Waves I – Rolling Tides


It was late at night when she decided to come out onto the deck of the merchant ship called the Ferret Express, unable to sleep and unwilling to think. She was too tired to think of the future, of the uncertain flux beyond what she could see, yet the chore still roused her from her slumber in spite of her exhaustion. So she thought that it would be best if she lost herself in the moment, take a breather and absorb her surroundings. That was all she could do lately anyway, to accept the now for what it was and not to think too far of tomorrow. It had served her well so far, calming and soothing her, lulling the insecurity away much like how the movement beneath her feet slowly stirred, breathing like the giant she once saw in Kaltrea as a child.

Cool glass touched her warm lips as the distinct scent of ocean water invaded her nose. Rui Brewfort rolled the mead in her mouth much like how the seawater churned as it splashed against the ship's metal hull. As she swallowed the mouthful and held the worn and slightly rusted railing of the deck, she decided that she did not like the sensation of sailing because it felt so unstable and the next moment seemed so uncertain. Having her feet on terra firma suited her so much better than this nauseating piece of metal that floated under the mercy of ever-moving waters.

She hated not being able to control the direction of her life.

Back in the Cog Weasel, she could do whatever she pleased. She dictated how each day would go and she was fairly certain what tomorrow will hold. She was stable there, so entrenched, and so unlike these dark blue waters that lapped at this ship's side. Rui likened herself to the earth as she took another swig of her beer. She was supposed to be immovable and unchanging. She was not like the deep blue that twisted and turned at the moon's beck and call, coming and going as dictated by intangible strings called fate and destiny.

Such a lifestyle suited someone, anyone, else but her.

Rui leaned forward and rested some of her weight on her elbows as she held the beer bottle's neck between her fingers. She then thought it was fitting that Yutsu had blue hair. The hue was so striking, so unique, and so similar to the ever-flowing waves of the ocean. Unlike her, Yutsu was made to travel and wander like this.

She had observed her whimsical lover during their brief yet dangerous travels and accepted that such a life of excitement suited the long-eared bounty hunter. Yutsu seemed so at-home outdoors, as reflected by the distinct scent of pine-needles that seems to follow her around.

The former bartender flicked her tail as she remembered when she first scented such a free-spirited smell.

Water sloshed as the golden Fox sprayed soiled glasses and tankards with pressured water in the bar's sink. She was focused on her work as usual, keeping an ear out for any tension that could possibly blanket the ambient atmosphere of the Cog Weasel. It was a Saturday night and, thankfully, many of her patrons were enjoying themselves as they chatted and watched black-and-white flicks on the bar's only television. In fact, Mr. Randolf, the owner of a nearby clockworks shop, was laughing along with his friend, talking about how his wife had practically kicked him out the window earlier that day. The banter was jovial and certainly meant to be light-hearted, although it left Rui wondering what was so fun about making one's wife angry.

She paid the actual topics of their conversations little attention and focused more on keeping her rack of clean glasses full. It was then that the bar door's bell jingled, prompting Rui to look up to see another familiar face.

However, it was the face of a stranger that greeted her.

The young woman had a slight bounce in her step, as if entering a dimly lit pub was a nightly pastime. She looked quite young because her cheeks were still full, giving her smile a rather youthful appearance, while her long blue hair that was held up by a high ponytail garnered even more attention. Rui had never seen such colored tresses despite the years she had spent catering to this bar. Another striking feature the stranger had was a pair of long, upright ears that twitched ever so slightly as she sat herself just a few seats away from where the golden Fox was working.

"One carrot martini please," The blue-haired girl ordered without a hint of uncertainty in her voice.

The bartender quirked a fine brow and looked at this newcomer directly instead of just observing her from the corner of her eyes. She then stopped what she was doing for a moment and walked over to this new face to say, "I have carrot juice if you want."

A long blue ear moved minutely at the Fox's comment before its owner rested her arms on the bar counter. "No," she said with a gleam of tense playfulness in her bright emerald eyes, "I'd like the martini please."

Rui held the girl's gaze for a moment, waiting for some sort of hesitation, some sort of evidence that she was too young to drink. But when she found none, the Fox reached for her shaker to prepare the Rabbit's order. Some of the bartender's patrons would bring their young sons or daughters in the Cog Weasel to have a drink and share the day's stories. Whatever unchartered law that prevented bars from serving minors was not regularly enforced anyway. She might as well just humor this girl and earn a few coins out of the exchange.

"Do you own this bar, Foxy?" The girl asked as she idly tapped her fingers on the bar's counter.

The bartender paused from her task when she heard how her blue-haired patron called her. Usually people asked what she was because Foxes were so rare in this part of the country, perhaps even the world considering the diseased racial state of the globe. This girl just knew what she was. Was this blunette well-traveled?

With a flick of an ear, Rui answered, "yes, I do."

A mirthful giggle escaped the Rabbit's smiling lips as she shifted the pack she had over her shoulder. The golden Fox did not notice the pack when the girl entered and now she was sure, just from one glance, that the luggage involved firearms. Her instincts were never wrong when it came to dangerous items like guns and it did not help that her nose picked up a very slight smell of gunpowder underneath the aromatic layer of fresh green pine-needles.

"I like your place," the girl began as she placed her bag in front of her to safeguard it from the other patrons of the bar. "The other places I've been to always reek of heavy smoke and people. Yet this place only smells of sweet liquor even though Mr. Tubby over there is puffing as much smoke as the stacks outside."

Crimson eyes glanced over to Mr. Randolf as the blue-haired girl gestured towards him with a small and practiced twitch of an ear. It was then that Rui noticed that the girl had additional appendages on the top of her unnaturally colored head. Two long and slender antennae moved almost in tandem with her nearly equally lengthy ears.

A hybrid…?

What is a hybrid doing here in Kaltrea?

"Here's your drink," Rui ignored her own inner questions and placed a glass of amber-tinted liquor in front of the musing Rabbit as she tried to piece together this puzzle of a girl. However, she knew that hybrids lead difficult lives. Perhaps the way the girl presented herself was just a reflection of how her kind faced such ridiculous odds of being so discriminated and hated by the general populace.

"Why, thank you, Foxy," the Rabbit took the glass and sipped her drink, honestly savoring the bittersweet taste of the liquor. She then looked at the bartender in the eye and continued, "Or should I say, Vixen?"

"You're welcome," Rui responded with professional ease, ignoring the blatant jab at her gender, or rather the slightly ill-connoted meaning of the word vixen. "Is there anything else you'd like, Miss?"

"Bartenders aren't always so easy on the eyes, you know." The green-eyed girl interjected and sipped her drink once more, "and rarely do I see ones I actually like to look at."

"Is that so…?" The Rabbit's flirty tone immediately killed whatever interest the golden Fox had about holding a decent conversation with her, so Rui ducked under the counter to pick up a few glasses she needed to polish. Perhaps she could endure more of the flirting that was to come if she had something in her hands that she could do. Many patrons, especially new ones, tried to get her attention and affection, whether it was because they were truly interested in her or they simply wanted to get a free drink. None of them ever succeeded at holding Rui's attention for longer than an hour however, for the Fox easily got tired of dealing with pushy people after long periods of time.

Maybe this one would also relent if she displayed honest disinterest.

After grabbing six flat-bottomed glasses from the rack, the bartender straightened only to meet the sight of a rather exposed cleavage line pressed firmly against the bar counters.

"And I see female bartenders even less, Foxy~" The Rabbit chuckled and then winked at the golden-haired woman.

Rui ignored her cheeky patron and fished her white towel from a holder attached to the bar counter. She was starting to get suspicious for this girl who seemed too young to mingle in such a way.

"This bar had been owned by women for two generations now," the Fox said aloofly, hoping that her flat monotone would deter this Rabbit's advances. Sure enough, there was a tiny glint of annoyed disappointment that flashed through those playful viridian. However, Rui was astonished at how fast that glint and the small frown came and went.

The blue-haired girl drank swiftly and returned her glass on the counter-top. To the bartender's surprise, the glass did not even make so much as a quiet clink even though the girl looked like she could have bashed the vessel onto the surface. Rui had had customers break glasses because of her unresponsiveness, as if the gesture would make her any warmer to their idiocy and impetuosity. At least this one had more finesse and the Fox admitted that the subtle gesture caught her attention more than her attempts at flirting.

Fishing out the olive that was suspended in the alcohol, the girl suddenly took on a rather professional tone. "I've never passed these joints before so I was wondering if you can help me out a bit, Foxy. Never been around Kaltrea, you see, and since this is a pretty big town, I want to know how things go around here."

Figures… Rui thought in mild annoyance as she placed a newly polished piece of glassware on her rack. But she supposed that letting people know the ropes was part of her job description so she answered with practiced tone, "if you haven't noticed yet, this city is divided into three districts that segregate many of the people living here. Most of the rich Felines live up in the 1st District of town. That's also where the governor lives."

She then gestured towards the bar, "You're currently in the downtown of the lower 2nd District. The people you see in the bar are what most of the people living around here would look like, blue-collar folk and simple office workers that travel to the Upper 2nd District to work. Further to the West is the 3rd District, a dangerous place."

"Oh? Sounds interesting, what's over there?" The Rabbit asked with outmost interest that Rui could not help but quirk a brow and wonder why she would be so focused on such information.

The golden Fox began polishing another glass before responding with a slight frown, "it used to be a manufacturing plant for steel beams used to build infrastructure in Tyradum but the factories were recently converted to ammunition and artillery foundries to feed the war's need for weapons. Lots of soldiers supposedly patrol that place, to keep all the insurgents from smuggling bullets out."

"Ah, yes, I've noticed that there are a lot of cops around this district too," the girl commented when Rui paused to wipe the next glass, "the security isn't lax by any means. Mind telling me why?"

The bartender narrowed her eyes, intrigued that this girl did not know why Kaltrea's security was tight. She did not want to speak of something that might get her arrested despite of how she felt about the situation. This blunette might be a government inspector for all she knew. So just to be safe, the golden-haired woman opted to say, "Many don't like this war, Rabbit, and some actually try to do something about it even though it's nothing but a foolish venture."

"I see," the girl smiled and it made her look like an innocent but dangerous sprite, "foolish venture indeed, hmm? Whatever could that Rebellion do to the almighty Tyradum army, yes?"

