The city had worn Ruby out, though she was happy to be sleeping in an inn again. She didn’t care much for the attitudes of the swine in Sounderthound, but she put up with them well enough when picking out some clothes that looked good to her. She didn’t care for merchants all that much, and it seemed like there was always a swine trying to sell her something on every corner. The sight of a human girl was apparently more than enough to set their merchant instincts on fire.
The Venus and its multiple types of inhabitants was a welcome reprieve in Ruby’s mind. Though she was somewhat influenced by her mother’s prejudice regarding anyone non-human, Ruby still felt comfortable surrounded by various species; it reminded her of home.
The dinner was decent, and Ruby wasn’t going to complain about having a meal that someone other than Va’il had prepared for her. Though they stocked provisions when they could, and she had enough money to purchase virtually anything she desired along the trip, it didn’t change the fact that they mostly travelled for long stretches of time without seeing other people or cities.
Ruby would complain to Va’il every so often about the lack of variety in what they ate for breakfast, though it was always just a tease. And as usual, he would just smile and take another bite. And the next morning he’d be up before her again, another small animal in hand. She sighed on the days he came back with bloodied hands, grinning widely as a large rabbit or small pig had been that morning’s victim.
Outwardly she sighed, but those mornings she took Va’il’s hands in her own and washed them, removing every trace of red from his palms and claws. It was a small thing that she could do that gave her a sense of happiness. But Va’il never noticed her look up at him every so often. He’d stand there, looking west, staring into the distance. Seeing that always reinforced her and made her return to a serious mindset. They were heading home. They were unfamiliar with everything around them. But they were heading home. She knew that as long as they were returning, Va’il wouldn’t stop staring west. It was for her sake as well, she knew. To return home, no matter what awaited. Pushing thoughts of what the future might hold aside, she dropped the newly cleaned hands and, as usual, as with every morning on the road, ate and then continued onwards.
The Venus had provided a decent dinner, and to Ruby’s surprise there was a bathhouse area as well. Unlike other public baths, it was separated into four sections, two for male and female swine, two for male and female other. Public baths for common folk was still something the noble felt awkward about, and it was amplified when other species were involved, regardless of prejudice, but she ended up alone anyways. She wondered about how she’d react if a bearan or bovine woman decided to enter into the large bathing space as well, but she wouldn’t find out that night. She then recalled the bearan family she had stayed with. How Derlik’s mother always made sure that Ruby got to use the bath first, how she’d keep the kids from bothering her, and the care Dena had shown her. It seemed like it was such a short time, even though they had spent much longer with Derlik’s family than they expected. Even still, Ruby had started feeling like those wonderful bearans were part of her family.
They weren’t her family. Even though they were wonderful people, and Ruby had enjoyed the time with them, with the strong mother, the silly grandparents, the energetic children, and Va’il, she still had the desire to return home. To see her mother, regardless of her disposition. In the past she could never decide if she liked or hated her mother, the always-commanding Jane Lucrene Melonscone. She still didn’t know whether her mother would welcome her back graciously or slap her for taking so long to return. But this long separation had taught her that as long as she could return, even a slap would make her happy. She wanted to see Jane again. She’d even be obedient, once or twice. It was the first time in a long time she had wanted to willingly see her mother. And she even somewhat hoped it’d be a slap and scolding waiting for her. That was the mother she knew.
She finished in the bath and went to the room where Va’il was waiting for her. His hair was still wet and it was obvious he hadn’t taken that long, but at least he was clean for once. She was sure that if she hadn’t been always so concerned for how dirty and smelly she personally was during their travels, she would have been unable to stand how dirty and smelly Va’il was. No matter how natural that would be for anyone spending weeks traveling by foot across the continent, a lady of her upbringing still had that concern in her mind.
“You didn’t dry off completely,” Ruby said. Va’il laughed a little and then swung his tail back and forth a few times, throwing a bit of water around.
“It’s all right,” Va’il said, and then shook his head back and forth a bit. “Besides, it’s better than before, right? We finally get to relax a bit.”
“Yes, you’re right. Better than waking up with dirt in my hair. At least for one night. And a bed. A bed? Only one?” Ruby asked. She was annoyed, but only a little.
“Ah yeah, I asked a guy about it. He said they have lots of travelers, so they want as many rooms as possible. Saves space if each room only has one. Sorry, they don’t have any with two. Well, not sorry really. Feel bad for me Ruby,” Va’il said, his voice in a false plead.
“I could take the floor this time,” Ruby said.
