a big gulp from her cup. She turned to the left, nodding toward the caravan. "You want a better view? Climb up there."
"Will it get dented?" Rue frowned, staring up at the woman she easily could consider a rival. As far as she knew, Rayne hated her guts. What's going on? She glanced down at the cup in the soldier's pale hands. Oh.
"I'm probably twice your size and I've been up there," Rayne scoffed, nudging her. "Go on. Up."
"Okay," Rue sighed, purposefully leaving her drink behind and pulling herself up the shoddy ladder that was screwed to the rusting side of the trailer. Gingerly, she crawled across the top to make room for the tipsy woman that followed her, crossing her legs and finally turning her eyes to the sky. Her heart fluttered and she smiled, rolling her eyes when Rayne handed her the drink she "forgot."
"You left this."
"Thanks." Despite herself, she took another drink, cherishing the burn. "It's gorgeous."
"Damn straight." Rayne hugged her knees to her chest, taking in the blues and oranges and pinks. She huffed a small laugh to herself, taking another drink before speaking. "So, got your eyes on Iggy?" Rue choked on her breath.
"What?" she hissed, feeling her face grow red as she looked back over her shoulder at the advisor who currently stood talking with the owner of the diner and Gladio. Rayne grabbed her shoulder, shaking her.
"Hey, don't look at him!"
"Sorry," Rue huffed, turning back around abruptly, not missing the confused frown Gladio sent her way. "But no, absolutely not."
"No?" Rayne lowered her head, giggling like a schoolgirl. "He's kinda cute though, isn't he?"
"... Are you okay?"
"No!" Rayne threw back her head and laughed long and loud, setting her drink aside. "I'm officially cutting myself off. Anyway..." She tucked her long, blonde hair behind her ear and allowed a small smile, calming down. "Yeah, he's an ass. More in the way that he needs everything to be perfect and if it's not he has a mental breakdown than in the douche bag way, but you know that already." She shook her head, glancing over at Rue, who listened in confused silence. "You sure you're not in the market? He's probably lonely."
"I'd rather die," Rue scoffed, quickly correcting herself. "Well, okay, not really. Besides..." She cleared her throat, awkwardly playing with the sleeve of her shirt. "I, uh... I'm not—"
"Single?" Rayne sighed, disappointed. "Damn. It's Eren isn't it?"
"How did you...?"
"He's always talking about you," Rayne laughed, shaking her head. "It's actually kinda cute."
"Yeah." Rue turned back to the sunset, watching the sky shift to a dark shade of blue. "To be honest... I'm still not sure if it's what I want. And I feel bad for stringing him along, but..." She shrugged, hugging her arms to her body. "He's the one who wanted this."
"How'd it happen?"
"Drunken mistake," Rue huffed, lifting her cup and jerking her head toward it. Rayne grinned, raising an eyebrow.
"Y'know, I could always get Iggy a bottle of—"
"No," Rue protested through gritted teeth, unable to keep herself from looking back at Ignis. Her heart leaped into her throat when she saw him staring back, his expression practically a perfect copy of Gladio's. Quickly, she turned back and pretended she didn't see him. "He's my boss."
"That's not a reason," Rayne snorted. Rue watched her reach toward her cup to take another drink. That's not what you said in the throne room.
"You said you were cutting yourself off."
"Fuck it." Rayne stood uneasily, her face smug as she looked down at the girl she once refused to forgive. "You only live once, right? Isn't that what the kids say?"
"What they used to say," Rue muttered, worried that the woman would tumble off the roof. "You're gonna waste your only life on alcohol poisoning."
"I'm a big girl; I can handle it."
Finally somewhat alone, she watched the sky shift from soft colors to deep blue, sprinkled with the lights of stars that seemed so alone in the light of the outpost. She knew better; there were thousands of glittering speckles above their heads, just waiting to be discovered. Eventually, Rue forced herself to leave the roof, chugging down the rest of the alcohol in her cup and sliding down the ladder to meet the ground yet again. I'm gonna be so sick. Prompto greeted her with a grin.
"Hey! There she is!" Rue bowed playfully. "The elusive Rue Corden."
"Here I am," she replied dryly, sitting in the empty seat Gladio pulled up and patted.
"Elusive? Is that the right word?" Prompto asked, turning to Ignis, who nodded.
"Look at you," Noctis teased. "Using three-syllable words."
"Shut up, Noct!" Prompto cried, knocking the king's head with his wrist. Rue sat in the white plastic chair stiffly. "So, big guy, got your retirement plans ready?"
"You're so funny," Rayne scoffed, rolling her eyes dramatically as she flopped down on Gladio's lap. The king's shield sighed, scratching at his beard and shooting Rue a look. "He's not done until his head's lopped off for Noct or he's so big and saggy that he's nothin' but a giant bag of skin and douchery."
"The fuck?" Rue snorted, laughing when all eyes turned to her. "Sorry, I didn't mean to say that so loud."
"What'd you give her?" Gladio huffed, tapping Rayne's thigh. She shrugged.
"Hell if I know. Don't even know what I'm drinking right now."
"Okay." Gladio pried the bottle of wine from her hands and slid it toward Ignis, who respectfully turned it down, though he did tuck it far out of Rayne's reach.
"Hey, remember the time Prompto asked me to babysit his cat and it was actually a raccoon?" Rayne asked, earning a rather loud snicker from Noctis. Prompto blushed when Rue stared at him in disbelief.
"Did you just not know it was a raccoon or what?" she demanded. Prompto took a deep breath, straightening.
"He actually thought it was a cat!" Rayne cut in, shaking her head in disapproval. "For shame!"
"In his defense," Ignis started, sitting up, "it was a rather small raccoon."
"It had a mask!" Rayne protested.
"And it smelled like shit," Noctis added.
"Prompto," Rue groaned, burying her face in her hands.
