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It was already dusk by the time Amber departed the guild. Shelly pulled her along by the hand, apparently trying to get away before her father changed his mind about letting them go, and Zeke soared along beside them. The setting sun left just enough light for them to make it back to town on the unlit dirt road, before it disappeared over the ocean.
Shelly let go of Amber's hand just as they passed under the first streetlight, twirling around to face her and clasping her hands behind her back. "So... I know it's been kind of a long day, but did you want to go shopping now?" She said hopefully. "We've probably got a little bit of time before any of the shops close."
"I don't know..." Amber huffed; it had indeed been a long day, and all she could really think about now was finding a place to sleep.
"C'mon, please?" She begged. "We can just look around a little. The plaza isn't too far out of the way from Axel's place."
Amber huffed again, but found she didn't have the energy to argue. With a long sigh, she slowly nodded. "Alright, sure." Shelly's face lit up with a big smile, but Amber snapped her hand away before she could grab it again. "Just a little, ok?"
"Yeah, yeah, sure." Shelly said quickly, walking off with a bit of a spring in her step. Amber followed along, feeling her feet growing heavier with each passing second. The pair of them rounded a building onto another somewhat more crowded street, and Shelly slowed her pace to make sure they didn't get separated. "So, what do you think you'll buy?"
"I dunno..." Amber shrugged. Nothing came to mind immediately, even if she didn't have too much to her name. She thought about what she wanted to do when they first planned to go shopping, seeing if it gave her any ideas. "Maybe some new clothes would be nice..."
"Really?" Shelly sounded surprised. "Well, ok. I think I know where to go for that."
Amber sensed that she was a little disappointed, and figured it would be no fun to just have her follow along while she looked for a new wardrobe. "Did you have anything else in mind?"
"Food!" Zeke shouted, coming down to land on Amber's shoulder. "We could get a snack."
Shelly thought about it for a moment. "Harbors should still be open." She suggested. "There're a few clothing shops around there too; if you wanted to look around afterwards."
Amber considered the offer, but thinking of that place reminded her of Payla and her appetite instantly vanished. "I'm not really hungry." She muttered, beginning to feel guilty again. "How about tomorrow?"
Shelly nodded, looking more excited than she had before. "Sure, I can do that. We can meet there to hang out." Amber smiled as well, finding herself looking forward to their freshly made plans as the three of them turned another corner onto a promenade. Shops and venders stretched throughout the length of the street, selling all manner of things, and Shelly led them to one side to window shop. "So? See anything you like?"
Amber glanced through the occasional window, spying a number of displays dedicated to showcasing a number of different outfits. Skirts, handbags, hats, each a different size and color, and all looking somewhat pricy. Nothing really caught Amber's eye though. It all looked far too girly for her taste.
Even if she had found something, she wasn't able to concentrate at the moment. Ever since Shelly brought up the café she couldn't seem to put Payla and the council out of her mind. To think that someone trusted to uphold the law would do something like that made her stomach churn. Though Jaina's reaction to the whole ordeal was the most surprising thing of all. Amber had always suspected she had a bit of a short fuse, but to see her go off like that was more than a little frightening.
She began to worry that she'd turn that wrath on her for believing it all, and that notion definitely made her sweat. "Hey Shelly?" She asked, calling her away from one of the shop windows. "Do you think Jaina is mad at me about the council thing?"
Shelly shook her head. "No way." She seemed confused at first, but it didn't take long to figure out what could have led her to ask that. "Jaina isn't that bad. I know she can be kind of-."
"Mean?" Zeke interrupted.
"No. She's..." Shelly seemed unable to think of the right words, and soon realised that it wasn't helping her case very much. "She just gets antsy whenever the Council gets involved. I know she can be kind of rough sometimes, but beneath that hard exterior is-."
"Is another hard exterior?" Zeke smirked
"Zeke, stop that!" Shelly huffed, swatting him away.
Amber rubbed her behind sheepishly, having fallen behind slightly as they walked along. "She pinched my butt..."
Shelly stopped suddenly, finding herself coming up short for an excuse. "Yeah... Ok, maybe she's a little weird sometimes. But she's a good person, I promise." She looked back again, finding Amber didn't look very convinced. "Don't hold it against her, 'kay?"
She was slow to respond, but even she had to admit that it didn't make much sense to hold a grudge, especially after Jaina had offered to help her out so much. With another long sigh, Amber nodded again. "I'll try."
Shelly nodded too, figuring that was as good of an answer as she was going to get right now. She glanced at a clock hanging above a shop door as they passed, then up at the starry night sky above. "Well, it's getting kind of late. I guess we should go home before someone starts to worry."
