Chapter 1: Noble
Once upon a time, there lived a kingdom.
That rose in the wake of the Age of Darkness.
A civilization driven on strength and power, the Empire of Duvos became a haven for all those who feared losing this newfound world.
In a time when not even the sun seemed certain.
Led by the guidance of their beloved emperor, the people of Duvos found protection within his reign as a princess was born.
A princess whose birth brought the promise of a new era.
An age certain for greatness.
Until one day…tragedy struck the empire.
And fire soon rained from its skies.
As rebellions rose, all it took was one night for a dream to collapse.
An emperor, turned coward, to abandon his people.
Hearts fell and militants rose, and to this day no one knows what became of their traitor king.
No ones dares to ask.
For the Empire of Duvos now clings to a new order.
An order that held no need for fairy tales.
No need for hope.
No need for change.
And as for the princess named after the winter’s sun…
As they claim, she never truly existed.
And that…was certain.
With one step out of the hazardous ruins, Noelle’s eyes squinted as she was greeted by the intense sunrise of the summer sun. A heavy sigh hit her. She did it again…spent an entire night excavating throughout the Collapsed Wasteland without any thought of the time. Or fair warning.
“He is going to be furious when he finds out.” She cringed to herself as she took the time to take a seat upon the steps of the Sewage Plant’s entrance, before ultimately shrugging. “If he finds out.”
After all, it wasn’t like she broke any rules. It was just…frowned upon. If the Civil Corp found out, particularly a certain captain, that she had spent yet another all-nighter excavating the ruins unexpectedly…well she just wouldn’t hear the end of it.
Noelle let out a frustrated sigh, running a hand through her long tresses and resting her grip against the sweaty nape of her neck.
She’s proved her worth many times over that she was qualified to fend for herself outside the protection of the city. It was one of the few advantages she had over the other builders in town and Noelle would be damned if she got that privilege taken away all because of someone else’s concerns.
Especially when she was so close to her goals.
So close to being ranked the top workshop in Portia.
One day she will rest, but not just yet.
With her satchel by her side, filled with an abundance of much needed materials, the builder couldn’t help but smirk as she felt the pleasant weight of her haul.
As the birds chirped around her, Noelle took the time to investigate through her bag and officially sort through her finds from the evening. It wasn’t the best trip she’s had, but it was far from the worst. Tempering liquids, some old parts, a few valves, a copper bar or two. Not bad at all. Noelle smiled cheekily as she rummaged through and found some much needed silicon chips as well.
Definitely not the worst trip.
As she placed the materials back in her satchel, something sparkly caught the young builder’s eye. Something hiding deep within the bag’s contents. Curious, Noelle took it out and brought it into the sunlight where it shined.
A simple eye glass.
The memory of finding the glass slipped her mind. She was so busy focusing on making her way through the sewage plant that she forgot all about finding the sparkly material. It was different unlike the others she had found. This one eerily had a stronger clarity, a brighter complexion, almost that of a mirror.
Bright, rose-colored eyes stared sleepily back at her as she rubbed away the smudges from the glass’s surface. Slowly, yet surely, the image’s reflection became clearer as faint freckles soon appeared upon her cheeks amidst the frame of her face- sharpened by the bright, lavender hues her long hair reflected in the summer light.
There were times when she wondered if her Aunt Kendra would scold her now for not dying it black as she did when she was little. How her aunt would sneak the dye into her evening baths and how the thick smell would keep her up at all hours of the night. The memory alone was enough for Noelle to wrinkle her nose.
The woman in the reflection yawned before Noelle placed the glass back in the bag. The effects of her days blurring together were starting to take its toll…and there was little time to waste. The Commerce Guild will open shortly, and she must be there when the doors open. Knowing her rival, he’s already rubbing his hands as he goes about stalking the guild’s doors with a sneaky smirk. If she doesn’t meet him in time who knows how many commissions Higgins will sneak off with!
Forcing herself to stand, Noelle soon made her throughout the wasted land and back towards the Portia gates. She fought back another yawn just thinking about the day ahead of her. Commissions to fulfill. Relics to sort through and distribute. Data discs to hand off.
“Just gotta shake it off until later,” She said to herself as the iron clad gates came into view.
Dry blades of green grass kissed her ankles as she walked through the spoiled fields. With each welcoming breeze, a faint smell of chemicals tinkled her nose. Remanence of old era. A way of life long forgotten. No matter how many times she’s visited the wasteland the sight never grew old.
And then there was that other, typical sight. A horde of pinecocks sleeping soundly right off the gate’s shoulders. About three or four. Nothing too much of a threat. Still, Noelle kept her sword close by her side.
Slow beasts, she thought as she side stepped through the grass past them. But strong in numbers…
Avoiding the monstrous birds would be absolutely ideal right now. After spending her night fighting off the toxic mutations from the sewers, having to drop everything for another fight would just be…annoying. Alas, however, she fought for her right to enter the wasteland unsupervised. She knew what she was getting into if an unsuspecting blow came her way.
The iron clad gates for Portia came into view as she trudged forward, quickly yet softly, to avoid the beasts. Noelle put at extra pep in her step as she heard the town’s bells strike.
I must get to the Guild before Higgins, Noelle thought as she picked up her pace.
The thought drove her more quickly towards the gate, her steps merging into a sprint, until suddenly…
A snap of a branch. A soft, yet curdling jolt into the peace of the morning. Noelle froze in her tracks as the sound echoed throughout the open field, and cautiously, she turned her gaze over to the flock of pinecocks.
A flock of wide awake, startled, and very angry pinecocks.
“Shit.” Noelle muttered quickly as the red, monstrous birds jolted from their slumber and into the sky. Alarmed, their beady eyes shot right into the young builder’s direction and charged her way. In little to no time before Noelle swiftly dodged a blow.
Her blood grew warm. A shock was sent through her spine. Since when did pinecocks get so fast?!
She tucked and rolled as one of the birds launched its venomous projectile in her path. Soon, the others unleashed a crossfire that led her into yet another calculated dance of dodges.
The birds swarmed in and about as Noelle avoided their blows, missing each strike as her eyes moved from beast to beast. All she had to do was maybe knock out one or two, open a path back to the gate…that’s all. She could do it. With what little stamina she had, she could do it.
