Rufus grinned down at the message from visionsoftheparallel:
Look, I’m just saying, Fury’s great and all but you should totally be Sam Wilson. I bet you could make some hella good fake wings.
He typed out a reply.
Fake? Hell no, if I’m going to be the Falcon then I’m going all the way, those wings are going to be operational. Well, semi-operational. They’re going to fold out and fold back in, anyway.
Rufus shoved his phone into his pocket as he entered The Lifeboat, the bell overhead jingling. The comic book-slash-geek-supply-store had gotten its name because the owner, Mason, considered comics and Dungeons & Dragons and other such things to be a lifeline for people who were drowning in their day to day lives, who struggled to fit in or to find purpose or joy in their jobs and school life.
It sure as hell had been a lifeboat for Rufus when he had been drowning. He’d spent his entire summers in this building, constructing small machines and working on computer coding. Now that he was freshly graduated from MIT, he was working at the store as a summer job to go with his internship in Silicon Valley. Sure, it was a bit of a drive sometimes, but he wouldn’t miss hanging out at this place for the world. And it was a safe haven for teenagers—Kevin and his two friends Mark and Olivia, adopted siblings, would hang out in here all the time.
“Morning!” Rufus yelled.
“Oh, wow, you’re here fast!” Lucy said, poking her head out of the supply closet.
“I’m here the same time I’m always here.” Rufus set his stuff down behind the counter. “What are you doing in there.”
“Nothing, just inventory.” Lucy retreated into the closet again, closing the door behind her. Rufus heard a few rather suspicious noises and then Lucy emerged, looking slightly rumpled. “How’s your day going?”
“Oh, fine, how’s Flynn?”
Lucy breezed past Rufus and grabbed some books to shelve. “He’s great. Had the opening shift.”
Flynn was one of the other store employees and a little older than the rest of them. He’d grown up in Croatia, but his mother had been American, and when Flynn had married young only to lose his wife and child, he’d come to America to try and get a new start. He was currently taking classes at Stanford as a part-time student, wavering between political science and history, which was how he’d met Lucy, who was getting her masters at Stanford.
They had a habit of fucking in the supply closet. Usually joined by Wyatt, the third part of their trio, fresh out of the army and with no fucking clue what to do with his life. He’d followed his girlfriend Jess to her reporter internship but they’d recently split up so now Wyatt was either working at The Lifeboat or getting fucked by Lucy and Flynn.
Sometimes both at once. Or three at once, depending on how you looked at it.
Rufus sighed. “Flynn. I know you’re in there.”
Flynn emerged from the supply closet. “I told you there wasn’t enough time before he came in,” he told Lucy.
Lucy looked completely unashamed. “So, did you hear the news, Rufus?”
“Mason wants to hire another person.”
Lucy nodded. “Now that Emma’s quit…”
“Like we needed her…”
“We need someone for the evening shifts and the weekends.”
“You know, you could just take the weekend shifts.”
“And give up my cuddle time? Weekends are the only days when Wyatt and Flynn are both free. I need to be sandwiched, Rufus. I need full skin contact and I need a trashy action movie on the TV and I need my feet rubbed and my hair played with.”
“You spoil her,” Rufus said to Flynn. “You realize this, right? You spoil her rotten.”
Flynn looked completely lacking in regret. “Someday you’re going to fall ass over…” He paused, then looked at Lucy.
“Ass over teakettle,” Lucy replied, not even looking at them.
“Ass over teakettle,” Flynn repeated, looking back at Rufus, “and I am not going to be generous about it. I am going to throw a party.”
“Rufus already has someone,” Wyatt said, emerging from the supply closet.
“You don’t even work today!” Rufus yelled, gesturing madly. What were these three, energizer bunnies?
Wyatt rolled his eyes and ran his hands through his hair, trying to make it look less like Lucy or Flynn had been viciously tugging at it. His mouth was all red and swollen and Rufus really, really, really did not need to know what had been going on. “I’m talking about your pen pal, man.”
“Pen pal!?” Lucy said, whipping her head around.
Flynn grinned and folded his arms. “Okay now this I gotta hear.”
“It’s nothing,” Rufus said, glaring at Wyatt. “Ignore Benedict Arnold over here.”
“Rufus has this person from tumblr that he’s been talking to for months,” Wyatt said. “They met through a Critical Role fic exchange.”
Rufus was going to kill Wyatt slowly. Painfully. He was going to publicly broadcast that Wyatt’s favorite movies were romantic comedies and that he had a massive crush on James Bond.
“Is this true?” Flynn asked, gleeful.
Rufus leaned back against the counter. “Okay, yes, we—her, I learned she’s a her, was my secret Santa for the Wintercrest Fanfic Exchange last year. She writes amazing Perc’ahlia man and we got to talking, and we love Stargate and she’d actually seen Farscape which like, nobody has seen, and now we talk on tumblr because Ao3 is a pure and brilliant place but they have no private messaging system, and she’s funny and really fucking smart and… yeah.”
“That sounds adorable,” Lucy cooed, leaning against one of the shelves. “What’s her name?”
“Uh… I know her url?”
“That doesn’t count,” Flynn said.
“You and Wyatt said that blowjobs didn’t count and denied you were in a relationship for like, a month, forgive me if I’m not taking your expertise here.”
“Puppy needed some time,” Lucy said.
“Please, for the love of God, tell me that’s not a sex thing.”
