"It takes many nails to build crib, but one screw to fill it." - Confucius
Chapter II: Irreversible Changes
~Friday, 9 June 2017~
It was 9:15 in the morning. The sky overhead was clear, the sun was shining, the birds were singing sweetly... In all it was a very relaxing day, only slightly hampered by the darkening clouds several miles away from the town of Carona. People walked up and down the street, minding their own business, quietly going in and out of the buildings.
Well, almost everybody, at least.
Inside of the town square, a scene like most hadn't seen before was occurring. A man with white hair -wearing a suit composed of earth tones mostly green, brown and gold- was running through the old cobblestone and stainless concrete streets so fast that he practically flew. Shoppers and people passing by watched in amazement as the man darted, slid, and vaulted his way down the road, apologizing to pedestrians as he passed... until he arrived his workplace. His work building did not have a name. Its specialty was publishing newspapers.
Rue currently worked as an advice columnist for the Carona Times newspaper. He was a good man; a kind and gentle soul; he was a skilled fighter, self-taught in how to use a sword.
Most of all, he was a dreamer.
He had been employed at the company for several weeks now. Ever since his 'Ask Angel' column first went up on print, people started to take notice, and they sent their problems in writing to him. As the amount of letters grew, so did his popularity.
One reason for Rue's success -apart from his fresh-faced boyish allure- was the various behaviors of the problems printed in his daily column. He didn't only provide guidance about interpersonal communication, but also on deep and meaningful issues.
In order for him look the part in personal appearances, his boss gave him a pair of counterfeit specs, some washable blonde dye to disguise his natural hair color, a leather-bound stationary pad for quick notes and even a reference list of consultants -just in case any of his readers required extra help to get through more serious problems.
Mint once asked Rue why he bothered working for a newspaper publishing industry when the task of handwriting notes was rumored to be a dying art. He responded by saying that he simply liked helping people -a trait his readers loved best about him- and that was why he loved coming home to her after a hard day.
When he walked into the lobby of the company's headquarters, he was already five minutes late. He made his way across the empty lobby and into an elevator. After the doors opened on the twelfth floor, he saw Asuna Kyoni, the editor-in-chief, already there talking with her secretary.
Rue tried his best to slip quietly through the corridor to his corner office... but Ms. Kyoni had already caught the glimpse of his simple ponytail in her peripheral vision.
"Ah. Mr. Artema." she said, making Rue jump. "Just the man I want to see."
"Good morning, Ms. Kyoni." Rue greeted. "I'm sorry for not calling in before."
Asuna Kyoni was a refined-looking woman aged in her late-thirties. Her hair fell in rippling waves of black and brown, side-swept over one shoulder and decorated with a pretty hairpin in the shape of a blue flower to match her stylish suit. She had lily-white skin and an oval face like a Japanese doll, with hazel blue-grey-amber eyes that echoed a sense of strength behind her onyx framed glasses.
"You can relax those shoulders, Rue. I'm not fussed that you arrived late this morning; you're usually in ten minutes early. Missing five minutes is nothing. Now let me see what made you late..." She studied his profile for a moment. Then she spoke. "Soap. Clean linen. Jam on toast. Hazelnut tea. You'd be ready and out the door at 8am... if it weren't for your sweet, spicy significant other urging you back to bed for cuddles."
Her words stunned him. Just by perceiving his appearance, she'd recalled what happened to Rue that morning.
"She kind of put me on the spot." He colored slightly. "I couldn't really say no."
"Well, you're here safe and that's what matters. Now smooth your hair down. I can still see that pink kiss mark below your collarbone. Pull in the lapel. Adjust the front. There we go. Now you look ready to face the day. There's a number of letters waiting for you in your mailbox. Once you're done with the replies, send them to me for proofreading. Get to it."
Rue nodded his head in acknowledgment and opened the mailbox attached to his office door. Inside were forty advice seeking letters. He took out the envelopes, put them in a plastic crate and wheeled it to his writing desk. He set the crate down next to his ergonomic seat.