Suddenly, she felt a strong rush of heat against her backside as one of the pinecock’s wings knocked her from her stance-striking Noelle down and her sack of materials along with it. Falling forward, she desperately tried to grab for her bag…but it was too late as another poppycock sent it flying over the nearby cliff. Deep down into the hazardous lake below…
Her eyes grew wide.
Noelle lifted herself up with her elbows. Hair disheveled. Eyes wide. She only had a matter of seconds before another pinecock swooped in above her, the builder rolling over in a haste as she got to her feet. Her blood officially boiling.
“You have got,” Noelle exasperated as she narrowed her eyes in fury, unsheathing her sword in one fluid motion with an angry grip. “To be fucking kidding me.”
“Tensions have risen to their highest in years between the Empire of Duvos and the Principality of Ethea over the Orzu Ruins. The ruins have been a site of contention between the two states for the last twenty years. Tensions started rising when Duvos placed troops at the entrance to the ruins, blocking anyone not from Duvos from entering.
The High Princess of Ethea, Alessa, issued a statement saying…”
The rest of the article was more of the same. Causes of panic. Claims for peace. Disruption that continues to just…grow. With his hands clasped behind his back, Arlo’s grip tightened as his gaze scanned over the latest article posted in front of the Portia Times.
Maybe it was the summer sun beating down on his neck, or maybe it was the increasing frequency of these reports, he wasn’t quite sure. All Arlo could feel was the heat rising in his body.
“Nothing new, it seems.” He sighed as he scanned over the article once more. His eyes begun to glaze over, his mind wandering…
As the leader of the Civil Corp, he had a duty to protect the people of Portia. But that was it…just Portia. In the grand scheme of things, what good could he be to The Alliance of Free Cities if he’s not out there on the front lines making a difference? A real difference?
There must be something he could do. If he were to get into the Flying Pigs this time, if he were out there on the border during these conflicts, maybe he could change the text he was reading. Find a better ending to the story. If only he could-
“Oh, good morning Arlo!” Mei’s chipper voice broke his concentration as the reporter appeared from next door, a stock full of freshly printed articles in hand. Immediately, Arlo snapped himself back into focus.
“Ah Mei, hello.” He said, eyeing the stack she held. “Is that this morning’s report?”
“It sure is.” Mei smiled, beaming with pride as she pinned up her latest addition to the board. “Another juicy scoop on Portia’s latest hero!”
As she pulled away, Arlo noticed that Mei covered a portion of the Duvos reports with her newest addition. The man couldn’t help but smile softly as he read the newer, much more favorable headline.
“New Builder Saves Town Water Source! A Rat King Defeated?!”
“She’s really something, yeah?” Mei grinned, admiring her freshly printed work.
Arlo could only nod in response. Although the article lacked her photograph, he could still remember the look on Noelle’s face when she and Sam arrived back into town that day. Clothing tattered. A stagger in her step. Dust upon her cheeks. But nevertheless, a proud, cheeky smile on top of it all.
He’s seen that look before. She was a fighter, just like him. And a resilient one too. As a builder, he admired her. As a friend, he trusted her. Just as much as Sam and Remington, in fact. The builder’s grown on him as someone he could count on, and by the looks of Mei’s article, soon the rest of Portia will too.
But sometimes he just couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she was a bit too reckless…
“You got yourself a good friend.” Mei said, “Be sure to tell Noelle my thanks if you see her!” The reporter waved as she ran off with her newspapers in hand before Arlo could even protest.
As a rule, he made it clear to himself not to get too attached to anyone in the city. After all, the entrance exams for the Flying Pigs would be here before he knew it and he’d rather not complicate matters by creating any unnecessary attachments.
No matter how resilient a particular attachment could be.
With that thought, Arlo continued with the rest of his morning patrol and made his way to Peach Plaza. It was a beautiful summer morning in Portia and Arlo knew his busy schedule had only just begun as the town came alive around him, bustling already for the day ahead.
In that moment a sense of pride filled the young Civil Corp captain. Maybe there was a purpose for everything that he did, after all. He may not be standing alongside the Flying Pigs just yet defending the borders from Duvos and other threats, but he at least is here for Portia.
At least he is here for today.
As he made his way throughout the city, he noticed Lee and Nora already setting up for their lecture beside Peach’s fountain- its waters noticeably much cleaner than it was before.
“Oh, Arlo!” Nora called out to him as he approached the center of the square.
He noticed as the missionary quickly pardoned herself from Lee’s stand before making her way over to him, and instinctively he smiled back to her.
“Hello Nora,” He said, folding his arms. “Up bright and early for the day?”
“Of course,” She said, “Minister Lee crafted such a wonderful sermon this morning celebrating the return of our water source. Care to stay for it?”
Arlo paused as he looked sheepishly around. “…Perhaps another time.”
Nora fidgeted in her steps. She didn’t seem that surprised by his response.
“Oh, I see. You must have a busy schedule today, after all.”
The captain could only nod. By the looks of her flushed cheeks, perhaps he wasn’t the only one affected by the summer heat.
Soon enough, Nora’s voice became a whisper.
“Um Arlo, I was hoping maybe-”
A large crash interrupted what came next. Arlo, along with Nora, broke from the conversation as they turned towards the doors of the Commerce Guild. Everyone else in the plaza soon did the same.
“That’s not fair! That commission is mine!”
“Yours?! I got my hands on it first!”
“Only because you stole it from me!”
Arlo let out a long, exhausted sigh. Not again.
“I’m sorry, Nora. Another time.” He said, shaking his head as he pinched the bridge of his nose. It was too early for this.
“I-It’s alright! We’ll catch up later.” Nora quickly said as her face grew even more flushed.
She turned away before Arlo could even dismiss himself, allowing the captain to face the disturbance ahead of him full on.
“What seems to be the problem?” Arlo approached the steps of the guild where the commotion took place. And low and behold, there she was. Lavender hair and all. Literally playing tug of war with Higgins as she fiercely held on to a crumbled commission in her hand.
Portia’s very own hero herself. Acting so noble.
He met the duo with raised eyebrows, hands behind his back as he shot a sideways glance at Noelle. Her eyes met his for only a moment before she looked the other way, a pout on her lips.
“You have to do something about this, Arlo!” Higgins shouted, pointing a finger directly at him. “She can’t just be running on top of rooftops like a mad woman, jumping off wherever she pleases! She almost knocked me over!”