"No! No! They're not giving me a chance to explain myself!" Prompto cried, somehow winding up with his feet tucked under him in his chair until he was perched like an enormous bird, pointing an accusing finger at Rayne. "I found him with a collar and bell and everything. That should mean something, right?"
"That someone else had a pet raccoon and you stole him?"
Rayne burst out in hysterical laughter; Gladio cringed when she collapsed against his chest. Rue, still confused, found that she was enjoying the reaction she'd elicited from her audience. For once they don't all hate my guts. Still, she couldn't help but recall the conversation that had just taken place, and, giggling, she fell back into her seat. Her sides began to burn and a few tears streamed down her face before she emerged, breathless.
"Wait, so let me get this straight," she said, leaning forward. She paused to allow a short, residual chuckle. "You thought this raccoon was a cat because it had a collar. You gave this thing to Rayne?"
"I had to leave for a few days and I didn't him to feel lonely," Prompto explained innocently. Rue struggled to contain herself as Rayne cracked up again, wiping the tears from the corners of her eyes.
"It fucking chattered in its carrier and I knew!" Rayne exclaimed, shaking her hair out of her sweaty face. "That's no goddamn cat!" Everyone shared another bout of laughter, albeit a more relaxed one that the round Rue and Rayne had just experienced. Rue tried not to stare in shock at the sight of Ignis smiling more than the slight formality he allowed every now and again. Sighing and trying to settle herself down, Rayne sat up, back pressed to Gladio's chest, and cleared her throat. "Shit, guys, how long are you staying?"
"I could be out here all night," Prompto admitted, though a smug grin overtook his face as he nodded to where Gladio's hand rested on Rayne's thigh. "But I think the big guy's got other ideas." Gladio chuckled, earning a sour look from Rayne.
"Cor'll wring my neck if I don't look alive tomorrow morning," Noctis sighed, shooting Ignis a pointed look. "No hangover this time."
"I should hope not after what happened last time," Ignis replied dryly.
"What happened last time?" Rayne inquired, reaching up to bury her hand into Gladio's long hair, combing her fingers through slowly. "Was he super sick?"
"Yes," Ignis answered, shooting the young king a stern look. "He decided it would be wise to attempt keeping up with Gladio, remember?"
"Oh gods," Rue sighed, slumping in her seat. She would never.
"Yeah," Noctis huffed. A mischievous look crossed Prompto's face.
"Hey Noct, remember that time Rayne snuck you a drink while you were working at that burger place?"
"You worked at a burger place?" Rue asked, frowning.
"She did what?" Gladio demanded at the same moment, frowning at Rayne when she waved him off with a grin.
"His job was shit and he'd worked his ass off."
"Shh." Rayne frowned, looking across the circle to Prompto. "What's the worst job you ever had?"
"The burger place with Noct."
"Didn't you get fired?"
"Well, yeah, but—"
"Rue?" Rayne turned to her, her eyes lazily blinking at her as she waited. "You've lived a pretty normal life."
"I wouldn't say that," Rue scoffed. "I dunno. I worked at some convenience store for two years in high school. It wasn't the worst thing ever, but it was boring." Rayne raised her eyebrows, seeming surprised. What?
"Really? I'm surprised it's not the, uh, thing you were doing before you joined the training."
"What...?" How do you know about that?
By now, everyone's eyes were on her, curious. She could feel her face heating up as she tried to figure out how Rayne knew about the ways she brought in money in the early days of Insomnia's rebuilding. Fumbling over words in her heads as the silence dragged on, she glanced around at the people sitting with her and almost immediately the welcoming spirit she'd been feeling began to drain away. Even Ignis's brow was visibly furrowed, though he kept the staring to a minimum.
"It, uh, wasn't that bad," Rue stammered, staring down at her lap. Rayne raised an eyebrow, not quite catching on.
"Really? Must've been harder getting customers then than when you—"
"Rayne," Gladio cut her off quietly, though his voice was stern enough to shut the woman up. Rue gnawed her lip anxiously, fiddling with her fingers. Shit, what do I do?
"She's outta her mind," Prompto teased, forcing a laugh. His attempt at changing the subject was uncomfortable, and to remedy that, Ignis stood quickly.
"We ought to be returning to the Crown City soon. This week is hardly over yet."
"Not like we get the weekends free anyway," Noctis grumbled, dragging himself to his feet and jamming his hands into his pockets. "We going?"
"Yes, just let me gather my things from inside," Ignis nodded, hurrying up the stairs to the caravan. Rayne sighed, patting Gladio's knee.
"Ready to get rid of these idiots?"
"If anyone's the idiot, it's you."
"Don't be an ass," she scoffed. Rue turned away uncomfortably as she dragged him down for a sloppy, drunken kiss.
She started to head toward the car the moment Ignis's shoe was visible from the trailer doorway, hugging her arms to her body and hurrying for the passenger seat. Prompto let her have it without protest, climbing in back with Noctis. Ignis tucked a paper bag down by Rue's feet with a muttered apology before starting the car and pulling out of the Hammerhead parking lot. Rue watched the lights fade into the distance before sleepily resting her head against the window. Her mind raced with a thousand questions, but she was far too exhausted to toy with their answers.
"So Rue, how was your first time out of the city since forever?" Prompto asked lightheartedly, leaning forward to hear her answer. She forced a smile, nodding. Her fingers twiddled nervously.
"It was fun."
"Prom, shut up," Noctis grumbled, curled up against the door. "I'm trying to sleep."
"Noct, the ride's hardly—" Ignis started.
"Yeah, yeah. I just want quiet."
And so, quiet he was granted. No one spoke a word until Noctis and Prompto climbed out the car at the Citadel, and even then, it was just Prompto insisting that he could walk home from there and wishing them a good night. As Ignis started to drive again, a heavy, uncomfortable silence overtook the vehicle. Rue shifted uneasily, watching the minutes tick by. She tried to check her phone only to realize it had died. Finally, Ignis spoke.
"I apologize for any discomfort Rayne may have caused you. I'm sure she didn't mean to push your boundaries."