The golden Fox kept her composure, used to such subtle threats, and merely nodded, "they're nothing but cannon fodder."

An amused twitter reached her ears before the familiar clicks of coin hitting the counter displaced it in the bar's space. "Thank you for the drink, Foxy~" the girl said with a confident flick of her ponytail, "I'm off to see parts of the city you've told me about." She winked at Rui and hooked her pack onto her shoulder, "you might see me again since you're so nice and helpful. I'm Yutsu by the way, do remember me, hmm?"

The bartender frowned as she watched her emerald-eyed patron leave her bar, wondering if she will see a splash of blue again. Her gut-feeling told her that that girl led a fast-paced life, and a pessimistic part of her mind was convinced that that Rabbit's fire will not burn for long. She flicked an ear and immediately pushed the thought out. It was none of her business anyway.

It was better if she passed her off as a faceless customer.

However, the glint of gold and silver coins the girl left and the lingering scent of pine trees were stark reminders that she once existed within the space of this shady bar.

Her thoughts back then were proven wrong as the young woman named Yutsu returned to the Cog Weasel again and again. She would come in and converse with Rui, constantly flirting with her as if she was a Rabbit on a silly mission to get more than just a grunt or a monotonous, machine-like reply from the Fox. Rui chuckled to herself as she took another sip of her beer. Perhaps Yutsu really was on a mission back then. The bounty hunter proved to be a lover of challenges, maybe the aloof bartender Rui once was became a challenge meant to be conquered, an obstacle that must be overcame.

The thought amused her as she continued to stare down at the curling blue waters. How fitting it was, truly, that she had always likened Yutsu to water. Persistent yet fluid, she managed to wear down the Fox's toughed walls. She slowly ate away at the bartender's defenses and wormed her way into her life.

They were merely strangers back then, two people who led very different lives. What was it that tied them together, Rui wondered. She was not a believer of cosmic fate but it was difficult to remain skeptic now that she was looking back at how impossible the odds that were stacked against them back then. Yutsu could have simply moved on with her ever shifting life and Rui could have just continued to ignore her advances.

Well, I did… The Fox thought with a small yet ever present sense of amusement. She did ignore Yutsu's flirting but the interactions became such a pleasant constant in her life that she ended up associating the twittering giggles and words of shallow flattery with the young blunette's presence. And while the bartender was an ever present being in her patrons' daily lives, they were simply figures who came and went as far as the Fox was concerned. They would greet her, sure, and they would say they wanted their usual, but those quickly blended in her grey world, not unlike the sound of spraying water from her sink and the hisses of the bubbling drinks she served. They simply added to the monotony and the stillness of the Cog Weasel.

Yutsu, however, laughed her way into painting colors on those ashen walls and winked life into Rui's everyday existence. The Rabbit would come in, sit at her usual seat, and give her the most distinct smile she had ever seen. That slight tilt of her head enhanced the playful curve of her lips, belying a certain thrill of danger under those harmless-looking viridian eyes.

She would then ask for a carrot martini, always a carrot martini. Truth be told, there was no such drink in Cog Weasel's menu. Rui simply created it out of curiosity, mixing sweet carrot infused red vermouth that she never thought she would ever use, and a splash of gin. She garnished the cocktail with olives in the first few visits the Rabbit made. Yutsu never commented about the rather inappropriate garnish, but when the Fox saw fresh bunches of baby carrots in the market, she could not help but try making one float in the drink that only the blunette ordered.

Rui smiled faintly at the memory of Yutsu's reaction to that first baby carrot in her martini, for the bounty hunter had such an amazed look on her features that was quite unlike the first impression she had made to the Fox and to everyone else. It showed a unique facet, a slightly different angle to her already mysterious and complex presence.

It was like a game for them, those attempts to make each other's barriers crack and masks break.

It was their dance.

Their play…

And so when Yutsu's inimitable smile was nowhere to be seen when she came in the bar one day, the image of her blank face became engraved in the Fox's memories, like a precious blemish she frowned upon but cherished all the same.

"Bad day, Rabbit?" The bartender asked impassively as she placed a glass of carrot martini in front of the dejected bounty hunter. Yutsu had arrived so quietly in the Cog Weasel that the Fox did not even notice her entrance. There were no bouncy steps or playful flicks of ears, just a vacant stare aimed at the equally bare bar counter. Had Rui never turned and looked at where the Rabbit usually sat, she would not have even known that Yutsu had come in.

She did not order anything like usual and just sat there, crestfallen. The bartender gave her a glance but mixed the cocktail the bounty hunter always ordered anyway, just to spare the quiet girl a few moments to gather her thoughts.

Yet, even now that she had sipped the sweet alcohol prepared for her, Yutsu remained silent.

Rui perked her ears inquiringly but did not pursue anything anymore when her guest would not even look at her. Even the highest of elations have consequential lows; it was simply how the world worked. Things just come and go, and perhaps the bounty hunter's mission failed or some other similar tragedy happened that made Yutsu's mood so gloomy. But no matter how much the golden Fox pondered about what could have gone wrong, she came up with nothing.

She stared at the Rabbit and arrived to a conclusion that she knew nothing about this person.

Yutsu was simply a face of a stranger.

Sighing and resigning to the fact that she could offer no service for the girl aside from refilling her drink, Rui returned to her work. The Cog Weasel was packed tonight and she had her hands full, if not her tails as well. She was mixing ten drinks at once and preparing simple hors d'oevres at the same time. The clock just would not tick fast enough and the jobs just kept piling up. Fortunately, she was used to such surges of patrons, especially during a weekend night like this one. Many wished to celebrate their accomplishments that day while others just wanted to drink their woes away.

At that thought, Rui glanced at where Yutsu was supposed to be, only to find a vacant seat and an empty glass, the baby carrot inside untouched.

But she could not spare any more moments on the bounty hunter's strange behavior, for she needed to finish all the cocktails she must mix. She merely quelled the concern and curiosity in her mind with her usual mantra.

It's none of my business.

She closed the bar nearly an hour later than usual because she had to call friends and family members of those too drunk to get home on their own. Though exhausted, Rui still opted to clean the bar before retiring to her residence on the second floor. It was better to get things done tonight instead of forcing her weary body to wake up earlier tomorrow morning. She wiped tables, washed glasses, made sure all her liquor bottles were in the right places until the last patron was picked up by his daughter. She bid them goodnight with a slight nod before moving onto cleaning the booths on the far side of the bar.

Rui sighed deeply in order to stifle a tired yawn as she tidied up the booths. When she came to the last one however, she found the Rabbit who she thought had already left. Yutsu was lying on the circular foamed chair looking so drained and tired. Her hair was disheveled, having lost the tie that held it in place, and it covered the girl's shoulders like a blue blanket. Her long ears that usually stood tall and erect have wilted against her head, as if weary of hearing things that did not matter. Even her antennae were flaccid, nearly disappearing into her blue head like thick strands of hair.

The feature that stood out the most though was her face. There was no peace in her expression, only a sorrow as deep as the hue of the Rabbit's hair. Hopelessness and grief were etched in her features, like a lifeless and hollow being, soulless and cold.

What happened to you, Rabbit? Rui could not help but ask as she watched the sleeping girl.

The bartender wondered if she should wake her up or if she should just leave her there. She knew nothing about Yutsu aside from the fact that she was a bounty hunter like the many vampires who came and went in the bar. The Rabbit never spoke of family or where she had come from, not even close connections Rui could call to inform of her whereabouts.

There was nothing in her memories except twittering laughter and flirty words.

Truly, she was nothing more than a stranger with a pretty face.

Rui rubbed her temples and finished up all her chores, hoping that the Rabbit would wake before she was done. However, the bounty hunter remained still and asleep where she lied even after the Fox had locked the bar's front door. Wordlessly, the bartender pushed the table aside as quietly as she could and gathered the sleeping girl from the booth's chair. She thought that Yutsu would wake if she was moved but her head just limply fell against Rui's shoulder. The golden Fox sighed and stepped back to shift the girl in her arms, thinking of what she must do.

Though the look of weariness the blue-haired girl wore on her face had already dictated the answer for the bartender.

Tiredly, Rui dragged herself and carried Yutsu up into the residence she lived in on the second floor of the Cog Weasel. She could have the bounty hunter sleep in the single guest room that was rarely used since she took ownership of the bar. It was not as if she routinely had visitors as it was actually quite the opposite. Without immediate family living nearby, she mostly lived on her own with the Cog Weasel itself as her only companion.

Shifting the blue-haired girl in her arms, the golden Fox opened the room's door, which creaked a bit due to its dry hinges. Fortunately, the noise did not disturb the sleeping Rabbit, allowing Rui to proceed inside the well-kept room. As she neared the bed however, something dropped from the folds of the bounty hunter's scarf and landed softly on the wooden floor. She settled Yutsu on the bed and spared her a glance before turning towards the item.

It was a small orange thing, a toy permanently stained by old scarlet. Crimson eyes flitted from the tainted doll towards its supposed owner as well-oiled gears in her mind began to turn. Picking up the toy carrot from the floor, the bartender deliberated on its origins, taking note of the aged tears and yellowed innards that protruded from its discolored skin. The blood marring the doll perturbed the golden Fox, making her think of various tales the tarnished innocence held, but the dye had dried long ago considering its hue.

This toy had been stained with blood for a very long time.

Still, Rui did not wish to assume things and decided to take the doll back to the person who carried it. She placed the toy on Yutsu's upturned hand as she did not have the means to return it to where the Rabbit had hidden it before. There were slight scuff marks and thin white lines around the bounty hunter's fingers, evidences of the rough life she led and hints of what may lie underneath her fingerless gloves. The golden Fox sighed tiredly and brought her crimson gaze to rest upon this stranger's sad visage. Droplets of sorrow were flowing down her cheeks now, tears that were probably dammed shut behind the sparkling smile the Rabbit usually wore.

Rui cursed inwardly when she was painfully reminded that she was inept at dealing with crying girls, especially ones who were unconscious.

With tails flailing about restlessly, the bartender took her leave from the room in order to fetch a clean towel that she knew was necessary for when the Rabbit awakens. She grumbled to herself, asking inane questions that she found too nosy for her own liking. So what if Yutsu was crying? Why did she feel like she was at fault? Perhaps it was the sight of the bloodied toy in the girl's hand that made the image all the more heartrending, like she was gazing at a person cradling an artifact she cherished above all else. She berated herself, reasoning that the blunette was a bounty hunter, a professional killer who took care of wanted individuals for money, a vampire who weighed a person's soul against gold coins.