“She what?” Arlo’s eyes widened as he glared even further at Noelle. The builder, in return, scowled.
“Big deal! There’s no law against it. And you’re exaggerating if you’re going to blame your clumsy feet on me.” The builder countered, “I made it through the Guild’s doors fair and square. Right on the dot.”
“I was waiting patiently in front of the Commerce all morning like a decent citizen and she just came out of nowhere! She stole the commission I was waiting for right from my hands!” Higgins gestured wildly with his arms. Arlo could almost picture them falling off.
“I did no such thing! You’re making a fuss all because I was faster than you?” The look in Noelle’s eyes was incredulous.
“Because you broke the rules!”
“No, I didn’t!”
“Alright!” Arlo rose his voice above the two, effectively silencing the pair. “That’s enough now. Noelle, hand over the commission.”
“What?” Noelle couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Now. Please.” Arlo firmly asked again. Higgins smirked as he looked back over at the builder smugly, who still had that look of disbelief in her eyes. She handed over the crumbled piece of paper to the captain.
“Are you serious right now, Arlo?” She said, her tone dripping in skepticism.
“Very.” He said, taking the piece of parchment. “Since there can’t be a civil agreement on who will take on the job, this commission will be administered back into the Guild’s possession. It will be posted to the bulletin at the end of the day and only then Antoine will hand off the commission to the first builder with a proper application.”
Noelle gaped at him. Higgins could only scoff with a huff.
“It’ll have to do. And I’ll be sure to properly walk my way to the Guild. Remember that!” Higgins voice was harsh as he stormed off. As he angrily marched away, the stares that gathered around the plaza slowly returned to their activities-leaving Noelle and Arlo.
“I can’t believe you just did that.” Noelle said, still in disbelief. “That was a job for the Portia Bridge project. I had the commission first. I’m the one who took it off the board!”
Arlo sighed, “You may have, but is it true what Higgins said? Did you really jump across the town’s rooftops to beat him to the guild?”
“Yes, but I told you it’s not against-” Noelle began but was cut off when Arlo grabbed her arm.
“Tell me why.” His voice was firm, Noelle looked at him in confusion. He stared back at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Tell me why you had to jump across the rooftops from Central Plaza when the Commerce Guild is just steps from your workshop?”
Noelle’s eyes widened. Shit.
Arlo bore into her. Fighting back the urge to gulp, she nervously smiled as her friend’s glare continued.
“Well…you see…” She began, but she was at a loss of words. Arlo leaned in closer but as soon as he breathed in her scent, he recoiled.
“Noelle, you reek!” He coughed, “You smell just like the sewage from-”
And then everything clicked inside that auburn head of his.
He slowly turned his gaze to the builder and watched as she grew more nervous. The summer sun was burning high but soon enough, it paled in comparison to the temperature rising in his blood…
“I can’t believe it! You stayed overnight in the wastelands again, didn’t you?!” Arlo was fuming, “How many times do we have to have this conversation, Noelle?”
“So what? I didn’t hurt anyone!” She glared, “It’s none of your business!”
“None of my business?” Arlo gaped, “The safety of Portia’s citizens, yes even you, is my business. You could have gotten hurt. Or worse.”
“But I’m fine! You of all people should know that I’m not like the other builders here. I’m capable of fending for myself and-”
“Just because you killed a few rats and had a few victories doesn’t mean you are invincible.” Arlo frowned, his gaze heated and concerned. In that moment, he looked at her. Really looked at her. She looked exhausted…as if she hadn’t slept properly in days. Frayed hair. Baggy eyes. Bruises all over…
He took a step closer to her, and soon enough Noelle was well reminded of their height difference. She furrowed her brow in anger.
“I can handle myself; you don’t need to worry about me.” She mustered up whatever argument she could, but it was no use. She was done and there was no turning back. Arlo knew what he had to do.
“You’re access to the wastelands and its ruins is suspended until further notice.” His eyes narrowed.
“What?!” Noelle gaped, “Seriously? Until when?!”
“Until you can handle yourself properly.”
Noelle didn’t know what to say back to him. She took a step back, pulling herself away with a fire in her eyes. All her life there just had to be something that got in her way. Whenever she was just another step closer, there just had to be something that put her two steps back.
And she felt hopeless for it.
“You have no idea what I can handle.” Her tone was low, and defeated, as she glared back at the captain. He stared back just as well, before he soon noticed the hurt forming in her eyes. His gaze faltered.
“C’mon Noelle, don’t do this here…” He began, but it was too late.
Without another word, Noelle turned from him and made her way back to her workshop, leaving Arlo in the wake of his decision. He watched as she left, a defiant stride in her step as the summer sun grew hotter by the second in the morning sky.
Arlo sighed. That could have gone better…
“Well,” A voice startled him. Arlo jumped at the sound and was shocked to see Sam by his side, her lips puckered. By the looks of her face, she’s seen everything.
“You messed up big time, didn’t you?” She chuckled, eyebrows raised in amusement. Another dowse of sweat dropped alongside his forehead.
Summer truly was a test of his will.
When she was young, Noelle dreamed of airships. Alongside them she would float in the sky…limitless in where she could go. How far she could reach.
It was a wonderful feeling.
This feeling of flight.
Of drifting, floating, flying away.
To anywhere that she may go.
However, as all things, such flight never lasted.
For this dream never did last long. If her eyes remained shut long enough, just long enough, she would smell the smoke.
A vague memory of ash and embers that would fill her lungs.
Choking her breath.
And then, alongside with the airships, she’ll be fired down.
With no memory of hers left to be caught.
Chapter 2: Effort
I'm so happy everyone is loving this story. This chapter is a little longer as I just couldn't stop writing, hope you enjoy!
“Now let’s see…it looks like to make the carbon steel bars stronger…I’ll have to smelt the iron at this particular heat….or maybe no…wait…” Noelle’s nose was deep in her handbook as she paced through the yard of her workshop, flipping through its pages with intense concentration.
As she did, a melody of sounds swarmed around her with the buzzing of her machines at work. Furnaces aglow amidst the intense, summer heat. Cutters shifting through courses upon courses of glimmering metals. Grinders bending and breaking, skivers pulling and stretching, each sound bringing life within the tiny yard as Noelle calculated her steps in time with the demands of her machines.
