Hi! New writer on the block here.
I'm late to the game, late to the fandom, and late to fantasizing Fangrai.
Yes, I "borrowed" the title from one of the most classic works of literature of all time.
I tried doing this for NaNoWriMo last year, which turns out to be a big fail but I'm going to continue this anyway, if you'll have me.
Just so you know, this reads as a semi-AU as half of the story takes place a fictional world that mirrors our reality while the other half takes place post-FFXIII but ignoring events of FFXIII-2 and LR.
Familiar names and characters will show up, just... um... with some minor changes.
I do not own Final Fantasy XIII. All rights go to Square Enix.
Though, a girl could dream!
Chapter 1 - The First Pulse
Pulse Photography Studio stood between two much taller buildings on one of the busiest streets in Lindblum. On the left was a ten-floor rundown apartment that looked as though it had not been renovated in years, yet its tenants could be seen entering and leaving all the time, especially during odd hours. The huge letters that spelled "Lynette's Lodgings" on its rooftop signboard threatened to fall at any time, but never did. On the right was the Tantalus Music School for the exceptionally gifted which liked to boast its students' high success rate of being accepted into prestigious art institutions. Truth to be told, the residents on the block could not care less of the school's reputation. They just liked to use the students' lessons as background music.
Compared to its giant neighbors, the studio in the center was much humbler. As one of the tiniest architecture in the city, Pulse's extraordinary location was hard to miss, which was why Fang and Vanille chose it as their ideal location to settle down.
Like most urban residences, space was scarce. The couple made good use of it by turning the shop into a duplex apartment when they first moved in. Majority of the ground floor was reserved for business; Fang had organized a system where all his equipment had their own place despite being crammed together, as well as a green screen at a designated spot where most of his shoots take place. Their living space "upstairs" was left to Vanille's disposal. Being the dutiful homemaker, his wife had installed a staircase that tripled as a storage room and bookshelf underneath. The stairs led straight to the parlor, having forgone the need for a door, as Vanille thought it common sense that customers not go past where they were not supposed to tread. Beyond that were another two doors guarding a bigger and smaller room respectively, the latter being the lavatory and the former being the couple's main quarters, and it was here where our story unfolded.
Also like most urban residents, the couple preferred to sleep in on weekends, a treat they allowed themselves to enjoy after a tiring work week. Their shop was not meant to operate until the late hours of the night but, due to the nature of their business, clients tend to overstay. Therefore, even though the sign outside clearly stated that they close at 7pm, there were many times when the couple had to postpone dinner dates just to entertain customers. Other than that, her husband Fang had enforced an unwritten rule that occasionally made him work past midnight and ticked Vanille off at the same time. It happened again last night. Vanille had climbed into bed first while Fang "worked his magic" downstairs, but the glum look on her face remained until the next morning.
Not surprisingly, she was the earlier one to rise. Not surprisingly, she found her partner in deep slumber, lying in an unsightly sleeping position next to her... still in his work clothes. Not surprisingly, she scowled. She had confronted him about his late night activities so many times she was convinced her on-and-off advice had sadly fallen on deaf ears. Nevertheless, she planned to give him another earful later. In the meantime, she would let him sleep while she got herself mentally prepared to face the mess at his workstation which he had undoubtedly failed to clear last night.
The endearing wife poked her husband several times on the cheek, whispering his name, making sure he was indeed dead asleep. Then, she quickly got dressed, washed, and hopped downstairs. Someone, she would not mention who, had left the computer on, and the few costumes that they had in their inventory were spread across the work desk, covering the cash register and most of their camera collections in the glass case below.
She moved the mouse across the pad, terminating the desktop's standby mode. Fang had yet to set a password. He was confident that no one else would want to access their computer other than the two of them. Vanille added this to her list of complaints. She scanned the digital images on the screen, saved in a folder named "Cheryl and Bernadette". They were two lovely ladies indeed, and it seemed they had opted for a 1800's English theme to go with their engagement. They used the word "engagement", but both sides knew that it was not legal-binding. Well, not as binding as the relationship between Fang and herself, anyway.
Which was partly what pissed her off.
Vanille opened the top drawer under the cash register. This was where Fang stashed the finished projects of his clients... who were same-sex couples. Fang's talent did not diminish their pride and glory at all. In this aspect, he was impartial with all his clients. He always gave his best no matter who paid him to do his job. But he had his biases. He would never take in these "unusual" clients during working hours. He had set up an entirely different schedule in an entirely different spreadsheet just to cater to them. And-Vanille looked towards their window display-he would never place samples of his non-mainstream clients there. Not good for business, he claimed. Would draw negative attention, he said.
And yet, despite the second-class treatment, clients of this category continued to seek his expertise nonetheless. It was good news for business, but packaged with bitter sweetness, for Fang was the only photographer in the city who would take them.
