“Wynn.” Bal nodded tightly, as she made her greetings and filled the empty chair beside him.
“Wynnifer!” Rory said, his tone teasing. Bal watched as she scowled in response, but Rory appeared immune to her dark look. Gesturing with an expensive looking bottle of scotch, he continued not phased. “We waited to bring out the good stuff until you got here.”
“Lucky me,” She said, smiling tightly as Rory poured them each a crystal glass full of the dark amber liquid.
Rory insisted they take their glasses and sit outside. Bal felt immediate relief when he sucked in the fresh, forest air. After being in the city, he felt as though he could taste the difference, felt it fill his lungs. Fin and Rory lived together in a home just a few bridges from Gabe’s. It was as close to a bachelor pad as you could get deep within the forest, thick wooden furnishings, fridge always stocked with local brew. They had even set up a network of solar panels with enough juice to power a flat-screen and satellite. Their balcony was no different, with plenty of comfortable lounging chairs arranged around a table with a firepit in the center. Bal knew from experience that they often used the fire table as a grill when they had people over.
Settling into a comfortable wooden reclining chair, Bal admired the craftsmanship as he felt the smooth grain of the wood against his palm. An old woodworker had lived in the village a hundred years ago—these deck chairs appeared to be in his style. “How did you convince Gabe to part with these?” Bal asked, eyebrows raised. These pieces tended to be treasured, usually only found in the older generation homes.
Seeing the same mischievous grin spread across Rory and Finn’s face was unnerving. Wynn let out a laugh from where she was leaning against the balcony rail, the endless green of the forest canopy to her back. Bal leaned back, looking up at the star studded sky, as Rory launched into what sounded like a long winded tale.
He found himself wishing Nayome had been able to see this side of his people. Would that have made any difference? As he gazed at the stars, their flickering silver light inevitably brought him back to that night in the forest. Nayome, covered in the silver dust of theteine.Nayome, buzzing with energy, gripping his hair and tugging him down for that first kiss. Fists clenching, Bal tried to focus on the twins, who were doubled over laughing, apparently having gotten to the punchline of the story. Even Wynn couldn’t suppress a smile, though it ended up looking more like a smirk.
As the laughter died down, Bal found himself the center of attention, three sets of eyes gazing at him curiously in the dim moonlight. Wynn’s lips had tightened as she observed him, Fin had sympathy shining in his eyes.
“Alright, we need to find a better way to distract you. If reminiscing about Rory’s antics aren’t doin the trick, you must have it bad,” Fin said kindly.
Bal realized a frown was still painted rigidly on his face, tension had him gripping the armrests of the chair as though he could sink his fingers into the hardwood.
“I think I should go, I’ve got to think,” Bal said, as he moved to rise.
“I don’t get it. She isn’t one of us,” Wynn said. Her tone was harsh, anger flashing clearly in her eyes.
“You know she is,” Bal said, too tired to get into this argument with her. “And even if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t make a difference.”
“But it would never have worked. At least she could see that, in the end. The only thing that girl did right was leave,” Wynn said, quietly. Her tone was cold and she was watching Bal carefully as she spoke.
“Why wouldn’t it have worked? What’s your problem with all this, anyway?” Bal asked, getting angry. Rory and Fin had gone uncharacteristically silent, eyes moving between Wynn and Bal like they were watching a tennis match.
“The elders would never have let you out of our contract—”
“That?” Bal said, incredulity lacing his voice with sarcasm. “You know no one takes those seriously anymore. We are free to pursue a real match, and it always trumps those archaic contracts. We were never really tied to each other in a real way.’
“You would choose adaonnaover someone of your own kind. Over me?” Wynn spat, her eyes shining cold and bright. “It would never have worked, Bal. You’re delusional. Even Nayome could see the truth of that.”
“She is nodaonna, and you know it,” Bal said, his voice chilling as he regarded Wynn in a new light. “Did you say something to her?” Something that had been bothering Bal crept back into the forefront of his memory. The way Nayome had worded her rejection of him had been odd.You will thank me, eventually. I was never a proper match for you.
“I said nothing that wasn’t true,” Wynn said, sounding more hesitant.
“I thought we were friends,” Bal said, rising to his full height.
“We are. Bal, you have to see everything I did was for the best, to protect you, protect all of us. She—”
“All I see is you, in your petty jealousy, sabotaging the only good thing that has come to my life in decades. Those are not the actions of a friend.”
“Jealousy, that’s ridiculous. You know it’s about more than that. Outsiders killed my—”
“I don’t want to hear anymore,” Bal said, glaring at the woman in front of him. He knew Wynn had soured over the years, but he had never thought she was truly capable of cruelty.
“Bal—” Wynn began, taking a step forward as though to follow him inside.
“Wynn, I think that’s enough,” Rory said quietly, putting a restraining hand on her arm.
Bal nodded to the twins who were both looking grim, and took his leave. He felt betrayed. He had given so much, been so loyal to his people. Why would Wynn begrudge him this happiness, stand in his way? He wasn’t sure how much damage Wynn had done with Nayome, truly. She may have just tipped her over an edge that she was already weighted towards. But Bal had to know. If there was any chance, he had to know.
Feeling resolved, he stormed down the network of bridges towards Gabe’s home. Bal felt a stirring of hope bloom in his chest as he walked, alone in the moonlight. It wouldn’t be easy, though. Nayome had been given so many reasons not to trust his people, no wonder she had refused him. He came with baggage, the baggage of an entire society who had not welcomed her. Bal felt like an idiot, remembering her face as he’d asked her to stay. He hadn’t just been asking her to stay with him, he had been asking her to give up everything she was familiar with to live in a society that she had no reason to trust. Now he knew Wynn may have even given her reason to believe she was unwelcome, even unsafe here.
Damn it, Bal thought, anger hastening his stride. The bridge swayed gently under his forceful footsteps, the creaking of wood mixing with the sounds of the forest at night.