Scarlett frowned, not bothering to peek up from her magazine. “So, what?”
Following their discussion in the closet, Noah and Scarlett had continued hanging up his clothing until the walk-in was full of everything he owned. Wellington had done the honors of teleporting the healer’s dresser over with folded clothes and all, so there was nothing the teens needed to do in that regard. Noah had spent the entire time talking, regaling Scarlett with stories from his time growing up in the Jackson colony. She learned a lot about the Zeroua Court’s conception: particularly how Alice pressured him, Aria, and Gin into exploring beyond their borders and almost immediately got them killed, resulting in her recognition as their princess.
I swear, no matter how many incarnations she spends on this blasted rock, she always finds a way to make herself the damsel in distress.
She also learned that Isaac and Eric (Noah and Aria’s younger brothers, respectively) were recruited shortly after the founding members returned to Jackson. Alice made Aria her royal advisor, and the court met with the Poseideans to offer Noah’s abilities in exchange for protection for their pipsqueak colony. Leaders from both groups got together once every season for a meeting meant to ensure that both sides were honoring the treaty but honestly sounded to Scarlett as an excuse for them to have brunch. They recruited Chloe sometime after that, then Wellington and Julian through the Poseideans… And, finally, they found Scarlett in their barn two years later, bringing their group to ten members.
The newcomer had been silently processing the history of this generation’s Zeroua Court and mindlessly perusing a faded magazine containing gossip on long-gone celebrities when Noah had spoken up.
“So,” he clarified. “What do you think of this song? It’s one of my faves!”
Scarlett blinked. She hadn’t really given much thought to it, but she did find the music relaxing. “I like it. What’s the singer called again?”
Noah shot her an annoyed look. “Rapper. Rap-per. And she went by Princess Nokia when she was alive.”
She frowned. “She was clearly singing in the song before this.”
“Yeah, she can do both–but she was around in a time when men dominated the rap genre and in both her earlier and later albums she leaned heavily in that direction, so I think she’s more than deserving of that title.”
“Rapper, singer, whatever,” she shrugged. “I like her music.”
“Awesome!” Noah beamed. “What kind of music do you normally listen to?”
“Not this,” admitted Scarlett. “I don’t know, I guess I grew up listening to rock. Soft rock, heavy metal, alternative, punk…”
The healer nodded and turned the page of his own magazine. “Very interesting.”
“You and Alice have the same taste in music,” he revealed. “My Chemical Romance, The Used, Pierce The Veil–she listens to all that. Gin, too.”
She fidgeted and returned her attention to the flimsy paper book in her hands. She really hasn’t changed all that much.
“I think I’ve done all the talking so far,” Noah pointed out. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
She shrugged again. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”
“Okay, well, where are you from?”
Noah’s eyebrows rose as he lowered his magazine. “Come again?”
“Paradise, California,” she reiterated. “It’s in NorCal. That’s where I’m from.”
He nodded, an intrigued smile pulling at his lips. “How big?”
“Not very,” Scarlett admitted. “It’s at the center of a cluster of small colonies, kind of like Jackson. It’s in the foothills of the Sierra.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what that is.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “The Sierra Nevada mountain range? The backbone of the Americas?”
Noah nearly dropped his magazine and shot her an incredulous look. “You’re just making this up, right?”
It was her turn to scowl. “I look like I just make shit up?”
“Fair point,” he shrugged and raised his magazine, flipping over the next couple of pages. “What were you guys known for? I assume you were too small to be a stronghold like Browning or K.C., and too unknown to be a trading hub like Butte. How’d you guys get your food or supplies?”
“We hunted and fished and grew our food, like everyone else,” Scarlett said, sounding bored. “Our farms were on the other side of the seventy, and we had lots of lakes nearby filled with fish. If we wanted bigger game, we just had to venture into the valley.”
“What about stuff like clothes and fuel?”
“Traders. They’d come from up north–everywhere from Sacramento to Fresno is bandit territory.”