But Yutsu was just a person too, was she not?

Rui damned her sentimentality.

When she returned to the room with a cotton towel in her hand, the Fox found the Rabbit awake, sitting on the bed with her legs haphazardly folded underneath her. On her lap was the carrot, cradled like a tiny newborn infant, treasured and prized. She still had trails of water on her cheeks that she quickly wiped away with her gloved hand when she heard the bartender enter.

The golden-haired woman remained silent, waiting for her guest to say something and explain what made her so low like this. She was expecting a lilting joke to ease the tension or even a humorless laugh to break the ice, yet there was nothing. Yutsu remained quiet, voiceless.

Unable to bare such an atmosphere anymore, Rui spoke as she placed the towel near the teary girl's knee, "I didn't think you'd be the type to carry something like that around."

A blue ear twitched before the grip around the toy tightened in emotional defensiveness, "What do you care? What I carry with me is none of your business."

Something in the bounty hunter's words prickled Rui's already raw nerves, making her growl lowly at the thought of the inconvenience this stranger had placed upon her. "It becomes my business when you fall asleep in my bar, crying, because you're being sentimental about a little toy."

"Little toy? Little toy?!" Yutsu hissed as she raised her voice to emphasize her distress, making the bartender perk her ears in alarm. Then as if her rage was doused by cold torrents of water, the blue-haired girl's voice of ridicule devolved into an inarticulate string of words, choked by the sobs that raked her vulnerable-looking frame. She wept as she hugged the blood stained toy carrot in her arms, "How… how dare you… you know nothing… how… dare you… I-it's not just…"

The remnants of Rui's growl died in her throat as she stared at this broken girl crying on white sheets. Her mind suddenly blanked as she tried to defend herself from the accusation of ignorance placed by the weeping Rabbit. There was nothing she could say or offer.

Nothing but the truth.

Averting her eyes in respect and vague understanding, Rui muttered into the tense atmosphere, "you're right, I don't."

She then turned to leave the girl alone in order to spare both of them from the irrational anger that simmered beneath her cold words. Unaware of the girl's plight, the Fox could offer nothing even if she wished to alleviate the deeply entrenched pain Yutsu was obviously suffering. A frightened part of her mind also did not wish to learn, for she might care more than she should.

She's just a stranger…

Rui kept repeating that as she turned to leave the room. She knew nobody so she should care for nobody as well. She was just an impartial bartender trying to a make a living out of watching people's joys and sorrows as they drank alcohol.

She was never meant to be involved.

"I… found it," Yutsu then started, speaking only to Rui's back in hushed and trembling whispers, "when I raided a target's hideout." Her eyes never left the doll in her hands as she continued her tale, "I… didn't expect it to be there… just lying there like that. I-I haven't seen it for seven years… it w-was… Charlotte's favorite toy. I-I sewed it for her… on her birthday. She… always carried around, s-she loved it so much a-and it made me so h-happy seeing her with it."

The golden Fox remained rooted in place, silently listening with her ears calmly folded above her bright blonde hair. It was all she had at that moment, ears that could listen to this stranger's woes. The sound of hapless sniffling stabbed her painfully in the chest while sharp throbs of pity she could barely afford to give pleaded for compassion. She suddenly missed the twittering laughter she associated so closely with this girl. That sound was so much easier to deal with, so effortlessly ignored.

But not this…

"Charle…" Yutsu continued, her voice broken by harsh sobs, "I'm sorry… I-it's been so long and I still haven't a-accomplished anything… I'm such a failure as a s-sister, aren't I?"

Definitely not this.

Rui looked over her shoulder and empathized, placing softened crimson eyes on the grieving form of the stranger she allowed inside her home. So the blunette had lost someone so precious in such a violent way. How could she smile so carelessly then, even though she carried a heavy burden like that?

She could not, that is why she is breaking.

Once agitated tails now hung morosely, bowing to the ground like defeated spirits. She could almost hear her impartiality break, slugged forcefully by each sniffling sob of misery that reached her ears. But who was she to offer comfort? Who was she to speak reassuring words? They would not matter in spite of her sincerity.

She was also just a stranger who served her martini.

Rui sighed deeply as she returned her eyes towards the hallway. She walked to the door, unable to listen to this pitiable weakness any longer. It was not because of Yutsu's anguish but her own crumbling indifference that made her feel uncomfortable standing here in this room. Instinct told her to keep up the façade but her conscience spoke the opposite, so she took the easy way out and listened to both.

She touched the doorframe and leaned against it jadedly before speaking softly, "I'll bring some water up for you. You're free to stay as long as you want to." She then paused and gathered scattered thoughts about tonight's incident and swirling tides of emotions, from concern to grief that she thought she would never encounter again.

As she pushed herself from the doorframe, Rui continued, "I'll just leave the door open if you wish to leave."

The Fox left without another word, closing the door behind her as quietly as she could. Rubbing her temples, Rui then proceeded down towards the bar to procure a glass of water. Yutsu's words echoed in her mind as she filled the glass with clear liquid. Just what happened to her and her family? Were they victims of this war as well? The bartender frowned grimly at the possibility. The blue-haired girl was a hybrid, borne of a Rabbit and an Insect, of course the general populace would scorn her and her family for breaking taboo. It was simply blasphemous to mate interracially and produce children that were considered as scorns of the world.

How cruel her parents were to bring her and her sister on this plane knowing how society would punish them for merely existing.

It was then that a stubborn vein started pulsing fiercely inside her skull. Thinking of someone else's problems was not her everyday occupation and it made her head hurt. With an irritated groan, Rui made her way back up the stairs and towards the guest room's door. She opened it and mentally cursed at the slight creak it made for it attracted unwanted attention. She just wanted to get in, leave the glass of water and get out so she can retire to her room and pass this night off as a tiring nightmare. When she entered the room however, she found the blue-haired girl sleeping restively on the bed, clutching on her sister's toy as if it was the source of her life-force.

Rui pitied this girl, she really did, for Yutsu was not like her. The Rabbit was forced to live and suffer because of her parents' mistakes, unlike her who was victim of chance and unfortunate circumstances.

But being a hybrid was also its own curse, was it not?

The bartender placed the glass of water on the nightstand and trained her eyes onto the bounty hunter's sleeping face, so troubled and tired yet so agonizingly innocent in her slumber.


The golden Fox left her guest and merely passed out on her bed, physically and mentally drained from the day's hardships. When she woke up the next day, she wished to believe that the crying visage that lingered in her mind was a simple hallucination from a distant dream she would never remember again. But it was there, along with the wretched words that cleaved her conscience in two.

And so she stiffly stood up to check on Yutsu yet she only found an empty guest room that was as neat and tidy as she had always left it. There were no creases on the bedsheets, no droplets of water dotting its smooth surface. Even the glass she left on the nightstand was nowhere to be seen.

It was as if the broken girl last night was simply an illusion.

Only the small piece of paper on the bed proved that she was not losing her mind. Rui picked it up and stared mutely at the casual cursive etched on its white surface.

"Thank you."

So said the perfect stranger.

Yutsu did not return to the Cog Weasel for weeks after that incident, which made the Fox wonder if she had left for good. The blunette reminded her of a wounded critter. Hurt and vulnerable, she sought shelter from the dangers outside, a refuge that Rui begrudgingly provided. Now healed, she took off, frightened and somewhat threatened because that was her instinct. It was just the natural order of things. The golden Fox did not expect her to stay anyhow.

But inwardly, she also did not expect the Rabbit to leave so soon either.

As the weeks passed however, the daily cycle of the Cog Weasel absorbed Rui back into normality. She had some supplies to worry about after all, and an elusive phantom was the least of her worries. But admittedly, she recalled pausing every now and then, wondering how that blue critter was faring. It was a loose attachment to be sure, but everyone who have taken in a wounded soul and set it free would always speculate whether the repaired spirit was being broken again, torn and bloodied like that little orange toy.

She should have known that the blunette would inevitably return one day, as sure as the tides would rise when the moon beckoned.

However, Yutsu returned in the most fascinating of ways.

And an hour earlier than usual.

It was a couple of minutes after two in the afternoon. Rui was busy straining stuffed olives and balls of white stringy cheese from their jars, preparing them for the evening ahead. This was one of her daily chores, prepping the finger foods for her customers and making sure everything was set so she would not have to leave the bar's counters to fetch anything in the kitchen.

Her only company was the small radio tucked between the phone and the cash register, which uninterruptedly barked news in between old blues and jazz tunes. And while the antique radio—she was not certain how long Lana had owned the thing before it was inevitably passed onto her—brought forth as much static noise as songs, it still filled the bar with sound, enriching it somewhat that it did not matter if she was the only living being within.

Once she finished slicing the slab of smoked bacon into paper thin slices and wrapping it around the cheese balls, the golden-haired woman ducked under the counters to place the prepared plates in a small cooler, where they would remain fresh until the evening but not frozen that she could not serve them the moment the patrons ordered.

That was when she realized she had nothing else to do but wait until the bar opens in forty or so minutes. Crimson eyes scanned the bar for anything that was out of place, but found only perfection in the way the tables were arranged and how mirror-like their surfaces were due to her dedicated polishing. Frowning, she then looked behind her at the crystal rows of glasses and flutes. They were all gleaming as well, and the bottles of liquor that were organized above them were also dusted and wiped.

Her golden ears drooped as she sighed. Should she refill the barrel under the beer dispenser? No, she just did that last night and it should still have half of its contents there. She then thought that she might as well get another barrel from the cellar anyway, only to remember that she had already done so this morning after cleaning the basement and checking her collection for any signs of leakage or spoilage.

Thirty more minutes…

She was seriously contemplating going in the back room for a quick nap to rest her hands and legs when someone knocked on the glass section of the front door. Did that person not see the placard sign hanging there that her establishment did not open until 3:30 pm? But the knocking did not stop, so Rui assumed that it was a liquor retailer, a salesman who went from bar to bar trying to pitch bartenders and owners into serving their brews and spirits to patrons.