Like his study at home, his work space smelled like a forest. The wooden floor was swept and his desk was tidy with utensils all put away. On one wall were pictures done in crayon and finger paint -gifts from his littlest fans who attended daycare.
Once he had everything organized, he sat at his desk and turned on his laptop. When he looked at the framed and autographed print of a red-haired woman wearing a tasteful outfit on his wall, his eyes momentarily played a trick on him. He thought he'd seen an image of his stunningly attractive wife wearing a men's button-up shirt over a pair of cute panties. He shook his head, blinked his eyes and looked again. Now the photograph showed her wearing a light blue bandage dress and metallic sandals.
Mint... It wasn't surprising that his girl came to mind. She was the last thing he'd see at dawn before leaving the house.
"One more thing…" Ms. Kyoni stuck her head in Rue's doorway to see him staring at the pin-up photo. "Ahem!" she cleared her throat, causing Rue to snap out of his daydream.
"Uh, w-what?" Rue spluttered, as the fountain pen in his hand flung out from his fingertips.
"Don't let your thoughts run away with you, pretty-boy." The woman pressed her lips together, as if she were trying to hide a smile, then returned her work room.
Asuna relaxed in her leather chair. It had been less than a month since the day she launched an ad about hiring an advice columnist for her paper. After receiving several phone calls, she interviewed the possible workers. She had an idea of the kind of person she wanted to hire -someone young, sensible and well-groomed who was compassionate towards others. None of the applicants for the job seemed to be what Asuna wanted to see. She might as well be beating the fools off with a stick and let her business get taken over.
Then, while she was walking home on one dark, drizzling night, that was when she saw him.
It was the snowy, white hair that first caught her attention. She turned towards the source of that brilliant hue of white through the misty rain. That man was adorable! He had the kind of face that might one day grace the front of a magazine. His eyes were the color of chocolate, and they seemed to hold a sense of wisdom and experience beyond their years.
She was so moved by this sight that she walked into an unforgiving telephone pole. He rushed to her aid and helped Asuna back on her feet. Asuna took a closer look at this boy that had appeared so suddenly into her life. His voice was gentle and his eyes were warm.
They talked for almost an hour while they waited at a bus shelter for the rain to clear up. From what Asuna had gathered, Rue liked to read, he had previous experience as a farmer, and he knew how to build rapport with people. His hair was neat, his clothes were clean, and -thank heavens!- she was sure she noticed a silver band on Rue's left ring finger. Now Asuna was certain he was everything she had been looking for.
When the editor described the job she was offering, he listened to her every word. She explained that once he agreed to work for her, he would have to keep his private life -and marriage- under wraps. Rue assured her that he had a good reputation and wouldn't want to tarnish it. She handed him her business card and asked him to give her a call in a week to arrange a job interview.
That call came exactly as she foretold, and she took the loyal dog under her wing-since he had no training. She taught him how respond to answer a sample letter, how to write to the right advice recipient, and how to dodge meddlesome questions. Within that one week, she came up with his future pen name; Angel.
A Nice Guy Everyone Loved.
Rue had to admit that his manager's taste was impeccable. Everything connected with Angel's image suggested politeness and grace. Even his work suits-which had been carefully chosen by Asuna- fit his sincere exterior.
Asuna Kyoni had proved helpful in other ways too. For instance, it was Asuna's idea that Angel should remain hidden from the public eye and all the response letters Rue would send to his readers were signed by the name "Angel".
In return, Rue held a deep respect for Ms. Kyoni; she treated every one of her team members, business colleagues and clients with utmost importance. Even the subordinates respected Asuna for her cool head and strong resolve when the company was hitting hard times. The inside of her left wrist was covered by a big, black 'Libra' glyph, a significant mark which earned her the nickname 'Scales' by her associates.
It was 5:05 in the afternoon when Rue finished his work for the day; he had selected three main letters to be featured in his column, composing a reply for each one with the word-processing program on his notebook laptop. He gave the rough drafts a once-over, deleting or adding a sentence here or there, then emailed the final copies to Asuna to be proofread. The other thirty five envelopes were opened, read-through and answered considerately.