Even with her eyes glued to her handbook, what was once a miserable mess of trial and error has now become a well-rounded routine. Everything slowly coming together amidst this tiny, yet productive, harmony of production.
“And all I just need here…” Noelle muttered as she flipped through another page, before instantly frowning. Soon enough, she was clenching her teeth. “All I just need is everything I don’t have. And materials that I can’t get.” An exasperated sigh left her as she tossed her book at her workbench in frustration.
The young builder shut her eyes as she rubbed her hands down her face, before taking in a series of deep breaths. She thought she would be over the events of this morning by now, but nothing seemed to help keep her mind off her punishment. And the one who dealt it.
Not the brisk shower she took to cool down. Not the rapid pace of her morning agenda. Not even the demanding distractions of her trusted handbook. Nothing at all.
All she could think about was how Arlo made a fool of her right in front of everyone. In front of the guild. In front of Higgins. In front of her own damn self.
“He thinks he knows everything,” Noelle sighed. “But I guess he doesn’t understand after all.”
Her eyes softened just a little bit as a heavy feeling grew in her heart. Arlo was the first person in town to give her a chance. He was the one to give her that very first commission to replace the one Higgins ripped right from her hands. Maybe she was overthinking, deep down Noelle knew it sounded crazy, but she never thought he would be someone who would turn such tables on her…
A sudden stream of silence brought Noelle’s attention back to reality as she turned towards her cutter, noticing her steel plates were just about finished. Quickly, she shook those thoughts away as she rushed back over to the project at hand.
Grabbing her handbook, she flipped through its pages once more as she checked the quality of the newly pressed materials.
“Okay…so I’ll just need to weld the ends here for these frames…” The words poured out of her mouth effortlessly as once more, she consumed herself back into her work. Arlo may have ruined her morning, but he certainly was not going to ruin her afternoon.
With the summer sun still high in the air, she continued this way. Bustling to and fro. Carrying about the workshop at her own, premeditated pace.
With her eyes still plastered to her handbook, Noelle reached for her tools…and confusion filled her senses when she felt something plush and fuzzy instead. Her eyes immediately perked up as she pulled her gaze away from the faded book and to her workbench. A delightful, chirping sound interrupted her mechanic melody as the builder came face to face with…a tiny, fluffy chick.
“What the?” The book fell from her hand.
The small creature blinked back at her, tilting its head to the side. Noelle did the same.
“Hey!” Emily’s voice called out, “Quick Noelle! Can you grab him?”
Her neighbor rushed over from a distance; her cheeks puffy with exertion as she carried a small basket of chicks underneath her arm.
“A-Ah sure!” Noelle said as she reached out for the chick…which immediately jumped away and ran right between her legs.
“Oh no, get back here!” She shouted after the small creature as it chirped in fear, dodging Noelle’s advances. No matter what she did, no matter how much she snuck up on the small little thing, it always found a way to slip through her grasp.
“He must be scared,” Emily realized as she caught up to Noelle, “He probably doesn’t know that he’s away from home.”
Emily’s words rang true when Noelle glanced back over at the tiny animal who had taken shelter underneath her assembly station. The little bird chirped again as it looked all around, shaking its little body whenever Noelle got near. Crouching down to her knees, Noelle looked closely at the chick…he looked so scared.
Of her. Of Emily. Of its surroundings. Everything.
“I don’t know what to do, he won’t listen.” Emily pouted with worry.
“Let me try something,” Noelle finally said, an idea coming to mind “I think this might work.”
Gently, she nudged herself closer to the chick’s hiding spot. Terrified, the chick shook as it took a few steps back. Fighting back the urge to show any frustration, Noelle bit her lip and did her best to smile.
“Easy now…” Noelle began, reaching out her hands. The chick jumped back once more.
“Things must be scary right now. I understand…you’re away from home and you don’t know how you got here. Or what to do next.” She continued.
The chick showed hesitation.
“It’s okay, I promise I won’t hurt you. I can take you home.” Noelle soothed as she reached out her palms to the chick once more, only this time, she didn’t persist. Her hands remained wide open for the chick to approach her…to move at his own pace.
“It’s okay,” Noelle gave the chick a reassuring smile, “You can trust me.”
For a second, she thought it wouldn’t work. Half expecting the chick to run off again, Noelle grimaced when nothing happened…until slowly, but surely, the chick took a step forward.
“Shh shh, come here.” Noelle comforted the chick again as it took a step into the palm of her hands, before promptly cradling its soft body into its embrace.
Emily gasped as Noelle flashed her a breathless smile. She did it!!
“Wow, you’re a lifesaver!” Emily said with delight as she carefully took the chick from the builder’s hands and into her arms, placing him gently back into her basket with his brothers and sisters. “You definitely have the magic touch!”
“It’s no problem,” Noelle smiled, standing back up and brushing the dirt off her knees. “I’m always happy to help.”
Emily smiled back, before her expression fell as she looked at her friend. “Noelle…you look so tired.”
The look of concern was clear on her face, but Noelle brushed it off.
“No, no.” Noelle laughed as she tried to busy herself, “I’m fine. It’s just one of those days, that’s all!”
She tried to turn from Emily, but it was no use. The farmer was persistent.
“Still,” Emily continued. Noelle wished she wouldn’t. “A small break might do you some good on a hot day like this. Granny and I have some fresh watermelons that just ripened and I’m sure you’ll love them!”
“Oh…I’m not sure…I have so much to do right now-”
“I insist.” Emily said as she took Noelle by the arm, tugging the builder almost off her feet. “You can’t hide in your workshop all day without at least trying one!”
By the looks of her, Noelle could tell she wasn’t going to budge. That, and the fact that her stomach grumbled at that very moment didn’t help her case either…
“I guess I don’t have a choice.” Noelle laughed nervously to herself, as before she knew it, Emily was already dragging her away to Sophie’s ranch. Away from the bustling of her workshop and any negative thoughts that once filled its space. A pleasant chirp rang through the open air as Noelle looked down into Emily’s basket of chicks, making eye contact with her new little friend once more.
Perhaps her and that chick had more in common than she thought.