“It’s not,” Flynn and Wyatt said at the same moment Lucy got a half-thoughtful half-devious look on her face and said, “it might be.”
Rufus wondered if he brained himself hard enough on the cash register if he could induce selective amnesia. “Wyatt, you’re not on the clock, get out from behind the counter.”
“There was a problem, by the way,” Flynn mentioned. “Something about the Facebook group.”
Hoo Lord. The comic book creating world was small, and everyone talked to each other on Facebook groups. It was pretty cool if you asked Rufus—he could talk to the big players in the industry, and the writers and artists, in a way that he didn’t think you could with any other art form. You couldn’t just call up the president of NBC as much as you might want to so you could demand they un-cancel your favorite TV show. But you could talk to the actual people in charge in those Facebook groups. It was really nice. Rufus loved it.
But… sometimes drama happened. Because of course.
“I’ll look at it.” If he had to put out one more fire… “You didn’t say anything did you?”
Flynn’s sheepish look said it all.
The bell jingled and someone walked in. Flynn sauntered into the bathroom, probably to clean himself up after whatever he was doing to Lucy and Wyatt (or having done to him). Lucy kept stacking books.
Rufus put on his best customer smile. It helped that he actually usually liked the customers, except the annoying male nerds—usually white—who acted like, well, the annoying gatekeeping nerd stereotype that whined and pitched fits about women not liking them.
It was a young woman—a couple years younger than Rufus himself, if he had to guess—with sharp eyes and a full mouth and long dark hair. Her tan skin seemed to glow, and she was carrying a messenger bag with Star Trek pins on it and her shirt said Keep Calm and Stay Shiny.
“Hi.” The woman smiled. “I’m here to apply for the job opening?”
“That was quick,” Wyatt mumbled. “Mason’s had that sign up for what, a day?”
“Wyatt,” Lucy said sweetly, “would you be a good boy and help me with these boxes?”
Lucy could very well lift the boxes herself, which Wyatt knew, but he also knew that he did as Lucy said if he wanted to still have a dick in the morning, so he trotted obediently after her.
“I have it here somewhere…” the woman took out her wallet, several books, two comic books, a Halloween makeup kit, some Lisa Frank folders, a bag of colored pencils, a sandwich, three Gameboys, tissues, keys, headphones, and five packs of gum.
And put them all on the counter.
Rufus frowned. “Uh…” She was cute, definitely, but she wasn’t exactly what he’d call organized. Emma had been a lot of things but organized had definitely been one of them and with Wyatt and Flynn running around they needed all the organized they could get.
“Ah ha!” The woman produced her resumé, handing it to Rufus. “Knew I had it in here somewhere.”
She shoved everything back into the messenger bag and beamed at him. “I’m Jiya, by the way.”
“Okay,” Rufus said. “Our application is here, and then you just have to answer one question for me: the upcoming Star Wars film. Your thoughts.”
Jiya shrugged, filling out the application. “I don’t do Star Wars.”
Rufus stared at her. “What?”
“The overly simplistic good vs evil of the Jedi and Sith never appealed to me. The dialogue Luke has in A New Hope? Puh-lease. The prequels are shit and at this point it’s just plain overdone as a pop culture phenomenon.”
“Coming from the girl with the Star Trek pins on her messenger bag?”
Jiya’s head shot up and she narrowed her eyes at him. The very bones of her face seemed to sharpen. “What’s wrong with Star Trek?”
“Nothing, if you like overacting and ham-fisted morality lessons starring hack actors and women in skimpy ‘regulation’ clothes.”
“Okay first of all Mr. Light Side of the Force you don’t get to then make a judgment call on ham-fisted morality—”
“Hey,” Flynn said quickly, because Flynn was a son of a bitch and a flaming disaster fire but he was also extremely charismatic when it had to do with anything other than talking to Lucy, “I’m Flynn, another worker here. It’s great to meet you.”
“I’m Jiya.” Jiya smiled at Flynn. “Nice shirt.”
Flynn was wearing his Croatian football (“not soccer, Rufus, for fuck’s sake”) shirt. “You’re into football?”
“My dad loved it.”
“No sports talk allowed,” Rufus said.
Jiya leveled him with a glare that would’ve melted a wall of concrete.
“How about I finish filling this out?” Flynn said quickly.
Lucy and Wyatt were poking their heads around the corner and clearly didn’t care enough to intervene and just wanted to watch it all burn down.
“Sure,” Rufus said, glaring right back at Jiya.
But of course. Of course.
Mason loved Jiya and hired her.
Jiya did not understand what the hell was wrong with Rufus.
She loved working at the Lifeboat, if it wasn’t for him. And the problem was that, well, she could see why everyone loved Rufus. He was hilarious, and observant, good with customers and had an encyclopedic knowledge of everything geeky. But God forbid he accept that she just had no interest in Star Wars and also God forbid that he even give Star Trek a try.
Jiya knew that part of it was on her. She could be acerbic, cutting, saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing but too harshly and just making a mess of it all. She often joked with chocodilerocks, her online pen pal, that her username 'visionsoftheparallel' came from her ability to see what she should say or do—but in the wrong universe.
It never goes how I plan it in my head, she’d tell him. And she’d get an LOL in response, and she wished she had the courage to say, I worry that you only like me so much because I’m writing to you and so I can plan what I’m saying instead of just blurting it out like in real life.