"Yeah, I guess..." Amber glanced into one more shop window before they parted, when something caught her eye. "Wait, I think..." She trailed off, vanishing into the shop they had just passed. Shelly quickly followed, finding Amber holding a set of folded pajamas. They were purple in color, and made of a fuzzy material with blue clouds printed all over the pants. The shirt had no sleeves and would have reached just past her thighs with three blue stripes around the tummy. They seemed a little big for Amber's size, but that didn’t seem to deter her one bit.
Zeke glanced back and forth between the girls, a little lost as to what was going on. "What is it?"
Shelly gained a large smile on her face, seeing the starry eyed Amber gaze at the garments. A store clerk was busy restocking the shelves when the three of them entered, and had since made his way over to them. "So, you girls see anything you like?"
Amber hugged the pajamas' against her chest, feeling their soft fabric through the neck of her shirt. "Yeah..." She mumbled, glancing back at Shelly again. "I think I know what I want to buy."
A short while later, the three of them had parted ways. Shelly had hurriedly returned home, hoping her Dad was back to stave off the wrath of her brother, and Zeke now led Amber through town to Axel's house. They had long since left the promenade, and after a few winding turns down a number of back alleys, Amber began to suspect they had gotten lost. "Zeke, are you sure it's this way?"
"It's a shortcut." He said proudly, spinning around to face her. "I know this city like the back of my paw." He spun around in mid-air and took off again, when a shadow loomed at the end of the alley. Zeke suddenly zipped back and pulled Amber behind a large wooden crate, ducking down just as a person passed by. "Get down..." He whispered.
Amber bonked her head on the way down, and was about to complain when she caught a fleeting glimpse of who had appeared. It was barely a second before they were out of sight, but there was no mistaking him; it was Raven, the fire mage everyone had said was bad news. She couldn't believe her luck today, it was just one problem after another.
Both she and Zeke crept closer to the edge of the buildings, peeking around the corner to watch him walk away. If he had seen them, he didn't show it; or just didn't care enough to react. He simply trudged along, hands in his pockets and without a care in the world. Up ahead, Amber spied a trio of children huddled under a streetlight, standing directly in Raven's path.
She was about to jump out and warn them to get away, or at least do something to tell them to move, but Raven passed them by without so much as a word before she could make up her mind. Both she and Zeke breathed a sigh of relief, but one of the kids suddenly spun around and called. "Hey mister!" Amber jumped up in surprise, but Raven walked on as if he'd heard nothing. "You're a mage, right?" The child persisted.
This time, Raven stopped; barely putting in the effort to glance over his shoulder. "Sup, half pint?"
"Can you help?" The boy said, pointing up at the building next to them. Amber followed his hand up to the building's roof, where a ball was perched precariously over its edge. "None of us can reach it. And we can't go home without it."
Raven stared up at the building, apparently contemplating what to do. Amber held her breath as he raised an arm, which emitted a dull orange light as fire burst to life in the palm of his hand. The three children backed away slightly, and with a flick of the wrist Raven's fireball washed up the side of the building. The ball launched upwards, floating through the air for a moment until the fiery updraft died down.
One of the kids stepped forwards to catch it as it began to fall, then looked back at Raven with stars in his eyes once his toy had been retrieved. "Wow, thanks!" Raven didn't say anything, simply slipping his hands into his pockets as the same disinterested look returned to his face. Undeterred, the child continued. "I want to be a mage like you when I grow up."
A grin split across Raven's face, and just as he turned to leave he said. "No you don't."
Though obviously a little confused as to what that meant, the three children all turned and ran away with large smiles spread across their faces. Amber and Zeke remerged just after they passed the ally where they had been hiding, watching Raven's back as he disappeared into the night. "He's such a prick." Zeke spat.
Amber looked back at the children as they presumably ran home. "Y-yeah..." She mumbled in agreement. She couldn't believe he'd helped anyone, yet he had. From what everyone had told her about him, it seemed so... Out of character. She stopped herself from dwelling on it too long, deciding that she'd had more than enough drama for one night. "C'mon, we should get going."
"Yeah, I know." He nodded in agreement, but a devilish grin crept across his face as the pair of them set out again. "Wait 'till I tell Jaina about this. She'll never let him live it down."
After a few minutes, Amber now stood before Axel's house, situated on the outskirts of the city on top of a small hill. It looked like a cottage, being only one story tall, and the long flight of stone steps leading from the door to the road only added to the rustic appearance. Zeke was perched on her shoulder, eagerly bouncing up and down as they waited for Axel to open the door for them. "C'mon, c'mon, what's taking him so long?" He complained.
She heard a noise from inside just as she thought about knocking again, and a moment later Axel opened the door for them. He stood still for a moment, seemingly not knowing what to say, but then stepped aside to allow her in. "So uh, make yourself at home." He muttered, turning the corner and out of sight.