“Wow, these are so sweet!” Noelle happily sighed as she took another bite of her watermelon. A soft breeze fell across Sophie’s farm as she and Emily sat upon the storefront, legs swinging happily as the two munched on the summer treat.
“I wasn’t lyin’!” She agreed as she too took another bite, “On a scorching day like this nothing beats a watermelon to cool you down. It’s unbearable today!”
Noelle couldn’t help but smirk as she looked up at the cloudless sky.
“These days are nothing like the summers in Barnarock,” She said, reminiscing at the memory. “A day like today would be considered mild…everything was just so hot all the time.”
Emily pouted, “I can’t imagine…I don’t know if I’d do well there.”
“It wasn’t all that bad.” She said, “Some days when the heat was tough, everyone in town would get together and make one big hot pot!”
“A hot pot?” Emily gasped, “In the heat?”
Noelle chuckled. “It may sound silly compared to what everyone else is used to, but over there spicy food was constantly served to help sweat out the heat. The elderly especially even made their food extra spicy. If you didn’t sweat, there was no way to cool down.”
“So that’s why you love spicy food!”
“Could be!” That cheeky grin found its way back to Noelle’s face.
Emily laughed as she took another bite of her watermelon. Noelle happily did the same.
“But,” Noelle began, her mouth full of the snack as she spoke. “But every once in a while, the cantadurian melons would grow and that always would be a highlight of my childhood. I don’t know if they would grow here but maybe one day I’ll give it a shot!”
Emily’s expression softened at her friend’s cheerful demeanor. “Do you ever miss it? Your home there?”
Noelle was quick to shake her head as she sat her rind down, shaking off the excess juice from her hands.
“It may sound strange…but it never felt like home to me.” She began, “Barnarock, I mean. Sure, that’s where I grew up but when I was there, I felt like there was always another step out there just...waiting. Somewhere different than where I was.”
Emily nodded. “I understand that feeling.”
The blonde looked out to Noelle’s workshop over across the fields, “It seems like you found that next step, huh?”
The builder next to her smiled, turning her gaze to her workshop as well. As a soft breeze brushed her cheeks, she took in a deep breath.
Maybe earlier she was being too hard on herself. She’s only been in Portia for a few months now…expecting to outrank her rivals just like that seemed almost like a dream come true. A perfect fairy tale. She should be happy she is where she is now…all the hard work she’s put in…
“Your Pa was a great builder. The best Portia had ever seen! We are excited to see what you can accomplish in his footsteps.” Presley’s words the day she jumped off that boat still resonate deep in her mind. Constantly, every day, every moment, they echo with each commission she takes, and she can’t rid herself of it.
The thought of him brought a scowl to her face. A heavy pang to her heart.
Everyone says he was the best, but she’s never seen his work. Everyone says he was kind, but she can’t even remember his face anymore.
How great could a man be who abandoned his own daughter to live his own selfish dream? With an aunt she barely knew? A man who made her feel ashamed for the way she would act or look?
What greatness is that?
“Noelle?” Emily’s voice brought her back to reality.
“You know, you kind of remind me of this story I read when I was little. It was about this hero who…” Her voice trailed off in the afternoon breeze as the summer afternoon went on.
The wind blew softly against Noelle cheeks as Emily continued her leisurely tale, and Noelle couldn’t help but hum softly to herself as her body began to relax. Slowly, her eyes soon began to drift shut…
Perhaps a small rest couldn’t hurt after all.
One Two Three.
One Two Two.
With each jab he threw, the tension in Arlo’s body strained even further. The practice dummy in front of him swiveled and swayed with each blow he dealt, barely recovering before it was struck once more.
Straw flew everywhere. Stuffing crumbled to the floor. With clenched teeth, Arlo hurled another punch at the lifeless form in front of him.
Off in the corner of the Civil Corp headquarters, Remington and Sam sat and watched as their captain continued to beat down the worn dummy. Its figure soon began to crumble in on itself as the dummy’s shape grew limper and limper by the punch. Sam made a face. Remington whistled a low, steady note to himself.
“So you’re saying-” The older Corps member started off.
“Yep.” Sam nodded.
“And she said that?”
“Oh yeah.” Sam added. Remington raised his eyebrows with surprise.
“And that’s when he-”
“One hundred percent.”
Another drawn out whistle came from Remington’s lips.
“Alright!” Arlo suddenly spoke up, ceasing his blows as he stabilized the shaky dummy in front of him. “I’m not deaf. I can hear you two gossiping from over there.”
The duo sighed.
“We’re not gossiping, Arlo, it’s just…” Remington began as he scratched his head. He looked to Sam for support as, she too, was trying to find the words. Finally, the female fighter took a step forward.
“We just think you should reconsider Noelle’s suspension.” Sam said.
“Absolutely not.” Arlo was quick with his answer as he removed his gloves and placed them on his desk in front of him. “She went too far with her privileges and has no regard for boundaries.”
As he spoke, he looked down at his hands and grimaced slightly at the fresh bruises on his knuckles. Maybe he took training a little too far…
“Anyone else in Portia? Sure. But this is Noelle we’re talking about here.” Remington said, “She’s a good fighter.”
“With a reckless personality.” Arlo countered with a scowl. “And absolutely no discipline.”
“Okay, maybe. At times.” His female companion grimaced, “But you didn’t see her in that old factory, Arlo. She took out that rat king all on her own. I had no choice but to…just watch her take him down. She saved my life.”
“We can trust her.” Sam’s words echoed throughout the headquarters as Remington put a hand on his hips, nodding.
“Sam’s right, Arlo.” Remington added, his tone clear and sure.
The auburn captain paused at his team, before looking down at the bruises on his knuckles once more. When did he start punching that darn thing? One hour? Two hours? Three hours ago? Arlo lost count…and he couldn’t remember the last time he ever lost count…
“Noelle’s problem is she thinks she knows everything.” The captain finally said with a sigh, “She doesn’t understand that her actions could have dire consequences. It’s our job as Civil Corp members to keep those actions in line.”
It was Remington who spoke up.
“We’re not saying to not take action. Obviously if Noelle is in danger, we want to help her. But we also want to look out for her too.”
“And you can start by apologizing to her.” Sam’s words came next. Words that were firm, final.
“What?” Arlo blinked at her. She met him with raised, doubtful eyebrows.
“A-polo-gize?” Sam broke down the word slowly, “It’s what people do when they’re sorry.”