So yeah, part of it was her fault.
But did Rufus have to just—get under her skin all the time?
It didn’t help that he was hot, and goofy, and funny, and had this big smile that was like fucking sunshine. But everything just seemed to go… wrong.
They got into this huge argument over faith one day that had Flynn literally getting in between them while Lucy looked incredibly distressed. Mason had talked to Rufus later and he’d given her an awkward apology and they’d agreed to disagree, but Jiya couldn’t remember the last time she’d yelled at someone until she’d cried before. He just—had this way of pushing her buttons and getting her to unleash all this passion that she didn’t even know she’d had.
At least she had chocodilerocks.
Sometimes, when she saw Lucy and Wyatt being disgustingly cute, or Flynn gazing at Lucy with that utterly besotted look of his, bringing her coffee and calling her ‘his genius’, or when she saw Wyatt and Flynn bantering back and forth, nudging each other and adding innuendos right and left—she got envious. She did.
She had something with chocodilerocks. She knew she did. He said the most wonderful things, calling her my love and telling her she was the best part of his day, and they’d both let slip, uh, a few preferences in the bedroom that you didn’t just let slip to a platonic friend. There was a difference between when she was having a frank discussion with Lucy on the struggles of being a smaller woman and dominant in the bedroom, and then telling someone with a coy wink that he could bring the handcuffs.
But he was far away, and neither of them had actually—declared anything. It was Schrodinger’s Relationship: both dating and not dating because they acted like a couple but hadn’t officially said so, or asked one another about it.
And she was terrified that perhaps occasionally flirting was all he wanted.
The bell over the door jingled and Jiya was jolted out of her reverie. Rufus was behind the counter looking up rules to Vampire: The Masquerade and Lucy was in the back doing inventory. Lucy’s younger sister, Amy, was sitting in the reading area—a collection of beanbag chairs and such where customers could sit and read. Mason understood that some people couldn’t afford the books, and he wanted this to be a safe place for kids to hang out, and since he was also secretly a billionaire or something (Jiya had never had it confirmed but she was pretty damn sure…) he obviously didn’t care if it cost him some revenue.
The person entering was a blonde, and a good looking one at that. Jiya raised her eyebrows as the woman walked right up to her and Rufus.
“Is Wyatt here?” the blonde asked.
“He’s not working until later,” Rufus said. “Why?”
“I need to return some of his things,” the blonde said. She looked the two of them up and down. “Let me guess. Rufus and Jiya?”
“How’d you know?” Jiya asked.
Ah. Wyatt’s infamous ex. They were friends now but the breakup hadn’t been pretty, or so Jiya had heard.
“You can wait in the reading area if you want,” Rufus said. “He’ll be here in about an hour though so if that’s too long to wait…”
“Nah, I’ve heard a ton about this place, I can hang out.” Jess sauntered over to the reading area, her hips swaying, and plopped down next to Amy.
“Damn. Okay.” Rufus nodded. “I can see why Wyatt was into her.”
An odd flare of—it wasn’t jealousy, Jiya wasn’t jealous—shot through her stomach. “I can’t see it.”
“Not into women?”
“No, I just… can’t.” Jiya shrugged. “I need to know someone, I mean, really know them and care about them, to see it. It takes… a long time for me to get a crush on someone because I can’t just meet someone and go ‘hey, you’re hot’!”
Rufus nodded. “I think Flynn’s similar.”
I think you’re hot, though, Jiya wanted to add.
Lucy poked her head out. “You two okay?”
“Yeah, we’re fine, why?”
Lucy shrugged. “You’re not arguing.” She popped her head back inside.
“He always starts it!” Jiya replied.
“Oh, I’m the one?” Rufus said. “As if you weren’t pointing out my old shoes, my worn jeans, my fingernails?”
Oh, he wanted to play it that way, huh? “You’ve resented me from the second I walked in here, just because I don’t like your stupid film franchise. Because nobody’s allowed to just not care about something!”
“I do not resent you!”
“Oh yes you do!”
“No, I don’t!”
“But if I did—”
Over in the reading area, Amy and Jess were whispering eagerly together, watching them like this was a television show. Jiya felt her face heating up. Dammit.
“You are the most—insensitive person alive!” she snapped. “You’re snarky, sarcastic, you always have to get a word in, you have a comment for everything and you think you’re hilarious—”
“Okay first of all, I am hilarious. Second of all, as if you’re any better, always going around grumbling at people like it’s our fault you were up so late the night before playing Overwatch or your hundredth play through of ME romancing Garrus?”
“What’s wrong with romancing Garrus!? I bet you left Ashley to die, too! Didn’t you!”
“I bet you chose synthesize at the Crucible!”
“I have no idea what either of you are saying but this is hilarious,” Jess announced. Somehow Amy had migrated and was now sitting on her lap.
“Both of you!” Lucy snapped.
Jiya was so unused to Lucy losing her temper that she froze, mouth open in surprise. Rufus also gaped at her.
Lucy put her hands on her hips. “Honestly. Jiya, you finish doing inventory. Rufus, stay away from the back room while she’s doing it. I’m going to go see why the hell my little sister is sitting in the lap of my boyfriend’s ex.”
With that, she stormed between them.
Feeling chastised, Jiya slunk into the back room to finish the inventory.