"T-thanks." Amber found herself suddenly apprehensive as she stepped inside. Zeke flew from her shoulder as she kicked her sandals off in the foyer, and slowly stepped around the corner to look around. The next room was the kitchen; it looked rather small, though with a fridge, oven, dishwasher, and several cupboards, though it would probably suffice for just one or two people.
She followed Zeke through the kitchen and into the next room, the den, just in time to see Axel carry a cardboard box down another hallway. This one had a large bay window overlooking most of the city, with a couch positioned on the opposite wall that made a perfect view.
Axel re-emerged a second later, having stored what must have been the last of the clutter Jon had mentioned. "So... The bedrooms are down that hall, the one at the end is yours if you want it. The bathroom is down there to." He said, pointing down the hallway he'd just came from.
"Thanks." Amber muttered again, sitting down on the couch. She took another look around; the house looked like one big hallway, going from kitchen, to den, to bedrooms. It looked quite cozy though, and she began to feel bad about the way she'd treated Axel over the past few days. "L-listen, I'm sorry about everything."
"Don't worry about it." He said, moving to the kitchen again. "Jaina has always been kind of a pain in my ass, so don't let it get ya' down." Amber snickered to herself as he leaned back on the kitchen table, too timid to dear getting any closer to her. "Something's bugging me though. Why did you get so jittery over what Jaina said? I mean you didn't suspect I did something to you already, did you?"
"I was just trying to look out for myself." Amber admitted, trying to think of an explanation that wouldn't make her sound paranoid. "I was on edge from what that council woman said, so I guess I just took it too seriously."
"Council woman?" Zeke repeated. "What council woman?"
It took a moment, but Amber remembered that the two of them had arrived after she'd sorted all that out with Jaina and the others. "I'll tell you later..." She really didn't want to explain it all again right now, and just wanted to move on. "I'm sorry, alright? It made sense to me at the time, and I just want to put this whole thing behind me."
"Sure." Apparently wishing for nothing more than that, Axel nodded and knelt down to open the fridge. He rummaged around for something to eat, then popped his head up above the door. "Well, I'm getting hungry. You like shrimp?"
Amber shook her head. "N-no, not really."
"Oh." Axel seemed surprised, then looked back into the fridge. After a bit more rummaging, he stood up and shut the door. "Alright, well I'll be back in a bit then. How's chicken sound?"
Amber shrugged. "Sure." Axel nodded, then headed around the corner to the foyer. After a second she heard the door open and shut, and saw Axel heading back into town through the bay window.
Sitting alone, Amber decided to get a look at her room when she heard Zeke land next to her. "So, are you going to try them on?" He asked, pawing at her shopping bag.
Amber thought for a moment, then grew a smile on her face when she remembered her new purchase. "Yeah, hold on." She quickly grabbed her bag and headed into the back hall, disappearing into the bathroom. After a minute, she remerged again wearing her new pajamas. Her old clothes had been haphazardly stuffed into her shopping bag, but Armeria still hung around her waist outside her shirt. "What do you think?" She asked with pride.
"Are they comfortable?" Zeke asked curiously.
"Yeah." She nodded, sitting back down on the couch. She thought back to the pajama's Shelly had loaned her, and how much trouble they'd all gone through just so she could have some of her own. She began to feel bad again, hating that Payla had tricked her so easily. Her smile began to fade, realising that they all took a dangerous job because she didn't trust any of them at the time.
"Amber?" Zeke asked, standing on the couch next to her. Just as she pulled her attention away from her thoughts to look at him, he picked up the waistband of her pajama shirt with a devilish smile. "Hey, are you ticklish?"
"What?" She asked confused. "What do you me-AH!" Zeke suddenly dove up her shirt, crawling up her tummy with lightning speed. His soft fur tickled her as he moved, causing Amber to burst out in laughter. "Zeke, stop it! What do you think you're-?" He passed under her arm, brushing his tail through her armpit.
She jumped up from the couch, twisting and turning in any way she could to try and shake Zeke out. To her dismay, he moved far too fast for her to react in time, leaving her thrashing and swatting for not. He crawled up her back again, and Amber saw his tail flick out of the neck of her shirt. Almost out of breath, she desperately grasped at the end of Zeke's tail before it disappeared and pulled him out.
Amber collapsed the second Zeke's furry paws disappeared, having exhausted herself with the short burst of activity. She laid still, staring up at the ceiling and attempting to catch her breath. Every joint of hers began to ache, more so as she rolled up into a sitting position.
She became much more annoyed as she felt the pain flow, feeling just as tired now as she had after their journey through the swamp. "What was that for?!" She yelled, holding Zeke up by the end of his tail.