“I’m not sorry I-” Arlo began, but it was no use.
The knowing look Sam snapped at him was enough to shut him up. She gave a disbelieving look to Arlo and then back to Remington. The older member, too, seemed a little lost.
“Wow, men are clueless.” She sighed, before approaching Arlo. “I’m just saying, from a woman’s perspective, that no matter how reckless or tough a girl can be she still has feelings.”
She crossed her arms and tilted her head.
“We get it, you’re worried about Noelle’s health. Remington and I get worried about her too. But we’ve all known Noelle long enough to realize we can’t hold her back from her own decisions.”
Arlo looked to the side. He hated to admit it, but Sam was making sense. That is…until she kept talking.
“And the last thing she needs is getting chewed out by the one person in Portia whom she admires the most.” She concluded.
His eyes widened. Of all things, he wasn’t expecting Sam to say that.
He turned back to her, only to watch his team members shrug their shoulders in response. So many thoughts ran through his mind at that moment. What did she mean by…admired? A weird feeling settled in his stomach.
For as long as he knew Noelle, from their bickering to their sparring, he never got the impression that Noelle cared that much about his opinion. Because she frankly never listened to it.
It made no sense…what Sam was saying made no sense to him at all.
As he was about to say something to counter Sam’s logic, the sound of the town’s bell rung throughout the headquarters. Arlo froze at the sound.
“Is that the evening bell?” He turned towards the door.
“Wow, you really are off today.” Sam said, but Arlo ignored her remark.
“It seems about so.” Remington’s voice confirmed his fears.
“I…I have to go check on something.” Arlo mustered the words together as he turned to leave, grabbing his gloves from the desk and heading out towards the main doors. As he pardoned himself, the clocktower continued to ring in time with his actions as the doors shut heavily behind him-leaving its echo to resonate throughout the Civil Corp.
Sam shook her head before allowing a tiny smirk to form on her lips.
“Those two are more similar than they know.”
The sun was setting amongst the town’s horizon as Arlo made his way to the Commerce Guild. With each step he took, he picked up his pace as he came around the corner of Peach Plaza just in enough time to watch the streetlights come aglow.
It was there where his worst fear was confirmed.
As he approached the square, there he saw Higgins exit the guild with his usual smug grin. In his hand…Noelle’s commission.
“No way…” Arlo spoke to himself as he quickly took a step behind a nearby corner, out of Higgin’s way as the man gleefully headed back towards his workshop.
As he was out of sight, Arlo turned to notice Antoine also leaving the guild-locking up as he shut the doors behind him.
“Excuse me,” Arlo called out to him hesitantly, surprising Antoine to the point where he almost dropped his key. The flamboyant man turned to Arlo with surprise as the captain approached him.
“Oh, hiya there Arlo. Can I help you?”
Arlo didn’t know what to say. He acted without thinking, and he suddenly found himself clearing his throat.
“That commission from this morning. I, um, wanted to make sure it was redistributed properly.” He began, looking back to where Higgins left…and back over to Noelle’s workshop.
“Don’t worry, I made sure Higgins filled out the application properly before handing it off.” Antoine said.
Arlo raised his eyebrows.
Antoine blinked at him without a thought. “Yes. Those were the instructions, no?”
“No, er, I mean yes.” Arlo shook his head, “I just wanted to follow up. That’d be all.”
Antoine nodded slowly, slightly confused as he pardoned himself from the captain’s presence. Arlo watched as the secretary sashayed away, before he was left alone with an alarming feeling of guilt in his chest.
He didn’t understand. He knew Noelle. She would have been waiting in front of those doors right next to Higgins, if not earlier, waiting to reclaim that commission. That commission, he hated to admit, was indeed rightfully hers.
That look in her eyes, that hurtful look, pierced Arlo’s memory as he recalled how she stormed away from him.
“And the last thing she needs is getting chewed out by the one person in Portia whom she admires the most.”
He never intended for this to happen. In the moment when he saw how tired she was, how exhausted she looked, he thought he was protecting her. After all, it was the right thing to do. Right?
Such thoughts consumed him as he made his way over to the building for A&G Construction. As he knocked on the door, Arlo again surprised himself as he carried out the action without a thought.
“Arlo,” Albert greeted the captain as he opened the door, “What a surprise. Can I help you? I was just about to lock up for the night.”
“The Portia Bridge project. I wanted to check on its progress and see how many more commissions you plan to post. The Civil Corp…” He paused, thinking. “The Civil Corp would like a report.”
“A report?” Albert couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
“Yes, a report. As the bridge is being built, a lot of the town’s builders will be occupied with new tasks that may require extra ruin diving from the Civil Corp. I would like to plan our rounds properly to accommodate.” It was a quick lie, but believable.
Albert nodded in understanding, hand to his chin.
“Ah, yes. I see, I see.” He said, “I posted the first round of commissions for the week already. Don’t worry, I don’t plan on posting the second round until a couple more weeks in…that is, until we clear the preliminary design stage first.”
A couple more weeks.
Arlo stopped listening after he heard a couple more weeks. He could just see Noelle now, checking the commission board every day in frustration for a couple more weeks. Watching from afar as others built the bridge for a couple more weeks. Carrying that hurtful look in her eyes for a couple more weeks.
That heavy feeling hit him in the chest again. That feeling of terrible, terrible guilt.
“Anything else I can help you with?” Albert said, Arlo shook his head.
“No,” He said, “That’d…that’d be all.”
Albert grinned, “Good. I was just about to excuse myself anyway. You see, I have this hot date tonight and I’ve been thinking about it all day.”
Arlo could care less about what the man was saying. With a wave, Albert ran off to leave Arlo there in the plaza. The dusk turned darker as the night grew cooler, and the Civil Corp captain just stood there with his eyes set on Noelle’s workshop.
Sam was right. He messed up. He messed up really bad.
He had to find a way to fix it.
“O-Okay, easy now.” Emily’s voice was strained as she had Noelle draped over her shoulder, walking down the path from her farm back to the builder’s workshop.
The sun was setting, and the builder was out cold. Emily did her best to keep walking forward, but the effort proved to be difficult as Noelle’s weight pressed even further upon the poor farm girl’s frame.
Her legs were shaky. But nevertheless, throughout it all, Emily couldn’t help but weakly smile.
