Ιξός, the Kissing Bough
It's just coffee, Pyrrha told herself as she stared out the windshield of her car, desperately trying to convince herself to let go of the wheel. Just coffee. There's nothing to stress over. You had a fun time last night, you made a friend, and she invited you for coffee. That's all.
Right, said the part of her that all-too-often sounded like Nora. Then why are you still in the car?
White-knuckled hands still gripping the wheel, Pyrrha closed her eyes and breathed. This wasn't helping. Her nerves were bad enough as it was without ... whatever this was. She needed to calm down, relax, and just think about what she wanted to do.
Painstakingly slowly, she unclenched her hands from the wheel, each joint complaining as she pried them open, and watched as the color returned to her skin. Flexing her fingers, she looked at the wheel and winced – she'd gripped tight enough to leave little fingernail marks in the padded fake leather.
Folding her hands over her lap, Pyrrha closed her eyes and tried to focus. This wasn't really that difficult a decision. If she wanted to see Yang, she just had to get out of her car and walk the ten feet to the coffee shop door. If she didn't, she could just put the car in reverse and leave.
I could call and cancel. I could say something came up and just head back home. It was a believable excuse – and even if Yang thought she was blowing her off, well ... she was. It wasn't like she didn't have anything else to do today, and with any luck it would end this whole mess with the least amount of fuss.
It would also be easy, and something about that rankled her.
Groaning, Pyrrha slumped forward and laid her head on the top of the wheel. Yang was attractive, and Pyrrha wasn't going to bother pretending she wasn't attracted to her. The blonde was nice, smart, seemed like she was in a good place with her work ... and she stayed in shape. She worked out – religiously, if she wanted to keep those muscles. But even if it was just a habit of Yang's, she still had that past, that history as an athlete. She'd competed. She'd fought. She understood what it was like to face someone down after months, years of training and go toe-to-toe with them. It was the kind of connection Pyrrha hadn't had with someone else in a long time ... longer than she'd really like to admit.
If she was brutally honest with herself, she had feelings for Yang. It wasn't love, or anything that dramatic. But it was close to something ... something that would end with her slipping off that particular slope if she wasn't careful. If she didn't want to get involved, the best thing would be to let that night stay 'that night.' A chance encounter with someone fascinating that she'd simply never see again.
It probably could have happened too. But Yang had asked if she wanted to get coffee, and like an idiot, she'd said yes. She'd said yes without thinking – she hadn't even considered if she had anything to do the next morning, or weighed whether this really was a good idea. She'd agreed instantly, completely on impulse, and spent the entire cold walk home second-guessing her decision.
This is a bad idea, she told herself, trying to get up the will to just put the car in reverse and drive away.
Maybe. Doesn't change the fact that I want to see her.
Growling under her breath, Pyrrha steeled herself, pulled her coat and scarf tighter around her, and swung the car door open.
After the time she'd spent trying to work up the nerve, the walk to the coffee shop seemed much too quick. She locked her car and a few seconds later she was there, her hand on the door. It seemed like it should have taken longer.
The café itself was loud and warm, a nice change from the frigid air outside. The whole place was decorated in earth tones – the rich browns of the wood tables against the pale lines of the fake wooden floor. Everything was tans and browns, broken by the vibrant red, green, and white displays, announcing any number of holiday deals. Bright red bags of Christmas-themed next to cups decorated with snowflakes or menorahs. Cookies shaped like Top-hatted snowman lay behind the glass counter, next to gingerbread men, Christmas trees bathed in green frosting, and butter or chocolate-filled croissants. Everything smelled of rising flour, coffee beans, and chocolate, making Pyrrha's mouth water and her stomach start to growl.
It was exactly what she'd expected it to be. Exactly what it turned into every winter. The coffee shop Yang had suggested sat in the center of the downtown market district – rain or shine there was always a horde of people filling the space. The only thing missing, the only thing she couldn't see as she stood in line and waited for a brunette woman and her son to pay for their drinks, was-
A man standing at one of the display stands stepped to the left, and Pyrrha's heart jumped into her throat. Seated at the back of the room, previously hidden by the man's broad shoulders, was a violet-eyed blonde, sipping from a cardboard cup and smiling at her over the top of her paper.
