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The sun dipped slowly towards distant mountain peaks, the borders of which barely brushed past the skyline of the city even at the vantage point that the twelfth story apartment provided.  The fading light grasped at the edges of everything and anything, peeling away regardless and leaving stark patches of darkness in its place.  

The buildings here were unfamiliar, lean and packed together instead of long and set apart.  The streets in the city proper looked filled to the brim with the indistinct shapes of pedestrians and cars, every one of them with somewhere to go, something to see.  The air buzzed, demanding its denizens make use of it and act, explore, live.

As Sapphire fell unceremoniously onto the frayed couch, chest heaving after making the eighth, and thankfully final, consecutive trip to and from the rental van parked two blocks away. She decided that the air could take its demands and shove it.  

She had plans to unpack and canvas the area, of course, but she wasn’t going to be doing any of that until her arms didn’t feel quite so much like gelatin anymore (what had possessed her to pack so many books?  She might as well’ve brought bricks).  Until then, all she wanted was a good, self-indulgent shower and some sleep.  Sapphire lifted her head and eyed the stack of unassuming cardboard boxes piled in the corner.  Which one had she packed the soap in again?

Maybe she’d end up doing some unpacking after all.  Grumbling, Sapphire rolled off the couch.

//\\//\\//

True night greeted Sapphire when she re-entered the sparsely furnished living room, feeling clean and marginally more energized. Though the moon wasn’t more than a sliver, its reflected light dim against the satiny backdrop, the stars looked more washed out than she’d ever remembered seeing them.  Sapphire felt a faint pang of loss.  For some reason, she hadn’t expected the sky to be so different here.

She’d just have to get used to it, she supposed.  The night sky wouldn’t determine where and how she placed her feet.

A small and vaguely irrational spark of defiance took root at the thought, and Sapphire turned sharply to the heap of boxes for the second time that evening.  Within minutes, she had extracted three blankets from one box, a tin of instant coffee mix and a thermos from another, and a small desk lamp from yet another.  Leaving the blankets and lamp in a pile near the sliding, glass-paned door to the balcony, Sapphire filled the thermos with tap water, then set it to warming in the microwave after wiping down the insides.  One of the previous tenants had apparently not been fond of covering their food, and what appeared to be tomato sauce speckled the walls liberally.

With the thermos warming, Sapphire returned to the balcony door and pulled it open, shivering as the night air, cool this time of year, moved past the bare skin of her arms.  Gathering the blankets first, she set about arranging two in a nice bundle on the provided balcony chair, softening the sharp plastic edges.  The last she draped around her own shoulders.  Content with the placement, Sapphire retrieved the lamp, plugging it into the single outlet while she made a mental note to buy a power strip when she had the chance.

The microwave beeped, shrill and insistent, and Sapphire moved back inside, blanket still resting across her like a cape.

After almost dropping the thermos because she grabbed it too early and a short minute of rummaging through boxes again for a spoon, Sapphire had a thermos full of hot coffee in hand.  She walked back to her boxes and dug through them until her hands reached a familiar book.  Drawing it and her arms back into the folds of her blanket cape, Sapphire shut off the apartment lights, standing for a moment in the relative darkness before making her way out onto the balcony again.  She shut the door behind her and stared out into the city, taking in the stars and the buildings with their pulsing, crawling lights.

Then she turned and made her way into the chair she’d prepared, maneuvering herself into the center of the blanket pile to better ward off the wind.

Comfortably settled - lamp turned on and angled just so over her shoulder, the warm thermos sitting snugly against her stomach - Sapphire cracked open her most well-worn book, a little paperback with edges feathering away, and let the familiar words wrap around her.  The sky may be dimmer here, but the world woven from these pages would be just as vivid no matter where Sapphire ended up.

Halfway through the second chapter, a small string of notes swirled against Sapphire’s ears.

Blue eyes glanced around curiously, but the balconies in sight all looked empty: drapes pulled shut, lights off.  The notes continued.  As they fell into chords, Sapphire recognized them as the smooth thrum and high squeaks of a guitar.  The player wasn’t shabby, the transitions between one chord and the next were swift and clean, and the notes rang sweet in the night air.

Then the cords became a coherent song, unfamiliar to Sapphire’s ears but somehow nostalgic anyways.  The tempo hung languid in the air, not upbeat but not slow enough to ache, either.  The music was coming from somewhere below her, she realized, maybe even the balcony directly beneath, from the sound of it.  Before she’d entirely thought the action through, Sapphire eased herself onto her feet, quietly depositing her book and thermos, along with two of her three blankets, onto the chair.

Three long steps brought her to the balcony’s railing, the unknown musician plucking rhythmically the whole while.  As Sapphire wrapped the blanket tighter around her shoulders to brace against the late-fall chill, leaning over the railing and seeing the orange light glow from the apartment beneath her, she heard a barely audible intake of breath.

She found her own hard to find a split second later.

“Give it like it’s meant for me...”

The voice was high and raspy, unabashedly raw as it coiled around the melody the guitar provided.  Sapphire’s skin prickled deliciously, and she closed her eyes to drink in the sound.  The guitar continued unaccompanied for a while more before the player continued.

“Little piece of ecstasy…”

Sapphire drifted back to her chair, debating whether or not it would be intrusive of her to continue listening.  She drew the blankets back around herself and frowned into their fuzzy warmth, torn.