Once he was satisfied with his work, he saved the files, exited the computer program and stuck a memo on his mood board, to remind him they were ready for future articles next week. He spent the remaining ten minutes tidying up.
When it was time to go home he collected his coat and bag, swiping his keycard in the door scanner to indicate he was not in. Pocketing the card, he said goodbye to his fellow collogues and left at fifteen-past-five.
When it was time to go home, he collected his coat and bag and walked down along the footpath until he reached the zebra-striped crossing at the end of it next to the traffic lights. Suddenly a light sound rang out on his phone, indicating to him that he had received a text message from someone. He retrieved the leaf-green flip phone -with a tiny ornament of a Pollywog monster that Elena had given him- from his trouser pocket.
"To Rue. You're invited to a night of entertainment at Club Vixens. For exclusive 'services', surprise me with a sincere gift to show your appreciation. Love from Princess Cinnamon, your red-haired seductress for tonight, waiting in anticipation for your RSVP. Come at 6pm sharp."
Smiling, Rue sent a response of "I'll be there." when the safe-to-cross signal was still red, and quickly pocketed his phone when the light blinked to green. He was familiar with the burlesque club where his high-minded partner worked as a dancer at night. He always made every effort to watch Mint perform-no matter what obstacle was thrown in his path.
"Rue!" a voice called out, and Rue looked up along the street. Waving from the open window of a big yellow cab was another man a year older than him with ash-coloured hair and grey eyes.
"Good evening, Neal." Rue waved to the approaching car as it slowed to a complete stop.
"Hey, buddy. You wanna come with me to Club Vixen's tonight? There's this super cute dancer performing there. She goes by the name of 'Princess Cinnamon'. She's strong, very beautiful and a real firecracker too. Everyone is talking about her." Neil Cougar, Rue's co-worker, grinned at him. He and Rue had been friends since they first started working together at the same newspaper industry.
"I'd love to go. Can we make a detour past the flower shop? I want to buy her some roses." Rue smiled happily and he told Neal why, as he opened the passenger door and climbed into the back of the taxi.
"... So Princess Cinnamon's real name is 'Mint'. Very fitting." Neal winked.
"You really think that?"
"Sure I do. You're one lucky guy to have a fox like her."
To that he could only smile. Greetings over with, the two of them went on their way. It was always the same, every day since Mint and Rue decided to tie the knot and settle down in this little port city. Rue would wait for Neal's taxi to come, and determined not to make them late, Neal made sure to arrive just as his comrade was leaving work. After rushing out briefly to buy some roses, Rue was happy to stare out of the window as the car moved along to its final destination.
Neal tapped his friend on the shoulder. "Rue, we're here."
Already? Sure enough, he realized the cab had parked outside the restaurant where Mint worked part-time as a waitress by day.
The exterior of restaurant gave passersby a friendly yet elegant impression, the type which women liked. Through the glass windows, the interior decorations weren't too flashy, giving potential customers a good feeling about the facility.
Incidentally, 'Mandola' had a sister. Behind the restaurant was another building with a black lacquered staircase running up alongside it to the red-velvet club known as 'Vixens'.
Rue climbed out of the cab and, after paying his fare to the driver, he crossed the street with Neal in the direction of the burlesque theater.
"He's out there in the audience again. I can see that hair of his shining like goddamn starlight."
Mint, carrying two golden rings gripped in her hands and wearing a long, straight orange wig that covered her red hair, ascended the staircase behind the revolving stage, hoping she wouldn't miss a step and take a tumble in front of a full audience.
The curtain opened and the stage slowly rotated, presenting Vixen's famous 'Princess Cinnamon', who was dressed up in a navy corset-like top trimmed with black lace, black-and-blue stockings held up by dark snaps -which disappeared under a sparkly skirt- and a pair of black, kick-ass boots. Fastened around her neck was a blue velvet choker decorated with the symbol of a halo -a heartfelt gift she received on her birthday (twenty-first of April) from her most dedicated patron.
As she smiled and posed on her pedestal, her deep rubies for eyes scanned the crowd for any sign of that one special face. She spotted him leaning back against the windowless wall, watching her in awe and astonishment, and her heart beat faster than the pounding of the drum.