The nice, warm café was suddenly stifling. Loosening her scarf, Pyrrha managed a quick smile and looked back at the menu hanging above the baristas. Her heart was pounding – not as fast as it did after a good run or the frantic thumping after a fencing bout, but it was still a quick thumping that almost made her miss the woman behind the counter asking what she wanted.
What the hell is wrong with me?
Easy answer. You haven't dated anyone you actually liked in years, the voice that sounded like Nora whispered in the back of her mind.
This isn't a date.
Shaking her head and picking a chocolate croissant from the display, Pyrrha managed to order her mocha without making a complete fool of herself. Even managed to wait by the counter, pretending to check her phone while one of the baristas brewed the coffee and wrapped up her breakfast. It wasn't until she headed over to Yang's table – saw the blonde watching her, violet eyes following her across the room – that the heat came back, creeping up her neck and bringing a blush to her cheeks.
"Good morning," Yang said, folding her paper shut and dropping it onto the table beside her.
"... morning. Sorry about the wait."
"No problem," the former boxer shrugged and grinned, making butterflies do cartwheels against Pyrrha's insides. Oblivious to the effect her smile had, Yang grabbed her cardboard cup and reached over for her coat. "Sit and stay, or would you rather walk?"
Pyrrha gave one look at the small table. At the chair that would leave her facing Yang while she worked through her pastry. Leave her sweating in the stifling heat and trying to keep the blood from rushing to her face-
"Walk," she said, more firmly than she'd meant to, and headed for the door.
The cold bite of the air outside was a godsend. It made it easier to focus, easier to keep her mind on what she was doing as the two women walked down the street, glancing into the shops lining the avenue. The food and coffee made it even easier – when she needed a second to think, she could just take a bite and use it as an excuse to buy her time.
Yang didn't seem to notice. The blonde seemed perfectly content to wander down the sidewalk, hands jammed into the pockets of her coat, steam billowing up out of her mouth.
"Glad I got the chance to do this," she said as they passed a kitchen supply store, with Santa hats and reindeer figurine prancing atop the cookware. "Busy part of the year, you know?"
"Really?" Pyrrha asked, head cocked in surprise. "With the holidays coming up, I'd have thought the bar business would slow down."
Yang shook her head, setting her waves of blonde hair rippling behind her. "Nah. Right now, half the people coming in wanna celebrate the season early. The other half come in to avoid it. Or their family."
"That's a little depressing."
"Maybe, but everyone's got that one relative they can't stand. The religious cousin, the mother-in-law who keeps needling you, the niece and nephew who won't stop screaming ..." Yang took a double-step forward and turned, twisting on the balls of her feet so she could look Pyrrha in the face while she walked backwards down the sidewalk. "Holidays are great, but some people just need a break."
"Makes sense. Tree."
Yang stepped to the side, nimbly dodging the plant she'd been about to concuss herself with. "How 'bout you? Any plans for the holiday?"
"Not really," Pyrrha shook her head. "I'll drive down to California to see my mom. Hopefully my grandmother hasn't forgotten how to make video calls."
"I get that." Yang nodded and twisted back around, her coat flapping as she moved.
"Hey, you mind?" she asked, nodding her head over at the store beside them. "I still need to pick up a few stocking stuffers."
Pyrrha looked up to find a confectioner's shop looming above her. The storefront was a soft pink – warm instead of garish – with an archaic sign with superfluous 'E's at the end of every other word. Ye Olde Shoppe, huh?
"Need help picking something out?" the redhead asked, reaching for the door.
"Only if you've got time."