“A second is a century…”

No.  It would make too much noise to go inside now, and she knew personally the irritation of being interrupted mid-flow.  She’d wait until this song was over.

“And a century is all we need…”

Just one song.

//\\//\\//

Sapphire woke abruptly, the sound of a car alarm throwing her from her dreams.  Groaning, she buried her face into the covers to block the sunlight from digging it's claws into her retina.  Why was everything so bright?  Why was it so loud?

The feeling of air moving against the nape of her neck gave Sapphire pause, as did the uncomfortable crick she could feel forming in the same area.  Slowly, she rose her head to inspect her surroundings, then dropped it back down unceremoniously upon confirming her suspicions.

She’d fallen asleep listening to a stranger singing.  And they probably didn’t even know.  Perfect, not creepy at all.

Sapphire huffed and got to her feet, doing her best to soothe the ache in her neck as she gathered everything and eased her way back into her apartment.  There was unpacking to be done.

A protest from her stomach had Sapphire quickly re-prioritizing.  Breakfast first.  Then unpacking.

//\\//\\//

Sapphire wiped the sweat from her brow, holding her long hair away from the nape of her neck to let the draft cool her down.  She was exhausted, but mostly proud.  The apartment was clean and her things were put away.  The space didn’t feel quite as off anymore, like she’d stepped into someone else’s shoes that were a size too large.  These walls were hers, now, and she theirs.

The fact that she hadn’t actually purchased the flat and was only renting it was a minor detail.

She cast her eyes towards the balcony again, gauging the height of the sun.  There were a couple hours yet until the sky began to darken.  She pulled out her phone and opened the map application, typing in the address she memorized a month ago.

A little blue line popped onto the screen along with an approximate travel time: forty five minutes even with the use of a subway. Sapphire bit her lower lip. In an unfamiliar city this close to dark, she wasn’t taking that chance alone.  Tomorrow then, and she’d bring along a camera.

That settled, Sapphire looked up the directions to the nearest grocery store.  A five minute walk, much more manageable.  But what to get…

//\\//\\//

Somehow, she ended up on the balcony again, watching the stars and the city as she ate her dinner in the warm comfort of her duvets.  It was only because she wasn’t quite tired yet, she told herself, and the ambient noise outside was more relaxing than the stagnant, muted silence inside the apartment.  

And even if she had come out to hear the unknown person play again, there wasn’t any guarantee that they would.  It had probably only been a one-night thing.

Yes, that was the most likely option.  Who went outside every night to play the guitar and sing to an audience of none?

The sound of a door sliding open from somewhere beneath her jarred Sapphire out of her thoughts.  She froze, barely breathing as her eyes widened behind the curtain of her bangs.

After a stretch of silence, Sapphire’s breath left her in a disappointed rush (whether that disappointment was aimed at the lack of resultant sound or at herself was up to debate).  It had probably been someone going to water their balcony plants.  That was something people did, right?  Sapphire looked at the empty hooks on the ceiling and decided she should probably get some plants of her own.  Or maybe a bird feeder or two.  Birds would be more interesting to watch, at the very least.

She didn’t notice when the music began, mind preoccupied with whether she should buy a bird feeder or just leave the seeds out on the balcony floor, but Sapphire definitely took notice when the singing started.

“Sunday sittin’ on your back porch, and I came on with a couple of chords and I play for you…”

As slowly as possible, Sapphire set aside her empty plate.  So maybe her downstairs neighbor was the kind of person who regularly sang on an empty balcony.  Okay.  She could live with that.

“You let me keep you entertained, with stories I exaggerate that you know aren’t true…”

Who was she kidding?  Sapphire was going to enjoy every minute of this.  She wrapped the blankets more tightly around herself and settled her chin onto her folded arms, letting the music wrap and twirl around her in resigned pleasure.

“And as you sit there making daisy chains, and I throw in a hand grenade, and tell you how it is I really feel for you…”

It was a while before the musician’s last note rang into the night, the sound of shoes scuffing cement and the clips of a guitar case cluing Sapphire in that there would be no more music this night.  She waited patiently, until she was certain the balcony below was entirely empty, then eased to her feet and gathered the dishes before retreating into the confines of her apartment.

//\\//\\//

The next day, Sapphire had explored a good portion of the city around both her future place of work and the apartment complex, stealing quick photos of landmarks and interesting shops and cafes, then taking a break at a park a good four or five blocks down from her apartment.  Her hair, laying in loose waves down her back and across her shoulders, caught the attention of the two children running about on the equipment. They’d eagerly enthused over how soft it looked, and Sapphire patiently let both of them run their hands through it, much to their delight.  Before she knew it, she was having a tea party on dragon back, in transit to storm an evil king’s castle to save the 23 realms of BuiscuitLand from Gull tyranny.

After defeating the king and reinstating the good Monarch JellyJam, Sapphire took her leave with a promise to come back another day to defend the realms alongside Bard Steven and General Connie.  As she neared the fence surrounding the play area, a slightly frazzled looking man who she assumed was the two’s guardian approached with a bashful smile.

“Hey,” He greeted, “Thanks for letting the kids pull you around like that.  They looked like they had a real blast.”

Sapphire waved a hand, “It’s not a problem.  They’re really sweet.”