Her intuition was right. Noelle was exhausted…and if anything, she needed this. Even if it was just a tiny break.
Emily was just about to the gates of the workshop when a familiar voice broke her concentration.
Managing to turn around, her eyes came face to face with Arlo as he approached from the town’s gate…a confused yet concern look upon his face.
Without a second thought, he rushed over to Emily’s side.
“Oh, h-hey Arlo!” Emily managed to say, “Don’t worry, she’s just napping!”
The captain was quick to grab Noelle from Emily’s hold, relieving the poor girl of the weight. Carefully, he looked over the builder as she snored lightly in his grip.
“…She’s not hurt?” His tone was soft, careful, as he looked down at Noelle.
Emily shook her head.
“I invited her over for a snack this afternoon because she seemed tired, and before I knew it, she passed out.” She said, her voice filled with worry. “I couldn’t get her to wake up since.”
“She works hard, but sometimes I think she works too hard.” Emily added solemnly. Arlo could only nod.
“I’ll take it from here, Emily.” He said, hoisting Noelle into his arms. “Thank you.”
It was all he could manage to say to her as she nodded, waving as she left back for the farm.
Arlo watched as she left as he turned his attention back to the woman in his arms. Sleeping peacefully, Noelle’s chest rose up and down along with her snores…completely unaware of who held her in her slumber.
His face grew solemn. How often did he see her like this? So relaxed, without worry? No matter the time or day, he’s always seen Noelle with a tool in her hand or a commission to work on. Seeing her like this seemed almost…unfair.
Arlo carried her to her workshop’s gates, and as the light of her outdoor lantern illuminated her form, he again took note of the many bruises draped alongside her skin.
“Idiot…” He muttered to himself, noticing their darkened state as the marks swelled in the lantern’s glow. Sure, maybe he wasn’t her favorite person right now. And sure, maybe he was a little rash with his decision this morning.
But by the looks of these marks…who knows what could happen if he lets her continue this way? Isn’t that what friends do? Look out for one another? What kind of friend allows-
Noelle suddenly stirred in his arms, breaking his thoughts once more. Eyes perking up at him, he looked down at her as she slowly blinked herself in awareness.
“Noelle, are you awake?” Arlo said as she turned to look up at him, her gaze adjusting slowly in the evening light. Adjusting to her surroundings. Adjusting to the closeness of Arlo’s face…
Suddenly, her eyes snapped open.
“W-Woah!” Noelle shrieked as she jumped amidst his hold, jolting awake as her muscles spasmed for freedom.
“Hey, watch it!” Arlo said as he tried to maintain his grip. However, it was no use as Noelle continued to thrash free from him…and ultimately fall and collapse right on top of the captain.
Arlo’s body collapsed under her weight and to the ground as the woman fell on top of him. Trying to sit himself up, his body felt pressure against hers and soon he made direct eye contact with those damning, rose-hued eyes.
Those angry, annoyed, rose-hued eyes.
“What do you think you’re doing?” She growled, her gaze piercing into him slowly as she leaned in closer. An unfamiliar heat crept amidst his cheeks as Noelle loomed over him, her lavender locks tickling the frame of his face.
There it was again. That unfamiliar, awkward feeling in his stomach. Slowly creeping up inside of him and finding its way to gut itself into his chest.
Before he could even muster out a word, she let out an aggravated sigh as she stood up from the position…leaving him there, breathless and confused, in the grass.
Looking up at her, she was shaking the dirt off her knees before placing her arms angrily on her hips-turning back to him with an annoyed scowl. Clearly waiting for an answer.
In a matter of seconds, Arlo shook himself to his senses.
“Taking you home. You fell asleep at Sophie’s Farm and Emily couldn’t carry you back.” His tone was matter of fact as he helped himself up, brushing off the dirt. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
Noelle’s eyebrows lifted.
“I fell asleep?” She said. She looked around her surroundings and suddenly, her face grew into a panic.
“Wait, for how long?” She looked back at Arlo, worry in her eyes. Before the captain could even response, Noelle took a few frantic steps towards the town’s gate before turning back around to Arlo, flustered at the time of day.
“Oh no, no, no, no!” She was panicking. Arlo knew it, by the frantic flurries of curses that spilled from her lips to the frustrated expression she wore.
“The commission,” Noelle turned to Arlo, “Don’t tell me I…”
Arlo could only nod solemnly, confirming her worst fear. It was like watching a flower wilt, how Noelle grew from frustration to anger to pity as she angrily kicked the grass in front of her.
“Well, that’s just great!” She cried out, “Just perfect!”
“Noelle, you have to calm down.” Arlo took a step towards her, but she immediately took a step back from him.
“No, don’t tell me to calm down.” Her words were tight. Fierce. “This never would have happened if you didn’t take my commission away from me!”
Arlo sighed, “I didn’t mean take it away from you. I only was trying to bring peace to the situation.”
“That’s a big fat lie and you know it.” She crossed her arms, “You took my commission away as punishment for me staying overnight in the Collapsed Wastelands. Admit it!”
Arlo was shocked by her statement. She stared at him knowingly, just waiting for his explanation.
“Don’t deny it. I figured it out. The moment you heard I was roof jumping from the east of town, you figured it all out and wanted to punish me for it.” She spoke again. “I didn’t break any law. The only thing I did was make you worry, and you punished me for it!”
“And is that such a bad thing?” Arlo finally said. Noelle’s expression fell a little. Well, she certainly wasn’t expecting that response.
Arlo took a step forward towards her, before leaning against the fencing of the workshop.
“I know you think it’s unfair, and I’ll be honest, maybe I could have handled the situation better. But just look at yourself Noelle. Look how tired you look.” His words were sincere when he spoke, choosing them carefully.
Noelle looked the other way. By the looks of her expression, Arlo felt the need to continue.
“I know you want to improve your workshop. I understand you want to be the best. But hurting yourself in the process to the point of exhaustion isn’t the answer.” He said.
“I understand,” Noelle said with resentment. “But you have to let me do my own thing. You can’t forbid me to do something just because you don’t like it.”
“I get that, but I don’t want you to hurt yourself while you're at it.” Arlo said, taking note of the bruises once more on her shoulder. He paused.
“Noelle, those bruises. How did you get them?”