"No, it's okay." Rue shook her head, gritting her teeth in irritation at how soft her voice was. She sounded like a scolded child. Ignis frowned, glancing over at her. She hurried to explain. "I mean, she was a little out of it and I still had fun, so really, it's alright."
"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself," he replied stiffly. "Still..." He sighed. "I apologize. I admit I was afraid she was berating you on the top of the caravan earlier."
"No, she was just messing around," Rue shrugged, trying not to recall the strange interaction they'd had up there. "Asking me about Eren and such."
"My, uh, friend, I guess? I don't know. It's complicated." She shook her head, running a hand through her hair. "Whatever. I'm not about to figure it out right now."
"I'm certain you'll work it out eventually."
"Yeah." She saw the neon sign for her apartment complex coming closer. "Thanks for the ride. I feel bad that you keep chauffeuring me places."
"It's quite alright."
Ignis shook his head, pulling into a parking space beside the front doors and stopping the car. Something about him looked on edge, a feeling that Rue wasn't quite used to him emitting. But it was fleeting, gone in an instant, and he gave his head the slightest shake to clear his thoughts before reaching down and picking up the paper bag. He set it on her lap just as she cracked open the door.
"You missed dinner. I saved you a portion before Gladio could eat it all."
"Oh, um, thanks," Rue stuttered, taken by surprise. Ignis stared at the dashboard blankly; he didn't even deliver his usual line, the wonderful "of course." Frowning uneasily, Rue stepped out of the car and lowered her head, trying to catch his eye. "Really, thanks a lot for everything. See you tomorrow?"
"Bright and early," he murmured, shifting the car into reverse. "Goodnight."
"Night," she answered, stepping back and watching him pull away before hurrying inside. That... That was bizarre.
Chapter 26: Two Steps Back
"True Friends" by Bring Me The Horizon
Rue rolled out of bed the next morning, fully enveloped in her blankets, and hit the ground with a thud, groaning. Slowly, she disentangled herself and unplugged her phone, checking the notifications she missed while it was dead after shoving her glasses onto her face haphazardly. Her heart skipped a beat. Four missed calls from Eren? As she headed to the bathroom, she opened the texts he’d sent her.
Hey, where are you? I’ve been waiting out here forever!
Hello? Did you forget about dinner?
Call me back, dork! They’re starting to give me weird looks.
Wow, okay. Standing me up? Low blow. Seriously though, where are you?
Rue? Are you okay?
I just stopped by and you weren’t home. Relir and Dex have no clue where you are. Just let me know if you’re okay when you see this, okay? There’s a lot of freaky stuff going on around here lately and I don’t you to get hurt.
Rue stopped what she was doing, biting down on the toothbrush that hung from her lips, and texted him back immediately, overwhelmed with exhaustion, guilt, and fear. How could I leave him hanging like that? Scanning over her message, she quickly hit send in order to keep Eren from suffering any longer.
Gods, I’m so sorry Eren. I totally forgot about last night! Rayne invited me out for Gladio’s birthday, so I was in Hammerhead until about one. Super duper sorry! I’ll make it up to you, I swear.
She set her phone down and forced herself to keep brushing her teeth, staring hard at her reflection as her heart pounded. Shit. What a way to start my day. She couldn’t help but feel terrible. Not only had she left him to sit and wait at some restaurant by himself while he insisted to waiters that someone was joining him, but the simple thought to let him know about her plans had never crossed her mind. Obviously, he didn’t always need to know what she was doing, but it would have been considerate. Just as she began to comb through her messy hair, her phone buzzed against the counter. She jumped, quickly checking his response.
No sweat! Just glad you’re alright.
Rue gnawed on the inside of her cheek anxiously, unsure if he was just being nice. What if he’s actually pissed? Her phone vibrated again.
Want a lift to the Citadel? I can drop by on my way.
She forced herself to set her phone down, taking a deep breath. Well, I guess we’ll see. Quickly, she got dressed, thanking any god that would listen that her clothes weren’t wrinkled. Her cellphone buzzed once more just as she finished chugging a cup of coffee and she jammed her feet into her shoes, taking the sound as her signal to head down to the parking lot. Honey meowed loudly in protest as she hurried out the door, forcing her eyes away from the place she could still see the bodies of the two girls.
“I know, baby,” Rue cooed, reaching out and stroking the cat’s smooth head. “I promise we’ll snuggle later.”
Stumbling over her own feet, she hurried to the elevator and jammed her hands into her jacket pockets. The lobby was fairly empty, just as empty as it always ways this early, but Rue still felt chills as she stepped into the cramped space. Perhaps it was the realization of how dim it really was inside her prison of an apartment; perhaps it was because she was afraid of what Eren was going to say. When she stepped outside, she was startled to see him outside his car, walking quickly toward her. Before she could even say hello, he’d pulled her close and erased her frown with a kiss. Rue hardly had time to react before he pulled away, eyebrow raised.
“No contacts today?”
“What…?” Rue felt her face, huffing. “Guess not.” She shook her head as he turned and headed toward his car. “What was that all about?”
“What?” He looked over his shoulder with a grin. “Gotta keep you guessing, yeah?”
“Right,” she scoffed, rolling her eyes and climbing into the passenger seat. “Seriously though, I mean it when I say I’m sorry about last night.”
“It’s okay,” Eren insisted, patting her knee as he pulled out of his parking spot. “I get it. I’m just not as exciting as the higher-ups.”
“Whatever,” Rue scoffed, shaking her head. Eren chuckled. “I already said I’d make it up to you.”
“How do you plan on doing that?”
“I don’t know, what do you want?”
“That’s a loaded question,” Eren laughed, wincing when she shoved his shoulder. “Huh… A raise, for one, maybe a vacation in Galdin Quay now that it’s not a wreck… Oh, a dog would be great. Speaking of which, I really need a new place.”
“Not exactly what I was looking for,” Rue admitted. Eren shot her a playful look. “I was expecting, I dunno, a blowjob request or something.”