The man laughed, “That they are.  I’m Greg, by the way.  Steven’s dad.” He gestured to the two, where Connie was shouting what seemed to be encouragements to Steven, who was currently balanced on one wobbly foot with intense concentration as he ducked and slid around imaginary laser beams.  “I bring those two out here every once in a while to burn off some of that boundless energy of theirs.” He offered his hand to Sapphire, gaze curious “and you are?”

“Sapphire.” She said as she returned the gesture, “I just moved into an apartment building a little ways from here.  So I might see you three around again.”

Greg’s smile widened, “I think the kids would love that.”

//\\//\\//

Sapphire sat on the balcony, laptop connected to her camera and laying across her lap as she highlighted and marked down the interesting places she’d found on her excursion during the day.  As she pinpointed their address on the map, she dragged over the photos from her camera, attached them, and marked the point with a colour that denoted her degree of interest.

The sun had dropped behind the mountains an hour ago, and the temperature had fallen along with it.  It probably would have been warmer to do this in her bed, but, Sapphire reasoned to herself, the air was actually quite refreshing, and it kept her alert.  That was all, no ulterior motives here.

She shivered, and pulled her arms back into the blanket for a moment with a dark mutter.  A chord strummed through the night air, and Sapphire tried not to obviously perk up at the sound.

The melody slowly rose, soon joined by the singer’s voice, and, smiling, Sapphire continued filling the map with dots and pictures.  When, after many minutes, she placed the last set of photos on the address to a small bookstore, she closed the laptop with gentle care and moved it and her camera aside, curling deeper into her blanket fort with relish while the musician continued to sing.

She might as well stay out here for a while longer.  The air was probably healthy for her, would waken her nervous system.  Sapphire was certain she’d read that in a book somewhere, though she couldn’t remember the title.  It had been credible though.  She knew that much.

Or she was at least fairly sure.

//\\//\\//

Sapphire found some excuse to be out on the balcony nearly every night after that.  The first day was homemade bird feeders, pine cones she’d found on her daily explorations coated liberally in almond butter and seeds, then strung at varying heights from the ceiling.  The next day she browsed the nearby restaurants on the internet, picking out which ones she was particularly interested in and adding them to her slowly growing map.  Then, once she’d started easing into her job almost a week after her arrival, she poured over the spreadsheets her employers provided for her.  She jotted down discrepancies, preliminary calculations, transactions of interest, all in tight, neat shorthand.  Most days though, she just read.

If she hummed along and lost herself in the music for minutes at a time, well, it didn’t prove anything concretely.  Did it?

It wasn’t until two weeks later, on the tail end of a particularly harsh day at work, when Sapphire retreated to the balcony after sunset without any kind of pretext.  Foregoing her usual perch on the balcony chair, she sat against the railing, feeling the press of the bars - muted through the blanket she draped across her shoulders - and waited.

When the music started minutes later, it was with a soft notes and a crawling tempo that ran across Sapphire’s irritation like a steady river against a jagged cliffside.  She felt the tension melt away from her shoulders, the line of her jaw ease, and the ringing in her ears fade.  Her thoughts slowly filed back into order and the anger left her with the next breath of air, swirling in intricate patterns as the cold wind pulled it apart.

When she woke the next morning, still leaned against the railing and unsure when exactly she’d fallen asleep, it was with both curse and praise on her lips.  The curse was towards the headache pounding behind her eyes and the familiar itching in the back of her throat.  The praise was that, at least, it was a Saturday.

//\\//\\//

After that, Sapphire’s days fell into a predictable if slightly varying routine.  Wake up, get ready, out the door at eight on weekdays, then back to the apartment to change into more casual daywear at four thirty.  On Fridays and weekends, she walked to the park to visit Steven and Connie, some days with little gifts she’d picked up at a shop here or there (Steven was fond of rocks and anything space related, Connie was more partial to figurines and playing cards.  Both were ecstatic to see any books or musical knickknacks Sapphire managed to scrounge up). Otherwise, she stayed at home and cleaned, or read, or watched the birds fluttering about the balcony.

It was peaceful, if a little boring.

The hours between nightfall and when Sapphire went to bed were far more interesting.  She was never quite certain what songs her mysterious neighbor was going to play.  Some days there were songs she’d never heard, others they were popular songs that Sapphire knew had been playing in at least eighteen different venues that day, and some nights there were songs that had Sapphire’s mind whirling back to her childhood, where her dad would play them on his crackling radio while they cooked dinner or played cards.

Those were the days she had to fight the hardest to keep herself from running down that single, immeasurably long flight of stairs and knocking on the stranger’s door.

It was getting more and more difficult to do as the days passed by.  She wanted to thank the musician for helping her settle into her new surroundings, however unintentional the help had been, but she dreaded the multiple possibilities where the encounter went south.

“Hi, my name’s Sapphire and I’ve been listening to you sing for the past two and a half months.”

That would go over real well, Sapphire scoffed.

But… she didn’t necessarily have to say she’d been listening the whole time, did she?  She could just say she’d overheard once or twice.  That sounded like it’d go a little better.  There might be a little bit of embarrassment on both their parts, but nothing to the amount there’d be if she confessed to everything on the spot.

Yes - Sapphire decided, closing the book she hadn’t really been reading for the past fifteen minutes now and rising from the couch - she’d go meet the mysterious singer properly.  Right here, right now.