It was hard to believe it had only been over three weeks since Mint was auditioning on the same stage in front of the night club's owner –a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman known as Martha Andou—and the redhead was determined to perform in the cabaret-like shows that were held every Friday night. Dancing was Mint's favorite hobby, thus her fiery attitude and stubborn streak enabled her to gain the job as a dancer, which eventually led to her blossoming fame as the main attraction. She was not too happy to see her old foe Trap Master was working at the same place as her (someone she thought she had destroyed when she was still searching for the Dewprism).
One month ago, Trap Master's spiky red hair, sharp eyes and his silver piercings had somehow caught the attention of George Andou -the man who founded 'Mandola'. The manager was impressed by Narcius's punk demeanor and how it kept the town's ruffians at bay.
Martha thought the idea of having some security stationed around her club was exactly what she needed. She met Narcius outside and mentioned that her husband was quite taken in by his ability of keeping order without doing anything, and since the spiky-haired guy looked and behaved like the type to ward off menacing characters, she gave him the job as a bouncer.
Whenever Mint arrived at Club Vixens to entertain, Narcius was always ready to counter any snide remarks she'd shoot at him before show-time, which would escalate to a bickering match between the two... until they were hauled away in the end, sporting a bloody lip or a black eye.
Martha always caught Mint in the aftermaths of her fights with Narcius and let the spunky younger woman off with a scolding for her bad behavior. But, hey, Mint didn't care. As long as her two jobs paid more than enough money for her to survive on, she was free to be who she wanted, and continue teasing Narcius to get a funny reaction out of him.
Mint finished up her enticing dance act with two amusingly vulgar jokes about a headstrong empress and her passive manservant. She then said her goodnights and sashayed off the stage, listening to the spontaneous roar of applause and chants of "Cinnamon!".
She headed backstage to the club's dressing room. On top of her vanity table was a single piece of candy and a gift bouquet of roses -red ones meant to signify love.
"Flowers and chocolate." she laughed. "Talk about old-fashioned."
She unwrapped the red foil and popped the heart shaped truffle into her mouth.
Still, he knows how to spoil me. She paused a moment before swallowing.
Mint dropped into the chair by her mirror, humming a song her mother once taught her before she died. She quickly removed the smoky blue eye shadow, the black cat-flicked eyeliner and bright cherry-red lipstick that she'd been wearing, took off the orange wig and the fake disposable lashes.
"Someone's in a good mood tonight."
"Ack!" Mint almost jumped out of her skin. Her cheeks burning red, she glanced at the slender man standing in the doorway. "T-Tonio!"
Tonio laughed. "Sorry about that. You ok, Mint?" He had brown eyes and dark brown hair centre-parted and cut square at the neck.
The redhead nodded, and her face returned to normal. "Yeah. Never better." She picked at her hair and put it back up into her twin ponytails.
He admired the bouquet on Mint's vanity. "Those are some beautiful roses. Who gave them to you?"
"They're from my unexciting, clean-cut husband."
"Wasn't he the one watching you from the shadows?"
Mint grinned. "The very same. And I save the best sights of me for him last."
At that moment, the lady who ran 'Vixens' walked into the dressing room.
Martha spotted the roses. "My, my! Those flowers do look wonderful, Minty. You are getting quite popular these days. Keep it up and I might have to raise the admissions price!" she winked.
"Martha!" Mint moaned like a disgruntled teenager.
Soon after shedding out of her elaborate costume and back into her regular clothes, she decided to leave early so she can find Rue. She picked up her duffel bag, which contained her wallet, house keys, her flame-red cellular phone with a little Jack-o'-lantern charm hanging from it, lip moisturizer, hairpins, her MP3 player with headphones, one pack of chewing gum, tissues and absorbent pads. With a departing wave to everyone in the club, she went out into the cool night air.
"Dang! Where did he go?" Mint scowled, looking left to right. She was now wearing a fairly tight dark blue T-shirt with the word "queen" in small text on the front; the T-shirt was short enough to bear her midriff, which enjoyed even more exposure with how low the young woman was wearing her blue jeans. A pair of comfortable shoes completed the ensemble; there was no way Mint's usual knee-high boots would have worked with that outfit.