The air inside was warm enough to make both women loosen their scarves while Pyrrha looked around. Despite the name, the shop styled itself as a 'boutique' rather than a 'candy store,' and its wares showed the difference. Gingerbread houses lined the windows, with little spun-sugar birds hanging above them. Clear plastic tubs sat on shelves, filled to the brim with wrapped toffees, chocolate coins, bags of candy corn, and what looked like little chocolate buttons covered in green and red sprinkles. Peppermint bark lay beside little chocolates coated to look like rocks, perfect for lining a path to one of the gingerbread house kits that sat nearby. Everything smelled of sugar and chocolate, and Pyrrha could feel her mouth water the instant she stepped inside.
But it was the glass cases that caught Pyrrha's eye. Next to the truffles and the chocolate-coated cookies sat row after row of little figurines molded from poured chocolate. There were dogs, cats, even a few turtles with little lines making hexagons on their shells.
"If you don't mind me asking," Yang drawled, hefting a bag of 'Christmas' corn. It was dyed in red and green for the season, and looked heavy enough to rip any stocking off a mantle. "I've been wondering – how does an Olympian fencer pay the bills? It's not much of a spectator sport, and I wouldn't think you guys get the multi-million marketing contracts."
"I don't mind." Pyrrha shrugged. Yang wasn't the first to be curious, and at least she was asking how she paid the bills. Most people skipped past the 'how,' assumed the sport was just a hobby, and asked about her day job. It was a small difference, but one she appreciated. "Sponsorships help, when you can get them. But a lot of us do work other jobs outside of training."
Turning to the counter, Pyrrha looked over the confections behind the glass, her eyes tracing over the small chocolate fish sitting next to the truffles. "Sticking to Americans, I know at least two models, an actor, a writer, one other fencer who works as a DJ ..."
She paused and waved over the freckled man behind the counter. The chocolate fish would make a good gift for her mother – she had a thing for fish, and the candy would be a nice change from finding food or decorations for her fish tank. "Outside of that, there's plumbers, chefs, lawyers, soldiers ... it really runs the gamut."
"Neat. Didn't see the DJ thing coming."
"He actually invited me to a gig once. He's pretty good."
She paused long enough to pay for the chocolate, taking the little box the man handed her and slipping it inside her purse. "After I took my first bronze, there were a few sponsorship offers. Fencing equipment makers, mostly, but there was a cereal company after I took gold ..."
"You have a cereal?"
"I had a cereal. 'Pumpkin Pete's,'" she shook her head ruefully. "Almost entirely sugar. Anyway, your average Olympian is generally better at managing their money than cash-flush celebrities or spectator-sport athletes. The coaching work is more a personal passion than anything else."
Yang snorted a laugh, and smirked when Pyrrha met her eyes.
"Right. Your everyday 'average' Olympian." Yang chuckled and carried her purchases over to the counter, muttering under her breath. "Like there's anything 'average' about you."
"You know what I mean," Pyrrha said, crossing her arms over her chest while she waited for Yang to finish. And what was that supposed to mean?
"What about you?" she asked once the door had shut behind them, the little bell ringing a muffled, tinny note. "What's the bar business like this time of year?"
Yang blew out a puff of air and started back towards the coffee shop. "Busy, but not too bad. They'll close early Christmas Eve and take a day off. I've got a few bartenders who don't mind working around the holiday, so they're trading shifts with the people who need to see family."
"You can take the time off?"
"It can run itself for a few days. I've got a good staff. Plus, I mostly handle the business side of things these days."
Pyrrha slowed down to look over her shoulder at Yang, one eyebrow cocked. "I hope this doesn't sound rude, but you don't really seem the type."
Yang laughed. "I'm not. The accounting stuff makes my head ache sometimes. But I do get to work on the microbrews, and getting to taste-test new stuff for the menu rocks. Oh, you should have seen the last one – they made these stuffed mushrooms with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts. And the wine!" Her eyes closed as the blonde sighed, relishing the memory. "So good."
It was Pyrrha's turn to laugh. The look on Yang's face as she described the food was positively adorable. "That does sound fun."