She hesitated, though, when she reached the door.  There was no guarantee they would be home.  Before her resolve could falter, Sapphire turned on her heel and trekked to the kitchen, pulling open a drawer and grabbing the pad of snowflake shaped-sticky notes (courtesy of Steven and Connie) and a pen.

She wasn’t going to back out of this now that she’d committed.  If no one answered, she’d leave a note.

Sapphire barely registered the muffled sound of running feet on the other side of the door, wrapped up as she was in accomplishing her task, but she stopped short upon opening the door as a familiar voice, yelling now instead of singing, filled the hallway.

“Get back here you thieving, good for nothing snake with fur!  This isn’t even our floor!”

Everything happened as if in slow motion to Sapphire, who had yet to even pass the threshold of her door.  A small black ferret with a - was that a sandwich? - what appeared to be an entire sandwich hanging from its tiny jaws darted into her line of sight and then straight into her apartment.  This prompted a strangled curse from the person down the hallway, who was approaching with alarming speed.

Then they skidded into view, and Sapphire lost her breath all over again. She’d known her musician’s voice was easy to listen to, of course, but this - oh adding this was too much.

Tight corkscrews of dark hair flew in every direction, held back only marginally with the help of a maroon headband. Warm, brown skin pulled taught over well-defined muscles that flexed as they expertly altered their momentum.  An intensity burned in the earthen depths of their eyes, but faded and morphed into floundering astonishment upon recognizing that the doorway was not, in fact, empty.

Sapphire really, really hoped they couldn’t see the blush creeping across her face right now.

They stared at each other for a good long while, cheeks flushed and eyes wide, both trying to recover their thoughts, before a sharp rattling sound broke them out of their stupor.  Aggravation filled dark eyes in an instant as they shifted to look past Sapphire, then softened again when they switched back to her.

“Uh, hey.  This is gonna sound kind of rude, but can I come into your apartment?  I’m pretty sure my ferret’s in here.”

Still a little stunned, Sapphire only stepped back and motioned the go ahead, “By all means.”

With a muttered thanks, they moved past her and straight for the kitchen.  “Piper, you little weasel!  You’d better not be in the cabinets again.  Do you even know you’re in the wrong apartment?”

After a moment’s debate, Sapphire shut the door and followed her new guest into the kitchen, raising an eyebrow upon seeing them parked directly in the center, fists on their hips and a thoughtful scowl on their face.  They seemed grateful to see her walk into the room, motioning to the kitchen at large with a hint of colour returning to their cheeks.

“Are any of these, you know, forbidden or something?  I don’t wanna be invasive.”

Sapphire held back a laugh, though she couldn’t quite stop the smile from turning the corners of her lips.  “I don’t have anything hiding in my kitchen except your ferret.”

Like a switch had been flipped, the musician arrowed to the cabinets under the sink, pulling them open and growling indecipherable curses into their depths.  Sapphire rocked forward onto her toes, about to join in the search, when the faint sound of tiny nails echoed from the hall behind her.  She turned slowly until the ferret, sandwich in mouth, came into view.

“Uhm.”  Sapphire tried to get her guest’s attention without letting their quarry out of her sight.  “I don’t think the ferret’s in there.”

“Why?” came the muffled reply, followed by a shuffling noise as they extracted themself from the cupboard.  “Do you see her?”

The ferret, Piper, had noticed Sapphire by now, and was staring at her with sharp focus, ears pricked.

“I mean, it could be a different ferret.” Sapphire’s dry humour took the reins, “I get a lot of those running through my living room.  But something tells me this one’s yours.”

Before her owner could formulate a reply, Piper darted back down the hallway, the two humans quick on her tail, and the chase was on.

//\\//\\//

Minutes later, Piper was safely in hand, being quietly scolded by a much relieved guitarist.

“You shouldn’t even be eating sandwiches.  You’re a carnivore, Piper.  A carnivore.  Sandwiches shouldn’t be anywhere in your diet.”

Said sandwich was scattered in layers across Sapphire’s floor, and she was silently thankful she hadn’t yet invested in any rugs.  The faux-wood paneling was much easier to clean off.  Sapphire set about doing just that, and was about half-way finished by the time her impromptu guest spoke again.

“What are you doing?”

“Cleaning.”  Sapphire held up a piece of bread in demonstration, then dropped it into the trashcan she’d been carrying around.

“Nonono, I made the mess, I should be cleaning it.”  They were on their feet in moments, holding out their ferret to a bemused Sapphire, “Just hold Piper for me, I’ll deal with this.”

Sapphire was tempted to continue cleaning, if only because she was nearly done anyways.  Instead, seeing the earnest expression on their face, she switched the ferret for the trashcan without comment and settled onto her couch, watching her guest with curious eyes.

Though her gaze definitely trailed down their sculpted arms and the strong line of their back, Sapphire found herself returning again and again to her guest’s face, watching it move and change with the thoughts in their head, never settling for more than a few seconds.  Their expressions were as open as their singing, and something about that honesty drew Sapphire in.  

She wanted to know this person, who was so full of life and energy that they couldn’t help but spill it into the world in words and melodies every night.  She wanted to learn their goals, their fears, their triumphs and downfalls.  What must their mind be like, that they could look so very alive picking up sandwich pieces, of all things?