“Whoa there,” he scoffed, grinning. “I mean if that’s on the menu…” He cracked up when Rue rolled her eyes, reaching over to her lap and squeezing her hand. “I’m teasing. How about we just do another movie night?”
“Are you asking if I want to sit on my own couch inside my own home with a blanket and a glass of wine? Because that’s a guaranteed yes.”
“Damn, you’re easy.”
“I’m a woman of refined tastes.”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded, sitting up straighter. He shrugged.
“Whatever you want it to mean.”
The car shuddered to a stop when he pulled the key out the ignition. As he stuffed it into his pocket and reached for the door handle, a mischievous smile crossed Rue’s face. She quickly hit the lock button on her door, and when Eren turned to question her, she practically threw herself across the console to silence him with a kiss. Startled, he froze up, staring at her in surprise when she pulled away, letting herself out.
“Wow. What was that for?”
“Gotta keep you on your toes, remember?” Rue replied with a dramatic, if not cheesy, wink. Her heart was pounding, soaring, and the panic of the morning faded far from her mind. Maybe, for once, her intuition was wrong.
Rue heard her phone vibrate on the library desk just as she finished stapling a fresh stack of documents. She paid it no mind, standing and placing it on top of her load, nodding to the poor woman that seemed to live at the librarian’s station and hurrying back to Ignis’s office. He suddenly seemed bogged down with work; it was as though Cor had just dumped every one of Cam’s old assignments on him. Actually, that was probably exactly what had happened. She couldn’t help but feel irritated that the guy was seen as some stupid secretary to dump garbage files on.
“Hey, Rue!” Prompto greeted as she walked past him. She offered him a smile as she struggled to balance the papers while she attempted to turn the handle to Ignis’s door. “You look different today.”
“Ha-ha,” she replied dryly. He rushed to help her, grinning. “How’re you?”
“Pretty good, actually. About to go sit in some stupid meeting with everyone.”
“Rayne, Gladio, Iggy… The whole gang.”
“Ah.” Somehow, she’d forgotten that Ignis told her he’d be in a meeting that day. “Have fun with that.”
“Will do!” He flicked two fingers off his forehead in a cheerful solute and scurried away.
The office was empty, as expected. With a heavy thud, the papers hit the sturdy desk. Rue got to work dividing the different subjects, attempting to navigate the filing cabinet that stood tall behind Ignis’s desk. The organization only seemed to make sense to the advisor; it usually took her a couple of tries to figure out where everything went. Expense reports… She stuffed a stack in and closed the drawer, looking back down at what she had left. Personal records, communications, transcripts… The list ran on and on and on. Why’s he need all this BS anyway? By the time she finished and collapsed back into Ignis’s swiveling chair, she was covered in a thin layer of sweat. Sighing, she reached over to check her phone. She deserved the break. Text from Eren?
Meet me in the kitchen in thirty?
Thirty? Rue checked the time it was sent and quite literally leaped out of the chair. Thirty as in now. She wasn’t about to leave him waiting again. Bracing herself and trying not to twist her ankles in her heels, she hurried down the stairs and into the bright light of the kitchen, doing her very best to ignore the nagging memory of what happened the last time she was here. Eren whirled around, smiling when he saw it was her. But she saw straight through the strained expression, frowning and heading toward the island counter he leaned against.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Eren replied. “I’m just… worried.”
“About?” Rue demanded, crossing her arms. He had her on edge. This is it. This is the part where he tells you he was mistaken, that he doesn’t like you all that much after all.
“Remember that station I told you about? The one at the Niflheim border?” Rue’s heart sank as though her blood had suddenly turned to lead. She couldn’t speak, so she nodded instead. Eren tore his eyes away from hers, staring at the smooth floor. “Our guys haven’t returned. Rayne’s sending me and Gabriel to check it out.”
“You’re fucking with me.” Eren looked up, startled by her tone. Rue was fuming. “She’s sending you to that death sentence?”
“Rue, it’s not like she has much of a—”
“No, she has plenty of choices. This isn’t a fucking coincidence. When do you leave?”
“In two days.”
Shaking her head, Rue glowered at the kitchen door. How stupid had she been to believe that Rayne had actually lightened up on her hatred toward her? Last night was simply a way for the psycho to lessen the blow. Gritting her teeth, Rue started toward the exit.
“Wait, where are you—”
“Giving that bitch a piece of my mind,” Rue snapped, shoving the door hard that it swung all the way back and slammed into the wall behind it.
Rue ignored his plea and stormed toward Rayne’s office. The walls were solid stone, otherwise, she might have punched a hole in the wall with the doorknob when she threw the door open. Instead, a new dent marked the steel. Rue slammed the door behind her, sitting stiffly in the chair before the desk. She could feel that her cheeks were bright red, that her chest was heavy and her throat was tight. She was pissed.
The minutes passed by at the speed of light as Rue chased scenarios around her head. By the time the door clicked, her anger had tripled in intensity. She stood sharply, turning to face the entrance. She was shaking. Rayne and Gladio froze in the doorway, not at all expecting to see her standing there with a scowl on her face. Clearing her throat, Rayne muttered something to Gladio and closed the door behind her.
“Look, I know why you’re—”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Rue demanded, fists balled at her sides. Rayne frowned, immediately far more defensive than she was upon arriving. “I know you hate me, but goddamn, this isn’t something I’d wish on my worst enemy!”
“This has nothing to do with how I feel about you,” Rayne insisted, walking past her to get to her desk. She set her backpack down and crossed her arms, scowling at Rue.
“Really? I find it hard to believe that the day after I tell you about me and Eren, he’s suddenly ordered to be shipped off to what seems to be a death sentence!”