Noelle shifted her weight uncomfortably, slightly annoyed on the topic change.
“Pinecocks.” She finally said, “A couple of them. This morning in the wastelands.”
Arlo raised an eyebrow. Pinecocks were far from high-tier predators, and Noelle was far from a novice fighter. How did they manage…?
“You should know,” Noelle said, “The monsters in the wastelands are getting stronger. Faster. I didn’t expect one to sneak up on me like this, but it did.”
Arlo didn’t know how to respond to her comment. He could only nod, taking in her words as his eyes settled on the bruises and then back to the frustrated expression Noelle held as she looked away.
“Well,” Arlo cleared his throat, “The Civil Corp will just have to look into-”
Noelle turned to him. “I can help look into it too! Just release my ban from the wastelands and I can help you guys-!” She began, but Arlo’s expression grew stern.
“Noelle, drop it.”
And surprisingly, she did. For a little while. Turning away from him once more, she took in a deep breath as she inhaled the night air. For a moment, a silence lingered between them as the builder felt a soft breeze against her skin. Cooling the heat that threatened to rise from within her.
“Do you know what the people in Barnarock said to me when I told them I was coming to Portia? To take over this workshop?” She looked back to him; her eyes doubtful. “They laughed at me and said I couldn’t do it.”
She approached Arlo, “They did everything they could to keep me from boarding that boat. They wanted me to stay in that desert town until the day I die.”
She paused before him, “I…I don’t want to put you in that same category of people. Okay?”
The words were hard for her to say, but she said them. Looking at Arlo, she could tell he just didn’t quite know how to respond. Finally, he smiled softly at her.
“I know the feeling. Trust me, I do.” He put his hand on her shoulder, “As a friend, I understand where you’re coming from.”
And he did. Looking at her expression, Arlo saw himself. He saw himself before every Flying Pigs entrance exam. And he saw him after every rejection letter he’s ever received. Perhaps that’s why he can’t stand mad at her for too long. Deep down, the two shared that same sense of pity…
Looking back at him, looking at that stupid smile of his, Noelle scowled. Every time she got angry with him, every time they bickered, he just had to go and make sense. He couldn’t let her stay angry for at least one night, could he?”
“So, make it up to me then.” The words that came out of her lips surprised her just as much as it did Arlo.
Her friend blinked at her confused, “What?”
Noelle sighed, “If you’re not going to let me back into the wastelands, how are you going to make it up to me? If you understand where I’m coming from?”
Arlo took his hand from her shoulder and dug for something in his pockets.
“I was going to give this to you tomorrow when you cooled down, however, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to hand it off now.” He said, pulling out a piece of neatly folded paper.
Noelle’s eyes lit up. “Is that…?”
“Well, it’s not the commission you’re expecting. But it’s something that hopefully can hold you over until there are more updates on the bridge.”
Taking the commission from Arlo, Noelle unfolded its seal and carefully look over the contents.
“A training dummy?” She finally said, looking up at Arlo. The man shrugged.
“The one at the headquarters took quite a beating and we could use something a little more…durable.” He smirked, “Do you think you could help me out?”
Noelle couldn’t help but smile back as she looked down at the order. “I think I could fix something together for you. I just may need help gathering some materials.” She looked at him with a slight glare.
Arlo laughed it off.
“You let me know what you need, and I’ll fetch it.” He chuckled, before slowly retaining his gaze back to Noelle. She, on the other hand, was distracted with the commission in hand.
That feeling of guilt swarmed inside Arlo once more as he looked at her. And this time, it swelled to the point where it was going to burst.
“Noelle?” He began, bringing Noelle out from her reading to look up at him. She tiled her head slightly.
There. He finally said it. Took him all damn day, but it was there. In words. In front of her.
Noelle smiled, “As you should be.” She rolled up the commission in her hands and gently tapped his forehead with it. “And I’ll accept your apology with this oh so humble task.”
Arlo smirked as he playfully shoved her, “Is there anything else I could do?”
Noelle went to speak, but he quickly cut her off. “-Without releasing your suspension.”
“How about I treat you to the Round Table tonight?” Arlo knew it was an empty offer. Noelle looked exhausted, he knew it, she knew it, but he was willing to offer it nonetheless.
Fortunately, Noelle shook her head.
“I’ll take a rain check tonight.” She smirked, heading towards her front door. “I have quite a few things to do and get in order plus…I have a hot date to get ready for.”
Arlo stared at her, mouth agape.
What did she just say?
Instantly, his memory recalled itself back to Albert’s snarky comment from earlier and suddenly, his mouth grew dry. No way. No fucking way. Him…and Noelle?
“Excuse me?” Arlo raised an eyebrow, “You don’t mean-”
Before he could even protest, Noelle flashed his commission right back to him-showing off the male dummy diagram that he roughly drafted together for her.
“Oh yeah.” Noelle chuckled, looking at the diagram and back at Arlo. “Pretty sure this guy right here will keep me up all night.” And she laughed dorkily at her joke. Almost too hard.
Arlo’s heat rose. Sometimes, he really hated Noelle’s humor. He really, really did.
“Well, I guess I’ll be off then.” He finally said, opening the workshop’s gate. “Promise me you’ll take it easy?”
“No promises.” Noelle waved back, “Goodnight Arlo.”
“Goodnight.” He nodded before taking his leave, backing himself out of the workshop’s gates and back onto the pathway through town.
As Arlo grew out of sight, Noelle shut the door behind her as she entered her tiny home. As the door closed shut, she leaned against the wooden frame with a sigh. Suddenly, a heavy feeling hit her chest.
Her heart was racing. Faster than she ever thought possible. With each deep breath she took, it seemed like the faster her heartbeat rose. She felt the blood rise to her cheeks.
“C’mon Noelle…” She mustered whatever words she could as she looked up to the ceiling, “Get yourself together.”
She had no time for this. She had things to do. Commissions to complete. A reputation to be made. He was her friend and nothing more, simple as that. This was not the time to be distracted by small acts of kindness. By the comfort of his voice. By the feeling of his arms.
She shut her eyes tight, conflicted.
This was the time to instead worry about more important things. Very, very important things. Like becoming the best workshop in Portia. Or discovering new materials to use for her projects.
Or perhaps figuring out just how to make those carbon steel bars stronger.