Noah blinked. “Whoa! I had no idea. So central California is overrun by bandits like Idaho, right?”
She nodded and turned the page. “Yeah, it’s our own ‘no man’s land.’ “
“What was growing up like in Paradise?” he pressed, before adding in a teasing tone, “Did you have any partners?”
Scarlett was in the middle of flipping to a new page when he asked this. She froze, her fingers gripping the magazine so tightly that it began to crease. She could no longer see the words or faded images, and the mattress seemed to fall out from beneath her. Her mouth was dry, and her throat and chest were tight, preventing her from denying his flippant question.
Noticing her reticence, Noah peeked up from his magazine–only to set it aside immediately and lean forward, concern clear on his face. “Scar? Are you okay?”
She began to nod, but before she knew it, Scarlett found herself shaking her head from side to side.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he offered in a sincere tone. “I know talking to the resident gossip is taboo, but believe it or not, I can keep shit to myself.”
Scarlett was about to shut him down when a familiar voice echoed in her mind:
“No matter what happens, don’t lose yourself in your role. That’s the trick to immersion–you need to be as honest as possible about everything else. Don’t be afraid to use your tragedy to gain sympathy.”
He’s right, she realized as she set her magazine aside and turned to face the angel. And I sure as hell can’t open up to her about this. Half the court will read my emotions, and Gin will constantly check if I’m lying. I need to be able to confide in someone, so… Why not him?
“I, uh…” she hesitated, taking a deep breath. “I had one partner. He was my fiancee.”
Noah offered her a single nod. “How’d you two meet?”
“My dad had married our tribe’s chief, so when mom passed, dad sorta… Took over her role,” she sighed.
“I’m sorry about your mom.”
Scarlett shook her head. “It happened when I was, like, three, so I barely remember her. She died trying to venture into Sacramento for supplies. That’s how we learned to stay away.”
The healer nodded, his eyes sincere as they studied her expression. He said nothing, waiting patiently for her to continue.
“Anyway, my dad was our tribe’s chief, so he was in charge of making sure we got along with all the neighboring colonies. The furthest one north of us was Corning; they were smaller than most of the others in our cluster, and focused their efforts on training new scouts and monitoring our northern border. There was a man there that everyone looked up to. He was the strongest, fastest, bravest, and the smartest scout, so he became their unofficial leader. When my dad would go and meet with the Corning scouts, it was that man who made sure he was well received and treated with respect. When I got older, my dad wanted me to learn how to lead our people, so he started taking me with him to meet the other leaders, and…”
Her words trailed off. Am I giving away too much? Is this okay?
A soft warmth enveloped her left hand. She glimpsed down and saw that Noah had taken her hand in his, squeezing gently, almost as if he were trying to reassure her through touch.
I need to confide in someone.
Scarlett cleared her throat, and Noah–misinterpreting her gesture–pulled his hand away and threw her an apologetic smile. “Sorry, touch is my love language.”
She snickered. “Yeah, you’re gonna have to explain to me what the hell that is later.”
“Deal,” he beamed. Then he waved his hand in the air dramatically, urging her to continue.
“Well, dad took me to the Corning colony after my eighth birthday, and that’s where I met the leader’s son. We were about the same age, but he was a little shit–he had the balls to tell me that, as a girl, I didn’t belong there.” Scarlett grinned at the memory of the stubborn young boy with light brown curls and hazel eyes.
Noah’s eyes were wide. “Wow. I bet you took that wonderfully.”
“I kicked his ass on the spot until our dads had to separate us.”
“Of course you did,” he chuckled before adding in a sarcastic tone: “Yeah, definitely a case of ‘love at first sight.’ ”
“If you asked him, he’d say it was,” she revealed, eliciting a series of giggles from the two teenagers. “After that, the two of us always hung out together whenever we visited the other’s colony. We even had sleepovers–my dad had been taking me stargazing since I was little, so on nights when we hosted, he would take us both out to the valley for a night. We were both training like crazy in our spare time, so every chance he got he’d challenge me to a fight.”