“Fine fine. I don’t mind taking the good portions.” Ruby walked over to the bed and sat on it, and then bounced a bit. “Well better than the ground at least. Or floor.”
“Stingy,” Va’il said with a scowl.
“Hypocrite,” Ruby replied and stuck out her tongue. Va’il laughed and then sat on the floor in front of Ruby. He looked up at her.
“It’s still kind of early, isn’t it?” Va’il asked.
“Not at all! After all that happened earlier, we’ve lost a lot of time today. The sun went down a while ago. It’s late, Va’il.”
“Yeah, I guess. It’s just, we’ve always been on the go lately. Even at this time of day we’d still be going, finding somewhere to stop. And then we’d finally find somewhere and collapse.”
“You’d collapse. I, on the other hand, politely drift to the ground,” Ruby said, making Va’il laugh again.
“Of course, miss. A pretty girl doesn’t collapse after all. She faints or daintily drifts,” Va’il said. Ruby grabbed the pillow next to her and flung it at Va’il. It hit him squarely in the face. He took it, stood, handed it back to her, and then sat again.
“Jerk. Me, a pretty girl? Not lately. Not that it’d matter to… but yes, it’s good to not collapse tonight. But it’s not early,” Ruby said.
“This is nice. It’s like before. We haven’t talked for a while,” Va’il said. He looked down for a moment before looking up at Ruby again, still with that same smile. Ruby was silent for a moment. She then smiled back at him. She got off the bed and sat down on the floor across from him.
“We haven’t. All that running. All those worries. And before that, always surrounded by other people. I see. It’s early, isn’t it Va’il?” Ruby asked. She was feeling happy that it was Va’il who started, who wanted to talk.
“Yeah. I was thinking about home. About ditching the others and looking for secret people. It was fun. Or talking by the fire at Derlik’s home. At least, the times when Tico didn’t try and use me for a pillow. Bearan sleepwalkers are pretty frightening,” Va’il said with a small laugh.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you scared except for those mornings when you’d be white as a sheet with Tico’s mouth open in front of you. He slept soundest those nights though. Ha, it was fun,” Ruby said. She couldn’t help but poke a little fun at Va’il.
“You just don’t see me when I’m frightened,” Va’il said. “I will admit Tico was scary in a different way though. Much different than the thought of Link and Greta catching you, though,” Va’il said. His expression changed somewhat, and it made Ruby feel somewhat bad.
“It’s all right. We’ll be fine. Definitely,” Ruby said. She hesitated for a moment, and then reached up. She put a hand on Va’il’s head and patted it a few times.
“I’m not a dog,” Va’il said, but he was smiling happily. Ruby noticed his tail twitch a few times back and forth, making her laugh. She pulled back.
“Sure sure, Mr. Wolf. Lupus. Human. Half. My chevalier with the silver eyes,” Ruby said. She felt her face redden a bit.
“Silver. Yeah. Silver. Silver and Gold trying to return to the bank they came from. When will we get back? These stupid cities never have enough information. The maps are never good enough. Keep going west to reach Rising, right? Just how much farther? Three days from here to Farrow maybe? Longer? Shorter? Or where exactly in Sounderthound are we? This road leads that way, they all say. Everybody already knows where they are going apparently. It’s not that great being a traveller here,” Va’il said. He sounded annoyed, and he had scratched at the floor with a claw for a bit.
“I know,” Ruby said. She reached up again, this time flicking Va’il lightly in the head. “I know, but we’ll get there. I’ll get there, you’ll bring me there. No matter what. And if you can’t get me there, I’ll bring you there instead. And then we’ll get back, we’ll go to school. We’ll play around. We’ll annoy Kelin. We’ll play to worst prank possible on Zeick. We’ll see Pete, and we’ll, uh, do something. Scare him, I guess. Maybe something more. And Teena will hug everyone too tightly. And Harnes will sulk for a moment before jumping at you. She won’t let go this time! She’ll be so angry that she’ll chirp wildly, hurting those sensitive ears of yours! That’s before she breaks down in tears. And my friends, every last one of them, from the best to the silliest, will be there. Shiroi too. And then we’ll all cry, and laugh, and cry,” Ruby said as she felt a mix of emotions welling up in herself.
“Thanks,” Va’il said. He acquired his old smile. Ruby felt herself calm down, and didn’t end up crying after all.
“So what now?” Ruby asked after a bit of silence.
“We’ll keep going. On and on. Till we see those smiles and tears. Till we see our parents and their punishments. I guess, for you and me, it’d be parent,” Va’il said.