With nothing else to do, the golden Fox wiped her hands and went to the front door. There were times when those liquor merchants actually brought something worthwhile, and a new addition to the Cog Weasel's collection was always a good venture.

However, when she swept the curtain aside to check who her visitor was, she was surprised to see the bounty hunter holding her hand up towards the glass to knock again.

The Fox opened the door but did not speak, curious why Yutsu was here, let alone the fact that the blunette came when the sun was still up.


"The bar is not open yet."

"I-I know," the girl's viridian eyes would not meet Rui's own and her stuttering was quite out of character as well. "But… may I come in?"

The Vulpine perked her ears inquisitively. She was surprised that the bounty hunter even turned up after what happened. After all, it had been weeks, and hunters like her typically moved from one city to the next. But, the Rabbit was here and the Fox saw no reason not to let her in.

At least Yutsu looked much better than the last time she saw her.

Stepping aside and opening the door fully, she gestured her guest to enter the Cog Weasel. The blunette smiled a bit in gratitude and stepped in, before looking around in a rather light-hearted attempt to start a conversation.

"Wow…it's dark in here."

The golden-haired woman flicked over some switches to turn on the lights near the counter.

"The dim lights are usually enough for me to do what needs to be done around here, and I don't open the windows so patrons wouldn't bother me before the bar opens."

Yutsu hopped on her usual seat and spun around, probably to shake off the awkwardness from coming in so early. "Oh, and I thought you're actually a flying Fox pretending to be a normal one. You know how Bats like darkness right?"

"I am a night person but I do not have wings, that's the difference." Rui returned to her post behind the counter and habitually checked her racks of glasses and stacks of plates and silverware. Seeing nothing was amiss, she asked casually, "so what brings you back here?"

The Rabbit's green eyes widened a bit before averting, "I was just in town…"

"Of course…" She fished a dry cloth from a drawer and began to wipe her workplace mechanically. She waited for the bounty hunter to procure a better reason for this random visit because she was certainly curious. After all, vampires only dared to venture out at night, so what was this one doing out and about during the day?

A couple of breaths have passed before Rui looked up at her guest, who was still silent and staring at the counter so intensely as if the varnish would come off if she looked at it long enough. This made the older woman quirk an eyebrow in befuddlement. Was Yutsu fidgeting? Even in a room where the background noise was enough to mask the slightest of sounds, she could still hear the blunette's boots lightly tapping on the wooden floor, racing as fast as her mind probably was.

But she decided to give the Rabbit more time, "so how have you been?"

Emerald eyes shifted from left to right and blue ears bent in nervousness, "oh, you know, the usual."

As if Rui knew what "the usual" meant.

"I see…"

"How about you?"

"The usual too, I suppose." She doubted that her cycle of work, eat, and sleep would interest the bounty hunter, so she responded succinctly. Yet, this only blanketed them in silence once again. She did not want the long-eared girl to remember the last time she had been here, but that reluctance only seemed to thicken the uncomfortable atmosphere so she sliced it before it got worse. "Are you well? You've been gone for a while."

"Yeah, I'm good." Yutsu was only eager to answer, although the enthusiasm felt a bit forced, "I just had a mission in the south so the travel was longer, and when I got there the drought was hellish. A simple little Bunny like me isn't built for that climate so I had to take numerous stops…"

Rui listened to the blunette's story, taking the tale for what it was. That was her job after all, listening to half-truths and whole lies that after a while both just melded together into an unbelievable tale. But then again, she was who she was. She never took any story without being skeptic.

However, she gave the Rabbit the benefit of the doubt. If that was her way of worming around the subject, then so be it. At least she was not completely lying through her teeth. She was merely walking on eggshells, like a child trying to get her parent's approval after doing something naughty.

"…do you bartenders go through some sort of training? Because the one in Bannerport didn't seem to know what he was doing," the bounty hunter continued more confidently now, convinced that the Fox was at least half-immersed in her tale. "There was something wrong with his martinis, too much gin I think."

"Was he young?"

"Well… yeah," Yutsu tilted her head questioningly, "but you aren't old either. What's the difference?"

"I've had apprenticeship since I was sixteen."

"Oho~ no wonder you're so good, Foxy." That overconfident smile was back it seemed. "Say, can you make me my carrot martini? I m-miss—I mean, I haven't had one since I was last here and well… I could barely taste it back then."

That was when the Rabbit actually dared to look at her in the eyes. However, the contact did not last long since the blunette flightily looked away again, her cheeks and the tip of her ears pink in embarrassment, awkwardness, or both.

Bemused, Rui flicked her own ear and turned around to make a beverage. She leaned down and took pitchers of freshly squeezed juices from the fridge as well as a shaker full of ice cubes. With professional efficiency, she mixed the ingredients and poured the brilliant orange liquid into a hurricane glass. The bounty hunter's surprise was anticipated since this cocktail was not her usual carrot martini.

The bartender slid the concoction towards her guest, "enjoy."

"What's this…?" The blunette asked as she tilted her head, disbelieving the drink she probably knew very well.

"Allegria," Rui said simply as she rinsed the shaker in the sink, not bothering to look over her shoulder to address her guest, "non-alcoholic of course."


"I don't serve alcohol before the bar opens." She interjected, "and you are my guest, not my customer. I wouldn't have let you in otherwise. Besides, I never asked this before but… just how old are you?"

Yutsu paused before she sipped the drink and put the glass back on its coaster. She seemed to deliberate whether to answer or provide another slick maneuver of words to avoid the question altogether. To the Fox's surprise though, the blunette muttered through pouting lips, "I'm seventeen but I don't see what the point of that question is."

"No more alcohol for you then."

"What!" The Rabbit forcefully thumped the wooden floor beneath her boots. "I've been drinking here for months now and you never had a problem about it. And it's not like you're that much older."

"If you must know, I'm twenty-two." A legal adult no matter how anyone looked at it. "And please do not kick the counter."

"You're not seriously going to ban alcohol on me, right?" The bounty hunter's viridian eyes were blazing green fire, "you'll lose a customer Foxy…"

"Hmm… I'll think about it." She had faced that threat so many times that she was immune to it by now, but she was free to indulge, was she not? With her mood lifted away from its monotonous dreariness, she just let the Rabbit stew in front of the counter, glaring and pouting, yet still sipping the sweet juice cocktail in front of her.

Had it not been for the radio's static, Rui could have sworn that she heard a displeased buzz from the girl nibbling on the bent straw she served her drink with. And at least during those thirty minutes they had to talk about inane nothings, the bounty hunter did not seem to be just a stranger any longer.

She was just Yutsu.

Perhaps they became friends from then on, but Rui was not so sure. Admittedly, she took those early days for granted because she had been too used to the broken movie that replayed every time she woke up in the morning. She knew what she must do the moment she pulled herself out of the bed until she went back to it again. And because of that, Yutsu became a form of daily entertainment, especially when the flirting was gradually subdued by questions and curiosities normal people tended to ask each other. Of course, they did not fit the bill of normalcy in terms of personalities and beliefs, so such questions were uneasy at best.

They were both guarded individuals and neither let any invaders in. But, as fate would have it, both of them were also reluctant to let go of a person who seemed to know too much and judged so little. In many ways, it was almost like they were both their own guilty pleasures.

After all, no matter how many times the waves ebbed away from the golden shores, it still returned, again and again as if it craved for a connection, an anchor.

Rui placed the tip of the beer bottle to her lips once more and drank, warmed by the subtle liquid flame within. It was the sensation that resembled her bond with Yutsu the most back when they were a bit younger so she relished it, in spite of the cold of the ocean breezes. When was the last time she reminisced about this happiness, she could not remember, but it warmed her nonetheless.

It made her smile.

There were many types of smiles for Yutsu the bounty hunter to present depending on the situation.

A friendly, jovial grin gave off the demeanor of a pleasant traveller who was willing to share information in peace; a cheerful, coy wink invited curiosity from amiable strangers who were eager to strike up conversations; an alluring, mysterious smirk enticed clueless prey to wrap around her pinkie, ready to be played like a marionette; finally, a cruel, malicious leer announced the gruesome fate of any fool who incurred her wrath.

Words were not always necessary, not when a simple expression spoke just as loud and effective.

And so it was with a soft smile that the young teenager opened the door to the Cog Weasel, twittering fondly when she heard the bell chiming to announce her arrival.

It has always been a novelty to step into this immaculate bar. Its peaceful atmosphere beguiled the weary traveller, charming her to immerse and breathe in its clean air, and to make herself at home in the middle of this unknown metropolis. This effect never ceased to amaze her, that she was compelled to relax at an unfamiliar place and not feel wary, as if it was safe to not be a bounty hunter just for a while.

Then, who was this blunette so eager to return again and again?

She never tried to solve that question, however, knowing that examining the depth beneath her daily mask would invite nothing but migraine. Even after painstaking years of constructing this professional killer, the foundation could be unpredictably fragile as far as she knew, and it was a treacherous gamble she would rather not partake for once.

And so, why not invite something more enchanting into her mind, and place a wager interminably more thrilling, more dangerous?

Yutsu's soft smile smoothly stretched into a devious smirk when she seated at her usual stool, bouncing slightly as she rested her chin against a propped up elbow. There was no exchange of words but a slight flick of her long ears and a playful twitter before a familiar drink was placed in front of her.

Rui Brewfort did not need to engage in a greeting of trivial pleasantries, especially not after they had been quite acquainted already. A mere look to acknowledge her presence was enough, and the bartender returned to her tasks behind the counter for it was a packed evening in the Cog Weasel.

The blue-haired girl crossed her legs and idly sipped her beloved carrot martini, smirking a little even when the tall woman seemed to be ignoring her after that initial eye contact. She was starting to understand the golden Fox more than the latter would have liked, for she definitely noticed a flicker of exasperation and relief in those crimson eyes.

For someone who was just a regular patron, Yutsu prided herself in her ability to decipher the stoic barkeep's deeply protected emotions. Naturally, she had to invest her hidden feelings to lure out her target's, but this was the most interesting gamble she had ever played. She displayed a huge range of persona to shield her true self after all, so she was intrigued by Rui's impenetrable fortress.

Was it not more effective to strike pre-emptively rather than enduring the environments with those eroding armors?