"You looked sad." He said simply, apparently unbothered that he was dangling upside-down. "Dad always says laughter can make anyone feel better. So I thought I'd try and make you laugh." Amber dropped him instantly, too annoyed to really respond. She crawled up off the floor and onto the couch, finding the prospect of standing up again to tiring to even think about. Her eyelids grew heavy as she leaned against the armrest, drawing her legs up off the floor. Zeke hopped up on the seat next to her, his big eyes beaming with a hopeful look. "Did it work?"
"Yeah, sure..." Amber huffed, trying not to look at him. Even if Zeke hadn't really done a very good job of it, the fact that he cared enough to try and comfort her made all the difference.
She slumped over, feeling the soft fabric of her new pajamas encouraging her towards a comfortable rest. She took one last look out the window for Axel, then shuffled onto her side to rest her head on the armrest when she saw he was nowhere in sight. Slowly, she snuggled into a ball on the couch, and finally dozed off after a mere few seconds.
Axel returned after an hour, just as the moon became visible from behind a thick cloud cover. He quickly kicked off his shoes and headed into the kitchen, spying Amber on the couch in the exact same place she had been when he left. "Alright, dinner's-."
"Shhhh." Zeke hushed from the other room. "She's asleep."
Axel moved quietly through the kitchen to investigate, leaving dinner on the kitchen table on the way bye. Sure enough, Amber was curled into a ball in the corner seat of their couch, her head resting on the armrest. "Oh..." Axel exclaimed, surprised that she had settled in so quickly. She'd even changed clothes. The smell of food drew his attention back to the kitchen, which made his stomach growl. It seemed to be a shame to wake Amber, seeing how peaceful she looked, so he just shrugged and stood back up. "Well, come on Zeke. Dinners' ready."
"Wait." Zeke piped up, standing on the backrest above Amber's head. "Take her to bed first."
Axel quickly looked back down at Amber. She seemed fine where she was, even if the way her neck was bent against the armrest looked a little... Unnatural. "Why? She fell asleep there, so she must be comfortable enough."
"Come on Axel. She came with us because we have a spare bed, and I can't carry her by myself." Zeke jumped from the top of the couch to land on the end table closest to Axel. He interlocked the fingers of his tiny paws and put on the best kitty cat eyes he could muster. "Please?"
Watching Zeke's big eyes for a moment swayed Axel's decision, even if he still found the idea a waste of time. With a small sigh, he stepped back into the den and stood in front of Amber, pondering the best way to do this. Slowly, he slid the coffee table out of the way knelt down in front of her, taking her glasses and putting them into one of his back pockets. After thinking for a moment, he slowly slid an arm under Amber's head, gently worming it around her shoulders to roll her onto her back. Next he slid his other arm under her knees, lifting her off the couch like he was holding a bride. He glanced down at her face to see if she was still asleep, finding her head resting against his chest. He had to admit, even after all the trouble they had caused each other, she looked rather cute now that she was asleep.
Confident that she hadn't been jostled awake, Axel carried her through the dene and into the hallway. He spun around to push one of the bedroom doors opened with his back, when he spotted Zeke hovering in the middle of the entrance to the kitchen and a thought came to mind. "Wait a minute, you carry me around all the time..." He whispered, realising that he had been tricked.
"Well, you're already holding her. So you might as will do the rest." He replied with a sly grin, tearing into one of the takeout bags. "Besides, I'm hungry." Axel rolled his eyes and pushed back into the bedroom with a shallow grunt, figuring he could get back at Zeke some time later.
The light from the hallway was enough to illuminate most of the room, so Axel elected to leave the light off. Approaching the bed, he flicked the blanket away with his foot and laid Amber on top. She shuffled slightly as he stepped back, appearing much more comfortable here than she did on the couch. Her belt suddenly flew into pieces as he dropped Amber's classes on the nightstand, and Armeria came to rest sitting on the windowsill overlooking the room.
Axel drew up a blanket, then quickly glanced around the room before his eyes finally settled on Armeria. "So, uh... Goodnight."
"Goodnight." She waved as Axel closed the door behind him, then looked down at Amber resting under the covers after his shadow disappeared from underneath the door. "He seems nice. You two should be friends." Amber rolled over in the bed, though Armeria pressed on regardless. "See Amber? I told you you'd be happy here."
"Go to sleep..." Amber complained, wrapping the pillow around her head to shut out anything else. She'd been awake for the entire thing, having woken up just before Axel lifted her off the couch, but pretended to be asleep just to see what he would do. Resting in a bed now, Amber knew she had been wrong about him all that time. She slowly nodded off again, falling into the most restful sleep she had ever had in her entire life.
Next Chapter – Sweet and Sour