At least she’d get to see chocodilerock at the San Diego Comic Con. She was sharing a hotel room with Lucy, who was attending with Rufus, Wyatt, and Flynn, and she couldn’t wait. They were going to meet, and she’d get to finally meet the man she’d fallen in love with.
She hoped that he liked her in person. She hoped that their chemistry translated to real-life conversations. She hoped he was tall.
And she hoped that he was nothing at all like Rufus Carlin.
Wyatt, Flynn, and Lucy watched as Rufus and Jiya started bickering over the placement of a display stand for their on-sale dice sets.
“Jesus Christ, do they have to argue like that all the time?” Wyatt wondered. It was even more confusing because Rufus and Jiya were the two easiest-going people in the shop.
“It’s a simple chemical reaction,” Lucy said. “You see, when two people like each other very much…”
“They like each other?” Wyatt said, watching Rufus and Jiya in confusion. Okay, sure, so he and Flynn had argued a lot before they got together, but that was just because he had been in the closet and struggling with his attraction to Flynn.
…and all right, Flynn and Lucy had argued a lot as well when they’d first met, but they were just stubborn people with strong opinions on things like faith and philosophy.
But Rufus and Jiya? Really?
“I think so,” Lucy replied.
“They like each other very much?”
The other two nodded.
“Well don’t you think we should tell them?”
“Wyatt, pet,” Flynn said, “they’d never believe us.”
“This is terrifying,” Wyatt declared, staring around them at all the people.
“I didn’t take you to be the crowd-shy one,” Rufus noted, peering around.
“Lucy’s claustrophobic, not people-phobic. And I don’t think this generally sets off any of Flynn’s PTSD.” Flynn had lied about his age and fought in the Croatian War of Independence. Wyatt had also done a tour, before following Jess to California. “I just meant… y’know.”
Wyatt gestured at all the cosplayers, the geeks in their show shirts, the art stalls, and the parade of Spider Men doing some kind of conga line.
“Welcome to nerddom,” Rufus said. “Keep your eye out for a racebent Arwen, visionsoftheparallel is Middle Eastern.”
“I’m gonna be honest with you, I don’t remember that well what Arwen looks like.”
“He was a little busy staring at Aragorn,” Flynn commented, walking up with Lucy.
Wyatt’s cheeks went pink.
Rufus himself was actually dressed like Aragorn—that was the thing, he and visionsoftheparallel were supposed to cosplay together. Lucy, Flynn, and Wyatt were Peggy Carter, the Winter Soldier, and Captain America respectively. Rufus had to admit, the three of them pulled it off well. He’d been considering being the Falcon, but then he and visionsoftheparallel had decided to do this thing together, so…
“Oh my God, look at that art!” Lucy grabbed Wyatt. “C’mere we are checking this out.”
As she dragged Wyatt over to look at the Good Omens fanart, Flynn clapped a hand on Rufus’s shoulder. “You okay there buddy? You look like you might, ah, throw up.”
“Just nervous.” Rufus took another few deep breaths. “Hey, so. We’re supposed to meet right over there, at the booth of our favorite fanartist. She’s done these gorgeous Critical Role paintings that just take your breath away, y’know? Fan-fucking-tastic. So we’re going to meet there but I…”
“You’re scared,” Flynn said, and there was no teasing in his voice, to Rufus’s surprise. Flynn was more sarcastic and cutting in his humor than Terry Pratchett at his most impatient, and so sometimes Rufus forgot that Flynn also had an unbearably soft side, one that he often took great pains to hide.
Rufus nodded. “I’d rather be facing a Beholder right now.”
“A—you know what, never mind. What do you need?”
“She’ll be dressed as Arwen. Do you think you could… scope her out for me? I don’t want to get there and… I don’t know.”
“Yeah, I can check and make sure she’s there.” Flynn put his Winter Soldier mask on, concealing the bottom half of his face. “Arwen, right? Which outfit?”
“The blue dress with the red sleeves.”
“Nice.” Flynn nodded at him and then walked through the crowd to the booth.
Rufus craned his head, trying to see. Flynn was taller than most, at six foot four inches, so Rufus could just barely see the top of his head.
A few moments later, Flynn came back. “Uh…” He took off the mask. “So. Um. Ah.”
“…she’s older. Like, in her eighties or something.”
“Nope. Nope, she’s our age.”
“She’s got a wedding ring on, she’s married.”
“Nope, not that either.” Flynn winced. “She’s, um, very lovely. I mean, not my type, but she’s very, uh, yeah, good looking.”
“What aren’t you telling me? What’s wrong?”
“She…” Flynn waffled for a moment more, then said, “You know what? She actually looks like someone from the store.”
“The store?” Could his pen pal actually be a frequent customer? Jess or Amy even? But no, his pen pal wasn’t white. Who came in regularly who wasn’t white… there was that one girl—oh but wait she had a girlfriend, Rufus was pretty sure…
“Yeah.” Flynn folded his arms, his fingers drumming against his ‘metal’ arm. “Uh, you know who she looks like, actually? Jiya.”
Rufus gaped at him. “Jiya!? Our Jiya?”
“Yup. She looks…” Flynn glanced back towards the booth. “…an awful lot like Jiya.”
“But I don’t like Jiya!”
“Well if you don’t like Jiya, you’re… certainly not going to like this girl.”
Rufus glared at him. “You’re having me on. If this is one of your jokes, Flynn, it’s not funny.”
Flynn shrugged. “See for yourself.”