“First of all, I had my hunches about you two before you said anything.” Rayne was clearly ticked off by now, moving stiffly and staring Rue down. “And second, I’m sending Eren because I know he’s a good soldier and he has good odds of—”
“Didn't the others have good odds too?” Rue retorted, slamming her palms down onto the desk. A cup of colorful pens rattled to her left, toppling over and spilling onto the floor. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes for once, dammit! What if I sent Gladio out there when literally everyone else who’s gone has died?”
“We don’t know they’re dead!” Rayne shouted, unafraid to get in the assistant’s face. “And for fuck's sake, I’d have faith that he’d make it!”
“Eren’s not Gladio,” Rue hissed, teeth gritted. The part that was driving her to confront this woman a second time was the same part that drowned her urge to back off in adrenaline. Rayne shook her head, being the first to step back.
“What do you want me to do, Rue?”
“Get your own skin out there instead of hiding in Insomnia!?” Rue threw her hands out to the side. “Stop killing people for your own sake?! Get your head out of your ass! I don’t—”
“You think I like what’s happening!?” Rayne demanded.
“I think you fucking relish in the power and you don’t want to lose it.” Rue’s voice was quiet, nearly a growl. There was nothing but hatred burning through her veins. She was sick of the world trying to rip away everything that mattered to her. Something shifted in Rayne’s demeanor; she went from red hot to stone cold in a split second.
“I’m not done—”
“Get. The fuck. Out.”
Unable to see a route to change, Rue made the mature decision to give Rayne the finger on either hand as she headed toward the door, jerking it open and slamming it hard behind her. Gladio stood outside, watching her in uncomfortable silence as she stormed past and headed to Ignis’s office. She hardly even saw him. Taking a deep breath, she stepped inside and calmly walked toward the seat in from of his desk. The advisor glanced up, frowning when he saw her reddened face and her trembling hands.
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah.” Rue swallowed the lump in her throat. “No. I don’t know.” She sounded empty.
“…” Ignis was unsure of how to respond, so he glanced down at his notes from the meeting he’d just attended. “… I have a pro—”
“I can’t do this,” Rue groaned, burying her face in her hands. Her glasses tumbled to the floor. Still confused, Ignis simply watched in silence as her fingers gripped her hair and tugged. She rocked back and forth with sharp, jerky movements, shaking horribly.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t…” Rue took a deep, trembling breath. “Did you know Rayne was sending Eren to that post outside Niflheim?”
“I can’t say she’s shared many of her plans with me.”
“Shit.” Rue shook her head, drawing her knees up to her chest. “I’m sorry. What were you going to say?”
“Are you certain you’re feeling alright?”
“Ignis, just… Please.”
“…” The tactician frowned, adjusting his glasses. He had to reread his notes in order to get his mind back on track. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Yeah?” She felt numb, staring at the patterns in the wood of his desk.
“Yes. Recently, Noctis was contacted by the leader of Altissia, Camelia Claustra. She would like to meet with him in person. She’s agreed that he should bring a group of retainers, both for protection and for advising purposes.”
“You want me to hold down the fort?” she asked distantly. Ignis shook his head, trying to detach from his urge to ease her suffering.
“Quite the opposite, actually. Cor is likely the best person to manage the Crown City while Noctis is gone, and that leaves an extra spot open.” Ignis adjusted his glasses yet again, unsettled by her lack of reaction. “You mentioned your desire to leave the city more often, and your training with the Glaive would be invaluable.”
“My training?” Rue scoffed, finally looking up at him. “I was deemed ‘mediocre at best,’ Ignis. I don’t think I’m what you’re looking for.”
“You made it far enough to know far more than the typical citizen,” Ignis countered. “You saved Prompto and Gladio from a world of hurt and defended yourself in the face of two trained assassins. That’s enough for me.” She made no reply. “Besides, most of what you’ll be facing is the work you were hired for: assistance.”
“For once,” she scoffed, but her tone was lighthearted. Rue discovered that she was beginning to feel a bit better at the prospect of getting out of Insomnia for a spell, even if it was potentially dangerous. Even if nothing happened, it would still be good to get a breath of fresh air.
“Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“When do we leave?”
“Two day’s time.”
“You guys are shit at giving me time to decide, you know that?” she teased half-heartedly. That’s when Eren’s leaving… Her stomach churned. “Yeah, I’ll go.” Ignis seemed pleased by her answer.
“Excellent. I’ll let the others know.”
“Okay.” Rue tucked her hair behind her ear, letting her legs go back to their usual crossed position.
“Now, what was it that you finished after I left?”
“Oh, right. So, I filed the financial reports from the last two years…”
Chapter 27: Number Six
"Shotgun" by George Ezra
~3 years before~
Clouds hazed over the glinting stars in the sky, hiding any semblance of heavenly light. The only source they possessed was the pile of burning logs around them, illuminating the damp cave walls and heating the chilled air. Goosebumps prickled across Rue’s skin as she shed her jacket and threw it over the sleeping body to her left, shuddering. Two men and a woman sat just as she did, camped around the fire in an uneven circle with their bodies pressed to their knees and their eyes reflecting the golden light of the dancing flames. Their stomachs growled angrily, their teeth ground together, and their muscles ached, demanding rest. The feelings were all too familiar those days. Starvation, anxiety, and exhaustion served as the mark of survival, a reminder that they were all still very much alive, though for how much longer none of them could guess.
“We have to move soon,” the younger of the two men said, looking up at the others in their group. “There’s no point in huddling here forever.”
“It’s not for forever,” the woman replied, playing with her clothes as she thought. “Just until the king comes back.”
“And when do you think that’ll be?” he demanded, keeping his voice low. “We’ll die here if we don’t leave.”
“Then where should we go?” Rue asked softly, tucking her long hair behind her ear.
“I dunno, somewhere with food?” The young man scoffed, rolling his eyes and tossing a pebble into the fire. “Did anything catch your eye when you went out there, Dex?”
“It’s all dead,” Dex replied, shaking his head. He glanced up at Rue, surprised that she’d spoken. “Unless we stop by Hammerhead or Lestallum. I hear those are pretty big posts.”