Of course, Sapphire reprimanded herself as she snapped out of her stupor, a name would be a good place to start too.

“I don’t think we introduced ourselves.” She said, catching her guest’s attention, “I’m Sapphire,”  She held up the ferret, who seemed happy to nose at her fingers and lick off whatever sandwich residue happened to be there.  “and I know this little troublemaker is Piper.  But what’s your name?”

“Huh?” They stared, eyes blank as their hand hovered over a piece of tomato.  Then the question sunk in and colour rushed to their cheeks, “Oh, right.  I guess we didn’t, with the ferret-chasing and all.  Um - sorry about that.” They broke eye contact and quickly discarded the tomato.  They fidgeted with the bin, looking around for any more sandwich remains, “I’m Ruby, by the way.  Nice to meet you.  I think I’ve seen you around before, once or twice, but we’ve never actually… talked, I guess.  Are you new?”

“That’s right.  I just moved in a little over… two months ago?” Sapphire thought it over for a moment, then shrugged it off, “Almost, anyways.  Have you lived here long?”

“Running on a year now,” Ruby replied, wiping up a ketchup stain in the kitchen, “Not as long as some residents, but long enough.”  They rose and observed the house, seemingly satisfied.  “I think that’s the last of it.” After putting down the bin, they approached Sapphire with a wry grin, “Thanks again for helping me out.  I’m sure you had something better to do than help me catch my pet ferret.”  As they lifted Piper from Sapphire’s willing hands, she let her eyes surreptitiously brush over the callouses tipping their fingers.  “Come on, Piper.  Let’s get out of this nice lady’s hair.”

Sapphire saw the chance for what it was and took it decisively, “Actually,” She paused to collect herself when their attention moved from Piper to her, surprised but attentive to a degree that had her flustered, “I - uh.  I was going to go to a cafe a little ways from here.  I’m sure you were going to eat that sandwich before it got…” She gestured helplessly to the trash bin, “Like that.  And it’s at least partially my fault for opening my door when I did.  So maybe I can… buy you something?”  

Her eyes slowly drifted away from Ruby as she spoke, and she could feel that accursed heat rising to her cheeks again. The proposition had come out entirely less put together than she’d have liked.

“That sounds great.”  Sapphire’s eyes snapped to Ruby’s, taking in their sincere grin with quiet surprise.  “I just have to put Piper in her cage and we can go.”  They walked to the door, then paused and glanced at Sapphire consideringly, “Erm, do you want to just follow me downstairs?  This shouldn’t take that long.”

“Sure.”  Sapphire answered numbly.  She grabbed her keys and followed Ruby out the door, still processing that this was, in fact, happening.  It wasn’t until they stood in front of Ruby’s door, Piper squirming eagerly in Sapphire’s hands while Ruby fumbled with the lock, that it all crashed down with startling clarity.

Oh god she was really doing this.

The knowledge sat stewing in her brain as she trailed into Ruby’s home, taking a seat on their couch once urged.  She surveyed the apartment and marveled at the stark difference that lay between her own apartment and this one, despite having the same layout and wall-paint.  Ruby’s floor was sprinkled with ferret toys and the occasional sock, and racks upon racks of CDs stood against the walls surrounding a slightly aged stereo system.  There were two sofa chairs alongside the apartment provided one Sapphire sat on, mismatched with their checkered design and with intricately designed yarn blankets thrown over the backs.

Sapphire looked down and realized she’d been fiddling with the ends of a blanket adorning the couch.

Ruby had a tv, too.  Nothing fancy, but big enough for two or three people to watch without crowding the monitor.  Sapphire had opted out of getting even a small television just yet, content to peruse the internet until she’d saved a bit more money.  In fact, Sapphire’s apartment was positively barren in comparison.  She was turning that thought over in her head when Ruby returned, ferret free.

Sapphire blinked, “You changed.”

They looked down at the button down they’d pulled on over their tanktop and the pants they now wore in place of their original athletic shorts.  Then they shrugged and rubbed a hand against the back of their neck, grinning bashfully, “Well... you didn’t say exactly which cafe we’re going to, and sports clothes don’t always cut it for some of the nicer lookin’ places.  You know?”

“That’s a fair point.”  Sapphire conceded, looking their new attire up and down.  “I don’t think too many people would have noticed, though.”

Ruby shrugged, frowning slightly and glancing off to the side, “Well it’s too late to change back.”

“I never said you should.”  Sapphire returned as she stood and sauntered towards the door.  “Ready to head out?”

After a second of silence, she heard a set of heavy footsteps follow her and smiled.

//\\//\\//

“So you work in accounting?”  Ruby asked, an eyebrow raised as they propped their chin on their fist.  “Sounds… fun.”

Their expression, drawn into a dramatic grimace, belied the words and coaxed Sapphire to laughter.  “That’s one way to put it.  It’s something I’m good at, though, and it’s a solid job.”

Ruby nodded, “Always a good thing.”  They took a long pull of their cola, brown eyes considering as they roved the patrons of the cafe.

“And what about you?”  Sapphire asked, “What do you do during the day?”

“Oh - uh.  I mostly work maintenance.  If something’s broke, I’m the one to call! Electrical, structural, mechanical, whatever it is, I’ll fix it in a snap.”  They emphasized their statement with a wide grin and a snap of their fingers.  Sapphire tried to hold back another laugh.