Rufus glared at him, then made for the booth himself. This was just so that Flynn would get him angry enough that he’d forget his anxiety and go up and find the girl, that was all, what the hell—
Standing in front of the booth, looking around, and wearing an impeccable replication of Arwen’s blue dress—complete with the Evenstar around her neck and the delicate braids in her hair—was Jiya.
Rufus’s heart gave an awful thud, a mixture of awe and horror. Awe because she, well, Jiya looked beautiful. Stunning.
Horror because—it was Jiya.
Rufus turned around and hurried back to Flynn. “You’ve got to be fucking me.”
“No, that’s what Jiya wants to do.” Flynn had his trademark shit-eating grin on.
“Oh my God.” Rufus wanted to literally facepalm. “I can’t—she can’t—she can’t be visionsoftheparallel, she can’t!”
“Oh, yeah, sure, maybe it’s a coincidence,” Flynn said. “She just happens to be at comic con on the same day you are. She just happens to be cosplaying as Arwen in the exact same Arwen outfit. She just happens to be standing in front of the correct fanart booth!”
“But…” He felt sick. “If she’s… then… I can’t go to her!”
“Do you have any idea that kind of things I said to her in our messages?”
“Um, she said quite a few things herself,” Flynn pointed out. “Talking about how she believed you’d find each other across the multiverse? That’s pretty romantic, Rufus, seems to me she was just as sappy as you are!”
“And how are you going to know she’ll reject you unless you go and find out?”
“What’s going on?” Wyatt asked, walking back over. “Lucy’s taking pictures with a few other Peggys she found, by the way.”
“If I walk over and it goes wrong…” Rufus started.
“Hey, Wyatt?” Flynn said. “Remember that time I tried to ask you out and it went wrong and you called me a sociopath?”
“And then later on I told you that the next time I said something ludicrous that maybe you should just listen to me and do as I said?”
“Great, this is one of those times. Help me change Rufus’s outfit.”
“Change my outfit?”
Flynn started undoing Rufus’s bracers. “With a few adjustments, you can be Boromir, okay? Take off the vest, here. Then you can talk to her without revealing at first who you are.”
“I feel like I’m missing something,” Wyatt said, dutifully holding the items that Flynn started passing to him.
“You’re usually missing something, pet,” Flynn said idly.
Wyatt glared at him.
Once Rufus’s outfit was successfully rearranged, Flynn clapped him on the shoulder. “There. We’ll hold onto your extra items.”
Rufus nodded, his heart in his throat.
Flynn gave him a shove. “Go!”
Rufus stumbled through the crowd over to the booth.
The moment Jiya saw him, she made a face.
Rufus nearly turned around and walked away then and there, but he had come this far. Might as well see it through. “Hey, Jiya, what are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you,” Jiya replied. “Lucy said you guys were going to the Guillermo del Toro panel in Hall C.”
“Well, yeah, uh—you look like you’re waiting for someone.”
“I am, so you might want to scoot along, Boromir, before he sees us together and leaves.”
“…how long have you been waiting?”
Jiya shrugged. “Half an hour.”
“He’s worth waiting half an hour?”
“I’ve waited for him all my life, feels like. What’s half an hour?”
Rufus hadn’t known until that moment that it was possible to feel elated and nauseous at the same moment. “So hey what’s this guy like, is he your boyfriend?”
“Rufus, could you please leave before—”
“I mean, hey, you’re my coworker, gotta make sure that he’s good for you and all that—”
“I’m sorry is that an antiquated notion of the patriarchy I hear?”
“—makes sure he likes the same foods you like, y’know, like I could never date a girl who didn’t like Chocodiles—”
“Rufus! Could you please leave!” Jiya looked ready to smite him with lightning and in that moment Rufus wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t be able to do it.
He faked a gasp. “You mean you won’t even chat with your coworker for two minutes?”
“You mean the coworker who once told me I was ridiculous for still believing in a god especially after the death of my father?”
…that hadn’t been his finest moment. “I’m sorry, you should be careful throwing stones in that glass house of yours, Miss I Predict a Future Where You Work in a Comic Book Store For the Rest of Your Life, You Sad Little Man.”
“If you dislike me so much why are you even coming up and talking to me?”
“Maybe I wanted to compliment you on your Arwen cosplay.”
“Great. Thank you. Now shoo.”
“You won’t take one picture with me?”
“Arwen and Boromir never even interact.”
“Aww, didn’t take you for such a stickler for canon.”
Jiya craned her head around. “He’s dressed as Aragorn and I need to concentrate and see his costume and he needs to be able to see me so please, would you leave?”
“Wait.” Rufus feigned shock. “Jiya. Are you telling me you’ve never met this person before? Is this an online-friend hookup?”
“It’s not a hookup!” Jiya hissed. “And what would you know of that anyway, you’re a stick in the mud who hates kindles!”
“I hate Amazon, as should all decent people.” Rufus paused. “Y’know, I’ve been standing here a while and I haven’t seen anyone dressed like Aragorn.” He was going out on a limb here, but… “Why don’t you come to the talk with us? The del Toro panel? I think you’d like it.”
“No, thank you. I’m staying here.”
“But what if he doesn’t come.”
“He will,” Jiya replied stubbornly.