The bounty hunter twirled the martini glass, now pensive as her sharp emerald eyes glanced around the bar. Some time ago, with a little bit of tugging from chance, she had chosen the Cog Weasel from all the other ones in Kaltrea. It had been her first time visiting the Riphaen capital, so she had immediately searched for a place to set up her network and to understand the foreign area. Kazan and southern parts of the continent were much different than the Feline-dominated central, thus Yutsu knew it would be best to find a suitable information source to get her settled.

There, inside a comfortably clean bar, the almost-seventeen years old had discovered quite the challenge in the form of Rui Brewfort.

Yutsu was very well-travelled especially for someone her age, and she has mingled in various social circles, tried out countless drinks at many bars and had even seen a few female bartenders, so she was not as intrigued by the golden Fox's aloof demeanor as most patrons were. She was not one to waste time in forcing the unwilling to reveal information since she strived in efficiency. Had the Vulpine persisted in her unfriendly responses, she would have moved on as well.

However, Rui was a very professional bartender, so she spoke curtly yet politely in spite of the obvious disinterest she had of the blunette's flirtatious advances. While Yutsu was miffed that her usual flirting failed to garner any attention, even with someone from the same gender, she was more curious about the Fox's guarded eyes. Life was bitter after all, so a weary look was nothing out of the ordinary.

No, those crimson eyes expressed grim acceptance and maturity accumulated over years of torment and painful experiences. Yet beneath the dull veil of trained detachment, Yutsu was able to detect a fierce ember churning beneath that caged soul, who had no choice but to etch her existence somewhat through this lifestyle.

The fleeting pulse of realization touched a little too close to home for comfort. How could a barkeep, buried within the tides of daily life, appear to understand the suffering she was so familiar with?

The seed of inquisitiveness was planted then, for even a wandering bounty hunter needed something stable to rest her mind upon.

Yutsu licked her lips after she finished the martini. Twittering eagerly, she fished out the baby carrot and nibbled the tip, careless of how she deviated from her usual image. The Cog Weasel was where she relaxed after all, so there was no need for the bounty hunter side to remain when she was enjoying this lovely drink.

Indeed, an attractive bartender and the exquisite beverage also contributed in luring her back to this bar over and over again.

The blunette's antennae sensed curious gazes from nearby customers, who must be new for her unusual appearance was already a normal sighting for the regulars. With a devious wink at the strangers, she languidly flicked her tongue over the carrot and giggled at their resulting blushes. Her mirthful emerald eyes then met Rui's bemused crimson ones and winked again, but the bartender only turned away with no reaction.

Used to such aloof responses, Yutsu only tapped her boots against the floor in amusement. At least the golden Fox was paying attention to her little exchange with the customers, yes? It was certainly an improvement from how their previous interactions were, and a victory for the young Bunnyroach.

As if in reply to her analysis, she felt the featherweight of her most cherished treasure beneath a fold of her scarf. Charlotte's carrot plushie had coaxed her to cross the boundary between simple patron and barkeep, as if her deceased little sister was trying to tell her something. Like a crumbled den too feeble to hold back pools of pain, the blunette had poured out a segment of her dark past to the golden-haired Fox. Even though she was distraught beyond reasoning and must have caused the impartial stranger inconvenience, Rui had treated her with respect and understanding.

Yutsu's tears were not only out of sorrow for her dead family, but also from how unequivocally lonely she felt then. Even with her grand network over the world, even with her fellow bounty hunters in Kazan, she did not have anyone to call a friend. Any opportunities that had come up in the past were brushed off by her frigid, for she was too scared of revealing too much and possibly reverting to the helpless little critter she had been.

But the terror of being alone ate away at her and finally erupted when she saw Rui about to leave the guestroom. Instinctively, Yutsu had clung onto the retreating back with her broken sobs, hoping for something to comfort her mind somehow.

And she was. It was nothing extraordinary in retrospect, yet it was a significant step that moved the two lonesome souls away from their former professional bond. The blue-haired girl had talked about something private about Shirley, and Rui had listened without judging her. It was more than anyone had done for her, so she had written in her utmost sincerity to express her gratitude.

Thank you. Just two short but meaningful words, like the simplicity and the depth of the bartender's sentimentality.

Perhaps Charlotte wanted tell her that she did not have endure everything alone anymore.

Now completely finished with her martini, Yutsu tapped her fingers on the glossy counter and returned her gaze back to the golden-haired bartender. The younger girl was embarrassed about the incident, naturally, yet she did not want to lose her comfortable place in the Cog Weasel either. To test the tides, she bravely returned to the bar once she had recomposed of her shaken psyche. Other than the unusual teasing from the Fox about her age, there was nothing awkward between them. Rui never asked for an explanation and Yutsu was content with that. She had never told anyone about her family, no one, but sometime in the future, maybe, just maybe, the barkeep would be the one. At least, she knew the older woman would listen with her impartial mind.

The days of a bounty hunter flirting to hold Rui's attention were over. The golden-haired bartender no longer sent her half-accusing glares seemingly reserved for those of Yutsu's profession, while the latter found it comfy to chat with her just about anything.

They may not be deeply connected like how normal friends were, but their bond was undeniably unique in this sea of monotony.

Yutsu smiled at the expressionless bartender, who just served her last order to a sleepy patron at the other end of the counter and effortlessly ignored a drunken attempt at flirting. When irate crimson eyes met the blunette's, she winked mischievously and beckoned with her long ears.

"Would you like another drink?" Rui asked politely as she retrieved the empty martini glass, unbothered by the bounty hunter's amused smirks.

"Yes~ but not for me," Yutsu held up her index finger and twittered with each wave, "a treat for the hardworking Vixen, hmm?"

"You want to treat me?" The golden Fox efficiently washed the glass and wiped the rim dry before placing it back onto the cabinet with her sleek tail.

Emerald eyes trailed from the glossy appendage to her pale forearm, up the rolled sleeve and over her smooth cheekbone until they arrived at those cool maroon eyes. "Well, I'd prefer to unbutton your vest, but that's not allowed in public I suppose?"

The Vulpine's deadpanned stare only earned a giggle.

"Tsk tsk, so uptight~" The naughtiness in Yutsu's gaze then diminished a little as she spoke sincerely, "But really, it seems like you had a long day. It wouldn't hurt to relax a little, yes?"

Her long antennae flicked leisurely as if to gesture at the now less crowded bar. Since Rui was very professional, she could not ignore the blunette's offer or else it would be deemed inhospitable in barroom etiquette. Following the unspoken decorum, the golden-haired woman simply nodded and turned to pour herself a shot of whiskey. Her austere expression remained absolute even after she downed the hard liquor.

Impressed at the bartender's tolerance, Yutsu asked for a shot from that bottle as well, wishing to challenge the strong alcohol and relish in its sweet conquest. Instead of berating her for her young age, Rui's lips curved into a faint smile and she merely poured the whiskey into a mug until it was half-full.

"Oh? You think highly of my tolerance, hmm~?" Pleased at this acknowledgement of her maturity, the ponytailed girl tilted her head in a dramatic attempt to look sexy. When their fingers came to contact as she accepted the liquor, she giggled rather ostentatiously and quickly drew a whimsical circle on the back of the golden Fox's hand.

"It's a suitable drink for you," the older woman still appeared amused in spite of Yutsu's touchiness, and this rare display of emotion made the latter more daring than usual, eager to down that offered drink.

She frowned slightly as she rested the rim against her lips, confused at the lack of strong scent characteristic of hard liquor. Just to humor her curiosity, she took a small sip and then raised an eyebrow.

The barkeep, who was unusually playful, only returned the gesture with a light smirk. "Too strong?"

"Foxy… this is apple juice."

"Hard cider," Rui corrected calmly, "a colorless kind unique to the Cog Weasel."

"Is that so?" Yutsu swirled the mug and stared at the transparent ripples within the container before looking up with a teasing smile, "hmm, a bartender who doesn't drink?"

The golden-haired woman actually chuckled, as if entertained by some sort of private irony. "I don't drink while working."

"So diligent," the bounty hunter smiled charmingly after she drank the sweet beverage, licking her lips to savor its unique flavor. "But understandable. I suppose I'll just have to see you intoxicated some other way~"

"Have fun trying," Rui spoke evenly and retrieved the mug when Yutsu held it towards her with a mischievous wink. An inaudible sigh left her lips when the younger girl stroked the back of her hand again with a teasing index finger. The golden-haired bartender flicked away that offending digit and cleaned the cup proficiently without sparing the blunette's cheerful winks another glance.

"Do try real whiskey after work then," the younger girl spoke softly after reining in her humor, "it may be a much better lullaby than you can imagine… well, with your job, you probably know it already."

The golden Fox turned her face a little, her expression guarded but attentive at the same time. "Yes, I do know well enough not to pull its trigger."

"Ah yes, you have to install the safety latch yourself," Yutsu was not surprised that Rui could have learned the bartender's poison first-hand, but this knowledge inexplicably made her feel closer to this woman. Was it because of the personal information or because of the similar torment of trying to stop an addiction?

Well, my addiction is not the alcoholic-kind, that's for sure~

Smiling, she watched the golden Fox work for a while before resting her chin on her folded arms against the cool counter.

"So, back to my aforementioned goal," she waved her long ears to some imaginary rhythm, "I didn't mean intoxicated… alcohol-wise, Foxy."

"Oh really?" Rui sounded so dubious that Yutsu couldn't help but tap the heel of her boot against the stool.

"What? I don't drink all the time, geez."

"And here I was led to believe otherwise…"

"Hey now, I'm still a Herbivore," using her antenna, she pointed to an open bag of baby carrots beside the glasses.

"Those go with the martini," the golden Fox flicked her tail in dismissal, "and you're the only one to ever order that drink."

The blue-haired girl bit back her annoyed reply in fear that the barkeep would abolish her favorite beverage. Months ago, she found out that the carrot martini was created on a whim because neither the regulars know about it nor did the menu list it. While she didn't understand why Rui kept making it for her, she would rather not risk asking in spite of the many teasing comments she came up with.

"I eat my meals elsewhere," Yutsu mumbled irately, "I don't eat much anyways. What's your favorite food then? Let me guess, pineapples?"

"…why that fruit?"

"Both golden and sour," she smirked in triumph at the flicker of annoyance in those crimson eyes. When the bartender didn't respond, she shrugged. "Oh well, like you said I'll just find out somehow. Since you're a Vixen, you like… meat, yes?"