“Do you do house calls, then?” She asked instead, “Or are you strictly business-centered?”

“It’s mostly house calls, to be honest.  The businesses all have a specialist on hand or they have a name-brand company to handle their stuff.”  They shrugged, “It’s probably for the best.  I know someone who focuses more in business maintenance, electrical mostly, and the problems she tells me about sound a little above my paygrade.”

“I thought you said you could fix anything.” Sapphire teased, sipping at her drink as she watched another blush rise to Ruby’s cheeks.

“It’s just a slogan!”  They defended, sticking out their tongue playfully, “I won’t get any work if I go around telling people I can fix some things.”

Sapphire snorted, but conceded the point.

The cashier called their order, and Sapphire beat Ruby out of the booth, grinning smugly at the off-put grumbling the defeat incited.  She arrived and checked the order, mentally comparing the receipt to the platters atop the brown tray.  Satisfied that everything was as it should be, she made her way back to the table in time to catch the quiet sounds of Ruby singing along to the song playing in the background.

“You sing beautifully.” She found herself saying from behind them, unsurprised at the way Ruby jumped and squeaked before turning to her, cheeks ruddier than Sapphire had seen them all day.

“What, that?” They forced a laugh as Sapphire slid into her seat, “That was barely anything, I don’t -  You must have misheard - My singing voice isn’t -”  They looked at everything but Sapphire, and had begun tugging at their headband somewhere along the way.  They seemed to realize they were becoming incoherent and fell into silence for a second, cushioning their face in their arms while they collected themself.  When they finally spoke, their voice came out small and exhausted.  “You wouldn’t be saying that if you heard me really sing.”

“I beg to differ.”  The words shocked the both of them, making Ruby peak out from behind the walls of their forearms and Sapphire want to repeatedly hit her head against the table.  What was with her and being stupidly impulsive today?  She’d scare Ruby away before they’d known each other for half a day, at this rate.

Ruby slowly straightened, an indecipherable look on their face as they eyed Sapphire.  Her gut sank and she averted her eyes under the intensity, though it was unlikely that they noticed thanks to the wall of her hair.  She toyed fretfully with a fry, wanting to eat and dispel the discomfort laying thick over the table but feeling pinned beneath her own actions and the weight of Ruby’s stare.

“What do you mean by that?” They asked, the sentence slow, deliberate, and while not quite suspicious, still guarded all the same.  Sapphire winced.  “Have we… met before?”

Sapphire’s shoulders involuntarily hunched and she released the now mangled fry in favor of lacing her hands together and propping them in front of her, chewing at the middle joint of one of her thumbs.  She’d gotten herself into a tight situation here, and while she couldn’t quite read Ruby’s demeanor, she was sure that a wrong answer would turn this meeting very sour very quickly.

But what was the right answer in this context?  The truth was that she had very blatantly invaded on what Ruby had perceived at the time to be a personal moment, not once but repeatedly.  Lying now would only dig a deeper hole for her to bury herself in later down the road.  Her eyes flickered back to Ruby for a moment, their posture intent but carefully non-threatening, waiting for her answer but not pushing for it like they very well deserved to.

That made Sapphire’s decision more than anything else.

“Not in the way you’re probably thinking.”  She breathed.

//\\//\\//

“I’m sorry.” She added on once she’d recounted the condensed version of the past two months, her voice stiff and removed in order to keep the embarrassing wobble she could feel from manifesting.  Her gaze remained steadily on the table, afraid to look up and face judgement, “It was intrusive and childish of me to keep doing it.  It won’t happen again.”

“Why not?”  The question was soft, but it halted Sapphire in her tracks.  Her head jerked up to look at Ruby for the first time in minutes.

Their posture had eased into something soft and reminiscent of from before Sapphire had let slip her secret, their head propped against their fists.  Brown eyes glowed, reflected by the cherry colour tinting their cheeks.  Somehow, they’d become more open with her confession, not less.  Where was the disgust? The anger?  Sapphire’s mind reeled.

“I’m sorry, can you repeat that?  I don’t think I heard you right.”

Ruby huffed, “You heard me just fine.  Why not?”

“Have you been listening to a word I said?” Sapphire hissed, shame and confusion mixing into something like anger in her throat.  “What I did is-”

“What you did,” Ruby cut in smoothly, and Sapphire wondered for the briefest of moments how they’d become the calmer one, “is listen to me, every night, because you genuinely like the sound of my voice.  I’d be more upset if you’d tried to take pictures or follow me or find my phone number or something -”  They laughed at Sapphire’s resultant expression, “-but I can tell you hadn’t even thought of that.”

“And maybe it’s just me,” Ruby leaned forward, something unknown glinting in their eyes and a lopsided grin adorning their face.  Sapphire swallowed, “But finding a pretty woman who likes my singing without any strings attached, especially with a name like yours?”  The grin widened, “It’s a real gem.”

Sapphire’s mind had caught a little on ‘pretty woman’, and the rest of the sentence took a second or two to process.  When the words finally trickled their way into her brain, she plunked her face in her arms, and tried valiantly not to laugh quite as hard as the pun, mixed with the sudden shift in atmosphere, demanded of her.

It only partially worked, and her sides were in stitches by the time she caught her breath, glaring half-heartedly at the smug, toothy smile on Ruby’s face.  “I hope you’re happy.”  She muttered, ignoring the chipper ‘I am’ she received in reply, “That was a horrible joke.”