Rufus couldn’t resist trolling her, just a little. “Mmm. You know, I’ve seen these sort of things happen before. It’s pretty common, in the shop, actually, it’s a geeky place so geeks meet up there. And sometimes, y’know, it goes well…” He had to work to smother his grin. “But other times it doesn’t. I knew this one girl, she came into the store and told me she was waiting for another girl—I left before he got there but they did meet up I guess, because next thing I heard was that it was her sister. Story was all over tumblr.”
Jiya gave him a look of deep and utter disdain. “Very. Funny.”
“Look it up if you don’t believe me.”
“Rufus, for the love of—science, could you please leave? Look, no matter how much you might think I despise you and you think you’re getting a kick out of this—I don’t despise you and I just want you out of my hair, okay?”
That stung, actually. Rufus folded his arms. “It’s not that I think you despise me. It’s that I think that you think that you know me, when you don’t. You don’t know me at all.”
“Oh, I know you,” Jiya replied, her voice cold. “You’re the guy who thinks he knows it all, that you’re the expert on all the geekery there is. And you can’t stand that I have different opinions from you on things and so you get all snarky at me because unlike Lucy who’s an academic nerd and Flynn who dabbles and Wyatt who doesn’t know jack shit, I actually do know just as much as you do and I’m the same kind of nerd as you are and you just can’t let that slide, that idea that I might actually know just as much as you and be just as valid in my opinions as you are even if those are different.”
Rufus felt like she’d punched him in the sternum. His face must have shown it, because a bit of trepidation entered Jiya’s eyes. “I’m…”
He shrugged. “Enjoy your meet up, then.” If that was what she really thought of him, if she thought he was that arrogant—
“I’m—Rufus, I didn’t mean all those things—”
Flynn gave him a look when he walked back up to him. “Didn’t go so well?”
“Let’s just go, okay?”
Flynn glanced over at where Jiya was standing, then handed Rufus back his stuff. “Okay. Whatever you say.”
Jiya would never in a million years of expected Flynn to be the comforting sort.
But here she was, crying her eyes out with him on the early morning shift.
“And he never showed up,” she concluded, accepting another tissue that Flynn offered her. “I mean, who does that, we’ve been talking online for months and months and he’s the sweetest person and—and—”
Flynn gingerly rubbed her back, like she might scratch him for it. “Maybe something went wrong? Maybe he was sick or his finances took a hit or… something.”
“But why didn’t he message me? He could’ve messaged me…”
Flynn sighed and pulled her in, hugging her. “I don’t know, Jiya. But you’re a wonderful person and if he’s worth his salt, he’ll know that and he’ll make it up to you.”
The door jingled and Jiya looked up, seeing Rufus entering. “He can’t see me like this!” she hissed, panic flooding her like ice.
Jiya fled into the back before Flynn could finish his sentence, locking herself in the employee bathroom.
There was the distance, low rumbling sound of voices, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying.
She jumped as a knock sounded on the door. “Jiya?”
It was Rufus.
There was about ten seconds of silence, then Rufus said, “I heard you were having a bad day so I, uh, I got you something.”
“I don’t want it.”
“It’s that lavender honeycomb flavor from that pretentious place you like.”
Jiya opened the restroom door—and sure enough, Rufus was holding in his hand a pint of her favorite ice cream. “How’d you know this was my favorite?”
“We argued about pretentious ice cream places for two hours last month.”
Jiya felt her face heating up and took the ice cream, walking past Rufus to sit on the couch that nobody was supposed to a) nap in or b) have sex on.
Naturally, everyone took naps and fucked each other on it.
Rufus handed her a spoon and Jiya tucked in. “Why are you being nice to me?”
“Ah…” Rufus sat down on the couch next to her. “Look, Jiya, I feel like shit for how I was acting yesterday. I was an asshole.”
“But you were right,” Jiya replied. “When you asked about my date—it was a blind date. I met him online, we’ve never seen each other before. Not even a picture. He’s very private, he doesn’t post pictures of his face online.”
“And we were supposed to meet, and…” Jiya swallowed, the ice cream sticking in her throat. “He never showed.”
“That’s rough, buddy,” Rufus said.
Jiya laughed in spite of herself. “And I just—if he cared he would’ve said something, wouldn’t he? I’m—I’m in love with the guy, you should’ve seen… some of the things he said, and he just—he’s so kind and funny, and thoughtful, and yet…”
“I feel very responsible.”
“It wasn’t your fault. I mean, he might’ve seen us talking but it’s a con, I was dressed like Arwen, other Lord of the Rings cosplayers were going to come up to me, it’s just how it is.”
“Uh… was this guy, by any chance, supposed to be dressed like Aragorn while tracking the hobbits to Isengard?”
Jiya nearly dropped her ice cream. “Yes! How’d you know?”
“I met him?” Rufus said weakly.
Jiya choked on her next bit of ice cream. Rufus thumped her back. “How did you—what?”
“So we’d just argued and I didn’t feel like I could go back to you right then, but as I was walking away to rejoin the others, this guy comes up to me, and he says, hey do you know that girl dressed as Arwen at that booth.” Rufus was talking very quickly, the way he would get when he was nervous. “And I said yes, and he said, well good because I’m supposed to meet her, but running into a problem with my hotel room, and I can’t stay and I have to get home.”
“Oh man.” The San Diego Comic Con was huge and so she wasn’t surprised that there were accidental double bookings or credit card issues. “Did he seem… upset?”
“Oh, very.” Rufus nodded solemnly. “Definitely out of his mind a little.”