“Yeah, but they made it clear that they want nothing to do with us,” the woman grumbled.
“Doesn’t help that you picked a fight with the head honcho,” the young man retorted.
“Well, there’s not much we can do about it now, Alec,” Dex reminded him, sinking back against the cold, rugged wall. “Besides, she had every right to be upset with him.”
“What, did he piss in your canteen?” Alec scoffed, scowling at the woman, whose name Rue finally recalled to be Lenna. The cold and the hunger combined were doing things to her brain, making her weak both physically and mentally.
“Alec,” Dex said sternly, frowning. “Cut it out.”
“What? I want to know why, when she had one job, she had to go in there and muck it up.”
“That’s her busin—”
“He killed my son,” Lenna gritted out, glaring into the fire. A heavy silence overtook the camp. Rue felt as though someone had just stabbed her through the heart, staring down at her lap and reaching over to rest a hand on the body beside her. “Took ‘im to on another bloody daemon hunt and came back with no one else. Suppose that means he killed five people.”
“…” Alec shut his mouth and his brow furrowed. Dex watched her speak with a sympathetic expression, nodding and playing with the chain around his neck—more specifically, the ring on the chain held to his chest. Alec, clearly ashamed of the way he demanded Lenna’s answer, carefully glanced at Dex. “You… lost someone too, right?”
“Yeah.” Dex huffed, leaning forward to drape his arms across his knees. He pulled the necklace off and turned the ring over and over between his fingers. “My wife.” Alec nodded. “You?”
“My parents.” He puffed a sardonic laugh, a bitter smile crossing his lips. “Guess no one came out unscathed. Rue?”
“No one.” Rue was surprised when the words came from her mouth without a second thought, shocked at the cold, empty tone of her voice. Still, she thought she’d share her piece if they were truly up to talking about who they missed. “Everyone I loved was gone before I came out here.” She squeezed the girl’s arm, finally looking up to meet Alec’s eyes. “She’s all I have now.”
“Did they die before the Imperial attack?”
“I prefer not to talk about it.”
“Gotcha.” Alec dusted off his pants and stood, pacing slowly as he watched Rue rub circles into the sleeping girl’s back. “Y’know, my family practically disowned me after they found out I was headed for prison.”
“What for?” Lenna asked stiffly. Alec shrugged.
“Drug stuff. Distributing and using.” Rue couldn’t help but laugh softly to herself. Her smile caught Alec’s eye and wandered toward her, head cocked to the right. “You’d stay by her side no matter what she did?”
“There’s nothing she could do to stop me short of death,” Rue answered sharply, confidently. “I was on my way to prison before the attack, too; that won’t keep me from her.” Alec crouched beside her, smiling down at the girl and smoothing her black hair with his bony fingers. Her pale eyelids twitched.
“Well then. You’ve got yourself a mother worth dying for, Ana.”
Rue found herself wide awake long before her alarm was set to go off, curled up on her side with the covers pulled up to her chin. The heat at her back had been constant through the night, just like the arm that was loosely thrown over her waist. Honestly, she was very surprised that Eren hadn’t moved, still locked in the position they’d fallen asleep in. He usually turned over every ten minutes; it usually drove her insane.
Careful not to wake him, she reached for her phone and turned the brightness all the way down, scrolling through the feeds across a variety of apps. Today was the day she and Eren were to leave Insomnia behind, at least for a little while. The prior two days had left a pit in her stomach, and while she never ate much anyway, she found it impossible to consume even her morning coffee. She wanted to have faith that Eren would survive more than anyone in the world, and yet, the lead in her gut told her it was false hope, that she should detach while she was ahead.
Rue stared at her phone until the sun peeked through her curtains and the alarm blared from its speakers. She let it ring long enough to allow Eren to hear before shutting it off with a heavy sigh. There was no more denying the truth; this was the morning she’d have to say goodbye. Eren stirred with a groan, curling up closer. Rue closed her eyes when she felt his lips press to her neck.
“Morning,” he mumbled.
“You all packed?”
Eren sighed and sat up, rubbing his face before putting his glasses on. Silently, he reached out and squeezed her shoulder. She stared dead ahead at her closet door, trying to numb the boiling hot fear that burned her eyes and throat.
“It’s gonna be alright.”
“Then stop acting like this is the end.”
“What if it is?”
“Well…” Eren flopped back over, hovering over her and smiling with the utmost sincerity. She hated that he could grin like that at such a time, hated that he could see the bright side when she felt nothing but hatred for reality. “Then thanks for making my last days wonderful.”
“Don’t talk like that,” she scolded softly, reaching up to brush his shaggy hair out of his eyes. He scoffed.
“Only you can be pessimistic?”
“That’s right.” She forced a smile, looking over his excited, lively expression. He’s too young for this. “Someone’s got to force me to be happy.” Hardly younger than me, and yet, he's still such a child in so many ways. He's got so much left to see.
“I accept,” he teased, kissing her forehead and rolling out of bed. He offered a hand, raising an eyebrow. “C’mon, get up. Where’s your bag? I’ll bring it down to my car.”
“In the living room,” she sighed, accepting his offer and allowing him to drag her to her feet. He nodded, turning on his heels and heading out of the bedroom.
Rue reached toward the chair beside her mirror, unfolding the sweatshirt she’d left there for far too long. Rayne will want this back. Her blood boiled at the mere mention of the woman’s name. All she wanted was the burn the item as a symbol of her disgust at Rayne’s actions, reduce her treasure to nothing but ash. But she couldn’t do that; this was all Rayne had left of her brother, her best friend. Even though Rayne was sentencing her own best friend to death, she wasn’t taking every memory, token, and remnant and cremating it. Perhaps there was still hope after all.