Ruby hummed, unconvinced, “You keep telling yourself that.”

A comfortable silence fell over the two, and they managed to finish their food while talking about somewhat lighter topics.  It was only once they were walking out, the sky painted a light peach and the shadows of the surrounding buildings stretching long, that Sapphire toed back into their unfinished conversation.

“So you really aren’t mad?”

Ruby sighed, “And here I thought we’d put this to rest.”  They turned and began walking backwards, arms angled casually behind their head.  “I’m honestly more confused than anything.  I like singing, obviously, but I don’t think I’m all that good at it.  My friends and family say I have a nice voice but,”  They shrugged helplessly. “They’re kind of biased towards me to begin with, you know?  So the fact that you liked it without even seeing me is… nice.”

“If a little stalker-ish.”

Ruby rolled their eyes, “Okay okay, maybe it’s a little weird, but I sent a ferret with a sandwich into your apartment, so we’re even.  Alright?”

Sapphire scoffed, “No deal.  The ferret wasn’t intentional.  Benches behind you.”

Ruby quickly looked and angled to avoid the benches, then continued with the conversation, “You drive a hard bargain, Sapphire.”  They thought for a moment, and Sapphire waited, unsure of what to expect from her new acquaintance (friend?).  After a moment, they apparently thought of something, and a satisfied smirk bloomed on their face.  “Would it make you feel better if you did something for me?”

They took a corner, Ruby flipping around to walk normally as they approached a busier street, tucking their hands into their pockets.  Sapphire turned the proposition over in her head for a moment before coming to a decision.  “Do you have something in mind?”

Ruby hummed an affirmation, the smile growing on their face.  Sapphire waited for a minute or two, then glared.

“You’re not going to tell me what it is.”

“Not yet.”  They agreed in aggravating singsong, winking conspiratorially, “But don’t worry too much about it.  I think you’re going to like it.”

Sapphire huffed, “Isn’t that the opposite of the point?”

“Not necessarily.  It’s a favor to me, so the point is to make me happy.  If you like it too, it’s a win-win!”

There wasn’t much Sapphire could say to that, so she didn’t.

They continued to walk, chatting about this or that.  Ruby was in the middle of a series on horrible clients they’d had when a familiar pair of children caught Sapphire’s eye.

“Oh! Um-” She turned to Ruby with an apologetic grimace.  “I’m really sorry, Ruby, but do you mind if we take a short detour?”

Ruby stopped mid-sentence, eyes wide, then they looked around with a slight frown, “I mean - sure?  Do you mind me asking why, though?  You asked kind of suddenly.”

Sapphire pointed to Steven and Connie on the playground, both of whom had noticed her and were vigorously waving.  She waved back as they neared, “Some kids I spend time with.  Just going to tell them I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

“Not just to walk me back, I hope.”

Sapphire raised an eyebrow, “It’d be rude of me to ask you to walk all the way back alone.”

Ruby scoffed, dramatically clutching their heart “Oh, how would I ever manage walking three blocks all on my lonesome?  With these arms, thin as twigs, and these abs, soft as bread.  I’ll be a goner for sure.”  They faked falling over, and Sapphire sputtered out a laugh.

“It’s the principle of the thing, Ruby.”

They straightened up, the corners of their eyes still bright with laughter, “Either way, I’d feel bad stealing quality time with you from these kids.  I can walk back by myself.”  They held up their hands at the firm frown Sapphire gave, “Just an option!  If you’re that adamant about it, I can always stick around until you’re done?”

“Somehow, I don’t think you’d have very much fun watching me play with kids for an hour.”  Ruby opened their mouth to protest, but Sapphire continued, “And even if you would, they aren’t going to let you.  You will undoubtedly get pulled into it.  Steven and Connie can be very… persuasive.”

“Even better.”

Sapphire had no time to reply, because Steven had made it out of the playground area and leapt at her. “Sapphire!”  She quickly wrapped her arms around him, making sure he didn’t slip as he turned to Ruby, signature friendly grin in place as he greeted them.  “Hi!  My name’s Steven, are you -”  He stopped and patted Sapphire’s shoulder, stage whispering.  “Can you let me down?  I need to say hi.”

Sapphire obliged with a small smile, and she stepped aside to let Steven tromp over to Ruby’s front, sticking his little hand up for them to shake.  “Nice to meet you!  I’m Steven.  What’s your name?”

Ruby took Steven’s hand soberly and shook it, much to his delight.  “Nice to meet you too, Steven.  I’m Ruby.”

“Are you going to play with us?”

“That’s the plan.”  They affirmed,  “You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on though.”

Steven nodded with gusto, taking both Ruby and Sapphire’s hands and dragging them to the edge of the playground, where Connie and a tall pink-haired woman awaited them.

“Hello, Rose.”  Sapphire greeted.  Rose smiled warmly and engulfed her in a hug.

“Sapphire! So nice to see you!” She let go and turned to Ruby, eyebrows raised and dark eyes twinkling, “And who’s your friend?”

“This is Ruby, they live in my apartment building.”

They waved casually from where they and Steven waited, the latter hopping from foot to foot eagerly. Rose smiled, and Sapphire realized again how much Steven took after his mother.