Coming up to an intersection,she was able to see Rue standing with his back facing her. She could almost smell his natural scent radiating from him; pine forests, mountains, soft musk and autumn leaves.
"Rue!" Mint shouted down the street. She hurried up to him and threw her arms around his waist. Rue cried out in surprise then quickly calmed down when he realized it was only Mint.
"Geez Mint! Don't scare me like that!" He looked up to see people nearby turn to look at him. "Great… Now everyone's watching us…"
"Forget them." He heard Mint's voice muffle against his back as she linked her fingers together. "I'm with the handsome gentleman who left those roses for Cinnamon at the club. She told me she never expected a cute guy like you to be so sweet."
Rue felt his face burning, it was literally on fire. So she knew the roses were from him! Turning to face Mint, he embraced her warm body with a peacefully serene smile that could outshine the moon itself. The scent of her perfume went straight to his head -sweet roses, water lilies and wild but calm wildflowers. He loved the relaxing effect it had on him.
"So," He began after a minute of ignoring the jealous glares of female onlookers. "Now that my lady has found her gentleman, how about we go have some pizza on our way home?"
Mint's face immediately brightened at the mention of her favorite food. Eyes sparkling, cheeks flushed, she kissed Rue on the lips softly. "It's a date!"
Dinner was delicious, and later that night they caught a bus towards home, to the white front gate and stone wall that surrounded their surprisingly ordinary-looking lime green house with the surname "Artema" engraved on the nameplate below the doorbell.
Rue and Mint's sanctuary-home, sweet home.
A number of paintings adorned the walls, all of them expensive, and a respective percentage of them were portraits of landscapes. The lounge room now had a moderate selection of books -filled with hardcover novels and other paperbacks. The bookcases were in simple hardwood, the floor covered by a plush carpet. Leather armchairs were nestled beneath the ceiling and a hanging light fixture made of colored glass.
In the family room was a huge, grey velvet corner sofa that doubled as a spare bed, two overstuffed chairs, a coffee table, a well-stocked fireplace, CD rack and a big-screened television. In one corner was a white piano -a gift to Rue from Mint, given shortly after they moved into the sumptuous house.
The dining room, paneled in walnut, had a large table featured as a centerpiece, with enough chairs to seat six to ten people. Table and chairs were baroquely styled and made of gilt-inlaid mahogany (Mint's seat been at the head of the table was the largest, of course, and was the only one with cushioning). The adjacent kitchen had a medium-sized stove, a refrigerator, dishwasher, an oven and a side cabinet that stored elaborately crafted porcelain dishware, silver cutlery and chopsticks.
Mint entered through the front door of her home, kicking off her shoes to don her favorite rabbit slippers. She left her bag in the entryway and moved into the kitchen to place her flowers by the sink. Then she traveled across the hallway into the living room to turn on her game console.
The tv flickered as the machine warmed to life. She reclined back against the downy satin cushions on the couch and put her aching feet up, game controller in hand. As she immersed herself in her game, her husband tended to the flowers in the other room.
Rue knew quite a bit about housekeeping from Claire, and she had taught him everything there was to know. Since Mint didn't know how to cook or clean, it was his responsibility to clean their home and prepare their daily meals. He was no culinary expert, but he did know how to make good food for his loved ones.
As a reward for helping him around the house, he gave Mint the task of stockpiling the bottom shelf of their pantry with special treats. If she refused or kicked up a fuss, well, he'd push back that privilege by five working days.
He unwrapped the roses, fetching some sharp scissors to cut off the ends of the stems at an angle over the sink. Where was he going to put them? Sure enough, he found an open-mouthed vase sitting on a high shelf, and he filled it with fresh water, placing the roses inside. After making some minor adjustments, he carried the new arrangement to set it on the little table in the hall before heading to his room, then opened up his notebook to the spot where he'd left off.