Yang grinned and bounced a few steps ahead of her, turning to meet her eyes. "You know, you could always come to the next one we do. I can always use a few extra taste-testers."
Pyrrha paused, her feet coming to halt on the sidewalk. One hand untangled itself from the bag to run through her hair, pushing her bangs aside as an excuse to buy time.
They were halfway back to the coffee shop – and their cars. Halfway back to saying goodbye and going their separate ways ... and Pyrrha didn't want her to go.
A dozen things to say crossed her mind, followed by a dozen reasons to keep her damn mouth shut.
Yang realized Pyrrha wasn't moving and stopped, her brow furrowing with concern. "Sorry. Was that too forward? I didn't mean to-"
"Would you like to do this again?" Pyrrha blurted out, the words springing unbidden to her lips as she fought the sinking feeling in her stomach. She almost closed her eyes, then forced them open, needing to see the look on Yang's face. "G-get coffee, I mean? I have some time off between training and work, so-"
"Yeah!" Yang cut her off, and had the grace to look sheepish for interrupting her. "Sorry. That'd be fun. I still wanna ask what Greece is like."
Relief washed over the fencer, the surf pounding the butterflies in her stomach into oblivion. There was still some nervousness, some anxious fluttering, but she said yes! Granted, it was just coffee – just coffee! – but still ...
Grateful for the change in topic, any change in topic, Pyrrha cleared her throat. "Good, I ... what did you want to ask?"
"I dunno," Yang shrugged, tugging at her scarf. "Never really learned much about it. What do they do for Christmas over there?"
"It's mostly the same," Pyrrha said, and started moving again, thanking whatever gods or spirits had made Yang bring it up. She shuddered to think what would have happened otherwise – probably the two of them just standing there awkwardly, trying to find something to say. This was better. They were going to do this again. She just needed to keep moving, keep talking, move past all that embarrassment like it never happened.
"When I was a kid, we spent every few Christmases with my grandmother in Athens. The other children would sing kalada – carols. And there's the karavaki. Thessaloniki puts up a large version every year."
"The who does what now?"
"Karavaki. They're little boats. The big one in Thessaloniki, one of the bigger cities, they hang lights along the edges and the sails," Pyrrha saw the open disbelief on Yang's face and smiled. "Think Christmas trees – without the ornaments or tinsel."
The redhead shook her head. "I could be wrong, but I think Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors. Most people have a Christmas tree, but you'll still see decorative boats strung with lights in some towns. And the kids-"
Yang made a choking sound and Pyrrha trailed off, looking over at the blonde in concern. Yang was biting down into her lips, her chest shaking, tears coming to the corners of her eyes as she tried to hold back her laughter.
"N-nothing," Yang managed, holding her sides, tears running down her face from the strain.
"It's not that odd. You have to have been at the Vale wharf over the holidays. Half the boats here get decked out in colored lights for the holiday."
"Not th-that. I just ... I c-can't help seeing you singing beneath the mizzenmast." Yang choked out, then finally broke, a loud guffaw erupting from her mouth before she dissolved into uncontrollable peals of laughter.
"Oh come on, Yang. Everyone does the holidays differently. There's Krampus in Europe, Japan has the whole KFC thing, the bungee-jumping in South America ..."
"Yeah, but," she paused and wiped her eyes before breaking into a fairly on-key butchering of a classic carol, laughing the entire time. "O Christmas boat, O Christmas boat-"
"How loyal is your mainsail!
"Fair winds and seas while summer's here, we'll kiss fair maids when-"
Yang was mid-note, her mouth wide open, when the snowball smacked her in the face.
Knocking snow from her gloves, Pyrrha giggled like a woman half her age, watching the stunned blonde try to get the snow out of her mouth. Her violet eyes, wide with shock, slowly narrowed in mock-fury as Yang reached for her own handful of snow. Ducking the boxer's return volley, Pyrrha slipped and slid across the icy ground, heading for the relative warmth and safety of town, laughing all the way.