Signing to herself, Vanille closed the folder and turned off the computer. She swept the dresses and petticoats in one go and arranged them accordingly in the cupboard under the stairs. Then, she packed away the cameras and tripods and lightings strewn across the floor. She dusted the glass case and did a little sweeping. Finally, for a change of mood, she switched the display photos starring newly-weds in favor of couples on outdoor shoots.
It was a Saturday. Their first appointment was not due until two in the afternoon, and this gave them ample time to enjoy a brunch date. She knew that Fang knew that he owed her one, at the very least for going back on what he had promised her the night before.
In less than two hours, the couple found themselves at one of the tables in Cocoon Café. The shop had barely opened for business and already there were a crowd of hungry customers waiting to be served. They were allowed to cut the line and get the "best seats in the house" because Lebreau told her staff that the two had made reservations for brunch, when they really had not. Fang was able to pull the strings and get preferential treatment for himself and his wife because he and Lebreau shared a history. Vanille had heard about it a thousand times over and did not mind that Lebreau used to date Fang's best friend, Gadot, in high school. If anything, she was more interested in their eventual dramatic breakup. Through it all, Vanille was happy to have gained another listening ear as well as VIP access to the best pancakes in town, even though it took them a ten-minute bus ride to get here.
But she was not happy that day. The look of displease was all over her face as she poked her honey-dripped pancakes with a fork. Even her coffee was getting cold. Lebreau, who was fixing drinks for the other customers from behind the counter and who was so sure the problem was not with her pancakes, noticed this, but Vanille's husband barely reacted at all.
Vanille was peeved that her husband had not apologized for breaching their agreement, or that her husband had not realized that he had breached their agreement. She was starting to feel that, on top of his unusual business engagements, he seemed a lot less interested in starting a family.
"Hey, Fang. How long did you stay up last night?" she said, breaking the silence between them since sitting down.
Fang looked away from the newspapers he had been reading. Or, at least, faking to read. He knew they had to talk about the elephant in the room eventually. Yes, he knew he evaded another night of intimacy with her again, this time with deliberation.
"We went over the pictures they want for their album and which ones they want framed and which ones they want fixed. Cheryl and Bernadette even offered me a bottle of wine for my troubles, working after hours for their sake and all that. Did you see the one I left on the kitchen counter?" A slew of words flew from his mouth, none of which answered Vanille's question. Then, upon seeing the weary look on his wife's face, he added, "They left at 1am. They want another outdoor photo-shoot. I said I'll need time to consider. It's risky and all."
"Why didn't you wake me?" Vanille asked. They could have had a go.
"Oh, sweetheart, you look so cute in your sleep. You must have been exhausted and I didn't want to interrupt you, especially without your consent," Fang thought using the C word would score him brownie points.
"But we have talked about it. You know how I feel about it," Vanille confronted him. They both knew very well what 'it' meant. She just would not want to say it so openly in public.
"I know, I know. My bad, alright! I'll make it up to you next time. Look, your pancake's getting lumpy," he said, and changed the subject by pointing at Vanille's food in the evasive manner he was so used to.
A pregnant pause hung in the air before Vanille conceded. "I'll have to check my schedule," she said.
"Hey there, lovebirds! What's up?" Lebreau dropped by their table for a reprieve. Her part-time workers, Yuj and Maqui, had reported for duty some time in between the couple's squabble. Noticing the gloom hanging between her two favorite customers, as well as Vanille's cold Americano, she said, "Shall I heat that up for you or get you a new one, dear?"
Her offer woke Vanille up from her current mood. She kindly handed the cup and the saucer to Lebreau, who called for Yuj to come over in a sign language only coffee shop runners would understand. Then, Lebreau slipped into the seat next to Vanille, ready for the latest gossip.
"So, how's everybody doing?" she said, without further ado. She might have to get up and going any time soon so she had to cut to the chase.
Fang eyed her curiously. As far as he was concerned, Lebreau's café attracted more paying customers than his studio ever would, and with people came information. How many times would the average consumer make a trip to a photography studio anyway?
"I would ask you the same thing, `Breau. You probably see the gang more often that I do," he said.
"Ya, well, I would love that if that's true. Just so you know, my place isn't the only eatery in town. Lots of new ones popping up in the past few months. People have plenty of choices where to go to feed themselves. I'm not surprised if you guys hung out elsewhere without inviting me. It's not like I can leave this place unsupervised."
"Oh, 'Breau, we would never do that," Vanille chimed in. She felt better now that they had moved on to idle banter.
"You're sweet, Vanille. Has Fang been telling you that?"
Yuj swung by with Vanille's coffee.