"I eat vegetables too," as expected, Rui ignored her suggestive remark with practiced ease.

"Not a complete carnivore, hmm?"

"No…How about you?" The golden Fox merely changed the topic and occupied herself with wiping the counter. "Just salad?"

Yutsu noted the pause and fleetingly wondering what the woman could be thinking. "Yup, though sometimes during my travels, fresh veggie is hard to come by, so…"

"What do you do then?"

"I carve some chips of bark off tree trunks to munch on," she grinned at the bartender's surprised gape, pleased to elicit such a reaction from the stoic woman.

"…you eat bark?"

"Of course, I only select the best I can find but yes, I do~"

"You once mentioned you're half-Roach…"

"I know what you're thinking, and yes there's a possibility I might have distant Termite blood," the blue-haired girl twittered, but her gaze were downcast at this sore topic, "who knows?"

Fortunately as she hoped, Rui did not pry and only chuckled lightly as she put away the rag she used to clean the counter. "Just don't eat any of the chairs. They're made with high-quality rosewood, so I will charge you extra if you do."

"D'awww, no hors d'eurves pour moi?" Yutsu shook her head in mock despair, feeling light-hearted in spite of the tease. "I will just have to drown my sorrow in more martinis then… c'est dommage~"

The barkeep's gaze lingered on her cloak and satchel, "that language… you're very well-travelled, aren't you?"

Twittering in pride, Yutsu sat up straight and flicked her ponytail, "Si, frecuentemente soy en Fenrisyr … y tambien Samaria," she then eyed the golden Fox's large ears and furry tail, "Soko ni kitsune-tachi mo iru. Anata to kurabe de, gyoshi-san wa totemo shinsetsu datta~ Mhmm, not sour like you, Foxy~"

Crimson eyes showed vague recognition but they were mostly clouded with incomprehension for the Vulpines' native tongue, which indicated that the bartender probably grew up here in central Riphaeus. As the blunette filed away this interesting information about Rui Brewfort, the very subject spoke offhandedly, "If you're so well-travelled, why do you keep coming back to the Cog Weasel?"

The twittering girl responded immediately with a sultry pout. "What do you think?"

Huffing, the golden-haired woman rolled her eyes and folded her ears in exasperation. Satisfied with her teasing remark, Yutsu then interlaced her fingers in front of her lips as if to cover her widening smile.

"I'm a bounty hunter, Foxy, and Kaltrea proves to be a great city to gather the intel I need… well, I have yet to find the specifics I want, but I'm forming quite the connection with many people."

"And this bar is your network center…"

"Yes and no," she closed her eyes with a quiet chuckle, her ears subconsciously bent in silent appreciation, "there are many bars in Kaltrea… but none can compare to the Cog Weasel. Its ambience, its calm feeling," she opened her eyes to meet the bartender's curious scrutiny, "and I don't mean the naïve, ignorant kind of tranquility. I feel that peace is earned here, and so this is the place I will take a break and unwind."

She glanced at the Fox's perked ears and added candidly, "A true resting place is hard to come by, even temporarily. So I really cherish this atmosphere you've provided for the bar, Rui."

The golden-haired barkeep held her gaze for a moment before nodding curtly. "I do try my best to maintain the same atmosphere my predecessor kept before she passed it to me… but thank you, for the praise."

As brusque as the words of gratitude may seem, Yutsu could feel the pride and sincerity beneath. "I should be the one thanking you instead, hmm?"

A small smile appeared on Rui's visage as she placed the bag of leftover baby carrots in front of the surprised blunette. "Like I said, you're the only one to ever order it."

"Now I'm really thankful, Foxy~" She could not contain her excitement at the unexpected treat and she almost hopped off her seat. With her long ears erect, she grabbed a few carrots and nibbled them happily, the surroundings forgotten and unimportant. Had she paid more attention, she would have noticed the amused glint in the bartender's gaze.

"Oho? What's this, free food?" A jovial voice laughed from a booth nearby, "That's not like you, Rui!"

Yutsu waved at Tobias Randolf in greeting, for she had become acquainted with the friendly Cat as two fellow regulars at the Cog Weasel. The elderly man had also directed her around the districts a few times and, most importantly, he was one of the few people Rui seemed to hold in high regard.

"But this lady here is a special friend, eh?" He grinned approvingly, "don't be so absorbed in work all the time I say, Rui! Do relax and chat!"

"That's what I keep telling her~" The blue-haired girl twittered mirthfully at the exasperated frown on the bartender's face.

"Good good! You certainly deserve that free food, Yutsu!"

"Better than throwing them in the bin…"

Aghast, she whirled around to gawk at the calm Fox. "Wait, you mean you used to throw them away…?"

"When they are no longer fresh enough, yes."

"B-but that's blasphemous!" The bounty hunter narrowed her eyes and leaned over the bar to point her index finger like a mock gun. "From now on, any remaining baby carrots shall be used as ransom for your life, Foxy~"

Bemused, Rui only glared at the offending hand, growling when Yutsu made shooting motion and Mr. Randolf laughed heartily.

"Oh look at the time," the ponytailed girl dramatically stuffed the bag of baby carrots into her satchel and gracefully placed a few coins on the counter. She turned around with a deliberate flutter of her cloak and saluted, "I'm late for a meeting. Thanks for the treat, and I'll see you soon~"

Her cheerful wink was promptly ignored but, undeterred, she still sauntered out of the bar with her usual mirth. Before the door closed, she could hear Mr. Randolf chatting with the annoyed bartender, whose clipped responses were detachedly polite.

It was a good night, Yutsu decided, for she managed to have more than a decent conversation with the golden Fox, and she was on her way to meet a delivery boy to receive new brand of ammunition for her handguns. As she munched on the delicious snack, she smiled to herself and leaped into the shadows without hesitation. Full of confidence, she vowed that she would return to the bar for one more martini after finishing all of her errands.

Some time past midnight, she stood in front of the closed door to the Cog Weasel, sighing in disappointment that it was already past its opening hours. It was her fault for challenging that stubborn courier she met at the bar near Main Street to a drinking contest. She could not resist the Bobcat's goading, not after her tolerance for alcohol was questioned. Between putting on a show for the audience and teasing the inebriated Feline, she wasted valuable time at that rowdy tavern.

The blue-haired girl folded her arms and tapped her heel against the cobblestones, wondering if she should just head to a luxurious inn in the Upper 2nd District. While she was far from tipsy, she did drink more than usual so it would be best not to camp out of the city. It had been a long week, and she sought the comforting atmosphere in the Cog Weasel to ease her weary self before turning in for the night. As it was, she had no choice but to obtain sleep some other way. Before she could stop her mind, the image of a neatly kept bed flashed so very invitingly and caused her to rethink her options.

I wonder if that sour Fox is already aslee- Her long ears flicked with interest when she detected a faint sound. Or not. What was -?

Something plucked at her heartstrings upon hearing the soft croons of an electric guitar. The instrument's voice was muffled in sound by the sealed door but penetrated through emotion by its consequent sharp cries. Her throat felt dry as her ears slowly wilted at the gentle chorus accompanying the solemn soliloquy. The sorrowful melody seemed to be lamenting its master's life, hollow and directionless, clawing for a mere spark day after day like it was the last path to salvation. The looping backtracks, composed of many unique notes, surrounded the central theme yet continued flowing without ever touching the lonely riff.

Though desolate, the melancholic song was trapped within its own fortress.

Emerald eyes dulled and gradually closed to create a canvas of complete darkness. The forlorn piece imperceptibly caressed her back as she leaned against the door in complete surrender. She listened earnestly with bated breaths, trying to avoid disturbing something so delicately private, so soulfully beautiful. It was the first time this tune touched her, but the innate pain and torment struck a carefully covered chord in her heart and resonated an affinity with the performer like a long lost friend.

You're not just a simple bartender are you, Rui Brewfort? The blue-haired bounty hunter licked her parched lips and tilted her head a little as if she could hear the golden Fox's silent words better. The vague silhouette of the older woman formed behind her eyelids, wavering and insubstantial as the shape conversed with the loyal instrument. Why do you keep up that stoic façade, Foxy? What secrets do you have that made your guitar the only entrance to your true self?

Yutsu's eyes snapped open then, for a relentless thought finally caught up to her after she avoided it for so long. The blurry figure of the barkeep morphed into the faint reflections of streetlamps at the corners of her vision, yet there was no drastic difference between the world she saw whether she closed or opened her eyes. Her sight was tainted black as it always had in one way or another.

Why do I keep pretending to be this fearless bounty hunter then? Who is Yutsu… and where did Shirley go?

She knew the reason perfectly well, yet she only understood its necessity for its innate defense. It had been many years already and her soul was too tired, battered beyond the limitations of one meager person.

Both the guitarist and its sole listener were too weary to exist on their own.

Her breaths quickening, the blunette stretched her hand towards the lightless streets of Kaltrea and watched with wide eyes as the waning shadows wavered and consumed her fingers into their darkness like indecisive waves. Visible yet indiscernible, her flesh appeared to belong to an omnipresent entity and was far out of her control.

For the first time in many years, she found herself terrified of the night. She pressed her back against the door even more, unable to leave and greet her only companion. The darkness's friendship no longer provided the solace she needed, not with the deep welcome from the mournful song.

But the Cog Weasel was not her home.

"Yutsu fears nothing," she shakily mouthed her motto in attempts to assuage her growing fear, yet it was the understanding melody beyond the entrance that truly calmed her. She had always been perplexed that she had gone to this bar after discovering Charlotte's toy. Everything was a blur to her, and she had fallen into a stifling chasm of depression that she only became aware of herself when Rui entered the guest room. Bewildered and fragile, she had become defensive and still did whenever she thought of that incident. While the guild house in Kazan and some of her contacts' places were open to her, she would not dare to expose her most vulnerable side to anyone.

So how was the bartender any different? Was it because she instinctively knew the Cog Weasel and its owner to be hospitable?

As the guitar crooned its caged feelings, Yutsu stepped into the darkness and immersed in her bounty hunter armor because it was the path she had chosen. However, it was not the same as before, even after her sharp hearing could not detect the soothing play anymore. There was no reason to be afraid of loneliness, for she knew she could come back to the haven of shades and ambivalent lights, a pair of patient ears and crimson eyes that understood darkness just as well as she did.