Schneerosen, Part II
It was after midnight by the time Weiss shook off the last of her father's hangers-on, ducking through one of the drawing rooms to the rear staircase that lead up to the third floor. The Christmas Eve festivities were in full swing – the palatial Schnee mansion was filled with its yearly supply of men and women with too much time and money on their hands, laughing and drinking themselves into a socially-acceptable stupor.
Weiss waited until the door was shut before she let out the breath she hadn't known she was holding. Even with the heavy wooden door to her room locked behind her, she could still make out the echoing rumble of the guests, muffled fragments of conversation trickling up the stairs in an incomprehensible jumble.
It was a matter of seconds to dive for the laptop lying on her desk. Wrenching the white clamshell open, Weiss slammed herself into the chair, nearly knocking it over in her rush. Then the painfully long wait began, her knee bouncing as she tapped the space bar, impatient for the login screen to load.
Come on come on come – finally! The screen lit, showing a random login screensaver. Weiss didn't even bother to see what it was, just sweeping her index finger over the print scanner and clicking frantically once the home screen loaded. Ruby had said she'd stay up until Weiss called, and Ruby always kept her promises, but Weiss didn't want to keep her up any later than she absolutely had to. She knew how early Ruby's sister would be up and about.
After ten long, agonizing seconds, the app booted up, barely logging her in before Weiss hammered the call button, her knee still tapping against the underside of her desk.
This last wait was the worst – watching the little loading ring cycle beneath Ruby's profile picture, waiting for Ruby to answer. The picture helped and hindered in equal measure. It was of the two of them, cut from a strip of photos back in March. They'd walked down to the waterfront after a dinner date and watched the sunset, dying the waters of the bay a deep purple beneath the amber sun.
Ruby had dragged them both into a photo booth once the light finally dimmed, and by the end she'd pulled seven different strips of photos from the machine before she finally had one she was satisfied with. It was as much her fault as Weiss' – the older girl disliked having her photo taken and Ruby couldn't go two pictures without making a face or trying to cajole Weiss into looking silly. But finally she got the one she wanted, both of them smiling into the camera, Ruby's head leaning back against Weiss's shoulder. Weiss was just glad she hadn't used the one after, where Ruby had taken advantage of the curtained booth and pulled the taller girl down into a kiss.
Her laptop beeped the sound for a successful connection, and the words were already on her lips by the time the screen cleared, showing the blurry outline of her girlfriend as her camera refocused.
"Sorry I'm late," Weiss said, wincing when she saw the side wall of Ruby's bedroom in the background. "Couldn't get away."
"S'okay," Ruby mumbled, blinking sleepily and smiling into the camera. "Not your fault. How's the party?"
Weiss opened her mouth, just in time to hear another muffled half-shout come from the floor below.
"Obnoxious, loud, and a complete waste of time. How are you doing?"
"Good. Dad made one last batch of cookies and Yang cooked lasagna – it's been a good night."
Weiss let out a short huff of a laugh. She'd had the leftovers from Yang's 'traditional' Christmas Eve dinner the year before. The blonde always made enough to give them leftovers for days, but even reheated, her cooking was to die for.
"Okay. I won't keep you up," Weiss said as Ruby yawned, looking guilty as she tried to hide it.
"No, it's fine-"
Weiss cut her off. "I know how early Yang gets up. Get some rest – you'll need it. I just wanted to make sure I said goodnight."
"Alright," Ruby nodded, blinking until she could hold her eyes open. "Happy Christmas, Weiss. Love you."
Warmth burst in her chest, the same way it always did. Ruby had said it before, countless times over the past couple months - over dinner, before falling asleep, lying on the couch, or in stolen moments between classes and practice - but it still warmed Weiss' heart every time.
"I love you too. Have a good Christmas okay? I miss you."
"I know. I got your present–" Ruby reached off screen before leaning back and waving the carefully-wrapped box in front of her webcam. "I'll open it when you get here for New Year's."
"Can't wait. Merry Christmas, Ruby."
"Merry Christmas, Weiss."