Shaking her head, she tossed it aside and pulled on her own hoodie. Ignis told her not to worry about looking professional. The ride would be long and Gladio would likely force them to camp somewhere; she’d packed a small bag just in case they really were going to be sleeping outdoors. On went her leggings and her boots and her glasses, off when the lights, and out went the assistant, baggy blue sweatshirt in hands. Eren apparently had dressed in the center of her apartment, now changed into his Kingsglaive gear and prepared to defend the honor of his king across borders that truly no longer existed. He raised an eyebrow when he caught her staring.
“Damn, you look like someone kicked your cat.”
“Maybe they did,” Rue muttered, reaching out to pet Honey when she rubbed against her leg with a purr. “Relir confirmed she’s looking out for her, so we don’t have to worry.”
“Now you just have to make sure to remind her,” Eren scoffed, rolling his eyes. Rue smiled, shaking her head.
“I trust Dex to keep her in line.”
Rue nodded, looking up and shrugging her backpack on. Eren shot her a sad smile when she met his eyes. Even you don’t think you’re making it back alive. He grabbed his car keys and nodded toward the door.
Rue shut off the lights and closed the door without looking back, swallowing the memory of the bodies in her doorway as she passed through. She locked the door quickly, following Eren to the elevator where they rode in silence, minus the gurgling of his stomach. Rue felt queasy as she stepped out. A cold sweat broke out across her skin and her head was light. This is it. This is where it ends. She dried her sweaty palms on her pants and climbed into the car, storing her backpack by her feet. When Eren started the car, she pursed her lips and reached out to grab hold of his hand, staring dead ahead at the windshield as her heart pounded in her chest. He watched her for a moment, unsure how to comfort her, before pulling out of the parking lot with one hand on the wheel.
The drive was silent, filled only by the quiet tune playing from the radio. It passed far too quickly. Rue dragged herself out of the car, trembling, and willed herself not to do this again. Don’t act like you didn’t expect this. She watched him unload her suitcase and chewed on her lip. But I didn’t… Eren offered his signature grin.
“Ready to go?”
“No, but I guess I have to,” she sighed, slinging her backpack on and lugging her suitcase behind her. He laughed, shaking his head.
“I promise it’ll be alright. You’ll have fun.”
“Have you ever been to Altissia?”
“My family used to go all the time, but I’m sure it’s different now.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Past the heavy door to the parking garage, they paused. This is where they were to depart for a time that no one could possibly decide. Rue didn’t know how long it would take for Noctis to come to an agreement; Eren didn’t even know what he was supposed to be doing in Gralia. It was messy, and when it came to Rue’s life, all the messes seemed to blend together into a blur of grays. She wasn’t about to let the very man who’d forced her out of her sullen little depression-hole of an apartment become another streak in her past. She let go of her suitcase and squeezed him into a tight hug, resting her chin on his shoulder.
“Promise me you’ll come back.”
“I promise.” He said it with such certainty that she almost believed he could. “And then we’ll go get some ice cream from The Gold Chocobo. How’s that sound?”
“Like a headache, but worth it.”
“It’s obnoxious in there.”
“Well, what would you rather do?”
“Drink wine and watch stupid videos.”
She pulled away just enough to draw him into a kiss, one she expected to be the last. What the hell did I do?
“What the fuck?”
Rue nearly jumped out of her skin, pushing out of Eren’s arms and turning to see Relir and Dex standing there, the former with her arms crossed and eyebrow raised and the latter with an apologetic expression. Eren looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“Didn’t think to tell us about this?” Relir demanded, though there was the slightest hint of a smile on her face. “Thought I wouldn’t find out if you just kept quiet?”
“Maybe,” Rue replied, still unsure how to read the woman.
“Right, and you did a good job until I turned a corner at work to see you two making out smack dab in the middle of the walkway.” Relir crinkled her nose, elbowing Dex. “I think they’re worse than us.”
“Don’t put me on that level,” Eren huffed, rolling his eyes. Relir laughed, spreading her arms.
“Well, congrats you two. Rue, gimme a hug before you go suck up to the boss for a week or so.” I doubt it’ll be a week. Shaking her head, she gave in, giving Relir a good squeeze before giving Dex a pointed look.
“I expect you to keep my cat alive.”
“And if you don’t, I’m burning her at the stake.”
“Damn, okay,” Relir scoffed, shaking her head. “Get outta here before they leave your sorry ass behind.”
“Okay.” Rue turned to grab her bag, glancing up at Eren, who offered yet another smile. Relir groaned, turning around.
“Go ahead, love birds.”
“Fuck off,” Rue retorted, pressing one last kiss to Eren’s cheek and waving as she headed off in the other direction. “See you guys eventually.”
With that, she dragged her bag behind her and found the base of the stairs to the Crownsguard offices. Should I text Ignis before pulling this all the way up? She looked up the long flight of stairs and nodded, pulling out her phone. Yeah, definitely.
I’m here. Where should I bring my things?
Rue turned her screen off, praying that his response would come swiftly. Her prayer was answered immediately.
The front gates. We’re loading up the vehicle now.
The vehicle? Rue frowned, shaking her head and hurrying toward the towering front doors. The halls were dead even though it was far into the morning; it was unnerving. Quickly, she pushed the door open, startled when someone pulled from the other side. Prompto laughed, stumbling back.
“Good morning to you, too!”
“Is everything loaded up?”
“Almost. Give your stuff to Gladio.”
Gladio perked up upon hearing his name, raising an eyebrow at the two. Rue nodded, shoving her suitcase toward him. Really, she wasn’t sure of what to expect in the slightest. Ignis said she was part of security but also still his assistant. He was very vague about why there were there. When she asked Prompto, he just told her not to worry about it. It would become clear with time.
“Are you almost set to go?” Cor asked, stepping outside.
The sun was shining brightly overhead, heating the Crown City on its warm spring day. For once there was no gray sky or chilly wind to dampen the mood. The whole world seemed at peace, though they all knew that was far from the truth. The chaos was the exact reason they were leaving Insomnia to begin with. Rue watched Gladio toss her suitcase into the trunk of sleek, black SUV as though it hardly weighed an ounce. She nodded, hugging Arma Callen’s sweatshirt to her chest as she searched for Rayne.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You do know we’re camping, right?” Gladio asked with a smug smile as he nudged a lawn chair with his elbow. Noctis rolled his eyes.