“What did he look like?”
Rufus got an odd look on his face. “Oh… you know Todd? From Stargate: Atlantis?”
“…he did not look like that.”
Rufus shrugged as if to say okay, don’t believe me.
Jiya shook her head. “I don’t care if he did look like Todd. Todd is great. Everyone likes Todd.”
Rufus gave her an odd look out of the corner of his eye. “So you really don’t care what this guy looks like? What if he’s that one asshole customer who keeps coming in, Nicholas? The one who wanted the comic series where Cap turned out to be HYDRA?”
“Well he wouldn’t be Nicholas, because chocodilerock is black, for one thing, and he’s a great guy. I know who he is, Rufus. I don’t care about the rest.”
Rufus looked at her for a long moment, then nodded. “Well, hey, then I hope that you guys work it out. And I hope you give him a second chance, he seemed real caught up.”
“Thank you.” Jiya was surprised by the lack of cutting remarks.
“So, Arwen and Aragorn, huh? You… read the books?”
“Oh yeah. I know there’s a lot of differences in the film, especially with Faramir’s characterization, but I like them anyway. The films, I mean. Extended editions only, of course.”
“Of course.” Rufus smiled at her. “It’s crazy how every time they still affect me. They never get old. Like… God, Sam, I can barely stand to watch the parts where Gollum turns Sam against Frodo. It hurts me every time. And at the end when Frodo says goodbye? Catch me bawling like a baby.”
Jiya laughed a little. “What a coincidence. My friend, chocodilerock, says the same thing.”
“Yup. It’s one of our goals, to have a Lord of the Rings marathon together.”
“Ah.” Rufus nodded at her. “I’ll, uh, leave you to your ice cream, then.”
“Thanks, Rufus. I thought he’d just abandoned me. Like I’d been ghosted.”
“Hey, someone would have to be an idiot to ghost you.” Rufus grinned at her, then got up and left.
Flynn was watching him with raised eyebrows as he exited. “So, did you tell her?”
“What! No!” The warm glow of knowing that Jiya would love him no matter what, even if he looked like a goddamn wraith, faded as Flynn confronted him. “Dude. How could I?”
“…you know that communication and honesty are the cornerstones of a relationship, right?” Flynn pointed out.
“Yeah, but if I tell her, after all the awful ways I’ve treated her—no.” Rufus shook his head. “I need to win her over as me. As Rufus. Then—then when I reveal myself I won’t go screaming for the hills.”
Flynn stared at him for a moment. “Okay, you know that moment in Aladdin when the genie…”
“Yeah, yeah, wiseass, tell her the truth, I get it, you’re so fucking hilarious.”
He would tell her the truth. Just… not yet. He had to show her that he could be a good person to her, that he was someone worth liking, and that he wasn’t just her annoying coworker who’d been giving her a hard time for months.
If he could even manage that.
Jiya had been waiting for two weeks for Rufus to admit to her that he was chocodilerock, but… nothing.
She knew a goddamn Aragorn costume when she saw one, even with some of the more obvious indicators removed, and the more she thought about it, the more stupid she felt.
chocodilerock had told her that he was black, and that he had a little brother, and a single mother. So did Rufus. He’d told her that he wanted to be an engineer. So did Rufus.
All of the little facts that she hadn’t even thought about, coincidences that she hadn’t even taken the time to realize were, in fact, coincidences—they all spun together in her mind. It was like seeing the world in a new way.
And if Rufus was chocodilerock, then he had to know who she was. So… why wasn’t he telling her? Why wasn’t he revealing himself?
Especially when he was being so nice to her?
The first day after their sort of apology session, Rufus was a bit quiet. Subdued. Everyone else in the store picked up on it. Wyatt and Flynn weren’t cracking jokes, there was no making out in the closet, Lucy was offering to get everyone lunch in that quiet, older sister-slash-team leader way she sort of got, and while Amy and Jess stopped by, they only quietly read comic books in the reading area, Amy in Jess’s lap.
The day after that, though—
She looked up to see Rufus waving a set of Harley Quinn comics in front of her face. “Newest edition just came out. Thought you’d want to get a sneak peek.”
“Oh.” That was thoughtful of him. “Thanks.”
“Hey, after your shift… you got any plans?”
“No, no plans.” Her stomach erupted with butterflies.
Rufus gave her a lopsided grin. “Good, uh, because I was thinking, if you wanted—there’s this new Indian place that opened down the street, you know Kevin’s pals, Mark and Olivia? Their moms opened it, I guess their grandmother’s a fantastic cook or something, I thought… you want to grab a bite with me? We could talk more about the con?”
Jiya didn’t bother to bite back her smile. “I’d like that.”
The next day, he asked if she wanted to try Milk Jar Cookies. “Best chocolate chip you’ve ever had, I swear.” And then he asked her afterwards if she wanted to play Mario Kart.
She said yes.
After that, Rufus brought her lunch for her break, and asked her what her thoughts were on Babylon 5. And he let her rant for two hours about the season four finale of The Magicians and how it had completely destroyed itself.
And Jiya… Jiya was finally getting to see the Rufus she’d always wanted to. Not the prickly, sarcastic Rufus, but the soft one, the one who smiled at her and complimented her and made her laugh.
At last, her patience ran out.