After all, the golden moon lit up the night and coaxed the weary tides to rest against the shores and, within the shadows, the rolling waves delighted its lonesome companion in the sky with colorful tales, receding but always returning.

It was how the inexplicable attraction worked, even now.

Yutsu smiled tenderly at her lover's back, mesmerized by the way the golden Fox was illuminated by the gentle moonlight, before she stepped out of the shadows onto the lighted deck. Her anchor had never failed to tug her out of phantom shades, no matter what the circumstances were. From time to time, tide after tide, the bounty hunter would retreat into darkness whenever she was exposed to too much brilliance, flooded by raw emotions. Yet, like a vigilant spectator of the night, the former bartender was always able to retrieve her with her unwavering, steady presence.

Rui was her home.

And she was the color within the golden Fox's grey world.

They were each other's proof that as weary as they were of the mundane world, they were still capable of fierce ardor and coveted intimacy.

As Yutsu joined her lover near the ship's railing, a sleek tail wrapped protectively around her waist while the invisible ones loosely shielded her from the cool night breeze. Viridian eyes were brimming with love as they gazed into soft maroon, welcomed by a simple but heartfelt kiss upon the blunette's forehead. The soft graze of Rui's lips against her skin brought a coy smile upon her relaxed features, which prompted a quiet chuckle from the taller of the two.

They were such opposites, for not only did they come from different worlds, they also led completely different lives. However, no matter what happened, no matter what they did, they still became one through an irrevocably tight bond. Was everything the work of chance, of fate, or did something happen out of the ordinary during their usual play that stopped the spectral chase and pulled the two phantoms together?

Yutsu gently looped her fingers through Rui's and rested her head against the golden Fox's shoulder, earning a questioning glance but an unhesitant squeeze to their entwined hands.

As the two women gazed into the rolling tides and soft reflection of the moon upon its rocking surface, they both smiled fondly at a certain memory when their impalpable relationship became tangible through even the smallest of gestures.

Indeed, in that particular evening at the Cog Weasel, it was neither the bounty hunter nor the barkeep who interacted in the unusually vivacious bar.

Yutsu and Rui finally made contact after dancing around each other for so long.

The blue-haired girl took her sweet time as she sipped the delectable carrot martini, ecstatic at the taste of the liquor after craving it day after day during her long mission. She couldn't help but giggle and wave her ears in celebration as she squirmed in her circular chair. It was truly the one and only beverage she'd ever love so dearly!

Sighing in bliss, emerald eyes flickered around the Cog Weasel, lamenting that it was packed enough that her usual seat at the counter was taken. Well, this was fine too, was it not? She could stare at a certain bartender as much as she wanted without getting a raised eyebrow or an apprehensive frown.

A quiet, almost breathless giggle left her curved lips as Rui gave a flat look to a crude patron who burped loudly right in front of the golden-haired woman. At least, the man was sensible enough to close his mouth and sit up straighter in fear of annoying the busy barkeep further.

As if sensing the amused twitter over the rowdy customers hollering for their drinks, Rui glanced over at where Yutsu was sitting and folded her ears ever so slightly to indicate her frustration. The blunette, however, only winked cheekily and twirled the martini glass in salutation. Ever the professional, the golden Fox merely took on a placid expression at her jest and proceeded to ignore the smirking girl.

It wasn't as if she enjoyed seeing the older woman so exasperated. No, it was just a trivial sense of satisfaction that there were no simpering teenagers vying for her Foxy's attention, and it was merely customary to tease the stoic bartender anyways.

The bounty hunter smiled widely and took another sip of her carrot martini, cheerful for various reasons. In spite of the length of the mission, it was quite successful overall. It was not her place to ask her client why he would pay so handsomely for a severed pinkie, but since it was never specified that the runaway criminal had to be killed, Yutsu silenced the ratty prey anyway. She was not about to endure his screams as she acquired the digit for her bounty, was she? Better terminate him when he had no future, because she knew for a fact that a freelance bounty hunter was hired to torture the same target for information. In the end, she had given the unfortunate man a kinder, painless death.

Murder is still murder, a voice whispered bitingly.

The blunette flicked her antennae in dismissal of such recurring remarks. Her conscience has been bothering her a lot ever since she permanently removed the traitors in Hector Arthland's remaining rebellion members as a favor to this little Foxroach who, at first glance, resembled her deceased sister. While Sakura Kurama's resolute faith in justice also reminded her of Charlotte, that incident wasn't any different than her usual bloody missions. She despised traitors anyways, so who was she to refuse a fine bloodbath? Was it because of the black-haired girl's innocent eyes or was it because Rui was the one who brought up the matter to Yutsu that her long-buried conscience had awakened?

The seventeen-year-old shook her head with a light smile, refusing to allow the incessant prickles of her memories to ruin her good mood. There was no use wondering about playing the protector of justice when she was a bounty hunter, a killer by profession. In a way, she was upholding her own brand of justice and that reason was sufficient enough to validate all of her actions.

More importantly, Rui had yet to condemn her for her occupation and turn her away from the bar, and her friend's opinion was what mattered, not the society's.

Yutsu perked her ears in interest when she heard the jingle that signaled the arrival of a new patron. The door opened to reveal a tall Dingo entering the Cog Weasel, and a few regulars discreetly glanced at the unfamiliar face with mild interest before looking away. She quickly glanced over the Canine's features, confirming that he was the man she had been waiting for. In her last mission, her client, who was also an informant, had told her the whereabouts of an important ex-official of Tyradum army. To confirm the validity of this intelligence, she checked the blacklist book Lin had given her and immediately headed back to Kaltrea.

This Dingo used to belong to the troop that was involved in the destruction of the Republic of Quercus.

The blue-haired girl licked her lips in anticipation as she stood up from her chair, sharp emerald eyes completely focused on the Canine. There was a chance he knew something about the attack on her village, so she will do everything she could to extract information from this army scum.

She approached him with a slight sway to her hips, inwardly delighted at the fact that he was already inebriated. Drunken targets were perfect to coax info out of, for alcohol loosened tongues the best so she did not have to literally loosen them. With her head tilted, she gave him a charming smile and began to compliment him on his good looks and how he stood out from all the other patrons in the bar. As she expected, the smug Canine immediately flirted back with a sleazy grin.

Their frisky conversation, however, went on much longer than she wanted. While she was able to ignore his leers with practiced ease, his arrogance made her shallow praises harder to squeeze out. She was also more aware of Rui's disapproving gaze on her than usual, almost hearing a quiet growl whenever the Dingo bought her more drinks. Normally she would have smirked at the golden Fox for her attention, but she was too desperate in goading more information out of the ex-soldier to gloat. While a few suggestive caresses to his nonexistent biceps and simpering giggles easily made the man brag about his past exploits as a Tyradum soldier in the war, he also rambled about too much irrelevant matters that Yutsu felt utterly bored and stupid, pretending to be a smitten girl.

Finally, after a good half of patrons had already left the bar, the Canine revealed that he suffered a serious illness before Tyradum's campaign to Vertalis was finalized, thus he did not know much of what really happened. Disappointed and dismayed that she had wasted so much time and rested so much hope on this Dingo, she sighed tiredly and decided to spend the rest of the night downing some brandy from Rui's personal collection. She just hoped the golden Fox was willing to share in spite of what transpired earlier the evening. They had pretty good talks some time ago, just the two of them in the bar, enjoying a few glasses of the bartender's vintage drinks. The tension in the blunette's shoulders ebbed away from reminiscing those nights, and she felt her jovial mood return even just a little bit.

However, before Yutsu could excuse herself from the Canine, sick of his raunchy breaths, an unexpectedly strong arm snaked around her waist and locked her in place. Before she could even react or curse herself for the momentary lapse in her guard, he had already sloppily smashed his lips against hers.

Too stunned at the repulsive sensation on her mouth, she could not even summon enough strength to push him away as she stood there like a frozen statue, her eyes wide and ears slowly drooping until they fell flat against her head.

She jolted in shock when she heard a heavy thump of a half-full liquor bottle being smacked on the counter and glasses shattering. Startled, the Dingo hastily let go and spun around, confused at the sudden silence that fell upon the bar. Yutsu's mind was still whirling in turmoil, so she could only watch as a soccer-sized fireball flew towards the stupefied Canine. The sphere of flames dissipated before it reached him, but not quickly enough because his tail was set ablaze.

"Get the fuck out!" Rui snarled so thunderously that everyone collectively flinched.

He fled the Cog Weasel shrieking like a bitch.

All pairs of eyes were trained on the growling Fox, who gave no indication that anything out of ordinary had ever happened. Ignoring the stares and hushed whispers, the simmering bartender began to clean up the mess she made. She did everything in such familiar efficiency and sour demeanor that the regulars gradually gave up on their unanswered questions and went back to chatting, albeit in a more subdued manner. The other patrons, however, wisely left the bar in case they set her off again.

Yutsu snapped out of her stupor when Rui had already returned to her spot behind the counter. The blue-haired girl's first reaction was to gag and furiously wiped her mouth, disgusted at the remaining taste and sensation. Tears stung her eyes involuntarily, which further humiliated her for blatantly displaying her emotions when she prided herself in concealing them so well. Yet more tears welled up when she thought about how her first kiss was stolen so crudely by that drunkard. How could she have been so vulnerable, so stupid to allow that surprise assault to happen? Was Lilith right that her guard was becoming so weak, so full of openings that even an inebriated person was able to break through so easily?

Realizing that she was still standing there like a dumb critter, she hastily left the spot as she wiped her damp eyes again. Her legs automatically brought her to her usual seat at the counter, which was long vacated due to the earlier ruckus. In fact, all the remaining patrons stayed a good radius away from the glaring bartender. Yutsu slowly sat down and tried not to flinch from the way Rui stormed around her territory, cleaning the glasses with such brute force that the blunette was surprised the vessels didn't break.

Desperate for something to distract her mind from mourning for her loss, she spoke up hoarsely, "so… what was that?"

"What," the golden Fox said succinctly, her question sounding more like a statement.

"That fireball…"

"A Molotov cocktail."