“Well it’s good to meet you, Ruby. I won’t keep you long, poor Steven looks like he’s about to explode!”

Rose let them pass, and Steven quickly filled Connie in on their guest. Connie was eager to have a new playmate: going into General mode, as Sapphire called it, and asking about their imaginary feats and skills with a thin veil of seriousness.

Ruby, for their part, took no time in giving their fantasy resume. Both children were thoroughly impressed by the end of the interrogation, and Ruby was designated a senior warrior, recently transferred from another squadron to aid the cause.

And so began the journey to retrieve the magical stone that powered the entire country of BuiscutLand.

//\\//\\//

“It was perfectly in character.”  Sapphire defended as they approached the entrance to their apartment building.

“Just because it’s in character doesn’t mean it’s plausible.”  Ruby argued back, “Even an ice mage will show some sort of reaction when they see a giant rock hurtling for their face.”  They held open the door as they reenacted the scene, voice going unnaturally flat as an arm raised almost limply to their forehead, “Oh no, this must be the end.”

Sapphire playfully kicked their shin on the way in, “Okay. First off, I was not that bad.  Second, the kids didn’t seem to mind at all.”  She pressed the button and stood back to wait for an elevator.

“They’re only, like, seven, Sapphire.  They don’t even know what bad acting is.”

The elevator doors rung and opened.  The two stepped in.

“And you were absolutely that bad.  Don’t go into acting.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

The doors closed.  Silence fell as the floors inched by.  Sapphire scraped quietly at the sides of her fingers.

“Oh, right.”  Ruby said as something occurred to them.  They turned to Sapphire and smiled, “Can I have your phone for a second?”

Sapphire blinked and stared, but handed over her phone obediently, unlocked.  Ruby typed some things in quickly, finishing with a theatrical flourish, and handed it back right as the elevator door clicked open at their floor.

“I’ll text you when I want to call in that favour.”  They promised as they entered the hallway, “Have a good night!”

The doors shut behind them, and Sapphire gripped her phone just a little bit tighter.

//\\//\\//

For once, night came far too quickly for Sapphire.  Her normal routine was shot, she’d promised Ruby she wouldn’t go night-listening on the balcony anymore.  Even if their response had been confusing, she’d keep to her word.  As she paced through the living room again, she couldn't stop the small glance sideways. The balcony door gleamed.  Inviting.  Tempting.

Sapphire pulled the drapes closed a tad more harshly than necessary.

With little else to do: she’d eaten dinner early for the nerves and showered shortly after for the same reason, Sapphire sat in bed, blankets and pillows piled around her, and a used hardcover book she’d bought a few days prior in hand.

She found herself waiting patiently for the notes of a guitar and groaned, stuffing her face into a pillow and setting the book aside.  She looked at the clock, blue eyes considering.  She usually didn’t go to sleep for another two hours at the earliest, but maybe it was the best option for today.

Yes. She decided, slipping out of bed and turning off the lights.  She’d go to sleep now and figure out what to do with the extra hours when she woke.  The morning didn’t hold a constant tug to the balcony, at least.  Assured, Sapphire settled into bed, waiting for the hand of sleep.

Then she waited some more.

And a little more after that.

Frustration clawed at her skull as she rolled out of bed, a tangle of blankets, flesh, and defeat.  Why was this so hard?

From somewhere far away, Sapphire’s phone buzzed.

She was tempted to leave it for the morning, irate as she was, but she was equally desperate for a distraction, and so she fought free of her blanket heap.  Too tired to turn on the lights and make things easier for herself, she groped around blindly for her phone.

It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the harsh phone light, but Sapphire found two new texts when it did.  One from herself to Ruby, a short message reading “iou”, and one from Ruby to her.

"calling in that favor. come downstairs!!"

Sapphire was out the door and at their apartment before she’d had time to think.  Excitement churned with fear in her gut, bubbling and chilling and amplifying against each other the longer she stared at the door.  Then a suspicion nipped at the back of her mind:  a vague picture of what Ruby was planning.  The fear abated, replaced by self-doubt.

Did she really want this?

The door opened mere seconds after she finished knocking, Ruby in sweatpants and a loose t-shirt riddled with tiny holes, headband slightly skewed and tight, dark curls haloed by the warm light of their apartment.

Somehow, their face was even brighter than the lights: expression as full of emotion as their music, and even easier to read.  Exaltation, nervousness, expectation.  All high-frequency emotions that had them positively bouncing in the doorframe.

“Sapphire!  I’m glad you came.  I was kind of worried you’d gone out or fallen asleep already, since I sent the text kind of late.”  Ruby laughed and fiddled with the edge of their headband, rocking to their other foot,  “I probably should have just told you beforehand so everything was clear, but I wanted to surprise you!  And it all worked out anyways so…”  They coughed conspicuously into their fist, a nice rosy colour flushing their dark cheeks.  They collected themself and stepped aside, gesturing for Sapphire to come in, eyes searching.

“Will you sing with me tonight?”

Sapphire saw an echo of the cafe in Ruby’s posture.  If she declined here, Ruby wouldn’t press, and she could be in the safety of her apartment within minutes instead of embroiled in the uncertain adventure that their eyes promised.

After a second of debate, Sapphire decided that safety had never seemed less pleasing.  She stepped through the doorframe into warm, reaching light.

“I’d love to.”