“He ever win?”
She thought back over the last few years. “No, actually. Our last sparring match was a while ago… I think we were fourteen?”
Noah’s head cocked to the side curiously. “Why was your last match so long ago? You were sixteen when… You know.”
Scarlett nodded. Yeah, I know. “He asked me to be his partner after that.”
“Oh? What did your dads think of that?”
“Uh…” she let out a short, nervous laugh. “Actually, we weren’t sure how they’d react at first, so we kept it a secret. They never gave us the impression that they would disprove of it or anything–our fathers took leading the colonies seriously, and since we were both being groomed to take over for them, we thought they might see our relationship as a distraction or unprofessional or something.”
“Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” admitted Noah. “Did you ever tell your dad?”
She smirked. “I didn’t have to. He figured it out shortly after we started dating, and when he had brought it up privately to my partner’s father, he realized that their family had already suspected it. They just wanted to see how long we could ‘keep it a secret.’ In reality, they were thrilled.”
The healer’s eyes narrowed. “Wait–you said he was your fiancee. If you guys started dating when you were fourteen, then when did he propose to you?”
Her mind flew back nearly two years and replayed one of her most cherished memories. Scarlett was standing in the valley, east of Paradise and south of Concow. She and her partner had followed the creek to a lake about a mile and a half long, and she had dared him to skinny dip just as the sun was disappearing behind the tall pines and cedars. The two teenagers were bare to each other and the wilderness as they embraced, and she recalled how the lantern light cast a warm glow on his slender face as he gazed into her eyes longingly and asked a question that still made her blush in the present day.
Without realizing that she was smiling, she replied, “October 2133–a month before the attack.”
There was a brief moment of silence before Noah reached out and squeezed her left shoulder. “Thank you for sharing that with me. It sounds like you had a good life, for the most part.”
She offered him a half-smile and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
Noah took Scarlett’s shrug to mean she was uncomfortable with the physical contact, and he was pulling his hand away when she remarked, “You’re fine, man. Touch doesn’t bother me, especially since I know you don’t mean it inappropriately.”
“Oh. Cool.” He continued to recede his hand, however. “Really makes me wonder what your love language is, then.”
“Okay, what the fuck is love language?”
“Ugh, you’re so ass-backwards,” he groaned. “Love language is how we humans express affection toward the people we care about. It’s typically used for couples, but it can also be used in platonic relationships. In other words, it’s how people who are close to one another can communicate their feelings effectively.”
Scarlett blinked. “There’s… More than one way to express love?”
Noah frowned mockingly. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that and move on. Anyway, there are five different love languages: touch, verbal, gift-giving, kind acts, and spending time together. My primary is touch and my secondary is spending time.”
Her mouth fell open as his words sunk in. “S-Secondary?”
“Well, duh,” he scoffed. “You can express affection in more than one way. I like when people hug me and spend time with me. What about you?”
She began to shrug, only for him to wave her off. “Yeah, I figured. Okay, how about this: when you were with your fiancee, what were the things that he did that really showed you how he felt?”
Scarlett didn’t have to think back for long before rubbing the back of her neck and clearing her throat, her cheeks burning. “Um, he, uh, would spend time with me. That was something we both did to show the other we cared. He seemed to like it when I helped him out with errands, even though I prefer to do my stuff without help… Can you explain expressing affection verbally?”
The angel cocked an eyebrow. “You know, like encouraging words, compliments, saying, ‘I love you’–”
“O-Okay, got it,” she waved off his explanation. “My love languages are spending time and verbal expression.”
Noah let out a snort and began to turn so as to stand from his bed. “Good to know–oh, yeah. I don’t think I caught your partner’s name.”
Be as honest as possible.
Scarlett met his inquisitive gaze head-on, a nostalgic simper on her lips. “Albert.”