The terse tone ended the conversation then. Yutsu shrank in her seat and merely filed the strange incident to the back of her mind to examine some other time, for her thoughts were too jumbled and buzzing too much to be functioning. Despondent, she kept her head low and gripped her knees. Something like this had never happened to her, even when she flirted with unrulier, more debauched men for information. Either she always knew what to do or she captured them for proper interrogation. She must be getting fatalistically careless to let down her guard just because she was in too good a mood. What if the Dingo had meant to stab her?

Her lips trembled again but she kept her antennae straight and reined in her tears. Her ears were slightly folded though, and she kept wiping her mouth every few minutes. Not knowing where to look, she glared holes at the counter top, her shroud of shame making her ultra sensitive of all the movements in the bar.

Why did this have to happen, in front of Rui of all the places? The blunette's face darkened and her form became even more slouched, hoping that a chasm would swallow her whole. That Dingo, she swore she will find him, and revenge will be the most brilliant shade of vermillion she had ever painted!

Before she could really get into her morbid fantasies, a glass of carrot martini was placed in front of her. Blinking, Yutsu looked up to see the golden Fox already turned away, back to whatever task that made her so focused.

She was still emitting low growls. Was Foxy angry for her sake?

Yutsu slowly sipped her favorite beverage, bewildered at the bartender's mood. Rui was probably angry of all the noise in the bar and happened to snap at that Dingo. She couldn't be mad at the blunette, or else she wouldn't have given her this drink when she didn't order it.

The blunette tilted her head, finding this new focus for her whirring thoughts quite welcoming and fascinating. Like her, the golden Fox rarely displayed any extreme emotion. In fact, this was the first time the stoic woman expressed so much as far as the rabbit-eared girl knew.

Rui looked rather cute with the way her ears were flattened.

In spite of the harsh rumbles brewing in her throat, she only appeared more endearing in Yutsu's amused gaze. Smiling, the blunette felt her mind settle and calming just from watching the bartender as she always did. She was very thankful for this inexplicable effect because she didn't want to seem so emotionally fragile anymore. This cheerful, teasing façade of the twittering bounty hunter was what she should be right now.

She licked her lips leisurely, hoping its sweetness would erase the foul taste in her mouth. However, she was disheartened to discover that the phantom sensation remained even after she finished her favorite drink. Grimacing, she stood up and was about the order stronger liquor when an interesting idea struck her. It wasn't information from fellow guild members or some of her acquaintances she'd made during her travels.

It was an instinctive knowledge that a first kiss with someone you chose would feel more enjoyable than you thought possible.

Half excited and half anxious at her plan, she fidgeted and drummed her fingers on the counter top. The idea did not repulse her at all. She was even surprised that she hadn't thought of doing this earlier.

Well, it could be her unnatural avoidance to any intimate, vulnerable contact, but perhaps it was time to take a different gamble.

As soon as Rui came to retrieve the empty martini glass, Yutsu grabbed the unsuspecting barkeep by her red tie and tiptoed to close their distance. The golden Fox's lips were warmer and softer than they looked, unexpected of someone who seemed so aloof and passive. Since there was no immediate rejection, the blunette indulged in this pleasant feeling and deepened their kiss by tilting her head, tentatively licking the woman's lips once. Instantly enthralled to the taste, she then boldly pried them open and began to explore every crevices, thirsting to savor more of this delectable flavor. The succulent sweetness of the martini was washed away by the fervent and luscious strokes of her tongue, unable to stop because of how utterly addictive was the feel of this bartender named Rui Brewfort.

When the need for air became demanding, Yutsu finally pulled away and loosened her grip on the Fox's tie. Lightly gasping for breaths, she smiled softly in relief when there was no disgust or dislike in those smoldering crimson eyes. In fact, they were absolutely blank in stupor.

Amused, she licked her lips languidly and slid her hand up the velvet tie. "Thanks for the delicious drink, Foxy~ That shall be my true first kiss, don't you think~?"

The golden-haired woman remained frozen even after she closed her slightly agape mouth, her eyes still glazed. Yutsu's ears flicked in annoyance at her lack of response, as if her soul had flown away from the surprise kiss.

Well, I'll just have to summon back our dear Foxy, no?

Smirking deviously, the blunette trailed a finger up Rui's smooth jaw and quickly stole another kiss, relishing at the wonderful warmth however brief it was. She decided that she quite enjoyed such contacts with the bartender.

"A third one is just as tempting, hmm~?" Giggling, the ponytailed girl continued to caress the golden Fox's skin with the calloused pad of her thumb. Rui's ears reddened as she cleared her throat awkwardly, finally regaining her wits after a few moments.

"I don't understand what you're trying to do here, Yutsu."

Though entertained by how uncomfortable the Fox was, the blunette dropped her hand and lowered her eyes in trepidation while the earlier euphoria evaporated. Perhaps she took it too far and she assumed too much, that her friend might feel the same way too. She had broken the indiscernible line between them by doing something so invading, possibly causing the barkeep the same grief as the Dingo did to her. Would it be possible to salvage their ruined friendship? The bounty hunter quite liked this city, this bar and most importantly, its crimson-eyed owner.

Yutsu didn't just want to gaze at Rui from afar, for she wanted to know more and see for who she truly was.

And Shirley wanted to be known too.

She narrowed her eyes and folded her arms, hoping to mask her unease by displaying a flippant attitude. "What does it look like? Do I really need to spell it out for you or should I do it again?"

Rui perked her folded ears at first before looking away with a thoughtful expression. After a long pause, so long that the ponytailed girl was starting to regret her question, she suddenly held her cheek and whispered huskily.

"No need."


Stunned, Yutsu couldn't help but lean against Rui when the latter pressed their lips together. The golden Fox's heart-achingly gentle hand cupped her cheek as sweetness twirled with her tongue. The unanticipated softness of the gesture caused the girl's eyes to flutter shut in attempts to capture this wonderful bliss, this protective warmth.

When her lips were caressed by cool air, she opened eyes in disappointment and found amusement painted all over Rui's expression.

"I think I need to be the one spelling it out, Rabbit," she smirked and stroked the blushing girl's ears, which unknowingly flopped against her head during the kiss.

Flustered and disgruntled, Yutsu stomped the ground to ease the tension from her burning face. However, glinting crimson eyes were trained on her features still, accompanied by a few chuckles that made her even more embarrassed. Hissing indignantly, she grabbed the bartender by her collar and yanked her down into another kiss, this time both parties prepared as they surrendered to their instincts and fought for dominance.

Really, if it weren't for a trivial fight in the corner of the bar, they wouldn't have stopped.

After they parted, Yutsu felt an exasperated sigh against her brow and looked up. Crimson and emerald met briefly before Rui gave a slight nod and walked away to break up the scuffle which, judging from the slurred shouts, was caused by complete drunkenness and thus the ruffians were unaware of the barkeep's ire.

Lips pursed in amusement, the blunette almost felt sorry for those poor guys. She gazed at the back of the golden Fox, her eyes trailing the sleek tail appreciatively at how tangible and reachable the woman was in comparison to the vague profile she imagined when she listened to the guitar's soulful cries. Feeling unreasonably happy, she bounced towards the cash register to drop off some coins to pay for her drinks. But before the money left her palm, another daring idea entered her mind and brought an impish smile to her face.

Grabbing a pen and a notepad, she unhurriedly scribbled a simple sentence and pinned it to a small bulletin board near the register.

"I'll be back to pay for my drinks a different way, Foxy~"

Pleased at herself, she glanced back at the golden-haired woman one more time before inspiration hit her yet again. Twittering, she doodled a Fox with a fluffy tail scowling in embarrassment at a grinning Rabbit with antennae. Then, ever so quietly, she slipped out of the Cog Weasel feeling lighter than air because she will return later.

She was quite excited to know Rui better when the night truly arrived.

Yutsu gazed at the impossibly immense canvas in the sky, dotted only by a few twinkling stars and the soft glow of the golden half sphere, and then at the ethereal reflections upon the surface of the wavering ocean. Fleetingly, she felt she was travelling through the night itself, having conquered the darkness after studying it and its companions for so long.

"Uneasy?" She spoke softly against her lover's neck, looking away from the churning tides to those familiar crimson eyes. She felt no need to elaborate her question, certain that the unspoken words would be heard.

The golden Fox merely nodded, for she knew that the blunette understood her more than anyone could. She slipped an arm around the bounty hunter's waist, gently palming the hip scar, which made the latter return the gesture by tightening their embrace.

"It's just like the beginning of our relationship, Rui," the ponytailed woman lightly drew whimsical circles on the former bartender's back, tracing the nine tails of that majestic yet much abhorred tattoo of an ancient entity that almost tore them apart. "Our destination may be unknown, but we're still journeying together, aren't we?"

"Yes, and we will keep doing so, side by side," the golden-haired woman then chuckled before resting her lips against her lover's forehead. "We had a rocky start, didn't we? I remember the time you tried to pay for your drinks that other way…"

"Oh hush, you didn't know what to do either," Yutsu playfully rubbed the taller woman's ear, earning an automatic flick from the large appendage. Indeed, after the adrenaline had faded away, both parties were uncomfortable with the new phase of their bond and had to learn through trials and errors to fully comprehend the meaning of their relationship.

A nostalgic smile adorned her soft features as she tenderly touched Rui's emerald earring. In return, the golden Fox slipped her hand beneath the blunette's scarf to pull out a ruby ring looped through a silver necklace. After kissing the glimmering gem, she slid the ring onto Yutsu's fourth finger.

"One day…" The former barkeep whispered lovingly against her lips.

"I'll always be with you."

Like a returning wave under the pull of the moon, they closed their distances again and again, with the rolling tides and the omnipresent light of the night as their only witnesses to their pledge. They had overcome so much, accumulated so many tales to arrive at the inseparable connection they had now.

However, no matter what uncertainties their future may hold, no matter how unstable their paths may be, Rui and Yutsu knew that nothing could ever break them apart.

The waves of their story will never cease to flow.

A/N: The Waves series begins around 1460AL up until Chime 1, the beginning of the current stories.

A/N2: roughly what Yutsu said in the foreign languages:

c'est dommage - it's a pity

Si, frecuentemente soy en Fenrisyr … y tambien Samaria - Yes, I'm often in Fenrisyr... and sometimes Samaria too.

Soko ni kitsune-tachi mo iru. Anata to kurabe de, gyoshi-san wa totemo shinsetsu datta - there are Foxes there too. Compared to you, the fishermen are so much more friendly~