Their bedroom screamed Mr. and Mrs. Artema, comfortably furnished with an East-meets-West taste, all a combination of soft colors and dark wood. Unlike the rest of the house, the walls and ceiling were painted to resemble the night sky, and a three-inch pile carpet in royal red covered the floor. In the middle of the room was a large bed up against a wall, covered with silk sheets and a plush blanket, fluffy feather-stuffed pillows, and silken cushions Mint had directly imported from East Heaven. To the far left of the bed was a big window with a seat below it. A mirrored dressing table with a jewelry box and a fresh vase arrangement of pink flowers sitting on top stood nearby, along with a huge oak chest of drawers, two round nightstands on either side of the queen size bed, each having an oil lamp sitting on them, a computer desk with a PC sitting on top of it, and two identical wooden doors that led to the abundant wardrobe and the white tile bathroom.
Half an hour later he heard Mint let out a loud yawn from downstairs. Feeling tired himself, Rue shut the book and put it away. He pulled off his clothes until he was down to his thin cotton undershirt and boxers, made a quick trip to the bathroom where he brushed his teeth, and returned to hear footsteps coming up the staircase.
Seconds later, his wife appeared in the room and started preparing for bed. Rue felt his face grow warm as he watched the red-haired woman undress... Her healthy sun-kissed skin gave off a faint shimmer as more and more was exposed.
Mint noticed Rue looking at her as she undid her bra, but did not say anything. I think I'll tease him a bit. she thought to herself. She threw her bra on the floor and turned to Rue, who was in the middle of undoing his ponytail.
With her top half exposed for the world to see, she stood in front of her spouse and started to sway her hips side to side, her hands moving up her chest.
"That won't work, Mint." Rue managed to say, while resisting the urge to pounce.
"Aww, really?" she turned around to give him a view of her naked back while lifting one leg slightly. "Not even a little?" she said with a pout, sliding her hands down her incredible curves to her hips. She hooked two fingers into the edge of her briefs to pull the sheer material down off her derrière. "Come on... You have to be a little turned on."
Rue tried to hide the fact that he was indeed turned on, and reminded her, "You're supposed to be in your pajamas, remember?"
Mint sighed, rolling her eyes. "Geez, you're so unromantic. I can hold back too, sometimes." she abandoned her seductive act and slipped her pajamas on; silky purple pants and a short-sleeved purple silk shirt with buttons running down the front. She flicked off the light switch and crawled under the covers of their bed for two.
He jumped into bed after her and scooped Mint up in a bear hug. Mint was taken completely by surprise, and a shriek of laughter escaped her. The adrenaline wore off and she snuggled up to Rue. For the briefest of moments she had forgotten that this extremely nice-looking man was once the same modest and caring mid-teenage boy she fell in love with.
Rue cupped her cheek into his hand and leaned forward to press his lips against hers briefly. Mint kissed back, feeling the kiss break, only to go in for a second one, letting it linger. She closed her eyes, her hands rubbing up and down his solid chest and washboard stomach, hoping to fire up the determined hero inside.
To both of their delight, Rue rolled Mint onto her back. He ran his hands across her body, feeling her heat under the layer of silk. Mint reached for the hem his nightshirt, trying to lift it up. Rue knew what she wanted to do so he broke the kiss, focusing on undressing one another. With their garments off, he resumed kissing Mint, feeling their bodies press softly against each other. This time Mint pulled away, moving to lay down on the bed with her companion atop her, her sweet spot moist from her anticipation of what was to come.
He felt it too, growing aroused himself. He moved closer and kissed her sternum, letting the desire out slowly. After a few pecks, she started getting frustrated and her arms wrapped around his head. Rue could smell the pleasing spring-garden fragrance of her body. He felt her grab him, and his heart raced.
Half an hour later, he was pulling the blankets up around them, Mint's pajamas and his nightclothes forgotten in a heap on the floor. He kissed the top of her head and stroked her hair, the strands smooth and silky between his fingers. Mint cuddled a little closer, pillowing her head on his bare chest. Right now, she just wanted to lie there in Rue's arms... She didn't want to think or move...
They curled up together and drifted off to sleep, secretly wishing their married life could stay this tranquil and carefree forever.
Little did the pair know, Fate had other plans for them.