"Of course," Vanille said, accepting the cup, but her enthusiasm had faded. "He could tell me a lot more if he wasn't working so late all the time."
Lebreau glanced at Fang, who had locked eyes with Vanille, begging her to stop. The café owner nodded at what Vanille had implied.
"Ah, so that thing is still ongoing, is that right?" she said cheerfully. She had no qualms about Fang's unusual working routine but, as a business owner herself, she runs her shop differently. From the biggest thug to the smallest kid, everyone needed to be fed. She would serve them all.
"It puts food on the table and pays for your services," Fang muttered indifferently, hoping to end the conversation.
"Thanks, by the way," Lebreau said with a wink. "Snow would have something to say about it, though."
"She swung by a few weeks ago, you know. Took Serah here on a date. Told me not to tell Lightning but I didn't have to."
Fang's stomach churned when Claire's nickname was mentioned. Vanille sipped her coffee with her eyes closed as though it was the most interesting drink in the world.
"Half an hour later, Lightning came and dragged the two of them back home," Lebreau continued. "Said something about not wanting them to be seen in broad daylight and reprimanded Snow for dragging her sister into trouble and ditching work. I swear, Lightning must have implanted a tracking device on Snow or her sister. Or both! I'm happy to serve my old pals, but Snow needs to be more creative about where she takes Serah if she wants to dodge Lightning's scary sister complex. "
Fang recalled that he had not heard from Snow and Lightning in a while. A long while, in fact. The former had not called him since the last time he told her to hit the gym, and the latter had not been in touch with Fang since he married Vanille.
"I'm saying, Fang," Lebreau said some more, snapping Fang out of his walk down memory lane, "If Snow's persistence works, eventually she'll want to tie the knot with Serah. Think about where they'll go to get their pictures taken."
"Not if Lightning or the government has anything to say about it," Fang replied. He was not interested in politics or the unpredictable future. He was only certain that his current arrangement with members of the unspeakable social group benefits both parties.
Lebreau sighed. Then, she turned to Vanille. "So, have you seen Hope lately?"
"Oh, yes. She popped by last week to show me this new project her team is working on. I don't understand much of it myself, but I think she's trying to prove some sort of teleportation theory. In between her work in the university and tutoring Dajh, we barely have time to have tea together."
"Oh, wow, everybody's busy. Including our little prodigy."
"I'm not," Vanille said, looking downcast at her belly then looking wishfully at Fang, who had turned his eyes away.
"Hey, boss," Maqui skittered to their table. "A customer's asking for you," he said and ran off.
"Coming!" Lebreau sang a tune and hopped out of her seat. "Eat your pancakes," she said to Vanille. before casting a worried look at Fang, but she had no business interfering in their married life. Her priorities lay with her restaurant, and currently she had a customer to tend to.
Brunch had been an uneventful one. While Vanille was quick to forgive, and was already humming their song as her husband unlocked the door to their premise, Fang could not help feeling that he had made a bad decision. His reluctance to tend to Vanille's needs was what had spoiled the mood at Cocoon Cafe. Vanille was his wife. He needed to talk to her. He had a hunch that the two of them had varying degrees of need for intimacy and its potential consequence. It would not take long for Vanille to grow suspicious and start over-thinking.
Speaking of his wife, Vanille had ventured into the kitchen to get refreshments ready for their first customer, even though they still had a good half hour to go.
Just then, the phone in his pocket vibrated. He fished it out, his eyes threatening to pop out of their sockets at the sight of the new message.
My team picked up weird signals from your shop a half hour ago. We've been trying to trace its origin, but no such luck. I'm sending Snow over to investigate. Do you notice anything different?
Weird alright, coming from a friend he had not spoken to in three years. Snow's coming over? Not a good time. Fang dialed Snow's number, hoping to negotiate with her.
"Fang, did you put away the wine bottle?" Vanille walked out from their kitchen right next to the darkroom.
There was ringing on the other end, but Snow had not accepted the call.
"No, it's right there on the table," he shouted. Placing the phone between his left ear and shoulder, he wrestled himself out of his coat and hung it on the stand before marching to the kitchen.
There was no wine bottle. In its place, or rather, in Vanille's hand, was a colorful, peculiar-looking bracelet with way too many beads.
"Whoa, where did you get that?" he blurted.
"It... was... just... here," Vanille responded as though she had trouble finding her words. "I remember seeing the bottle of red wine before leaving to Lebreau's cafe. I thought you kept it while I wasn't looking."
"Nope, I didn't touch that thing."
Superstition be damned. Perhaps they should heed Lightning's advice after all.
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Thank you for reading! Hope you have managed to spot the few not-so-subtle changes I have added to the story. More to come!
Feel free to comment down below because Etro knows I need some feedback to get me going.