“We might be camping.”
“I figured,” Rue replied, raising an eyebrow at Gladio’s grin. She’d never seen the guy look so excited about anything that wasn’t Rayne’s ass. Speak of the devil…
“Car and offices are locked,” Rayne reported, exiting the Citadel’s enormous doors and twirling a key ring around her finger. She tossed the keys to Gladio, who caught them easily and jammed them into the pocket of his bulky pants. Rue swallowed her pride and turned to face her, offering the sweatshirt up. Her expression was far from friendly. “Damn, took you long enough.” Rue couldn’t help the words from spilling past her lips.
“Be grateful; I wasn’t planning on giving it back at all after the shit you pulled with Eren.”
“Fuck off,” Rayne scoffed, ignoring the men who watched them in awkward, tense silence. She strolled toward Gladio, muttering something no one else could quite catch. Rue didn’t miss that she clutched the sweatshirt to her chest, resting her chin in the soft material as she listed to his quiet response.
“You good holding down the fort alone?” Noctis asked Cor, crossing his arms. Cor nodded.
“I should be fine. Just worry about coming back safely.” The Immortal glanced up at everyone that was to bound for the road with the young king. “All of you. I don’t want to hear about any untimely deaths.”
“We’ll be okay,” Rayne replied, smiling and jerking her head toward Rue. “We brought spazzy as a decoy to throw at the bad guys.”
“Bet,” Rue scoffed under her breath.
"Spazzy'll be just fine if she sticks with me!” Prompto retorted, throwing an arm around her shoulders and pointing to himself with his thumb.
“Right,” Noctis huffed. “Good luck with all this. It’s a mess.”
“Hopefully we can get tidy up in Altissia quickly,” Ignis replied, smiling when Gladio rolled his eyes.
“I nominate Iggy as the driver,” Prompto called, lunging for the passenger seat. Rayne beat him to it, smile wide and eyebrow raised.
“Not so fast, Prom. Someone’s gotta keep Rue company and I don’t volunteer as tribute.” Now you’re just being a bitch for the hell of it.
“Fine, but we get the middle.” Prompto climbed in before anyone could protest. “Gladio ‘n Noct can cram in the back.”
“Course I can,” Gladio grumbled, shaking his head and scaling the leather seats to get in the very back row. Noctis shook his head, shooting Cor a look, and followed. Rue sighed, looking up at Ignis.
“Is she going to be like that this whole trip?”
“You haven’t done yourself any favors,” he pointed out, touching his glasses.
“True…” She watched Prompto dig out his camera and crawl forward to show Rayne, who was already pulling out a pair of earphones. “Do me a favor and do not let her drive under any circumstances.”
“I’ll be doing everyone a favor,” he muttered in reply, earning a small laugh.
“Y’know, something tells me you’re the only one in this crew with any sense.”
“I might have to agree.” Ignis nodded his goodbye to Cor and started toward the SUV. “I suppose we should get going if we don’t want to get stuck at a haven for the night.” Rue started to follow him, pausing by the trunk.
“Do you want an Ebony from the back before Gladio has to fish for one while we’re moving?”
“That would be splendid,” Ignis answered over his shoulder, shooting her the quickest unreadable look before he disappeared behind a towering black frame and densely tinted windows. Grinning, Rue popped open the trunk and pulled a pair of dark cans from a cardboard box before hurrying to her seat beside Prompto. She cracked one open and handed leaned forward to set it in Ignis’s cupholder before setting aside the other for the inevitable craving that would set in a few hours later. Rayne rolled her eyes.
Ignoring her, Rue tugged off her backpack, setting it at her feet, and sank into the black leather seat. This vehicle felt expensive, just like all the others she’d been in contact with since Cam hired her. She shuddered; what a time that was. As soon as the car began to move, Prompto leaned over to show Rue a slideshow of photos on his new camera.
“See? I used my old SD card to keep my old pictures from our last trip and I have more space for more!”
“You can fit all those on there?” Rue asked, feigning interest as he explained all the different settings and features with bright eyes and a bubbly spirit. He excitedly flipped through all the photos from their previous journey nearly five years before. Rue was surprised at how many times she saw Ignis grinning from ear to ear or posing with one of the others. Guess he wasn’t always a cranky old man. It felt like an eternity had passed before they even left the gates of Insomnia.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Noctis announced, curling up on his side and laying his head against the window.
Gladio rolled his eyes and tugged out a rather thick book, flipping to a dog-eared page and picking up where he left off. Rue frowned. Didn’t take him for a cheesy novel guy. Rayne clearly didn’t hear him, having plugged her ears with music Rue could hear from nearly three feet away and closed her eyes, slumping in her seat. Prompto scoffed, continuing to scroll through his photos. Finally, he exited the viewing window and Rue prayed that he was finally done. And he sort of was—but not quite. He scooted closer to Rue and faced the lens toward her.
“I said I’m sleeping,” Noctis repeated, annoyed. Rue lowered her voice to hissed whisper, scowling at the blonde when he threw his arm across the back of her seat and threw up a peace sign.
“What the hell?” Rue demanded.
“Get used to that,” Ignis warned her, glancing up at the rearview mirror.
“I wanna remember this trip and I want good pictures with my friends,” Prompto explained in a hushed voice, grinning. Friends… Rue ignored the tugging of her heartstrings and sighed, forcing an energetic smile onto her face as he snapped another photo. “Ha! This first one is priceless!”
“Prompto!” Noctis snapped. Gladio grunted, shooting his king a look. “He won’t shut up!”
“Sorry, sorry! I’m done!” Prompto huffed, continuing to grin down at the photo. Rue couldn’t help but smile, digging through her bag for a pair of headphones and plugging them in. It’s been fun, really, but it’s time to drown you idiots out.