“I want to meet your mother,” Ruby said.
“Of course you will. Oh, but we’re not special people or anything. Just common folk. So don’t expect her to be in a grand mansion or anything,” Va’il said.
“That’s all right. Rich or poor doesn’t matter,” Ruby said.
“Oh, we’re not poor. Just common. Common third district residents.”
“Not poor? That’s interesting. I guess that’s true of the third district. Just common, then. Well, common, noble, high-noble, doesn’t matter in Makeen. It doesn’t matter as much in Rising as everywhere else. And I’m sure your mother will be lovely. She raised you, right? All by herself. Just like my mother, I guess. But happier,” Ruby said.
“Don’t start sulking Ruby!” Va’il said.
“Oh, sorry. No, no I’m fine. I don’t know. I almost wish your mother could be my mother. Tell me about your mother. What kind of mother is a lupus woman who’d have a half?” Ruby asked.
“Of course, I’ll tell you all about Mum. She will love you. Though she’s my Mum, no stealing! Okay, let me tell you about this one time after a play, years ago. Mum did the silliest thing!”
Ruby relaxed a bit while she listened to Va’il talk energetically about Mai’ou. She laughed at parts, and felt sad at others. Through it all she stared at the boy she had been traveling with for all these months. All this time. The boy she had met several years ago. The boy who she was ready to forget the moment she met him. The boy who had surprised her so suddenly that the feeling she suddenly had never left her. The boy she had thought about a few times for three years whenever she was depressed about something her mother had inflicted upon her, or when life was stressful.
She had never been all that true with herself openly, purposefully never asking herself questions about herself. She knew she would be disappointed in the end. Her position doomed her to begin with. And though she had been tempted over the years to give it up, there was a part of her that loved being noble. That even though she resented her mother at times, she acknowledged that she was her mother’s daughter. She tried her best to take only the good portions of her mother into herself, though she knew some parts of her would never be perfect. Years ago she had finally overcome the depressive side of those thoughts and grown to accept everything about herself.
But for five long years, no matter how much time she spent learning new things to fill her time, enjoying things as they came, being a noble, being a friend, having friends, she couldn’t accept one thing. Now, finally separated from everything else, she confronted herself. She knew it was futile in the end. That she’d just be hurting herself by asking and answering. That even if by some chance her status didn’t interfere, the likelihood her feelings would not be reciprocated. The anxiety of knowing that no matter what she admitted, she was just a human girl, separated by something she couldn’t cross.
There was also that sliver of hope that’d shine in her every so often. Thoughts of how the line was only half as far as it’d be normally. It wasn’t like it’d be inconceivable, considering the past that led to his existence. And there was that smile that brought her up every time. That smile that, although it brought her up, also depressed her. Always the same smile, to everyone, not just her. She knew not to ask.
That hope has risen and fallen, but was always just a small glimmer, for several years. And though it hadn’t changed, Ruby had. She couldn’t ignore herself, not when the past months had nagged at her, over and over. Telling her to ask and answer.
Va’il continued telling stories about Mai’ou, and some about things he, Pete, and Kelin had done. She smiled and laughed as the night grew later. In the midst of it all, Ruby couldn’t help but pay attention to her own thoughts for a moment. That here, enjoying this environment, she was forced to acknowledge.
“Yes. I love Va’il,” Ruby thought. She answered herself. She answered, laughed, hiding both the joy and agony of her thought, and asked Va’il to keep talking. Now that she had answered, she wanted to boy she truly loved to keep talking to her. Even if he didn’t know, didn’t reciprocate, didn’t think of her as anything more than a friend, or worse, only a human, she still held onto her answer. She had acknowledged it. She knew she’d probably silently cry before falling asleep that night, but she was still happy she admitted it, told herself, answered herself.
She was tempted to whisper it as quietly as she could into her pillow that night, but she didn’t. Va’il had once told her something that surprised her. That although he could track Ruby down by smell sometimes, that was only because he had been careful to never stray too far from her and he knew her scent extremely well. His hearing, on the other hand, was comparatively better in many ways, and that in the right circumstances he’d be able to hear farther than he could smell. So that night she bit her lip while her tears made their appearance, fearing that if she didn’t she’d whisper quieter than any human could hear in a bittersweet hope Va’il might. She’d rather he hear her quietly crying, as she knew he had heard her quietly cry so many times before, and understood why she did without question. However her courage could only go so far that night. And the night was still not that far along. Though she had laid down to go to sleep, Va’il a bit of a ways away on the floor, her night was hardly over.