She sent a message to chocodilerock, asking if they’d like to try again. The anniversary of my dad’s death is coming up, and Mom’s back in Lebanon but we usually Skype but… y’know it’s a hard day. Want to join me at Universal and help me relax? My dad loved Harry Potter, it was kind of our thing. Even if Rowling has turned into a TERF.
She got a reply about an hour later: I’d love to. Hey, thanks for giving me a second chance. And hell yeah, I can finally show you how Hufflepuff is the superior house to Ravenclaw.
She sent back, caw caw motherfucker, and then waited until her next shift.
“Hey, Rufus?” she asked.
Wyatt was dicking around on the Facebook groups and Flynn was listening with a soft, besotted smile on his face as Lucy went on about the Salem Witch Trials. Rufus was looking through some files. “Yeah?”
“I was wondering if you’d like to come to Universal with me next week?”
Rufus stared at her. “Universal? As in the theme park?”
“You know anywhere else that’s called Universal? Don't worry, I'll pay for your ticket and all.”
Flynn got a weird look on his face, then whispered something to Lucy. A moment later the both of them dragged Wyatt into the back room over his confused protests.
Jiya frowned. Why would Flynn… unless he knew…
Rufus cleared his throat. “Are you sure you really want… me? I mean…” His voice was a little rough and cracking at the edges, making him sound younger, more vulnerable. “Y’know, I wasn’t exactly the best friend to you or even the best coworker or anything…”
“You’re doing that thing where you’re nervous so you talk really fast.”
“Am I? Ha ha… I hadn’t noticed.” Rufus looked like he wanted to throw himself into a trash compacter.
“Of course I want you there. It’s… my dad, he and I were… he read the Harry Potter books with me. He wasn’t the best, y’know, English was his second language, but he read them to help improve his English and every night, when I was a kid, he’d read them to me. And y’know the later books took a few years to come out, and I remember him saying I was too old—but I insisted he still read it to me. We read every book together. Every one.” She swallowed. She hadn’t intended to get teary.
“Ah, shit, here.” Rufus grabbed some tissues and passed them to her.
Jiya accepted them with a nod of thanks, wiping at her eyes. “He died three years later. And mom went back to Lebanon, to be with all her siblings and cousins and stuff, and I don’t blame her, but it was really lonely, y’know? And his anniversary—it’s next week, the day he died, and I wanted to do something to remember him, something fun, so…”
“Universal.” Rufus nodded.
“Right. Harry Potter World. But, uh, I invited someone. I invited my friend.”
“My friend from online? The one I was supposed to meet?”
“Ah.” Rufus looked like he was hoping Amy and Jess would come in so he had a distraction. Or any customer. Or a meteor falling from the sky. Something.
“I was hoping you could come with me, so that you could help me. If y’know it doesn’t work out. It’s hard to meet someone in person you’ve known online even if you’re in love with them.”
Rufus nodded, swallowing hard. “Yeah. I mean. He could be a real jerk in real life.”
“I don’t think he is,” Jiya replied. She sat up on the counter. “I mean, maybe he’s prickly, sure, or he can get off on the wrong foot with people and he’s stubborn so he doesn’t like to admit he’s wrong. But I know him. I know he’s exactly the person I want to be with.”
Rufus stared at her for a long moment, apparently at a loss for words. “Jiya…”
“I… I had a crush on you from the second I saw you.”
That was—not what she’d expected. “What?”
“You were—you were gorgeous and geeky and had this smile that—shit.” Rufus shook his head. “And I just kept digging myself a hole with you.”
“I don’t really… I told you, I don’t really do the whole… crush thing, not until I’ve known the person for a long time.”
“But I did get a crush on you. I didn't want to admit it. But when you said Jess was good-looking I got jealous. I kept wanting, hoping, for it to go away. But then after you helped me the other day… after chocodilerock didn’t show…”
Rufus scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah, about that. I can’t go with you to Universal, is the thing. Because…”
Jiya experienced a moment of doubt. Was he really a different person? Were the coincidences just that—coincidences?
“…because I’m already going to be there. With you.”
Rufus stared at her, his eyes dark and soft and scared, and he was nothing like she’d pictured in her head, and he was everything she’d wanted, and Jiya found herself smiling so wide it hurt.
“I know,” she told him. “I’d hoped it was you.”
Rufus gaped at her in disbelief, and, well, Jiya couldn’t have that.
She reached over, pulling him in by his hilarious, ridiculous chemistry pun shirt, and kissed him with everything she had.
And Rufus—Rufus lit up, and wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her back.
He was, as she’d suspected, surprisingly buff—she’d seen him lifting crates with Flynn, once, while wearing a black tank top, and his arm muscles had had her swooning. Now she got to feel them, run her hands over them, and she grinned into the kiss as Rufus tugged her closer and she wrapped her legs around him. Rufus was a damn good kisser, putting his entire body into it. Jiya dug her heels into his back, wanting him closer…
“Pay up!” Wyatt whooped. “Ten bucks, Flynn, pay it!”
Rufus pulled away to glare as Wyatt, Flynn, and Lucy all peered at them from the doorway.
Jiya just laughed and pulled Rufus back into her as Lucy applauded. “Hey, they’ve been lovey-dovey around us for long enough. It’s payback time.”
“I have to agree.” Rufus kissed her again, soft and quick. “My love.”
Jiya felt herself blushing and pressed their foreheads together. And maybe she couldn’t really know the future, but she still saw it, stretching on and on and on—the two of them, intertwined.